Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Time for a Boomer Education Comeback?

Mister Boomer recently heard an interview with an author who wrote about the differences between the Chinese education system and that of the U.S. in an effort to discover why our country continually lags behind in elementary education surveys.

The author said that in China, children must obey their parents as the ultimate authority figures, and when they went to school, the teachers were the ultimate authority. Not even parents are allowed to question teachers’ methods or course study. While this cultural imperative imparts a strict discipline that is evidently conducive to prepping students for higher education, it sounds far more rigid that anything we have had in this country … or does it? Mister Boomer was struck by the similarities to our Boomer-era education.

Granted, things may never have been as disciplined as required in a Chinese classroom, but the way we rose through the school ranks is far different than what transpires today. First off, we were also taught to respect and listen to our parents, which, for the most part, we did. When we went to school, the teachers were thought of as an extension of the parents. That meant what the teacher said, went. If you came home and said, “The teacher hit me,” a parent might have responded with, “Good, what did you do to make her hit you?” Our parents would take the side of the teacher every time.

Yes, there was that corporal punishment aspect of classroom discipline that causes litigation today. Mister Boomer stayed along the straight and narrow, but he saw classroom beat-downs that would horrify today’s supermarket tabloids. It is doubtful that many people would want to return to that aspect of “education,” but it is a part of our shared history. Despite the threat of bodily harm, kids accepted teachers as authority figures.

This system sometimes broke down when there was a substitute teacher. Kids enjoyed giving her (teachers were mostly female) a hard time on occasion, though it was usually light-hearted mischievousness. Take, for example, one day Mister Boomer remembers: He was probably in fourth grade when the school principal came into his class and introduced a woman who was to be the sub for a few days. Immediately after the principal left, the substitute passed around a pad of paper and asked the kids to write their names so she could take attendance and get to associate the names with faces.

Almost immediately, muffled snickering could be heard as the list passed down one row and up the next. When it reached Mister B, he could see what the snickering was about. Enterprising youth as they were, most wrote their own names, but also added another fictitious one to the list. Naturally, at the top of the list a pre-teen boy had written above his own name,“Jack MeHoff.” Almost every student had joined in the fun, adding “Chuck Wagon,” “Luke Warm,” “Willie Makit,” and, in a rare bit of solidarity, a girl penned “Helen Bach” after her name. Mister B, feeling the peer pressure, added “Pete Moss.”

The payoff would come when the teacher called each name. Was she in on the joke or just clueless? Sure enough, she started at the top of the list, much to the delight of the class: “Jack … Mee-Huff, is that how you pronounce it? … Jack, where are you,” she continued as the class burst into laughter. She caught on pretty quickly after that and navigated the name land mines to conduct a regular class. There were no further incidents for the duration of her substitute days.

Is it time to return to a level of classroom respect that we experienced as boomers? Who can say, especially since so much has changed. Kids today are far more advanced in their course studies than we were, not to mention the influence of technology. Yet the U.S. lags down the list for education quality on the world stage.

What do you think, boomers? Are there aspects of our own Age of Innocence that can be applied today, or has that ship sailed into the annals of history?

posted by Mister B in Education and have Comment (1)

Boomers Did Not Question School Starting Times

Kids are back in school just about everywhere this week, prompting fresh controversy in the news about starting times. School start times vary from state to state and in some cases are local school district decisions. Every few years, a new report surfaces that says middle and high school start times are too early. This latest round of news is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which stated that the average national start time is 8 a.m. According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, the National Sleep Foundation and others, the recommended start time for adolescents would be 8:30 a.m. or later.

Though Mister Boomer could uncover no corroborating evidence, it seems logical to him that school start times were based on when parents of a particular region felt they could get their children to school. Consequently, the average start time has not changed much since the 1930s.

