The year 1925, notable otherwise for the entrance of the Babe into the Chicago school system, was marked by strife and turmoil. The preceding autumn had been especially bloody if one were to take the newspaper headlines literally.
The War lasted out the Winter and into the Spring and the 2,700,000 newspapers sold daily in Chicago were still into its slam- bang reportage. I shouldn't exaggerate: actually others wars were going on across the seas and even in Chicago itself: gangland wars, political donnybrooks, labor struggles and sports conflicts. Only about one per cent of the Chicago newspaper columns were about the controversies of the local school system.
The Babe knew this because his scout, Bro Bus, was reporting regularly on the scene at Franklin Fresh Air Elementary School, declaring it to be calm, while his parents were acting as if this brouhaha went on all the time in Chicago, which, as a matter of fact, it did.
So he went ahead with his plans and prepared himself spiritually, mentally, psychically and logistically. He was exultant and excited. He dressed himself in new clothes and armed himself with a new pencil box and a tablet. Cheerfully he walked, hand-in-hand with his Mother, North to Goethe Street and up to the top of five long flights of stairs of a great old red brick building where children who were said to be suffering a minor physical or nervous disability, such as tiring easily when mounting stairs, were welcomed, if they survived the climb, and could breathe the presumably purer air from the tallest place for miles around.
The Mom discovered the proper room and knocked upon the door; one could hear the kindergartners beginning their day inside. The teacher came out -- she was Miss Shea, pretty, lissome and cordial -- and she looked down at him. Come with me inside and meet the Class, she said, School has begun.
But the Babe now decided that School was not for him and began to whimper. He let himself be coaxed, the Mom left the scene, but then, assigned to a small table like all the rest of the children, he began to sob loudly. A little girl spoke consolingly to him. He looked at her briefly, then went on weeping. Miss Shea took him by the hand and led him outside into the hall where she left him alone. She was lucky he didn't start back to Hill Street. But he decided instead to stop his crying and she soon reappeared and he went back into his seat.
He looked at the blackboard, listened to what Miss Shea was saying, heard what the children were saying, and found that he knew what it was all about. He discovered to his satisfaction that he was among illiterates, better, among analphabetes. Now he could answer questions and when Miss Shea asked if anyone could recite the alphabet he did so, and could read it off and what each letter stood for and furthermore could write all over the blackboard such words as "cat" and "dog," and perform such additional intellectual tasks as were asked of him before the day was out, to the edification of Miss Shea and the Class. So when the Mom came to fetch him at 2:30 he regaled her with an enthusiastic account of the day's proceedings and could hardly wait for the next day of school to begin, nor was he ever tardy and rarely absent, year in and year out, from that time onwards to the end of his days.
He had fallen in love with Miss Shea and unquestionably would have climbed all over her and covered her with kisses twice a day if this hadn't been School, where affection was dispensed only from a distance, separated from operations more completely than would be the case in an office full of clerks. Only in kindergarten occurred the chance to hold the hand of the teacher now and then in a rigmarole or in a chain of little hands clutching each other which happened as they moved down the hall.
But pity, too, the teachers, for how often they felt like taking a child into their arms, especially the clean, bright, and pretty ones, yet also the clean, bright and naughty pretty ones who seemed to be going needlessly astray, like Tony Franco, who could have stood as a model for the beautiful, dark-eyed, curly-haired portraiture of the Neapolitan School, delicately featured, who was serious, clever and mean, second among the young fighters of the Class, who stole things from trucks, and was defiant to his teachers, and seemed always to be on the search-and-destroy list of the truant officers.
Tony came with the Sixth Grade, and in the Sixth Grade could be cited the case of Jonas Gillespie, an especial acquaintance of the Babe, who was too old and big to fight in the schoolyard, although the Babe saw in him and his rippling muscles the Champ, behind in school by as many grades as the Babe was ahead, dark brown glossy rubbed mahogany, coming into the eighth grade for a year only to learn what he knew already, that he was not here educable, but had to find this out again by tests on reading Tennyson, by writing a la Longfellow, by figuring according to the needs of the proprietor of a grocery store, politely failing in his school lessons and handed periodically a Report Card, where blatantly he is told so with "F's" for Fair and "D's" for Failures, meanwhile the Babe airily transporting a Card decreeing that he is "S" for Superior in English, Social Studies and Mathematics, Music and Latin, but only "E" for Excellent in Art, Physical Education, and Woodshop... Never was there even a "G" for Good to cement their friendship.
If teachers ever lusted, they should have lusted for Jonas; the small ones were selfish and savage and could never have told patiently in a soft Southern voice of the cotton fields in blossom, the watermelons fresh off the vine, the quiet pockets of rural life unreached yet by the noisy tide of machines. The Babe could by this time play a tune to go with it all, "Lull me to sleep, the Lullaby of the Leaves."
When the Spring afternoon introduced an early Summer heat, Miss Helen Quinn had one of the boys open the large windows. He was glad to pick up the long heavy pole with a nubbin at its end and fit this into the socket at the top of the window and draw it down slowly; if the hook slipped against the glass, a girl would titter. Thus one learned to perform before an audience.
Being called to this task was a small honor. Nearly any boy might qualify for the job, one for being Teacher's Pet, another to keep him out of trouble by honorable mention, yet another as a reward for not having gotten into trouble yet, and further, a new boy to break him in, an old boy because he was sure not to crack the glass, one boy for being bright, another to redeem his stupidity, still another because he was obviously destined for a life of manual labor. The simpler and less consequential a task, the more it can be assigned reasonably to anyone.
A larger honor was to carry the dusty chalk-erasers down to the basement where in a spacious concrete room amidst pipes and tools stood a rickety machine that cleaned erasers. You would turn it on by an electric switch, an endless belt would begin to move, you would place the erasers one after another on the belt, and soon the erasers would begin to emerge from the cleansing tunnel crisp, grey, and neatly shaped. Sometimes two boys were sent on this detail so that more honors might be distributed, or perhaps so that one might watch the other. The erasers could get stuck, but the machine was surprisingly benign and let one put his hand in to release them without getting cut. At such times your hand could feel the suck of the vacuuming going on inside.
To be sent for supplies was also an honor and a pleasure. Chalk, erasers, paper, books, forms -- whatever was forgotten or delayed, and we can see here the origins of a bureaucratic pleasure that stems from diversions, from busily, importantly, going back and forth. The new long chalk felt cool to the hand before little greasy hands rubbed upon them; a new eraser was a neat bit of sculpture.
The tedium could best be relieved, in the half dozen early grades that comprised his stay at the Fresh Air School, by a Fire Drill! The high point of his first year came when a bell rang long and especially since they had been told this was a bell for Fire Drill, so that, forewarned and fore-trained, the kindergartners followed in a hand- clasping chain their shepherd to a yawning iron doorway never before opened, this cut right through the brick wall of the building.
It led into a huge perpendicular iron tunnel tube fastened to the brick wall, and down a chute in the tube there spiralled a glossy metal slide.
From the uppermost floor of the massive building, the Babe and his colleagues were fed into the hole in decent order and then actually encouraged to slide all the way down to the bottom to where a hole opened up into the daylight onto the concrete yard and a teacher stood urging them to remove themselves quickly therefrom.
