Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Miss Alice Hamilton's Grade Five, 1944

In my later experience of K-12 children at St. Hilda's, I observed repeatedly the remarkable capability and responsibility of Fifth Graders, especially girls.  I think, however, that like Miss Cheda's Grade Two Miss Hamilton's Grade Five owed almost everything to the teacher.  She was the most elderly (or seemed so to me) of all the teachers I had, in fact at least sixty, I think, which in wartime was not so uncommon.  Now, Mrs. Lyman also had read to us; I think it was she that read us Dr. Doolittle stories.  But Miss Hamilton also told us stories from her own childhood and stories of her adoptive daughter in China and shared with us the letters, in Chinese, and the paper cut work that her Chinese daughter had sent her.  Since the latter included a Chinese Mary and Child for Christmas, I guess that she sponsored a little girl in a Christian orphanage.  In  any case,  Miss Hamilton brought the past into our classroom and the other side of the world as well.  China became real to me.  I understood that Mary and Jesus could just as well be Asian as Anglo-Saxon in appearance and pondered what that meant.  By now I could read about the ongoing war in the newspapers, but Miss Hamilton (without driving home the point) brought us a normal, real rest of the world, not from the past (when textbooks, to judge from their Bettman Archive photos, were written) but as fresh as their postage stamps.  And she read us, chapter by chapter, the story of a displaced child, which I think ended up in Denmark (though I find that parts are confused with another book called "Just David", by the same author as "Pollyanna"), from which I realized that wartime was not just a matter of saving fat and flattening tin cans and tying up newspapers and buying Savings Stamps for the war effort, and growing vegetables (but it was the radishes that did best) for the Duration.  "Duration" seemed to mean something more than and other than an extent of time.  What she related to us, and what she read to us, certainly carried strong morals and were exemplary.  I realize that the serious idealism was fulfilling a need, and that this was the same time as I was reading "Heidi" and Louisa May Alcott.  For that matter, on my own I read the Pollyanna series, not even associating them with "Just David", and Albert Payson Terhune's "Lad" and also "Black Beauty"and "My Friend Flicka".  The preference for seriousness and for the old-fashioned (which extended to reading up on vaudeville—but that, surely, was due to a string of movies about late 19th century entertainers) seems remarkable, significant, but was it me or the mood of the time?  The Girl Scout magazine as well was full of the exemplary, the Oil for the Lamps of China kind of subject matter.  The movies, when they weren't about he likes of Lillian Russell, were full of Bing Crosby as a priest and The Five Sullivans.  That war was serious was plain from the newspaper and, in another way, from the Movietone News and March of Time, but the war of Hollywood didn't match imaginatively or emotionally.  Owing to my in-between generation, I had no close relatives overseas, no star in our front window.
But I adored Miss Hamilton, who seemed to know all about what I didn't know for myself, who seemed to share my grandparents' point of view, who was willing to share with a room full of ten-year-olds.  And, so far as curriculum was concerned, I recall learning lots more arithmetic and the beginnings of formal grammar.  Looking back, I must think that taste in either prose or poetry was not much improved, yet the sheer quantity of reading and writing and pleasure in it all probably more than compensated.  I think that our vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds, without our even knowing that it did.  After all, the Junior Dictionary did not explain what gelding was, since 'emasculate' just led one in a circle.  The instructional books recommended by Parents Magazine, I think, that were provided at home, called "Growing Up" and "Being Born", did provide an inkling of what happened to the horse.  What I realize on writing is that for Grade Five I remember more that is subjective and egoistic and sentimental than I had before.  I remember marching around during recess, locking arms with my friends of the moment, chanting "Gristly meats and Dirty fats are good enough for Democrats", when I didn't even know which Party was which or who was running against whom, and its dawning on me a few weeks later, from the newspapers, that it had to do with who might be president, realizing for the first time that President Roosevelt wasn't the only one who might be and yet not taking it seriously.  Certainly, in school all those who were our leaders were regarded with respect, at least.  It was only beginning to be puzzling why • • •— was on the front of the album of Beethoven's Symphony V or why we oughtn't to sing an Italian folk song that was in our Music book.  We were carefully shielded, though, from identifying The Enemy with The Masterpieces.  Several years later Life magazine showed us the beauty of Bavaria along with the destruction of Coventry and we started putting everything back together, but even during the war we did realize that "Baby Ruth has gone to war" with a picture of a soldier eating a candy bar was really about keeping brand recognition alive—which was puzzling, because our concern for soldiers was perfectly real.  For that matter, every Saturday's newsreel showed more ships being sunk by torpedoes or by planes, more cities destroyed, more places known from grandparents' stereoscope viewers reduced to nothing.  The realization, eventually, that there was only one kind of dead body, a body just like our own, that none of the News made any sense and nothing was safe, hit home, and nothing at all seemed credible except for the dreadful photographs.  Yet our own lives were limited only by rationing (shoes with cardboard innersoles, but then, also, Neolite appeared), by air raid drills, and the like.  I see that, with fewer parents at home, with the realities of the News, and all, the schools did everything they could (in spite of those alarming steel pennies!) to shield children.  No one told us, but we knew, not to ask about the stars in other people's windows or why it was bad to have a German surname, as our next-door neighbors had, or whether the Lord would approve of Passing the Ammunition.  It is difficult to sum up our experience, but somehow we became war weary without ever suffering.