His name sounds like it could be from a character in“The Wiz.” But John “Peter Bug” Matthews is not fictional. The D.C. legend has made a name for himself in the shoe repair industry, between his shop on E Street SE and his program teaching the trade in D.C. public schools.
For the past 10 years, he manned the shoe repair program at Spingarn Senior High School, a school that now has been officially closed. As a result, Matthews has been forced to find a new home to teach his trade.
Down the street from Spingarn sits the newly reopened Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, one of the school system’s flagship institutions for its next phase of vocational training education. At first, it appeared as if the new school wouldn’t take his program, he said, and it left him with a bitter feeling about what was happening to his beloved school system. “I [didn’t] want to go over there, man,” said Matthews, 64, who got his name because he used to drive a Volkswagen Bug. “They didn’t want me over there.”
While this year school’s closures mean the movement of students and families from familiar confines to new ones, they also mean the movement of veterans such as Matthews. In some cases, school employees will lose their jobs. In others, such as Matthews’s, they will be reassigned.
In a city that is changing physically and culturally, Matthews’s story is a typical one. Like many school employees, he was born and raised in the District and learned how to make a living from the city’s school systems. And for 20 years, he’s given back to the community that gave him so much. Not only is he known to play go-go music on the side, but he’s also started a Pee Wee league football team and has a soft spot for troubled youths.
He started his class in 1993 at Chamberlain Vocational High School, which closed. In 1998, his class moved to Phelps Vocational High School, which also closed. Then he landed at Spingarn.
While some might see a shoe repair class as old-fashioned, Matthews has always taught more than just the basics of being a cobbler. He stresses entrepreneurship in his class, which is an elective course. He implores his kids to look at all manner of presenting their work, from shop organization to having a professional attitude. He’s also shown skill with special education students.
Last year, he received $10,000 in new equipment and $5,000 in supplies from the Shoe Service Institute of America for his classroom. It was a gift he said kept his program alive. “I don’t want folks to think that Peter Bug did this by himself,” Matthews said.
Perhaps it is that legacy that led school officials to find a new home for him in the fall. “I’ve been supportive of his program, in fact, even though it doesn’t necessarily fit in with the new direction of Career and Technical Education” in the school system, said Kaya Henderson, D.C. chancellor. “You have to have room for exceptions. This is a guy who contributes significantly to who we are as a school system. For me, that is important.”
So, this fall, Matthews will be moving to the new Dunbar Senior High School building. It’s a prospect he’s happy about. He says the principal welcomed him with “arms out. [It] shocked me. . . . I went and saw my class the other day. It’s brand-new. I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m going to be in here?’ I’m going to have to paint my machines so they won’t look so old. You can’t be in a brand-new house and you still got a broken couch,” Matthews joked.
Indeed, he had spent the past few months wondering if he’d officially been passed over by the system. On the annual “Peter Bug Day” on June 8, a community gathering on the block of his repair shop, folks showed up to watch go-go bands perform and have fun with their families.
Few were probably even aware that the man for whom the day was named was worried he might not have his day job in two weeks. As the festivities wound down, Matthews relaxed with a Budweiser in a back room of the shop. Gary Washington, Spingarn’s principal, came by to pay his respects. “At least get me a baseball cap,” Matthews pleaded, wanting a memento from the school before it shuttered.
And though he has high hopes for next year, there was still something awkward about yet another school being closed. Walking the halls, you could feel a certain era of the city fading away, like so many once-influential structures in the District.
Back in his classroom during the week before school closed, a few kids still had some things to learn from the teacher they call “Bug.” Old shoe repair supplies of all types sit in Classroom 108. One student used his own Nike high tops to learn about heel buildup.
“All the time, you gotta be what?” Matthews asked. “Careful,” the student replied after a piece of rubber went flying into the sanding machine off Matthews’s hand. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.”
And after all the kids had gone for the day, Matthews sat alone with his machines in an empty classroom. A bug scampered by on the floor. He crushed it. With his shoe.