Saturday, March 24, 2007

Learning the lessons of school

I attended the sixth-ranked high school in the country, based on National Merit (I was a 99th percentile semi-finalist), and I didn't know a thing about the Holocaust, except Anne Frank, which I took to be a girl's diary vaguely set during war -- until I was visiting Germany at the end of 9th grade, the end of junior high, with our German class. The family I stayed with sat in a formal den and watched their version of PBS -- programming about WWII and the Holocaust -- every week. I struggled to keep up with the documentary -- things I was hearing for the first time -- with only one year of German under my belt. We obviously must have seemed naive -- though the Germans loved and feted us in the village. We didn't even know why Americans were stationed there. I am of a Christian background, of European, but not of German descent. Our parents were being protectionist about childhood but also about the U.S. itself; they knew more than they told us. We didn't know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor did we sit down as families to watch documentaries about it each week. Once high school started, I asked my Jewish friends to tell me more, since they had never talked about the Holocaust, either. They were making trips to Israel. They talked about "Zionism," yet there was no mention of "anti-semitism." In the African-American department, we were worse. Ours was the kind of community and school that had one black student per grade. We might be friends, but we didn't know psshit about it. We were expert musicians; we knew foreign languages, and calculus, but most of us had had few exposures re: race. This was in the mid-70s. Everyone watched "Roots" on TV, but about the Civil Rights Movement? Who knew? No history.

In seventh grade, we had a beautiful, mature-woman English teacher named Bev Smith. Bev was 22 and wore a different outfit every single day of the school year; she had kept all her clothes since 9th grade in St. Louis since she stayed so slender. We tried to imagine how huge her closet must have been. She had long, curvy decorated fingernails, so long that we marvelled that she could grip her pen with them. She was from the "Black is beautiful" era, and she taught it to us by example. She wore her hair in an afro. She had us begin each hour of English by writing in journals, which she collected and read. If we didn't want her to read a particular entry, we could write "don't read" at the top of that entry, and she would not read it. We trusted her. Once I wrote in my journal that I wanted to be "a writer and a model." Later, she wrote in the margin, "don't let anyone tell you you can't be both."

My nicknames in high school, given by two close friends, were "Bogstein" and "Mature Bogue."

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