Tuesday, July 4, 2017

How Do You Start Drawing Again?

In a small child's life, soon after bawling, squalling, and crawling are established, along comes scrawling. (Which often includes some crayon-eating and paint-sipping.)
Colors zigzag across paper and books and possibly walls up to a 3-foot height. If you're lucky and careful, those little hands never grab hold of a permanent-ink Sharpie.
Then the child's drawings start resembling things. She churns out self-portraits, parents, siblings, houses, trees, the sun, and pets. 
After that, most kids go on to fill reams of paper for the next few years, scrubbing their way through multiple 64-crayon boxes. 
Sophie, age 5, with one of her many horse pictures.

But at some point, a lot of these furiously drawing kids just...stop. They put down their crayons and Magic Markers (and this was true long before laptops, cell phones, and tablets). They may pick them up again, but often only to do homework and other assigned tasks.
Anecdotally, it's said that if you ask kindergartners "how many of you can draw?" all the kids raise their hands. Ask a few years later, and very few will tentatively admit that they can...a bit.
I suppose this decline is due to growing self-consciousness; kids are forever policing one another's behavior as well as watching for any sign that a peer thinks he or she is "better" than everybody else. 
So I was no different from most other kids when I was little in that I loved to draw, and though by mid-elementary years I wouldn't dare raise my hand for fear of being mocked, I still drew--a lot. I drew just because I liked to, but also discovered that drawing provided an enchanted shield that fended off bullying and teasing.  Kids might pick on you or shun you, but when they saw you could draw a little, they'd be a little nicer to you...for a while, anyway.
Tiger, lioness, lion by yours truly, age 5
or 6. The start of a wildlife encyclopedia
I intended to write and illustrate, though
I wearied of the task by page 3.
The animal kingdom is rather large.
Drawing helped me endure the first and only summer day camp I attended when I was about five years old. At that age, I didn't feel particularly bad about myself. I had a few playmates, and I went to a few birthday parties. Life was good.
But then my parents decided to sign me up for a day camp. No doubt they thought it would be a super treat for me, especially as Mom was busy with my newborn baby brother that summer. 

Unfortunately, I started camp a few days after it had officially begun. 
And that was plenty of time for the other little girls to have formed friendships .
When I appeared on the scene, they all closed ranks--all except one slightly plump girl who was ostracized because she was sturdily built. She and I became friends and stuck together most of the time. 
My popularity wasn't exactly improved by my fear of going underwater during swimming lessons (I prayed for rain every single morning). My outsider status was further cemented when we took a trip to Carvel's Ice Cream Shop and (a) everybody else ordered chocolate and I got vanilla, and (b) I bit off the end of my cone to eat the ice cream from the bottom up, which someone had told me was a cool thing to do, but was actually just a really stupid and messy thing to do.
Though I don't think these events explain why my only friend turned on me the very last day, singing a taunting anthem along with the other girls and bidding me farewell with the remark, "I hate you. I was only pretending to like you."
Ouch!
But there was that day, that one solitary day, when it did rain. 
At first, there was just enough sunshine for us to indulge in some archery (real arrows and big stuffed targets--I'm surprised there weren't eyes being put out right and left). For some weird reason, I was top-notch at archery, landing that sucker smack dab in the middle of the target every time.  
As Pigpen says in A Charlie Brown Christmas, "Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn't it?"
It did...for a few minutes.  
Then, blissfully, it began to rain. Buckets.  We were hustled indoors. Paper and crayons and pencils were doled out. And we drew.  
Before too long, a girl spotted my paper. "Hey, that's good!" she said loudly. Other kids clustered around. Soon I was drawing cats and dogs for them.
This won me a whole day or two of respect. But memories are brief at age five, and life reverted to its usual focus of trying to remain invisible. Fortunately, the whole horrible experience of being sent to Kid Siberia for the summer would soon end.  My mom recalls that on the last day, I stepped into the house and stated, "The hell with that."
Throughout the rest of my school years, I continued to draw, putting art teachers through grueling tests of patience in middle school as I created an endless stream of horses. In college, friends found the animals I drew amusing (bless you, AΔΦ brothers and sisters) with the exception of one (non-AΔΦ) male housemate who chastised me for not taking art "seriously" and "wasting" any ability I might have.*
[*Editor's note: I have found some of the "serious" art I produced in art classes. Believe me when I say that no talent was wasted in the production of these works, nor will successive generations be deprived of scintillating artistic scope and vision. Unless you think a badly drawn deer standing on a snowy hill in front of a barn surrounded by a landscape experiencing a completely different season is Art for the Ages.]
After college, I noodled about taking a few cartooning classes in New York City after my editorial-assistant job wrapped up at 5 p.m. (Weirdly, the art director made it her business to say sneeringly almost every Wednesday, "Off to your...[pause] cartooooning class now?"). 
Gradually, though, pens and pencils were set aside. Paper stayed bound in its notebooks. The birth of my daughter reignited some drawing energy (we spent many happy hours filling yards of paper with horses), but outside of our home, being an adult able to draw a little was Frowned Upon in our co-op preschool.
So scary! (source)
It would be Off-Putting, you see, to draw when children were looking on. These fragile souls might be so humbled and threatened by the sight of an adult drawing, they might never, ever pick up a crayon again. (One young mom, whom we dubbed The Young Child-Rearing Expert, made sure to say VERY LOUDLY, while praising another young mom's husband's interactions with the kids and glaring at me, "It's not like he draws a giraffe that the kids see and know they can't replicate. He doesn't intimidate them.")
Clearly, being able to draw googly-eyed animals doesn't inoculate one from condemnation in adulthood the way it does when you're a kid.

