In Response to Tove Danovich

On 14 June 2018, Tove Danovich’s “Despite a Revamped Focus on real-Life Skills, ‘Home Ec’ Classes Fade Away” appeared on NPR.org. The article opens with a quotation regarding the current state of instruction in what was once taught as home economics and is not taught as family and consumer sciences (FCS) in the United States. It moves on to note that FCS classes are not swelling as might be expected in a period of increased attention to food, but that they are instead dwindling–by more than a third from 2002 to 2012–likely in response to the prevailing testing culture at work in public schooling. Danovich moves on to gloss the history of FCS classes and their socially problematic nature before moving into description of current FCS course content. Schools’ requirements for such coursework receive some attention before the article cites a dearth of FCS teachers as a major obstacle. The article concludes with an assertion of FCS courses’ relevance in students’ lives; their utility is usually swiftly evident.

A couple points emerge as of peculiar interest for me. One of them is in the quoted comments by Montana’s Megan Vincent: “In the good old days you got that at home[sic]” and “But now you have two working parents…these courses fill the gaps for what parents can no longer do.” The former rankles a bit, since the “good old days” were hardly good for a great many people–and the litanies of ways in which and the people for whom they were not needs more rehearsal than can be given it here. Related is the latter; the comments assume that parents could ever do what the class does. While in some, perhaps many, cases such a thing was true, it was never so universally the case as the comment–indeed, the kind of comment–comes off as assuming was. How many jokes, after all, center on parental ineptitude? And how can a joke enjoy currency if it does not speak to something easily seen in people’s lives? A look at the tables and pantries and lives of a great many people, across generations, suggests that they were not and are not the best informed about how to cook and eat well–and a thing not known cannot be taught, not reliably.

Another point of interest, although one that does not irk, is the later-reported comment from Carol Werhan that “FCS classes make for ‘a well-rounded, world-literate human being, which makes a great workforce and a great community.'” It reads as much the same kind of thing that is typically deployed to justify humanities coursework and programs to increasingly corporatized higher education and its “consumers.” I do not think it will be as ineffective for FCS as it has been for, say, French, because I do agree with the comment about the field’s obvious utility–but I have not seen such rhetoric work well often or at all.

Still, looking back–as I do too often, and seldom to my benefit–I 1) do not recall that an FCS class was on offer at my high school (and I attended high school before No Child Left Behind), 2) wish there had been such a class or that I had seen it, and 3) wish I had taken it. While I’ve learned to cook more in the years since (I cook dinner for my family more nights than I don’t, and I make breakfast through the work week), and I do a fair bit of the laundry around my family’s house, it’s taken me those years to learn how to do so with even the modicum of skill I have. (I had various house-cleaning chores as a youth, and I still keep a pretty clean house much of the time.) It would have been a good use of a fourth year of high school to take such classes as FCS, which would have helped prepare me for some parts of my life since with which I’ve had to struggle. Even then, I needed and should have had the sense to take a break not only from the scholastic demands of “regular” classrooms, but also from my life’s overwhelming focus on meeting those demands. Had I done so, I think my being exiled from academe might have been a bit easier to handle than it was–and that would have been decidedly welcome.

Help balance the economics of my home?

A Rumination on Playing Again

I‘ve commented before (here, for example) that I had initially thought to become a band director when I grew up. That I did so emerged in large part from my time in bands from sixth grade through the end of high school. Band was one of the few places where I found any sense of camaraderie at school, although I did not value fellowship then as it deserved, and one of the few places of happiness I could find outside of my broken-in rocking chair and the pages of books already many times read. As might be expected, then, I went into my undergraduate career full of love of the thing and hope that I would be able to do as had been done for me–but, by the end of my sophomore year, I was told that I would not be allowed to proceed in my program, and I gave up on that particular dream, soon taking up another that would ultimately fail to come true.

Since that time, since my sophomore year of college, since 2002, I did not play more than a few idle notes at odd intervals, only occasionally picking up a horn, and then not for long. I entertained no serious thought of playing again, no real notion that I would do anything other than look from time to time at an instrument I had never been worthy to play and barely to touch, and I rebuked myself for ever being so much a fool as to think I could ever really have done so. And seeing my brother do so well as he did–and is still doing!–musically served to remind me that my talents lie elsewhere than in winding a horn, and that I was better served by turning my attentions to other ends. But, again, doing even that and applying myself to the exercise of those talents I flatter myself that I have did not work out as I had hoped, and I drifted from failure to failure to failure, winding up where I am now. And if it is the case that I enjoy some success–because I do–it is still far, far from what I had ever thought I’d have. (Too, as many times as I have faltered, there is a part of me–a large part–that is waiting for me to fail again.)

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The Magic Horn

Recently, though, a non-profit in Kerrville and the head band director at the public high school got together and set up a community jazz band. News of it reached me through the usual channels (thanks, Mom!), and, after consulting with my wife, I decided I’d join if they’d have me. After a couple of phone calls and emails, I found myself retrieving instruments from my parents’ house: a late-1930s King Zephyr alto sax that’s been in my family for generations and a Buescher bari sax my grandfather had owned and which I had inherited.

The alto was long familiar–and it is the instrument of which I am far from worthy. I have heard others wind it as it deserves, and I know I cannot match them; I tend to it, but I dare do no more. But the bari is another matter. It has not the ancientry of the alto, nor has it the mystique; the alto is known in the family as “the Magic Horn,” and in the hands of those who actually know what they are doing, it lives up to the name. The bari is not of the same quality; Buescher has not the cachet that King does, and for cause. Nor, if I am being honest, was my grandfather the finest saxophonist–though he was better far than me, as is clear from his having succeeded in his musical goals, while I definitely did not. But when I did play, and when I was commended for playing such that I thought I might reasonably expect to make a life around it, it was a bari sax I played–and I do not devalue the horn that I have now, when I might otherwise have had none.

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Me, in full harness, with the bari; photo by Sonya Elliott

And it felt good to wind it again! Oh, I am aware of how much I have lost of what little I had; I dare not deny it (and I am working to reclaim at least some of it, although I know that the intervening years will have taken more from me than I can ever recover). But when I wrapped my hands around the hollow brass, put my fingers on the keys and the reeded rubber into my mouth again, it felt right. I babbled through the horn, true, my faltering utterances showing long disuse, but as I played, my fingers and lips and tongue began to remember what they had known. It was as if rust fell from me in the very act of playing again, and as I moved more, I was able to move more. And sitting in communion with others doing much the same…it was decidedly welcome.

So I shall be going back again, I think. Even if I will never be the sort of person who can make a living at it, I can be the sort who does a bit and enjoys what all is done–and I think that’ll actually be good enough.

Reeds are expensive! Help me buy some more!