Saturday, August 31, 2019

Pants on Fire

Used to be, this was the weekend which ushered in the flurry of preparation for "back to school" season. Though that is no longer the case for many—all but one of the schools our business works with are already in session—I thought it might be informative to wind the clocks back and see what "back to school" times might have brought for my ancestors.

Those "ancestors" on my paternal side would have been the first-generation children of immigrants in New York City. On my maternal side, the scene would shift to more rural settings, such as northern Florida or the northeastern tip of Tennessee. What was the first of September bringing for those families? What I could find, from those go-to documents we've come to rely on as family history researchers, was a definitive "it depends."

Checking that 1940 census, the telltale document which asked for "highest grade completed," it appeared my virtuous maternal grandparents had both completed four years of high school—at least, according to the report given to the enumerator by my grandmother. My mother, only fourteen at the time, was in eighth grade, and her younger sister trailed, one grade behind her.

Shifting over to check on the paternal side, the 1940 census revealed that my father's wife, the reporting party for that enumeration, had put him as having completed four years of high school. Nice, except that in that year, according to the Census Bureau, less than half the population of those aged twenty five or older actually had a high school diploma. Even more to the point, though high school graduation peaked at about fifty percent of one's age cohorts just before the war years hit America (see the graph on page 31 of this report), in the era in which my father would have been finishing such an education, the number of those doing so among his peers was far closer to fifteen percent than fifty percent.

Those wives might have thought themselves smart cookies to put such a polish on their claims to the census enumerator, but what they didn't realize was that we can quite easily verify whether their reports were so. And we find, in an era in which women seldom wore pants, theirs were, figuratively speaking at least, on fire.

Take the census in which my dad should have been in eighth grade, himself. That 1920 census in the Queens borough of New York asked simply whether each person had attended school at any time in the year leading up to the enumeration. My dad's entry was left blank. True, so was the entry for his twelve year old sister, but when we double check by looking to the right margin of the form, we see the report that my father was, at fourteen, working as an errand boy for a New York City bank. That, likely not an uncommon situation for that era, most likely also precluded full time attendance at school.

So, that was the truth of the matter for my paternal side in the big city. What about out in a more bucolic setting? Would either of my maternal grandparents have truly attended school to the bitter end? The answer there, if we can believe those earlier census reports, was also more squishy than definitive.

My grandfather, age thirteen at the time of the 1910 census—and living with an older sister who was by then a schoolteacher—was listed as attending school at least some time in the prior year. By the time of the 1920 census, he would no longer have been attending school anyhow, so the problem I have of not being able to locate his name in that census—likely because, by that time, he was out of the country—would not reveal much to help us. How many years after that 1910 census my grandfather continued his school career is something we can't determine from census records alone.

My grandmother, trailing her husband in age by a few years, was also too old to still be in school at the time of the 1920 census; there, her entry showed us she was employed as a telegrapher for Western Union. The 1910 census was too early to provide us an answer to our question, though it did show she was attending school then.

I take this back-to-school detour simply to point out something we all know but sometimes try to conveniently un-remember: that census records are only as reliable as the people providing the reports to the enumerators, and as reliable as the enumerators are at capturing those reports on paper.

There are, however, ways to work around such dilemmas. One obvious way, of course, is to find other corroborating documentation to verify the answer to our questions. That's why I so strongly believe that the reports we compile of our ancestors in their family tree profiles should rather be seen as a mosaic than a snapshot—seeking out the evidence that can be discerned from examining, for instance, collateral lines as well as direct lines of ancestry.

In the case of those of my relatives whose glowing reputation as high school graduates might have seemed tarnished by a closer examination of the truth, I already knew about the educational circumstances for each of them. I learned it by seeking out stories from family members back when I—and they—had the chance to talk about them.

Though in my dad's case—remember, like his own father, he was the one who didn't like to talk about his family or his past—the stories came from my mother's report of what he had previously told her, I remembered the story about how he dropped out of school, making his dad so angry, not because he was forsaking his education, but because, as a young musician in the big band era, my dad was making more money than his own father.

In my maternal grandmother's situation, I learned about the truth of the matter there, both from my mother's stories and from ephemera tucked away in my grandmother's private papers, which I inherited upon her daughter's death. My grandmother's mother kept her from starting school until she was a year older than the customary starting age, so that both she and her younger brother could attend school together; thus, at the other end of her educational career, my grandmother did indeed graduate high school—but she was almost twenty when she received her diploma.

In my maternal grandfather's case, I still have next to nothing to base any guesses upon. Though I couldn't find him in the 1920 census, I do have a record showing his arrival back from Honduras, where he had gone to live with his older, school-teacher sister and her husband. I also know that his childhood residence offered plenty of job opportunities with the railroad, which would have been more tempting than book-learnin' for a teenager in east Tennessee. Perhaps he, as did my dad, opted for a job rather than further education. Though it was partially a family tie that brought him to Honduras, he did also go on account of his work experience.

Of course, not all family stories are gospel truth, either—all the more reason for proceeding with our family history research with a good dose of skepticism and the perseverance to look up supporting references from not just one...or even two...but many different resources. Even if what we started with was a census record.


  1. I know there are school records out there on Family Search I transcribed some Oklahoma school records last year:)

    1. I'll have to take a look, Far Side. That would be a great source of family information.


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