Mitchell’s Musings 5-22-2017: Emily Dickinson & the Civics Lesson

18 May 2017 3:44 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-22-2017: Emily Dickinson & the Civics Lesson


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


A recent movie, “A Quiet Passion,” depicts the life of poet Emily Dickinson from childhood to death. Basically, the film’s version of her life is of a household with tight rules of decorum and religion within which Emily rebels. But she nevertheless remains confined in the house and family of her birth and ultimately becomes a recluse – with most of her poetry discovered after her death.

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                 Emily Dickinson

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As it happens, in 1950, as I entered the third grade, the powers-that-be in the New York City Board of Education built a new elementary school in the Manhattan district where I resided, PS 75, and named it the “Emily Dickinson School.” As such things often happen, the building was actually not ready to open on time when classes began in the fall of 1950. So we first attended in an old school, and then transferred to the new structure when it was ready.

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                          PS 75 today

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Exactly why the new school was named after Emily Dickinson was made never clear to the incoming students. She had no connection with New York City. However, PS 75 was new, not only in the sense of a new building, but also because it featured “progressive education.” Perhaps the person or committee that named schools viewed Dickinson as progressive, since she was a female poet in an era when such things were generally not welcome in society. In any case, although I attended the third and fourth grades in the school, I cannot recall anyone in authority saying much about who Emily Dickinson was, or why the school was named after her.


I passed by the school recently on a visit to New York – see photo – and noted that there was no plaque with Dickinson’s name on the outside wall. Her name did appear on a plastic banner attached to the playground fence, and the school’s website does say it is the “Emily Dickinson School.” But there is no explanation of the name’s significance for the school on the website.[1]

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                 Playground banner

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For that matter, it was not clear back in 1950 that the teachers knew what progressive education was supposed to be or how it differed from traditional education except for two tangible changes. In the first and second grades, the schools I attended had the old screwed-to-the-floor rows of desks. But in the new school, the desks were moveable and modern looking. They could be arranged in patterns other than rows. And they did not contain the hole for an inkwell that the old desks had.[2]


The other tangible change in response to progressivism involved what you were to do – or not to do - when seated at your desk. In the old system, you were to keep your hands folded your desk. Indeed, teachers provided hand folding lessons to show you the correct way of doing it. But under progressivism, not only were you not required to keep your hands folded, you were ordered not to do it. Not doing it was a problem for us, however, since by then hands being folded when seated had become an entrenched habit. So it seemed that progressive education, like traditional education, had strict rules. It just had different strict rules.[3]


In any event, at some point during the school year, an official ceremony was arranged to inaugurate the new school’s opening. The ceremony was scheduled for an evening performance by students which their parents would attend. I can remember two musical elements in the ceremony. Some of it involved playing excerpts over the loudspeaker from a phonograph record of “Manhattan Tower,” an especially soupy tribute to New York City.[4] The other musical piece that I can recall was the singing by students of an Emily Dickinson poem, “The Grass So Little Has to Do.” I’m not sure, however, that we were told anything about the poem’s meaning or why somebody would write one about grass.[5] We were just supposed to sing it.

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   Manhattan Tower on two 78 rpm records

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Anyway, I wasn’t particularly concerned with grass, which obviously doesn’t have anything to do. What struck me at the time as THE important element of the ceremony was not the music but the fact that the mayor was schedule to come. Of course, in the third grade, you don’t know a lot about mayors, but you do know that they are important people. 


Moreover, I knew from family discussions that the previous mayor – a man named William O’Dwyer – was a Bad Mayor and his replacement was, therefore, an improvement. Googling O’Dwyer now reveals that he had doubled the subway fare from a nickel to a dime and that he had to step down in the midst of his second term due to some kind of scandal. (President Truman then conveniently appointed him ambassador to Mexico, thus getting him out of the city.) So it was the improved mayor – Vincent Impellitteri – that was due to appear at the PS 75 inauguration. Again, as far as I was concerned, the fact that the mayor was coming was going to be the highlight of the event.


The day and then the evening of the great inauguration arrived. The audience dutifully assembled in the school auditorium. But then at the ceremony, it was announced that Mayor Impellitteri was not going to appear after all and that he had sent some underling in his place. Apparently, although the grass so little had to do, the mayor was too busy to show up.


Of course, there was a valuable civics lesson at the inauguration of the Emily Dickinson School in being stood up by Mayor Impellitteri. It’s a lesson that many voters to this day seem never to have learned. Elected officials do not always do what they promise.


But there may be a more general lesson that goes beyond civic affairs. As you go through life, expecting too much can lead to disappointment. Ms. Dickinson said as much:


Disenchantment


It dropped so low in my regard
I heard it hit the ground,
And go to pieces on the stones
At bottom of my mind;

Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less
Than I reviled myself
For entertaining plated wares
Upon my silver shelf.


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[1] http://schools.nyc.gov/SchoolPortals/03/M075/default.htm

[2] By the time I entered the first grade, no one was using inkwells. We had fountain pens and carried bottles of ink around to fill them by the second grade. Since the pens tended to splatter, and there also were spills in filling them, I often had bluish fingers. (Ballpoint pens, according to web sources, were invented in Hungary in 1931. But they had not fallen to a price point by the early 1950s so that children would have them.) 

[3] The 1950 version of progressive education at PS 75 may not have accorded with what progressive education was supposed to be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opXKmwg8VQM. However, all educational fads differ between theory and practice.  

[4] The original (1946) version can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NT_j3psJWHI. A later, longer version was recorded in 1956. 

[5] There are various versions of this poem set to music on YouTube. None of these versions involve the musical piece that we used. I can still sing the music, so we must have rehearsed quite a bit. But despite utilizing various apps that purport to allow you to hum a tune and find it on the web, I cannot tell you what music was used. The apps failed to find it. The words of the poem are at http://www.poetry.org/dickinson.htm

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