Little Boxes

The pandemic may have lessened the enjoyment of delegates, reporters, and participants of the Democratic Convention, but for home viewers like me, it created a much more pleasurable, albeit more curated, event. By the end of the fourth day, I wanted to wrap myself in this bubble of wonderfully diverse people who lived in amazing places, who said things I could believe in, and who seemed like really decent people. I was sorry when it was over and I had to listen to real news again.

I have been an enthusiastic viewer of political conventions every four years since 1952. My zeal didn’t extend to what happened after the elections, however; I developed only a moderate interest in political life. I’ve only liked five of the 14 Presidents who have led the country in my lifetime: FDR, Ike, JFK, Carter, and Obama, and I haven’t liked any of them unequivocally. Carter mostly joined my list after he was no longer President, because he is such a good man, and I added FDR long after he died, when I was old enough to understand something about governing. Even then, it was probably Eleanor I really liked.

My family was Republican, which was surprising, since they were mostly mill workers, loggers, and farmers. It was because of them that Eisenhower got on my list. He ran for President in 1953, when I was ten years old and proudly wore my “I Like Ike” pin to school every day.

It wasn’t until I met Art Hansen that I began to see the world differently. I changed schools for my last two years of high school, when my family moved from a mill town up in the western mountains of Maine to the small coastal town of Yarmouth, where there was no public high school and the town paid tuition for residents to attend the private academy. Because the requirements for graduation were different at this school, I had to take four years of history in two years, and I had Mr. Hansen for all four classes. I think he may have been the only history teacher in the school. In any case, it was my good luck.

Standing in front of the room in his tweed jacket, rocking back and forth on his feet and jiggling the coins in his pant pockets, this tall, blond history teacher brought a breath of fresh air to this intellectually-starved teenager from the north, pushing my thinking in new, more liberal directions.

Adlai Stevenson had run for President in the past two elections when I was in Mr. Hansen’s class and Stevenson was being considered again as a candidate for the upcoming 1961 election. My teacher doubted he could get elected, however, “Americans don’t want someone too smart in the White House,” he calmly pointed out. I just couldn’t understand how smart could not be desirable.

Art Hansen railed against the conformity of the 1950s and drew pictures on the board of ticky-tacky houses lined up on a hill, as he sang/spoke the words to Malvina Reynold’s song, “Little Boxes,” a song about uniform housing developments with “a picture window and a lamp in the middle on the front of every house.” He scorned the blandness and conformity of the fifties and the racism which we in our little white town on the coast of Maine barely knew existed.

The Woolworth sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, happened in my second semester with Mr. Hansen. “How many of you would swim in a pool with a Black person? (It was 1960, so he used a different word.) How many would date such a person? …marry him or her?” He grilled us. These were questions that had never entered my mind, but, when one of the girls who had recently moved from the South, raised her hand on the pool question, saying she would have difficulty swimming with a Black person, I was puzzled. I didn’t really follow much news and my only travel outside New England had been north to Canada. While there were African-Americans in Maine even in colonial days, Maine, to this day, remains the second-whitest state in the union, after Vermont.  The recent pictures on television of Little Rock and the Montgomery Bus boycott seemed frightening and, thankfully, far away.  Such a question had never occurred to me. Mr. Hansen did his best to bring me into the world.

It wasn’t only on politics, culture, and racism that he opened me to new ways of thinking. “So you think that only some Baptists are going to heaven and all the millions of other people in the world are condemned?” he asked me one day as I walked him to the teacher’s lounge after class, after a heated discussion that had arisen in class. I had never thought about it that way. Maybe we didn’t have a monopoly on entrance to paradise. It did seem to be a rather presumptuous belief.

It was the ticky-tacky houses, however, that came to haunt me. When it was time for me to give my salutatorian speech at graduation, I chose the topic, “Are We Truly Blessed?” asking whether all the material advancements that provided the little houses with the picture windows and a lamp in the middle exemplified how we really wanted to live. Art Hansen surely must have smiled. My mother didn’t. Although she loved me, she never forgave me. She heard my speech as an attack on her life style, which it probably was. It may have frightened her, that I was moving into a different world.

So I changed. I moved beyond what Rosemary calls my original “life-surround,” the assumptions I learned as a member of my family and immediate world. Thanks to a great extent to Mr. Hansen and others like him, I began the process of self-authorship, of developing a lens of my own to look at the world, as difficult as it was for me, and perhaps more challenging for some who loved me.

