Sunday, July 25, 2010

School Days

My how Grammar School has changed. They don't even call it Grammar School anymore because they stopped teaching grammar years ago, but you already know that if you've spoken to a teenager lately. Today's "Elementary" Schools are places where beleaguered teachers try to get through the day without being sued for raising their voices to little Jeremy or Madison. (I hate the fakey names they give kids today. On a recent trip to Maine, the hotel's teen bellhop was named Schuyler. That would have guaranteed him a daily beating in my old schoolyard.) But I digress. The classroom in the 1950s, not just in Parochial schools but public schools as well, was a place of serious learning. The teacher ruled, kids toed the line, and parents knew their place.

Our day began by walking to school, yes walking. There were no school buses, no SUVs or vans double parked at the school entrance so that Precious wouldn't get exerted...we walked. The streets were safer then and young children routinely walked them alone. Every school kid knew the cop on the corner. Now they ride around in patrol cars and have little contact with people in the neighborhood. When we got to school we lined up in size order and marched into class. We were dressed neatly in Catholic school uniforms or the civilian equivalent. You couldn't see our underwear hanging out of our pants, girls wore modest clothes and no makeup, and nobody carried Ipods or Game Boys to school...just your books, pencil case and lunch bag.

First thing each day we recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, a practice sadly discontinued today in many schools. Every child had an assigned seat that never changed. The curriculum was pretty basic (English, math, history, geography, religion) but the material was challenging. On special days of the week we had art and music. We also learned in civics how government worked and we had classes in deportment where we were taught common courtesy...things like how to address adults, saying please and thank you, holding doors open for girls, and giving seats to the elderly on buses or trains. It sounds so corny and un-hip, but again, if you've observed the decline in manners in our society, maybe a few classes in deportment would be a good idea.

We got homework assignments that we copied into composition notebooks that never changed. They were black and businesslike, no fancy spiral binding, no colored subject separators and no cartoon characters on the cover. These were notebooks meant for serious work; ruled lines on the pages were the only concession to luxury. In Our Lady of Lourdes the Franciscan Brothers and Sisters of Saint Joseph made us write "JMJ" at the top of every page to remind us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were our role models in life. We used the Palmer Method of handwriting where the script slanted from lower left to upper right. This was a natural way to write if you were right-handed; for lefties it was torture. Those poor souls had to contort their writing hand into a claw to approximate the approved slant. There was no acceptable alternative way to write, and until they learned it, kids paid the price...usually a knuckle rap on the noggin.

We were called on to read passages aloud or work out math problems on the blackboard. Sometimes as an aid in learning grammar, we diagrammed sentences into their component parts of speech. We memorized vocabulary words and were tested on them. In the lower grades we chanted the "times tables" as a way of learning multiplication, and damned if it didn't work. We wrote book reports regularly and could locate the major countries of the world on a map before they started renaming them every six months. Discipline was never a problem. Teachers in public and private schools were empowered to administer small attitude adjustments when called for, and to no one's surprise, classroom behavior was rarely a problem. Tough State Regents exams were administered periodically using special test booklets. At the end of each test there was a pre-printed declaration that the test taker had not cheated. Underneath it, we were required to write: "I do so declare" and then sign our names in blood.

School wasn't all business. Every Monday afternoon in the church auditorium we saw B movies like Frances the Talking Mule, and episodes of adventure serials like Gene Autry and the Thunder Riders. Students paid 21 cents a week which covered the cost of these movies and amazingly the salaries of our music and art teachers. One can only imagine how little these women were paid. At lunch recess boys played Spaldeen-based ball games like Triangle, a slap-ball variation of baseball. The Franciscan Brothers who taught us hitched up their long black robes and joined in. Later in the classroom they might be whacking the palm of your hand with a wooden ruler, but at recess they were your teammates. Girls jumped rope (yes the nuns played too) or their own ladylike ball games.

