John Usher, 12, anxiously runs from the back of a noisy Taft Junior High School wood shop class to his teacher's desk near the front door and blurts, "Can we stay after school today, Mr. Best?"
Looking up from some paper work, industrial arts teacher Billy W. Best smiles and nods.
The stocky eighth grader makes a sharp about-face, bolts back across the room, makes a beeline past other students grouped around the room hammering and drilling small wooden objects, reaches a panel of plywood on a large work table and starts feverishly zipping a cut through the wood with a wide-blade hand saw.
Usher and the other boys at Taft all but chorus why they enjoy staying after school in Best's wood and metal shop classes: "To learn more about how to make things, and to be around Mr. Best."
The feeling is mutual, says Best, 48, a mainstay at Taft since 1966.
"I like being here; I am absolutely convinced that God wants me to stay here. I wasn't always convinced, but I asked Him to show me. And He did. h[But first] I faced death three times."
In 1951, working a summer job at a Sandusky, Ohio, aluminum-magnesium plant, Best, then a Hampton Institute sophomore, was trapped beneath 22 feet of earth and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. In 1953, he came "face to face" with a four-foot diamondback rattlesnake while crawling through bush at a U.S. Army training base in Oklahoma. And while driving from New Jersey to the District in 1955, a light rain created a treacherous oil slick that sent his Belair Chevrolet spinning, almost throwing his car off the side of the highway and down a 100-foot, wooded hillside.
After safely escaping and fully recovering from each incident, Best grew more convinced that those encounters were acts of God "to show me that I am here for a purpose. For five years I prayed and prayed and prayed, asking what it was the Lord had left me here to do.
"When I had been offered other jobs, I'd think over it and talk it over with my wife and pray over it. As I evaluated my alternatives, I saw more good points in teaching -- all stemming from the fact that every day I could have personal contact with a large group of young black boys, 90 percent of whom come from homes where they have no fathers.
"I could see that they needed help, they needed discipline. They didn't have any idea of what manhood was and no idea of the value of getting an education. Most of the good points of the other jobs were just higher pay and maybe a long title that wouldn't mean anything anyway."
Best remembers that as a teen-ager in his home town of Anderson, S.C., he wanted to be a Baptist minister like his father. Yet, he says, he is somewhat of a minister now and uses his shop classes as his church. "If you love somebody, you do like Jesus did," Best says. "You teach them."
Slowly moving both his hands in a circular motion, Best explains his teaching philosophy. "When people ask me what I teach in industrial arts, I tell them what I'm trying to teach first is responsibility, honesty, self-respect. Then English, mathematics -- including geometry -- and social studies -- the ability to live in the classroom in harmony with each other. But, most of all, I teach black history."
Standing in front of his 6th period class, Best, about 6 feet tall with bushy, graying hair and thick sideburns that reach across his cheeks, is ready to begin another sermon. One student listens attentively, sitting in his chair in a fetal position -- legs folded close to his chest, with his small hands clasped together and squeezed between his legs.
Two other students brace their tennis shoes on the bottom of a large green work table and lean backwards, rocking their chairs in unison. But when Best's expressive eyes are fixed on them, they abruptly stop.
"Now, when the white man invented the locomotive," Best begins, "what was his biggest problem?"
"Tracks," one of the boys yells.
"Getting it to start," calls another.
"No," Best says, his resonant voice reverberating against the concrete walls. "He got it started all right. But he couldn't keep it going without having to stop to grease it -- by hand. It got so hot the ball bearings would dry up. Okay? So, a little black man by the name of Elijah ['The Real McCoy'] McCoy invented a grease can. And you know what? The white men at the factory where he worked laughed at him, even called him out of his name . . ."
"Nigger," says one of the boys, scornfully.
"Yeah," Best continues. 'What that nigger doing inventing something?' That's what they said. But he didn't stop there. He invented the automatic lubrication system. Elijah McCoy. Don't forget his name."
The youngsters nod almost in unison.
Each semester students in Best's industrial arts classes are free to choose, from a list of options, any five projects. For example, a student can make a whisk broom holder, a Metric 500 car, an electric lamp, a lawnmower-engine-powered go-cart and a doghouse.
