Learning to Build Walls

I suspect most high school graduates are acquainted with Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, and it is certainly true that many people know certain lines so well that they’ve almost been reduced to clichés.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and “Good fences make good neighbors” are two of the most often quoted (and misquoted) lines of this work. The first of these is, in fact, what Frost is arguing for—the antipathy toward barriers that we all should recognize as problematic in a multicultural society. The second complements the first by being ironic. Obviously, the opposite is true. As Frost comments:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.”

But, almost half of our adult citizens have bought into the fear based arguments that we must protect ourselves from the Other—those peoples of color who bring certain cultural differences with them that might impact our nation negatively. Of course, we’ve heard all this before. the Irish, the Jews, eastern Europeans, and Asians have all, at one time or another, been considered threats for all the same reasons being posited today against a new wave of immigrants.

They’ll take our jobs, put a strain on our national budget, commit crimes, and try to destroy our way of life. That our fears have always been proved groundless in the past, seems not to matter at all for those politicians who benefit most from forming bases by promising to protect the nation from these “threats.”

Unfortunately, these attitudes are especially damaging to the United States standing in the world in an era of increasing trend toward isolationism. The idea that our nation—or any other—can function in a global economy by operating on the pre-World Wars concepts of resource exploitation based on a me-first mentality is not only impractical, but impossible to sustain during times of peace.

And, yet, even though our country is enjoying an unprecedented quality of life for so many of our citizens, the fear that all may be lost if the white supremacy paradigm fails to remain dominate in our culture. Lately, I’ve been curious how we’ve arrived at this sense of insecurity, and it seems to me that it is something we—and by “we,” I refer to the Baby Boomers—were carefully and systematically conditioned to accept as an unquestioned reality.

I would argue that the main tool used to build our mythology was a couple of kids named Dick and Jane.

The world of Dick and Jane—the world we came to accept in the latter half of the 20th Century as the model of what life should be like for a deserving, hard-working American family—was born out of the social and educational reform movements of the late 19th Century. Prior to 1900, it was commonplace to find children working 14 hours a day in mines and mills, but by the beginning of the 1st World War, increasingly stringent child labor laws were being put in place, and compulsory education was being mandated by more and more states. Fueled by the voices of Sigmund Freud and other pioneers of the new discipline of psychiatry and by the work of education activists like John Dewey, this nation began to develop a progressive vision of childhood as being a special time that should be devoted to play and exploration in a safe, protected environment. Over the next two decades, this protective attitude toward children came to be the accepted standard of enlightened social thinking.

Textbooks began to reflect this growing paradigm, and by the early 1920’s companies like Scott, Foresman were turning out readers filled with colorful pictures with fewer printed words on the page in an effort to make reading more attractive and fun for kids. In 1927 a reading consultant named Zerna Sharp, after studying the way children used vocabulary, concluded that they would learn to read more easily if they could identify with the characters in the illustrations—characters who would use familiar words that were repeated often and were expressed with a lot of enthusiasm.

Sharp pitched her idea to William Gray, who was considered one of the nation’s foremost reading experts and who just happened to be an editor at Scott, Foresman. He hired her to head a team of consultants, editors, writers, and psychologists, who, after much trial and error, came up with a family of characters to be used in a reading textbook series.

Dick and Jane first appeared in print in the 1930 Elson Basic Reader pre-primer. The series was extremely popular because it reflected a six-year-old’s activities and language and because, by using a whole-word approach over phonics, children could have immediate success in reading. In addition, the colorful pictures began to make kids more visually literate than ever before. The demand for these books grew every year, and special editions were eventually developed by request for Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist schools.

It was the late 1920’s, life was good, the business of America was business, and the economic health of the ever-expanding middle class was better than ever. Then Wall Street laid an egg.

Ironically, as bad as the Depression was for most Americans, it was a boon for Dick and Jane. Their popularity increased steadily, and for a very good reason. They represented an ideal in a time when there was very little for people to be hopeful about.

As the very idea of a secure and protected childhood disappeared along with the jobs of the working poor, shielding children from the hardships of life became an impossibility. 25% unemployment rates, Hoovervilles, the Dust Bowl, Oakies, apple sellers, and soup lines became the new reality for millions of kids. Despair became a way of life.

