Margie Wade remembers that when she started teaching home economics 23 years ago, most of her students "wanted to become homemakers and raise children."
Nowadays, however, a changing social and economic climate has brought a change in the concept of "homemaker." Almost no students, local home economics teachers say, plain to be homemakers exclusively.
Wade, who teaches food and nutrition classes at Cardozo High School, says her black students in particular "realize they have to work in order to live the lives they want to live," that there are "no rich black men" to fall back on economically -- and that "what they learn in home economics is going to help them get a job."
The link between home economics and jobs may not have been exactly what the founders of Future Homemakers of America had in mind when they started the nonprofit organization in 1945, the year the men came home from the war and the women went back to the kitchens.
But this week, which has been designated "Future Homemakers of America Week," District teachers and students say the organization has changed with the times -- and the needs and interests of its members.
As a result, interest in FHA is strong. Nationally, there are more than 400,000 members. And, according to Cleeretta Smiley. FHA adviser for the District, the organization has chapters in 49 local schools, from elementary to high school.
The FHA admits the image of a homemaker as unpaid cook and seamstress is outdated. Cardozo child-studies teacher Beverly Cunningham says nowadays everyone is, in effect, a homemaker. "Everybody has a home, everybody has to take care of a home whether they work or not."
The consumer movement of the last decade and the strains brought by inflation have fueled students' interest in the food and nutrition, clothing and budgeting topics offered in home economics classes. For example, Jerry McCallop, 15, says he takes Wade's food course to "save money."
In addition, the desire to set up careers has pointed students to FHA clubs and home economics classes. Cunningham says her students "want to learn how to do things quickly" because they know they will be busy with jobs and families.
Another prominent reason for the interest in home economics is the urge among both boys and girls to be independent. Cunningham says, "Everybody wants to know what they can do for themselves." One of her students 17-year-old Rita McLaughlin, says she wants to be a secretary, not a fulltime homemaker, because she doesn't want to "depend on anyone else's money."
LaShawn Tyler, 17, vows she will get a college degree in electronics so she can be independent. "If your husband works and you don't, and if he puts you out, what are you going to do for a job?" she asks.
Boys take the classes for the same reason. Says Robert Johnson, 15, who is in Wade's class, "If your wife ever leaves you, you could cook for yourself."
Boys, in fact, have been joining FHA since its beginning, and now comprise about 7 percent of FHA's national enrollment. From all accounts, almost no student, male or female, thinks it is sissy for boys to learn domestic tasks.
Naomi Waddleton, who teaches home economics at Brookland Elementary School, says she counters the complaints of any boy by asking him, "If you were getting ready to go out on a date, and your button popped off your shirt, what would you do?" That usually silences him, she says.
Boys sometimes do feel uncomfortable in a class full of girls, however. This week, as Wade showed students silky pastel underwear that a visiting seamstress had made, one girl observed with a laugh, "They don't make those in my size." The lone boy in the class said quickly, "Uh, I think I should cut out now."
Some home economics students already have children and want to learn how to care for them. At Cardozo, about 40 young mothers are enrolled in a special program through which they see films, hear lectures, are counseled and share their problems.
Wade says while some of her students are earning top grades, many are those who have been turned away from the more difficult academic track. "The kids who go into biology, chemistry, mathematics and all those hard academic subjects they don't have to have -- if they don't do well, they send them to us."
Home economics can help these students, she says. For instance, one boy, now a Marine, said he "couldn't have dealt with" the chores demanded of him if it hadn't been for Wade's class.
Cunningham says the emphasis has changed since she began teaching home economics 13 years ago. "The focus is different. In child studies, normally you'd think we'd teach you how to wash a baby. Now there's more emphasis on 'How I feel about myself, because if I feel good about myself, I'm better able to help my baby.'"
She says today's students ask about topics such as sex and child abuse more than those of a decade ago. And they have concerns, such as drugs, that she didn't have as a teen-ager in Newark.
"Some of them are taking care of themselves; they're out on their own, they worry about were the next meal is coming from -- things I never would have had to worry about when I was coming up . . . They keep me in touch, because I'm back in another generation."