Thursday, September 29, 2016


Mary Strachan's 2nd grade assignment

If the idea was to throw out stuff, I had started with the wrong box.  I didn’t check the label, but just picked up the closest one.  It was folders of old family and school letters.  I ended up reading everything and keeping too much of it.  I didn’t remember most of it.

Here’s an example of a budding author aged 6, about to turn 7.  No left margin.  I don’t know whether these sentences were dictated or invented, but the printing looks good.  The cat not so much and the self-portrait is deformed and heavily influenced by Raggedy Ann, the doll with the sweet candy heart.  My mother made me one but it was not so fat, floppy or soft as the original.  We didn’t know that at the time since we’d never seen a commercial Raggedy Ann.  It’s hard to make a stuffed figure fat enough because, before the stuffing is in, the “skin” seems too wide.  

Back to the drawing.  I have no idea why one leg is twice the size of the other, but I note that there are the right number of fingers on each hand.  No toes.  I’m clearly happy, if a little googly-eyed.  This before it was discovered how near-sighted I was and also before the 1948 car-crash that gave my father a concussion and changed his personality. Those two markers shaped my development.

My mother originally saved this and then I took it from her dispersal.  I have no memory of this school work and no clue about how or why I drew on a “reading” assignment which is clearly writing.  Through all these early papers (there aren’t a lot — maybe half-a-dozen) the recurring themes are cats, “Indians,” reading, and dancing.  They persist.

Approximately Second Grade

I saved an account a friend wrote about her childhood because it is so acute and relentless.  She is a brilliant person who uses friendship to discover soft spots and drive a stake through them at unexpected and vulnerable times.  I kept trying to figure out why and this document she produced deliberately sketched it out.  Partly it was to prove her existence and power.

I also wanted to know why I attract such people -- or am attracted to them -- and her account explains it.  I’m enough like them that we echo and also I have my mother’s arrogant delusion that I can help people of that sort, esp. if they are the same sex as us.  Or maybe it’s just more socially acceptable to be a soft, accommodating woman with a candy heart who attaches to an intelligent, sharp, punitive man — so long as the man is successful.  If the man is NOT, the sweetest woman can become bitter.

Back to Exhibit A.  I don’t know what “Sec. 5-2” means except that the 2 must indicate Second Grade.  Public school in the United States has always been relentlessly hierarchical.  But did Section 5 mean there were five levels of second grade?  Or was that merely the reading group to which I belonged, since at that stage children are still distributed over their maturation levels?  Is “5” good or bad?  “5” out of 10 or “5” out of 5?  October of 1946 was the first fall after WWII.  Being born in 1939 put me barely ahead of the baby boom and a bit young for my grade, so by 1946 the schools were beginning to bulge with war-triggered fertility.  

Margaret Sanger was campaigning to develop a birth control “pill” and it was a reality by 1951, a compound isolated from yams by a Mexican scientist, but it had yet to be prepared for production, distribution, and acceptance by the greater population.  It was approved and began to be sold in 1960, my junior year in college. 

It might seem accidental that my grade school class has reassembled itself in retirement and meets once a month for lunch, but a demographer might find causes.  I think one of them was this fertility swing from too much to a new control.  By the time I was teaching in Browning, 1961, girls were still getting pregnant without marriage, and it still persists now as an emotional and sociological pattern rather than an accidental or compelled one.

If we look at my worksheet again, we see that the categories are dolls, boys, girls, dolls again, toy dogs, and Puff, that well-known cat from the Dick-and-Jane reader series. The cat specifically speaks words.  Dolls say mama but the first assertion on the list is that dolls do not talk, so I suppose what is meant is that kind of empathic communication which is very common among dolls.  The fact that boys do not talk seems a bit scornful.  Same for dogs.  Already the gender assignments.

I note that Puff goes to past tense.  She is always portrayed in the reader as a kitten rather than a cat, and white rather than black, but this paper was probably embellished near Halloween.  No way to know whether the drawings were done after I brought the paper home or maybe because I finished early (I often did) and drawing was something to do to fill the extra minutes.

We’ve got two modes of writing here, one meant to be ephemeral, a child’s efforts, and one that is blogging, unconstrained by space or editing or anything else except what I write to suit myself, following along chance and intention as they interact.  It’s a lot easier than plotting out an emotion-driven novel which probably would draw on the same shaped and shaping past.  The one or two people in my original grade school cohort who have written books have followed the middle class genres of mystery and romance.  No one became famous.  I don’t know whether any of them have been exposed to this kind of French meta-speculation.  In fact, the males this age have begun to die of old age.

Our teachers were often from the WWI population which left many women without husbands; they stepped over to become teachers instead of mothers.  A tough-minded bunch they focussed on white middle-class vaguely British values.  Sometimes they ended up with combat-burdened husbands without any knowledge of PTSD or much compensation for grievous injuries.  At least in WWI a soldier who was badly wounded was likely to die in the field.  But also the death might likely be from disease and the “Spanish Flu” killed many who were not combatants or even in Europe.  My mother, who was a child, nearly died.  Her doctor did.

But then re-illusionment and the Roaring Twenties.  In that time my mother’s young adulthood was driven along by her father’s desire to be important through his children and to be a woman “as good as any man.”  But then there was the equal drive to marry and have family, which to her was dependent on living in a good house.  My father’s proposal was based on the house he offered her.  It was enough at the time, but she had expected more.

In second grade I had no idea what to expect.  I didn’t have any idea where I was going.  Maybe that’s why the unequal legs.

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