Contrary to the sitcoms of the boomer era, the majority of fathers in the country worked in manufacturing jobs in the 1950s and ’60s. Work start times were 7 a.m. or earlier, so dads would often be gone before the children got out of bed. Nonetheless, it was considered a woman’s job to get the kids off to school. Since it was also the woman’s job to get her husband a breakfast before he went off to work, presumably she would have time when her husband walked out the door to wake the kids, prepare their breakfast and see them off to school between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. At least this train of thought fits Mister Boomer’s experience, and every family of the kids he knew at the time.

Of course, by the very early sixties, his mother revolted and refused to get up to cook Mister B’s father a breakfast. Soon after, she announced she wasn’t getting up to see her kids off to school, either. No matter to Mister Boomer and his siblings, as they ate a bowl of cereal (and later, Carnation Instant Breakfast and Pop Tarts) and learned to pack their own lunches before walking two miles in a snowstorm to get to school before the 8 a.m. start time. But we digress.

Several scientific experts are stating that kids need at least 8 hours of sleep, and later start times in some counties is supporting evidence that students are more alert, ready to learn, and are more productive. Coaches are saying they notice the later start times are contributing to better performance in sports as well.

Then again, there is a report that says two out of every three teens get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep. Of course, the question immediately arises that, if kids need eight hours of sleep, why aren’t they going to bed earlier? Mister Boomer recalls an expanding bedtime schedule as he grew; in his younger years, it was 9 p.m. but by the time he was a teen, he often stayed up to 10:30 or 11 p.m. Since his alarm went off at 7 a.m., presumably he and his siblings got the requisite eight hours. That was then. Nowadays, kids have so many more distractions than boomers did, first among them the smart phone. There is one report that says on average kids spend the first hour when they go to bed on their phones, texting, watching videos and updating social media posts.

In boomer days, if a peep was heard from the bedrooms down the hall, parents might shout out, “shut up and go to sleep!” It seems these days that parents do not command that level of authority. Mister Boomer works with one Gen-Xer who was so frustrated by his early-teen kids’ nightly behavior that he impounded their cell phones at bedtime.

Oh, that George Jetson, dropping his kids off to school in the morning on his way to work. It seems in boomer times we could not envision a time when school would start later in the morning.

Science, however, is saying it’s not only the eight hours that are required, but the disruption of the circadian rhythm at the earlier hour that is coming into play. Certainly many a boomer recalls dozing off in an early class. And many boomers — including Mister B — can attest to napping in a 7:30 a.m. college course. In Mister Boomer’s case, it was a Humanities course. No sooner did the professor shut the lights and turn on the slide projector than he was fighting to keep his eyes open.

From Mister Boomer’s perspective on our shared boomer upbringing, there were things that just were, and that was that. School start time was never a question, it just was the time you had to be there. For the most part, he does not recall a lot of kids dozing off in class early on, either. At that time, teachers would hardly have stood for it, and might give a kid a swift whack with a ruler if a kid was discovered dozing.

Mister B is no expert on the subject, and doesn’t play one in his blog. He is just pointing out another of the growing list of differences between the generations of when boomers yawned at the dawn’s early light and today’s generation that wakes up to a blinking screen.

What time did your school start, boomers? Did you ever fall asleep in an early class?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on Boomers Did Not Question School Starting Times

Boomers Learned About the Birds and the Bees

Debates about sex education were headline news in the boomer era, but our generation was far from the first to be caught up in the decades-long controversy. Some historians point to the time in the 1800s when the U.S. began changing from an agrarian society to a manufacturing base as when sex education discussion — particularly, how to teach children about it — first surfaced. Before that time children observed farm animals mating as their own natural introduction to what euphemistically became known as “the birds and the bees.” Almost immediately sides were drawn as who should teach the children, when they should be taught, how it would be taught, and what would actually be conveyed to them.

Since no definitive solution was forthcoming, debates continued into the 1900s. By 1912,  the National Education Association was backing a program to train teachers about sex ed, though no official academic agenda was in place. The government got involved in the fray during World War I. Faced with widespread STD transmission among the troops, the army began making training films about the dangers of syphilis and gonorrhea. This experience led government officials to suggest that maybe sex ed should be taught in schools as a matter of national security.

