Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Pumpkins are orange": notes from kindergarten in 1949, and a prologue for today


Although most of my substitute teaching occurred at high schools and a few middle schools, I did experiment for a while wit a few assistant assignments at a top elementary school in Arlington, Science Focus, with its outdoor wildlife lab on an interior court.

Just once, I assisted with kindergarten, and noticed that the teacher, a young woman, would often assemble the kids to sit on a carpet for various kinds of fast-paced drills. Most activities occurred together or in small groups around table, in a room filled with colorful pictures and maps and tops. The classroom was a garish place, looking a bit like a Disney movie set. Specialized skills, including math drills, were taught by visiting teachers, some of them young men. The idea of a group splitting up and going separate ways and coming back together was barely introduced. At all times, moving from place to place and in the cafeteria, kids had to be closely supervised. The degree of attention was a bit of culture shock for someone who had not fathered kids.

When I was growing up, public school started with first grade (I remember “registering in August” as a big deal). The teachers were all women then (until junior high school), many of them unmarried. The Snopes account of the 1872 Rules for Teachers make for some amusement in these days of First Amendment battles. But in those days, teachers sometimes lived in the homes of parents (like eventual president James Garfield).


For kindergarten, my parents sent me to a “private” school, run in the home of a married (possibly widowed) woman who had done this for years. Most of the time the class met in the basement. My parents said that you go to kindergarten to learn to “behave.” Indeed we did. (There were no SOL’s then.) You learned social expectations. I recall a drawing exercise around Halloween involving pumpkins. The teacher got after me for drawing them red. “Pumpkins are orange,” she said. Well, then I liked red (a primary color). Maybe I shouldn’t have, because for discipline a child had to go sit in “the Red Chair” which was not Jay and Mark Douplass’s “The Puffy Chair.”

Later in the school year, probably the spring of 1949, the teacher tried a mischievous social experiment. She divided the class into two parts, with, it seemed, a higher portion of girls and better “behaved” or functioning boys to go upstairs, while the rest of us stayed in the basement. The physical metaphor was reinforced with her terminology, which might be offensive in today’s world. She called us “brownies and elves” (starting in the basement). Yup, this was Virginia, nearing the end of segregation. Times do change, and no teacher would dare use that first term today. In fact, I don’t think that this experiment, with its intended tone, would be acceptable today. I was very much in the basement, still. That image and experience would stick and my mind and I would remember it for years. I would remember it when Washington’s baseball Senators would finish in the cellar most years, a team whose mismanagement reflected the serious racial problems in the City in the 1950s.

All this happened less than four years after “The Greatest Generation” had won World War II, partly to defeat an ideology based on the idea that some groups of people were “better” than others. Several years before Brown v. Board of Education, we were hardly yet ready to apply the principles we had fought for consistently in our own land.

But the private kindergarten teacher, operating on her own property, may have been conveying a legitimate message. In any free society with competition, some people will be “better off” than others at any particular time. Life is supposed to be a meritocracy, maybe, but some of it will depend just on plain luck, too (just as a baseball team doesn’t get any slack for injuries – as they say in Army Basic, “That’s the breaks!”) So a moral system will expect that those who have more (the “Elves”, upstairs) will share with those who have less, and sometimes protect and look after them. This part of it I don’t recall in as much detail, but the point is well taken. I do remember being allowed just a peak of the class upstairs. Just a glance, and then back to the basement.

Of course, in that time, the “Family” was supposed to take care of problems like this. Since that time, we’ve expected government programs to make up for inequalities, and that may be necessary as long as we understand what we are doing. (There was plenty of hardship exposed in personal testimonials before Obama’s speech in Denver Thursday night.)

