Doing My Father’s Homework

When I entered the fourth grade at Plainview High School, my parents enrolled at Northeast Alabama State Jr. College. Neither had graduated from high school, so they took the GED and even though it had been nearly twenty years since they had been in school, they scored quite high, which seemed a surprise to them. Both sought to earn an A.A. degree in Sociology.

It was an exciting time to see their drive and devotion to earning a degree. Both had worked at various menial jobs and were looking forward to having careers with more substance. Although they both studied and quizzed one another for their exams, my mother had a unique study habit. She took detailed notes, rewrote them, and kept them well-organized. She used note cards as flashcards to learn the definitions of terms, and because this increased her memory retention, I later used this tactic in college as well. Seldom did she make below 100 percent on her tests. She and my father earned 4.0 GPAs at the end of each quarter. They didn’t rival one another, but bitterness slowly developed between the two, more so from my mother toward him than the other way around. Years later, after their divorce, my mother eventually explained what had occurred, allowing the bitter wedge between them to cut deeper.

My father held a charisma that allowed him to charm others. Whether he practiced this intentionally or not, he definitely used this to his advantage. One hobby he had was trading cars, and he seldom ever got the bad end of a deal. Once, I watched him trade one car to a used car salesman in exchange for five cars. The other guy walked away thinking he had gotten the best end of the deal (trust me, he didn’t). Anyway, our father was good at using words and his charm to persuade and manipulate others. He convinced people they were getting the best of him, even when they weren’t. In job interviews, he could talk himself into greater pay positions even with the lack of experience, and according to my mother, he used this charisma at the college as well.

The college hired him as a media technician while he was still a student. He became friends with a lot of the instructors and the staff. My mother explained that she still had to write papers, do tons of homework, and take exams, but he had managed to persuade his instructors to give him ‘work study’ assignments where he simply did one project for the quarter and turned in the results at the end of the course for a final grade. Basically, in her eyes, he was getting a grade without all the hard work of studying and testing his knowledge, and she was right.

Due to health reasons, my mother stopped taking classes and started drinking a lot more. But my father continued to work and received course grades and college credits for projects, eventually earning his degree. One of those projects was something that bolstered my interest in biology, especially Entomology. His science professor, Dr. McCabe, instructed my father to go to a greenhouse in the neighboring county and look at the instructor’s insect collection. So my father decided to take all of us to view it on a Saturday.

During the past several summers, I had made ant farms in old mason jars. Something our father taught us how to do. I already held a keen interest in ant colonization and enjoyed studying their habits through the glass. When our father told us about viewing the insect collection, I had determined my focus would remain on ants, but my ideology changed after we got there. I was stunned as we examined the boxes of insects. Giant butterflies, moths, beetles, and dragonflies filled several glass-top boxes. I was in awe. Some of these specimens were insects I have never seen before. I never imagined the incredible diversity and beauty I could discover in the insect world.

Another gentleman at the greenhouse explained how they euthanized the larger moths to prevent them from thrashing and destroying their fragile wings and that it was essential to try to preserve as perfect a specimen as possible. He said that they simply placed a drop of lighter fluid upon the moth’s head and in seconds, the moth would die (not 100% accurate advice with larger species). On the way home, we stopped at a store and bought a package of straight pins and rubbing alcohol, so I could start my own insect collection.

At first I caught bees, wasps, and different ant species. Since I didn’t have a butterfly net, I was limited in what I could catch. As we looked through the insect boxes, my father pointed at the dragonflies and said, “You’re going have a tough time catching one of those.”

Oddly enough, a few days later, I was standing outside our chicken coop and a dragonfly flew against a glass pane. Instead of turning and flying in a different direction, it fought against the glass. I reached over and caught it between my fingers, which left him scratching his head once he saw it in my collection.

One afternoon after school, I found a wooden box on the couch with a note. “Dr. McCabe said that you can have this insect box to store your collection.” I flipped up the latch and opened it. Inside a few perfect butterflies with identification labels were pinned to foam that was covered with green felt. I was thrilled. My father came home later that evening from college and told me that he needed 25 different insects for the his assignment, which didn’t take very long for me to collect. The hardest part was getting the scientific names, but most I found in our Audubon encyclopedias. And the others I found at the college library.

Each day my father brought home some moths he had found under the lights at the college, but he’d placed them in his car until his work shift ended. The hot sun killed them and hardened them so severely that all I could do was pin them. Their wings weren’t pliable, so I couldn’t adjust them to properly spread them without shredding them.

My father turned in my collection at the end of the quarter and got an A with all the credit, which didn’t bother me as I had fun doing it. I kept collecting and kept learning. The insect project shaped me in other ways, too. I already loved biology from an early age, and I knew I would pursue that goal, but I didn’t know exactly what I would do with that knowledge. Because I did some of my research at the college library, I also knew I wanted to go to college. I liked the atmosphere and having the access to books I couldn’t find at the public library. Even then, I loved being surrounded by books and the valuable information they contain. I still do.

I’ve put away the butterfly net, pinning boards, and turned to capturing their images with photography. I occasionally rear caterpillars to adults, whenever I can find females to supply ova. I will always treasure everything I learned in Entomology and do what I can to preserve butterfly/moth habitats, but physically collecting specimens has been retired. I simply don’t have the time or the space to store them.

My novel, Shawndirea, kind of explains my departure from butterfly collecting, and those of you who’ve read it understand.



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