This time of year I’m full of tumult and can hardly sleep at night because of unformed emotions swirling through my head. It’s not the change in the weather, which is usually welcome, but the beginning of school. From beginning kindergarten -- where I was late joining and therefore never part of the social structure -- to the beginning of first grade -- where I didn’t understand the explanation of lunch and just went home -- where I found the house terrifyingly empty. From the beginning of high school where I was convinced I’d be assaulted and isolated to the beginning of undergrad college at NU which was like being dropped out of an airplane with no parachute. My terror was only exceeded by my confusion. When I began to teach, it was no better. I only taught because I couldn’t think what else there was. Not much in those days.
By the time I got to Div School in 1978, just turning forty, I was focused. I knew what I wanted and I was getting it. In fact, I was so “into” it that my classmates, all five of them in their early twenties, said they were embarrassed by my enthusiasm. Too bad for them. I was through being bullied. Church starting in the fall never felt risky. We were glad to get moving again.
The year I reluctantly tried to return to teaching in Cut Bank (2001? 2002?) was a plunge back into the torture chamber of never knowing what was going on and hating it when I figured it out. By then the bullying was rampant and the worst was superintendent/principal-on-teacher.
I’m parting out the family albums and came across these photos:
Every year on the first day of school my father took ceremonial photos. This is me and my brother Mark in 1947. I was not quite eight, so Mark had just turned six. Paul (not in the photo) was three, too young for school. To my parents, raised rural, school was a big deal. New clothes, new shoes, new school supplies. I had finally escaped sausage curls. Some people stop parenting kids along in here, thinking they are old enough to take care of themselves.
This is 1948. Mark scored cowboy boots! And somehow I managed to get patent leather ankle straps. Normally I had to wear “sturdy shoes” and in winter thick full-length stockings with a garter belt that went over my shoulders to hold them up because I had no waist. This dress was a hand-me-down, but I loved hand-me-downs because they were always fancier than clothes off the rack or, more likely, dresses my mother made. Plaid was always the school starting pattern. I don’t know why. I liked it.
This is Vernon School, a very big place made of brick. There was a predecessor building of wood that burned. (It was at night and no one was killed or hurt but they say it was spectacular.) We sat on this grassy bank to watch General MacArthur go by waving from a convertible after Truman fired him, which MacArthur interpreted as a triumph. These kids -- trust me -- are not talking on cell phones! I don't know why their hands are up. Notice that no one has a proper lunch pail -- just paper sacks. We were still living in the shadow of WWII, always conscious of the looming Korean War. It was not just the Cold War, but the Coldest and Most Alien War.
They tell us now that school -- as we organize it -- is meant to prepare us to work in factories -- that the whole system of grades and testing was based on manufacturing assembly lines. Manufacturing = middle class = wages = buying power. The humanities were signs of prosperity and privilege more than achievement. Very dictated, very English. But it was an Age of Wonders according to the magazines, esp. “Life,” which had shown us the war. One million veterans used the GI Bill to go to college.
Consider what my history overview book lists in 1947: Princess Elizabeth got married. Camus wrote “The Plague” and Tennessee Williams wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The Dead Sea Scolls were found and the sound barrier was broken for the first time by an airplane. Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific on a raft and Bell laboratories invented the transistor. Henry Ford and Al Capone died. Dior introduced the “New Look” -- torpedo bras, tiny waists, and big skirts. Abstract expressionism was in and Jackson Pollock was becoming famous. In short, all the new ideas that always emerge from war technology and massive shifts in population were changing the world.
In these years I had a hard time. My growing long bones tortured me with leg aches, my developing adrenals (I guess) gave me far more trouble than when I hit puberty -- that is, night terrors. My teeth hurt. I needed glasses but no one listened to my whining about not being able to see, or maybe they’d say, “Well, you read too much.” My father’s concussion and my mother’s loss of her mother both happened in this two year period. We kids all had measles, chicken pox, and something more serious -- maybe scarlet fever -- but not whooping cough. We’d been vaccinated for smallpox. The girl next door had died of polio but that was before we were born. Pneumonia, tonsillitis -- they were expected. Also worms and funguses. We ate dirt, not quite on purpose. Our immune systems were pretty tough. I was lonesome. Except for books.
In those days we weren’t told anything, much less got explanations or even a chance to ask questions. Only recently have I realized that a strange secret on our street was that one of the boys who babysat us had committed suicide by hanging in Forest Park, a big woodsy area of Portland where gays met even in those days. I don’t know any more than that raw fact and the big dark area in conversations among grown women on the street.
I had my own ideas about self-therapy, probably from a book. When I was most terrified, I would pretend I was talking to myself at age forty, which I was certain would be old enough to understand everything. When I hit forty, I was in seminary. Asking more questions. Remembering, I tried to frame up some kind of advice to myself at eight. Didn’t come up with much.
At nearly seventy-three I have more ideas. Among the best is abolishing public schools in the form they take now. Totally reworking the education of teachers. I still like one-room schoolhouses, though when Piegan Institute tried to return to them for the Blackfeet Immersion School, the teachers found they lost too much in terms of efficiency and scale. There are things you can do with fifty kids that you can’t with ten, not least of which is teacher collaboration. But that was before the Internet.
Mentioning Cuts Wood School leads me to the not-so-irrelevant comment that at Vernon (in Portland, Oregon) there were two exceptional elementary teachers who were American Indian: Miss Colbert was my fourth grade teacher and Mrs. Eagle was the one who figured out that Mark’s missing puzzle piece that kept him from reading was simply phonics. A little drill and he was on his way. I think they felt their classes were tribes rather than assembly lines. They valued community more than manufacturing.