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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Grammar School Hierarchy

By Ernest Leichter

”All men are created equal” - from The Declaration of Independence

All countries have some kind of hierarchy. In Great Britain, the peerage system has been in place for centuries. In this system, monarchs are ranked highest followed by, earls, counts and barons. Commoners bring up the rear.

The only way a person can move up in class is by marriage. By marrying Prince William, Kate Middleton jumped up from just plain Kate to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

When I started grammar school in San Francisco, we students also had a kind of hierarchy. It wasn’t based on birth, wealth or power. It depended only on who had the most elaborate lunchbox.

The highest status was conferred on people with a rectangular, metal lunchbox with an artistic scene painted on both sides of the box.

Just below the lunchbox in status was the owner of the lunchpail. Lunch pails were cylindrical in shape with no pictures painted on them.

The lowest class in our K-3 caste system was the brown baggers. They couldn’t afford either a box or a pail. Sometimes there was even a grease spot on the bag meaning it had been used a second time.

During the early 1940s, Americans were at the very end of the Great Depression. Most parents couldn’t afford a lunchbox. The lunchbox brought to mind a leisurely picnic in the park for the idle rich. The lunchpail symbolized a quick meal in the middle of the day for the working class. The brown bag suggested unemployment.

My dad was doing so well financially that he could afford to buy me a very expensive lunchbox. My lunchbox had a beautiful scene painted on the outside. The scene depicted deer in a forest peacefully looking through the trees at the sky. The sky was filled with birds and butterflies.

My family lived about three blocks from our grammar school. From kindergarten through second grade, Rhoda, who was three-and-one-half years older than I, walked me to school every morning.

As an upper-division grammar school student, Rhoda was too sophisticated to carry a lunchbox. The fourth through sixth grade students had their own hierarchy. The financially well off students bought their lunches at Gracie's Delicatessen up the the hill from school on the corner of 25th and Balboa. The others carried their lunches in brown bags and ate in the schoolyard.

Mom had my lunch ready to take to school when I woke up on school mornings. She filled the box with two kinds of sandwiches - peanut butter and jam and deviled egg. She also included an apple and three Oreo cookies. The school provided milk for all of the students.

As I walked to school, I would deliberately swing my lunchbox back and forth hoping my fellow students would notice the treasure I carried in my hand. When I arrived at school, I would carefully set down my lunchbox on a shelf in the cloakroom. Students with lunch bags had to write their names on the bags, but everyone knew who owned the lunch boxes.

When lunchtime finally arrived, we raced to the schoolyard to secure a picnic table. Everyone wanted to sit at my table. At first, I thought it was because of my sparkling personality. When I got older and more worldly, I discovered the real reason for my popularity.

My friends were hungry and looked to me as a food bank. I always gave the fattest kid in my class, Ed Plutte, my deviled egg sandwich. Nobody wanted my apple. I would take one bite and toss it in the garbage can. The Oreo cookies were the biggest prize of all.

One day I would give one to Jim Guthrie. Another day I might toss the chocolate masterpiece to Alan Ortiz. The other two Oreos were mine alone. The cookies were to be savored.

First, I split each cookie in half and licked the sugar off each side. Only then would I bite into the chocolate and chew each side ever so slowly. I would swish the chocolate around in my mouth before finally swallowing. It didn’t matter to me that my teeth were brown for the rest of the afternoon.

After lunch, I quickly placed the lunchbox back in the cloakroom. I feared that if I left it unattended in the school yard, it would be scratched or dented.

By 1943, the Great Depression finally came to an end. Wartime jobs were plentiful and adults, who hadn’t worked for years, got jobs in shipyards and other war-related industries. People now had money to spend. Children with lunch boxes lost their status. Every Tom, Dick and Ernest had one.

Democracy had come to our school. The caste system faded. From that time forward, all children in our school were created equal.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. PLEASE read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


I loved your memories. As a "brown-bagger" I always knew I was to sit at the tables by the garbage cans or those with broken stools.

I had a metal Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett lunch box. It got pretty well scratched and dented.

I think they started switching to plastic lunch boxes due to the use of metal ones as weapons.

Your story about the Hierarchy in School brought back many memories of the one-room country school I attended. Everyone in the rural neighborhood was poor so everyone was a brown bagger. It was the kind of bread used in your sandwiches that made the difference. Kids with store-bought bread traded for sandwiches made with homemade bread and vice versa. Age was the determiner of where one stood in the pecking order. The older kids were at the top of the hierarchy down to the kindergarten kids.

During Minnesota winters we carried pint Mason jars of soup, etc. in used syrup/molasses pails. The teacher climbed on a chair to warm our lunches by placing the jars on boards that our fathers had built across the top of the pot-bellied stove at the back of the schoolroom.

Lunch was our dinner and I went home every day, then back to school. I loved the days when I was allowed to carry my lunch in a bag, then there was time to play!

I loved hearing your memories. We didn't get a hot-lunch program till I was nearly done with high school, but I was so excited about it. I got to have soup beans, corn bread and spinach 1 day a week--my mother never cooked beans like that and I loved them. I was almost the only kid that did, as I remember.

I still remember carrying my red lunch box in the 1940's--that stopped when I realized that the older kids (i.e., the seventh graders) only carried brown bags.
And yes,our mothers wrote our names on the bags. One of my friends, the son of Italian immigrants, was mortified when his mother, who spoke no English and who called him Giovanni, occasionally wrote his American name as "Jhon" on his bag.

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