Thanks to my dad’s career in the Army, I attended four grade schools and three high schools. My parents were both pretty strict Catholics—my father actually spent a year in the seminary and my mom spent a year in a convent. Lucky for me, they didn’t make it—my dad got kicked out and my mom realized she just didn’t want to be a nun. So it made sense that each time we parked our car in front of our new house on post, my parents would find a local Catholic school at which my mother would teach and my sister and I would attend.
First, we’d get the right uniform. Because all of these Catholic schools required a uniform. Sacred Heart, right outside of West Point, New York, had a predominantly red and black plaid pattern and shirts of a pale urine color. I know there was a jumper/dress option; was there also a skirt option? Our Lady of Sorrows in the middle of Oahu had blue and black plaid uniforms, and there was only a skirt option for girls. Thank God—and Sister Davilyn, the stricter-than-strict principal—those had white shirts. We showed our individuality in limited ways: hairstyles or shows, shorts under our skirts so the boys wouldn’t see anything when they flipped our skirts. (That wasn’t sexual harassment back then.) This school also required “OLS” patches on our shirts. Most girls’ patches were attached by careful, neat thread and needle; my mother stapled ours on. This is also how a fallen hem was fixed in our household. Why sew when you’ve got a good stapler around?
Another similarity of these Catholic schools was a lack of science. I mean, I am pretty sure we sometimes had science—at one point or another, there must have been a worksheet requiring labels of some sort, right? But in middle school, at the school with my stapled-on patch, the only science I can remember was when we drew a paramecium, with a label or two of…something a paramecium has in it. I don’t really remember.
Please know that I don’t begrudge my teachers. Or…teacher. Because I had the same teacher for all three years at OLS. She followed our class, which was actually a combined 5th-6th, and then a combined 7th-8th. My memories of these years are hazy. My kids will ask me when I learned something, and I have to rack my brain to recall on which side of the room I was sitting. I usually give up and answer “either 5th or 6th!” And they know why. Anyway, my teacher, like all the other teachers, including my mom, was doing her best. They were mostly Army wives who followed their husbands’ Army careers and wanted to earn money and do some good. Most of these women lacked formal teaching credentials; experience sufficed. These women showed me, in many ways, how to make it work, how to get the job done, and how to do that without complaining.
But let me return for a minute to this lack of a science. The hole in my own education astounds me as I watch my three kids in their independent school where science has its own acronym (STEM) and is a major selling point in the school’s curriculum. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my ignorance. I pretend to know things and then Google the information later and teach myself what everyone else seems to know.
Other times this lack of science is a sort of opportunity. Last year I chaperoned my daughter’s sixth grade camping trip to a YMCA Camp Seymour in Gig Harbor. Of course the class wasn’t just playing outside in canoes and with bows and arrows the whole time—no, they had science sprinkled in to their four days away from school. It was alongside a very squeamish classmate of hers, a new student named Dillon who was approximately 17 million light years away from his comfort zone, that I dissected something for the first time. It was a squid, and it was cool. Dillon watched as I cut into the squid’s side, peeled back its skin, and looked for the ink sack.
Recently, I asked my seventh grade daughter who is wonderfully obsessed with astronomy if I remembered something correctly about my childhood. “When I was in seventh grade, I remember my mom pulling the car over and us getting out to look at the Milky Way. There was a swirl of stars, intricate and compressed and brighter than anything I ever saw before and have ever seen since. Do I remember right—can you see the Milky Way from Earth?” I was thrilled that she said yes, that it’s possible, that I did see it. Whew! I’m going to count that side-of-the-road lesson as a little more science that I got. (Thanks, Mom!)
This past summer one of my closest friends from that blue/black plaid chapter of my life flew up to the Seattle area for work, and we figured out a way to have lunch together—Heather, me, and my three children. Before meeting her for lunch, I dug through what my husband calls “Katie’s Archives” in our very messy basement storage room to find my photo album from those years of my life. The saints I once prayed to were smiling down on me, because I found it. On the way to the box of scrapbooks was my box of old school things, including a bunch of essays that I’d written. I saved them because they were So Good. Turns out that my three children did not agree. They laughed at them. They laughed at my old school work that I was so proud of! It stung a little, but then I looked at it…and it was, well, laughable. It was the fact that this was work from my middle school years, not third or fourth grade—they were surprised at and amused by my utter lack of sophistication. Compared to the standards of today, my old essays were…cute.
Not shockingly, the conversation about the quality of our education came up at lunch. “You should have seen Mom’s writing! It was about reindeer striking in the North Pole!” They laughed and laughed. But Heather’s reply was exactly what I would have wished for: “You can’t blame her! That was what we got in Hawaii in the 1980s. We had no science for three years!” And then we all laughed at the shared joke that was our middle school education.
Getting back to the question of science, though, I think this lack of basic knowledge is also also freeing, in a way. I am relieved to not have the burden of knowing that I learned everything that I’m supposed to know as a child. My ignorance is turned into curiosity, and I’m glad to be able to stand in front of my three children and show them that it’s okay to be a little clueless, to admit you don’t know something, to ask questions even when other people might give the answer with a “duh” undertone.
Forget those know-it-alls, I say. They are probably the ones whose patches were neatly sewn on, too.