Then, when my daughter was in elementary school and I inadvertently doodled something one day, a friend exclaimed, "I didn't know you could draw!" To my surprise, this jolted me; it felt as if I'd abandoned some key element that had formed me, like growing up in a foreign country and not telling any of my new acquaintances.
Now that I'm older than most dirt, the desire to fill up paper with pictures is tugging at my sleeve again. 

Today, there are no preschoolers swarming around me who might give up illustrious dreams of art school and the National Portrait Gallery because I drew a giraffe. 

There are no sneering art directors. 

There are no mean kids like the one in middle school who teased me daily until her friends pointed out that I could draw horses. ("Well..." she said grudgingly, and then, pointing to the line I drew under a horse, added triumphantly, "but she's not very good at ground.")
No, now I just have to contend with what's on my desk: jars of pencils and empty sheets of paper, and a wall as intimidating as Becher's Brook in the Grand National steeplechase. Written on this wall is something to the effect of "what is the purpose of doing this? is there an end goal? what is the point?" 
I'm realizing that the past two decades have required a lot of getting-things-done both at home and at work (this kind of goes with the territory of Being a Grown-Up) and that I have to go back to my earliest years as well as my daughter's childhood to relocate that lovely feeling of just doing something for no reason at all...not to get fit, or clean something, or finish a writing job, or the like. It's harder than I'd thought it would be.
In the midst of all this self-scrutiny, though, I've been stumbling upon little messages left and right. For starters, I discovered that my shelves held a copy of Drawbreakers (Klutz Press), a doodling book filled with ridiculous things like a leopard to daub with your own pattern and a photo of a fishing rod and line clearly pulling something in--but it's up to you to draw the "something." 
Then I was reading Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley and came upon this paragraph, which describes the narrator visiting Kal, a tattoo artist who sits down to design an image with him and says, "Let's Draw":
I smile the way I did as a child when receiving a fresh box of sixty-four Crayola crayons-unabashedly, showing all my teeth. I remember how much I used to love to draw, and I wonder why I don't do it anymore.  I write, I guess. I draw with words. But when I see Kal's pad and charcoal, I'm overwhelmed with the feeling that it's not the same.
And then there was this imperative, from Lynda Barry in What It Is:
To all the kids who quit drawing...come back!
Finally, I came across the transcript of an NPR interview with Mo Willems of Pigeon fame, who sounds as if he wouldn't lend much credence to the advice of The Young Child-Rearing Expert in the preschool co-op:
One of the interesting things about cartooning and doodling and drawing is that people stop when they decide they're not good at it. Nobody stops playing basketball when they realize they're not going to become a professional. The same thing should apply to cartooning....One of the biggest reasons children stop drawing is that they see that adults don't do it, Willems says. When he goes into classrooms, he says, teachers often ask him to get the kids to draw. But when he does, many of the teachers don't participate.  "Well, now the kids realize that this is just a baby activity," he says. He reminds us that parents are actually cool in kids' eyes — for a while — and kids want to imitate what they do.
I guess I can draw a conclusion from all this. 

