In Diane’s childhood during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the school system was then (and still is) attuned to the needs and expectations of compliant, traditional families. Those on the margins of society had less success at conforming to the expectations of the school system, and their children suffered as a result. At the time when Diane attended grade school, those excluded from the mainstream, including minorities, had few advocates.
Diane’s problem with the school system was compounded by the rootlessness of her family as they moved frequently, often from one district or one state to another, and usually to areas that fell near the outer boundaries of the school district. Records transfer was on paper, sometimes carried by the parents, an unreliable method in her case. Diane often said that her mathematics education ended in fourth grade.
Her family began its odyssey from home to home and state to state then, as her parents moved for one reason or another after that. Her arithmetic suffered the most, since it takes step by step instruction, and even schools within a district could have small differences in the pace or method of teaching that interfered with her learning.
Diane liked to read, so reading saved her education from complete ruin. She learned story telling, a boon and a curse to her. To cover her family’s shame, Diane sometimes invented cover stories that she told to her teachers and classmates to make herself or her family more acceptable. Of course they found out.
Also in play was the social life of the children in each new class, each new school. They often were intolerant of strangers who didn’t know their habits and odd practices—everyone has them. Strangers who couldn’t quickly adapt were excluded. Diane didn’t learn the unwritten rules the other kids knew, so she fell in with other newcomers and misfits, other marginal kids. Those who were new like her, but came from more conventional households, learned the rules and moved into the mainstream. Diane was left behind.
There are instances, as we love to see in movies, where an empathetic teacher recognizes an exceptional child and intervenes to address that special quality, seeing that the child is not ignored or left behind. That didn’t happen to Diane. She felt written off. That continued as the family moved from one home to another, one town to another town, Minnesota to California and back again. New, marginal, and poor were her calling cards, and they didn’t earn her respect or notice as she showed up at each new school.
The school system was designed to reward successes for those who could earn it, conformity for those who didn’t succeed, and punishment for its failures. The institutions, especially in those days, didn’t adapt to the diverse needs of its population of students. That still happens now, and was even more pronounced in Diane’s day.