Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mr. McFarland's Talk


Nineteen and thirty-four, as the old folks might have said it, was not exactly the high water mark of the century.   Orson Wells didn’t visit it.  Neither did Jules Verne nor Rod Serling.  And to the best of my knowledge, you can add Mr. Peabody, Sherman and Marty McFly to the list.

The Great Depression was at its worst, by some measure.  The Great Recovery, courtesy in large part of WWII, was yet to make its way to Main Street.  Our parents would have been of an age when they were going to high school, just as we did in the ‘60s.  And our lily white Dayton View would hardly have been exempt from the suffering.  

You didn’t think Mom and Dad came up with all those at-the-dinner-table stories without some first-hand reference, did you?  Many a last spoonful of succotash found its way home thanks to the implied threats that accompanied the telling of those tales.  And we all knew better than to even think about rolling our eyes when the homily began with, “When I was your age, young man …”  

With unemployment hovering around twenty percent, our Mr. Longnecker and Miss Folger would not have had to look far afield to see the profound effects of this catastrophe.  Pick an adjective … social, economic, cultural, educational … this perfect storm would have had its way with every aspect of the hearts and minds of our parents, and those charged with making responsible adults out of clueless adolescents.

Yeah, good luck with that.

In the interests of wanting all students, regardless of station, to share the pain, there was no yearbook in 1934.  If everyone could not afford one, some having one would not be a source of discomfiture to others.

But this generation of our parents was both resourceful and smarter than the average bear.  Might there be a way of having their picnic basket cake and eating it too?  Going back as far as you care to in Fairview lore, you find there was considerable interest in creative writing … both prose and poetry.  So some crafty band of rebels, of all stripes, students, parents and faculty, saw the opportunity to use that passion as a vehicle to create what would amount to their de facto yearbook.  And using their in-house printing equipment, they could defray any significant cost.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you … 

It’s impossible to say how much faculty oversight there was to the project.  I’ll guess that there was a fair amount of “positive reinforcement” in terms of what was content and what was left on the cutting room floor.  Even the simple Tower News of our time did not go to press without an imprimatur of the powers that be.

Be that as it may, the effort is a wonderful mix of tribute to the talent of Fairview students, while not losing sight of the goal of having a bit of carpe diem that youth want and need to mark the rite of passage that graduating from high school represents.  As befits a work of such stature, the first pages allowed for a table of contents where the grade level of the contributing students is denoted with roman numerals.  Ooooo.

Then, of course, there was the obligatory dedication to the Founder of the Feast, without whom all things are wanting.

The majority of the booklet of just under one hundred pages is devoted to the collection of very short stories and poems.  Some authors have multiple works published; others are one-hit-wonders.  Some works are, charitably stated, what struggles to escape from the mind of a teenager.  Believe me, I know about trite and hackneyed.  Mrs. Krehbiel made sure of that.  Other submissions are quite good, or, at least, inspired.  In any case, you won’t see me offering any of my high school writing here for your review.

The final pages are devoted to blank space for autographs as well as pages of advertisements to help with the costs of publication.

And yes, that is an authentic Dorothy M. Herbst you see at the top as she appears to be channeling John Hancock.  We’ll start the bidding at $5000.

As with so many things that pass before our eyes, we initially accomplish only a quick and cursory scan … looking for the unusual, the interesting, the comforting.  After all, if there’s something noteworthy, it should jump out and fight its way through the cobwebs to compete successfully for your attention.  But I’m fascinated by all things Fairview, so I afforded Fairview Dawn 1934 a second and more comprehensive read.

ZOWIE!   POW!  BLAM-O! … in Batman comic book parlance

There, nestled in the midst of lesser prose, was Mr. McFarland’s Talk.

OK, I can wait here if you’d like to go back for a re-read.  I won’t tell anyone I saw you moving your finger along the words as you read.

I try not to wear my politics on my sleeve.  They are my own.  I’m happiest when I can have a conversation with someone and not feel like I need to convert them to my way of thinking.  And this writing should be no different.  That I have prejudices is not open to debate.  I do.  And so did my parents before me.  Conversations in the living room, the breakfast table and the family car would have made those biases all too evident.  But that is not the issue here.