Go sharpen those pencils!  






Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rueing Rhubarb, Stewing Rhubarb

Thumper and Tiffany (at right).
I should hate rhubarb.  I really should. It is probably the wicked plant that did in my lovable pet bunny rabbit, Tiffany.

Tiffany was a big, friendly white rabbit with brown ears, a rakish brown patch on one eye, and a sprinkling of brown spots on his back. Yes, his back.  Tiffany was named Tiffany when I thought he was a girl.

When Thumper, my female Dutch rabbit, gave birth to four little bunnies, it was a major clue that Tiffany must be a boy rabbit.

His hefty size and pleasant nature should have been a tip-off.   Buck rabbits tend to be more easygoing, while does are a bit more wary and territorial. Thumper was downright aggressive--she growled, attacked my gloved hand, and pivoted to keep me in her line of sight when I had to reach inside her cage.  The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog had nothing on her.

Tiffany, on the other hand, was a doofus. Which was probably why he nibbled on a toxic plant in the first place. Wild rabbits would know better than to dine on rhubarb leaves. But I was in my early teens  and didn't know any more than he did about rhubarb.  I had never tasted rhubarb pie; I couldn't even describe what rhubarb was. But a rhubarb plant was growing in the fenced pool area, where I often set the rabbits free to romp, and I should've educated myself about poisonous plants before letting Tiffany loose in there.

Though maybe it was the rhododendrons he ate, in which case I am still responsible for his demise, but I can at least love rhubarb without any pangs of guilt.

Because if no deceased rabbits are involved, rhubarb is simply splendid. It grows easily, is one of the first vegetables in the garden to spring to life after winter, and can be transformed into tartly sweet pies, jams, jellies, coffeecakes, compotes, chutneys, syrups, and wine.

We have several rhubarb patches in the yard, though one of them is now consigned to be For Decoration Only. That's because last year, when the resident teen tripped over a bucket of motor oil drained from her truck, the patch was inundated with the nasty runoff.

Rhubarb flowers
This year, somebody else nearly backed over the plants; for weeks, they stood in a shrieking row at the lip of the deep tire rut, looking like Victorian ladies who've seen a mouse.  They will be allowed to live out their lives in peace, flowering at will and flaunting giant green leaves.

The first of this year's crop, taken from the stress- and oil-free patches, made its way into a chicken-rhubarb dish. The next harvest became an upside-down rhubarb coffeecake, using this recipe from The New York Times:
https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1013611-rhubarb-upside-down-cake

When I got to work on that recipe, at first I thought, well, how fussy. "Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper," it said.  "Butter the paper and sides of the pan. Wrap two layers of foil under the pan, and place it on a buttered baking sheet."

This was a cake I was making, I thought. I'm not roasting plutonium. I decided my grandmother's reliable springform pan wasn't going to leak, so I ignored the layers of containment. (I also used regular flour instead of cake flour, because I didn't have cake flour.)

Well.  The harsh fumes surging from the kitchen told me that there was a reason for all the containment, actually. The cake calls for a thick sugary syrup that's poured into the pan first, then topped with the rhubarb mixture and finally the batter. That syrup? It likes to ooze out of the pan and across the cookie sheet and onto the oven floor, it turns out.

A quick clean-up of the oven floor and replacement of the cookie sheet with a sturdy rimmed baking sheet saved the cake, which turned out delicious, despite missing its layer of caramelized syrup. I'm still wondering how the cake would have any of this glaze on it at all, even if you swathe it in layers of foil, because wouldn't that process just yield a delicious cake along with a pile of gooey foil? I guess this calls for making another cake.

