Tuesday, May 26, 2009

1943–1945, not in School

After promising to write literally what I remember, not just facts from history and not remembering how I felt, I owe the blog some actual facts.
Sometimes I wonder about the little girl named Gloria who lived directly across the street from 1342 Grove, whose mother didn't let her play with us, it seemed. I often remember the girl with very smooth, long blond braids names Catherine Schultz who was in the same class as I was and still had braids in Grade 9 when I encountered her again. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the really nice mother-leader of the Girl Scout troop of which I was a member. But I was so embarrassed that, when she was accompanying the troop singing something, my father noticed (did she know that he did?) how 'funny' her fanny bounced on the piano stool. This troop was everything a Girl Scout troop was supposed to be. We learned how to hem and darn properly. We learned how to do satin stitch on linen. We learned how to put on a proper tea for our mothers, and did so, and no end of safety rules. We earned and had checked off every single one of the requirements for each badge. Of course, there was help if needed, so as to do it over properly. And we sold cookies. Did we ever sell cookies! And kept our own accounts (and hoped that our mothers turned the money over to the scout leader). We carried the cookies in shopping bags and sold them directly. And of course we went to day camp—or was that a later troop? We met weekly in the Sunday School rooms of that same little Methodist church just east of Lincoln School.
Just west of the School and only a block and a half from our house was the school store. When I went to Athens in 1959 there was still such a school store serving the Marasleion school.  Pencil sets, color crayons, penny and nickel candy, kites (rolled up, requiring some skill at home) and kite string in season, sno-cones in season. The same family as owned the school store also owned a variety store and a grocery on Encinal Avenue. A good grocery. The supermarket had not been invented, and almost everyone shopped in their neighborhoods, unless (a sign of Class) you had your groceries delivered. I have never been more ashamed than I was when, shortly before we moved away, they came, Mr. and Mrs. B., to our house to complain of the unpaid bills. I had not realized that things like that happened.
I knew about Hiroshima and the dreadful statistics and battle maps in the newspapers, and I knew that the President had died, but I didn't know that people failed to pay their bills—and didn't tell us children about it. It never occurred to me to overspend my 25¢ weekly allowance; I wouldn't have had a clue as to how one might do it.
As for the great events of the time, though I remember going out to run and shout in the street when Victory in Europe was declared and understood that it might, just might, mean a return to life before Pearl Harbor, when there was woven gingham and other imports, and no rattioning, and no more dreadful newsreels and movies about dying in submarines and tanks ("Sahara"), I didn't really see why we all went out in the streets and made noise. After all, one had to wait days before the newsreels showed us New York.
The one thing I remember was the whole section of full-page photos of Hiroshima, from the air, a day or so after the Bomb. I spread out the Oakland Tribune on the living room floor and studied the photos and the captions over and over. Remember, it was only after the war that exhaustive coverage of fire bombing was published. It was a long time before I realized that Hiroshima did not look utterly different from other wholly flattened and burned cities. I thought (it never occurred to me to assume otherwise) that very likely others, too, might have such bombs and we all might be like Hiroshima. I cannot recall thinking that We were evil. It was beyond right and wrong. I knew that kamikaze pilots would be glad to land on us; they did land on ships, after all. After an hour or so the thought framed itself that no one ever would be safe again. It was only several years later that I added, after all, that no one ever had been safe.  By then I'd read a lot of novels.
Curling up under one's desk and wrapping one's arms around one's head was a good thing to do, on the other hand, in a normal earthquake.
To be continued, the unstructured part of childhood.

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.

