E2: ELEMENTARY SCHOOL GRADES 1-6; AGES 6-11; 1918-1925
In September 1918 I entered the first grade at Hiram Belding School, located one block east and nearly a block north of our home. (Convenient!) In those days, children, even young ones, were expected to fend for themselves. Probably I was taken to school the first day, no doubt by my mother, since her certification of opposition to (smallpox) vaccination was needed before I could be enrolled. However, I cannot remember ever being taken to (or called for at) school after that. In fact, a neighbor boy, Billy, and I became friends and agreed to meet after school to go home together each day. The first time, instead of going south or west as was required, we went east for a long distance before we realized that something was wrong. So we backtracked to school and tried the opposite direction. This couldn’t fail to get us into familiar territory and hence home. I can’t recall that Gertrude, my grandmother, in whose charge I was during most of these years, was even worried or upset at the lateness of my return from school.
I guess the school was pretty well run; my dim memory of the teachers doesn’t suggest much that I would take serious issue with. (This may seem strange, but it must be remembered that educational standards were much higher in those days than they are today, even, surprisingly, in Chicago.) For some reason, perhaps because in those days it was not customary to compliment children upon their accomplishments, I lived through this period with an inferiority complex, despite the existence of small bits of evidence which should have worked against it. For example, I always won the “spelldowns” in school. Also, my early Sunday School experiences with learning and accurately reciting Bible verses, and my similar performances (in German) at the German Church Ladies Aid Society, to which I was dragged from time to time, should have made clear to me that I had some ability, at least in rote learning.
A small indicator that I might not be exactly dummy emerged in a curious way. My first or second grade teacher had the class doing an exercise: she would speak a word, wait briefly while we wrote on paper our respective versions of the word and then repeat the process with another word. Somehow it occurred to me that an easy way to handle this matter was to peek over the shoulder of the person in front of me, and then write what he had written. (So I was a bit stupid; I probably didn’t know whether I could rely on the correctness of that person’s work.) Soon the teacher noticed what was going on. I don’t remember what she did the time, but she did shortly afterward contact my mother, indicating her disappointment in me for “cheating” and emphasizing that I was quite capable of doing the exercise on my own.
As time went on, there were other indicators that I might have some ability. For example, I had no trouble with arithmetic processes, but these, involving only mechanical skills, didn’t seem indicative of any special traits on my part, since, as I’ve indicated, rote learning was “old hat” to me. Since so much of my learning in these grades was of this type, I didn’t feel especially complimented when I was “double promoted.” (Chicago schools had a sensible “semester” system: children enter school in September or February, depending on birthdate. This made possible the skipping of one semester at a time (rather than an entire year, which today’s Educationists frown upon) if a child is deemed capable of doing the (slightly) more advanced work. Since this skipping happened to me twice, I ended up one year ahead of where I normally would have been. This condition was to last throughout all the years of my formal education. Never once did I feel myself to be a “social misfit” (as the Educationists would have claimed it to be necessary consequence); indeed, I always felt at home with my classmates, although most of them were a year older than I. As it turned out, the condition had many unforeseen positive consequences.
During my five years at Belding school I had only one failing grade. That was in “manual training” (now called something like “related arts” or “industrial arts”) – nothing more than a basic introduction to woodworking. The first project was to learn how to plane a piece of wood. instructions were given along with a hand-plane, a place at a bench with a vice and a piece of wood about 8” x 3” x ¾”. The long edge ran with the grain, and that was to be planed “square.” When one completed planing and thought the job done right, one was to check the edge with an L-square. If any light showed between wood and square as the square was moved along in any direction, one was to try again and continue trying as necessary until no light ever showed. Then one could get an OK from the teacher and start another project. It is of course clear that a condition of “no light” is unattainable, certainly with hand tools; yet I took the instructions literally and continued planing. When one piece of wood got too small, I started on another. I suppose most of my classmates got by with nearly perfect jobs. As I think about the ineptness of my teacher I wonder why he never investigated my never asking for a check of my work. (Many years later I recounted this experience to my colleague and co-author Richard Kershner; by that time we had both acquired more knowledge of and experience with woodworking than my teacher very probably had possessed. To my amazement, Kershner replied that he had the identical experience in grade school!)
Several events worth noting occurred during this period. In about 1920 my father quit working at Sears Roebuck and became a kind of general manager in my Uncle Art Miller’s food materials distributing business, dealing in such items as sugars, flours, oils, flavorings, etc.
Since alcohol was in common use in certain foods, e.g., vanilla, and since Prohibition was in effect, Art saw certain opportunities. Although he wasn’t exactly a “bootlegger” he did stock and sell more alcohol than would (probably) have normally been used by his customers. My father told about some narrow escapes. On one occasion he sat on cartons of alcohol while Government agents came to “check out” such establishments, and simply lied about the cartons’ contents.
Uncle Art, ca 1900
Art had earlier agreed to reimburse my mother for most of the cost of the Kildare house and of his college education, and to help support their mother. He had never done any of this; now his excuse could be that his hiring my father would cancel his obligations, especially since my mother managed finances so well that no contributions from him would be needed. My father’s employability was declining gradually because of his increasing deafness. (Hearing aids of any value had not yet been developed.)
Belding School covered grades K – 8. But my move there from grade 6 into grade 7 was not to be. By this time my parents had given much thought to moving to a suburb. Motivation was simple: the corner lot next to our house was to be occupied (probably completely covered) by an apartment building; the neighborhood was deteriorating; and schools were said to be much better in the suburbs. So they bought a lot in Winnetka with the intention of building on it. But a more practical deal presented itself in the spring of 1923: a house had been built at 1511 Elmwood Ave., Wilmette, by a contractor (Mr. Abramson) for his son; but for some reason the son wasn’t going to use it, and so the house went on the market. In short order, the Wilmette house was acquired, the Winnetka lot sold, and the Kildare house sold (to a Dr. Wheat, to whom the negatives seemed not to bother); the order of events is unknown to me. Also it is unclear how my parents, who were basically poor, could have handled the finances involved. I do know that the Wilmette house cost $12,500, and my parents ended up with a $5000 mortgage against the property. We moved in summer 1923.
Many children no doubt have sad feelings when facing a move. As I recall, anticipation of a new location was exciting. True, I had a few friends in the neighborhood, but none were close, and I felt no sorrow in contemplating leaving them. Being introverted as I was, I knew that my toys and books would accompany me and so fill any void. Even the two cats that Art had given us, because they didn’t serve well as mousers in his warehouse, would move with us to help provide continuity. (As it turned out, we didn’t keep them long after the move, because we really felt no great attachment to them. Indeed, pets other than those cats played no role in my life until I became a parent.) In summary, I can say that I looked forward with great excitement to a new life.
 The fact that I had seen nothing "wrong" with my system suggests that (at least in my case) the difference between "rights" and "wrong," or better, between "acceptable" and "unacceptable," has to be learned; moreover, it may have to be learned in a variety of contexts rather than as a single universal moral guide. This subject will receive attention later.