At each floor other children were fed in and the whole became a kind of can of worms or vegetable blender. Shoes fell off and girls' bloomers blossomed in the darkness.
Supposedly the force of gravity would prevent knots of squeezed children from blocking the gullet of the tube and supposedly, if the heat from the burning building were conveyed to the metal structure, the firemen could play their hoses upon it to cool it off, and supposedly smoke would not enter from anywhere below and rise to asphyxiate them.
Such theoretical considerations notwithstanding, the concept of this fire escape had enormous appeal and was accepted uncritically by such as the Babe. As they slid down, they would stop themselves, turn, and crawl up a ways in order to prolong the joy, giggling at the congestion that they caused.
Despite fire drills, and a new child coming in, and someone taking ill or wetting her pants, or a boy sassing his teacher, or whispering, note-taking, gum-wad rubber-shooting, and other incidents and devices, boredom was the rule of the classroom. It was not the boredom of learning, but of all the side-stepping, interruptions, irrevelancies, poor explanations, trivial moral scolding, dull reading, reviews and repetitions.
Even when Junior High School introduced the large reform of changing classrooms on the hour, the lessons went slowly partly because they could hardly begin. A question would be repeated several times before in despair a teacher could call upon one of the bright crew to answer: Aaron Zolot, Clara Zeutschel, Derwin Elliott, Ella Farina, or their hands were up waving unabashedly anyway.
In the library books where he read of life at English and American boarding schools, the scholarly boys were usually victimized by the others, unless and until they proved themselves by physical prowess or heroic feats. In fact it was this sort of book that drove him to emulating from time to time the tough boys around him who spoke insolently to the teachers and would go so far as to enter and leave the classroom in the style of a true progressive school except that the teacher here was shouting, "Go back to your seat!" to no avail.
It could be surmised, regarding this generally unperceived yet important fact about the school, that the teachers were purely secular and Jeffersonian, hence were not putting up a religious ideology that in a religious school mocks the rationalism of modern education in such a way that aggressive children pick it up, whether it is underlying or outspoken, as a weapon against inquisitive and studious children; nor was there displayed the snobbish effrontery of the stupid rich.
The rough and ignorant boys at Franklin School did not noticeably discourage or even object to the exhibition of scholarship in the classroom. They might have done so; they teased and ragged and pushed around children, now one, now another, of lesser distinction, and with less provocation.
They called one girl "Olive Oyl" because she bore more than a passing resemblance to the comic strip girl-friend of Popeye the Sailor Man. She was skinny, with a long neck, tight hair, bulbous nose, a sallow complexion, and a resigned passive face. She told them to stop, but they would still call her names, and even the Babe once cheerfully addressed her as Olive Oyl.
As I was saying, on one warm Spring afternoon in the lulled second floor classroom of Miss Quinn's tenth grade in Social Studies, he had drawn down the windows. All was quiet. Then the door was flung open and three tall, wiry, piratical-looking men entered without ceremony. The avenging dream of any abased little girl was about to come true. "Alright, Sis, tell us who's been calling you names." Elena, "Olive Oyl," stood up. "Him!" She pointed at Tony Nuccio. Two of the men walked up to Tony. The one slapped him hard. The other one also slapped him. He staggered, but did not cry out. The teacher, the class, were frozen silent.
"Him!" She pointed at another boy. Again the resounding painful smacks. "Him!" The same. "Who else? Anybody else?" The Babe thought, this is lawless, but here comes my turn. Elena looked around... "Nobody else," she said. The men stomped out, closing the door politely.
The class sat still amazed. Miss Quinn said coldly, "It serves you right." And the class resumed. Nor did the epithet ever again cross anyone's lips. Everybody looked upon Elena with awe; she could have been elected Class President, but she was a simple and quiet girl.
Tony Nuccio was the toughest boy in School; there must certainly have been worse scoundrels, for meanness does not ripple along the skins of children or adults. He was not stupid, which was one reason while he was so troublesome. He had obvious qualities of a leader, and was named, in fact, Captain of the Patrol Boys, for his power extended beyond the classroom onto the street-corners. Absences and taking leave from one's post became minimal, and the patrol boy's authority at the crossing corners was backed up forcibly. It was marvelous to see him slapped down. No one expected him to let out a howl, or to resist these outlaws, nor did he.
One day, however, under equally surprising circumstances, he had cause to suffer even more deeply. It was after he had been especially arrogant in the classroom, coming and going, and saying, "Try to stop me," when Miss Mills said "Stop now, you are not going to leave this room." The hour for school assembly arrived, when the whole community gathered. Miss Gee, the little old lady who was Principal and within a year of her retirement and who in her age and authority seemed to come from a sterner bygone world, was presiding.
A song was played and sung. Typical announcements were made. And Miss Gee said, "Anthony Nuccio, come up here." Tony walked up onto the stage. She said, you are going to stop being a ruffian, you are a bad boy, and she slapped him loudly again and again. Tony stood quietly, but large tears ran down his cheeks. They could be seen to fall below his thick forelock, from all the way back in the hall where sat the Babe.
Even though exciting events of this type went unreported, we are lucky to possess in imperishable print much of the spirited course of education at Franklin Junior High. In April 1932 when the Babe was looking forward to graduating, the Franklin Almanac, whose staff of seventeen was led by the Babe's friend, Derwin Elliott, reported the Honor Roll by "Home Rooms," eleven in all. The Babe headed the list for Room 110; Janette Yablong as grave as she was beautiful, headed the list for Room 104, on which Derwin was comfortably ensconced as well.
Derwin was all over the place: he reported the beginnings of an aquarium in the Science classroom; he expressed sorrow for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, writing (with some prescience), that the baby had been abducted by "some man or woman who were (sic) poor citizens in school and then ventured into bad company. When it was time to support themselves, they didn't have the education and so they did the only thing they knew how to do -- bring sadness to the kind of people they failed to be."
He had been Master of Ceremonies in a tuxedo for a pretended night-club program that the Art classes put on, which, again with prescience, Doris Puccinelli, the Reporter, titled "Tuning in on a Television Set." (Though the word was first used in 1909 it was still avant-garde.)
Derwin also allowed himself a column of unjuicy "School Scandal," a typical item of which reads "Cecelia Hesvoy doesn't like talking pictures. It prevents her from `horning in' on them. Talking is a habit with Cecelia. Ask Eloise, she knows." We can consider ourselves informed that sound-movies were now in.
For practice, the Drum and Bugle Corps had paraded around the nearby streets. Everyone had worn a bit of green for St. Patrick's Day, which was purchased from the manufacturers of Room 110, the Babe's Room, and sold "to swell the much depleted School Treasury." The event was said to have kept away thoughts of "Old Man Depression." The Home Economics girls were said to have been selling their home-made fudge and fondant as well, "doing their share to chase away the Depression."
An Assembly before a basketball game had featured an unidentified Mr. Connelly "who reminded that each of us had within ourselves power and ability to become a success in some type of work," provided that we studied and built our character at School. The Parent-Teachers Association was reported to be short of parents. Easter-tide was welcomed as harbinger of Spring, which inspires hope and better schoolwork, secular "resurrection time" (no mention of religion). A visit to the Field Museum of Natural History of a Saturday in March is described. The death of two parents is regretted. Room 108 had formed a Citizenship Club (in which nearly half the room's pupils were officers) and promised penalty tickets to offenders (against citizenship, we must presume).
