Don’t become nostalgic about the great old days of American public education. During World War II schools struggled to curb our naturally wild, individualistic tendencies and mold us to conform as obedient, unquestioning, fungible ideals of good worker and citizen. Just like today.
My older siblings thrived in school. I failed. They had as little to do with me as possible. My older brother was out of the house before I made it down to breakfast. He rode his bike three and half miles to high school, a hazardous trip in winter when the roads were icy. My sister, Mimi, was out the door by the road before the bus arrived at 7:30. I frequently ran to the driver’s angry horn. My sister ignored me as I headed toward the back of the bus where the trouble was.
School was a burden. I can see the hallways and smell the gymnasium, feel the carvings in the wooden desks, the dried wads of gum stuck to the bottom, the endless boredom as I stared out the windows at trees swaying in the wind.
The motor skills that served me well in the woods didn’t work for penmanship. In those days, they taught a completely counter-intuitive way of writing called the Palmer Method. You moved your lower arm at the elbow, keeping the wrist rigid, in order the write letters. It seemed to me, like much of school, absurd.
Today, I’m sure I would have been heavily medicated. I was a ruthless marble payer winning pennies and candy from classmates. This put me constantly in trouble with the authorities. Why couldn’t I be like my older brother and sister? I could identify teachers on the street outside of school because they had that “children hating look.”
Problems with authorities served me well as a journalist. I’ve never trusted people in power. They usually want to control and rarely do they serve you. In the third grade, teachers advised my parents to abandon any hope of a college education and put me into a decent trade. Journalism was a trade for much of its history, a working man’s job for both scribbler and type setters, until elite journalism schools turned it into a profession and gentrified the newsroom.