The Sadness of Second Grade

He says Bill, I believe this is killing me
As the smile ran away from his face
Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place

Piano Man by Billy Joel

Combine the spirit of a poet, a gift for musical composition, and a memorable voice and you get a classic song that resonates for generations. For me, Billy Joel is one of these artists; Piano Man is one of these songs. The lyric above describes a time of great sadness in the life of 2 generations of my family.

I recently took on the task of organizing several decades of photo prints and negatives. It was an emotional task that took a lot longer than I had anticipated; pausing to reflect on those moments captured on film.

Years ago,  I acquired a number of old black and white family photos. I asked for them; I was always the primary photographer for the family and these meant so much to me. Some of them came out of old leather-bound albums, worn and a bit musty; the kind where the pics were fastened by small white photo corners, or even glued to the black card stock pages.

On one of these pages was a picture of my father as a young schoolboy that was of particular interest; I was sure I had seen the pose before. Little did I know that the pose was of me; some 30 years later.

The picture of Dad was taken in 1932, after the Great Depression of 1929; after bank foreclosure forced bankruptcy. His father was losing the family farm and his version of the American dream. Fred Sr. never really recovered from the loss, became immobilized by depression, was admitted for a long term stay in a state mental facility, abandoning his young family in the process. Fred Jr., my dad, was 8 years old; it was hard to find a picture of him smiling during these years.

dad at 8

Dad at age 8, second grade.

My picture was taken at age 7, just a few months after the sudden and tragic death of my  grandmother, our surrogate mother and live-in caretaker. For my family, this was not economic disaster; this was an emotional one. My mother was admitted to the hospital for therapy and shock treatments as she dealt with her own severe depression. My father was charged with caring for 3 young children just after losing both his mother and his wife. Our family was turned upside down, we were farmed out to neighbors and distant family. We were essentially abandoned in the process, and there was little to smile about for a very long time.

Dot at 6

Me at age 7, also second grade.

There was to be healing. There was redemption. But for a time, at least for my father and I, “the smiles ran away from our face.” A simple line in a classic song can evoke sweet and sorrowful memories. The stuff of life. The things that matter. Thank you, Billy Joel.

This entry was posted in Childhood, Depression, Education, Family, Memories, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Sadness of Second Grade

  1. Outlier Babe says:

    One of my sons went into intensive care as an infant (thanks to my then-spouse and in-laws–but that will be a blog post someday–no, they didn’t beat him, thank God). There was a helpful book in the pumping (lactation) room which had photographs of the facial expressions and body postures of preemies.

    It was intended to educate parents of such to fact that these children had immature nervous systems and thus were often hypersensitive and readily overstimulated. For example, you might not be able to talk to them at the same time you were rocking them, or you might need to lower the lights if you wished to sing to them, and so forth. The book showed the results of treating these babies as if they were normal full-term babies: A head bending backwards and away, a tiny face sucking in (toothlessly “biting”) its lower lip.

    I recognized the photographs, for my two-week-old son, although not born prematurely, had been expressing them. He, it turned out, was also a hypersensitive infant (who later revealed, no surprise, a challenging case of ADHD).

    Your terribly-sad story could also be a helpful one: There are teachers and social workers who would not instantly recognize this expression in a child as sad who would do so if they had first read your short tale and seen your photographs. I would have been one of them (I’m high end Asperger’s.)

    I think this post should be a handout in teacher orientation or training classes, 99% of the current content of the classes I attended was utterly useless in the classroom. Part of the 1% that WAS useful involved a film that showed really-real kids with Tourette’s, and taught me, basically, “When you see a child looking or sounding like THIS, it might mean THAT–and here are things that might help.”

    • Thank you for your amazing, thought-provoking comment. I was unaware of the infant facial “tells”…so interesting. I also trained as a teacher, but on a secondary school level. You’re right, there is no such awareness training. I was fortunate to have a very perceptive 2nd grade nun who picked up on some of my issues, mostly my fear of being anything but perfect. I got my first C on a meaningless test and broke down, tears and vomit in the rest room. She requested a session with my dad, found out about family trauma, saved me in a way no one at home could. School became my safe place. I’ll never forget her or her kindness. Thank you again. Van

      • Outlier Babe says:

        You are too complimentary. No. Really. My long comments are all about me, me, me. Not egotistical (TOO often), but egocentric. As a matter of fact, I’m gonna save that comment off for a future post about my horrible ex and mom-in-law. So: Poo to your thanks. I don’t deserve ’em.

        But I am really glad about that you and that nun. I (See? There I-I-I go again!) just told someone in a recent post that my experience with nuns is that most are/were kind–even the strict ones. And my personal experience with teachers was mostly positive. I’m so glad your teacher was one of your Rescue Adults. Children need these terribly, don’t they?

      • For sure, I was one of the lucky ones.

      • Outlier Babe says:

        Yes. It’s best not to think about the others, although we are living surrounded by a society which is the product of all of them and their offspring. I say, keep pumping out “I’m OK, You’re OK” books about keeping only upbeat, happy people around you, and hearing only happy news, keep reading only Buzzfeed, and keep writing only upbeat posts. That’s MY philosophy! (heads off whistling to pop morning pill lineup and tune into latest cooking show. oh, wait–doesn’t have TV–hap-pi-ness crumbling a little at the edges…)


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