Other great rhubarb recipes that are mainstays at our house:

Rhubarb Pecan Cake, page 44, Bundt Cake Bliss
Rhubarb Crisp Pie, page 51, Pies and Tarts (Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library)
Strawberry Rhubarb Crunch, page 25 (and just about every other recipe), The Joy of Rhubarb

And don't forget we Washingtonians live in the nation's leading rhubarb-producing state, and you can even visit Sumner, the rhubarb pie capital, to enjoy the Rhubarb Festival.

Old willow ware viewed through windows in rhubarb leaf chewed by slugs.
Which apparently can eat rhubarb leaves without harm.



Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Velvet Evolution--"National Velvet" in the Eyes of the Beholder

Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet aboard King Charles,
the horse who played The Pie.
"Edwina, Malvolia and Meredith were all exactly alike, like golden greyhounds. Their golden hair was sleek, their fine faces like antelopes, their shoulders still and steady like Zulu women carrying water, and their bodies beneath the shoulders rippled when they moved. They were seventeen, sixteen, and fifteen. Velvet was fourteen. Velvet had short pale hair, large, protruding teeth, a sweet smile, and a mouthful of metal."

That's how author Enid Bagnold introduces Velvet, the main character in her novel National  Velvet. Velvet was also scrawny and prone to vomiting whenever she got nervous.

So of course Elizabeth Taylor would be the first person you'd think of to play her in a movie.

I never was able to figure that one out, back when I was a horse-mad girl. I knew Taylor was regarded as a great beauty, and that even as a kid in the 1944 film she was cute as a bug. But that's just the thing. Velvet was a scarecrow.

Taylor was given King Charles at the close
of the movie's production. Taylor and the
horse got along famously. She spoke lovingly
of the bond they had and never forgot him.
A wonderful, beautiful character--as are all the people in National Velvet, which is not really a "kiddy" horse tale but rather a story about the complexity of family relationships, about hopes and dreams, about regrets and longings--but still, she is an odd, awkward girl quite different from her lovely sisters.

It made me cross that they turned her into a dreamy, pretty girl in the film (though I do like the film a lot, including Taylor's performance, on its own).

The original 1944 review in The New York Times describes how "little Elizabeth Taylor...plays the role of the horse-loving girl" with a "face alive with youthful spirit, her voice has the softness of sweet song and her whole manner in this picture is one of refreshing grace."

It also was vexing to see what the short, strong black- and white-spotted horse, The Pie, turned into. In the book, Velvet calls him "the piebald" and dubs him The Pie. In the movie, he's played by a rangy chestnut Thoroughbred called Pie, short for Pirate.

King Charles and Taylor. And the amount of
hay our horse Avi would eat in a week.
Horse girls generally insist on fidelity to the book when it comes to horsy particulars, so I was ready to write to the Lord High Mayor of Hollywood about this pressing matter.

It would be a long time before I'd learn that directors don't want spotted horses in movies because it's difficult to swap in other horses to play their roles. It's well nigh imposible to find exact matches, and though it's easy enough to touch up a star on a forehead, painting an entire animal is not.

As I was rereading National Velvet (which, incidentally, features one of the most excellently portrayed younger brothers in the history of literature) and noticing just how very much Bagnold did not write this book solely for children (it features a slaughterhouse, a suicide, blood, and plenty of exclamations of "hell"), I found myself lost in the rabbit hole of the Internet looking up different editions of National Velvet to see how Pie and Velvet were portrayed. It was pretty amusing. Check it out below if you feel a similar need to procrastinate.

For starters, here is the gold standard, my childhood copy: The Pie is a piebald. Velvet is simply a jockey.  The first edition of National Velvet featuring illustrations by renowned equine artist Paul Brown was published in 1949. It's a vast improvement on the cover of the 1935 first British edition of the story, which is pink with black writing and nothing else. The pink and black, to the publisher's credit, wasn't chosen because pink is a "girl color."  They are the colors Velvet chooses for her racing silks, and her conspirator, Mi, flat-out tells her she and The Pie will look horrible.

