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Industrial Arts and slow dancing at Bessborough

ToolboxI spent eight years at Bessborough School in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I have very fond memories of life at Bessborough. I well remember entering Grade 7 and being introduced to the nether world of Industrial Arts, colloquially known as “shop class.” I was never what would you call “handy.” Whenever I would try to build something in my father’s workshop in the basement, it would end with split wood, too much glue, and a little bit of blood.

One of our early shop class projects was making a small wooden toothpick holder on the lathe. I was quite fascinated by the lathe and how it could turn a squared-off block wood into a perfect cylinder. I started off just fine and had successfully “turned” my piece of pine 2×2 into a cylinder that seemed to me to be just about the perfect size for a toothpick receptacle. But then I somehow became fixated on the sight of the turning wood as my chisel nudged into it, shaving off layers of pine. I was somewhere between mesmerized and hypnotized. I just kept working that chisel as the wood shavings flew. By the time I regained my faculties, my toothpick holder had become a toothpick. I thought it was a pretty good trick. My teacher didn’t agree and I had to start all over again.

The second time around, I stopped at the appropriate time and managed to hollow out my masterpiece using the drill press and a very big bit. So far, so good. The final touch was the burnt finish, which as the name implies, involved lightly toasting the pine with a blowtorch to give it a lovely shaded finish. Well, mine wasn’t so lovely. Let’s just say I was a little heavy on the blowtorch. When I was done, my toothpick holder looked more like a briquette, and disintegrated into ash when I picked it up. Okay, so a master carpenter I was not.

Another very strong memory of those years was the excitement of school dances. I simply could not believe that we’d be permitted to “slow dance” with girls in our class under the watchful gaze of our teachers. But it was all true. If my memory serves, the dances started at 4 and wrapped up at 6. The gym windows were papered over to dim the afternoon light. The overhead fluorescents were turned off. The only real light came from the pair of overhead projectors purring on the mezzanine level of the gym. Sitting on each was a bowl of dyed water. A couple of students spent the entire dance blowing bubbles through a straw submerged in the coloured water, casting rather psychedelic images onto the walls of the gym, in time with the DJ’s songs. To me, it was what Woodstock must have been like.

Of course, the girls flocked to one side of the gym while the boys stuck to the opposite wall. Eventually a few brave souls ventured across the frontier and the dancing began. Soon we were all on the dance floor. Slow dancing was easy, and much more enjoyable if you managed to be with the right partner. You needed no sense of rhythm to “dance” to Chicago’s Colour Your World. You just latched on to each other and swayed and turned until the last note. It was dancing to the fast songs that clearly exposed the rhythmically challenged among us. I fear I looked more like I was having some kind of a seizure. So I generally waited for slow dances.

In my era at Bessborough, the last song of each dance was usually Stairway to Heaven. It had the added benefit of being just over eight minutes long. That was a long time to be locked in a slowly rotating embrace with a classmate.

The next day, school life returned to normal and the idea of moving slowly in circles clinging to a member of the opposite sex just seemed so surreal.

A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis is the award-winning writer of six national bestsellers, including his most recent, One Brother Shy, published by McClelland & Stewart.