Tuesday, August 12, 2014

House calls

A few months back, I saw an article in The NY Times that I found a bit unsettling.

I filed it in my “possible topic” folder, and kept coming back to it.

Now, with the start of the school year looming – odd, how even when you don’t have kids and haven’t had any back-to-school jitters of your own for decades, early September always seems to be the start of something – I’ve pulled it out of the topics file, and am ready to take it on.

The article was about a progressive Manhattan pre-K-eighth school, Manhattan Country School, that serves a racially and economically diverse population. It also brings its pre-schoolers, who are 4- and 5-year-olds on field trips to one another’s homes.

“We knew we needed to talk about social class,” said Lois Gelernt, the teacher who came up with the idea. “It was opening up a can of worms, but if we were never going to talk about who we are and where we come from, the sense of community wasn’t going to be there.” (Source: NY Times)

Okay, it’s easy enough to make fun of the liberal parents who want to have “the conversation” with their 4-year-olds, but better the crunchy granola, do-gooding liberals than the callous jerks going nuts if their 4-year-olds fail the entrance interview for the pre-school that will set them on the Ivy track.

Still, there’s something disturbing about shepherding a group of little ones on a totally inorganic play date that maybe opens the eyes of some of the have kids, but that maybe also makes the have-nots feel a bit bad and embarrassed.

Not according to the Manhattan Country School:

“Four-year-olds have no value judgments about one house being better than another because it’s fancier,” said Sarah Leibowits, who teaches that age group and now leads the visits. “They don’t think that way. That’s what adults think.”

Maybe I was a bit older, but at a pretty young age, thanks to the compare and contrast between what I watched on TV and where I actually lived, I knew there were social and economic differences out there. Certainly by first grade, I had already hypothesized that Ozzie and Harriet must be Protestants because they lived in such a nice house.

I grew up in a blue collar-lower middle class neighborhood in Worcester. The “housing stock” was mostly three-deckers (some of which had shops in their basements or first floors), modest pre-war single family homes, big old run-down rattling houses that dated from when the neighborhood had been a lot less populated and a tad more prosperous, and slapped up GI-bill ranch and Cape Cod houses built in the 1950’s.

Those of us who lived in those modest pre-war single families or slapped up GI-bill homes had mostly started out living in a flat in a three-decker. Most of us had grandparents and aunts and uncles who still lived in deckers.

Plus or minus a bit, most of the families in our neighborhood lived at pretty much the same level.

Yet we knew there were differences.

The kids who lived on the other side of the tracks (literally) on Lyman Street were poor.

The people who lived in the beautiful old colonial – built in 1760 – that incongruously sat around the corner from our house must have been rich. (They were Protestants, so that pretty much sealed it.)

Relatively speaking, we were among the haves. Our gerry-built house had two bathrooms, my father wore a tie to work, and we had a lot of books. But the over and under in our hood wasn’t all that great.

Around Christmas, when we drove around to see the lights, we especially liked to go over to Worcester’s West Side, where the real rich folks lived. They didn’t go in for a lot of colored lights, glowing Santas, reindeer on the roof, plaster crèche scene.

No, they went for the ultra classy white candle in the windows, and a spot-lit wreath on the front door.

Ah, those rich folks had class! And nice, big comfy repro-Colonials and mock Tudors. Full of nicey-nice families, no doubt Protestants all, just like the nicey-nice families I saw on Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to  Beaver, Father Knows Best, Donna Reed. A Protestant ascendancy, if ever.

(It didn’t take a genius to figure out that even though religion never came up, The Honeymooners were Catholics. And a few years later, who were they kidding when they made Archie Bunker a Prod? Come on, if ever there were a Queens Irishman…)

I had a set of relations who lived in Newton, in a neighborhood that was hardly posh, but which was recognizably more affluent and upscale than ours. This set of cousins were the closest folks I knew who were as near to Ozzie and Harriet as you could get without actually being Protestants living in Hollywood. (It helped that these cousins, even though they were Catholic, went to public school.)

On the other side of the family, our Chicago cousins, the Dineens, lived, like us, in one of those slapped up GI-bill houses, in a neighborhood like ours that was teeming with kids.

Nobody in either of those neighborhoods had much by way of money, but there wasn’t much by way of stark poverty, either.

But you’d have to have been blind not to recognize a few differences.

The kids whose families didn’t have cars, or who had older models – this in an era when everyone seemed to replace their car every couple of years. The kids who came to school in shoes worn down at the heels, or whose parents looked kind of rag-baggedy.

I had friends who lived in three deckers that didn’t have heat in every room. They slept in bedrooms off of the dining room that had some kind of heating stove in it.

I remember playing at one girl’s house – a classmate that I wasn’t particular friends with, but with whom I played when the different neighborhood orbits came together. Her mother gave us glasses of water served in jelly jars. Now pretty much everyone had jelly-jar glasses. Welch’s grape jelly came in jars that featured cartoon characters on them – Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam. But the jelly jars that Theresa’s mother gave us to drink out of were not of the rim-less Welch’s kind, but were the lipped jars that regular old jelly came in. No one said anything, but I could tell by the look on Terry’s face that she was a bit embarrassed, ad we all felt a bit bad for her. But, hey, water was water, and the M’s had a ton of kids.

But I guess if you aren’t able to figure out who has what from the up-close and personal experiences that happen in the natural course of events, or go in for wild extrapolation from what you see on TV, which was my forte, making show-and-tell a movable feast is one way to go.

…[Teacher Lois] Gelernt specifically remembers an effusive greeting from a neighbor of a child who lived in the Bronx. He came out of a store and shouted her name; it turned out he was the local numbers runner.

On another visit, the small children sat in tall chairs in an oversize Park Avenue dining room as a father emerged from the kitchen with a snack of truffles. None of the students ate them.

Surely those truffles were a jest…

Part of me thinks I should be lauding the Manhattan Country School for not shying away from the fact that some kids know the numbers runner and other kids know where to get the best truffles.

Still, I can’t see what taking these kids on these little home visits actually accomplishes.

Maybe it’s that it’s all too official and contrived. A birthday party, an afternoon playing at another kid’s home, a parent explaining to their little ones that not everyone gets to vacation in Nantucket. That all makes sense to me.

But this approach almost seems like a way for the haves to make sure their kids get an opportunity to learn there are have-nots. (Hard to believe the have-nots would be clamoring for this.)

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, other than that this approach seems way too much like a trip to the aquarium or the zoo.

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