No less than four plays were presented during the month: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "the hit of the season," in which we discover the Babe again, playing Brutus; "Six Who Pass While the Lentils Boil;" "How to Apply for a Job," (enacted); and "The Six Gun Ranch," a musical, in which the Babe surfaces as leader of a Harmonica Club and "the singing of Sweet Genevieve was particularly well done" in the first act, which was set around a campfire at the Ranch.
No less than four poets, all girls, were published. Nine jokes were recounted; three are relatively harmless ethnic lampoons of stereotyped English, Scotch and Irish characters. (I found all the jokes funny.) Finally, stage settings were built by the 7A Social Studies Class representing mostly critical military phases of the American Revolution.
The Journalism Club also did itself proud in the writing and publication of the Graduation Issue of June. It contains eight wood block illustrations by the students and the photographs of 120 graduates of the June Class. The issue reports activities of Youth Week, of Teacher's Day at Chicago Normal School which teachers had attended, a rudimentary Band Concert (in which the Babe did not play since he was only in his first hours of learning the cornet), a piano musicale, an enactment of the elements of student government by Room 108, and an expression of gratitude to the Patrol Boys and the Hall Marshals (duly noting the Babe again), and encomia for the teachers, the Principal and the graduates who had survived a long grind of kindergarten plus nine years (but the School motto had only promised ad astra per aspera).
Derwin's "Scandal" page had it on the worst authority, probably the Babe himself, that "Alfred de Grazia can play five different musical instruments," and that "Fred Bach's great, great, great grandfather was Johann S. Bach, the German musician." Evidently the Babe holds a judicial post, because it is reported that "James Restis isn't so glad to serve what sentence Judge de Grazia might give him..."
Derwin was in fine fettle. He was reported as having gotten a medal, along with counterparts at other schools, for being Outstanding Student of the 1932 Class; this happened at the Studebaker Theatre downtown. He writes a touching au revoir invoking grossly exaggerated memories of "parties, dances, clubs, assemblies, basket-ball games, and a number of other delightful privileges." I suppose that Derwin had in mind more than these cited matters in which he had a personal interest, that is, he was into Citizenship, the Myth of the Happy School.
The Myth could transform into "delightful privileges" the parties where burnt brownies sold from a stand after school, dances where very few boys danced and the girls stood around waiting, assemblies where the Tablets were handed down to the Unbelievers and which could erase an hour of class only at the price of boredom; Clubs that were classes voting themselves into a Committee of the Whole under the eye of their teacher; basketball games, coached and yet fun, although most boys merely lined up for a rare turn to make an unsuccessful toss at the basket.
There were other sponsored activities that Derwin might have mentioned: the Drum and Bugle Corps, the Orchestra, the Band, about which one could at least say "You have to begin sometime;" the dramatics, which were plentiful. (The Faculty really caught on to something here, letting their students play role after role, dramatizing, no matter how feebly, everything possible.) Further: essay competitions, invariably a challenge to climb the peaks of civic myth on the ropes of banality, using the spikes of cliches, such as allowed elementary school scholars like the Babe Honorable Mention in the City-wide contest for the best essay on "Why we observe Navy Day." And much more.
We can see that Franklin Junior High School was a preview of middle school education in America in its welter of activities that filled time taken from the drills of an earlier age in spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, reading, etc.
But before we denounce the trend that would ultimately produce pupils who couldn't read, write, or figure, we must ask ourselves whether the older system, still strong then at most levels of schooling, was functioning well. In fact, the older system never did work well, not with the highly mobile American population, not when all children were rounded up and held in school until all hope was lost for their advancement. That is, universal compulsory schooling became unsuccessful as soon as it became universal and compulsory for more than the first five grades, after which time most kids could barely tolerate more schooling, and the teachers came to represent successively higher states of moral and psychological exhaustion.
The thirteen teachers, not counting the Principal, of Franklin Junior High were responsible for about 360 pupils. Each administered a "Home Room," and taught in a field such as Social Studies or Mechanical Drawing (Shop). The Babe, so far as I can tell, would have learned more and been a wiser student if the teachers' rooms were advisers' rooms and were conducted as studios to which pupils of any age and degree of competence might wish to relate; there he would have participated in whatever groups the teacher might see fit to assemble for instruction, but where generally the methods of tutoring and coaching would be employed.
Sports and music studios would proceed in the same manner as studios in writing and oral expression or in drawing or computer science or in chemistry or home economics or in social institutions or in history. At whatever level of education, students learn more and faster from other students than from their teachers, if only because there will always be students around who can interpret the teachers informally to them. The age-group cohort, contrary to popular opinion, is as unproductive a structure for `average' students as for the extraordinary ones; it is an impediment to learning, to playing, to living a child's full life.
Unless one wants to write a farce about schools, as Mark Twain has done with Tom Sawyer, the job of describing what schools do for their pupils and what they may do for a named child is apt to produce boring detail and meaningless generality. Still, I must go on, if only because my many friends who teach would find it inexcusable if I did not.
I should say that the schools are supposed to perform four functions: impart knowledge, influence character, teach how to think and create, and respond sympathetically to the problems, aspirations and initiatives of children.
To rate the Babe's five schools all together on these criteria, even if accomplished validly, would lack absolute measure unless at the same time I rated altogether the schools of the world as I have come to know of them. In this latter regard, I regret to have arrived close to the opinion of Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, who said of his childhood school over a century ago. "Two hundred and thirty-four students left the room as ignorant as they entered it... Each of them had lost one more hour of his life and with it a measure of his dignity and self-respect." The full world total of schools, graded on the Franklin system of S, E, G, F (Fair) and D (Fail), would have to be given an average of "D," the lowest possible grade. By contrast the schools of the Babe would be graded as "G" (Good), far above the world's average, but as you see, far below the Excellent and Superior rating where one might hope to discover them.
Practically everything that he learned from whatever source was significantly in error, whether it had to do with the flight of the sparrow or the belt of his trousers, not to mention abstract and historical events. Why was this so? For many reasons. Basically the fault lay in the incompetency of almost everyone who assumed the role of teacher to discuss, point out, describe elaborately, analogically, and analytically any observation or experience.
If only someone had escorted him through the process of sensing and knowing just once, had "shown him the ropes," all of the ropes of the vessel on which they sailed. If only he had been given a single "case study" by the case study method in depth. Never for him and most rarely for anyone ever. And he came to be like everyone else, more or less, in that he saw partially, judged partially, felt partially, knew only partially everything, and thus was partially crippled.
I am inclined to say that no one who has ever lived has ever been taught anything by anyone, if by "taught" is meant to be fully apprised of all of its historical, actual, and potential connections. In the Babe's time, specialization was, even more than now, "to know more and more about less and less." Therefore, education came to him as wild splatters of wind-blown raindrops.
