I have a friend whose name is Cecil Neel.            


He is an auto repair mechanic.          


He is a super guy and a super mechanic.          


One hot summer afternoon recently, I stopped by his garage to chat.  Cecil was underneath the hood of a car sweating and working.  Cars were stacked up in his lot awaiting repairs.  Cecil has a reputation.          


On this day, he was all alone.  I asked, “Where’s your help, Cecil?”  “You’re looking at him,” was his reply.  We talked about the shortage of available good help for mechanical duties.  He had more work than he could get to. A couple of state agencies also wanted him to service and maintain their cars.  Like I say, Cecil has a reputation.  I walked away pondering Cecil’s dilemma.


The next morning, I was riding my bicycle in the neighborhood and ran into my good friend, Wayne Oliver.  He pumps and treats water in my hometown of Kuttawa.  He was “flushing” a fire hydrant. I plied him with questions about the purpose of spouting out gallons of water onto a city street on this hot and steamy morning.  He briefly gave me the nuts and bolts about keeping safe water coursing into our homes.  He explained that periodic flushing of the lines is required by law. He told me how it was done and why. He also explained how fire departments hooked into the hydrants.


He knows his stuff.  


I told Wayne that I appreciated his good work which keeps my water running and makes my life more comfortable.  As I was leaving, I said: “Wayne, if I don’t go to work today, no one will know the difference. But if you don’t go to work today, the whole town will be calling.”            


The very same day that Cecil and I had our conversation, I also visited an elderly friend of mine who is in a retirement home in Paducah.  He does not have a high school education and has spent his career as a brick layer.  As I sat there and talked to him, I wondered how many foundations he had laid for beautiful homes?  How many patios he had constructed for the outdoor pleasure of others?  How many schools and churches he had helped raise from the dust to enrich our communities?  All of this with his skilled hands – with the bending of his back and the sweat of his brow. My friend can get in his car, drive his grandchildren around town, and point out various structures he has helped to build – most of which will remain standing long after he is gone.  That’s more than his state Supreme Court Justice can do.


I remember the words of my father who said many times: “There will come a day when someone who can work with his hands will make more money than anybody else.”  


Folks, that time is fast approaching.


But it seems our educational system is blind to it. Here we are in the deepest economic recession of my lifetime, with people desperate for jobs, and Cecil Neel can’t find a capable, trained mechanic to assist him.  


Why?  Is it because our educational system is failing?          


Today, our experts in education preach the gospel of science, math, and computers. They push high school graduates to go on to college. There is a tremendous focus on GPA’s, CATS scores, testing, testing, and more testing.  Ask any teacher in the trenches and they will tell you this.  Testing has swallowed up teaching.          


Many of the national voices of education are encouraging a longer school term, longer school days, more and more time in the classroom for our youngsters.  For what? Education was around long before classrooms and dry marker boards.  Could it be that a kid with a summer job helping Cecil at his auto repair shop, or selling Bibles door to door, or working for his father down at the bank, or working on a ranch out west, might receive a broader summer education than that found in megabytes or algebraic formulas?            


The teaching of our young has become an elitist system geared toward making every young man and woman a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist, or a computer whiz. In doing so, we have neglected the training and education for the most important jobs in our society.


Vocational school has always been a stepchild of our educational system – kind of like an afterthought. It has been treated more like baby sitting for those kids who can’t cut it very well in mastering differential calculus or valence charts. But let your heat go off on a sub-zero night and we are calling on those very kids we sent off to shop. College degrees, computer programming, and SAT scores fade away into the frigid night.          


A school system is graded in part on the number of kids who go on to college.  A high school is given high marks for churning out 65% of its graduates who enroll in college. So these youngsters go off and get college degrees in an ever widening array of majors, including history, English, psychology, sports management, marketing, and the like. These college graduates then join the growing roll of the jobless, with huge student loan debts knocking at their doors.


Not every kid can, or should, go to college.  The standard of excellence should at least include an alternate question: “How many kids educated at this school have been taught skills which have landed them jobs that make them happy, productive citizens?” Fixing our cars.  Building our houses.  Keeping the electricity running through our houses.  Making certain that we have running water, heat, and air conditioning. These are all very important skills.          


I get the sinking feeling these days, as we talk about education, that we are missing something.  When we talk about, “No Child Left Behind,” we might start considering the possibility that some children may not need to be – nor should be – dragged along into the dreary world of computers, doctoral theses, or mathematical equations.  As long as we push children in the direction we want them to go, instead of where destiny calls them, there will always be children left behind.  You can’t put in what God left out; and you can’t take out what God put in.          


Perhaps a larger segment of our younger people may be meant for the equally noble purpose of working with their hands, as well as their minds.  They can serve us with their hands just the same – and sometimes better – than lawyers and doctors service us with their minds.  I stand amazed at things that carpenters, mechanics, and electricians can do.  Just as I am amazed at how teachers can – day in and day out – stand in the classroom and teach children, many of who are unwilling to learn.          


The best way that we can make certain no child is left behind is to train them in accordance with their unique gifts, instead of trying to channel them along some bureaucrat’s pre-conceived notion of what success is all about.


Meanwhile, the cars stack up on Cecil’s lot.



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