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September 22, 2014
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‘What is it? Wednesday’


School has begun and with it starts a whole new year of “What is it? Wednesdays” in my husband John’s 12th grade social studies classes at Sullivan West.

What is “What is it? Wednesday” you ask? Well, are you old enough to have used the gramophone, 45 records, eight-track tapes, the Walkman or only the Ipod?

For kids who are on the edge of remembering 9/11 (the current crop of seniors was six or seven at that time) “What is it? Wednesday” is a mid-week diversion from the regular classroom routine, a kind of high school “show and tell” and a guessing game in which students try to figure out the use or identity of an antique or by-gone artifact. It only takes a few minutes and is a fun way to connect students to history, past ways of life and the local community.

And I think for John it is a way to remember and honor people and places. For instance, there is a rusted piece of metal harness John found when walking with our neighbor Anthony Connolly (Anthony had Parkinson’s disease and this was one of the last times he was able to manage going into the woods by his old home.) Anthony actually knew the name of the horse that had worn the harness. Then there is the wooden peg that John pried out of our crumbling family barn (now gone, too). The pegs were used instead of nails. They are a testament to the craftsmanship and hard work of our ancestors. There’s even an old, perfectly intact inkwell that my husband found years ago when a bulldozer had done some excavating in the Narrowsburg School playground. It was like a seashell washed up on the beach—an echo of kids playing generations ago.

Items have come from students themselves, other teachers and friends. Oakum is a twisted, seaweed looking hemp fiber used as a kind of caulk in old ships—a gift from my sister, Nancy, who loved the idea of “What is it? Wednesday.” The metal maple syrup tap was brought in by former student Nick Shevak and the bed warming stone is from my friend Rebecca Nevin-Gales.

We have also collected many bits and pieces over the years ourselves from yard sales and junk shops and now have a stock of stuff like the antique curling iron, daguerreotypes, and the plastic insert for a 45 record (they are often stumped by it.) All these are considered part of the classic “What is it Wednesday” canon. The cow magnet (a magnet a cow is made to swallow to collect any nails or metal it might have ingested) is a favorite. The farm kids typically get that one right away.

Old washboards are immediately recognized, even if no one has seen one before, due to their presence in movies. Canning jars and the old-fashioned ice cream freezer with a turn crank are easy ones, too.

But John still has yet to work up the nerve to bring in the antique breast pump that we found in the cellar of our house when we moved in. It looks like an old, glass bicycle horn with a red, rubber squeezer—it’s a far cry from the newest Medela model.

As schools adopt the latest in state mandates with increases in standardized testing, I worry about what will happen to all the fun learning activities like “What is it? Wednesday” in our schools. Will some of them be lost in the push to raise test scores?