Monday, August 14, 2017

What Story Will You Tell A 6th Grader?

[Mrs. Dorozinky's 8th Grade Class, 1984
St. Margaret's School, Waterbury CT]
I'd say that 6th grade was approximately the age when a poor-to-middling American Catholic school began to escort my group of plaid-clad, doe-eyed whelps outward into the news and show us how current events connect us to history. We had brains of soft clay when we first began to engage with the outside world. I respect teachers in general, but threefold for those Catholics that helmed the U.S.S. Gen X from 4th through 8th grades. It was a wild, windy, sticky affair.

Here's something that you need to know. "History" was not a real thing for us. They gave us this Bible as big as our history book. Both books had names and stories and dates, and were presented with the same degree of factual importance. George Washington and Jesus and Santa all figured into the narrative about the same, more or less. Picture that. We wove red, white and blue construction paper flags for July 4th and we hunted eggs on Easter, right after singing the "Christ has died, Christ has risen" songs at church. On Christmas Eve we went to bed leaving milk and cookies for Santa, then we squirmed all through mass on Christmas morning. We played Cowboys & Indians and they had us putting on plays dressed as pilgrims.  They had us tracing our hands to draw Thanksgiving turkeys and those nuns yadda yadda'd over some key facts. Our world view was a disaster.

I had so many questions. Including why such a big a deal was constantly being made over our knees. They'd line us up and use a ruler to measure our uniform skirt hems. Hey nuns, guess what? At no time in life, as it turns out, were my knees ever the thing about me that got me into trouble. Would that it were so, but thanks for contributing to creepy lifelong body issues for generations of girls. You made us wear skirts and then you shamed us daily. You know what would have covered our knees? Pants. You could have simply let us wear pants.

I have a lot to say about overcoming the mindfuck that was my early Catholic education. What I will say right now is that the answers to my questions always led to more questions. Some I'm still asking. This is not about that. This is about when we first started to connect our tiny little world with the big outside world. But more on that later.

What Story Will You Tell?

So by 6th grade, they'd moved us past rote memorization, names and dates. It was around this time that we were given an assignment to write a history essay from a personal point of view. That meant interviewing a person who was there during this Major Event We Children Shall Drone On About Very Importantly. My mother suggested Grandma DiPoala. My grandmother had apparently been quite a snappily dressed good time gal who liked to go dancing, until she was left alone to raise three kids after the war. Grandpa DiPoala was "shell shocked," in the parlance of the time, and spent the rest of his life hospitalized. None of us ever met him, then he died. To make ends sort of almost meet, Grandma DiPoala had worked in factories, waited tables and did other jobs to put food on the table.

I was thrilled. I was Lois Lane at last. I came up with a studious list of questions for Maggie. I wanted to write the best essay Mrs. Signori had ever read. I had daydreams like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. 

It was a disaster.

I think I started by asking my grandmother what was the most memorable headline she could remember from when she was my age? She said "That's when I was a girl." I asked about the places she had worked. She said "That's when I was a girl." I asked what exactly she did there every day, and what she thought about unions. She said she did "piece work." She had no thoughts about unions. I still don't know what "piece work" means. On every other day, Madge DiPoala was a non-stop talker. A small, doughy banshee of a woman, Maggie kept up a steady commentary. She veered from complaining about the neighbors to the high price of bracciole. She'd make you sit and listen to turn-by-turn directions to places you'll never visit. She'd tell you the whole back-and-forth over a dime with the nun at the church tag sale. On every other day, Maggie had opinions except on the day that I asked her about what it was like to be a poor working single mom in 1950s America with immigrant parents. She had no opinion. In fact, she looked vaguely puzzled. It was as though she had lived on the outside of her own life, isolated in the neighborhood and distrusting anyone and everyone else. Entombed, socially. She hated black people. So much. And Chinese people and Indian people and Jewish people, but really especially she was appalled and incensed over anyone black, which spelled chaos, because I grew up in a mixed-race world, both at home and school. My grandmother spewed such hate about my black friends, even, that I was emotionally scarred for life and eventually would become estranged from this ranting racist. I have a lot to say about that, too, as soon as I can think of the words, and the right order to put them in...some day.
[Edit: We're Sicilian, which makes it twice as senseless for my grandmother to be so hateful towards black people...like...there's some African blood in here somewhere, lady, soooo...]

I had to fudge that whole essay. I was pissed. How do you live through those fraught decades and have no story to tell? Didn't you care? Weren't you paying attention? How about now, how about you? Because future grandkids (yours or not) will ask about what is happening right now. They'll look up from their 6th grade homework and ask their elders what it was like going to school in 2017, they'll ask what it was like before Trump. They'll have questions about why so many cops shot and murdered so many black people. They'll ask why so many people died. They'll ask if you supported the people that shrugged and said "oh well" when injustices grew into violence. They'll ask what you thought, what you did, how you voted. Are you paying attention to what you think, what you are doing, and how you are voting? What will be your story? ∎