Vonnegut’s Teachers (and Mine!)

“Mister Vonnegut, where did you get your radical ideas?” a radio interviewer asked the author of Slaughterhouse Five and The Man Without a Country.

Kurt Vonnegut answered without hesitation: “The Public Schools of Indianapolis.”

I loved his answer, for I felt the same way. I was reminded of Miss Louise McCarthy, my seventh grade history teacher at School #80. She was telling our class about America taking the Philippines, and we were shocked at the revelations of ruthless conquest (Mark Twain wrote that “We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors. . .”) Miss McCarthy broke our historical virginity by asking “Do you think America is always right, seventh-graders?’ Wagging a finger back and forth in our wide-eyed faces she said “Not at all, seventh-graders, not at all!”

(I thought of Miss McCarthy during the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, The Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan…)

If This Isn't Nice What Is?

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Vonnegut often spoke of his teachers in the popular graduation speeches and talks on other occasions (collected in If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?) like his address to The Indiana Civil Liberties Union when he said “Our chemistry teachers were first and foremost chemists. Our teacher of ancient history, Minnie Lloyd, should have been wearing medals for all she did at The Battle of Thermopylae. Our English teachers were very commonly serious writers.”

He reported that one of his English teachers, Marguerite Young, “went on to write the definitive biography of Indiana’s own Eugene V. Debs, the middle-class labor leader and socialist candidate for President of the United States.” Ms. Young also went on to gain literary acclaim for her novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling.

Though Kurt didn’t mention it in that particular talk, he often spoke with pride of another writer who graduated from Shortridge two years before him, who he knew when they both were in the Literary Club, Madeline Pugh. Ms. Pugh became the first head writer of the “I Love Lucy” show, television’s first popular sitcom.

Vonnegut had a question he liked to ask at the end of his talks (or sometimes at the beginning.) This is how he put it in his address to the graduating class of Agnes Scott College:

“How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously thought possible? Hold up your hands, please. Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.”

Now let’s ask our legislators to ask themselves that question and tell the name of that teacher to a fellow elected official and ask them to do the same, as they decide to invest tax dollars in our teachers.

“All done?” Vonnegut asked. “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

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A Book for Our Times!

April Smith, accomplished novelist and TV screenwriter, has published a new novel that is unsettlingly relevant for our time. Home Sweet Home (Knopf) tells the story of suspicion leading to tragedy in the era when Senator Joe McCarthy was spreading fear of Communists in our midst. A family of liberal Democrats from New York go west in hopes of getting a new start in a place of wide open spaces and friendly, supportive neighbors who respect the old values of hard work and honest dealings. They pick a town in South Dakota because the father’s old Air Force buddy lives there and will help them get started. Things go sour when it turns out the old Air Force buddy has lied to the locals, puffing up his war stories to sound more heroic, and the newcomer calls him out.

A dark stain of mutual distrust runs through the story of newcomers from a different background making a success of their lives in the new landscape, and the family is smeared as “Reds.” Showing how prejudice and hatred can be carried down through successive generations, it is the family of the children who are senselessly murdered. The novel was inspired by a true to life case of the “Red Scare” era of the 1950s.

As passions mount and divisive politics trouble our own time, this book is a dramatic warning of what can come of overly-aroused feelings on sensitive national issues. Simplistic labels that denigrate whole categories of humans – not only based on skin color and ethnicity, but even because of political beliefs, can lead to personal tragedy and national disgrace. This novel is a family story, a mystery, and a warning.

– Dan Wakefield

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield