Ahhhh, the 1960s....a decade in contrasts. Lines of sleek modernity marked the period as much as animated accessories worn by both people and automobiles. Easter Sunday frocks with layers of crinoline and what we called 'net' swish under hats and gloves in front of Plymouth's finest fins.
On this first day of summer 2014 I'm thinking back a few years to the school days of our youth as I share the following thoughts:
Such simple verbs, but they set the stage offering fundamentals to tackle a world of problems. Commencement speakers annually take the stand this time of year and fill the air with advice to graduates about looking forward and looking back: We distil life's essence and dispense it in measured doses at graduation.
Looking back, what early impressions linger from our school days?
As first graders in 1961, our generation perched at the apex of the language peak shaped by Dick, Jane and Sally. We Look and See and We Come and Go: these basic readers paved the way for us.
80% of first graders who were learning to read were reading Fun with Dick and Jane. We knew Spot, Puff, Tim, Mother, Father, even Zeke the gardener. But all things must change, and the series suffered a precipitous decline in sales in the late 1960s. Having insufficient defense to charges of representing middle class, white America, Dick, Jane and Sally were g-o-n-e.
We come and go alright; Dick and Jane were casualties of a cultural war.
After falling out of favor for content and caught in the cross-fire of cultural hostility through the 60s and 70s, there was a surge in popularity of the little books that taught Americans to read since the 1930s. Dick and Jane were hot again in the late 1990s, but only as memorabilia. They were mere artifacts of a bygone era, devalued to souvenir status.
Leaving the debate of language instruction methods to reading specialists, most of us can still remember two things after all these years: the name of our first grade teacher and Dick, Jane and Sally.
Some relationships matter.
No one likely remembers who won the chemistry award or class favorite. But that teacher—dare I say a woman—who greeted the class each day of first grade in sensible shoes and who walked with purpose in every step, we remember her. She held sway over our class of 30 six year olds with not one assistant in sight. And she did it handily.
Elementary school pictures back then showed girls in dresses, boys in pants, and blackboards or green chalk boards on the wall topped by illustrated alphabet handwriting posters. Dusting erasers was a necessary task for the chosen few who got to beat the chalk dust out of those felt pads against a brick wall.
Back then kids played on the now-banned merry go ’round and lived to tell about it. Recess meant playing jump rope, dodge ball and hopscotch not texting and sending photos via iphone. The Princess phone had not even been invented yet, so forgive me for not understanding why first graders need a cell phone today.
Pantsuits—but neither pants nor jeans—became an option about 1971 for many across the state. Yes, polyester was rising to its zenith, but fashion was only the tip of the iceberg.
Students in the late 60s in Mississippi saw changes in school desegregation and social structures leading to sweeping curriculum revision—every action creating an equal and opposite reaction. This pressure on all sides combined to cause the ultimate demise of the little books that taught us how to read. The verdict: Too white, too suburban, too post-war America, “See Spot run,” had run its course.
Life is a lot like maps: it all depends upon where you draw the lines. And somebody is always drawing the lines. For this reason, we need to apply our hearts unto wisdom. My first grade teacher was among those who taught us that—back when you still could, that is.
She also taught us to recite each morning the 23rd Psalm and the 100th Psalm along with the Pledge. Repetition is not the highest form of learning, but there is something about impressing words upon a heart that offers a wellspring of consolation when drawing from it later. Mrs. Howard was not merely teaching us to read, she saw her job as teaching young people how to live in a world that would change more rapidly than the one she had already experienced.
The day will surely come when others will declare our methods faulty and our materials flawed.
Some future generation may dismiss us as irrelevant on account of age alone.
Our lives, if they are to matter, must represent more than a relic of by-gone days, more than shiny chrome bumpers and tail fins. As we pass along insights to those who come behind us packed into the little verbs that first taught us go, look and see, may we leave in our wake a legacy of loving relationships and faithful commitment in our pursuits.
"Be careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise—making the most of every opportunity..."