A Glimpse into the Minds of Kids in 1931 America

Geek Culture

Every generation of kids has a different experience growing up, and every generation of parents struggles with the differences between their experiences and those of their kids. And every parent, I suspect, will at some point when talking to a child begin a sentence with "When I was your age," and every child will at some point roll their eyes at that sentence. It usually isn’t until people hit adulthood that they realize the importance of understanding the life experiences of previous generations, because it helps maintain society’s connection to its past.

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and particularly by personal accounts, because too many history books are little more than dry enumerations of facts. So I was very pleasantly surprised to read an article on Thingamababy (via MetaFilter) about a remarkable book from 1931. The book is a collection of short stories written by fifth-graders from the Buffalo, New York area. Some of the stories were obviously written on teacher-directed subjects, but some weren’t, and those stories provide a view into the lives and minds of children from that era that I’ve never encountered before. The book has been transcribed and the contents published on the web.

One of my many favorites from the book, titled "Pretending," written by a girl named Ann MacDonald, reads as follows (in its entirety):

I am an arithmetic book. Some boys and girls do not like me. They like to study other books that they think are more interesting. I am very sad when they throw me into their desks. They do not think that I have any feeling at all but I have and this kind of treatment hurts me very much. Some day I am going to fool them and change covers with their favorite book. Then when they open their book they will see me, arithmetic. Ha! ha! That would be funny!

There’s a view of recycling from a young girl, a poem about the Grand Canyon, a story about finding poison in the medicine cabinet, and simple descriptions of class exercises. Every one of them is worth reading for something.

The book’s website provides an excellent perspective on the historical experiences of the children who wrote the stories. It’s hard, for me at least, to read the boys’ stories and not wonder if the author fought in World War II a decade later, and whether they were killed. And for all the stories I wonder how the experiences of living through the Great Depression and the war shaped their lives after they wrote these stories. It’s such a simple thing, yet very moving all the same.

So, please, take the time to read the stories. You won’t regret it. And, should you know or think you know what happened to any of the children later in life, please leave a comment or drop me an e-mail. I’d love to find out.

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