It’s September, so Atlas Obscura is going back to the classroom—sort of. We took a deep dive into our archives to find some of the most surprising things people (and, uh, parrots) have learned in school, from ho-ho-ho-ing to pick-pocketing. Plus: Why does every kid in America learn to play the recorder?
by Kirsty Bouwers
To the right is a gray, frizzy cat. Behind, a chipmunk wearing a scarf and a lederhosen-esque suit with clovers stands beside a T-shirted gorilla. To the front, a panda and a fox are finishing off their dance routine. No, it’s not some alternative version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, but a class at Japan’s only mascot prep school.
by Eric Grundhauser
Marm Mandelbaum—“The Queen of Fences”—was one of the most well-connected criminal figures of 19th-century New York, where she bought and sold stolen goods, financed criminal endeavors, and even created a school for young criminals, likely the first and most successful training center for crooks in the city.
by Oliver Hong
There are myriad approaches to education in all disciplines, from calculus to literature to language to chemistry, but if you want to learn about magical people hiding under rocks or unconventional physics, you might have to look outside the traditional realms of academia. Think elf school in Iceland, gladiator school in Rome, and Santa school in Michigan.
by Anika Burgess
Vincenzo Commez was born into poverty in Italy in the first years of the 20th century as one of the city’s scugnizzi—street urchins. He was also part of an educational experiment to turn these kids into respectful citizens. In 1914, he boarded the “kindergarten ship” in the Naples shipyard, where he would learn carpentry and sailing, among other life and job skills.
by Michael Waters
Only the most prestigious pupils could enroll in the Philadelphia Phonograph School of Languages for Parrots, said to be “the only institution of its kind in the world.” It boasted more than 100 feathered graduates that “could pronounce all kinds of sentences and phrases” and speak three different languages (English, French, and German).
by Dan Nosowitz
All across America, for decades, a strange cultural ritual has been enacted. Students at the end of elementary school are herded into rooms and handed a simple, hard white plastic instrument called a recorder that seems pathologically incapable of creating any complex music. Why?