During this time, the middle classes responded to their own insecurities and to the suffering of others pretty much the same way our middle classes do now—by trying to ignore or escape from their everyday problems. The radio was a big help this way, what with Jack Armstrong, the all American boy and Little Orphan Annie with her wealthy benefactor, Daddy Warbucks on hand every week to paint a picture of a more exciting, more hopeful world. The nation fretted and wept over the Lindberg baby and became obsessed with the Dionne Quintuplets. Responding to the public’s needs for escapism, the movie industry offered lavish musicals and the adventures of the number one box office draw, Shirley Temple. In an environment where the lives of idealized kids were great entertainment—where real-life children represented our greatest fears and hopes—is it any wonder that Dick and Jane primers so rapidly became the most popular reading texts in the country?

Then WWII hit, leaving families and homes even more fragmented and shattered, imposing even greater sacrifices and hardships, and leaving everyone longing for the good old days of white Christmases. As the rise and spread of totalitarian dictatorships reached out to engulf both Asia and Europe in armed conflict, we could only hope that somehow the United States could stay out of it. But with Pearl Harbor, we were suddenly and completely immersed in the war, and kids were swept up in the nation’s fervor. They learned to recognize enemy planes as they played war games and participated in paper and scrap metal drives. They saved tin foil from the backs of gum wrappers and bought war bonds one ten-cent stamp at a time.

The economic insecurities of the Depression were beginning to ease, but they were being replaced by a growing social instability. The population became mobile—except for the Japanese, who were interred in camps—with over 30 million of us, one fifth of our population at the time, moving from one part of the country to another, following soldiers and jobs. People doubled up, lived with relatives, and shared homes with strangers. The divorce rate doubled, and 183,000 children were left fatherless.

Ironically, during the war, economic conditions had started to return to what people considered as normal. Government funded jobs had become plentiful, and since there was so little to spend money on, the personal savings of Americans grew.

With the end of the war, a generation of people tempered by deprivation and scarcity were ready to shift into a full-scale consumption mode. $400 billion in guaranteed government loans jump-started a 50% increase of home ownership. From 1945 to 1955, 13 million houses were built—11 million of them in new suburban developments.

Of course, these homes were built to accommodate the rapid increase in population. Having won a war, Americans turned their energies back to the home front. In the 14 years from 1944 to 1957, 76 million new babies were born. With the growth of both the Levittown and baby boom phenomena, the promise of a good life, far away from the poverty-induced problems of the city seemed within everyone’s grasp, and the call to spend, spend, spend went up throughout the land.

New decors, furnishings, and appliances were needed to fill these millions of new homes. New tools, new cars, new goods and services were flooding the market and were being snatched up by a generation of people bound and determined to ensure their children would know nothing of the want of the previous decade and a half. Dick and Jane were no longer part of an idealized family that Depression era kids could only look at with envy. They were becoming the norm for a generation of Boomers.

Dick and Jane readers, which by the 1950’s were being used by 80% of all first graders, were the perfect models for the American Dream. Everything about their lives, from the clothes they wore—based on apparel found in Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward’s catalogues—to the bright and airy house, surrounded by the white picket fence, underscored the standard by which we were coming to measure our own ideas of success. Their family—no last name given because this was supposed to be every family—served as an example of what life was supposed to be like. And, for better or worse, we absorbed the lessons all too well.

Let’s take a moment to see what these characters were teaching us about who we should be. First there was Dick. I’m quoting now from “Growing Up With Dick and Jane” by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman:

“Dick is an all-American boy. Master of a little world that stretches from his screen door, across the green lawn, to a white picket fence. It is a world where winter never comes, and the neighbors are nowhere to be seen. It is a world in which troubles from the big world never trickle down. No Depression. No World War. Surrounded by white space and innocence, Dick is a confident little guy. When Dick says, “Look, look. Look up, up, up,” everyone else on the page does.

“He is the oldest of three adorable children and the most responsible. He is a little man…When his little world spins out of control, it’s Dick who stops the runaway red wagon. It’s Dick who finds the missing toy, a missing pet, a missing sister. It’s Dick, not Father, who keeps order and resolves problems.

“Dick is better than average. He is not boisterous, competitive, or mean. He never bullies, never punches, never kicks. Never cries. In fact, Dick never gets into trouble.”

