Fourth grade at Washington School was a memorable year. We’d been little kids up till then. But now we were in the upper tier of grades, and we felt we had entered the ranks of the big kids. Our teacher was Miss Helen Hunnefeld*. She was a squarish woman in her late forties with steel-rimmed glasses and an old-fashioned hairdo. She lived in a big yellow house on Stephenson Avenue, and sometimes we’d see her father driving her to work in their fancy black Buick. He was a very short man who wore a bowler hat and could barely see over the dashboard. Miss Hunnefeld sat alone in the back seat.
The war had ended the year before, but Miss Hunnefeld had been organizing her classroom as an army unit for some time, and she decided to continue doing so with us. This basically consisted in her presenting the children with a set of opportunities to progress through the ranks of a classroom military hierarchy. All the fourth graders started the year as buck privates. As we accumulated merit points, we would then become a blue star corporal, a green star sergeant, a red star captain, and so forth – potentially all the way up to the ultimate pinnacle: the “GOLD STAR GENERAL”! This was introduced as such a major life accomplishment that it would clearly require at least the entire year. Miss Hunnefeld posted everybody’s current rank on a chart on the west wall of the classroom, and she updated it weekly. Few people, Miss Hunnefeld intimated, were talented and hard-working enough to rise to the top. We fourth graders vowed to one another – especially Skipper Burke and I – that we would be Gold Star Generals by year’s end.
Miss Hunnefeld gave points for almost everything. For getting A’s on schoolwork tasks, for doing extra non-required assignments, and especially for doing stuff outside of school that Miss Hunnefeld deemed worthy. Children got points for going to church, playing on the sports teams, joining the D.A.R. Boys’ Club or the cub scouts, listening to Dr. I.Q. on the radio, going to Lions’ Club concerts, for all sorts of things. There was some grumbling on the playground that Miss Hunnefeld was controlling a lot of our non-school lives, but we were so obsessed with accumulating points that no one worried too much.
By midyear the girls started to rebel. They complained to Miss Hunnefeld that the boys had more things to get points for and so they were advancing more rapidly through the ranks. The girls had a legitimate gripe, e.g., they weren’t allowed in the D.A.R. Boys’ Club; they didn’t have any sports teams to join. Miss Hunnefeld recognized that this was an unfortunate flaw of the system, and she promised to correct it by finding more options for girls. But she also observed that the girls were growing up in a mans’ world and that they needed to learn about such differences. Nobody voiced it, but her system also pretty much insured that kids from middle class families would gain higher status than kids from poorer families. Increasingly, our classroom social structure came to resemble the larger community and society in which it was embedded. Most children, of course, did make progress by year’s end, though the final standings contained major inequalities. Skipper Burke wound up the year as the only Gold Star General in the class. We all admired him and/or envied him. Skipper was the real deal. Miss Hunnefeld never did make good on her promise to make things fairer for the girls. Everybody wound up with some interesting lessons about life from Miss Hunnefeld’s class. They weren’t necessarily the lessons that she set out to teach.