What is, is that this story, this Mr. McFarland’s Talk, offers us so many interesting insights into a time we never knew.  Perhaps a Q&A would be the best way to see what makes this story so complex and wonderful.  Don’t worry, I’ll do the heavy lifting.  Just keep an open mind.

Who was the author, Norman Grieser?  We only know what’s in this booklet.  He was a senior and a member of the National Honor Society.  For his work in Fairview Dawn 1934, he was awarded something referred to as The English Cup, but for his poetry, not this think piece.  To the best of my knowledge, he had not been abducted by extra-terrestrials and did not work at Area 51 later in life.  That’s it. 

Who do we suppose selected this work for publication?  Didn’t we cover this already?  Suffice it to say, I don’t think “everyone got a trophy just for showing up.”  Possibly there was input from the students, but I’d put my money on a teacher/administrator cabal cherry-picking what they felt like.

How prevalent do we think this liberal-for-the-time thinking was?  Wow, pretty darn, unless you know something I don’t.  Sure, it’s obvious Mr. Longnecker and Miss Folger chose a black person to speak at the assembly, but it would be another twenty-five years before they did/could hire our Mrs. Rowe.  Baby steps.

Do we know anything about Mr. McFarland?  Nope, and we’re rapidly running out of people to ask.  It’s another case where the message survives, but not the messenger.

OK … now we’ll take a few from the audience.

Is it likely the writer, the one and only Norman Grieser took any heat after the fact?  Do ya think?!  Were there honked-off parents giving a piece of their mind to whomever had the thankless job of answering the phone at school?  Did less enlightened peers engage in a never-ending campaign of name-calling?  Not yes … Hell yes!  It probably didn’t make its way to cross-burning, but there had to be some heated conversations over picket fences while spleens were vented. 

We have time for one more.

Were any minds changed?  Good question.  You get a gold star for the day.  And I think we all know the answer … No.  But we equally well understand that minds change over, how should we say, geologic time.  Just the fact that this happened, served to elevate  the dialogue and raise the collective consciousness and that’s more than enough for one day.

Oh, to be able to go back in time and learn these answers and so much more.  

But every bit the wonderment in imagining, as knowing.  Right Miss Oliver?

So maybe nineteen and thirty four was a pretty good year, after all. 

With most grateful acknowledgement to Arlene and David Gates, teachers at FHS in the mid-‘60s, for passing this copy of Fairview Dawn 1934 down to us to share … and to Jeri Jones Bland, FHS ’66, for realizing a treasure when she saw one and letting us experience it, too.

Growing Up Fairview

Ours wasn't the first baby boom, you know.  

In Dayton View, about one hundred years ago, there was one school at the corner of Fairview Ave and Catalpa Dr. that housed all the primary and secondary grades for the entire neighborhood to the immediate northwest of Dayton.  It was called Fairview.  When World War One ended in 1919 and Johnny came marching home, there was one of those strange and inexplicable spikes in local births.  Go figure.  They know what causes that now.

Quick to put two and two together, the powers that be, not the least of whom was a twenty-something principal, Don D. Longnecker, knew that the eight rooms of that school would be hard-pressed to accommodate any population increase.  Projecting that growth would continue out the Salem Ave corridor, a bit of vacant land was acquired at the corner of Fairview Ave. and Elsmere Ave. and in just over a year, in 1925, the three-story, all-brick school was ready, asbestos and all.  That’s even well before the first part of Good Samaritan Hospital went up.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us with the chicken vs egg controversy.

So when WWII was winding down, it didn’t take a government-funded think-tank to be pretty sure another quantum leap in school size and numbers would be in the offing.  For its part, FES added twelve classrooms, amounting to a 40% increase in capacity, so
that in 1952, not-quite-five-year-old Danny could be part of the first class to benefit from that expansion. 

