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As their students cooked and sewed, home economics teachers reaped

Sunday, May 05, 2002

September was too early for sprinkles on the Oregon coast, but my mood was overcast. I was a new teacher that year, and I walked into North Bend Junior High School to face five classes of eighth-grade girls. It was the first day of school. I was terrified.

But I had somebody on my side -- Lila McMann, an experienced home economics teacher. Her smile said, "You can do it."

We did. Together. She taught me how to caramelize sugar and to spell marshmallow. She taught me to show, not tell. After my girls gave me a blank stare when I told them to roll the cookie dough "the size of a walnut," Lila advised passing a walnut around to let them feel it in their hands. Her advice was gentle and good.

We shared a classroom for two years, and my students' learning was overshadowed by my own. In November, Lila McMann died at 85, and a piece of my past slipped away, though her wise counsel is with me still. It had been more than 30 years since I'd seen her, but not a week goes by that some advice, some witticism, some philosophy of hers doesn't go roiling through my mind. Such is the power of a teacher who teaches teachers.

That first day, though, I came this close to not showing up. I didn't know I was supposed to. My first husband was assigned to the tiny Coos Head Naval Facility, a top-secret base in Oregon, where we wives assumed they looked out to sea 24/7 trying to spot enemy subs. (As far as we knew, they never did.) When he got his orders, I wrote to the two closest school districts, the "any port in a storm" method of job search. Neither district answered.

A week before school started, I phoned North Bend to see if I might substitute. Then, as now, teachers of home ec -- now called family and consumer science -- were in short supply. "I was wondering if any openings came up?" I asked the superintendent's secretary.

"No, we're set," she said, then asked, "Who is this?"

I told her. "Oh, Suzanne, we were depending on you."

Our home ec room was divided by an interior wall, but there was only entry from the hallway. Lila explained: The average junior high class was 30 but was split an hour a day into 15 girls in home ec, 15 boys across the way in shop. "When the school was built, they figured I could teach 15 girls to sew in one room and 15 girls to cook in the other."

People who make such goofy decisions have never heard 15 girls call, "I need help with my zipper!" while 15 others screech, "Are my muffins done?"

Lila rolled her eyes. We laughed at disaster averted. Almost by osmosis, I learned her pragmatic philosophy and grew to love the essence of a woman who knew that girls who create things learn to make something of themselves. Later, we taught boys, too. Same as girls, though they liked to drag race with the sewing machines and never had leftovers when they cooked.

I didn't realize it at the time, but Lila taught me much about discipline, which came in handy when I became a mother. Set boundaries, then encourage choice within them. As a new teacher, I wanted to be popular so, that first year, when a girl begged to use a difficult dress pattern, I let her. She got frustrated and so did I. We got it done, but she probably went away feeling negatively about sewing.

The next year I adapted Lila's low-key approach. She handed out a list of pattern musts (zipper, neck and armhole facings, hem) and optional (trim, patch pockets). Prints were OK. Sleeves, stripes and plaids were for ninth-graders. Only three or four patterns fitted her criteria, but each girl got to choose -- the dresses all looked different, too.

Lila knew it's almost impossible for a 13-year-old to separate style from color and print -- something that never occurred to me. "Buy fabric that looks like what you saw in the pattern book," Lila advised.

She taught me to demonstrate each step on my own dress -- the mysterious Zen of zippers, say -- and then the girls would go to their individual sewing machines to do theirs. Lila never pretended this worked out. "You show the class how to put in a zipper, then you show each girl how to put in her zipper."

"Do I have to rip this out AGAIN?" a tearful girl would ask. "Let's see how it looks right side out," I'd say, stealing Lila's words. "You decide." And, "How about if I start ripping on this end and you start on the other?"

You don't learn to make a dress when you make your first dress, Lila said. You learn on your second dress. Carryover learning, I think educators called it. We called it: Make sure every single girl gets her dress done.

In cooking, using Lila's carryover rule, students would make applesauce one day, then "rosy" applesauce the next. Simplicity sells. Classes were happy as clams their first day in the kitchen, cutting carrots into slices, cubes, shreds, munching as they went.

A purist, I thought eighth-graders ought to cook only from scratch, but Lila showed how a cake mix could teach how to preheat an oven, how to measure liquids, how to test for doneness. Taxpayers often eye the cost of such "frills" as cooking, so six kitchens shared three cake mixes. Unfortunately, the teacher (me) didn't get the fractions right when I halved the recipe. There was twice as much liquid as needed, but the cakes turned out fine. "Cake mixes are very forgiving," Lila said.

And so was she. Her ninth-graders had an amazing holiday open house featuring food they had made, including dozens of cookies. The girls brought in their little brothers and sisters, and we held nursery school. We had fashion shows, too, and when a girl slipped on that dress she had struggled so hard to make, it tugged at my heart.

Lila and I even enrolled in a sex education course taught in the high school gymnasium. In a roomful of embarrassed teachers, the Oregon State University professor blew up a condom. It got bigger and bigger and bigger. He let it go. It flew around the room, sputtering air, landing in the lap of a startled woman in the front row. "Pardon me, madam," he said, "but can I have my condom back?"

Lila and I laughed.

Lila's husband Bill, who owned a dry cleaners, and their daughter, Ann, a pharmacist, said Lila maintained her optimistic attitude her whole life, despite suffering from Parkinson's disease. I never would have thought otherwise. She worked her way through OSU during the Depression by waiting table at a boarding house. She taught for nearly 50 years, giving generations a positive spin on what it means to make a home. She swam each day, for her heart and to offset the numerous taste tests we endured.

Our breakfast lesson covered cooking eggs. "You just hand every girl an egg, and she cooks it however she wants," Lila said.

"Some of the girls want to make an omelet," I said, worried about the budget.

"They'll have to bring in an egg from home," she said.

I asked how they did with their omelet, kind of a tricky thing. "Oh, it kind of looked like scrambled eggs," she said.

She threw back her blond head and laughed.

Kind of like life. But you can't win if you don't try.

Home Ec Open House Sweet and Sour Meatballs

These meatballs -- they are more sweet than sour -- were always served at the ninth-grade home ec class' holiday open house. They have two good attributes: They can be made in advance and reheated, and you don't have to brown the meatballs first (you skim off the fat after they have been refrigerated). Suzanne to Lila: "Can I substitute bottled lemon juice for real lemons?" Lila to Suzanne: "Why would you want to?" Motto: Use quality ingredients.

2 diced onions
2 cups white sugar
Juice of 2 fresh lemons
2 small cans tomato sauce
Appetizer meatballs:
2 beaten eggs
2 slices dried toast or bread, crumbled into small pieces
1 1/2 to 2 pounds ground beef
1/4 pound ground pork
1/2 to 1 envelope Lipton's dry onion soup mix (we use 1/2)
Salt and pepper to taste
Tomato juice (1 to 1 1/2 cup)

Sauce: Cook onions and sugar together at medium high temperature. Sugar will melt and then caramelize. Add lemon juice and tomato sauce. Simmer together for 20 to 25 minutes.

Meatballs: Mix together until lightly blended eggs, crumbled toast, ground beef and pork, dry onion soup mix, salt and pepper. Add enough tomato juice to make a very moist mixture. Shape into 1-inch meatballs.

Drop uncooked meatballs into simmering sauce and cook until done, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove meatballs; set aside. Chill sauce; remove fat. Combine with meatballs; freeze if desired. When ready to use, simmer in sauce until they're heated through.

Lila McMann, North Bend (Ore.) Junior High School

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