He was lucky in music and in having a public library at hand, though he wasted much time in mediocre literary fantasy and insipid reading. Otherwise this extraordinary specimen of the lust to learn and to do shared the ordinary failures of the education system: he was not taught how machines worked (not even the omnipresent and simple trolley car), or how cloth or paper was made, or sculptures or boats or houses or novels or histories. He was not taught how animals were bred or crops were grown. He was instructed in a few elements of carpentry and an antiquated method of setting type and printing impressions from it.
He was taught a history that was riddled with myths, prejudices and judgments ex post facto; not a single historical event was analyzed in a thoroughgoing way according to objectives and scientific principles; the impression was given (because the teachers themselves knew no better) that history was a copy of what was regularly and automatically inscribed in permanent form through the ages and collected and printed up every now and then. Nor was he given to examine and study problems of relative or absolute morality, but was referred to the confused and contradictory Bible or to how things were done by "nice people."
Thus he became a stellar product of school and society, with only a small understanding of how everything of importance came to be; in environmental, social, industrial technology, as in the social and moral fields, those who taught him were naive, untutored, and non- pragmatic. On the whole, they were decent and well-meaning, with the inevitable cultural narrowness and hang-ups that prod girls to go and teach children. Practically everybody who assumed the role, posture, and pose of a teacher thereupon taught badly, that is, formally, dogmatically, unhistorically, superficially, and nominally rather than organically.
Notwithstanding all this, he continued to try to make something out of some things, mentally and in human and other matters, abetted by a folk pragmatism that was in the air, perhaps as a result of the welter of contradictions that eventuated from the new abundance of media. I would say that no more than 10% of his potential for understanding and working with the world habitat was developed at school and that the same would be true of the ordinary child.
Take up a brief example from the teaching of language. The child's experience was not drawn upon; word play was discouraged. Nothing was imparted as to the nature of symbols and words, the origins and histories of words, the causes of slow and rapid changes of language, the contributions of various parts of society and kinds of people to the growth and usage of a language.
Mysteries of language (Why do people speak differently in America and elsewhere? Why do some words have so many meanings? How are artificial languages created?) went unrecognized. His time at school went into penmanship, spelling, and grammar, which came down mainly to the criticism by teachers of the bad handwriting, bad spelling, and bad grammar of other (ha,ha!) children.
The children could have achieved much more and would have enjoyed themselves in the process of learning. The rudiments of etymology, semantics, onomasiology, semiology, operationism (pragmatics), neology, and comparative languages can be conveyed to six-year olds as easily as to twelve-year olds and as easily as to twenty-year olds, where, if anywhere, they are conveyed to a few "Majors" in English in progressive colleges. Think for a moment what a difference in social perspectives, self-awareness, symbol- comprehension, interest in a living English language, and self- confidence would come about if language teachers began in the earliest grades by having the children cooperate in building little word lists of a half-dozen languages and delivering a sentence in each.
I am speaking of sixty years ago, yet the situation is little improved today. It is bad news for a child of today who may be happening upon these lines. Yes, that is what happened to Grandfather, and that is what is happening to you. But it may lift your spirits to realize the challenge of altering your own mental development and that of your successors.
The Babe succeeded well at school and watched as a few other students did exceptionally well, and arrived at the belief, which was solidly reinforced at school and at home, but more at school than at home, that such success signified that one was speeding above the ordinary crowd and was freer, more imaginative, more creative. Actually, the more successful his schoolwork, the greater was the danger that he would become unimaginative, uncreative, and incapable of contemplating the world and its people with understanding. This was the reason, though he could not know it, why it was best that he never became fully successful, never fully committed to school, never accredited as the top of the school class, just as it was best that he did not become an Eagle Scout although as well adapted to scouting as to schooling. It was fortunate for his mental development and even his character, odd though it may appear, that he became affected from time to time with allegedly unworthy motives, that he kept the "wrong" company, and most of all that he was not afraid of contradicting or at least disagreeing silently with authority.
If we grant that he was a superior learner, should he have been placed in a superior school for superior learners or remained where he was, comfortably ahead of the crowd? Before seizing upon the first alternative, at least three drawbacks need be considered. First, the child would gain greater self-confidence in the poorer setting; leadership, not excepting intellectual achievement, feeds upon self- confidence because it must meet with and overcome numerous obstacles and therefore needs more of it. Second, the superior learner is not kept so busy in the poorer school; his time and energies are not fully allocated and assigned; he is freer to play, to imagine and to risk more; he can afford to "lose" and "dawdle" and "go off the track."
Third, the poorer setting may provide the superior learner with appropriate skills to deal with the common run of humanity, skills which are perhaps not even recognized to exist or are frowned upon in the superior setting. Nor can it be said that these are non- intellectual skills; for they must often be sociological, psychological, philosophical, therapeutic and expository.
Perhaps a fourth reason may be added, although it is shocking and even self-contradictory: the superior system may not be superior in fact. There is no question but that a Chicago Latin School, independent, catering to a wealthy and educated clientele, staffed with well-educated and strongly motivated instructors, can turn out students equipped for the defined tests of a niveau to which they aspire and belong to for the most part already. And such a school will carry along easily a number of scholarship pupils, who, riding on the wave, will deem themselves to have succeeded by merit and will be so considered by their school and society. Insofar as the validation of the quality of such superior schools is a function of the politico- socio-economic establishment in which the school exists, such schools cannot fail to be validated as superior. But the leopard cannot change its spots; nor can the leopard change its habitat, which has produced it and nurtures it, nor would the leopard wish to do so, nor does the leopard react intelligently when giant bulldozers begin to flatten the habitat.
I hasten to absolve the Babe of such ideas. Indeed, he wanted to go on to Lake View from Waller High School because it did have a superior validation, or at least everyone he overheard speak on the subject said so. I myself think that he was lucky to have spent only two years at Lake View High School and in fact lucky to have gone to several schools of uneven composition and quality.
His schools did afford a large part of what the Babe learned; just how large a part is worth looking into. We can distinguish between individuals and institutions and chart the sources of his knowledge in each case. I do so by estimating the percentage of his total knowledge of people, society, animals, plants, and things that came from each source. An institution and habitat is, of course, human; it is people acting in patterned ways, usually within the structure of buildings, a set of streets, or an installation in the country. Hollywood, for instance, consisted of people working in a certain balmy setting and producing films which were then shown by film distributors through movie theatres to children from Hill Street and elsewhere. So Hollywood is an institution to be included with the media, and later on I shall be saying more about it.
I estimate that the named teachers, plus some others, plus the thousands of people who, over history and acting in the present, created the Chicago School System and these particular Schools, managed to account for 22% of what the Babe came to know in some fifteen years of time (see my table here.) To some this may seem little, to others, much. Is it little or is it much? Was the Babe, furthermore, typical or not? How can we know? I'll say this, Dear Reader: If you ever teach a child one per cent of what he or she knows, that's a lot.
In earlier pages I tabulated how the Babe spent his time. We can use those figures again in connection with the new Table here. The two tables were independently derived and therefore their correlation can be more significant.
