In 1945, when John Scott quit school at 14 to jump on a lumber schooner leaving northern California's redwood country, teaching had about as much appeal to him as as treading water.
But for the past 16 years -- after spending 22 years as a self-described "river rat," electrician and member of Navy amphibious assault teams in Korea and Vietnam -- that is exactly what Scott, 54, has done.
His popular two-year course on marine engine and boat repair is the only one of its kind in Maryland, drawing water-loving students from St. Mary's three high schools.
At the end of the course at Leonardtown Technical High School, says Scott, students take with them a new appreciation for the fading skill of boat building as well as a certificate that may land them jobs on the waterfront or in a mechanic's shop.
"I'd rather be here than in some English class," said Tom Trossbach, 16, a junior at Great Mills High School. "It's different than other things we have to learn. He taught us how to build small balsa wood boat models, and now we're building the real thing."
In his drafting lectures, slide shows and sessions with the welding torch and electrical tools, Scott mixes the philosophical with the practical, using a classroom style reminiscent of the 1970s handbook, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
"I use the vehicle of the small engine and marine propulsion to teach self-esteem, self-respect, order," he said. "I tell them stand up and be counted . . .to live a life style where you can be proud of your craft, whatever it is."
"Besides being an incredible electrician and parts man, he [Scott] is a real philosopher," said Bobbie Frerichs, 16, the only girl in the class of 13.
"I came to learn about engines, and we've worked on them all: chain saws, lawnmowers, motorboats. . . . I also want that certificate so I can use it to get a job," said Bobby Lippert, 17, a junior at Chopticon High.
Lippert and fellow student Erwin (Slap) Bowles, are building a New England-style lobster dory and hope to sell it.
They shouldn't have a problem. Two 15-foot boats made by the class last year each sold for $450. This year's class is divided into three-person construction crews, with one group working on a V-bottom boat while another group builds the oak stem, transom and ribs for a flat-bottom boat. Both vessels can be used for crabbing, students say, with obvious pride.
Last year's class made a canoe.
"It took us a while to build it," said Joe Hill, 18, a senior at Leonardtown High School. "We used an old-fashioned technique where we cut all these white cedar strips and then covered the wood with canvas. . . .First we wrapped the cedar strips in hot towels to make them more pliable before attaching them."
Besides the boat projects, Scott's class gets repair orders from St. Mary's residents whose vessels are no longer seaworthy. On a recent visit, at least seven motors, brought in by community customers who pay for parts and get labor free, were awaiting repairs.
One man who ran his boat into a buoy in front of Clarke's Landing in Hollywood, Md., wants the class to pound out the hull and cover it with new fiber glass.
"Another man bought an old Mercury motor to us in a box. It took us forever to put it back together," said George Nelson, a sophomore at Leonardtown High.
Students in another corner of the sprawling warehouse-like room work on a sailboat with a split double hull. The boat was flipped over and a team of students poured fiber glass resin in the cavern to seal it together. The finished product will be sanded down and painted before going back to its owner, Scott said.
Once the motors are repaired they go into one of two vented indoor testing tanks or into a 200-foot pond outside, where they are put through their paces.
To seal leaks, students soak the boats they build in the pond for two weeks, then use a compound to caulk cracks left after the boards have had a chance to swell, Nelson said.
Before Scott's students go near the electrical saws or welding torches, he schools them in drafting, lumber stress points and, above all, safety. "Safety is a big sore point with Mr. Scott," said Joe Hill. "You wear the safety glasses or you fail."
Said Scott, "I tell them a saw is an object that has no mind. It doesn't discriminate. It will cut your finger off just like a dog's paw or a stick of wood."
Scott says that because "school stunk" for him he is trying to make it challenging for his students. Although he got his high school equivalency diploma in California at 14, is a master electrician and carpenter, earned his teaching credentials at the University of Maryland and formerly taught physics and math, Scott is taking correspondence courses from the University of Indiana. He hopes to be his students' role model for the lifetime learner.
"I was too much of an adventurer to be happy in the traditional classroom . . . " he said. "In looking at these boats, I try to teach kids to study all aspects of a concept, to approach a problem from several angles.