Then there was Jane: “Jane is a dream of a girl—pretty, bright, and bright-eyed. She’s smart and down to earth. Yet, for all her charms, Jane is second-banana in a famous brother-sister act. She hovers on the outskirts of the action.

“There’s a lot to envy about Jane. Every time she walks onto a page, she’s wearing something new. She gardens in a salmon pink dress, she paints in a flowered pink dress, she rides a pony wearing a red dress and blue sweater, and she shops in a polka dot dress. Jane looks like what every little girl dreams about. Her perky dresses never wrinkle or get dirty.

“Jane watches everyone and everything carefully. She’s learning how to set the table, bring in the laundry, go to the store, bake cakes and cookies. Jane thrives as the perfect younger sister, never upstaging Dick. Jane would rather work, helping Mother was the floor, than run around the back yard. Home is the center of Jane’s world; it is where she blossoms, where she measures her success and sees her accomplishments add up.”

Jane’s role model is, obviously Mother. “Mother is pretty. Mother is graceful. Mother is mellow. Mother is smart. She knows how to do it all: be a good partner to Father, a nurturing mother, and an effortless homemaker who makes everything look easy. Mother makes the American Dream happen. Mother sews. Mother cooks. Mother launders. Mother sweeps. Mother knits. Mother walks to town to shop. Somehow, every day, Mother must get her work done: washing dishes, cooking meals, ironing, and washing floors and windows. Mother is happy when the house looks neat and beautiful.

“Mother’s life has no frustrations or setbacks. Mother doesn’t have an outside-the-home job. She works at home all day and when everything’s done, sits in her chair, not a hair out of place, reading magazines. Mother is a modern miracle. She teaches quietly, by example. She’s cool and doesn’t yell and never, never nags or corrects. Mother may be young, but she’s wise. Like Buddha, smiling Mother embraces her world for all it is.”

And, of course, we have to have a father: “Father is handsome. Father is young. Father is tall. Father has it all. He has a perfect family, a job that gets him home when it is light out and an even temperament that lets him take life one day at a time. His family is his dream come true, and Father is happy.

“Every time Father strides up the walk to the front door in his business suit and hat, he steps into the safe world he shares with his family. At home, when Father smiles at everyone, everyone smiles back. That’s one more reason for Father to be happy. For Father and the family, the big world and its problems never get through the white picket fence.”

Kismaric and Heiferman, don’t dwell on Sally, but there is really no reason for them to do so. She seems to simply reinforce the image of the well-rounded nuclear family everyone was assuming was the norm. They do, however, go on to observe:

“In the world of Dick and Jane, children get more attention than adults. Self-sufficient Dick and Jane make no great demands. Mother and Father are ready to approve, to play, to fix things, to amuse. Their job is easy. They don’t have to discipline or punish because none of their children steps out of line. Dick and Jane don’t cry because bad things don’t happen to them. Dick and Jane don’t tattle because there’s nothing to tattle about. Their family lives in harmony, in a universe all its own. There are no uncles, aunts, or cousins. No arguments, no competition, no power plays. No fighting. No secrets.”

“Dick and Jane do have a Grandmother and Grandfather who live far away on a farm. When they visit for birthdays, they bring presents. When Dick and Jane visit the farm, they learn about self-reliance and how everyone has to work together. The farm is very different from the everyday world of Dick and Jane. They live near a town. We don’t know where that town is, but it’s close enough for Mother to walk to and for Dick and Jane to travel along, pulling their wagon. There’s a main street with shops that have varied and colorful items for sale. New clothes are bought for the holidays, and because the kids behave so well, they get ice cream before they go home. No one gets mugged on these streets. There are no bag ladies or junkies lurking in alleyways. You don’t even find teenagers with transistor radios clustering on the corners.”

Of course, even as we attempted to immerse ourselves in the world of Dick and Jane—in a post WWII suburban culture that was comprised of two very frenzied but very opposite motivators: acquisition and isolation—the realities of our limitations were already undermining the process.