Take a look at this kindergarten homeroom photo and see how many kids you can ID who went on to graduate with us in 1965 from Fairview High.  Don’t worry, we really were slightly blurry back then.  There are nine, give or take one or two, attributable to my fanciful imagination.  I’d tell you that the answers are printed upside-down at the bottom of page 59, but that would be cruel.  And, for the record, this represents the last time my name and the adjective “cute” could be used in the same sentence.  

Thanks to this second baby boom, there were four kindergarten classes at FES in the 1952-1953 school year … two teachers, each with an AM and a PM gaggle of hellions to test their tolerance to the limit.  So, anyway, do the math … that means about 10% of our FHS class of 1965 were, like me, k-to-12-Fairview.  OK, I’m not trying to suggest any special purebred status, like an equivalence to DAR or Mayflower ancestry.  In fact, I allow most common folk to kiss my ring without kneeling.

Kindergarten was less objectionable since we were in rooms purpose-made for us.  There were doors leading directly from the classroom to the playground to the west.  Even those flying coach could use the small restrooms exclusive to the kindergarten rooms.  Along the window wall was a bump-out expressly made for placement of our decorated shoeboxes on Valentines Day.  Oh sure, heat came out of vents there  but that was only a secondary function.  At the rear of the rooms were closets for throwing our winter apparel on the floor in front of.  It was the perfect space to craft our skills of pushing limits to find out about boundaries.

And find out I did.  Who knew that proficiency in tying my own shoelaces was a prerequisite for attendance?  Apparently that was the same Who who not only put a special entry on my first report card about the deficiency, but also saw fit to send a letter home to my mother.  I have no doubt that this initial demerit entered on my “permanent record”  was enough to deny me access to ivy league higher education … well, that and the whole intelligence and money thing.

Remind me to show you my emotion scars sometime. 

See, there’s irrefutable proof … precious little me with my mittened hand frozen to the outside doorknob leading into my kindergarten classroom.  And, you’re correct.  It is a Christmas tree ornament.  It just shows to go ya what could be accomplished in only three months of extensive trial and error by the dexterity-challenged.

And let me put a myth to rest, here and now.  Those rumors that my mother would buy picture frames at Woolworth’s and keep the pictures they came with … so not true.

These first few years were a non-stop rush to sensory overload.  Outside my first grade basement classroom was something called “The Milk Machine.”  It was light blue and it was wonderful.  You put in a nickel and out tumbled a carton of milk.  Since my mother was all about good-health-through-sound-eating, the chocolate option was strictly off-limits.  But for some reason the machine’s flavor-selection software strangely malfunctioned with amazing frequency when I inserted my money.  Or maybe it was just the power of positive thinking.  In any case, I was pretty sure that machine was where God lived, church teaching notwithstanding.

Perhaps the goodness of that experience was just part of a feng shui thing, balanced out by my first grade teacher being in league with Satan, the Dark Side of the Force and He Who Shall Not Be Named.  I’m so glad that Toto escaped from her bicycle basket after she left our farm.  But I rationalized all that by thinking that when I died, I’d go directly to heaven, since the entire year of first grade would count against any required purgatory time.

And don’t believe I can’t read what you’re thinking about therapy in your thought balloon!

One third of the kidding aside, Fairview Elementary was, for me, the perfect place for exposure to all things, new and different.  For the vast majority of us, our very existence was about as white bread as it could get.  So when abstractions like death or divorce or moving away or unemployment or abuse needed to be discussed, there was something of a support mechanism.  More often than not, those mysteries were first handled with our classmates, not with our teachers nor with our parents.  While perhaps not factual or complete, those peer-to-peer explanations did come across in terms we could understand.  Coping became part of the skill set.  Today’s versions of ourselves, that’s Us 3.0, must be inundated with special counselors and care-givers to ensure that we manage our grief and confusion according to politically correct societal norms.  

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As important as interaction with others was, the bricks and mortar around us also mattered.  This is sermonette #74 if you’re following along in your program.  The glazed bricks of the hallways and stairwells were that same dark golden honey brown that would comfort us in our high school.  It was actually possible to hurt yourself on the playground, since lawyers and consumer safety advocates had not yet figured out how to sanitize those things away.  