By the 1920s — itself a decade known for libidinal behavior — sex ed in the form of social hygiene and health was being taught in at least a third of U.S. school districts. As World War II began in Europe, the U.S. Public Health Service stated it was an “urgent need” that sex ed be taught in schools.

After the War, the Boomer Generation was emerging. Education and health associations inside and outside the government and education circles again put forth an effort to establish nationwide training in schools. By 1955, the American Medical Association, in conjunction with the National Education Association, produced five pamphlets, referred to as “the sex education series,” that became the first national effort at standardizing information. That put boomers smack dab in the middle of a controversy that was reignited by both religious and political groups.

For the next decade sex ed in schools was labelled as everything from “smut” to “a communist plot.” This opposition coincides with the anecdotal research Mister Boomer has conducted on the subject. Namely, if, how and what boomers were taught about “the birds and the bees” in school varied greatly, depending on the state and the decade in which the boomer came of age.

Jewel Akens recorded this hit in song in 1964.

In Mister Boomer’s history, the subject isn’t complicated. As previously noted, Mister B spent his elementary school years in parochial school. Nuns weren’t exactly the type of teachers one would expect to know much about the subject, let alone teach it. Mister Boomer recalls that even the topic of the human body in sixth grade Science class was controversial. As students stared at “The Human Body” chapter title in their textbooks, the nun announced that this chapter could be read on each students’ own time. Several of the students, including Mister B, were fascinated by the clear acetate overlays in the chapter. They were the only color images in the book, and represented the organs, muscle and nervous systems. The teacher was not amused, demanding everyone close their books and repeated that it was up to each student whether the chapter would be read at home.

It wasn’t long after that, the subject of “the birds and the bees” was actually a topic in Religion class. The sum total of the discussion went like this: The nun told her students that at this point in their book, each student was supposed to ask their parents to give them “the talk.” As proof that this task was accomplished, the parent would sign the designated spot in their child’s book.

Mister B dutifully brought the book home and reluctantly opened it, explaining to his parents what his teacher had said. Immediately his mother got up from the dining room table and, walking away, said Mister B could talk with his father. Mister B’s dad, holding the book, escorted him down the hall toward his bedroom. Outside the bedroom door, he broke his silence. “If you ever have any questions, you can ask me,” he said. With that, he signed the book and gave it back to Mister B. The subject was never broached again.

Having been given “the talk,” Mister B had to learn about “the birds and the bees” the way many boomers did — on the street. Of course, misinformation ran rampant, but without any corroborating evidence, any tidbit was treated as truth. Some boomers talk of breaking into their father’s stash of Playboy magazines as their first foray into the subject. For Mister Boomer, the first “naked ladies” he saw were in the form of anatomy drawings. His neighbor’s parents were both artists and the boy brought one of their books to show around.

Other than that, the only mention of sex in elementary school came in the form of a movie that was supposed to illustrate the dangers of teen pregnancy … but, obliquely filmed with shadows and symbols to tell that story, it went over the heads of most of the kids. So much for sex ed until “health” class in high school. Even then, though, very little was said about “the birds and the bees.”

Did you have “the talk,” boomers? Was there any sex education taught in your school?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Lunch Box

You might say that the boomer era — in the 1950s through the 1970s — was the Golden Age of the Lunch Box. Lunch boxes first appeared in the 1800s when people could travel farther to get to work in factories and no longer went home for lunch. Various tin and metal pails or buckets were devised to carry a midday meal. The first vacuum flask — what we call a Thermos — appeared in 1904, but wasn’t a standard part of a lunch box until the 1940s.

Things started to change in 1935 when Mickey Mouse appeared on a lunch box, marking Disney as the first company to license a character for this purpose. For the most part, though, lunch boxes of varying shapes and sizes were carried by blue collar workers, and not necessarily by children. Episodes of The Honeymooners show Ralph Cramden toting the standard dome-topped lunch box to his bus driver job.

