Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Head for your underground bunker – a solar eclipse is on the way

On April 8 of this year, a total solar eclipse will be witnessed in many parts of Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Dubbed “The Great North American Eclipse” by some in the media, the hype brought me down memory lane …

August 21, 2017, was still a sunny day when I pulled two cereal boxes out of my kitchen pantry, stuffed one plastic interior bag into the other, and cut a small rectangle out of the bottom of the now-empty box. A sudden idea had propelled me to ask Google, “How do I watch a solar eclipse with a cereal box?” Now I was tearing foil, grabbing scissors, and hunting for tape to build a pinhole projector while yelling down the stairs at my nine-year-old son Julian to get dressed so we could go see the solar eclipse.

Julian, who was fiercely opposed to changing out of pyjamas before noon in the summer, obeyed with uncharacteristic speed. It seemed watching a solar eclipse – scheduled to happen at 11:30 a.m., which was less than 30 minutes away – was a more inspiring proposition than Xbox.

I was following in the footsteps of Mrs. Votery, my formidable third-grade schoolteacher who had done the same when, in 1979, a total solar eclipse was visible over Ottawa, Ontario, Canada during school hours.

“This is a rare event, students!” said Mrs. Votery. We were cutting our boxes and measuring our aluminum foil. Mrs. Votery tapped a wooden pointer at a diagram she had carefully drawn on the chalkboard.

“In a short while, the moon (tap) will pass between Earth (tap) and the Sun (tap), and the sky will darken.” She peered at us through her glasses, a slight smile playing on her lips before she furrowed her brow and boomed in a tone of terror and doom, “Do not look directly at the Sun! If you do, you will go blind!!”

Soon we were waiting at the school doors, cereal boxes in hands, peering out the windows at the dimming sky. My eyes were fixed on Mrs. Votery’s neat bun, straight back, and broad hips which was all I could see of her over the heads of my classmates. I remembered her command, “Do not look directly at the Sun!” Our class had seen enough Helen Keller movies to know what blind meant. Panic gripped me. What if I lose control of my body? What if I look directly into the Sun?!

“Eyes in projectors, children!” Mrs. Votery commanded, silencing our twittering and my fears. She pushed the doors open, and we stepped out into the schoolyard.

Fast-forward to the hot summer day in 2017, I stood at my own front door and called to Julian, “It’s time!! Let’s go or we will miss the solar eclipse!”

Julian ran up the stairs and soon we were on the sidewalk headed for the park that was a two-minute walk from our house. The air was still and the sky was starting to dull.

As we raced along the sidewalk, I reminded Julian that in a few moments he could only watch the sky using the cereal box. No looking at the Sun. A few people were in the park, perched on the small hill that faced the Sun and overlooked the valley. Julian asked breathlessly, “Are we going to make it, Mom?”

Oh, the pride in that moment! I had created a thirst for learning in my child. I had built a celestial viewer with my bare hands. I had commandeered a nine-year-old into clean underwear before lunch in the summer! Stand aside, Mrs. Votery! Chalkboard, shmockboard! Who needs a pointer and a diagram? Not a passionate parent who can wield a pair of scissors while shouting astronomy lessons down the stairs! I was beyond such simple tools. And now, here was a boy who would tell his grandchildren about the day his mom showed him a solar eclipse.

“Mom?”

“Yes, Julian?”

“Will we be late for the apocalypse?”

On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will once again grace Ontario skies, and this time several cities in Southern Ontario will sit on the path of totality, astronomy’s equivalent to front row and center. A position so rare that it could be 360 years before those cities sit there again. If the sky is clear, those who step outside at 2 p.m. with the proper eyewear or reconfigured Shreddies box will see what the Canadian Space Agency is calling a “rare and spectacular celestial event.” An event that will peak with the total eclipse of the Sun, perfectly visible and lasting up to 3.5 minutes.

Here, comes to Ontario an event of such significance that when it occurred in May of 1919, it sent astronomer Arthur Eddington to a remote island off Africa and the path of totality so he could watch the stars around the eclipse. Doing so would make him the first person on Earth to directly observe Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

“REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE” celebrated a 1919 London Times headline. Eddington’s observations “were decisive in the verifying of the prediction of the famous physicist Einstein.”

A revolution in science! Are the Mrs. Voterys of 2024 smoothing their buns, googling NASA lesson plans, and gathering up cereal boxes to teach from the heavens? No. It seems when astronomers said solar eclipse, most Ontario school boards heard apocalypse and, citing “an abundance of caution” for children’s eyes and bus-driver safety, rejigged the school calendar to turn April 8 into a Professional Activity Day and cancelled classes.

“Eclipse!” marvelled the Waterloo Region Record in 1979. “A spectacular light show in the sky.”

“School boards across the province are bracing,” quakes the CBC in 2024. “A recipe for chaos.”

To be fair, the Ontario school boards are not alone in their cautious approach. The ancient Chinese, believing the eclipse was a giant dragon devouring the Sun with its massive jaws, would bang gongs, shout, and shoot rockets and firecrackers to scare the beast away. In 431 BC, the Athenians froze in terror when the Sun disappeared from their sky just as the Syracusians were preparing to attack them. They called it a PA Day, cancelled fighting, and ran to hide. Sadly for them, the Syracusians were a little more Mrs. Votery, attacked anyway, and Athens was sacked.

As Ontario’s school boards make like Athenians, I imagine Mrs. Votery turning her straight back and broad hips over in her grave. This was a woman who had cut her elementary school teaching teeth on atomic attack dive-and-cover drills. If anyone had suggested she cancel class on the day of a three-minute solar eclipse because students might go blind, she would have raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips before politely informing that person that the strength of her lessons and authority with students rendered that outcome unlikely.

Alas, it is not 1979. Ontario students must hope their parents have Syracusian courage and time off work to sit in the backyard and share in the once-in-a-lifetime marvel. Let us hope during the next total solar eclipse that is so clearly visible in our skies, in 360 years or so, there are a few more Mrs. Voterys to smooth their buns, tell us to stop our twittering, and lead us out to the schoolyard.

 

Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart is a Carleton University journalism grad who avoided real work by travelling to 53 countries and writing about her adventures. In 2012, she founded Perfect Pitch Consulting to help businesses across North America tell better stories about what they do and why. In 2020, she published her first book, The Story Compass. Every few months, Colleen gets the itch, and that means escaping real work to travel and find some adventures to write about.
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