Second only to the time he spent sleeping was the time that the Babe gave to his schools, 10.7% of it, counting homework. That's more time than he spent on vacation and playing, or on his pre- school life up to five years at various activities, or in eating. He also spent 8.4% of his time with the media of books and the press, plus 1.3% at the movies, and 1.6% listening to the radio and phonograph, all of this being voluntary. His music, half voluntary, occupied 3.4% of his time. Note, however, that these percentages have been calculated counting sleeping time. Take away sleeping time, 35.4%, and you must add roughly another third in "real time" to the percentages. (Please bear in mind, however, the importance of "unreal" dreamtime, which will be dealt with in pages to come.) Thus, his formal schooling took up 16.52% of his waking time.
We have accredited the teachers and schools as institutional environments with having produced 22% of what he learned. Putting aside questions of validity (!) and quality (!) of knowledge, this would indicate a heavy pay-off from schooling, 16.52% of his time for 22% of his knowledge. With the average child the school would be doing much better, no doubt, perhaps as high as 65% of their presumed knowledge for they spent somewhat more time at school and homework, but a great deal less time than the Babe in "knowledge activities" outside of school. But isn't this what we think we know already: the schools help the ordinary child more than the so-called "gifted child?" Yes.
What does it mean? For one thing, it tells us that, in trying to trace the origins of the mind of the "gifted child," we had better look into genetics and freak incidents, clever dinnertable talk, psychic trauma, perverse relationships, health "problems," the happenstance of a good library, and the like. Getting off the ground fast with a heavy over-all cultural exposure results in fast learning thereafter, since part of the learning is already dimly present; this could also help explain the "gifted child."
Early cultural exposure is not independent of discipline. In fact, the capacity for attention, for coming to attention, for giving a disciplined response is a crucial part of acquiring the substance of culture.
In the chart below are listed the Habitats, Institutions, Types of Individuals, and Named Persons that contributed knowledge to the Babe. By "taught" is meant learning about people and things as distinct from "affection," "doing things for him," "pleasing him," "entertaining him," and "feeding him," though learning and these other relations may be intermingled. The knowledge is ordinary knowledge, not nonsense, but not evaluated for truth or quality either. By habitat and institution is meant the physical and human, ordered and un-ordered, surroundings and context in which learning takes place. The two sorts of learning are separately totaled and add together to 100%.
|Habitat and Institutions||Per cent of total knowledge owed|
|His five schools||10%|
|His two neighborhoods||5%|
|Boy Scouts, camp, country||2%|
|Seward Park Library||2%|
|Hollywood, movies, radio||2%|
|Chicago as overall habitat (streets,parks,expositions,circuses,stores,strangers)||7%|
|Individuals Divided by Type|
|Teachers: Shea,Klosterman,Mills,Moore,Schryver,Souther and 18 others.||12%|
|Authors: Grimm,Twain,Dumas,Z.Greyet al.||8%|
|Friends & Relatives: Mrs.Villiers,Mrs Erickson,Clara Z.,Lorraine,D.Sproat,Uncles Charley,Joe & Bill,Cousin Howard,Aunt Lil,W & G.Steinbrecher,E.Dunton,A.Zolot,M.Goldman,D.Elliott||8%|
|Other schoolmates,street friends & enemies,adult acquaintances,younger brothers,among approx. 180 individuals||11%|
|Grand Total .....||100%|
When the Babe arrived in kindergarten, it was helpful that he could come to attention and remain at attention. An untrained child, or a disturbed child is incapable of this. By his seventh year, the Babe's music training had provided a rugged disciplining of attention. But it was not his earliest.
When the Dad whistled the boys dropped whatever they were doing and came to him, wherever he was. He never called them by voice from a distance. The whistle was made by pursing the lips and blowing as of a flute or shepherd's pipe; it was not a piercing whistle, which was more usual in calling. (Because it was mellow, it could even be used to respectfully catch the Mom's attention, as from the street to the third floor window. It was two adagio (1 1/2 seconds) full round notes, middle sol (or G) followed by middle mi (or E) usually with a trailing off of the E to G an octave down and hardly heard, as of a train whistle falling away in the distance.
Just the two notes, and the boys would come directly, without delay or pause. The practice began as soon as the boy might be engaged in an activity as far as thirty yards away, that is, at the age of three. The sound could ultimately carry to them the couple of hundred yards of the length and breadth of Seward Park, a block or so of a city street and from any height of window or roof.
Now again, we often hear men say, "All I am I owe to my Mother," hearing which, some sentimentalists burst into tears. As you may have noticed earlier, I am not slighting the role of the Mom, but still, in order to take account -- only in the sphere of knowledge, mind you, not in the nourishing, loving, care and companionship of the Babe -- or all the other instructive influences upon him, her percentage of the total had to appear less enormous. And so the Dad, and Bro Bus and the small brothers and just about everybody else. It took a lot of people to teach the Babe.
Moreover, how can I tell, how can anyone devise means of telling, what each category, what his book-reading for instance, conveyed to him, so much of it pure entertainment, trite writing-by- formula? The duration of knowledge-industry contact, an influence, may not be a reliable indicator of its effect: it may be a weak influence, or a highly repetitive routine, unimpressive kind of influence; so much of schooling has this character. With a Mother who, after having told him something, says, "I don't chew my cabbage twice," when he wants her to repeat herself, he is trained to pick up a statement the first time around; very much of schooling is scarcely more than that, consisting as it does of repeating the common denominator of comprehension, and becomes therefore useless and turns him off.
By contrast, he will walk along a darkened street and look searchingly into the lit windows and at the shapes of the mufflered passersby and hear keenly a vehicle coming from far off, sensing, perhaps learning, at a moment when one might say there was nothing to be learned. Or he might listen closely to Uncle Joe but not to Lorraine, and Joe's quantity in duration should be correspondingly weighted by the attention given him, and Lorraine's reduced in weight, regardless, I should add, whether she is making more sense than Joe, because it is not up to me here to say that he should have learned more from this one than that one, not for the purposes of this chart.
Howsoever the quantity of influence is eventually judged, it need have little to do with merit or quality. Assuredly, very early in life, he was choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore, but was he choosing rightly and learning correctly or was he being misinformed, misguided and mismanaged? I should have to do the impossible to assign virtues and vices to the details of his education, first of all because I would have to pretend being informed as to the details and, secondly, I would need to expound and then apply to each item a philosophy of education and life. Ars lunga, vita breve: as for this Author, so too for the Reader.
Take just the matter of literary composition. He was never excited by anyone to verbalize his personal feelings or impressions, and his environment at school continually reacted against such. He was ashamed to expose his feelings, and even more ashamed to expose his shame. I claim that he was affected by the crowded passageways of the students between classes, by the hastening of gloomy clouds over grey pavements, by the sultry Chicago summer nights, by the playing of a xylophone of breaking icicles as he plucked them from below a frozen sash, and a great many other events. I claim that he was impressionable, sensitive, proud, and therefore but typically deficient in exhibiting his images by verbalization, in writing more than in speech. He kept no diary for more than several days, he wrote no stories; commercial catalogues excepted, he did no formal research beyond the assigned pages of his schoolbooks. There were serious barriers to expression. If he were asked, as rarely he was, to write his impression of some thing or event, he never wrote the half of it, the third of it, the tenth of it. Yet it was stored up in nodules of observations.
