Saturday, May 15, 2010
On poultry and pedagogy and parenting
The chickens, all fifteen of them, all still of undetermined gender, have moved to their new home, their spacious and elegant coop, Clucker Hall. I have brought in a folding lawn chair so that I can comfortably divide my time between the bees and the chickens. Now that the observation hive is back, I watch the blue-dotted queen make her way across the honeycomb and lay those 1500 eggs. Can any of us accomplish so much in a day?
And when that palls, which it does for me long before it does for the egg-laying queen, I go out to Clucker Hall and watch the chickens peck and squawk and dash about like chickens and flap their wings and roost. I am looking closely for gender specific behavior: Ophelia over there in the corner, with the sleek black fathers (an Austrolorp? A record setting egg-layer?) seems inclined to swoon and discuss her feelings. This gives me hope for a laying hen. Bump (A Crevecoeur? A rarity with plumage?), on the other hand, keeps demanding that we switch the channel to the World Series of Poker. I expect to hear him crowing sometime very soon.
Out in Clucker Hall, it is all mystery all the time. Because the eggs came from a friend’s farm, not only do we not know their gender, we also do not know their breed. Other than the obvious fact that there are no Silkies (they of the feathered legs, dandies in extremis), we don’t know what they are, and it is CK that I like to know the names of things.
There are many reasons why I am unable to identify chicken breeds, but today I am choosing the lay the blame squarely in the lap of St Paul’s School. No, I am not referring to the august institution famous for overpaying its headmaster and the nude carillon. No, the St Paul’s I refer to is a humble parochial school in my hometown, an undistinguished brick building run by the most elderly and decrepit nuns of the Sisters of St Joseph, who are elderly and decrepit to begin with. And to end with.
I have always regarded my six years of attendance (penance?) at St Paul’s Parochial School as ample proof of the good sense of allowing parents to have one Practice Child before they commit to the task of genuine parenthood. This would allow them to make any mistakes on the Practice Child, and learn from their mistakes.
A good system you say? The only problem is that most first children, rather than tactfully making themselves scarce, tend to stay around and exhibit bad behavior directly related to the aforementioned childrearing mistakes.
(I should point out, though it is probably obvious, that while as a first child I subscribe to this practice of the Practice Child, as a parent I consider it ludicrous. Such contradictions are the bread and butter of the therapeutic couch.)
For instance, my parents, with all good intentions, sent me, their first child, to St Paul’s School, with the foolish idea that I would receive an education there. That is not what transpired. Because my mother had already taught me to read, and the French nuns at École Zamalek in Cairo had already taught me to eat croissants and say the Lord’s Prayer in French, and my cousin taught me everything I needed to know of arithmetic, I was free to spend most school days reading Nancy Drew’s adventures from a book secreted on my lap under the desk. Because the teaching nuns, in addition to being ancient and derelict, were also blind and deaf, this went unnoticed. During recess in the paved schoolyard I looked up forbidden words in my pocket dictionary. This is did not make me a popular child, but it did keep the other children from bothering me. Or paying any attention at all. I had exactly one friend during my six years at St Paul’s. For some unknown reason we did not speak to each for most of the 4th grade. That was the year I started reading about gruesome martyrdoms in my green A Child’s Life of the Saints, as we were taught that along with the unbaptized babies, even Buddha would never make it to heaven.
That was the year after the year of the Lay Teacher. There was one teacher at St Paul’s who was not a nun. That was Miss McGlannahan in third grade. Apparently there was no available antique and decomposing Sister of Saint Joseph uniquely unqualified to teach third grade. So they had to seek outside the order. Miss McGlannahan wore normal clothes, if you call unpleasant tweed skirts and armorial jackets normal. Through that mysterious process of understanding available only to the very young, we all knew that Miss McGlannahan wore a wig and that beneath her wig (a lacquered grey pageboy) her head was bald. She also had neither eyebrows nor eyelashes, and the story was that as a child she had survived a tragic house fire that killed everyone else in her family. Poor Miss McGlannahan, in addition to being a bald spinster spending her days with heretical brats, she also suffered from our genuine pity. She alone was not a nun. She alone had no vocation. Even as she taught the same recalcitrant scholars as the doddering sorority of Saint Joseph, she had not managed to be one of them.
It is not fair to say I learned nothing at St Paul’s. I learned about venial and mortal sins. I figured out that it was possible to sin copiously throughout one’s long & dissolute life, and so long as you make a full deathbed confession, you can count on spending eternity listening to harps.
Things have not much changed at St Paul’s. A hapless student is still unlikely to receive an open-minded education. My younger sister (she who was not a practice child and hence never was privileged to waste her youth wondering what nuns wear under their wimples) informed me yesterday that St Paul’s made the local news by rescinding the acceptance of a child, on the grounds that his parents are lesbians. Perhaps the hapless child in question is his mothers’ first child; in which case they should consider themselves inadvertently saved from denying their offspring an actual education. Now there is the possibility that the child in question can go to a proper school and learn to distinguish among the many attractive breeds of chicken out there in Clucker Hall.