Home Economics

“Not a Domestic Goddess!”

I was re-reading a favorite childhood book a while ago, and came to a section describing two little girls being taught to sew, not by their mothers or grandmothers, but in elementary school. The passage made me grin wryly. Taught to sew. In elementary in school. Imagine that.

Now, I was taught to sew, and to embroider, by my mother, who was a master at both arts. Although I never achieved her degree of skill, I got pretty good at both. Later, my grandmother taught me to crochet, and until carpal tunnel took over, I enjoyed all three domestic arts. As a young woman, I actually sewed an entire full-length barred muslin gown by hand, without a machine, and a plaid jumpsuit, as well. The medallion lace which trimmed the entire border of my six foot wedding veil was added laboriously, stitch by stitch, by hand. For years I crocheted endless afghans and baby blankets; my daughter still uses the Christmas tree skirt I crocheted in my 20s.

Despite this fact, though, I never learned any of this—not cooking, cleaning, budgeting, marketing, nor, in fact, anything connected with keeping a household up and running–in school. In fact, I once shocked a fellow student at my high school by being unable to follow a teacher’s directions to take some materials up to a certain room in our vast and sprawling building complex. “Go up toward the home ec rooms,” the teacher’s directions began, and I had to stop her immediately. “I don’t know where the home ec rooms are,” I interrupted. The female student standing beside her was flabbergasted. “You don’t know where the home ec rooms are?!” she exclaimed. I noticed a slight, odd smile on the teacher’s face as I snapped back, “No, because I never took home ec! I learned at home.”

The subject, on which I was now a little testy, arose again a week or so before graduation, when I went to the school office to determine my class standing (in the top ten percent of my enormous graduating class, as it happened). The counselor, smiling, gave me my number—I think it was 72—saying, “Well, you’re right up there, aren’t you?” Standing next to him, the popular, pretty, smug student office volunteer, snapped, “I’m ahead of her!” The counselor started to murmur something about how to praise one was not to belittle another, when I, in a rare burst of outraged courage, stood up to the Mean Girl. “Yeah, but my score is based on real classes, not four years of home economics!” Then I blushed and darted away. Standing up for myself was too uncomfortably unfamiliar an experience.

However, I find it’s true that these things tend to skip a generation. The kindest thing one might call my daughter is “Not a Domestic Goddess” (and that’s just fine; at least she doesn’t suffer from my dreaded OCD house cleaning compulsion!) This despite the fact that she did endure a semester of home economics while in middle school, learning helpful skills such as whipping up instant banana pudding. (She also suffered through a semester of shop class, which was equally calamitous. But I digress.)

Home ec class was, for my beloved offspring, one disaster after another. Instant banana pudding was, in fact, just about her only success. She failed at sewing on buttons; the bobbin popped out of the case when she tried to insert it in the machine and rolled wildly across the classroom floor, unwinding as it went. She loathed the teacher (see “Teachers Good and Bad, Part 1”, January 22, 2018) and the feeling was mutual.

The breaking point came when she, enduring anguish over my divorce from her father, desperately needed help. Her guidance counselor suggested that a new group counseling program the school had established might be valuable to my child; the only catch being that she would have to miss some of her home ec classes in order to attend counseling sessions. Considering this to be a blessing, not a problem, I readily agreed.

The counseling sessions began to make an immediate difference to my daughter’s emotional health (and launched her on her eventual career as a mental health counselor), but also an immediate difference in her already pathetic performance in home ec class. Finally, the Teacher From Hell cornered her one afternoon, telling her, “I don’t know what it is you’re going through, but if you keep missing classes for counseling, you’re not going to pass.”

Daughter, wrathful and devastated, came home and reported TFH’s remarks to me.

But 28 years had passed since the day when I, confronted by Mean Girl in the school counseling office, blushed and hurried away from my rare burst of self defense. I was on the phone immediately with the school counselor, reporting TFH’s remarks to my suffering child. “If there is any class I care nothing about her passing, it would be home ec!” I stormed, and the school counselor agreed.

My child continued with her group counseling, and still somehow managed to pass home ec, slipping through by the skin of her teeth, but making it nonetheless.

Anyway, all this came back to me as I reread my favorite childhood book the other day. I smiled to myself, knowing that home economics classes have gone, are going, the way of the Dodo. And that, I feel quite sure, is a very, very good thing.

I described that favorite childhood book in the blog post “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”, published April 22, 2020. If you’d like to read it, you can locate it in the Archives, below.

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