Best, whose classes average 19 students, teaches during six of seven 50-minute school periods. He must run back and forth from rooms 109 to 107 to teach both wood and metal shop because the previous wood shop instructor was lost to the recent "rif" layoffs in the D.C. public school system.
But Best says teaching both classes prsents a welcome challenge. He especially enjoys helping students work on projects such as the doghouse, which, with its combination of wood and metal parts, allows students to learn and practice wood and metal shop skills simultaneously.
By the end of their three-month semester in industrial arts class, which includes Competency Based Curriculum, the students should be able to identify several tools and machines used in wood and metal work, and be aware of careers and opportunities in engineering. They should also understand the metric system and the principles of planning, architectural design, aero-dynamics and stress and strain. Also, by requiring students to read paragraphs from textbooks and pick out the main ideas, Best drills them in the rudiments of reading.
But aside from that, Best takes time out to talk to his students about the meaning of manhood and what it takes to be successful. Or, as 14-year-old Vincent McSwain says, "He preaches to us. He tells us what a man is supposed to do, what's right and what's wrong." The seventh-grader adds, "He tells us how we're supposed to act when we go the the white man to get a job."
Because of the therapeutic effect manual labor can have, many hyperactive students or "special" students with learning disabilities are enrolled in industrial arts.
"I am thankful to the Lord that He blessed me to become a teacher so I can help these kids overcome some of their personal problems getting in the way of learning," says Best, who attends New Morning Star Baptist Church in Southeast. "My work is not in vain.I've had many cases where people have given up on a child, but I never give up on them. I just take the plain old, proven method -- I talk to them religiously every day.
"Every time a child gets out of line, I will bring it to his attention immediately. Some people think that industrial arts means all you do is come in here, pick up tools, make some noise and make something with your hands. But my classes encompass the whole individual. You've got to use your mind here."
Kirk Dorsey, 14, a Taft "special" student, is one of Best's pupils. "Mr. Best is sort of another father to me and I love him very much," says Dorsey, who has lived in the Brookland area with his grandmother since he was a small child. "He helps me do things. He'll take time out to help anybody." Last year, Dorsey, under Best's supervision, won third place in the citywide industrial arts safety contest for a drawing of "super safety man," which emphasized the necessity of wearing safety goggles in wood and metal shop classes.
Dorsey, a tall youth who wears eye-glasses and speaks softly, says Best repeatedly tells him and his classmates that "all black men need to go to college and become self-employed to catch up with the black women who have the most education and determination and make the most money. Mr. Best tells it the way it is."
A stern man who was once a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Best needs few words to maintain control in his sometimes rambunctious classroom.
He says he is "hurt" by what he sees as the continual oppression of black people, and often talks about "the burden of being black in a white man's society." He admits to being a bit prejudiced. "Living in this society has made me prejudiced," Best says calmly. "I'm trying to give these young black boys a sense of pride because I know they need it."
Crowded around the green automatic band saw buzzing loudly in the back of the wood shop, goggle-wearing boys with blue denim aprons touching the tops of their shoes are focused on their projects.
As Best enters the room, his authoritative voice calls: "Okay, everybody stop working and clean up." But the students only work faster, trying to get as little more accomplished before they leave.
Partly frowning, partly smiling, eyebrows arched, Best whispers to a visitor, "The hardest part is to get them to stop working."
Married 25 years to his college sweetheart, Bethena, who teaches social studies at Hine Junion High School in Southeast, Best and his wife have two sons, Billy W. Best Jr., 25, and Kenneth, 23. In about 10 years, Best will be eligible to retire and could spend most of his time fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, playing golf, improving his red-brick home in Cheverly, Md., and enjoying his favorite hobby -- listening to jazz.
But, he says, "I never look forward to retiring from teaching. I don't cherish the idea. If I could rejuvenate myself to continue to help steer young people around the pitfalls I've had and seen other people have, I would do it.
"If we don't get the young black children off in the right spiritual and educational direction, the future of the black American race is really nil, is nothing."