Probably not ever. But there they are, set forth for the 1931-32 public school year in Monroe County, Ohio. That’s where my mother-in-law got her education; by all indications, it was a solid one.
What brings this to mind is her first-grade report card, which my wife and I stumbled upon in advance of a family reunion last weekend in the Buckeye State. That’s where Loraine Bigler and her eight siblings grew up. Powhatan Point, to be specific. On a farm, to be even more precise. The Bigler kids and their widely spaced neighbors attended a one-room schoolhouse till they entered high school. Imagine that – a lone teacher instilling knowledge and character in charges ranging from age 6 (actually, 5 in Loraine’s case, thanks to a December birthday) to 14. Somehow, it worked.
Maybe there’s no mystery. Success took a skilled and tireless teacher, as it does today. And children whose lives were rooted in hard work and discipline, which may be less common. Still, it stands to reason that the focus of education in that era played a big part. Grades were given for reading and writing and ’rithmetic, of course, along with agriculture, civics and the aforementioned thrift. But the bulk of the report card – the two inside facing pages – measures growth both broader and more personal. Under the heading of “Citizenship” are nine focal areas, starting with “Manners” (“courtesy to teachers,” “kindness to associates” and something often missing in our public discourse today, “cleanliness and civility of speech”) and ending with “Punctuality.”
In between are what we might once have defined as all-American values: respect for law, order and authority; truthfulness and self-control; effort to do the best work; interest in community welfare; and, under “Reverence,” “attitude toward things sacred.”
There are also seven grading areas that deal with purely personal matters. There’s neatness of dress (including “clothing clean” and “shoes clean”); neatness of person (“face clean,” “nails clean,” “hair brushed”); even posture, among others. The list ends with “weight.”
Again, imagine the uproar such grading areas would spark today, when unkempt appearance and childhood obesity are so commonplace. This is not to say anyone should ever be shamed if they fall short, only that there’s good reason to set — and meet — standards.
Does lamenting their disappearance make me an old fogy? I hope not. After all, I started first grade 29 years after my mother-in-law did; by the time I reached high school, in the late ’60s, “conformity” was a dirty word and “question authority” was a something of a mantra. As a journalist, holding those in power accountable is an article of faith. But toeing the line in those old-school ways seems like a worthwhile concept in young people’s formative years. Civics and thrift are worthwhile matters throughout our lives.
Come to think of it, so did high marks for “dependableness” and “workmanship” and even “punctuality.” It took more than just those things to make America great in the first place, but without them, it’s impossible to remain that way.