Brookside Secondary School
Kevin O’Gorman teaches woodworking at Brookside Secondary School, where boys in custody attend high school. He has taught here for nine years and of all the rules that govern the wood shop, a place where the “tool board” is a safety feature and the planer and jointer have “Teacher Only” written on them in red, one rule is non-negotiable: “Don’t talk crime.” Don’t talk crime to him, don’t talk crime to each other. This single rule allows them to be boys and to learn a skill they will have for the rest of their lives – the basics of woodworking.
The day I’m there to observe, three boys are starting the beginner project, a keepsake box. O’Gorman has an example of all the steps mounted on the wall, from single board to finished piece, and keeps each student engaged in the project, observing, “Idle time is their worst nightmare.” He stands with a student by the bandsaw, who cuts the board into smaller pieces that will make the sides, bottom and top. Watching the boy work, he says, “Be aware where the blade is, and your fingers. You can’t be aware of anyone behind you.” Another student looks on. A third boy, younger than the others, has already made his rough cuts. He sands the blocks of wood. It seems early to me, they are nowhere near ready for assembly, but O’Gorman’s teaching philosophy is “sand a bit now so they don’t get bored sanding a lot later.”
These days, very few high schools offer a shop program like the one O’Gorman runs here at Brookside. Student work is often donated to charities like the Giving Tree or the Terry Fox Foundation and the students enjoy knowing something they have made (whether a rocking horse or a picnic table) goes to a good cause. As I walk the halls with Vice Principal Louise Nadeau, I can’t help but notice how every boy I greet stops and smiles, is happy to talk to me, quick to laugh and eager to engage in conversation and explain what they’re doing. I am overwhelmed by their friendliness and astonished by how much they remind me of the teenagers I work with at a high school just north of Peterborough. In fact, the Brookside boys might be more willing to engage in conversation than those I work with. This is when I become aware of Brookside’s tragic irony. Louise Nadeau says it perfectly: “They’ve had to have done something terribly wrong, made a very bad choice in order to get the education they deserve.” This is the only way they will get to take wood shop. O’Gorman agrees: “If these kids could find a structure like this on the outside, they’d never come back.”
Back in the shop, the young boy shows O’Gorman his sanded blocks and finds encouragement: “That’s real good. That’s a lot smoother than it was.” O’Gorman is teaching him how to see that his work counts for something. This project is an opportunity for him to make something, an opportunity for a kid to be proud of a personal achievement and deemed worthy and capable. Who knows, one of these boys may be discovering a profession.