Monday, August 19, 2019

It's never too soon for the fairy tale of autumn school days

Across Pennsylvania, many kids are donning their backpacks1, grabbing their lunches from the counter, boarding buses and returning to school this week. It's one of the first signs of autumn, along with the Reese's pumpkins that hit stores, oh, about a month ago.

Papergreat has been awash in School Days history and nostalgia for many years, with 150+ posts under that label. Shown above is the perfect example of an illustration style that evokes wistful memories for many generations who navigated the 20th century, particularly from the 1940s through 1970s. This two-page spread comes from Let's Count: Growth in Arithmetic, which was published in 1953 by World Book Company and written by John R. Clark, Charlotte W. Junge and Caroline Hatton Clark. More importantly, it was illustrated by Betty Alden and Revere F. Wistehuff.2 Those two artists captured the spirit of a time that hits home for many. There's the one-story school building with windows that open to serve as the air-conditioning. There's golden fall foliage, kickball, jump rope, light jackets, sandals and dress shoes, and so many smiling faces.

So many white smiling faces. You won't find any people of color in Let's Count, unless you are referring to the Native American mask being made by a student in one of the illustrations. This was 1953, of course. Later textbooks, starting in the 1960s and especially into the 1970s, were slightly more inclusive when it came to the skin color of the children in the illustrations. And I've seen excellent school books from circa 1970 that went out of their way to be diverse, but those were definitely the exception.3

But even beyond the whiteness of these illustrations, they present a bit of a comforting fairy tale of autumn School Days that never existed. When we were present in those times, either as students or as parents with our own children, it was never about the beauty of the outdoors or the playground or the flag pole or the classroom decorations or the other things highlighted in mid-century school illustrations.

It was about staying in strict lines in the hallways, surviving the drama (and sometimes the bullies) of the playground, the chaos of the crowded cafeteria, the runny noses, the quizzes, the trips to the nurse's office, the looming presence of the principal4, the threat of punishment for talking too much or breaking other rules, the constant watching of the clock and learning to count by counting the minutes until the dismissal bell. We weren't sitting at our desks thinking these are the true golden days.

There was some good, of course. "Library day" meant taking a class trip — everyone stay in line! — to the room filled with books. There, you could find something interesting to read and squirrel yourself away in the sunkenarium or some other quiet corner until it was time to march back to the classroom.

But, beyond that...

I'm not saying that we have no great memories of our School Days. We all definitely do. I just find it interesting to see how we have such rose-colored glasses about certain aspects of the past, especially when we know it was never close to being how it looked in the pictures and illustrations.

And, of course, websites like this one perpetuate and encourage that nostalgia.

1. Kevlar backpacks, in some cases.
2. Revere F. Wistehuff is one of the best names to appear on this blog.
3. The Cooperative Children's Book Center tallies the numbers and percentage of children's books featuring people of color each year. Progress remains too slow. But it's certainly better now than it was six decades ago.
4. One of my elementary school principals had a paddle that was only spoken of in hushed whispers.

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