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This is the true story of the huge influx of Dust Bowl survivors flooding into California, and their almost complete rejection from the residents. (The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s novel about this migration.) Desperate, desperate poverty, and one man, Leo Hart, in spite of facing rejection and anger from his fellow Californians, decided to educate the children of these families. None of the residents wanted these “Okies” attending their children’s schools, so he was forced to start a whole new ’emergenc’y school-Weedpatch School. With the help of the children and their families, and scraping together resources from the most unlikely places, he managed to do so-quite above and beyond anyone’s expectations-ramshackle buildings built by hand with scraps, but children eager and willing to learn and work, to escape poverty and educate themselves. These children had so much invested in the school-it wasn’t just given to them, they weren’t told they deserve it, because they had brought it into being, they gained an invaluable sense of pride and purpose.
The book tells in the end, of what became of this first class of children-all very successful.
I made note of this quote-
“On the first day a team of children dug a hundred-yard trench from the water tower in the camp to the condemned building in the field. They laid a three-quarter-inch pipe in the trench, and on the second day the school had running water. “It was something to watch, ” Leo remembered. “It was the first time where they were working for something of their own. It was the first time where they could be proud of who they were and what they were doing.”
Bob Rutledge was fourteen at the time and when he studied photographs of classmates he spoke of poverty being “in the mind” and said, “We never accepted poverty.” “This is what we are now, but it’s not what we’re going to be.” He said, “Everyone should have this experience. You have to live it to understand it.”
The next book, another favorite. It is similar to my most treasured book Ellis Island Interviews.
These stories of immigrants are incredible. Some of them went through events as children that we can’t even imagine-starvation, seeing their loved ones, even parents, murdered (and hiding themselves and their siblings), coming over by themselves on boats full of sickness and strangers. Story after story-all different-nothing in their pockets, but the willingness to scrape together a living and hope, finding a sense of community in those who had gone before them (which is how many of our neighborhoods began).
This book goes chapter by chapter according to region (Armenia, Scandinavia, Italy, etc), and the final chapters give an overview of statistics and studies of these immigrants.
“Regardless of their country of origin, and their place of residence in the United States, immigrant children worked harder than their native born classmates, spent more time on homework, got better grades, and dropped out of school far less.”
“The children from Ellis Island and Angel Island were not passive “victims” of the immigration experience. Instead they became adept at actively shaping their new environment. The found opportunities for social mobility through education and jobs that would make life easier for their own sons and daughters and their grandchildren as well. They were remarkably resilient and resourceful, even during periods of economic depression and war and despite prevailing prejudices against the newcomers that took the form of “No [Chinese/Irish/Italians/Jews] need apply.”
A twelve year old said this of his father, who immigrated during the Great Depression:
“He would dig drainage ditches and get about thirty dollars a month. He’d take a couple of potatoes with him and make a fire, and that’s what he ate. When things started to ease up a bit, he would go up and down the stress [in NY], looking for some construction going on, trying to get a little job-one street after the other, day after day. I thank him so much for having the courage to give us the opportunity to live here in this country.”
These books make me think-about a few things:
-If one has a grandparent or great grandparent still alive, there must be an attempt to acquire an oral history! How I regret not learning more-just to sit and chat and ask questions of my grandparents. Most of our older relatives would love to have someone interested in their childhoods. It is so important for our children, who live in the lap of luxury according to standards of days long gone, to hear what it took-the perseverance, the pride, the work ethic-it is nothing that we see today, I don’t think.
-There is no way one can read these books and complain about much at all. I don’t think it’s ever possible to really appreciate anything until we don’t have it anymore. There is a gift in hardship and struggle, whatever that may be, and as much as we don’t want it, there is always a new level of living in a way that blooms as a result of it. Life is full of lessons, and if we can persevere through them, and then accept them as learning experiences, we become so much more than we were before. I love the quote “The only way out is through.” I can FEEL that quote in these books-it is a desperate-like walk through life, with trust-that life is worth it.