Modern educators scoff at the teaching methods used in the 1950s, but I challenge them to compare the caliber of Elementary School student being turned out today with the Grammar School product of the 1950s. I'm not just talking about academic subjects mastered, but other measures of development as well such as character, respect for authority, and plain old courtesy. My money's on the Fifties kids.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Apples and Oranges

In Spaldeen Dreams I've tried to capture the flavor of growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s. I can easily recall my life on Somers Street, the things we did, the people we knew, and the dreams we had. What I've found hard though is to put these memories into words that will give the reader a chance to know what that time and place were really like. The difficulty arises because of all that has happened in the world in those intervening years. I can relate things as I remember them, but the context of life then is so vastly changed from life as we know it now that anyone reading these recollections is understandably at a disadvantage. I can go on about how the ballpoint pen revolutionized writing for those who only knew fountain pens, but younger readers might wonder: What's a fountain pen?

Looking at those times from the vantage point of life in 2010 is almost like taking a ride on that great Disney attraction, the "Carousel of Progress". We all smiled at how quaint life in America was at the turn of the 20th Century, but for those in their twenties and thirties now, that's how life in 1950 must look to them. Not only technology has made great leaps forward since the Fifties, but the way people think has changed. Women, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and most other minorities, including first-generation immigrants, were definitely years away from earning the rights that were routinely accorded to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. We were all just struggling to fit in, sacrificing one generation for the benefit of the next. Most of us dreamed surprisingly small.

HBO ran a wonderful biographical piece on the great heavyweight boxer Joe Louis. Joe Louis Barrow was born on May 13, 1914. His father, "Mun Barrow," was a cotton picker from Alabama and his family fought with poverty for most of his childhood. His family moved to Detroit in 1924, at which point Joe first became involved in boxing. Ten years after his arrival in Detroit, Louis won the Golden Gloves as a light heavyweight. Following this win, Louis turned professional and won twelve contests within the first year. Most boxing promoters wanted no part of black boxers after Jack Johnson, a former black champion, angered white fans with his in-your-face lifestyle. I mention Joe Louis because of the jubilant reaction African Americans had to his rise to greatness. Joe gave them a reason to be proud; never in their small dreams could they imagine a black man having such an impact on America.

In Fifties America most of us looked for small victories. A high school diploma was considered worth something, and usually enough to get you a decent job. Very few people bought showroom-new cars; that didn't come until much later in life. People were content with reliable transportation that would make it to Long Island and back on weekend outings. I don't remember going out to dinner in a real restaurant until my late teens. We would sometimes eat out, but at strictly local places like the Chinese Restaurant on Pitkin Avenue that my Dad sensitively referred to as "The Chinks". We wore our clothes until they didn't fit, and then passed them on to younger cousins. Even the poorest families maintained small savings accounts, usually a "Christmas Club" run by the local banks where you faithfully deposited two dollars a week so you would have money to buy presents when the holidays rolled around.

It's hard to imagine such a lifestyle today. A high school diploma from most public schools is worth squat; everybody goes to college in 2010, whether they have the brains or not. I see people of modest means driving $50,000 cars and living in $500,000 homes. Saving money for a rainy day is a dying habit, especially after the financial meltdown that swallowed billions in investments. Despite the so-called hard economic times we are in now, all the restaurants I go to are pretty full, not just on weekends but during the week as well. I see folks shopping for new clothes, not because they need them, but maybe they're feeling a little low and a new blouse or tie gives them a lift. Buying using credit cards, a practice that was unknown in the Fifties, is commonplace. People live way beyond their means, max out every card anyone will send them, and then just blithely declare bankruptcy.

I'm afraid that unless I can invent a time machine, I'll never be able to adequately convey what life in Brooklyn was like for us sixty years ago. How can I make you understand what the introduction of television meant to us when you can now remotely call your cable box from your cell phone and program it to record a show you want to watch later? Could you ever appreciate the excitement we felt when Jiffy Pop hit the shelves and we would watch mesmerized as that big aluminum ball filled with delicious hot popcorn that you ate right out of the container? And can you, with your laptop computer and I-pod, relate to Fifties boys and girls at home helping cartoon character Winky-Dink out of a jam by drawing whatever Winky needed (rope, ladder, bridge, etc.) on the TV screen? (This was done with the aid of a Winky-Dink Kit which was sold by mail for fifty cents.) Our frames of reference are just so different.

No friends, my childhood was Spaldeens and yours was Sega Genesis. Given the choice, as primitive as it might seem to you, I'll take mine every time.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association