Certainly we could no longer retreat to our private mini-estates, fill them with countless manufactured treasures—especially televisions—and still shut everyone and everything else out. By the late 1950’s, one fourth of a child’s life consisted of watching TV. Boomers became the first generation to know the world through pictures as television delivered more information in a day than a teacher could in a week. And if it informed and trained children to be even better consumers in the process—well, wasn’t that just part of how the American Dream worked?

Of course, TV by-passed parents and appealed directly to kids, which helped create ever-expanding markets. In 1940, Americans had spent $84 million on toys. By 1959 they were spending one and a quarter billion. TV introduced us to Davy Crockett in December of 1954. By July of 1955, when the fad wound down, Americans had spent $100 million on coon-skin caps, lunch boxes, and other such paraphernalia.

TV reinforced the Dick and Jane fantasy we were so busy weaving for ourselves. Ozzie and Harriet were our neighbors, as were Donna Reed and Beaver Cleaver, back then when Father knew best, and we could all live the Life of Riley. But something else was creeping into our living rooms along with the candy-coated world of those family shows. We were getting Joe McCarthy and a cold war that could turn hot at any minute. At school we were learning to duck and cover in case of nuclear attack, and at night we were getting the news about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, about the Cuban missile crisis, and a war in a place called Vietnam.

By 1962, Dick and Jane’s home also had a TV, and over the next few years, the words “help”, “don’t”, “can’t”, “get away”, “not now”, and “I don’t want to” became a part of their vocabulary.

In 1965, an African American family, whose kids were Mike, Pam, and Penny—moved into the neighborhood and amazingly, none of the white families moved out. Maybe that’s because Mike and Pam, and Penny were no more than heavily pigmented versions of Dick and Jane. The thing was, even the editors at Scott, Foresman were beginning to realize that barriers we had been carefully constructing over the previous quarter of a century were finally crumbling.

First there had been the picket fences and enclosed back yards. That defined a perimeter whereby only those of your own kind could get in: The white, middle class, nuclear family members whom you invited over for a cocktail party or barbeque.

Then, there were the walls of physical distance, created by the location of suburbs far enough from everything else so that the ownership of a car was a requirement for residency. That added another economic barrier to the equation.

The car—which had always been a kind of status symbol—was practically elevated to a marking of rank in the post war decades. Blue collar workers and newlyweds drove Chevys. Somewhat more successful people took to Pontiacs. For businessmen, it was an Oldsmobile. Doctors and lawyers and young professionals on the rise chose Buicks, and of course there was that ultimate conveyance for the most upper of crusties: the Cadillac.

The first car Dick and Jane’s family owned was a big green sedan. Then every five years or so, Father got a newer, sportier model. Eventually the car turned into a station wagon. By 1962, it’s mother who got to drive, and instead of just being taken out for an occasional trip to the farm or the lake, the car was used daily.

Increased mobility meant that shopping patterns would change, and, sure enough, the town that Dick and Jane used to walk to disappeared. The reality was that the downtowns of our nation’s larger communities had grown shabby, and the inner city ghetto phenomenon had taken hold and was spreading, creating our now-problematic socio-economic donut configuration.

Cars and televisions—perhaps the two most definitive symbols of post-war suburbia, were taking their toll; eroding the walls of security and seclusion the previous generation of Depression and war survivors had worked so hard to put in place. The era of Dick and Jane was fast going by the wayside. 1965 saw the last printed edition of the series, although it continued to be used until the early 1970’s. The combination of social reality and new reading theories simply over took it.

To quote Kismaric and Heiferman again: “By the mid-1960’s, former Dick and Janes, well-behaved children who had stayed within the lines in their coloring books, found their fun by acting out. Tie-dyed psychedelic T-shirts were more fun than button down shirts. Men wore bracelets, women wore more bracelets, and everyone wore love beads. Dogs like Spot wore bandanas. People didn’t get dressed, they dressed up as Sherpas, gypsies, swamis, in costumes of see-through gauze, leather, velvet, showing off their bodies and their individuality. People searched for gurus to help them understand who they were, not what they were supposed to be. Self-expression no longer meant buying a new car every two years but smoking marijuana and dropping acid. By 1967, “The Summer of Love”, these long-haired flower children defined a movement whose social, stylistic, and spiritual fallout turned America upside down.”

