As a strong supporter of public education, I find it awkward to admit that I took my children out of school for the 1994 solar eclipse.
We didn’t take them out often. Both of them had years in which their attendance was perfect. We didn’t schedule family vacations during the school year. We didn’t extend school breaks or long weekends. We tried to keep dentist and doctor appointments short and local. Years past their college graduations, they probably still can repeat, verbatim, our lectures on taking school seriously.
But on May 10, 1994, I picked them up from school to view the eclipse. I wanted them to see it, but I knew what children like mine were likely to do when a teacher told them not to look directly at the sun.
I also wanted them to be awed, to begin comprehending the influence of celestial events on human history, and not to have their experiences tainted by the “yeah, whatever” reactions of peers who considered an eclipse a poor substitute for a video game (an opinion mine would have shared in that company).
I can remember being allowed to stay up late to see comets and lunar eclipses when I was a child. I remember being taught the names of constellations, as well as facts about flora and fauna, geology, natural phenomena and human history, and I remember thinking it was all fascinating.
I wanted, and still want, my children to feel that same sense of wonder. In May of 1994, they were 7 and 9, and we still regularly lay on the west lawn of the Calkins Building — “the owl place,” they’d called it when they were toddlers — waiting for the great horned owls to tip out of their niches and glide silently overhead. (Ghoulishly, they also delighted in pulling apart owl pellets and retrieving tiny bones.) At those ages, they still believed their parents knew nearly everything about the world around them. They had not yet grown suspicious of the fact that their father called every unidentified and potentially poisonous fruit “pukeberries.”
Back then, the newspaper office was still on Main Street, and the owner, Russ Brown, also owned a metal-roofed shed across Beech Street. On the Tuesday of the eclipse, someone had brought in a welding helmet, but the eclipse could be seen best on the dusty floor of the shed. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of small holes in the roof each projected an image of the moon progressing across the disc of the sun. We were inside a camera obscura, and there was nothing to be seen overhead, so no one chanced looking up. As the children wandered around the shed , they were spangled, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with crescent shaped suns.
The eclipse began to wane. We newspaper employees had to get back to work. In the brightening sunlight outdoors, the celestial magic cloaking the kids looked like dust and pigeon-droppings. I took them back to school.
This time around, the eclipse is on a weekend evening, so no class time need be sacrificed. I hope to sit on my front porch watching the shapes projected through a curtain of wisteria leaves, listening to the confused birds as they settle on their roosts when the sunshine dims.