Erin

Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Role Models

In Erin on December 6, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Being in elementary school is a lot like being in training to be a monk.  You have a highly-regimented schedule through which every minute of the day is accounted for.  You learn a few book-style facts as well, but mostly, your learning is about molding your behavior: sit like this, talk like that, value these things, avoid those at all cost, hold your fork this way, position your hair like so, keep your workspace clean, smile only in certain circumstances…

The list goes on, of course, but you get the idea.

What’s really interesting to me is how frequently this sort of behavior-training figures in my memories of childhood–I have the sense that I can look back on these little vignettes of life that we chronicle here and see how they functioned to make us, little by little, into the people we are.  It’s true that the salience of some experiences over others is affected by who we are now, obviously–so I don’t pretend to have a clear or neutral view of what our lives were like then–but I still like to think that in remembering our turkey-chase or reading material, we recover something important.  Maybe it’s not “who we are,” so much as a piece of our training at “being” anyone at all…but it’s something, all the same.  But I digress.

At some point during our time at the Unnamed Religious Private School, our class was given an assignment: read the (children’s level) biography of a famous person you’d hope to be like, and give a report to the class on her or him.  Sadly, my Jesse Jackson bio did not make an appearance here.  In fact, I don’t remember the specifics of how the books were chosen, but I know that the figure I ended up reading about was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to go to medical school, and consequently, the first woman to become a Doctor in the contemporary age of medicine.

Interestingly, I remember being a bit scandalized by parts of the book: it wasn’t that I was confused or upset about the prospects of Elizabeth Blackwell as a female doctor, on the contrary, it was my discovery that women and girls were (in the same century as me, even!) prohibited from going to real school.  I had heard before then that girls didn’t go to school in some places, or–more often–that girls “went to school at home in the old days.”  Somehow, I had missed the fact that this arrangement wasn’t just a matter of convenience for someone who didn’t have a carriage, or a matter of preference for ladies who preferred needlepoint to books.  No, the book informed me, the men at Elizabeth Blackwell’s medical school hated her, and protested against her even being in the same room as they were.

Needless to say, I was quite troubled.  Still, Elizabeth triumphed in the end, a fact that was portrayed rather rosily in this children’s-book version, and I was able to give my presentation (in Victorian dress!) armed with the knowledge that things were totally different now, and that no one would ever discriminate against me because I was a girl.  (Until, of course, I started wearing a bra.)

And so, we learned to be proper kids, proper boys and girls with proper life goals, which were laid out well in our library’s kid-section biographies.  That way, the next time our teachers would ask “Erin, what do you want to be when you grow up?”, the answer would be something other than “I want to be a sportscaster!!”

The whole prospect of “being” something was always fascinating to me, and I tended to adopt a new answer on a semi-regular basis, which would then become my obsession and adopted identity until a new one came along.  In addition to “sportscaster,” my list included (not in order):

Pharmacist/Chemist: I didn’t really have a clear distinction in mind here, though once I found out that they weren’t the same thing, and that this “thing” in neither case consisted entirely of mixing things together that caused fizzing, the dazzle was gone.

Teacher: I really just liked being in charge.  Maybe I still do.

Minister: It was very confusing to find out that this was disallowed by my ladybits.  What about Elizabeth Blackwell, the glass ceiling breaker??!

Meteorologist: Seriously, those maps were awesome!

Gwen Stefani: I really, really wanted to be her as a teenager.  Big pants!  Tiny shirts!  Gavin Rossdale!

Lawyer: The sad fact is that trials are not Law and Order, which made me realize that what I actually wanted was to be an…

Actress: It was the best of both worlds–you appear intelligent, and all of your lines are scripted.

Artist: This was never going to happen, even if I did do a marginally better job drawing flowers than Sharon.

In retrospect, I think I really, really wanted to be able to say that I was something.  Whenever our classes would talk about careers, the teacher would go around the room, asking everyone “and what does your dad do?”  The odd thing was that everyone else’s answer was a thing: Alex’s dad is an engineer, Sharon’s dad is a scientist, Melissa*’s dad is a doctor (though I think he was actually a pharmaceutical rep), Scott’s dad is a football coach.  And when we learned about working class jobs–because, obviously, there were no such people in our school–it was always “Joe is a farmer; Johnny is a policeman; Fred is a fireman; Frank is a garbage man.”

When the teacher came to me, I had my answer ready: “My parents work for the state.”

Silence fell over the room.

“What’s that mean?” Rachel (whose dad was a missionary) squawked.

“It means they work for the Louisiana Department of–” I began.

“They work for the government,” Ms. Busystreet interjected, eager to get on to the next student.

We moved on, but I was confused.  Everyone else was something.  My parents worked somewhere, but what were they?  That night when I went home, I asked my mom.  I don’t remember exactly how I worded it, but I do remember her answer:

“If anyone wants to know, tell ’em your parents are Bureaucrats.”

I didn’t grasp the humor in this for some time, but I did leave with the sense that if I was going to be like anyone, I wanted it to be her–just with a cooler job.

