Monday, June 16, 2008

Parents Get Homework Too

I was asked to write about what I could remember of Kindergarten for a project related to my son Will's kindergarten class. Here is what I wrote followed by a couple appropriate tunes:

Memories are inherently unreliable. We change and distort our memories to suit our own needs and create compelling narratives that help us make sense of our lives. My memories of kindergarten are at best hazy and fragmented. Thinking back on kindergarten it is difficult for me to distinguish between things that really happened and things I may have imagined or dreamed. I doubt the memories of kindergarten I carry with me bear much relation to events as they actually happened at time.

I vaguely remember feeling nervous on my first day of kindergarten. When I got to school, my teacher, Mrs. Tolson, mispronounced my name and I had to correct her (a ritual that would be repeated for the next twelve years of my life). My Elementary School (which housed grades K-6) seemed enormous, and so did most of the other children in comparison with myself. At first, everything about kindergarten was intimidating and unfamiliar. Even the word “kindergarten” sounded strange to me. I had misheard it as “kindergarden.” If this was a garden where were all the plants? Not much about the experience made sense to me initially. But once I had been in school for a few days, it was hard to remember what I had been so apprehensive about in the first place.

Mostly, I remember having fun in kindergarten. I remember playing a lot. The boys in the class favored wooden building blocks that we would use to construct tall fortresses, which we would proceed to knock down with great fanfare. The girls were always doing something else, but I never knew what. I don’t recall the class doing much in the way of academics, although I’m sure there must have been some of that.

I didn’t find everything about kindergarten fun though. One unpleasant thing that sticks in my mind these many years later is the fact that whenever the class had to go somewhere, we were forced to line up by height, shortest to tallest. I can still faintly recall my perpetual embarrassment at having to be first in line. I realize now that this arrangement made it easier for our teacher to keep an eye on all of her students, but at the time it seemed arbitrary and cruel to me.

These are the things I think I remember about kindergarten, but it’s impossible to know how closely they reflect reality without some immutable record like a photograph or video recording. Fortunately, I do have one such record, our class photograph.

Looking at the photo of my kindergarten class drives home just how many of my memories from that time are lost to me now. There are two adults in the picture, one Caucasian, the other African American. I literally have no idea which one is my teacher, Mrs. Tolson. I had expected to find the face of someone I am still friends with in this photograph, but he isn’t there. My good friend Peter Hennig doesn’t show up in my class photos until first grade. I do recognize a few of my classmates’ faces (or at least I think I do): Peter Munch, Jennifer Rucker, Dwayne Redding, Danita Chase, Kerry French, Holly Pearmon, Lisa Debord, Laura Hughes, Sonya Atkinson, Alan Rourke and Sharonda Maynard. I haven’t seen most of these people in decades, but remarkably I can still put names to their five and six year old faces. Other faces tease the limits of my memory, while still others are completely unfamiliar to me.

The photo also stirs memories of the time period in which it was taken. I can recall some of the popular songs that were being played on the radio at the time: “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “The Streak” by Ray Stevens (streaking was a briefly popular pastime in 1974), “Band On The Run” by Wings, “Mandy” by Barry Manilow and “The Hustle” by Van McCoy (which kicked off the disco craze). By far my favorite song at the time was “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell. I remember trying to sing along to it in front of my father’s KLH Model Twenty-One transistor radio.

Looking at the photograph it is clear that our parents had as questionable taste in fashion as they did in music. It would be unusual today to see so much plaid in one place outside of a family reunion in Scotland. I wonder if Will will find similar fault with the way we now dress him someday. I suspect so, and I’d like to apologize to him in advance.

Fashion aside, the mid-seventies were a different time in many respects. Few of my classmates’ mothers worked outside of the home. When not in school, children rarely participated in organized activities. Instead, we were generally set free to play as we wished around our neighborhoods, and were only expected to return home for meals. I remember playing kickball, tag and games with lurid names like “Ghost in the Graveyard” and “Smear the Queer” with the other children who lived in my neighborhood. In my memory, childhood was a freer and less structured affair than it is today.

But I think it would be a mistake to fall victim to nostalgia and conclude that I grew up during a “simpler” or “more innocent” time than today. In fact, it strikes me that there are a number of historical parallels between the time I was in kindergarten (1974-75) and Will’s kindergarten years (2007-08). Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and having sunk to public approval ratings almost as low as the current occupant of the White House, had been forced to resign from office just before I began kindergarten in September of 1974. The earliest thing I can remember watching on television was Nixon’s resignation speech, followed by a helicopter carrying him into the void of history.

