I remember the first day I walked into college algebra at The University of Tennessee. By the time the professor was 5 minutes into his first lecture, I got up and fled to my advisor’s office to beg out of it. I was studying journalism for Heaven’s sake, and X always equaled 1 anyway. So why am I being subjected to this?
In fairness to me, I didn’t have the prerequisites to be in the class simply because I didn’t take them in high school. Instead of taking trigonometry, geometry and calculus classes like the rest of my college-bound classmates, I took four years of agriculture.
I didn’t know how I was going to make a living, but I did know it wouldn’t have anything to do with Mr. Pythagoras, his theorem or its converse. So I stayed in ag, learning about livestock, wood shop, electricity, small engine repair, and so forth. Ag was taught by Mike Owens, and that’s probably the main reason I re-upped. Mr. Owens loved teaching, and he worked hard to do it exceptionally well.
He was a young guy, but he commanded respect. I guess he had no choice since he would be turning loose a bunch of silly 14 year olds with power tools. We were one wedgie away from amputation, and it was his job to keep it from happening. And he did it all before the days of Prozac.
Once I brought in the gas tank from our lawnmower at home, because some idiot kid told me I could weld a broken fitting back on if I filled it with water first. Mr. Owens vehemently and quickly shut down that little plan, and in doing so most likely saved me from going through life looking like Beetlejuice.
Because of his focus on safety and discipline, I don’t think we ever had an accident during my 4 years. I still own and use lots of tools, electric saws, a bench grinder, and so on. And to this day I have never walked away from a saw until the blade had stopped turning completely, because that’s what he taught us. (The grinder is another story. That thing goes on for days, and I’m not getting any younger.)
Though he was all business when he needed to be, Mr. Owens also had a fun side. He let us upperclassmen see it more as we got older. During the first day of wood shop each semester, he would send some unsuspecting freshman in search of the “wood stretcher.” The kid would ask one of us older students, and we would send him to another, then another. If the kid was especially naïve, it could go on for most of the period. More than 30 years later, I still remind myself to stop looking for the wood stretcher when I realize I need to let go of some wild goose chase.
Incidentally, my UT advisor let me substitute college accounting for that algebra class. Accounting ended up being substantially worse, I am convinced to this day. And, I find myself needing to use algebra or one of its ugly cousins more than I would like to admit. But those pale in comparison to how much I use what I learned in Mike Owens’ ag classes.
I sent him a message yesterday to warn him I would be writing this, just in case he was in a witness protection program. He graciously said that he learned more from us than we did from him. If he truly believes that, I need to send him in search of the wood stretcher.