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Mr. Mac

BY ROBERT PINSKY

With unquestioned authority Mr. Angus MacWithey taught woodshop and mechanical drawing to unruly adolescent boys, including the Bad Class, as our group was called. He never raised his voice or made a threat. However, he wielded a lethal, pale blue stare of disapproval, supported by a samurai carriage of his body.

He led us would-be thugs into the first intellectual discussion I can remember. How do you determine the front of an object, he asked?

Urn, if it moved, the side that would go first? (Then which side of a factory would that be?) The largest side? (Then which side of a cube would that be?) The part where something comes in or out? (So the front of a toilet is from below, or above? Or is the front of your car where the doors are? Or the trunk?) We reasoned and theorized for a session of some length. Juvenile-delinquent philosophers, Aristotelian hoodlums. So Mr. MacWithey taught us the nature of definition.

He also taught analogical thinking. A Rip saw can be distinguished from a Crosscut because the Rip teeth have the shape made by the upright and leg of the letter “R.”

I brought him my drawing, the dimension lines and drawing lines executed with distinguishing degrees of pressure, laboriously, as he told us to do. Something’s missing, he said. What, Mr. Mac? Gently he tapped my head, then his. I had forgotten the arrowheads on the dimension lines.

An arrowhead, he taught us, is not a graceless “V” plunked at the tip of a dimension line like two ribs of a broken umbrella teetering on its handle. The twin barbs of an arrowhead should curve gracefully away from the dimension line's tip, like water dividing away from the point of a boat's prow. So he taught the significance of formal beauty, and its traditions, as well.

Once he ordered me to tell the class my semester grade: “A.” He commended me to the other little brutes: someone with not much talent who had worked hard. (In English, Social Studies, Mathematics, I was getting D and C, an occasional F.)

He taught me to value work, and to understand that I was capable of work. He respected his material and he respected us: on principle and because that was his work.

(The front of an object is the view that gives the most information about it.)