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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Grade Four: 1943, Mrs. Lyman

Grade Four must have been serene and happy.  Age 9, in any case, is for many children the maturity of pure childhood.  Many of my classmates of this year continued to be classmates for the next two years.  If Charles Quesnoy is first in my thoughts just now, it is because he died last year; he and one of my best friends from high school met and were married in her post-graduate years from Stanford, a wonderful marriage.
I was not the only pupil who was 'skipped' at this time.  The occasion was taken to separate a pair of fraternal twins, one of whom was far ahead of the other, and the girl was placed in 4th grade just as I was.  I don't think that her brother was 'slow', but at that age girls' verbal skills may be more mature, and both twins may worry too much about it.  But we had two pairs of identical twins, too, girls in both cases, whom at first I couldn't tell apart.  I never later ran across the McC. twins, who had very blond braids, but when I did casually meet the R. twins, when one of them was in Library School at Berkeley and my own department's Seminar room was in the same part of the building, they were differentiated by the quieter one having become also smaller than her sister: just a little smaller.  This was my major experience of twins.  A few of the Lincoln School classmates were still together when, for a few weeks only, I as back in Alameda High School in Grade 9.  It was at Alameda HS that I was able to start taking Latin, but it was a long time indeed before I could take it again.  One of the most determinant events of my childhood occurred during, I think, this year.  During Physical Education, when we were doing drills rather than games and were trotting in line, the girl behind me pushed me, to go faster.  We did not dislike each other, and I don't think she meant anything by it.  Be that as it may, I lost my balance, because the shove was unanticipated, and fell forward on my face and broke in half my left front incisor.  Because the tooth was still growing, the orthodontist put a gold crown on the stump.  Ordinarily, this would have been replaced by a white cap in a couple or three years, but circumstances put off its replacement.  To begin with, I am sure that the orthodontist did not get paid.  Between then and age 18 I have only one photograph taken with my mouth open.  A gold tooth is not in our society an ornament to a growing girl, and it wasn't then, either.  Since I did not yet grasp its importance, my mother grieved and raged more than I did.  I had the sense not to tell her exactly how it had happened.
Mrs. Lyman ran an orderly and regular classroom.  One great event in Grade Four, though, was the introduction of pen and ink.  Each of us had to make a pen-wiper at home from scraps of yardage.  Each of us was issued a pen holder and steel nib.  All of us, unison, were taught how to hold the pen, how NOT to hold it, how to place the paper at the proper angle (the truly left handed having been identified in advance by observation of their writing and drawing with pencils), how to make a series of uniform down strokes, parallel, about 60° from horizontal, without splaying the nib, without snagging the paper (wartime foolscap, not the kind my grandfather had kept from his own school days), without spattering, using arm movement rather than cramping finger movement.  That was enough for the first session.  Thanks again (as so often) to my grandfather and in penmanship to my father, too, I loved it.  I did penmanship, one may say, religiously.  I looked forward eagerly to the difficult letters, but first we had pages of l's and m's & n's to produce.  With that semester's report card each of us that had mastered the elements of writing with a steel pen and real ink also took home a Certificate of Excellence in Penmanship.  Most of us, of course.  As for that ink: our little ink wells were topped up when necessary from a big bottle of ink.  It was purple rather than blue or black, and it had an iridescence on its surface.  You never could have used it in a rubber-sac fountain pen!  I daresay it would have worked with a quill, though.  It did not resemble what Schaefer or Parker sold at the stationer's or dime store.
I think that it is from Grade Four that I remember a lot of Human Geography; I think that, besides My Weekly Reader, we had a Geography textbook for the first time, the one with photos of tapping rubber trees and ginning cotton and so on.  The big dams, too, and the new telescopes.  In arithmetic we did long division and fractions / percents, mostly, and lots of word problems, the kind that begin, If John has...  After all, we were expected, I now realize, to pass the California State Achievement Tests.  These were never mentioned, but just happened one day unannounced.  Mrs. Lyman made sure that we could avail ourselves at least of all the resources of the Thorndyke Junior Dictionary; we did drills all together.  I could go on and on.  But as I do so, I see how important a bridge Grade Four was.  I think that we, almost all of us, routinely scored well above grade level on the State tests: yes, it was very much like "and all the children are above average."  In Alameda, San Francisco's bedroom, we were very lucky.  We didn't have double sessions, and the dust-bowl children that we got seemed to catch up perfectly easily.  Of course, most of them lived on the other end of the island.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Grade Three