Here's the first U.S. edition of the book. Dramatic red and black, and sculptural
pose of The Pie and Velvet. Velvet doesn't quite look fourteen years old,
but the image captures her drive and The Pie's willingness.

Here's a 1960s British paperback version of the story featuring the sketches from the original,
which were done by Bagnold's daughter, the inspiration for the story.

A 1961 edition of National Velvet in classic "Little Golden Book" format. Velvet's gotten very
Western U.S. in appearance, and The Pie has morphed into a bay, thus resembling neither his piebald
book self or his chestnut movie self. Pretty, though.

A series of coloring books based on a TV version of National Velvet were produced in the 1960s. What up with the hunt attire, Velvet? Women traditionally (and the English equestrian world is nothing if not traditional) wear black or navy coats. Red is reserved for Master of Foxhounds and other hunt assistants. Though that has surely changed as more women moved into those ranks. Still, Velvet in the 1940s-1960s...well, wait a sec. Who am I to quibble over the coat color worn by a girl who went undercover as a male jockey riding in and winning the Grand National steeplechase? Oy. Never mind. But I am a bit worried about her coming off the horse in this image.  And she needs a hair net.
A 1962 picture book based on the early-60s NBC TV program loosely based on National Velvet.
When I say "loosely," I mean that book-Velvet who lived in a poor household in an English
village that was attached to a slaughterhouse run by her father and owned a rakish
piebald gelding turned into a girl living in the United States living on a sprawling
dairy farm who owned a Thoroughbred stallion.  Because life is like that.

Another 1960s version of the story. Velvet has morphed into a stylish, slender young woman
wearing an outfit I associate with all those story series about girls in British boarding
schools. The Pie happens to be black, but the highlighting could be construed as  spots,
I guess. However, they appear to be living in a far northern land where the
aurora borealis is particularly active.

1960s-era edition. Interestingly, the interior contains the beautiful Paul Brown illustrations,
but the cover features a perky, sunny, healthy Velvet with a Black-Beauty-esque version of
The Pie. I suppose the GQ gentleman trotting up with the saddle is supposed to be Mi,
former jockey turned slaughterhouse assistant who lives in a rotting stall next to the
Browns' carthorse. I don't know who the dapper fellow by the fence could possibly be.

This one is a 1961 picture-book version of the story. The Pie is at least a piebald,
but with that LL Bean version of Mi and a scrubbed-up version of Velvet's
little brother sitting a mere two feet away from the jumping horse, The Pie
must be a very, very tiny horse indeed. Velvet is also playing once
again at being Master of Foxhounds.

A 1968 paperback version of the story. Velvet appears to be swept along on some
sort of wave of ecstasy as she gazes at a glorious future with her Breck hair
blowing in the wind. Bit disturbing, those fangs, though. Is there a vampire
version of National Velvet in our future? The Pie will become The Twi (short for Twilight)? 

A 1991 paperback, with Velvet sporting freshly blow-dried locks and a Western-style shirt.
Clearly the famous braces and mouthpiece that plagued her in the book have paid off in a
nice, straight smile.  The wild-eyed Pie has transformed into his literary ancestor
Black Beauty, a calm and gentle steed who would barely bite a carrot, let alone his dear rider.

I think one of Velvet's glowing, golden-haired sisters kicked her out of this cover and took
over her spot. Black Beauty once again stands in for The Pie. He also appears to have shrunk.
Have you ever cuddled up next to a horse in this way? A horse's head is, like, nearly
as long as your torso. Maybe she is kneeling and The Pie is a mini.

This is a 2012 edition published in the UK. The horse, of course, is completely unlike
The Pie in every way, but he is exactly the kind of horse my horse-mad friends
and I drew all the time, with elegant legs and flying tail, so as an illustration I love it.
It's not at all Grand-National-realistic but never mind.
A 1999 edition. The Pie is a piebald, hooray! Velvet's still rather
too glam in a waifish way, but at least the burning intensity is there
instead of just dreaminess.

