How things have changed in 50 years

Friday, October 20, 2006

Whenever I see a group photograph of today's young schoolchildren, I find it interesting that they look much like the children who stood next to me on the steps of Shady Nook School in the Ozarks over yonder half a century ago.

Well, except for the overalls most of the boys were wearing then.

And the number of bare feet, if the photo was taken before the first frost.

Basically, though, how young students dress and how their hair is cut and how they smile haven't changed all that much.

What photographs don't show is what has changed. A part of that shift was described by Poplar Bluff teacher Brian White in an op-ed column on Monday's Opinion page. Reaction to his frustration with all the barriers that stand in the way of earnest teachers has come down solidly on the side of teachers.

Good. They deserve it.

Here are a few examples of the changes in the past 50 years in America's schoolhouses:

* Parental involvement. The mothers and fathers of my contemporaries had just endured the Great Depression and a world war. Many of them had not completed a grade-school education. More than anything, they knew that being educated was the key to a brighter future for their children. Except for my mother, who had enough college credits to teach in one-room schools, my teacher at Shady Nook was one of the few adults I knew who had been to college. Parents wanted their children educated. And that's what they got.

* Respect for teachers. The pecking order for those in authority over an elementary school student in my day was simple: God, parent, teacher, preacher, neighbor, judge, policeman, doctor, Sunday school teacher, Scoutmaster, 4-H leader, school bus driver, elected officeholder. See where teachers ranked? And see who's making decisions about today's education? (Hint: look at the bottom of the list.) If you got crossways with one of them, all the others knew about it. What does it take to raise a child? Role models who know your parents on a first-name basis.

* Drugs. When I was a boy, the only drugs I knew about were the ones a doctor prescribed and were purchased at Toney's Rexall Drugstore. Period. I never heard of smoking marijuana when I was growing up. The only dopeheads I heard about were the ones held up as examples of what could happen to me if I didn't straighten up and pay attention to the teacher. Or my parents. Or the preacher.

* Liquor. Once, in all of my growing-up years, my mother went to a liquor store -- in broad daylight -- and purchased rum for the fruitcakes she was baking that year. She had been assured by neighbors, respected cookbooks and the preacher that the alcohol would all evaporate, leaving only the special flavor in the fruitcakes. There were a few drunks around, who just happened to be handy examples of what could happen to me if ... .

* Smoking. Most adults smoked when I was growing up. Many of them rolled their own cigarettes. Almost everyone my age had at least tried a puff or two -- and a few grapevines and a bit of wild rabbit weed as well. I'm told that while smoking in general has declined in the United States, the fastest growing segment of new smokers is high school students. Where are the elected officeholders when you need them?

* Spanking. No list would be complete without a nod to the shift in thinking about a few good swats on the butt. You can't tell by looking at old photos how many of us combed our hair and stood up straight because of the possible consequences of wasting good film.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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