I have always had a hypertrophied conscience, that tends to manifest itself most powerfully and implacably around academics. Once, in elementary school, I accidentally saw a classmate’s graded math quiz at the top of a stack on my teacher’s desk. I may have even seen an answer or two. My completed, graded math quiz was also in that stack, but I was gripped with panic that my inadvertent look might somehow have warped time and implanted this stolen help from a classmate in my brain while I was taking the quiz, thus giving me an unearned advantage, a transgression that seemed especially egregious precisely because I was always so lousy at, and anxious about, math. Even then, my guilt was faster than the speed of light.
Except in the case of Home Economics. In Home Economics, I cheated wantonly. I cut corners on recipes and insisted – despite visual and gustatory evidence to the contrary – that I had followed the directions to the letter. When we had to make our own clothes, I chose the easiest patterns and tearfully convinced my mom that, because I wanted so badly to succeed, because my whole sense of self hinged on being able to make this t-shirt perfectly, I needed her help with the sewing machine, then backed slowly out of the room while she set to work. My greatest, most ignominious triumph was during the unit when we had to sew stuffed animals. I thought I’d done a pretty great job on my little white dog, until ten minutes before class when his ear fell off. So I asked the orchestra teacher for a few pieces of tape (never specifying why), and jerry-rigged the polyester oval onto the side of his head, and turned it in. I didn’t feel so much as a twinge of remorse when I got an A.
Over this past long weekend, I did a lot of home economics-y type things, and there is a part of me that loves baking in the wee hours, or Swiffering, or going to Target. I can’t discern any connections between my enjoyment of these things, or my aptitude for them, and my many years of mandatory Home Ec classes. In a cursory stab at gender parity, or because they were concerned we might make it to high school without knowing how to cook French toast, my school district required all students to take these classes (for the record, I don’t remember much besides “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” from the Shop classes that were also required … also, I made a small wooden carving of a seal, though girls, as I recall, weren’t allowed to use the jigsaw.)
Personally, in terms of skills acquired, I don’t think my training in Home Ec was a success. But if the classes themselves weren’t all that useful, the requirement in and of itself was an unintentional education in the vicissitudes of domesticity.
Being required to take Home Ec alongside all our other classes presaged an adult future in which women do more of the housework, even and especially when they work outside of the home also and earn more than their partners. Whatever stress girls might feel when their assigned scrambled eggs burn or their dog’s ears fall off (I can’t have been the only one) prepares them, I suppose, for the adult versions of those feelings, compounded by all the other demands that they have.
Yet the fact that Home Ec was graded like any other class offered a recognition, slow to catch elsewhere, that domestic work can be quantified, and has material value.
At the same time, the institutional pressure to be visibly and verifiably good at domesticity may also have inspired sly forms of creativity – cheats, improvisations, and workarounds – to refashion or subvert these expectations.