His memory nodule of his roller skate was as thickly detailed as a Grandma Moses village scene, as a Canaletto Canal of Venice: the little bumps in its steel, the exact tenacity of its grippers on his particular leather and rubber soles, the strength needed for every turn of the vise with a key that appeared to be just a trifle stronger than the task assigned to it; where the drop of oil should be injected, if one could find the oil can; the probable remaining life of its frayed strap, together with the fateful decision whether to heighten the skate's efficiency using the fifth hole on the strap or diminish the strain and prolong the life of the strap by buckling it at the fourth hole.
The Babe was "street-wise" but what was the quality of the wisdom? He learned to deal at arms length with strangers when no authoritative figure was hovering about. People speak of the old days when a cop walked the beat; the old days must be very old; he most rarely spotted a policeman in his neighborhoods, and wouldn't have known how to get one except by running home or into a public building and asking how one could find one, or by yelling bloody murder.
What he knew about the police came from the boys on the street, from the parents, and from the news media, films and comic strips. The media persuaded him that they were around and fortunately he never needed one in a hurry. (How easy it would have been to have policemen visit the schools to talk informally of their jobs, except that the most scandalous prejudices and practices might have been displayed, both by the children and the police.) There was also a policeman in evidence at the polls on election days.
The Babe believed as he was told, that a boy who spent all of his time on the streets was going nowhere and was up to no good on the way. "Nowhere" meant ignorance, poverty, and crime. And it was true of acquaintances who spent a lot of time on the streets and at playgrounds that when they had finished talking at length, unless they had games to play, they went off to find money and, later on, sex. The money was almost always to be used for something of little value.
His parents were pleased that he had few friends on the street and hoped that he would not go too far afield to find more of them. They were both right and wrong; street kids help each other observe and frame the world around them in ways that adults cannot and will not do, which may be useful in building the perspectives of a child, all the more so if the child is unusual.
The Babe skipped and jumped through the grades of lower school. He entered the First Grade early and by the time that he left Franklin Junior High he was two years ahead of his age group. Then he stopped hopping and gave over the ordinary full three years to High School. Bro Bus skipped along ahead of him, passing over three classes; he graduated from Waller High School with an award for being the outstanding student, and a dull character was delegated by the City to come give him his plaque in front of an Assembly of the Whole.
What was the value of this, what was the use? People call such children precocious. What is "precocity" but a nonsense word? It has at least five meanings, all having to do with abnormally fast achievement: general intelligence beyond the norm so that the child learns faster than most others; an unusual experience such as being raised among adults alone that puts him ahead; an unusual training as by a father who is a carpenter or musician; a physiological maturity that occurs earlier than the norm; and an unusual family that is interested in his acquiring early facility in reading, writing, and arithmetic; to all of these may be added a social pressure to handle a bright child by pushing him ahead. Of course, none of these may prevail in the face of a school rule that no one is to be advanced beyond his age cohort, a rule more common in recent times. The Babe would have abominated such a rule. And truly it might have depressed his career.
All of these figured more or less in the advancement of the Babe. Whenever a test of intelligence was applied, he did well, not in the genius category, but very well. But then who can put much stock in such tests? I shall not defend them. I shall say merely, and disclose why I do so later on, that he had earmarks of intelligence very early: "He picks up things very fast," they would say.
His "unusual experience" was almost negligible; he was taken around more than the ordinary child, visited the country more, and the parks, too. He was kept in adult company more than he would tolerate, for they were all rather "dumb," so far as he could tell, so he probably learned more at the family dinner table where all matters could be discussed. He learned, too, from being transported hither and yon. He got "unusual training," that had almost nothing to do with the schools; the discipline of solfeggio was the toughest mind- training that he encountered in his fifteen years.
He was not precocious physiologically; he matured sexually at the average age, thirteen; sex in the films was of minor interest until he reached Waller High School; he would say of a film in disgust, "Nah, it was all about love." His appreciation of Miss Klosterman's legs and Miss Mills' breasts was not avid or lustful, but considered. His physique and size were average, though he was sturdy and well- exercised.
However, his parents were interested in his success at school and enjoyed imparting to him whatever came to hand: history, music, fairy tales, sketch books; they applauded all signs of achievement, yet never said a word about occasional marks of less-than-superior work. Their pleasant help in the beginning gave him what he needed to begin his free-wheeling modes of thought.
Then he was placed in the public school system which was conventional but not so dogmatic, say, as the Parochial School System, where he might have been blocked by his antagonism to catechism (but where he might have progressed rapidly in rote and a certain morality). "If... then" wonderment can spin out uselessly; yet I cannot but wonder what his social attitudes might be if he had heard complimentary authoritative opinions about the fascistic and anti-semitic radio priest Father McCoughlin. By Parochial School was understood in those days Irish Catholic, not German, Polish, Italian or truly ecumenical, and it was out of the mainstream of America, yet not off-stream in any appealing progressive direction.
His Father wished him precisely to avoid the failings of a religiously inspired and managed education, such as is described in James Joyce's novels, and Mary McCarthy's autobiography. So the Babe's ritual training came in music, not in catechism and the Mass; and the public schools, unlike the Catholic ones, put little stress upon distinguishing sin from virtue, assuming nevertheless the ordinary virtues of hard work, honesty, politeness, faithful attendance, and, wherever possible, good grades.
He did not encounter at Franklin School a representation of children of the professional classes whose competition would be tough and among whom he would not be so evidently precocious. Still, he did meet up with a small number of bright children, boys as well as girls, so that he was never adrift alone on a sea of retardation. In this setting, the Dad applied suave pressure to advance him rapidly whenever it appeared in order, and, more than that, took occasion at least twice to request a double-promotion of the Principals; the last occasion occurred upon hearing the Babe's exposition of troubles in the classroom, whereupon he spoke up, and the Babe was moved from seventh to eighth grade; the move was intended to prevent idleness from leading to mischief.
The Babe had problems: one was controlling his temper; another was wanting to be too much and too great; yet another came from the aforementioned quick advancements that put him not only ahead of his age but in a classroom alongside practically adult specimens who had been held back. Granted his high general intelligence, it was useless to expect him to "find his level." If the level depended upon remembering information from a skipped class, he would promptly gather in what was "necessary." If it was a matter of problem-solving, he was on a par with any level of class up to Senior High School, for that is what "general intelligence" consists of. A remark made by an older contemporary, Lewis Mumford, may be quoted from his autobiography, dealing with his schooling in New York City:
Between skipping three grades, and being out for half a school year when I was eleven, I had managed to escape almost two years of the allotted boredom. Had I been confined to my own age group for eight full years, I probably would have had an even more unpleasant report to make on the effects of the system.
The inadequacies of the Babe's education would appear to contradict any idea that he was scholastically fulfilled. No one -- librarian, parent, or teacher -- directed his eager reading, or taught him to distinguish a good from a bad book (or, better, tried to help to distinguish them). No one called his attention to the seriousness and system of poetry; no one explained or professed poetry except little girls. Science was never presented in general, as a method of inquiry. Although the City was moving into an age of chemistry and electricity, with hundreds of new chemical compounds emanating annually and penetrating everyday life, these subjects of study were not required of him.
