I paused from my labours on our now relocated schoolhouse/summer dacha this past weekend to sit on the back porch, gaze out over the valley with the many acres of fully tasseled corn against the distant hills, and reflect on the speed at which this world changes. I admit I’ve had a hand in pushing things along, just like everyone else. Somewhere back there, maybe two or three decades back there, someone who’d experienced the rush of change much longer than I had said to me, “There are three kinds of people in life. Those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what happened.” That was in the days when I wanted to make things happen all the time. I suppose I did, too. How much I could pack into the clock mattered to me (Where did that come from?). Others noticed. I got places, both figuratively and physically. It seemed to me that the only people who could possibly matter were those who made things happen. But a funny thing happened all over again on the way to living a life. I found out that watching and wondering are just as, if not often, more important than trying to make things happen all the time. Understanding change is part of living life more fully.
All this brings me to changes in this now obscure place where we now run to in the summer heat. Before the days of Woolx, Gore-Tex, and text messages – everything tex except Texas – this locality along with the rest of Upstate looked very different. This was a farming community coupled with industry of all kinds. All of it contained a notion of “progress” that was on fire. Like a powerful faith, people absorbed progress into their daily lives, seeing their world as moving, progressing, along a path that was, if not ordained, at least “good.” It’s an old American idea. Back at the turn of the century, it defined almost everything that was happening in small, thriving communities across Upstate, communities that contained glassworks, carriage builders, small foundries, furniture makers, publishers, tool makers, and more. All of this comes to mind as I look at the photograph in my hand. Young faces look back at me from 1908 in an image so simple, yet so profound; ghosts that push me to wonder at all that has happened.
The faces of 1908 given a promise of progress.
Photo in possession of author.
These young faces sat many times here. They are a small sampling of the hundreds and hundreds of children who dutifully marched in and out of what is now our house, to take the lessons of the day to heart as best they could. Their world, the world of 1908, defined progress in industrial terms. They understood it not because they were told to, but because it was all around them. Electricity, telephones, and automobiles had reached them, even in the outlying posts of Upstate. These advances (and countless others) were new, holding both amazement and the assurance that a better day had arrived in the electric buzz, thin tones, or engine backfire of their mechanical voices.
The 1929 Bell Telephone. Progress is instant messaging.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015
Part of this school house project of ours includes floor replacement. In pulling up the more modern floor the original pine floor was discovered beneath. It would be just a wooden floor of no particular note if not for the erosion of wood so perfectly spaced through the room. These worn spots in the floor marked the feet of children swinging and scuffing their way sitting at the desks. working, day dreaming, or becoming agitated from not wanting to be slaving at a desk at all. Innumerable arcs of legs and feet created these worn places, signatures of long ago that write of a life so utterly – and quickly – distanced from us today that it is hard to imagine. Just look at that photo. Everything is tantalizing – the clothes, the ways of dressing, the tall boots on the boys, the furniture, even the animal drawings on the wall; no Lincoln or Washington portraits anywhere in sight. A teacher’s hand bell rests on the desk and, yes, the authoritative bell ringer herself, in military posture, stands at the ready. Even from the distance of a more than a hundred years her message of control makes our hair curl behind our neck.
Another word for progress is change. As mentioned, the word progress contains a strong element of of morality in it. It’s a kind of change that carries certainty, something meant to be that is positive in nature. It supposedly benefits everyone. That’s the underlying notion anyway, the notion that allows it to travel so well.
Witness to change. The school room as it looks today. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015.
The children’s voices have long been absent from this school room, replaced by the voices of owners, workmen, the sounds of hammers and saws. Progress? Yes, of a different kind. The school room is not quite the same, though it takes little to imagine it as a school. I look again at the picture and study once more a little girl in pig tails and a white frock dress. Having a photograph taken is decidedly a special day at school. She dressed for it. as did the others. When she put on her best, she was putting it on for all time, all through the changed and changing years, right down to me, though she didn’t know it. The effort she made that day has paid off. She gets top marks in my book, for reasons that haven’t changed at all.