My Teachers: An Occasional Series

A few months ago, I discovered that my elementary school has an “alumni page” on Facebook. People were posting about their various experiences in grade school and of course, about the teachers. Frequently expressed sentiments included “I wonder where Mrs. X is today?” or “I wish I could get in touch with Mr. Y.”

It was great fun sharing memories with folks and I found one of my sixth grade classmates on that page. I don’t think I ever expected to see or hear from her as I become a “junior” senior citizen.

Well, I, too, was curious about what had become of some of my favorite elementary school teachers. And not being able to leave well enough alone, I undertook, in what my wife calls my “copious spare time” [of course, that is her sarcasm] to find out about these teachers who had helped shape my foundations.

I discovered quite a bit about them, not all of which in some cases was complimentary. But teachers are human beings like the rest of us. This undertaking in looking at the (mainly) women “behind the curtain” helped me to understand much about the way in which I was educated, including the biases (positive and negative) that inhered in that education. It actually heightened my appreciation for what they did.

So I commence here an occasional series about “My Teachers.” But, like all things, these genealogical vignettes have a context of time and place.

From second through sixth grades, I attended Sandia Base Elementary School at the semi-secret atomic weapons base on the southeast edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My classmates were the children of highly trained military personnel and civilian scientists, all working in the follow-on phase to the Manhattan Project. Most of our parents couldn’t speak about what they did or where they went to do it.

When my family arrived at Sandia Base in 1961, the historical context was shaped laregly by these ten facts:

1. Just over fifteen years had passed since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the eventual end of World War II. [Think about how the last fifteen years of your life has passed!].

2. A mere fourteen years earlier, the Manhattan Project had been placed in the hands of the military’s Defense Atomic Support Agency at Sandia Base.

3. Nine years earlier, the United States had tested the world’s first “thermonuclear” weapon, with much of the heavy lifting of design and fabrication done at Sandia Base and nearby Los Alamos. [The test itself occurred at Eniwetok atoll in the Pacific, with many personnel from Sandia Base present.]

4. Six years earlier, the Soviet Union had tested its own hydrogen bomb.

5. Four years earlier, the Soviet Union had launched and orbited the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, much to the consternation of the United States. There was much hand-wringing about whether our educational system was strong enough to have beaten the Soviets into space.

6. For much of the six years before we arrived at Sandia Base, the topic of racial desegregation of the the schools was at the top of the national agenda. President Eisenhower in 1957 used federal troops to enforce the courts’ orders to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, over the objections of Governor Orville Faubus. Southern states, especially Virginia, had promised a campaign of “Massive Resistance” to school desegregation.

7. The same year we came to Albuquerque, Cold War tensions had been ratched up by the construction of the Berlin Wall.

8. Also, that same year, 1961, the Soviet Union again beat the United Sates in putting the first man into outer space.

9. In 1961, the end of the Civil War and emancipation of slaves were less than a century past distant.

10. New Mexico had not yet marked 50 years as a state; meanwhile, in the preceding three years, two new states had been added to the Union. That meant that some of my teachers had been born when there where just 45 stars on the Flag, and some even before that. All had grown up with a maximum of of 48 states in the Union.

These ten facts and their aftermath in a turbulent decade that followed, shaped the course that my teachers had to steer. I can appreciate that now like never before. And I’m most grateful.

Coming next: My Teachers: Theodora Cooper


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December 2011
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