Wednesday, April 13, 2011
The Scandal of an Un-Inquisitive Mind
Most of the residents of George Street were familiar strangers to me. Children ask a lot of questions. But they are born with such a bundle of ignorance that, despite the questions asked, they lack knowledge of so much that they, someday, will wish they had known. In my twenty-seven years of teaching high school students, I was frequently surprised that a student couldn’t tell me what his or her mother or father did for a living – what their job consisted of. Many couldn’t even name the place their parents worked. And, rarely could a student from one family tell you how the parents of their closest friend earned their living. Still, they were “best friends.”
Fortunately, Mom and Dad talked to us, and to each other in our presence, about all manner of things and we thus became aware of Dad’s work, as much through the workplace conflicts he described as through a direct job description. On rare occasions, we would visit him for a few minutes during his night shift. That being said, it nonetheless surprises me to realize how many of our neighbors on that last block of North George Street remain familiar strangers to me. Of the eleven families represented, I can only tell you the occupation of four: one being my father, one Mr. Burns, whose wife made sure everyone knew her husband was “a carpenter.” Another was a man who built a new house directly across from Burn’s house. I knew his occupation only because he was a seriously troubled alcoholic who supplied his habit out of the “Bar and Lounge” he and his wife operated downtown. The other was a couple who ran a neighborhood grocery store and auto repair service out of their house and garage respectively.
There were changes over the years. The new house, just mentioned, was built around 1950 and began immediately to seek equal status with the decaying homes that surrounded it. By the time the sad man who built it died, and his wife and little son moved out, in the mid-50s, its only claim to superiority was its architectural design, a story and a half structure with a full basement, a kitchen, dining room, bath, and living room downstairs and two slant-ceilinged bedrooms on second floor. The congregation that owned the little “tabernacle” in the middle of the block built a new brick church, not much larger but more “respectable,” a block away on Woodlawn Street. The old building became a neighborhood grocery store, raising the number of such stores in a five-block radius to six. Eventually, after I left home in 1954, three two-bedroom ranch style houses, built on slabs, filled in the spaces across the street to the west of our house. But, I only came to know the occupation (or former occupation) of one of those residents; he had worked with Dad on the railroad doing . . . something.
The families living on Alexander Street, behind us, or a half-block to our west, on the half-block-long street whose name I’ve forgotten, were less familiar strangers. I could not name the livelihood of any of them. It is no different today; those neighbors living in close proximity to one’s house, no more than two houses away, have some chance of being known. Those living farther away become, at best, familiar strangers, people we knew just well enough to either trust or avoid them.
Proximity was one mode through which we came to know our neighbors. There were three other modes: the church, the school, and work. By far, the school was the greatest influence, bringing together even the children of women who fought each other in the street, allowing the children to build bridges (and even romances) that their parents had been unable to build. The great melting pot simmered just three blocks away in a two-story brick building that housed six grades and a kindergarten. It was not always a place of perfect harmony but it was a place where children from most of the houses on George Street, and other surrounding streets, were given an opportunity to know each other in ways they would not have had if Webster Elementary School had not been there. For a few, in that day, Webster School provided all the education they would receive. Another few would “drop out” two years later after “graduation” from 8th grade.
I have come to believe that, without public schools we would not have become the United States of America. I worry now that we may be in the process of unraveling those United States, as I watch the attacks on our public schools; the attempts to replace them with private schools, or “for profit” schools, that allow us to segregate ourselves into comfortable, familiar, homogeneous, enclaves of shared understandings and shared hostility toward those not in our group. We had only one such “choice” in my youth, the Catholic Parochial School. I’m sure it was established by well-meaning folk, with the purpose of assuring that Catholic children were not corrupted by association with Protestants, but the result was often pernicious in ways that may still reverberate through society. Catholics failed to learn, by experience, about Protestants and Protestants came to think of Catholics as those who went to school behind the high chain-linked fence. And, when one of them ran for President it evoked an outpouring of vituperative paranoia not matched again until a Black man with an “un-American” sounding name ran for the same high office.
Every now and then, I meet someone from George Street that I barely knew back then, or someone from Webster Elementary school whose background was vastly different than mine, and still is. I hardly know them. But they look more like familiar strangers to me now, than the dangerous aliens and heretics they might have seemed if we had not spent those years together at Webster Elementary School.