Thank You, Mister Sperry!

Written on: February 1, 2023

Article by: Thayer Salisbury

When I was 16 my family moved to a city 40 miles from my hometown. I had to attend a new school. After 11 years of school with the same kids, it was disconcerting to start all over. I had no previous experience with any of my classmates or any of my teachers.

A couple of the teachers, and a few of the students, tried to help me feel welcome. One that stands out in my mind was my shop teacher, Mr. Sperry. He was fighting a loneliness battle of his own that year. Early in September his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She was in treatment most of the year and died shortly before the school year ended.

Things were a lot different in school in those days. Discipline was not what it had been in my parent’s day, but it was far different from what it is like now, I suspect. Teachers could still give a student a good swatting if the student asked for it clearly enough. In fact, Coach Gilcrest (who substituted on days when Mr. Sperry took his wife for treatment) is reputed to have pulled off a very unusual form of corporal punishment. A student with very long hair wanted to work in the shop but refused to tie up his hair to keep it safe around the equipment. Coach Gilcrest put him on the floor, sat on him, and gave him a quick haircut using the tin snips. I guess you can do that if the local football stadium is named after you. Or at least you could in those days.

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I cannot imagine Mr. Sperry doing that. But he did some other things that would not pass muster today.

Mr. Sperry was advising me one day (I was building a “grandmother clock”) when another student approached and asked if we had a pair of scissors in the shop. Mr. Sperry replied, “What is the matter with you? Where is your pocketknife? How will you ever be a man if you always run to the women and borrow their scissors? You ought to have a knife. A knife is better for what you are doing than any scissors.”

Yes, we carried knives in school in those days. Up until that day, I did not always carry a knife. But after I heard what Mr. Sperry said, I made it a point to always have a knife. That was 48 years ago.

I thought of Mr. Sperry today. I was in an agriculture supply store to get some potting soil. The clerk tried to persuade me to take composted manure instead. Why? The skid of potting soil had not been unwrapped. She did not want to take the time to unwrap it. I pulled out a knife (the smallest of three that I had on me) and slit the wrapping in less time than it took to type this sentence.

For me (as for Mr. Sperry and most people of earlier generations) a knife is a tool, not a weapon. Sure, one can be used as a weapon if needed, but primarily they are useful tools.

Should knives be allowed in school today? In many places, probably not. But what has changed? Why could knives not only be allowed but even encouraged in those days?

It is attitudes that have changed, not knives.

When my dad was a boy, everyone on “the ridge” had a gun. Most had several. But they did not shoot anyone. Dad sometimes helped his grandfather blast rocks, using dynamite that they purchased at the local hardware store. But no one went around blowing up buildings.

Knives, guns, and explosives were more common in the past than they are today. Yet there is more violence today. Has someone developed knives, guns, and explosives with minds of their own and the desire to kill?

Our problem is with what people have in their hearts, not with the knife in the pocket.

We have allowed violent entertainment – claiming that it has something to do with freedom of speech. That is hogwash. In context, the promise of freedom of speech is freedom to criticize the government. It is not freedom to rot people’s souls so that Hollywood can turn a bigger profit.

We have allowed human life to be devalued in people’s minds. Fifty years of justifying the killing of unwanted children has led people to think that they ought to be able to kill unwanted adults. The conclusion is perfectly logical. If a child who has never done anything wrong can be killed, surely it cannot be wrong to eliminate some people who have done wrongs that we particularly dislike.

We have devalued life by treating crimes against human life as no worse than crimes against property. What punishment is handed out for simple theft, or for tax evasion? Normally, repayment of what was taken, plus a prison term. What punishment is handed out for taking a human life? Normally, a prison term and that is all.

The problem is not knives in pockets, it is corruption in the heart.

Thank you, Mr. Sperry! For the last 48 years I have rarely been without a knife. Many times I have been saved from a difficulty by your excellent advice; and I got my potting soil today.