Matthew Keenan

Making the Grade … 435 South Magazine, published August 2011

by on Sep.25, 2011, under 435 South Columns, Uncategorized

Growing up, Mom kept a Bankers Box of childhood keepsakes for each of her five children, treasure chests containing photos, letters, news clippings and other things like Scout uniforms. When she passed unexpectedly 10 years ago, however, retrieving that time capsule lost importance.

But last May when I was back in our house, I went on a mission. Deep in my Dad’s makeshift wine cellar, there it was.


I sat down on the shag carpet and began to go through it. The common thread throughout the box’s contents was not me—it was Mom. Thoughtful, loving, supportive—every documented activity, every event, she was there. It was, needless to say, an emotional journey.

But there were a few tidbits that brought a grin. Near the bottom I found this grade card. Why Mom thought this timepiece was noteworthy will remain a mystery. In 1972 the Vietnam draft was still proceeding, the top movie was “Deliverance” and among parents, the words “time out” had yet to be conjoined.

It was also the year my happy-go-lucky life took a serious detour. His name was Ollie Stockdale. He taught shop at Harrison Junior High.

Anyone older than 40 knows shop—in later years someone concocted the euphemism “Industrial Arts.” No one would confuse Stockdale’s workroom with MoMA, that’s for sure. It was brimming with industrial-grade saws, vacuum hoses and power drills. In the early 1970s there were no safety-off switches. If you had an ADD spell while the buzz saw was heading your way, you woke up in the ER minus one digit.

By appearance, Stockdale was a dead ringer for Red Forman in “That ‘70s Show,” except there was no laugh track to soften his demeanor. Class was a cross between a sawdust factory and hell. Stockdale dedicated his life to two things: mentoring the ready, willing and able on how to construct masterpieces and making the disinterested miserable.

Ty Pennington he was not. Stockdale was prone to few words and frequent swats for the misdirected. The most popular equipment was the vacuum, theoretically for cleanup, but some kids used it to suck up large items lying idle in the shop room. Wood blocks would clang and bang through the hose and down a tunnel that doubled as an echo chamber. It was more fun than making a bookshelf.

Stockdale’s notations on my grade card underscore the obvious. I stood out. Stockdale was declaring to my parents and—with zero academic confidentiality back then—the world that I wasn’t just a bad carpenter. I was a goof-off, jackleg and a disaster with a hammer and nail. But sucking 2×4’s into the vortex? World class. That perhaps was my proudest moment in shop class.

If shop was emblematic of that era, its twin was home economics. Teaching an entirely different life skill, the class was enormously popular and gave essential instruction on being a good homemaker.

My wife was a star in home ec at Shawnee Mission East where, according to her, teachers taught important things. “We learned how to sew skirts, not garbage like PajamaJeans,” she says. “Some never mastered the zipper stage,” she adds. “I did.”

So why would Ramona Keenan keep a grade card with a “D?” Today’s parents would fire up the shredder or rush up to school and demand a meeting with the teacher. I have no recollection of Larry Keenan lecturing me about what a “D” could mean down the road. Back then parents didn’t know or care about junior high grades. Or even high school grades for that matter. There was no Duke University Talent Identification Program for middle school kids and no prep course for the ACT or SAT.

My kid brother, Marty, recently suggested that in 1972 dad had bigger priorities—my older sister who had big hair, big dreams and big boyfriends. And all three were attempting to intersect on Friday nights. Her antics gave Dad heartburn and kept the liquor cabinet in a lock-down that would rival Fort Knox.

With reflection, I suppose Mom remembered that 1972 was the year I left the tutelage of the Dominican sisters at St. Patrick’s—a year earlier than most—to enroll at Harrison Junior High. Larry and Mona didn’t like me leaving the pastoral environs where I spent K-7 to a place where there were no uniforms and no daily Mass. Stockdale was my comeuppance; and now, 39 years later, is giving me a story for the ages.

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