OK. I swore I was going to stop, stop, stop. Because you can find a glabillion versions of
National Velvet online. But then I saw this one. Dear God. Once again one of Velvet's
sisters has shoved her aside, and the horses appear to be running in terror from
this giant head that has suddenly materialized on their horizon.


By far the loveliest cover, in my humble opinion. It's the 1985 golden-anniversary edition,
beautifully illustrated by Ted Lewin. This amazing illustrator grew up in a household that
kept many pets, including a lion. I love the angle of The Pie jumping over the rock wall
mentioned in the book. Velvet is dressed as she was in the story, too--in her
day-to-day garb. She and her sisters were so poor that they had to take turns
wearing a coat when they went to a horse show.







Sunday, October 16, 2016

Frogs, Bugs, and Arachnids, Oh My!

I've been busy settling into a new full-time job, and certainly having a full-time job has been a fine thing; however, I've somehow fallen behind in everything else I do. And here it is ruddy October already. Oh well. Here are a few of the animals I met on safari in the garden this past summer.


This guy showed up in a drain at the top of our driveway, hopping up and down and bashing his head against the grate.  I caught him and hung on to him long enough to get a photo. Above, he's briefly escaped and sitting, astonished, before I caught him again.

I am pretty sure he is a green frog. OK, don't try and get funny with me. I know he is a frog. I know he is green. I mean a green frog, as in Rana clamitans. Green frogs are native to the eastern United States but now found in parts of Washington State. Such as our drainage ditch. I, too, am native to the eastern United States, so we had quite a friendly chat before I set him free.  We often hear him croaking loudly on damp evenings.

Gracious. Would you just look at what's going on in the daisy patch.  I'm afraid all I can tell you is that these are beetles. My field guides and the Internet are letting me down big time, hence no more specific identification. Whatever they are, they are making more of themselves. They also trundle about the daisies covered with pollen so they're helping to make more daisies, too.
Sometimes the whatever-they-are beetles get all shy and stuff, and hide, which is rather ridiculous seeing as to what they're perfectly happy getting up to right in the town square.
This fat little fellow is a well-fed aphid.
One of our many garden snails enjoying an ooze along a rock on a very wet day.

I can't see the pattern on the head of this lady beetle, so I can't tell you if it is a spotless lady beetle, even though it is obviously spotless, because it could be a spotless spotted beetle.

This may be a six-spotted orb weaver. Or it may not. I often see crab spiders but this doesn' t look like any of those even though this capture of a bee is typical of crab spiders. (Alas, crab spider photos from this summer are probably  miscatalogued and I can't find them....)  But there appears to be webbing over the unfortunate bee's abdomen, which lends credence to the orb-weaver bit. The daisy petals were curled around the grisly scene. 

I was wondering who was chewing the petals neatly off the daisies and then gobbling their interiors. I found this guy scooping up the yellow area as if he were face first in a big bowl of lemon custard.

A European garden spider checks out the center of a cosmos.

A hoverfly sips nectar from one of the dahlias. Completely harmless but looks like a bee so that predators and nosy people hesitate to come close.

This cheerful guy was perched on my Subaru window one summer morning. All I can tell you is that it's a katydid. I'm afraid my so-called "Insects of the Pacific Northwest" field guide has only about 5 orthopterans in it, and green katydids aren't among them. He was very large and had splendid antennae.
A leafhopper tiptoes along a 'Munstead White' columbine. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Holy Moley, Green Anole!

When did you first start learning science in school as a young child?

I don't recall ever having a science textbook in my hands during elementary school in the 1960s, despite this decade being the heyday of the Space Race after the 1957 launching of Sputnik.

Sure, we dabbled in science a little bit, at least in fifth and sixth grade, which was when I started public school.

I vaguely remember the eruption of Mt. Clay-and-Vinegar-and-Baking-Soda in the big sink of my sixth-grade classroom. A student had made it and brought it in as his science project, and I think the electrical circuit I built with my dad was part of this adventure, too.

As I recall, the teacher had told us all to go home and find a science project to do. I'm sure many a parent quaked then as they do today when the kid comes home and says it's time to get a trifold board because the science fair is coming up.