Helicopters would again be in the news in April of 1975 as the last American military forces were airlifted out of Saigon, ending an unpopular war with too many parallels to the one the United States is currently ensnared in. Due to an OPEC embargo, gasoline prices skyrocketed, and just like this summer, families were forced to adjust or cancel their summer vacation plans.

As a child, these events were never more than on the periphery of my consciousness, but I’m sure they had an effect on me. More generally, I recall there was a pervasive sense of pessimism about the future. I remember being told on more than one occasion (perhaps in kindergarten, perhaps later) that I belonged to the first generation of Americans that would have less than their parents’ generation. We were constantly being told, in ways subtle and obvious, to adjust our expectations downward. I trust that this is not a mistake that will be repeated on Will’s generation.

Radiohead - Rhinestone Cowboy
Robyn Hitchcock - Kung Fu Fighting
Robyn Hitchcock - 1974


Darren said...

The last time I visited my folks before they retired and moved to Michigan, I grabbed my camera and spent an afternoon photographing all of the locations that still resonated strongly in my memories of childhood. I walked around the playground in Pines, hopped a fence and hiked into the woods near my old house, drove past the home where I took piano lessons and then over to Chase Creek Swim Club (which smells exactly the same as it did 25 years ago), and strolled through the basketball court and baseball field behind Arnold elementary. I did it because I wanted to capture those memories in case I never made it back to Maryland.

The photos are all on my hard drive, but I'm really ambivalent about them. First, I was surprised, when revisiting these places, by how accurate my memories were. I still had all of the details right. By comparison, though, the photos are emotionally flat. There's nothing magical or strange about them.

Have you ever watched Tarkovsky's films? Looking at my own photos, I was suddenly even more impressed by the images from his own childhood memories that he recreated for Mirror. It gives some weight to his idea that even purely subjective images will resonate with others if they're true and honest (and composed and photographed by Andrei Tarkovsky).

Darren said...

Does your sweater vest have a buckle? Awesome.

Pete Bilderback said...

I see you picked me out in the photo. Yep, that's a buckle on my sweater vest. Who knew such things existed? I doubt anyone would believe it without photographic evidence (the only thing I did in Photoshop was apply the "despeckle" filter because my scanner is crummy).

You know, honestly, I need to give Tarkovsky another chance.

Peter Hennig said...

I played my 7 inch of "Rhinestone Cowboy" to death on that little portable turntable of mine - God, I loved that song.

Is that Robbie Schultz in the front row wearing a bow tie?

Pete Bilderback said...

It may be Robbie Schultz, but I'm not sure. The hair color is right. I saw him one time when I was in college. I believe he was attending the Naval Academy (possibly Air Force--he planned to be a pilot). He swore once he got his wings he was finally going to get be back for hitting him over the head with a chair in the fourth grade.

Anonymous said...

I guess I should be flattered that you remembered me. I think the kid with the bow tie in the front row is Douglas Gould. I'm pretty sure he is - I still feel sorry for that kid. We road the same bus, didn't we? I can still remember him getting picked on every single day. Anyway - I have been having a blast looking at that picture. I remembered pretty much the same names that you did. Its almost 1 am, I just got home from work. I am now a nurse and I work the evening shift, part time, so that someone is always home with the kids.

I enjoyed reading you comments. Mrs. Tolson is the African-American woman. I really don't remember anything about Kindergarten, except the lining up. You know, Arnold was a pretty good place to grow up. - Laura (Hughes) Grace

Mark N. said...

I really enjoyed this post, Pete. Your kindergarten photo looks so much like mine--same hair, and same fashion (same basic memories). I attended kindergarten from '73-'74 (Peter Vetal Elementary, Detroit, MI--Miss Sibley's class).

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Laura--nice to hear from you. Of course I remember you quite well.

I'm pretty sure that's not Doug Gauld. I would recognize him (he is in a few of my other photos). Doug was indeed subject to a lot of cruel treatment when we were kids. Doug and I were friends, and I always remember feeling like I should stick up for him more, but sometimes I felt annoyed with him because it almost seemed like he was working hard to bring it on himself (I'm sure he wouldn't remember it that way).

