The classified ad announcing the opening of my upholstery shop had appeared in only an issue or two of the weekly Terrace Herald before the head public librarian asked me if I’d take on teaching basic upholstery to a group of housewives who were interested in refurbishing their own dining chairs, footstools, and perhaps even a sofa or two.
The unexpected prospect struck fear into my being. Not only did I harbour a lifelong anxiety of public speaking that approached paralysis. I had completed less than half of a 20-lesson correspondence course on the subject. What expertise could I possibly offer to anyone?
The correspondence course had arrived in a big carton holding a selection of wood shapes, fabric, springs, twines and tacks of various sizes, each intended for a specific job in the construction process. With those supplies I was to build a footstool with springs, a slipper chair with arms and more springs, and a club chair with springs everywhere, on top of the arms and even in a removable cushion. Once completed, each piece had to be fitted with a slipcover.
The librarian stroked my ego and assured me I could do a fine job. No one else wanted to take it on.
I knew I enjoyed teaching. At age 17, when qualified teachers were impossible to find, I had taught 16 students, grades two to nine in a one-room country school where my teaching duties consisted of “organizing and diligently supervising the study of correspondence courses by the pupils enrolled in the school, and maintaining proper order and discipline.”
There, bolstered only by my own student experience, I did my best to teach. Every evening I tried to gain some advance notion of what I would teach next day. Many a class surprised me as much as the grade I was instructing. Still, largely owing to the students’ efforts, all passed written government exams that June.
What clinched the librarian’s offer was the prospective pay, an hourly rate well above the going minimum wage.
The course length was set, over a succession of Saturday classes 9 to 4 p.m. in Caledonia’s workshop. It was left to me to design a course outline. No doubt I lost plenty of sleep agonizing over my course curriculum, the sequence of lessons, and which tools and materials to take along to illustrate my presentation.
Twenty-five students enrolled, a total that proved to be 15 too many to offer individual help to each student.
At least half of those enrolled were young men hoping to learn how to upholster the interior of a van with deep foam and plush velvet, the craze at the time. They didn’t return for later classes once they realized vehicles weren’t part of the course.
I hold several indelible memories of those classes. The nurse who could see how nervous I was and took my aside on the first break to say, “We all want you to do well. Relax” . She would never know how much those words steadied me.
Talking a few days ago with another of those students, she said I told them, “ Ask questions. Because for certain several others will want to know the same answers but may be too reticent to ask.”
Mainly, I remember how cold the classroom was, and wearing a warm jacket, despite summer weather outside; the thermostat was lowered Friday evening until Monday morning. And how chairs threatened to slide off the work benches as tacks were pounded in.
Recently the Terrace Standard printed an obituary for the husband of one of my 1973 upholstery students.