Everything began to change in the 1950s. As baby boomers began to go to school, lunch boxes for children entered the scene in a big way. At first it was mainly generic colors and patterns that adorned the sides of the now usually rectangular box. But as baby boomers got hooked on TV programs, it gave manufacturers the perfect outlet for producing all sorts of licensed merchandise, including lunch boxes. Dozens of companies entered the market, including American Thermos Company, Aladdin, Ohio Art, Landers, Fray and Clark, and Adco Liberty. Some had already been making lunch boxes for a decade or more, but now licensing gave them a renewed revenue stream. Among the first big hits was a Hopalong Cassidy box. Roy Rogers lunch boxes followed, as did Superman, The Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Davy Crocket. It wasn’t long before practically every popular TV show was represented by a lunch box.

As the Space Age captured the imagination of boomers and their parents, TV shows and movies reflected their hopes, dreams and fears. The characters from these shows and movies  joined the Western stars and cartoon characters as decoration for the sides of lunch boxes, and sometimes, on the matching Thermos bottle that came with the box. Lunch boxes for generic space scenes as well as for popular programs like The Jetsons (1963) and Star Trek (1968) hit the stores.

The 1960s also saw lunch box imagery expand into the music realm, with lunch boxes for The Beatles (1965) and The Monkees (1967). The use of cartoon imagery never waned, and another lunch box first in the 1960s bore the likeness of a character; in 1962 a Huckleberry Hound lunch box became the first embossed design. The metal was stamped to produce a raised portion of the design, such as a cartoon character.

The 1970s continued the trend toward portraying TV shows and cartoon characters on lunch boxes. Everything from Josie and the Pussycats (1970) and Scooby Doo (1973) to Charlie’s Angels (1978) and The Six Million Dollar Man (1974) was being carried into classrooms by the last batch of boomers. The 1970s saw more plastic and vinyl lunch boxes, and the replacement of the glass-lined vacuum flask with a plastic liner.

Mister Boomer only had one lunch box in his school days, and it lasted from first to second grade. It was a red plaid design, a square metal box with a matching Thermos. Mister B recalls the inside was just big enough to hold the Thermos, a wax paper-wrapped sandwich, a couple of cookies and a piece of fruit, which was usually a banana, orange or apple.

On cold winter days sometimes Mister B’s mom would fill the Thermos with hot soup, but mostly it contained chocolate milk or, on occasion, Tang. Mister B didn’t have a strong opinion either way on carrying the box. He doesn’t recall a great many of his fellow students having the latest and greatest TV show or cartoon lunch boxes. Maybe time has erased the memory, or maybe his area wasn’t yet on the bandwagon.

One thing Mister B distinctly remembers is the sound of the glass liner breaking in the Thermos. He had a tendency toward not beng able to keep a Thermos bottle intact. A slight smack against a door, fence or desk seemed to be all that was necessary to hear the glass shatter, then fall into the little shards that sloshed around for the rest of the walk home. Mister Boomer broke three Thermos bottles in the course of a year and a half. Finally, his mom said it wouldn’t be replaced. Shortly after that, the box disappeared as well, replaced by the brown paper bag. By third grade Mister B and his siblings made their own lunch, and he continued to pack them in brown paper bags throughout his school years.

Today a large collector market has sprung up around the lunch boxes of our boomer youth. Don’t you hate it when the objects of your everyday life now command hundreds of dollars, and in the case of the rarest, north of a thousand? What’s worse is, you never kept any of those things, or your mom disposed of them at garage sales.

Did you carry a lunch box, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Pop Culture History,TV and have Comment (1)

‘Cause People Said We Monkeyed Around

The post-war era that spawned the Baby Boom was significant in many ways, one of which was that for the first time children in different parts of the country were having similar experiences in school, at home and at play. Television had a big role in the beginnings of an American homogenization, as did the migration from cities to suburbs and the changing attitudes about education.

