The summer of 1952, when I was between third and fourth grades, my family moved from a blue collar neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where the men were policemen and plumbers, to the upscale suburb Wilmette, where most of the fathers were businessmen who did things none of us kids understood, some of them probably illegal.
We moved there because we could afford it (barely), and because my parents now had four sons who needed to be educated, and the conditions there, especially the schools, were excellent. Overall, it really was a wonderful place to grow up and be from. At the same time, I had been given a sense of values that led me to understand from my earliest years that no person is better than another just because of the sort of work he does for a living, where he lives or comes from.
One day in school my teacher decided to go around the class, asking each child to tell the rest what his father did for a living. Maybe the teacher was just curious herself. In those Dick and Jane days all mothers were housewives. The ones who were not (I did not know any) worked because they were poor and were ashamed to admit it.
Most would say, “My father works for Rumptydump Bank in Chicago,” or “He sells insurance,” or “Daddy is a doctor,” and a few said, “I don’t know,” which usually meant they were businessmen. My own father’s occupation as a successful professional musician was considered highly unusual and mysterious, but worthy of respect because he was often written about in the local paper. Some children confused musician with magician, and two excited little girls wanted to know if he could do tricks like pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing ladies in half. His biggest trick was continuing to support us in this community.
One of the last to report was a girl named Geri, who proudly announced, “My father is a janitor!”
There is nothing shameful about what a man does for a living as long as it is honorable work. We all believe that, right? Then why did a hush suddenly come over that classroom? The apparent embarrassment the other students felt was palpable. Of course, no one dared to utter a word or a gasp or a giggle in response.