There were two heavy metal outdoor drinking fountains.  Press the pedal at the base and you would hear the pitch of the sound change as the water worked its way toward you.  The thirstier you were, the longer it took.  Fat lot of good those three giant water towers out back did.

The only air conditioning I remember was at the Krogers over in Miracle Lane.  Late May and early September days on FES’ third floor could be hotter than a insert-slightly-off-color-metaphor-here.

Third grade saw my first teacher who had not been around for the asteroid that brought on the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.   Finally, the “when I was your age” stories from the front of the class were more about families having to “do without” during The Great Depression than enduring all-things-terrible during The Great War.  

As my years of watching Howdy Doody had given me the ability to discern order and patterns emerging in the world around me, I could now see a hierarchy of the fun activities that were part of the school day.  Although tres ordinaire, morning recess, at 9:30, was a good thing.  That I remember the time does speak to its significance to me.  It was a chance to burn off the sugar buzz from the piece of contraband Halloween candy I’d managed to smuggle into my mouth.  If you brought in newspaper for the paper drive, you’d get a another “free” recess that came at the expense of some afternoon class time.  You could almost hear the prayer of “Please, please, please, let it be math class.”  In the middle of the pyramid scheme were those times when you would have a movie in class or in a special assembly.  Seeing a projector set up was tantamount to a cue to turn your brain off. 

Was there no end to the contests and drives with all manner of little trinkets and cereal box premiums dangled in front of us as incentives to over-compete … appealing to our base instincts to kill or be killed?

Just what was the deal with tax stamps, anyway?  You know, those little inch-and-a-half square colored pieces of paper your folks got whenever they bought a non-food item.  They ranged in denominations from one cent to $15.  Just what benefit did the schools derive from them?  You could count on a tax stamp drive every year, with the same annoying frequency as a magazine subscription drive.  

Again with apologies to the preposition police, exploitation is the word you’re looking for.

The creme de la creme of fun stuff in the guise of education was the field trip.  For goodness sake, just remember to bring in the permission slip signed by your mother or someone else’s mother or any person with handwriting that didn't look like a ten-year old’s.  The sounds and smells of the Hostess Bakery, the Mike Sells plant and Royal Crest Dairy are indelibly etched into my hard drive.  For someone with SJFDD, (severe junk food deficit disorder), this was bliss.  Why, I can almost feel a cavity forming now as I think back on those times.

Given that correlation between alcohol consumption and brain atrophy, it’s doubtful anyone will recall the trip to the Columbus Zoo.  In that case then, you’re also not likely to remember that I was the one who had to sit on the bus for most of the day for being caught tossing a paper cup of pink lemonade into the hippo’s mouth.  Don’t think I didn’t learn a valuable lesson that fine day.  

Always look both ways before you do something stupid!

It was finally in the seventh grade that I passed the state-mandated fourth grade social skills proficiency battery.  If you don’t believe me, I can show you my report cards with all the check marks for talking when I shouldn’t.  Right there, the row called “Has Power of Self-Control.” 

First grade aside, most of my teachers were, if not highly skilled at their craft, at least very attuned to what was going on inside our tiny little pea brains.  They knew how to get some learning accomplished in spite of our penchant for treating knowledge like some foreign antibody.  A big bonus was that at least three of my teachers had been students at FHS earlier in the ‘50s and even our principal through the fourth grade had been a teacher there in the ‘30s.  We certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, but that sort of awareness and continuity brings with it an invaluable amount of understanding and compassion … greasing the skids, as it were, to make the transitions from grade school to high school, from child to adolescent, and from idiot to less idiot, a bit less OMG. 

Fruit rolls … cleaning erasers … goodies on kids’ birthdays … mimeograph smell …   the Pledge of Allegiance

And, like all morality tales, there is a takeaway here.  Some of us, even back in the Paleolithic, might have had the inkling that we were living something of a privileged life and its significance was not totally lost on us.  Maybe it’s called nurture.  Doors were not locked and weirdos and crime were usually someplace else.  Walking unescorted to and from school and home for lunch somehow made school time and home time something of a continuum. 

Worked for me.