I was ten years old when I made a pinhole projector from a shoebox for my first solar eclipse on July 20, 1963. It reached a mere 30% totality over Globe, Arizona, but I was a curious child, and seeing that moon shadow as it bit even a small piece out of the sun’s globe was exciting enough for me to remember more than five decades later. Sadly, I must have become too jaded to watch the handful of solar eclipses in the 54-year interval. Or maybe it was cloudy; I was living in North Carolina for most of them, after all. But when I learned well over a year ago about the August 21 total eclipse practically in my own back yard, I got the fever. I determined that I would get reservations for South Carolina far in advance and be able to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event in comfort and firsthand.
But then I forgot. Papers to grade, meals to cook, appointments to attend, papers to grade: All got in the way and diminished my passion. And even when I remembered, I realized that the eclipse would occur on the first day of the fall semester. In fact, it would be at its peak at 2:45 p.m., and I had classes scheduled for 2:00 and 3:00. The media were in eclipse frenzy, eclipse glasses were disappearing from the stores and even from Amazon, but I would have to settle for 95%. But it was 95%–95.45 percent, to be exact!
My husband managed to get four pairs of glasses from a local camera store, and early Monday morning, he dropped me off at school so he could drive two hours further south on I-95 to reach the path of totality. My colleagues–most of whose classes ended before 2:00–were excitedly discussing their plans for the afternoon. I gave one pair of glasses to a friend whose elderly, disabled mother was about to experience her first eclipse. One instructor passed through our hallway and said to all in earshot, “Enjoy the eclipse!” The boor next door responded that she would be inside the house with the blinds shut. She continued, “There are shoe sales I’m more interested in than I am in the eclipse.” And the woman across the hall said she was going to rush home to make sure her dogs were inside so their eyes wouldn’t be damaged, removing all doubt that Alexander Pope was right about the dangers of “a little learning.”
On the way to my 2:00 class, I stopped outside the building long enough to put on my eclipse glasses and catch a quick glimpse of the sun. I drew on the whiteboard a crude version of what I had seen for the inquiring minds trapped with me inside the classroom. I had expected to see only a few students, but when I took roll, everybody was present but one. I passed out the syllabus and a few other handouts. I provided a few pointers about the upcoming semester and then dismissed the class with my best wishes for eclipse viewing.
Abandoning the rest of my supplies in the classroom, I grabbed eclipse glasses, iPhone, and keys and scurried across the street. I stopped along the way to take photos of the crescent-shaped shadows created as the leaves in the trees became myriad pinhole projectors.
I expected to see hundreds of students crowded into the courtyard in front of the gazebo but found only six. Four girls were huddled together, looking up at the sky and vainly attempting to photograph the eclipse while shading their eyes with their smart phones. As I found a bench where I could place my things, they exclaimed something about a cloud, and I looked through my glasses toward the partially obscured sun. I took a chance on a photograph, and the moment of serendipity provided me the image with which I began this post.
Two girls were sitting on the bench beside me. I overheard their narration as they tried to take videos of the eclipse. And then I heard one of them shout, “This is majestic!” I turned and asked them if they would like to share my glasses, and they were delighted. I was likewise delighted to be near them. Their eagerness to see and learn and experience was palpable and infectious. I called over the other four girls to share my glasses as well, and they were duly impressed. But the reactions of my companions on the bench were at another level entirely. They eagerly passed the glasses back and forth to me and between themselves. One even ran in primal celebration around the sundial–the sundial!–in the center of the courtyard because she thought it was a compass somehow mystically aligned to the astronomical wonder she was experiencing.
I walked around a bit and then called the girls over to see the shadows all around us. I explained how the shape of the light from the sun was being projected through the spaces between the leaves. They were amazed–“Are you a science teacher?”–and then they made their own crude pinhole projectors.
We watched as the moon slowly traced its path across the brilliant face of the sun, noticing that our environment was becoming slightly cooler and slightly darker. And then I shouted and passed the glasses again when a mere sliver of light remained on the left side of the lunar orb. We continued watching and again exclaimed when the sliver had moved to the right side of the moon.
Maximum obscuration had come and gone. It was 2:56 p.m., and I had another class at 3:00. The girls and I chatted as we gathered our things to go. For the first time, I noticed that they looked alike and asked if they were sisters. Yes. Then I asked if they were twins. “Yes. We are sororal twins.” One of them–Nicole, I believe her name was–explained carefully that most people use “fraternal” for dizygotic twins, but that that term should technically be reserved for brothers. She also told me some other name for boy-girl pairs, but I can neither remember it nor find it on Wikipedia.
The sisters were shocked when I told them about my colleague who couldn’t spare a moment from her online shopping to watch this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. They bemoaned along with me the shallowness of American culture, and then they expounded on the peace and serenity that can come from bathing oneself in nature. I told them how much I had enjoyed sharing this life-altering moment with them–that their enthusiasm had added an important dimension to our unique shared experience. I noted that there will be another total eclipse on April 8, 2024, and if I am alive at 71, I will be there. “You look healthy,” they said.
We passed the glasses for one last glance, and then I said good-bye to the sororal sisters and returned to the world–mundane, yes, but bathed in a new and somehow life-affirming light.