Imagination was in short supply among the teachers. Most had emerged from the Normal School, the Teachers' College of Chicago, a dull and uninspired job-filling center, by all accounts. So the teachers, too, were retarded in their creative development. No one suggested how learning might become part and parcel of one's daily life, how the sober art of inquiry ought to be fixed into one's character.
His first six years of schooling were spent at the Franklin Fresh Air School, along with two hundred other children, who, the official announcement declared, were undernourished and needed special foods and special rest periods. The idea was benign but the only effects were an occasional medical examination, a nap on a cot, a poor cheap meal, and a heaven from ruder scholars, who were only by definition too healthy to be admitted. A poem describing one Irma E. Gays, when she was graduating into Junior High School from the Fresh Air School, goes, "She's quite merry and gay; an acrobat she'll be some day."
Perhaps the Fresh Air School had soon turned into a socially safe enclave. Among the Dad's motives in enrolling his boys were the aforesaid privileges and the avoidance of the more offensive children of the regular elementary school; his justification was the detection of a heart murmur in Bro Bus, and later, in the Babe. The squishing valves performed the useful service for years before they firmed into silence.
From Katie's childhood until the time of the Babe, the proportion of the population attending secondary school went up over 500%, from 1 in 1700 in 1900 to 1 in 325 in 1930, while the proportion attending elementary school actually slumped from 1 in 8 to 1 in 10. (Children of school age had decreased relative to total population.) Katie, like the majority of school children then, left school in the seventh grade. About 4% of those completing grade school went on to high school.
One of the Babe's embarrassments was to be revealed as too young for whatever situation he found himself in. This was one of the disadvantages of what is called precocity. However, the largest specific disadvantage of precocity, if the constant embarrassment of inadaptability does not insidiously affect mental stability, is the excuse that it gives for less than top performance, whether athletically or scholastically, to the advanced child, who can, when he fails to star, say, well, I have not failed, I am just too young and expect to do as well as soon as I arrive at that point in age. But arrival or achievement takes more than time in fact. And meanwhile, he is not doing things so well, but egotistically believes that he is. For instance, he may be writing, but not well, whereas he is spelling very well, which is easier, and he may never get the time to practice his writing if he is moving ahead too rapidly. Precocity in music and art entails similar risks.
Or, at least, that is the best that I can make of the Babe, of whom incidentally it was never said by him or anyone within his hearing that he was "precocious." He was just "smart." A "smart aleck" only rarely, as any high-spirited child will be. Besides being smart, he had been early trained in music, reading and writing. He also had been well exercised physically by his older brother and was let to run around a lot and to handle any but the more valuable and dangerous objects that happened to be at hand.
He had experienced rounds of birthday parties, too, but his unexpected weeping on the first day of kindergarten suggests that he had not been trained or experienced in dealing with strangers, whether teachers or other children. He caught onto this skill quickly, with however the typical problems of one who knows better than the others, or is entitled to believe so; sometimes it was true and sometimes not, which is the basic merit of a political system that doesn't let any superior (or inferior) individual ever get into a position where what he thinks he knows should prevail without checks and balances.
After passing the sixth and seventh grades in the regular elementary school, the Babe went into Franklin Junior High School for the eighth and ninth grades. Chicago had recently built several of such schools; it was new and fashionably designed. It was a luxury for Chicago, which stood lowest in spending for instruction per capita population among the ten largest American cities (and highest in non-instructional costs, much of this going to political boodle and outright graft; by 1921 "incidentals" cost the Board of Education more than did the entire school system of the year 1901.)
The City government and the School System were broke by 1930 and for a time the teachers were paid in (hopefully) negotiable I.O.U.'s or script. They were well paid only because the Depression knocked wages down hard; the Franklin Junior High teachers earned around $2600 per annum on the average.
The educational process in Chicago, as elsewhere, was reversed: first the prime movers of affairs work on the buildings, then on the desks, then on administrators, then on teachers, and finally assure the physical presence of pupils by compulsion.
Only after all energies and resources are exhausted do they go to work on the young mind, which has been already overwhelmed and intimidated, if not rendered hostile. The principles of progressive education had made only a small dent on educational realities, even though John Dewey and some of his disciples had operated out of the University of Chicago for some years, earlier on.
When he graduated, the Babe attended Waller High School for a year and Lake View for two more years. Waller left him with few memories of significance; it was an old, relaxed, comfortable place, as he experienced it, but he thought ahead to Lake View, much larger, more sophisticated, and pretentious in every social and intellectual regard. Lake View was a kind of Junior College for such as the Babe and he began to work harder than ever before in school, which was still not very hard.
At Waller he happened into a singing class. It was really a music class, but they spent their time singing to the accompaniment of a piano and the baton of a teacher. The joy of the class was the big black girls who sat opposite the males and pealed out "Swing low, Sweet Chariot," and "The Soldiers' Chorus," their brown faces and wide brown eyes and white teeth coming at him like a Heavenly Choir and lofting him into outer space.
When he was "Ol' Black Joe," his loud clear tuneful contralto was right on pitch, and they recognized him as a soul mate; in him they had someone who could belt out the songs, that "lil ole white boy." His voice did not break, not then nor through adolescence, when it simply slid down to register baritone without loss of the middle tenor range.
It was not easy to find the typical American school, any more than the typical American child. Every trait has its typicality, statistically speaking, the most common occurrence of the trait. Thus if more boys of thirteen were 5'8" tall than of any other measure, that would be the typical height of thirteen-year old boys. If more boys of thirteen were 5'8" at Franklin Junior High School, then the height of thirteen-year-olds at Franklin would be more typical of the nation than the other schools' thirteen-year-olds. So it would go for other traits such as family income and ethnic background.
The children at Franklin Junior High were suffering from the Depression in a proportion probably typical of the nation as a whole and of Chicago. Probably the proportion of families receiving public welfare to survive was the same at Franklin as at Middletown, where the Lynds reported one-quarter of the families "on relief."
The children did not discuss the matter; in all his schooling, the Babe never heard the problem of the hunger and unemployment of a quarter of the nation's work-force mentioned by the teachers or children. So severe was the taboo of "welfare" and "charity," so frightened was the population, so hypocritical the officialdom. Mainly the politicians, social workers, communists, and snide newspaper editors discussed the dreadful state of so many of the nation's families.
Whether the children of Franklin School were as typical in ethnic descent is open to question. Then as now, about a quarter of the American population was all or in part of German or Austrian origin (counting Alsatians as Germans rather than French). In the Babe's graduating class in 1932, the proportion was about 5% less than the national average. About one-quarter of the nation was partly or wholly of British stock; again, Franklin's proportion was somewhat less, about 20%. Blacks were over-represented by about 5%, being 17% instead of 12%. The Irish (counting the two very different Irish groups -- Catholic Irish and Scots-Irish together -- were distinctly under-represented, perhaps only 5% rather than the 15% found in the nation, and this was reversed in the case of the Italian stock that was over-represented at 20% instead of the actual 5%. Poles and Hispanics were heavily under-represented. Jews (considered as an ethnic group) were in their national ratio of 5%. Then Franklin had a remarkably mixed group of "all others," that would come close to representing the national averages: there were three pupils of Greek origin, several of Scandinavian descent, a couple of Near and Middle East origins, and some 10% who could not be assigned on the record or from photographs or interrogation of the Babe but who would figure prominently in giving the whole number the characteristics of the melting pot.
