Ladders and mirrors and knocking on wood


I remain confused about some of the “lessons” I learned in childhood. I still hold certain beliefs drilled into me by my mother. We were forbidden to rock an empty rocking chair, sing at the table, or cut out the next 4-H sewing project on Friday – ever. We knocked on wood and used red skies and mackerel skies to predict rain.

Little did I know as an innocent child that the adults in my life were passing off fiction and fallacies as the truth and nothing but the truth. The very idea…

It is no surprise, then, that superstitions and myths became irrevocably entwined with all the other directions my parents and teachers expected me to follow. I suppose old wives’ tales belong to the same category. Whenever I heard that term, I would imagine a bunch of haggy, old biddies taunting sobbing children with horrifying stories.

A disproportionate number of superstitions involve luck – positive or negative. Years ago a rabbit’s foot often dangled from a key chain or rearview mirror in anticipation of the good luck it might bring. There was that little ditty: Find a penny, pick it up/All day long, you’ll have good luck. And the occasional flattened four-leaf clover tucked between the pages of a dusty, old book still serves as quiet testament to the luck-producing potential of a quartet of tiny leaves.

Sometimes we have to be satisfied with simply wishing for good luck. I have tossed my share of coins into fountains; and as a girl, I gazed skyward and recited: Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may, I wish I might/Have the wish I wish tonight! Occasionally Mother allowed a couple of us to pull on both ends of the wishbone from the chicken she had fried for Sunday lunch. And, of course, birthday wishes do come true, but only if all candles are extinguished in one huge puff – without divulging the wish.

While I consider early good fortune almost surely a case of beginner’s luck, I cannot prove I have ever received money when my palm itched. And I am still searching for the elusive pot of gold at the end of any rainbow that brightens my day.

I have, however, operated under a couple of superstition misconceptions. A few years ago, a cricket hopped into my house – and my life. I had no idea that one small insect could chirp so loudly, persistently, and annoyingly for so many days. Turns out Jiminy’s long-lost cousin was supposed to be bringing me good luck!

I always thought the bridal tradition of something old/something new/something borrowed/something blue was just a charming wedding day custom. Then I read that these four items were traditionally considered harbingers of good luck for the bride in terms of children, the future, and fidelity. Who knew?

If we accept that luck can also be a failure occurring by chance, we start thinking about the seven years of misfortune generated by the shards of a broken mirror. We would rather that black cats not cross our paths, and we shake our heads in reluctant acknowledgement when the third negative event completes a string of three. I avoid walking under ladders and absolutely refuse to open an umbrella in the house for any reason.

Superstitions are cautionary by nature. I assume I am tempting the common cold gods any time I venture outside with wet hair. I doubt that any toad has ever given me a wart, and my mother would have yelled at me twice for throwing salt over my shoulder to ward off the bad luck incurred by spilling it in the first place.

Old sayings about fish being brain food and a daily apple keeping the doctor at bay are nutritionally true. But I still remember half believing that the gum I swallowed might really stay in my body for seven years, and I also worried that the watermelon seed I accidentally ingested would sprout. Speaking of apples, my grade school friends and I recited the alphabet while we twisted the stems off our fruit. We needed to know the first letter of the name of our future husbands, didn’t we?

I recently read about a myth I wish I had known during my teaching years. This one involves pencils used during study.

For years I watched my students “study” for tests by staring at their notes. I urged them to engage in active studying: working example math problems or writing out little vocabulary quizzes. I assured them that information flowed from the pencil to the hand, up the arm, across the shoulder, up the neck, and into the brain.

The recently-discovered superstition maintains that if a student uses the same pencil for study and for the test, the pencil will remember the correct answers. I could have had a field day with that one!

Goethe, a famous German author, considered superstition “the poetry of life.” Marlene Dietrich, a famous German actress, called superstitions “habits rather than beliefs.”

But I tend to tread the middle ground with Michael Owen, an English soccer player: “I don’t believe in superstitions. I just do certain things because I’m scared something will happen if I don’t do them.” No need to tempt fate…

Good grief! I just realized this article is appearing on the 13th! Well, at least it’s not Friday!

By Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.

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