In any case, there's no reason to feel bad for Doug--he is now a reasonably happy adult with a normal life. I still hear from him every now and then. He teaches English at Dunbar H.S. in Baltimore.

Yes, we road the same bus. Someday I'm going to write a post about my memories of riding the bus. I have some strange ones.

I'm also in regular contact with Peter Hennig (who occasionally contributes here) and Tim Hitchcock.

I also keep in touch with the MacWilliams family. Mac and his wife Brittnay are accomplished classical musicians and teachers. Phil is a lawyer. Susan is a teacher. She married a Midshipman and bought her parents house when they moved into an apartment in a retirement village in Arnold.

I saw Jenny Rucker at Susan's wedding a few years back--she seemed very happy.

My brother bought our parents' house and lives there with his wife and two daughters (who will soon attend good old Arnold Elementary). (I can still faintly hear our school song in the back of my head.)

I had a vague feeling Mrs. Tolson was the African American woman, but I couldn't remember for sure. I suspect my consciousness of race was pretty low in Kindergarten, which is why I had trouble remembering.

We did grow up in a great place (and time) to be kids. That may not come across as well as it should in my post.

Saint-Flit said...

Just found this blog. Good work. I was wondering if you could do a post on the band Human Switchboard?

Pete Bilderback said...

Peter--I've had a surprising number of people tell me "Rhinestone Cowboy" was their favorite song back in the day.

Mark--Thanks for your kind words. I think a lot of people in our age group have similar memories of Kindergarten. Perhaps next year I will post my first grade picture, my outfit in that one is even better--best described as a plaid leisure suit. I look like a mini Herb Tarlek.

Saint-Flit--Sorry, but I don't have anything by Human Switchboard. I vaguely remember they were led by a guy who later became a music industry exec who got arrested when a high-profile PI got busted. I don't think I ever owned anything by them though.

Chandler said...

My name is Chandler, and I am just a casual music blog reader, and just stumbled across this post. I am currently in high school, and still have some fairly clear memories about my kindergarten class. It was very interesting for me to read about your (more faded, perhaps) memories, and then to see all the responses from classmates in the photo. What particularly struck me were the parallels you drew between your kindergarten years and those of your son. It seems to me like the general experiences of the early years of everyone's life change less dramatically with the times, ignoring the more embarrassing aspects such as clothing. Maybe this is because at that age, people are more isolated from the world around them and are swayed less by world affairs such as the Vietnam or Iraq debacles, or in my case, the aftermath of the conflict in Bosnia and the Clinton sex scandal. Even so, I can vividly remember defending Clinton angrily to my more republican-raised first grade classmates even though I had little idea what was actually going on. Furthermore, I can relate to many of the descriptions of your class such as lining up shortest to tallest (I was always in the back, and also felt victimized), and I'm sure your son is experiencing many of these same things over again. Because I am at sort of a period of transition in my life, making the move to college in the next couple years, your brief essay served to remind me of my childhood, and bring back many memories of my own. After reading it through, I went back and dug up my kindergarten picture, then first grade and so on, prompting a 30-minute long nostalgia-filled glance at my past. Thanks for allowing me to experience these things again, and call back memories I hadn't thought of in years. It was actually a lot of fun. It is good, I think, to relive these years of development fairly often so as to lose as little of it as possible. I hope that in 20 years, I will be able to look back at my kindergarten photo and call roll with confidence.

Great post, thanks a lot.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Chandler--

Thank you very much for posting your thoughts. It's funny because while I was feeling victimized by being in the front of the line, I don't doubt the taller kids felt awkward about their own position. It wouldn't surprise me to learn the kids in the middle of the pack perceived the whole thing as a conspiracy to draw attention to just how "average" they were.

At that age it is difficult to understand what is going on in the "grown-up" world, and it always seems as if secrets are being kept from us. I'm sure that was especially true during the Clinton impeachment. It's tough to imagine what I would have made of that in Kindergarten, or what my son would make of it now.

It's nice to know that I occasionally get readers outside my own age group, and that you were able to find something to relate to in what I wrote. Best of luck to you as you make the transition into college.

Captain Emus said...

Thanks for posting this version of Rhinestone Cowboy. I remember hearing this song often on my parents' stereo as a child. What an excellent cover by Radiohead.

Pete Bilderback said...

You know, I'm not even a big Radiohead fan. But this cover does indeed rock.