The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.- L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
Anybody else remember Home Economics? In the school district I went through, it was a required class in seventh grade. It was a sort of basic domestic survival course - introductions to cooking, sewing, and rudimentary financial management.
When I was in seventh grade, circa 1985, Home Ec had just become a requirement for all students; until that year only girls had to take it, and only boys had to take Industrial Arts (a.k.a. wood shop) in the next grade. The Home Ec teacher—I'll call her Mrs. Walton, although that is not her name—was... you know those teachers that everyone in the school, even students who hadn't taken her class, just seems to love and respect and look forward to seeing? Mrs. Walton was the opposite of that. Everyone in the building dreaded having to deal with her, including other faculty members.
There were basically two problems with Home Ec as Mrs. Walton taught it. One was that she wasted time on things that were, plain and simple, not important. Part of the class dealt with cooking and kitchen management. That's great, everyone should be able to cook at least a little bit. Hell, by the time I got to the seventh grade, I'd been baking for years thanks to my mother (Ashland Community High School Future Homemaker of the Year, 1970 - let's go Hornets!) and the Betty Crocker cookbook she won along with that scholarship. (I still have a copy of that same edition of the Crocker, with the orange cover; although I bought mine online many years later and it's in much better shape than Mom's, which has long since shed its binding and which has many stuck-together pages.) The Home Ec room's cooking facilities were pretty swanky for the time and place. I was expecting that part of the class to be good times.
And it might have been, except before we were ever allowed to enter the kitchen part of the room, we spent what in my memory today is a solid week, and this in a school where all classes met at the same time each day of the week, on setting a table. As in where in relation to the plate the plural forks go, and the various different glasses, and the cheese knife, and what the hell do seventh-graders need to know that for? (Protip: Nobody needs to know that.) The class is supposed to be basic homemaking prep, not training to work at the French Embassy.
So that kind of thing was one problem. The other was, well, as mentioned above, Mrs. Walton was... let's say often pleased to be difficult. Also, she clearly hated having been required to take all the boys in the class. It was a weird kind of reverse sexism—boys had no place in a kitchen, sewing room, etc. as far as she was concerned. We were about as welcome in her classroom as we would have been in the girls' locker room down in the gym. In my case, she seemed to find it personally offensive that I already knew a few things about cooking.
She also found my left-handedness offensive. One day after we'd done our first cooking exercise (I forget what it was) and had sat down to eat it, she suddenly called me out mid-bite and basically demanded that I mend my ways without giving me any feedback as to what about my ways actually required mending. You know, the classic "you know what you did," except that I didn't have the faintest idea, and neither, based on the baffled looks that were being exchanged, did anyone around me. When I professed this bafflement, she flew into the kind of rage one reserves for someone who is deliberately trolling and sent me to the office.
Mr. Ives (that is his real name), the principal, and his secretary (whose name I have alas forgotten) were confused to find me turning up in his outer office, since by that point I had more or less ceased to be the fighty little bastard I was in elementary school. "What did you do?" he asked, and I had to shrug and confess that I had no more idea than he did.
So he got on the intercom and buzzed down to the Home Ec room, and when Mrs. Walton answered he said, "Hi, uh, I have Ben Hutchins up there, but he seems not to know why he's here."
Mrs. Walton's response was so furiously indignant that Mr. Ives actually picked up the phone handset on the intercom panel and used that rather than have it spill all over the office floor from the speaker, so I missed most of it, but she opened with words to the effect of, "He knows perfectly well why he's there, that boy has the table manners of a PIG and"
The secretary and I sat there exchanging bemused glances until, at some length, Mr. Ives finished dealing with Mrs. Walton, closed the intercom connection to her room, and hung up the handset. Then, with the facial expression of a man who is shortening his lifespan slightly with the effort it's requiring him not to burst out laughing, he turned to me and said very calmly,
"Mrs. Walton wants me to explain to you that in this country..." He hesitated, fighting back another wave of laughter. "... In this country we hold our forks..." Pause; recenter; continue. "... in our left hands to cut, then switch them our right hands to eat."
I think my response was something along the lines of, "Oh. ... What?"
"I think..." Pause. "I think it's probably best if you..." Pause. "... don't return to Mrs. Walton's classroom today. I'll give you..." Pause. "I'll give you a pass to the library for the rest of this period."
The incident was never mentioned again, so presumably there was some follow-up conference in which Mrs. Walton had it impressed upon her that left-handedness (or being British, for that matter, not that I am) is not grounds for dismissal. She never really forgave me, though, and when we got to sewing the problem reared its head again in the dread shape of scissors. These hadn't been a problem since the first grade, but now they were suddenly back on the agenda, and my poor cut lines from being forced to use an inappropriate tool were a bone of contention for the entire sewing unit.
The real pinnacle came when we got to the actual "home economics" part of the class, though, where we were to learn how to balance a checkbook (I know, right?) and manage a rudimentary home budget. For whatever reason, Mrs. Walton decided that if she had to have boys in the class, she would at least take the opportunity to enforce some Traditional Gender Roles, so she divided the class up into boy-girl pairs and made them do the running-the-household exercises as teams.
Try to imagine for a moment how mortifying this kind of thing was. In the seventh grade. When declaring that any classmate might be interested in any another was still considered legitimate grounds for a fight under Section 422 of the Kid Penal Code. Got that locked in? Good.
Now know that the ratio in the class wasn't even. There were two extra boys.
So she made me and one of the other guys be the Alternative Lifestyle Couple. (That was the phrase she used. With audible sneer.)
Now, I could go into great detail as to how That's OK, That's Not What I'm Saying Here, but I'm going to trust that my audience understands that that's all established already. But in the seventh grade, and in rural Maine, and in 1985, I submit to you that that was a pretty shitty thing to do, particularly in the very pointed way she did it.
On the other hand, Rob and I had the best-balanced fake checkbook in the class, so. I'm just saying.
The flip side of this came the next year, when we all got to Industrial Arts; that teacher (we'll call him Mr. Welman) was no happier about the situation than Mrs. Walton had been; but that's another story.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
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