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Roald Dahl at the Book Fair with Rev. Jackson

In Erin on November 5, 2009 at 11:38 pm

There are so many amazing things to say about Sharon’s post, but I want to approach them through the somewhat roundabout route of telling you about The Book Fair.  The Book Fair was a magical event for kids such as us, who eagerly awaited new spelling lists and reading assignments.  Now, with the advent of amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, I doubt whether The Book Fair even exists–or if it does, whether anyone would actually send their kids to school with money to spend on it–but at the time, it was wonderful.  Basically, it amounted to a mobile bookstore kids section, which parked itself in the auditorium for a day.  I believe that we might have been allowed to make book purchasing decisions right there in the moment, but for the most part, we had already made our book choices in advance with the help of colorful (yet flimsy) Scholastic catalogs, which listed the newest titles and which were distributed in class the week before.

I remember going through the scholastic catalog each time, circling everything I wanted (usually almost every book in print, except for the boring ones about horses or basketball), and then painstakingly narrowing my list down to accord with the budgetary restrictions imposed by my mom.  When I was younger, the final list almost invariably included some fantasy or coloring book involving stickers or unicorns.  One year, though–I believe in fourth grade–I began to branch out.  My Book Fair purchases that year included 1) a biography of Jesse Jackson and 2) one of the Scary Stories books Sharon mentioned.

To be honest, I have no idea where the Jesse Jackson thing came from.  I have my doubts about whether I actually knew who Jesse Jackson was.  I do remember thinking that the description in the Scholastic catalog made him seem interesting, and that I was beginning to feel weird about the fact that I knew no Black people other than the lovely woman who cleaned our house (Ms. Gertie), despite the fact that I was growing up in a pretty diverse city (which, incidentally, was later ranked by Ebony as one of the best 5 cities for African-Americans to live  in the U.S.).  So I think I must have had vague aspirations of self-education, but these were sadly never realized.  I still remember bringing the book home, and hearing my dad ask why I would possibly have wanted a Jesse Jackson biography–and putting it onto the shelf, never to be opened again.  I’m not sure that he meant to be disapproving, but his tone–the same one he used when asking, “You don’t like those New Kids on the Block, do you?“–was enough for me, a lifelong Type A pleaser, to take the hint (or at least, what I perceived as the hint).

In a way, the Scary Stories book is even more enigmatic to me.  Sharon’s suggestion that I had a “complex” relationship with fear is–for me–putting it generously.  I was a full-on fraidy-cat, wuss, chicken, whatever.  I hated, and still hate, scary movies.  It’s hard for me to remember what things were like then, since there’s something about adulthood self-awareness that makes the childhood versions of our present neuroses seem unrecognizable.  For whatever reason, though–maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were starting to go to camps, and have sleepovers, and ghost stories were a consistent part of the TV versions of these things–I got the Scary Stories book, and read it with Sharon.  That is, I read most of it (minus “The Black Dog,” since I had a black dog of my own).  I still remember some of the more vivid phrasings in Sharon’s voice:

The drum beats grew louder and faster!  Suddenly, Jack pitched forward, dead.

Ah, childhood!  So many beautiful stories.  I do wonder how it was possibly acceptable for us to acquire such a text, given its general morbidity.

Of course, I don’t actually remember The Westing Game being forbidden.  In fact, I was almost certain that we read it in school…or at least, that we read some mystery book that had a cover with a black background and a spooky looking old mansion.  Though this may have happened after I left for the alien world of public school (more on this later!).  Still, I do remember at least one instance of literary censorship at the Unnamed Religious Private School, so it’s far from being out of the realm of possibility.

At some point (I don’t remember when), our class read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Having seen the movie with Gene Wilder several times (and having had a chocolate addiction from a young age), I was pretty excited about this…though was somewhat disappointed that the book was a bit darker than the movie, with fewer bright colors and decidedly less singing.  Nevertheless, it was an exciting time in my elementary school life, not only because it was a story about chocolate–two of my favorite things!–it also involved getting a new book, copies of which Ms. Ditch (we’ll just say it was her) had passed out to each of us on the first day of the unit.

A couple of days into our reading, we came to the part of the story where Willy Wonka explains to Charlie and his grandfather that they should never ever drink the Fizzy Lifting Drink, since it previously resulted in the death of an Oompa Loompa.  The book description is much more intense than that of the movie, culminating when Wonka recounts the dreadful scene, in which he desperately shouts to the rapidly ascending Oompa Loompa: “Burp!  Burp you silly , burp!”

Or, at least, that’s what he shouted in my book.  He shouted that in all of our books, actually, because the copies Ms. Ditch passed out to us had that word blacked out.  Interestingly, however, rather than moving along past the offending passage without remark, our class was then forced to have an in-depth discussion of why Roald Dahl (or Willy Wonka?) would have used such terrible language in the first place, thus drawing even more attention to the fact of its censorship.  I don’t remember what the outcome of that discussion was, or whether it was decided that Willy Wonka was a bad person.  But I do remember that, holding the page up to the light, I could barely make out the word: A-S-S.

I didn’t really know what it meant, but I did know one thing: whatever it was, it was worse than The Devil’s Birthday and Jesse Jackson.  And that seemed like kind of a big deal.