There was little indication of ethnic cohesion, no hostile graffiti, no ethnic gangs; Tony Nuccio's clique/claque was neither, since it was generally inactive and, besides, cross-ethnic, and in sum a general nuisance regardless of race, religion, class or nationality.
Strangely, at the same time, Thrasher of the University of Chicago was preparing his survey of Chicago youth gangs, most of them ethnic, and emerged with over a thousand, but these were street and neighborhood gangs. And it is true that the Babe was continually on the alert during his fifteen years for the warning signals of a gang presence as he adventured through the streets, sometimes indeed deriving an exhilaration as he felt himself to be scouting hostile territory.
Some of the Blacks hung around together at school, but this was a product of age and recency upon the scene; it was too early in their Northern history for aggressive anti-social organization.
What I think may be significant is that this ethnic mosaic of Franklin Junior High School was more typical than that afforded in most literary representations of American childhoods and neighborhoods. Thus, the most famous sociological study of an American community, the most pretentious in regard to typicality, was performed exactly when the Babe was entering Franklin High School, but not of Franklin School, rather of Muncie, Indiana, which the authors, the Lynds, re-labelled "Middletown," thus committing ab initio a Cardinal sociological sin of Statistical Un-representativeness. For the inhabitants of Middletown were almost entirely of Protestant British stock.
To compound the misapprehension and its deluding effect, the Lynds passed over almost with disdain the small numbers of Jews, Catholics, "foreigners," and Blacks of Middletown, as if they didn't count for much. Ordinarily the procedure would be to overweigh, if anything, these few and to study them intensively if one wished to say something about the country as a whole.
Or else, if it was to be a study of American myth, then the Lynds might have said so, and extended their findings as showing a community where the American myth prevailed and may have taken hold because of the subjection of the Middletown population, as the Chicago population, too, to the dominant American dream that came originally from New England and the Middle-Atlantic regions.
The demographic structure of Middletown was coincidental with the myth; its people were possessors of it, victims of it, in the same way as the recent Americans from Chicago, or for that matter the Chicago migrants from New England and the Northeast. The Middletown myth, like the Chicago myth, and the American Dream generally, was a kind of a Grin of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland; it hung on and dominated the whole country except for some unreconstructed Southerners, Hispanics, Jews, and socialist radicals, after the population spawning it had disappeared from its locale; this is no place to argue the point, but the arguments are there; the cat was gone, yet a nation that prided itself on its pragmatism was living by the cat's grin.
Insofar as the myth was foisted upon the new population by the misguided snobbery of the older, the myth did a double disservice, creating the feeling of being left out of the Action that was supposed to be occurring somewhere. William Hale Thompson, Mayor during most of the Babe's years in lower schools, was called a renegade from his class and ethnic strain; he liked crooks around him and employed a great many therefore; he also campaigned vigorously against a perceived pro-English bias in the American public school materials and personnel.
In a move widely denounced by educators and reformers (almost all of whom were then of British stock, but who believed themselves to be objective scholars) he issued suggested amendments to the teaching of history to take account of the exploits of Poles, Germans, Irish and other groups reflecting the constitution of the Chicago population.
"Big Bill" was more or less correct in exposing the English bias of textbooks on history and literature, although it was more of a hypnotic concentration upon English antecedents, and in attacking the anti-Continental bias of the same books. One learned little or nothing of the French or Spanish settlements of the New World, including the territory of the U.S.A., that preceded the Pilgrim Fathers, nor of the astounding feats of the Jesuits and other Catholic Orders (although here the Midwest had to grab onto their first traces, since the country had been well-explored and mapped for settlement by the aforesaid elements).
The often excellent cooperation between French and Indians was regarded by the Babe, who had been misinformed by the texts, as something scandalous. Further, the texts had the French Fathers appear out of nowhere, explore for a few years, give their names and Indian names to Midwest places, and disappear. There was no getting around Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, of course.
So Big Bill Thompson smeared the educators and was smeared in turn. Chicago politics hardly provided the forum for historical and sociological clarification.
When the time came to graduate from Junior High School, the teachers of the Babe asked him to deliver one of the valedictory orations, this on "Economic Independence," of all things -- he who had handled but a few coins in his lifetime and whose belly was filled as regularly as it emptied.
But the Dad had plenty of ideas on This Subject and a full vocabulary bursting for exercise. So the Babe turned up for a pre- audition of his speech with a profound and laboriously worked declaration in the mode of the American Dream, which, he noticed, provoked an exchange of winks between teacher and assistant principal.
The Dad had mastered the evangelical idiom, and the Babe, who was already inclined to Tell the World in his neonate essays (the phrase, "I'll Tell the World!" was part of the Mom), should then and there have decided to become a Minister of the Gospel but knew the Gospels only as a distinguishable vegetable in his gigantesque salad of readings.
The speech was delivered from memory, concluding with an unconvinced but vehement "It behooves us..." that left the audience in its expected contented state of incomprehension. What little was more than perfunctory in the applause was owing to the speaker's courage in publicly addressing a crowd and the way that "he knew it by heart," this organ being the vernacular's repository of memory.
Actually the Babe had earlier performed mnemonic feats. He memorized a number of the lines of Brutus in Julius Caesar, which Julia Klosterman had bravely engineered during the preceding term. All he knew to begin with was that Caesar was a great man of history, as confirmed by the reading of few lines of his Gallic Memoirs, and had been treacherously murdered.
To become now the most famous of his assassins seemed to him hardly an honor. Despite Shakespeare and Miss Klosterman, Brutus stood as the villain, Caesar as hero. Although he had a special distaste for heroes who let themselves be killed, he had a much stronger dislike for killers, notwithstanding the mass slaughter that he had conducted over the years with his own toy armies, and also his playing of a "bad guy" in the games of "good guys vs. bad guys."
As with Brutus, the truth was double: envy found its rationalization in the defense of the Republic against dictatorship. It was more; for the Babe dreaded receiving Caesar's final words when he saw his adopted son among the assassins: "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!" for he was a devoted son and also abhorred traitors.
Mayor Thompson, in his campaign against English influences in American life, had seen to it that Nathan Hale, the American spy who had been hanged by the English, was properly worshipped in the schools, and the Babe and many another boy cherished the doomed man's final words, "I regret that I have but one life to give to my country." (The overlap of rebel, spy, and traitor went unnoticed.)
Julia Klosterman was busy springing all over the place on her fine long legs, but she might have conceded fifteen minutes to the Babe to explain why Brutus was a devoted patriot, a true Republican, and Caesar was well on the way to usurping absolute personal power in the Oriental mode -- if indeed she herself realized the moral issues. It was not to be, so that, when Joe Farina delivered the grandly ironic speech of Mark Anthony that ended their truncated drama, the Babe resented personally all of its innuendos upon his character: Brutus, yes, but a man is known by the roles he plays. Jack Tipre, Caesar, was a beaming nice lad; the Babe struck him rather hard with his rubber dagger when it came time.