When I watched the Convention this week, I thought about how much this election is about character rather than policies. And about the “fight for the soul of our nation,” a phrase repeated often this past week. Probably also about a realignment of our political parties. I asked myself the question I’ve asked quite a bit in recent years, “How can people who are kind and respectful and seemingly good people, some of whom I love dearly, see the world so differently than I do?” The strength of Biden, born just ten months before me, is his ability to “reach across the aisle,” but is that enough today, in this very different world than he and I grew up in? When the people on the other side seem so entrenched and immovable?

I was buoyed by the range of people who appeared on my screen, fellow contenders who had competed for the nomination, people from every part of our country and its territories, women and men engaged in a variety of occupations, looking so different from each other and yet coming together to support democracy. I was encouraged when Republicans showed up and spoke. I listened carefully each night to the speeches, but it was the images and the emotions that stayed with me. This is the face of our country now, I thought, elated at who we have become; the 1950s and all those little boxes are not where we are now. But there is another convention next week, and they think they are America. I don’t know if I can watch.

 

Photo of Art Hansen from NYA Yearbook, 1975

15 thoughts on “Little Boxes

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  1. Brynna, I love this, and I really look forward to reading all your posts. i know it has nothing to do with your writing, but I particularly appreciate that you found a picture of Mr. Hansen. Glad you are doing well. Keep writing!

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  2. I wish I could feel as uplifted as you do. Although I totally agree about the wonderful speakers at the convention and I am in full agreement that we are indeed in a fight for the soul of America, I am still terrified at what might happen if “Americans” vote to maintain the current fiasco. I am frightened at what will happen to our country and want very much to feel optimistic., But if America re elects a malevolent, racist pathological narcissist who has no regard for the rule of law, human life and equality, God only knows what will happen. Keep the posts coming. Perhaps my optimism will return.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Brynna for sharing your thoughts and experience. As you know I am not an American, but I feel deeply concerned for America, as I think the outcomes of this election will determine the future of not just America, but of the world. A couple of months ago I listened to a talk by Joseph Nye, who said something that has stuck with me – America might just be able to recover from 4 years of this President, but he doubted that America could recover from 8 years. You have said that this election is a fight for the soul of America, and is about character rather than politics. From my perspective, from a distance, it is also about morality and ethics. I hope you don’t mind me, as an outsider, making these comments, but my view is that we are all interconnected and what happens to you has repercussions for us, and vice versa. As Alida has said, keep the posts coming 🙂

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  4. Love it, Brynna. (If I didn’t have a phobia about exclamation points, I’d use one here.) I, too, was changed forever by “that Communist at the high school,” as he was known in certain circles. He put me on to Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers. I went to an opening house after he died, and was amazed to find out he’d been a fighter pilot in either WWII or Korea. He’s a major reason I went into teaching.

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  5. A great, thoughtful, heartfelt blog as usual, Brynna. I agree with what you have said, and am scared to death about the election outcome. You do highlight, however, the power of 1 person in our lives, especially a teacher. My parents always talked to us about the power of 1, and although I sometimes doubt that now, I am reminded about how true that can be when I encounter testimony to the truth of it. Sometimes it takes the good actions and input of the 1 to move us to collective action. Your blog brought me back to my parents’ message, as well as hopefully reactivated my ability to impact others in a positive way. Thank you for this gift!

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  6. I read your piece and pictured my own “ I Like Ike” button. It’s still in a box with my other political buttons—JFK, RFK, McGovern, Ferraro, Clinton, and Harris. Such small symbols that capture trajectories of thinking. You have a special talent amigo of taking a reader back and forward in time almost simultaneously. We walk with you in your experience but find ourselves reliving our own. Such a treat to read! Thank you for sharing with all of us. Mar

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  7. You were indeed lucky to have had a good history teacher like Mr Hansen.
    I relate to what you wrote but would have kept Clinton on the list of presidents. With all his faults and some of his mistakes I think he was a good president

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  8. We loved the Democratic convention. Tried to watch some of the Republican one but we just couldn’t stomach the lies.

    Thank goodness for all the Mr. Hansens in the world. Opening up students to the world beyond our experience is a wonderful gift!! And it brought you to us. We are so lucky and glad to have you as a friend. Love
    C and L

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  9. Hi Brynna: I’ve lost your email but thought of you when I read this NY Times review of Kerri Arsenault’s book about Rumford. Here you go: -Allen (Stay safe!)
    From The New York Times:

    Her Town Depended on the Mill. Was It Also Making the Residents Sick?

    In “Mill Town,” Kerri Arsenault uncovers her family’s long history in northern Maine and an epidemic of cancer that may be intimately connected to the community’s main employer.

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