Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Birth Day I Never Thought Could Happen

My son just turned 50 - I don't know how he got to be so much older than me and besides, he is still my red-haired toddler playing on Alki beach. His birthday does, however, make me think about my education - that is, my elementary and parental schooling which is almost a contradiction in terms. The three R's (reading, (w)riting, and (a)'rithmetic) were taught well. Sex education? Not so much!

It was either seventh or eighth grade (the Island's only junior high school was actually just one wing of Commodore Bainbridge Elementary School) when Mrs. Jessie Schroeder, one of our well-known guiding teacher lights, showed us girls in our "health" class, a Disney-made, school movie about the "facts of life." Not the mechanics of "how" or not to "how", but rather, cartoons about menstruation and of the fetus' way out of the womb. It was more than I learned at home and I was too shy and intimidated by my peers to ask questions. In sixth grade I had experienced the first personal trace of "becoming a woman" - which is the only explanation given to me by both my mother and grandmother about the mysteries of menstruation. They left a Kotex pad and belt for me in the bathroom. I don't even remember if either one showed me how to put the contraption on. One of them said the belt worked just like the garters on the "panty girdle" which I wore to hold up nylon stockings. That, I had been carefully taught how to do by the time I was in fifth grade. Because it was mandatory at the time, for females to wear long stockings, hat, and gloves for church, any special occasion and/or holiday, and of course, to go shopping in the big metropolis of Seattle.

Back to sex - which naturally (or rather, should have) includes contraception. Another subject which was never discussed either at home or school. I sort of heard about "how not to get pregnant" circumstantially and through whispers among small girl groups - in, maybe, high school. I was an exceptionally insecure adolescent perhaps due to being at least a year younger than my classmates because I had "skipped" first grade. Also, the one thing I had been carefully taught was not to think I was "better than anyone else." "Who do you think you are?" I heard over and over, only adding to my total lack of confidence.

Well - this is becoming very personal - forgive me - my intention is to describe the educational differences and limitations of the 1940's - 50's compared to now. My experience by definition is only my own and by geography limited to a small, isolated, conservative location. The term "teenager" as a different species of human and one with special attributes only came into universality, some 10 to 15 years after World War II. Now it is has a "special interest" identity and pretty much its own voice. Those of us born in what I call the "Quiet Generation(s)" were taught "children are to be seen, not heard." So it is no surprise to look back and see teenage rebellious acts as pretty innocuous.

For example, a group of us (insensitive) girls stole flowers for school occasions like the annual events, the "Honor Society Dinner" and, best of all, the "Mother/Daughter Tea" where we modelled garments made in sewing class. A group of giggling girls carried out those dastardly raids. If Mrs. Paski, our gracious and popular home economics teacher, had known with what her stage had been decorated, I'm certain there would have been embarrassing repercussions.

Mischievous boys stashed a pre-war Volkswagen Beetle at the top of the grandstand. The car's owner, a popular girl, didn't hesitate in her identification of the culprits. Punishment was assignment to wash the school buses which of course ended in a water fight. Everything those guys did turned into some kind of party. The same rogue group also coaxed a new biology teacher from Chicago to go on a night trip to dig clams. The tide came in and they let the poor guy (who couldn't swim) get water-imprisoned on a rock. They coaxed him to jump in the water and wade to shore. He ended up with a miserable cold and biology class was suspended for a couple of days. Don't know if that was all pre-planned or just a surprise bonus.

Pranks were gender generic and kept us busy in spite of the lack of organized and commercial activities. Still, it was not an environment that inspired criminality. The isolation our moat gave us kept our lives relatively innocent. Too bad in other ways, though, as the incidence of "shotgun" marriages was pretty common.

Two Island icons arrived in 1947. Each one played a major role in preventing teen crime and providing school activities. First of all, Coach Tom Paski began as a high school teacher. He taught history and, his first love, coached the boys' basketball, football, and baseball teams. Because there were less than three hundred students in the four year high school, mostly the same boys played all three sports. It's no surprise they became pretty attached to Coach Paski.

March 8, 1948, Coach's second year as an Islander, he led the basketball team to State Victory in the Class B league, in spite of the odds. What a celebration! No true Islander would ever let that date die! The chubby little ferry, Kehloken, entered Winslow Harbor carrying the triumphant team and the kids who had traveled all the way to Tacoma on school buses. The Captain blew the whistles and tooted the horn, all the vehicles on board joined the cacophony including a couple of Model T's OOOOOGA OOOOOOGA horns. The passengers were screaming, stomping, and yelling, the band was playing. The wooden dock vibrated with the waiting crowd's jumping and hollering. The Island partied that night and for days afterward. Just mentioning the names of the winning team members; Uglesich, Olson, Woodman, Nadeau, Sigle, Nakata, and the rest of the boys, would set off animated discussions. The boys could go anywhere, do anything, they were HEROS. Buttons popped off proud chests for a long time. And Coach Paski was the biggest hero of all.

The other immigrant was Chuck Burrows, the Island's first full-time sheriff. He too soon was firmly woven into the Island tapestry. Somehow having a personal officer, gave Islanders a sense of ease they had not known they lacked. He would turn up whenever there was the least disturbance and at every public event. He investigated everything from automobile accidents to missing chickens. His pistol shot opened every Easter egg hunt. Little kids looked up to him and as is the wont of teenagers, was the target of many of their jokes. Still, they respected him and would not cross his boundaries without some token of acknowledgement.

And not-to-be-forgotten monster Captain Peabody, was in the news early in '48, too. In February he threatened to halt his ferries. All he had to do was give fifteen days notice. He wanted to raise rates which of course was more than a little controversial. Island boat owners rallied their emergency watery transportation plan and owners of the for-hire-pleasure boat, the "Virginia V," promised to provide transportation for the basketball team and fans to the upcoming basketball tournament in Tacoma. The strike was thwarted but Peabody raised rates 30% (which later were reduced by command of the State). The ferry saga wouldn't end for several years and King Peabody remained in power. His house was across the street and up the hill from my grandparents' house. Whenever I trudged up the hill, I would scurry past the big, white house afraid he would see me. My fear undoubtedly stemmed from all the adults' conversations I overheard and of course from the newspaper cartoons and articles berating the guy. I don't recall what I thought would happen if the Captain had ever stepped into my sight. I just kept on hurrying up the hill.

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