Saturday, January 27, 2007

Snobs in Wilmette?

The summer between third and fourth grades (1952?), my family moved from a blue collar neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where the men were policemen and plumbers, to an upscale suburban neighborhood, where most of the fathers were businessmen who did things none of us kids understood, some of them probably illegal.

We moved there because we could afford it (barely), and because my parents now had four sons who needed to be educated, and the conditions there, especially the schools, were excellent. At the same time, I had been given a sense of values that led me to understand from my earliest years that no person is better than another just because of the sort of work he does for a living, where he lives or comes from.

One day in school my teacher decided to go around the class, asking each child to tell the rest what his father did for a living. Maybe the teacher was just curious herself. In those Dick and Jane days all mothers were housewives. The ones who were not (I did not know any) worked because they were poor and were ashamed to admit it.

Most would say, "My father works for Rumptydump Bank in Chicago," or "He sells insurance," or "Daddy is a doctor," and a few said, "I don't know." My own father's occupation as a successful professional musician was considered highly unusual and mysterious, but worthy of respect because he was often written about in the local paper. Some children confused "musician" with "magician", and thought he did tricks. His biggest trick was continuing to support us in this community.

One of the last to report was a girl named Geri, who proudly announced, "My father is a janitor!"

There is nothing shameful about what a man does for a living as long as it is honorable work. We all believe that, right? Then why did a hush suddenly come over that classroom? The apparent embarrassment the other students felt was palpable. Of course, no one dared to utter a word or a gasp or a giggle in response.

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