In these distressing times, of bizarre and unsettling National governance by a veritable, Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter, we have been, occasionally, inclined, as temporary relief, to turn off the sputtering, loud faucet of the present surge of events, and engage the less kinetic spigot of the remembered past.
Readers old enough to remember the universally sung, “School days, school days, dear old golden rule days, reading and writing and ‘rithmatic,’taught to the tune of the hickory stick….”, may, with especial nostalgia, share in the foregoing recollection. Regarding the ditty, we would observe, at this point, that that the principle of the “Golden Rule,” at present, sadly, appears to be obsolete; the Hickory stick, was always an abomination, whose obsolescence we celebrate. In any event, if there were “charts,” in the past purview of schoolboy music, this song would top the list.
While, our present recollection is focused on the stereotypic, New York City classroom, of the forties and fifties, much of its traditional, antique, phenomena and nuanced, folkways were, empirically, universal.
To set the nostalgic, classroom scene, we would arrange, several rows of wooden, forward- facing wooden desks, to which seats attached, by iron bars, or similar material. The desktops could be lifted to access books, school supplies, lunch and “contraband,” in the box-like space, below. A cursory glance would reveal, at each top right corner, of the desktop, a small circular, opening, an “inkwell,” in which a small, inserted glass vessel, did service, as a container for the liquid ink (usually, blue-black). After raising the small, circular metal lid, covering the wooden inkwell, the student would, as often as his writing required, dip therein, his (wooden pen’s temporarily affixed) metal point, for ink.
Writing with such a pen tip, would necessarily, be scratchy; excessive droplets of ink had to be absorbed, using an ink blotter (a small, thick, usually colored, piece of soft-absorbent cardboard). The blots from the excessive ink, were, practically speaking, unavoidable (with the uncontrolled, non-uniform, quantity of ink, regularly transported by the dipped, pen point), remained, as enduring blemishes on the written paper, and, the young student would invariably acquire articulate blue-black, visible, evidence of his, achieved literacy, on his fingers, and shirt.
Affixed to the front wall of the classroom, at convenient location, behind the teacher’s desk, was a black slate writing surface, known as a “blackboard,” or “chalkboard,” a dark, easily erasable, writing surface, on which, text or diagrams may be written and drawn with “chalk,” (calcium sulfate or calcium carbonate). Each afternoon, a lucky student would be, selectively chosen, by the teacher, for the bestowed office, of “blackboard monitor,” to clean the blackboard, concomitantly, acquiring honor and esteem, higher than the window monitor, and even the “door monitor”, but of course, below the august grandeur of the “lunch monitor.” These sinecures were awarded to those saintly students, who didn’t chew gum, or perform “hijinks,” in class, or on recess, paid attention, did not talk in class, were responsive to teacher’s questions, and, importantly, manifested the epitome of demonstrated and unassailable virtue, by sitting, upright and keeping his arms on the desktop, with tightly entwined fingers, thereby, tacitly symbolizing flawless behavior, and complete, canine-like submission.
Each class, recognizably, had a class clown, a class bully, “a “teacher’s Pet” and a “dunce”. The class clown, owned the hearts of his fellow students, but not that of his punitive teacher. The teacher’s pet, often a girl, would flatter the teacher, water her classroom plants, and, bravely, accept the hatred of her classmates. The class bully would, in time, learn that acceptance is not as difficult as previously feared, and that companionship, far outweighs physical prowess.
The dunce, often was assigned, the ignominious, task of sitting, in an upfront corner of the classroom, on a “dunce stool,” and, mandatorily, wearing, for the hour or two of his internment, a pointy, “dunce cap.” The intrinsic value of this arcane pedagogic process, to this day, still boggles the mind; it does however, underline the existence of variant personalities of some, of the so-called, pedagogues. Clearly, shaming a young student, before his contemporaries, is a bizarre and cruel way, to improve scholarship.
On a designated, day of the week, often a Wednesday or a Thursday, the entire school, teachers and students would assemble, en masse, in the school auditorium, for a school program, which invariably, started out with a salute to the flag. The flag monitor, inarguably, was among the most elite of the entire genus and species, of school monitors, also, usually, the tallest and most corpulent student in the school. After the salute to the flag and the singing of our National Anthem, the Principal would deliver speeches and make announcements, generally ignored by the students, and, no doubt, politically analyzed by the attentive teachers. Often, after teacher announcements, there was a song, reluctantly sung by an assigned class, final homiletic remarks from the principal, and, at last, dismissal.
In those days, at such an “assembly day”, boys were required to wear white shirts, red ties and, if owned, blue slacks; for girls, white blouses, red kerchiefs or scarves and blue skirts. In hindsight, it seems to have been a foolish and atavistic exercise in Nationalism, requiring all the students wear the colors of the flag. We now can perceive, a bone-chilling, analogy, with the brown shirts, worn by Hitler Youth. Pride in America, is the resultant of the teaching and the assurance of our liberty and citizen rights, and certainly not, demonstrated by the wearing of mandatory uniforms.
Recess periods, usually scheduled for the middle of the school day, were normally enjoyed out of doors, weather permitting, in the schoolyard. Games for boys, too small to play basketball, were chase games like, ring-a- levio and hide-and-seek; less active games were marbles, yo-yo’s and spinning tops. Girls played jacks, jumped rope, and laughingly discussed the boys; who worked hard, at pretending not to care.
The better part of a Century has elapsed, since, the era of the “schooldays” in which the recited events of this retrospective took place. It would not be possible to categorize the myriad of subjects, let alone the universe of new and consequential changes; not only in pedagogy, the context of this note, but in every conceivable aspect of our society. The age of computers and technology, has evolved exponentially, to the point where, frighteningly, computers can do our thinking for us, as well as dominate our inter-active social lives, (perhaps in greater degree, than they contemporaneously do), global travel and international interface has already become mundane, we are at the very threshold of inter-planetary travel, and perhaps residence, medicine and science have seen enormous development, many diseases have been rendered obsolete, and announced new breakthroughs in all fields and disciplines seem, almost routine, and uneventful. Looking back, may possibly, cause us to smile, sheepishly, in our newly sophisticated fashion, at the contrast, between the former, prevailing rudimentary simplicity and lack of scientific and societal sophistication, as compared with contemporaneous society.
We are, of course, pleased with man’s advanced, vast technological and social progress. What we do, painfully, mourn, is the contemporaneous decline, in respect for the truth, decency and empathy, the prevailing existence of insular tribalism and lack of civic amity, the lack of respect for knowledge and aesthetics. We especially mourn the recent pathology of uneducated and reductive populism, now predominating America, the resultant, wide-spread lack of respect for wisdom and rectitude, and the infestation of our White House with a termite-like rot.
Separate and apart, from our blue-black, ink stained fingers, technological ignorance and naiveté, of past years, we did universally maintain a respect for truth, for knowledge, for rectitude, and an abiding faith in our avowed American values. We, presently will, as long as it is rationally acceptable, persist in looking forward to a return to normalcy, and the continued pursuit of the full realization, of those, American values.