Tuesday, May 19, 2009

1945. Grade Six, still in Alameda

Before I forget: with three years between us, owing to my having been moved ahead by skipping 'high-third', and Lincoln School being somewhat subdivided, so that K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 had their recess periods separately, my sister and I never played together at school; out of school we played both as a family group, often including our brother, and in neighborhood groups.
I think that my Grade Six teacher was called Miss George, and I do remember what she looked like. She was slender and brunette and, I think, wore glasses; since she seemed 'middle aged' to me, I suppose that she was in her thirties, i.e., just noticeably older than my mother, who had turned 30 in December of 1944. At about that time, if not shortly before, my mother had had a hysterectomy; I knew what the word meant, but hardly more.
No one, no matter how self-absorbed and still childish, could forget 1945. The President died. Victory was declared in Europe. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. Victory was declared in the Pacific. Ships full of servicemen sailed into San Franciso Bay. What children like ourselves, however, did not immediately think of was that the shipyards would close. And I was not privy to my parents' plans to cope with the end of wartime.
It was in Grade Six that I got to go to Special Art.  That was reserved for about 15 pupils from the last three grades in our K-8 school, aged about 11 to 13.  We got larger paper with better 'tooth' to hold the Prang pastels.  We worked on seasonal topics, and the successful products were posted in the hallway that led to the principal's and the attendance offices, lit by the windows across the front of the school.  This was, of course, an honor; we had to be counted on to work on the best drawings we could do, and we had to have been noticed as taking real pleasure in picture-making and progress in handling tricky media.  The Prang pastels were not oil pastels, really just well pigmented colored chalk, and we had only, as I recall, 18 colors ready-provided.  We had to learn to blend, not by rubbing but (in our beginners' way) as Degas did.  Fixative was applied by the teacher when we were done.  I can think of few things in school that gave me such pleasure as this Special Art.  It was no different from being released for Band or Orchestra, of course.  I don't recall our school's having competitive sports teams, though Grade Six did give us in Physical Education period volley ball and nine-court (!) girls' basket ball; we had to stay in our squares.  We also got softball, instead of kick-ball.  In all my years, then and later, of compulsory efforts to hit balls with bats, I think that I never hit one.  I'd never have been chosen, even last, for a team if I hadn't been much better at fielding, not to say that I was good at it.
Another release from afternoon classes, just the last period of the day in this case, allowed us to go to catechism if we were Catholic at the Catholic school a couple of blocks away or to the Bible instruction just across the street, on the corner of Mound Street, I think, provided by the Methodists, such as would suit most Protestant denominations perfectly well.  These included storytelling using a flannel board, which took my fancy, as well as children's hymns sung in unison, but the really important thing was the leaflet provided by the Gideon Society with John III. 16, "For God so loved the World,...", printed in at least three dozen languages, including unknown alphabets and scripts, such as Chinese.  If hotels still have Gideon Bibles in the drawers of bedside tables, this leaflet was the same as what can be found on the front and back flyleaves of Gideon Bibles.  The magic was that one knew that they all said exactly the same thing.  The Gideons gave me a Rosetta stone!  I had it for years and years.  I would meditate on which word or phrase was which and discover just how, for example, Swedish and German put words in a different order, quite systematically.  With the help of the chart in the dictionary, I worked out the basic equivalents among the alphabets derived from that of the Aramaeans, through the Greeks, and disseminated by the spread of Law and Religion (as the encyclopedia explained).  At the public library, which now allowed me the use of the big library besides the children's, I even found some bilingual texts to wonder at, realizing that it was possible to learn actually to read them.  And it was in 1945, too, that Shell Oil broadcast the San Francisco Opera and offered free program booklets.  That led to librettos.  That led to getting to monopolize the big family radio, the 1929 Electrola, every Saturday afternoon and on phonograph records listening over and over to memorize them the words of many songs and arias—well, at least, some of the words, and some of the languages.  Thus realizing that the words and music were integral: Si mes vers avaient des ailes was not a bit like a foursquare hymn for which a simple tune served any lines with the right number of syllables.  Thus getting an inkling of the nature of poetry: not its feelings, not its rhymes, necessarily, but the way that the words worked differently from words in most textbooks, or the obvious device of going up the scale for "We are climbing Jacob's ladder", with the ascent retained implausibly for "Sinners, do you love your Savior?".   I hope that the Gideons knew what they were doing.
Before I forget: I think it was in 1945 that Lauritz Melchior gave a concert in the auditorium of Alameda High School, and there were some tickets for schoolchildren, myself included.  Besides, the Standard Hour, hour-long broadcasts by west-coast symphony orchestras, sponsored by Standard Oil, provided free tickets for school children in each of those cities when its orchestra had the broadcasts, and San Francisco had its share, and, what is more, a transcription of that broadcast came to our classrooms.  These were not kiddy programs as such but for the general public, made available to us.  Milton Cross, Texaco, the Metropolitan Opera, I admit, became the center of my life, or at least the core of its center.