But my dad was an aeronautical engineer as well as a very capable carpenter, electrician, and fixer-of-things, so he was more than thrilled to throw himself into helping with this project.

I was in Catholic school for first grade through fourth grade, however, and there was even less science education going on. (Which is odd considering how Catholics are not biblical fundamentalists, and the Church, for example, doesn't reject the theory of evolution.)

My entire science education in those four years consisted of...a chameleon.


Yes. A single lizard. And actually, it wasn't even a chameleon. That's how poor our science education was. The little reptile was really a green anole--often called a chameleon in America, but a species distinction that would be pointed out by a teacher teaching science.

But the anole wasn't even used to do that. It just sat on a rock in a little terrarium for a month. Sometimes we were allowed to look at it. It looked back. Then it was given away to a lucky kid at the end of the month, and that was that for science.

Oh. Wait. No. I think the planting of the corn seeds must've been science, too.

We all brought in some dirt, put it in an empty half-pint milk container, stuck a corn seed in it, and set it on the window ledge.

Except for Bernadette.

Bernadette forgot dirt, so she used clay. Our seeds grew. Hers didn't. She looked ashamed and we glared at her as if she'd murdered a kitten.

Sum total of science learned in grades 1-4:

  1. Chameleon. 
  2. Grow plants in dirt, not clay.

It's a start.

This all changed when I entered the brand-spanking-new junior high school building constructed just an eight-minute walk from our house.

Thank you, Robert Bunsen!
Seventh-grade science and beyond was a dedicated class, held in spacious classrooms with long, sleek, black countertops equipped with sinks and glass jets (and Bunsen burners!).

We covered topics ranging from asteroids to zygotes. It was short on ecosystems, habitats, and animals, but otherwise absolutely, smashingly splendid.

Since those heady days (plus a few marvelous science classes in college, a training program to become a zoo docent, and a course for teachers of science taught at a local university), my acquaintance with science education lies mainly in writing books and articles on science topics for children, parents, and teachers.

Oh, that and helping my child with the dreaded trifold boards at science fairs.

Wiki commons photo
Watching my child learn science at school was an eye-opener, especially as I became curious about how science has been taught at the elementary level over the past hundred years or so.

If it barely ranked as a subject in my elementary school--a good public school on Long Island in a community packed with Grumman engineers--how was it treated in earlier decades?

For my daughter, science existed as a distinct school subject from her earliest elementary years. I still have one of her dedicated science notebooks buried around here in a box somewhere. I recall seeing little aquariums and terrariums sitting in the center of a cluster of kindergarten desks.

Nonfiction books are thriving in the elementary classroom. Kids are becoming citizen scientists. Science is properly part and parcel of their education and their lives.

Now, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is the acronym of the day. With a daughter who's going into a technical vocational field, I'm pleased that kids are learning how science applies to everyday life and that it's not some arcane realm of little relevance to their lives.

But as a reader and writer with a great fondness for natural-history writing of the past that reveled in the sheer wonder of nature, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we might err too much on the side of emphasizing science's utility. As if we're hustling kids to hurry up and get past that fascinating mammoth diorama on the field trip because we have to catch the bus.

I don't know if this concern has any validity. I only started wondering about it several years ago as my child entered high school. We visited the school during an open-house event and marveled at the lab rooms, the equipment, the artifacts. We wished we were students again as we heard about the biotech and maritime academies.

But when we asked one teacher about the biotech program, he resolutely refused to answer specific questions.

Arms crossed, looking across the room without making eye contact, he maintained that he taught science and taught kids to be interested in and thrilled by science. He was implicitly telling us that he wasn't a big fan of teaching science only as something you do as a career step.

So my goal now is not only to learn more about how science was taught to elementary school kids in the past, but also to find out more about what teachers think of today's focus.

Which means I have two-thirds of my trifold board started!

(This is Part 1 of an "I'm not sure how many parts there will be" series, but I can tell you that I have picked up some interesting old science textbooks at thrift stores and that there are also some Very Funny Bits in some of them, so please stay tuned.)