When my new science teacher announced on the first day of 7th grade that no one would get an A in his class if they didn’t make an insect collection, I was like, “NOOOOOOOO! I hate bugs!”
My mother hated bugs. Her mother hated bugs. They hated mice, snakes, and dog poop, too.
I walked home from school that day, bummed out that my straight A record since first grade was about to circle the drain.
Then came the aha moment. As I reached the vacant lot at the top of my block, I saw the mother lode for specimen collecting– flying insects, crawling insects, hopping ones, too.
How hard could it be? Catching, killing and displaying insects on Styrofoam board covered in Saran Wrap?
When I got home, I asked my mom for a canning jar with a lid, a ball of cotton, and some rubbing alcohol. Thus began the great mind shift of my family’s generations of insect-hating women. Bugs buzzed, they were hideous, and they flew into your face. But they were small, had tiny brains, and were useful to me for a better grade.
At first it was hard to put the captured insects into the jar where I knew they would suffocate. But as the collection grew, I had to push on to get the coveted A.
I got a monarch, a couple of moths, some beetles, some smaller ones, some winged things, even a dragon fly, but not the grand prize, the grasshopper. Day after day I’d take my jar up the hill after school and go for the green. But it was too fast. I tried nets, tea strainers, whatever I had, to get one. Finally, on the last possible day before the collection was due, I got a hopper.
I took my Styrofoam board and some straight pins and assembled my collection. Pushing the pins through their delicate crunchy bodies was disgusting, but I’d already come this far. I wrote paper labels for each one and glued them under the specimens. I took the grasshopper out of the jar right before bed and stuck a pin in it. To my horror, the insect turned in a circle on the straight pin axis. It wasn’t dead yet, just groggy.
I soaked the cotton ball with more alcohol and put it on the already-pinned-down grasshopper, hoping the fluid wouldn’t ruin my labels.
The next day, my mom flinched and winced as she helped me cover the whole thing in a cheaper version of Saran Wrap, and I was off to get my A.
That was my first real encounter with creepy crawlies, not counting my gooey bug-making machine from 6th grade where you poured goop into molds and cooked it, like an Easy Bake oven for budding entomologists (after all, it was the sixties).
I grew up to teach Spanish and English and encountered some gigantic cockroaches while student teaching in Venezuela. Otherwise, I followed the stereotypical path of a 70’s woman.
Fast forward fifteen years, now the mother of toddlers, living in a country town swallowed up by suburbia. We had rats, lizards, insects, and spiders coming into or under the house. Guess who dealt with it all? Yours truly. The night a mouse came in through the fireplace and ran across the family room and into the pantry, I emptied the cupboard closet box by box, can by can, basket by basket, until there was only one thing left.
“There’s no mouse,” my husband kept saying.
“Yes, I saw it,” I said.
When I removed the final item from the shelf, the mouse dived around the corner into the dining room and ran under the mission style hutch. My husband, now convinced that we had a furry visitor, grabbed the broom and started beating on my new hutch with the pole end of the broom.
“Take that, Mouse!”
I am still laughing. The mouse got away.
Whenever a spider came into a shower stall, guess who was called in to remove it? Not my husband, not my son. I was the one unafraid to coax it into a cup until I could get it out the door.
I like to think that this might have a tiny bit to do with why my two daughters are now scientists and why one of them wrote her dissertation on fly fungus and how it kills its host, the fruit fly. Yes, it is gross to most, and my youngest daughter isn’t willing to kill anything inn the name of science, but the fact that she will work with icky things has to somehow be related to my insect collection.
I broke the family’s female generational chain of repulsion to “ick.” I overcame my disgust of insects and learned to appreciate their beauty, even if one of them was spinning in a circle, pinned to my board the night before it earned me “best insect collection” for my entire class.
And I taught all three kids how to pick up disgusting pet poop.
After all, it’s just dog feces.
Couldda Wouldda Shouldda
I should’ve been a scientist.