Saturday, February 11, 2017

Vitus Bering

"What explorer did you get?" I asked my son, showing him that, however out-of-the-loop I appeared, I was up to speed on what was happening in his fourth grade class.

"Coronado? Cortez? Sir Francis Drake?"

"Vitus Bering," my son said.

"Who?" This sounded suspiciously like someone in a Harry Potter novel. Genetically prone to living in a fantasy world, my son had drawn a Marauder's Map of his school as if it were Hogwart's School for Wizardry. He hung around the house in a Hufflepuff robe, whittling wands of out sticks. I did not put it past him to do his class project on Severus Snape or Lord Voldemort, because this was the type of half-human, malevolent being he liked to think about.

 Or Vitus Bering, whoever that was.

"He discovered Alaska," said my son.

"I thought you were studying California explorers."

He shrugged. Vitus Bering had been -- for whatever reason -- thrust upon him, and he was going with it.

"Alaska makes sense, because there is a Bering Strait. What nationality was he? "


"Oh! Well, tell me something else about him."

Crafting a flying golden snitch out of paper, my son had better things to do. He wanted me to go away and leave him to his wizarding labors. So:

"He discovered the octopus."

"Oh, come on!"

"No, he really did, Mom. They lived in the ocean around Alaska, and he was on a ship, and -- "

"The Bering Sea?"

"Yes. He and his shipmates -- not him exactly, but one of his guys -- discovered the octopus when he looked overboard."

"It's true, Mom!" my daughter chimed in.

Ninety percent sure this did not happen, I paused. What did I really know about explorers, the octopus, or anything? In elementary school, like my son, I went through the day in a haze of my own obsessions. Facts didn't stick, I didn't care. I looked out the window waiting for the 3 p.m. bell and thinking my thoughts.

Now, after nineteen years of school, I knew virtually nothing. I could discuss the things I liked -- The Abbess of Crewe by Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, for example -- but after that came a steep drop-off in general knowledge. A cobwebbed, seldom-visited pocket of my brain held snatches of geography, biology, math, and so on. But mostly I relied on faking it and Google.

The only historical figure I ever studied in depth was the Empress Theodora, who'd been a circus performer and prostitute before marrying Justinian the Lawgiver. In the library I found an old, surprisingly frank book about her life and decided to make her the subject of my tenth grade history presentation.

Standing at the podium in front of my class and teacher, I sensed that no one had expected me to report on the public indecencies of a social-climbing whore in sixth-century Rome. But I was simply trying to engage my audience: a group of rural fifteen year-olds, some of whom would soon become pregnant out of wedlock. To them, my message was: Don't worry about it!  You can still be ANYTHING.

I got an A on my Theodora report, delivered with a certain zest. Everything else I know about history was gleaned from costume dramas and dentist office magazines.

"Surely the octopus was discovered before then? I don't think they even live that far north. I think they live in the, in the --"

"It's true, Mom! He called it the Beringpus."

"It was never called the Beringpus! It has eight legs, it's called the -- "

"I swear, Mom!"

"He's right!"

"Look it up!"

"You guys, Vitus Bering did not discover the octopus. That is just crap. Now tell me something real about him."

"Beringpus!" said my son.

And to this day, that's all he'll tell me about his fourth grade history project, in the same way captured soldiers disclose their name, rank, and serial number.

"Mom," he said today, sitting in the front seat on the way home from karate.  "Do you know the definition of 'cow' in the Urban Dictionary?"

"Please don't tell me," I replied, driving.  "I don't want to know."