Veterinary surgery, junior high edition
In 1978 I walked into a woodworking class at Fannin Junior High School in Amarillo, Texas, with no idea how it would influence my life. The shop was in the northeast corner of the school, far enough away from the rest of the campus that the constant noise of power tools wouldn’t interrupt other classes.
The woodworking teacher, George Howle—a big man who’d played college football—was the largest man I’d ever seen as a scrawny eighth-grader. Equipped with a giant mustache and cowboy boots, he spent the entire first class talking tough to us about safety around power tools and the dangers of shop class.
Mr. Howle had developed a thriving industrial arts club at the school and would spend countless hours in the shop almost every night helping students with projects for competitions or for class. Even though he put on a big tough cowboy act, he had the heart of a teddy bear and never seemed to quit teaching.
I became very involved with this woodworking adventure and, though I probably wasn’t very good at it, Mr. Howle made me feel like a master. I built projects and took them to state competitions. For the two years I took shop from Mr. Howle, I just kept trying and learning.
What has all this to do with being a veterinarian? Twelve years later I was standing in front of a group of friends and professors at a banquet toward the end of my fourth year of veterinary school. I had been given an award, voted on by the professors, for being the most outstanding student surgeon that year. I knew I was not the most talented surgeon in that class, but I was the most prepared to do surgery, all because of Mr. Howle.
I had to say a few words as I accepted this award, and I spent every word I had praising my junior high shop teacher. I explained that he had already taught me most of the things we did in surgery—lag screw fixation, tapping and drilling, estimating and measuring angles for fixation and applications. He had taught me how to cut with and against the grain and which blade worked best for each. He had taught us plumbing and how to join pipes of different diameters as well as how to suture leather and work with pleats. He had taught me to think like a draftsman and have all of the plans ready in my mind before I started the building.
I didn’t realize until near the end of my veterinary training that almost every surgery we performed on animals was borrowed from someone like Mr. Howle who was already doing it on wood or metal or pipes. I was ready to be a builder using wood and steel long before I got a chance to do almost the exact same things on living tissue.
As luck would have it, Mr. Howle retired a few years back and now lives just 30 miles from me. I go to his shop and build projects even to this day. He is still teaching me, and I still learn new ways to be a better surgeon from him. I love bending wood and building rocking chairs with George Howle, and I can’t thank him enough for taking me under his wing all those years ago.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Howle was inducted into the Technology Student Association Hall of Honors, the highest award that can be given to someone who’s spent their life teaching students in ways that changed them forever.
As the school year finishes, I’ve been pondering the effects of a good teacher. Good teachers show us how to think and how to do things, even more than they realize when they’re doing it. There's no way Mr. Howle had any idea he was teaching a puny eighth grader named Bo how to be a surgeon someday—but he was.