Play was considered an important part of the education plan since the beginning of the 1900s, and at some point recess was added into the curriculum. Just before the War, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration built thousands of playgrounds around the country. Then after the War, playgrounds continued to take on a similar blueprint. One of the structures that appeared practically everywhere was what we boomers called monkey bars. The term became popular in the 1950s, and originally referred to the ladder-like structure installed in a horizontal configuration about five feet from the ground. Kids would grab the rungs to swing from one end to the other. The swinging motion was reminiscent of the way a monkey moves, and thus the name was attached. Soon, though, the term monkey bars took on a broader definition to include just about any type of metal or wood climbing apparatus intended for children.

The story of monkey bars dates back to 1920 when Sebastian Hinton, a lawyer from Chicago, patented a playground structure called a “Jungle Gym.” It contained a climbing feature as a part of its structure. Hinton, so the story goes, recalled the structures his father had built for him when he was a kid. The senior Hinton had created what some termed a “monkey cage” (or “monkey bars”) out of bamboo. In addition to allowing his children to climb through the structure, his father created a game. Sebastian and his siblings would move through the bars when his father gave them specific x, y and z coordinates within the cage’s internal frame; in other words, the senior Mr. Hinton was teaching his children Cartesian coordinates while they played. It was remarked that the children moved through these bamboo bars like monkeys, but it wasn’t until 1955 when monkey bars became the name for one of the apparatuses.

For Mister Boomer, “monkey bars” referred to the circular cage-like climbing structure that rose about ten feet and culminated on top with a bar that had rounded ends connected to the bars below. There were many differences between these monkey bars and the ones kids play on today. For one thing, they were made of metal tubing — probably stainless steel or aluminum. That meant the bars could get scorching hot in the summer sun, singeing the legs of kids who were wearing shorts. The bars were connected with sleeves that were screwed together and bolted, so though rounded, the ends of the screws protruded below the bottom of each bar, enough to catch a shirt sleeve or back collar if the angle was right. They could also be freezing cold by the time October came around. That meant less time sitting around when your hands got too cold and the temperature of the bars transferred through your jeans to your legs and seat.

Another thing that differs between then and now is what was below the monkey bars. Some playgrounds had installed them over nothing but the ground, while others placed sand below. For others still, it was cement or asphalt as the base.

By contrast, today’s playgrounds are designed to protect children in every way possible. Metal is out, unless it’s covered with some kind of padding. Likewise the ground surface is meant to soften the fall of any wayward climber. Can you imagine what a parents’ group might say if their children were confronted with the playground apparatuses of the 1950s?

The closest playground to where Mister B lived was on the school grounds where his sister had attended elementary classes. It had been built after Mister B and Brother Boomer were enrolled in parochial school. The monkey bars were next to the swing set and the twirling thing-a-ma-jig. Beneath the monkey bars were white rocks, the kind you see in some gardens. A few years later the entire area was paved with asphalt. As with many other things, children were expected to behave in such a manner that they would not hurt themselves or others. For the most part, we did both. Tears, scrapes and a little blood were common on the playground, whether self-inflicted or incurred with the help of a delinquent shove.

When Mister B started kindergarten, the playground at the school he attended consisted only of a slide and swings. His elementary school didn’t even have that. The kids had recess in a parking lot. So Mister B enjoyed climbing the monkey bars with his neighborhood friends after school and in summer at the nearby school playground. He remembers hanging upside down from the top center bar. Some kids would leap from bar to bar, barely touching each as they let go to grab the next, acting more like Tarzan than a monkey. Inside, the cage became a place for co-ed conversation and rest, too. Discussions of TV shows and exactly whose father could beat up whom would fill the air with the certainty of pre-teen knowledge.

Do you have fond memories of climbing on monkey bars, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Judged Labor Day By Its Cover

It’s that time again. The time of year when kids count the waning days of August with lament and a not-so-quiet desperation. Although many kids begin the school year in August, the vast majority return to school within a day or two after Labor Day. For Mister Boomer and his neighborhood acquaintances, Labor Day was designated the Most Unwanted Holiday of the Year.

