by Andrea Jackson
October 11, 2013
I entered the seventh grade about ten years ago. I can still remember the excitement of choosing my first elective course in junior high school. That’s the thing, we had a choice— home economics or agriculture. For the entirety of my sixth grade year, it wasn’t a question of which one I was going to pick. Of course I was going to sign up for home economics. It was the logical choice, after all. My friends were going to take the class, just like their older sisters had done, and so was I.
Something that a lot of people don’t know about Daytona Beach is that, yes, there is a beach that attracts a great deal of the population, but as for the rest of the town, it’s really just a bunch of land. It’s beautiful actually. In its own way. There’s a lot of farms, and woods, and springs, and horse stables. I had spent the summer taking horseback riding lessons at a stable just outside of town. By the end of July I had grown in love with the grittiness of my days. I was most comfortable caked with dirt and when the faint (ok, not so faint) smell of barn soaked my clothes. I loved the crippling sensation that rushed through my fingers gripping the hammer too tight when I was fixing the gate on my horse’s stall. I loved talking to Wayne, the owner, and how little he resembled anyone I had ever known. I also grew to admire Tanya, his wife, and her raspy voice, and fearlessness atop her massive paint horse.
The people at the stable that summer weren’t anything like a lot of my friends parents from school. They didn’t seem to create the obligation in themselves to display any sort of façade to outsiders, or the need to paint a portrait of themselves that would adhere to vanity or describe their vocation as anything but what it was. They were horse trainers, and they ran a horse stable. It wasn’t an elite stable with state of the art equipment. It was just a place for people to come a ride the horses that they loved.
When I was dropped off at school that first day of seventh grade, I remember the longing feeling that I felt. I felt homesick and like I wanted to get back in my dad’s car and go straight to the stable. The summer seemed so distant, and I pictured the horses looking out for our car to come around the corner. Instead, I faced a set of portables that I was led into to sign up for my classes.
It was time, I was rallied by some of my friends to sign up for home economics. It was then that I experienced one of my first memorable feelings of intuition. Something felt wrong. It wasn’t what I actually wanted. Exactly how escapes me, but I somehow slipped my name onto the agriculture class list. I would deal with my friends later.
Seventh period made its way around, and I walked myself to the far corner of the campus. It was the oldest building of the school, and the classroom smelled like old text books. But it was cool. It felt good. The class was comprised of kids I had seen around, but none that I had ever really talked to. I was also one of two girls. I sat next to the other one, for reasons that seemed totally justifiable as a twelve year old. We smiled and our attention was captured by the black haired man standing at the front of the room. Just behind him we saw written in curly cursive letters on the chalk board, his name, “Mr. Shermann”.
As soon as he opened his mouth, I understood what all the kids had talked about before. He spoke with an sense of urgency that I think was mistaken for anger by the other kids. But I could tell he was nice. The rest of the year would prove to be one of the most influential of my life. After explaining (lying) to my friends that there must have been some sort of mistake as to why I wasn’t in seventh period home economics with them, I began to anxiously await the end of every school day when I could spend my last hour in the greenhouse or workshop of Mr. Shermann’s class. We spent weeks growing plants in the green house, and working with wood in the high ceilinged shop, and tending to the chickens, pigs and rabbits in the rear of the building that led to an open field with some wooded area in the back. It was like a secret oasis. It was just for the agriculture kids. It was our own safe place away from the tribulations of the normal junior high school student’s life.
I grew understanding of Mr. Shermann’s idiosyncrasies. While some students inevitably fell to the waste side, there were a handful of us that valued each day in class for reasons I’m not sure we were aware of at the time. I remember during one of our shop projects when I looked over and saw a boy named Alex’s exquisite letter holder. He had carved the most beautiful scene out of a piece of cedar wood. He would grow to be a master of his craft. Our lessons would begin with an informational video about whatever we were learning. Most of the videos pre-dated us about twenty years, but we watched anyways while taking notes. Mr. Shermann would review the videos then we would take it outside and practice for ourselves. A lot of the content never resonated with some students. They would fall asleep, or mock Mr.Shermann. They would talk about how pointless the class was. I would sit and quietly disagree. It was so the opposite for me.
I wanted so badly to tell them that they didn’t even understand. Mr. Shermann was the only one that seemed to recognize that not everyone would move on from junior high and high school to go to college. Not everyone would go on to have glamorous job in New York City, or work their ways up the corporate ladder. Mr. Shermann understood that life wasn’t for everyone, let alone what everyone wanted.
He understood the importance of teaching us the value of a tradesman or woman. He showed us that the world wouldn’t function without them. Without electricians, we would live in darkness, without farmers, food, and without carpenters, beds. There were things about him that reminded me of my summer with Wayne and Tanya at the horse farm. Like them. Mr. Shermann wasn’t there to impress anyone. He never neglected the kids that didn’t care about the class, but he never detracted time to the students that wanted to learn in order to deal with the students that thought they were above his course. He was never deterred and always showed a deep level of caring for whatever he was teaching.
While the lessons and fundamental curriculum of my friends’ home economics class also instilled these notions and values, I reflect on my time in Mr. Shermann’s class and realize it was among the most pivotal times in my life. I saw that there was not only one track of life, but many. I learned that there is value in almost every job, and there is certainly value in every person. I observed Mr. Shermann working with the kids that were often overlooked by other teachers. I watched as he steered their lives into a direction where they would feel purpose and fulfillment. My eyes were opened to the cultural conditioning of society to make young people feel less worthy than others if they don’t achieve certain success, or follow certain career paths. I watched as teacher who cared, shoved aside any judgments or perceived ideas of what he was doing, and continue to try to work with kids. Not to mention, he stuck with the junior high schoolers (arguably the worst age group to deal with on the planet), so I have to give him credit for that also.
I shan’t forget those days that I spent in that agriculture class. Years later, when I would visit home on the weekends from college, I would still see some of the people in my seventh grade agriculture class, standing in line with their work boots on, and parked truck outside. The other girl in my class went on to become a pilot and aerospace engineer. Mr. Shermann survived massive budget cuts and program dismissals, and still teaches at my old junior high school. Perhaps I’m not the only one that sees the value in educational courses like his.
Who would have thought that a few days around a chicken coop and table saw would help me change the way I look at the world? Without educators like Mr. Shermann, and classes like shop and agriculture, the world might find itself in literal and close-minded darkness.