Lincoln School no longer stands; those who want to see it can look on line at the large collections of photographic postcards of Alameda, CA.  In front of steps to the entrance was a good-sized sidewalk paved area on a slight slope, which was wonderful for roller skates.  Inside, it was one of those with very high-ceilinged, tall-windowed classrooms; you used a pole with a hook to open and close the high windows.  When needed, there was steam heat with radiators.  In California, the high ceilings really did suffice to keep the rooms cool enough; I don't remember ever sweating indoors (or for that matter, with the "fog in the morning, clearing after noon", very often outdoors).  The rows of desks were bolted down.  Gilbert Stuart's George Washington was, perhaps, in every room (surprisingly, Lincoln wasn't), but I also remember a 19th c. Joan of Arc or a Knight standing by a horse and several of Douglas MacArthur with a pipe; these all were framed and hung above the blackboards, which were real slate, I'm almost sure.  The halls' floors were covered with a tough brown sort of linoleum, and the broad mops that went around daily pushed resin, or resinated sawdust.  The classrooms had good hardwood floors.  Textbooks were issued to us, the California State Series ones; normally these stoutly bound books showed the names of up to a dozen pupils listed in the back.  In general, in these years when paper was respected marking of books was quite limited, though, of course, they all smelled of childhood—I don't know how else to say it.  The desks, made of ash, I think, were supported on cast iron; their writing surfaces were hinged, and we kept our books and supplies in them.  Above the hinges were the grooves to keep pencils from rolling (there was also a cut-out for an inkwell, not used yet in Grade Three); fountain pens were not allowed, and of course ball-point pens had not been invented.  The seats, with a slight S curve to their profile, were flipped up when we left, to facilitate the janitors' work.  We did not stick chewing gum to their undersides, therefore, but also because wartime gum was not real chicle and likelier to stick to one's teeth than to anything else.  The height of the desks was adjustable, but I suppose that for ages 6 through 13 (Grade Eight), there was more than one size.  Each classroom had a cloakroom, with open shelving above the hooks for our lunchboxes; this was behind the wall behind the teacher's desk and entered by doors at both the hallway end and the window end.
These were spacious, generous rooms, and the desk surfaces were generous, too: we had ample room to hold our arms and our paper at the right angles for penmanship.  The Smithsonian has an old-time classroom, but it must have come from a small school, and it is exhibited without the high ceilings and the tall windows which were the hallmark of well lit, well ventilated schools of the pre-Depression decades.  I loved Lincoln School.  It was solid, it was well made, it was uniform; you could count on it, in the same way as you could count on the design of banks of the same period.  It seemed normal that there were places where standing in line was natural and others, such as one's own back yard, where one did just as one pleased.
Lincoln School had the plan of an H.  In back, where we lined up to file into our classes, where we lined up to buy Savings Stamps to paste into a booklet to accumulate for a Savings Bond, we were within the 'legs' of the H.  I think that it was arranged so that K to 2, then 3 to 6, then 6 to 8 were lined up separately—certainly had Recess separately.
Then there was a street, closed to traffic, so that the playing grounds (for kick ball, baseball, softball, basketball during Physical Education period, for free play during Recess), a city block paved in tarmac and enclosed by chain-link fencing, to keep baseballs from getting out, were safely accessible from the block containing the school building.  That one block of a street belonged mostly to girls, or in marbles season to boys as well, devoted to chalked hopscotch and to jumping rope.  Cap guns were warily tolerated, but the boys were not permitted, if caught, to wrap the glass marbles in caps, wrap that in tinfoil or twisted tissue paper, and throw them hard enough to the tarmac to detonate them.  The playground, free of telephone lines and trees, too, was a fine place to fly kites after school or on weekends.
I had only a truncated semester in Grade Three by the time we got into our house.  Ms. Cheda had done her work so well, and I had had to wait for the September after my birthday to start school, besides, that I skipped the 'high third' and after Christmas was placed in 'low fourth', since the Alameda schools started each grade (having a far larger population, especially with everyone who had come for war work) twice a year.