Since the school year began after Labor Day, the weekend was and is often referred to as the unofficial end of summer. As such, it’s a time when families try to cram in one more weekend of quality time, which usually includes a barbecue. For Mister Boomer, one of two things would occur on Labor Day: either the family would gather with relatives at a state park for an all-day picnic, or they would remain at home, mow the grass and fire up the backyard grill — weather permitting.

Mister B always enjoyed seeing his cousins at holiday picnics, but very often Labor Day was rainy and chilly, so even if the chosen park had a lake with a beach, it was like adding insult to injury. It was never much fun to have to wear a jacket on Labor Day, or bring a change of clothes to switch from shorts to jeans if the weather turned.

If the family remained at home, Mister B would get together with any neighborhood friends who were still around. Many were gone for the weekend, as Upper-Midwesterners are big on weekend cottages. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the average union factory worker in a variety of manufacturing industries could afford a home, cottage and probably a boat, too. The holiday weekend for them was a last chance to enjoy their cottage and close it up for the impending winter. Mister B’s family never owned a cottage, but neighbors and some relatives did. Occasionally, the family would be invited for an overnight stay with a relative.

At home for the weekend, the remaining kids, walking slower and with heads and voices lowered, took one more trip around the neighborhood. There usually weren’t enough kids to have a baseball game, so instead, the boys — in this case without the girls — would visit the underground forts they had jubilantly dug over the summer; climb up into the tree houses made from construction scrap, where so many summer hours had been spent; toss a few rocks across the fields; walk along the railroad tracks and pick up a few sticks to drag into the dirt; with all the drama of Death Row inmates.

Once the sun went down, their despair grew even worse. Clothes for the next day were laid out, baths taken and time sped forward with increasing irregularity. They would awaken to find that, inevitably on the first day of school the sun would shine and the temperature would rise back to summer levels — it was still summer, after all. Somehow they would manage to get out of bed and walk to school, and somehow managed to make it through the day.

Old classmate relationships were renewed, new teachers introduced and assigned desks were occupied with no small amount of trepidation. A new school year had begun. On returning home, one of the first tasks that were given was to see that the books that were to be used had book covers. Text books were used year after year, so it became mandatory that each student be responsible to return it at the end of the school year in much the same condition as when they got it. Early on, usually around second grade, students were taught in the classroom how to make book covers out of paper bags. From that grade on, it was up to each student to create the jackets at home during the first week of class.

In Mister Boomer’s grade school, a local funeral home always distributed enough pre-printed book jackets that could be adjusted to fit most books, so each student could receive one. Mister B never liked to be the bearer of walking advertising (and won’t wear designer clothing for that reason to this day), so he often reserved the cover for his least used or least favorite subject, if he bothered with it at all. It was silly anyway, he thought, that kids would walk around all year with an ad for a funeral home on their books.

Mister Boomer rather enjoyed making the paper bag covers. He and his classmates would trade tips on edge folding so no tape was required, and most importantly, to assure the cover fit snugly against the book, so no slippage occurred on the trek to and from school. Once done, the paper covers provided an expanse of space that cried out for doodling. Whimsical and fantastical drawings of all types could be penned across the front and back, with no worries about ever defacing the actual book. For Mister B, it was a place to experiment with the billowing psychedelic shapes and lettering he was seeing rise from the rock poster of older boomers. What’s more, if a now-personalized cover ever became tiresome, over the doodle limit or torn, it was never a big deal to make another. With every store packing purchases in paper bags, there was never a lack of material available.

Labor Day and the first day of school were never a welcome sight, but once the denial was released and the the shock of the new embraced, paper book covers became a tradition as much as a rite of passage.

Did you make your own paper book covers, boomers, or did your mother or older siblings make them for you? Do kids still make them today?

posted by Mister B in Education,Holidays,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)