It seemed that despite all the effort to build those philosophic, pastel visions of the American dream, the world got into our minds. I remember a fourth-grade textbook with a map of the country with a caption that read: “The United States. Sixth in size but first in power.” But by the time I graduated from high school, what that power meant felt less like a sense of security and more like a bully-boy exercise in killing the Vietnamese (and getting killed in the process.

Kismaric and Heiferman speak of expressions of culture and social conditions that were changing so rapidly. Sex, drugs, disillusionment, and mistrust of the advocates for the status quo seemed to be the drivers of a generation raised in suburbia. Little boxes made of ticky-tacky where everyone has pretty children who all turn out the same became anathema, particularly when young people were being cautioned not to trust anyone over thirty. Things had to made better, and marching and protests were how it would get done.

But, I wonder. Did it? Did anything get changed for real? Or did we Boomers simply have one good healthy “Hurrah!” then, when we were faced with a world that we were becoming responsible for, did we merely fall back into the same socio-economic wall building that our parents undertook after their war? Having learned the lessons of Dick and Jane and the American Dream, how were we equipped to teach our children anything different? We know they are being taught to consume, to identify themselves by what they own, by what they wear, by the cars they will one day drive. But have we taught them to be any more secure in their own self-esteem than we were?

We were a generation that had everything—everything but a real sense of security. We got the messages only too well that our parents couldn’t protect us from the world and that the only defense they knew—a sort of socio-economic Maginot line—wasn’t working.

Once again, I quote Kismaric and Heiferman: “This theme park ride of mid-century life, when the American Dream seemed to be within the reach of most middle-class families, felt like it could go on forever. Until the mid-1960’s, when long-ignored demands for equal rights and opportunities for minorities would change the political and social fabric of America, the surface of this synthetic suburban world paralleled the candy-colored world of Dick and Jane. These worlds looked alike and each reflected what the majority of American consumers wanted. But America was changing, and no picket fence was tall enough, no driveway long enough, no big city far enough away to insulate the people lucky enough to be living the American Dream from change.”

And yet, we still try to maintain the illusion. We’ve taught our children to assume product-based identities, even when those products come from the sweat and tears of other children. We pass welfare reform laws that exacerbate the problems of poverty and class divisions. We refuse to embrace the concept of true equality in educational opportunities for everyone. We still see some children as ours and leave most of them to the care of “others”—those adults whom we have marginalized—the ones we expect to work for substandard wages in order to insure the flow of cheap goods and services for our consuming pleasure. And if we can’t control the influx of undesirables into our overpriced housing developments, we can always resort to moving into a gated community. Being affluent, we have that privilege.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

I like to think it’s me—me that doesn’t love a wall, but I know that’s not entirely true. You see, I’m a person of privilege, and as such, I benefit from a socio-economic structure that allows me advantages I’m not sure I’m ready to give up. I like knowing I don’t have to worry about the quality of schools my kids are going to. I like knowing that I can buy a home in a safe community and that I have a job that pays me a wage I can live on. I like—most of the time—being a white heterosexual male because nobody ever gives me grief about being any of those things.

I like not having to think about my privileges. It’s much easier taking them for granted and leaving issues of equality for others to worry about. As long as the riots are in Cincinnati and not in my home town, I figure, I’m safe. Except for the nagging suspicion that maybe I’m not—that maybe the people of this world are really interconnected, and that what happens to any of them could just as easily happen to me.

And so, I offer these thoughts in the hope that maybe I can point out what I think is the real barrier to social and economic justice becoming a reality in this world. It is the wall of our unconscious acceptance of privilege—a wall constructed out of the weariness of a post-Depression, post-war generation that hoped they could truly live in a perfect world where everything would come out right in the end. Their intentions were good. They wanted to protect their children. It just never occurred to them that by trying to wall out their problems, they were automatically besetting themselves with irresistible forces that they would have to eventually yield to. Those “others” whom they tried so desperately to keep outside would, sooner or later, come to first expect, and then later demand, justice and a place in our national community.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

Unfortunately, we, the generation indoctrinated with Dick and Jane, are still struggling with the notion that we are owed the kind of lives we read about o’ so many years ago—lives in which we were never taught how to face our fears, or to even acknowledge they were there. But, as the old saying goes, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived”. For the sake of OUR children, for the sake of the future of this world, I think it’s time we got over those two little kids.


23 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All