Gritty in pink

Saturday, April 29, 2006

DELTA, Mo. -- In a decades-old concrete building behind Delta High School, Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" blends with the scream of a drill, the whir of a miter saw and the nonstop chatter of high school students.

It's all music to Alissa Cauble's ears.

In jeans and a T-shirt, work boots and goggles, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, Cauble is hard to pick out of the crowd of teenagers.

She is not so hard to pick out of a crowd of vocational-agricultural teachers in Southeast Missouri, the vast majority of whom are male.

In fact, only a handful of females teach agricultural classes such as horticulture in the area, but Cauble says she's the lone female who also teaches shop classes.

Even after four years on the job, Cauble is still surprised to find herself teaching, let alone teaching everything from welding to small-engine rebuilding to construction projects.

It's not that she never envisioned herself in a career that required work boots and goggles. But she never, ever saw herself working with teenagers.

"It was hard starting off, because the boys said, 'You're a woman. You don't know what you're doing,'" said Cauble, who graduated from Delta High School in 1996. "I told them, 'I don't know everything, but neither do you.' They taught me some things, and I taught them some."

When she took the job in 2002, most of her students were boys. Now the classes are about 50-50, boys and girls. The Future Farmers of America organization at Delta High School has also grown, doubling in size since Cauble began overseeing it.

"It's amazing how things have flip-flopped," she said. "I think the girls were intimidated before, but now they see me do it."

Cauble, whose husband is a pipe fitter and welder, has decorated her classroom with pictures of horses and Elvis Presley -- horses because she loves them and Elvis to keep her company.

Right now, her students are building picnic tables and dog houses to sell in the community. They don't make a profit, but they do recover their costs and gain the experience.

The small engines class -- which includes rebuilding lawn mower motors, for example -- is Cauble's most difficult. "No matter how many times I take apart an engine and rebuild it, there are always spare parts," she said. "I just sort of set them aside as long as the thing runs."

In fact, she has a whole tray of those spare parts she hopes to use someday in a project.

While she never intended to become a teacher, there's nothing else she'd rather be doing now. "I thought this was a filler job, but these kids are part of my extended family now," said Cauble. "I feel like if I'm not here I'm missing out."

The opportunities her classes offer students are the best part of her job, Cauble said.

"Some of the kids who don't do well in other areas excel out here. They have a chance to really shine."

cmiller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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