We have, in the past few decades, developed a much more individualistic culture, that looks at everyone in terms of “personal responsibility” on a global scale. From a biological viewpoint, Nature doesn’t work that way or cater to hyper-individualism as a moral paradigm. Within any family for community, people are born with somewhat randomized sets of abilities, quantitatively and qualitatively. To have gifted citizens, you have to have “others,” upon which the more advantaged depend on, like it or not. There is no nice way to say it. Lion prides, for example, will not raise their less well-off cubs. Human culture cannot behave that way (we fought a war over it, remember). So a moral system expects individuals to share responsibilities without too much undue emphasis on origin (or "upward affiliation"). Remember, the teacher’s stratification of students was far from perfect or “just” on an individual scale; it was not intended to be. "Merit" could sometimes deceive everyone and break up over clay feet.

American society, perhaps derived from Victorian values as well as religions (Catholic and various more conservative protestant and non-denominational Christianity), had a rule at one time that “religious right” pastors still sometimes utter. “No experience of sexuality unless married.” Note: “unless”, as well as “until.” “It’s just that simple,” one evangelical pastor said on an early Sunday morning NBC broadcast recently. “One partner of the opposite sex per lifetime.” Well, everybody gets one chance, then. And, you’re right, not many people take it seriously today, or believe it could be enforced. The Supreme Court in 2003 struck down the idea that criminal laws could be based on such a concept. Mainstream America probably no longer wants this.

It is important, however, to remember what such a “rule” pretended to accomplish. It was a convenient way to promise that everyone (child, adult, or elder) within the family unit would get taken care of by those in “power” (the married couple), without too much self-consciousness. The committed marital couple had tremendous power to manipulate the "complementarity" within its family unit for the "common good" of the family as a unit, not necessarily for the best interests of each individual on his own. Everyone, whether or not individually having his or own children (by getting married as adults) shared family responsibility. There just was no other possibility, because (in theory) there was no other legally or “morally” acceptable access to sexuality and any self-expression based on it. Notions of immutability and “second-class citizenship” had no meaning in a strictly family-driven culture.

Of course, such an arrangement accepted gross inequalities among groups, and exploitation of one group by another. That’s one reason why sodomy laws and prohibitionist sexual mores came to be seen as a ruse. Individualism fit well with egalitarianism in some ways, if you could accept the idea that you really earn what you have. In a real world, it’s never that simple. In an individualistic world, there are still unfairnesses and dependencies that are often out of sight. One by one, on an individual level, some people could be left behind. Until that became unacceptable. (After all, our most controversial education law is “no child left behind.”)

So, today we have a system of individualism, particularly the idea that the individual receives and sends information from and to the public without the consent of others “in power” (especially the family). This is very important in the West, and much less accepted say in China and Islamic countries. Nevertheless, we find individual sovereignty challenged by concerns over sustainability (global warming, energy, pandemics, religious terror), and demographics (demands for eldercare with fewer children, with many childless adults, and much more visible media attention to impoverished “other people’s children” without families). We have to be very conscious of “fairness” as we contemplate ideas like national service or sharing the military burden, and possibly renewing older notions of family responsibility, and we wonder if our openness about speech is being seen by many as an invitation for abuse and sometimes grievance airing or even retribution. There is no simple behavioral rule that takes care of these things. Or maybe there would be, if we could see how “the Golden Rule” applies to an open, free, individualistic society with fewer structured obligations than in the past.

Along these lines, for LGBT people (for simplicity now I refer to “people” but the “self-righteous” are going to insist on talking about “behaviors”) proposals to accept marriage and to accept “open” gays into intimate services like the military (which does not seem to be so difficult for other democracies like Britain and Israel). These ideas comport with ideas like “pay your dues” or “do your share” (or even “everyone serves”). But in some minds they disrupt the deep sense of social support that some perceive as essential for lasting marital intimacies. We wind up with a culture that is permissive but unequal and potentially unstable. We say to those who do not conform to the personal motives that normally accompany blood loyalty: go ahead, and have your own life for a while, but if there is sacrificing to be done, we’ll come after you, or you’ll wait in line behind us.

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