Right next to their portrait of Jesus Christ (which I always imagined was the then-contemporary Walter Sallman portrait), my paternal grandparents had another picture — a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I still have it. It hangs in my “office” (I am, after all, the self-appointed chair of Rhetorical Studies of the School of Lewis) next to my “I Love Lucy” Barbie doll collection. The portrait itself has outlasted the glass that protected it.
My family’s stories have always been flavored with a political zest. My parents were children of immigrants and didn’t speak English when they started school. Governmental programs made a real, material difference in their working class lives. I grew up hearing that labor unions were a good thing. A very good thing. And Social Security? Sure, there were problems, but it was overall a much-needed enterprise and Dad explained specifically and personally why. At U of M, my Dad was actually nominated to be president of the campus Communist party. He did refuse to run, but not because he disagreed.
So when I attended my very, very Republican and very, very middle-class-and-white Christian day schools, I knew that the opinions they presented as Truth weren’t as plainly so. They insisted that prayer should be in public schools like it used to be; my Mom remembered that she never prayed in school (she did enjoy the honky-tonk piano playing from her classmates though!!). They said unions were evil; Dad said they were necessary. They talked like America won every conflict it was forced to enter; Dad reluctantly and with a heavy sigh told me about Vietnam. I do vaguely remember my dad writing a lengthy letter to my third-grade teacher correcting her about her goofy perspective on dinosaurs, but I can’t for the life of me remember the specifics. And when I came home saying that my U.S. history teacher said that “Nixon was the best president our country had ever had,” my dad was flabbergasted and stated baldly and loudly, “BUT HE LIED!”
I’m saying all this not to say that my family was completely correct in their perceptions of FDR’s policies. I have studied enough history to know and to understand the criticisms. Nor were my Christian Day school teachers completely in error (although I do think Dad and Mom had the upper-hand argumentatively).
I’m just saying that there was always a tension. Even from elementary school. It was more than a bemused detachment a la MST3K that all Gen-Xers relish. There always was a tension between the critical but sharp focus in those family snapshots and the glossy but fuzzy ABeka illustrations in those fundamentalist history books. A conflict between personal stories and official (and politicized) memory. Maybe it was more like a conversation between the two. But I always knew that even in school history was an often-commodified reflection, deflection, and selection of reality that contradicted my own experience.
And it was a very, very good thing.