A stroll through family history via school records

Some questions would garner a lawsuit today, but the info gathered was more complete

By George Valadie

The unexpected text was from my high school alma mater. We stay in touch now and again. Many we know have moved on but not everyone.

Turns out one of this summer’s tasks there is converting 150 years of student records into the digital format. And there’s only one way to do that—one by one by one.

In doing so, they came across quite a few belonging to Nancy’s family and even more belonging to mine. Deceased now, three of our four parents went there before us, not to mention my grandmother and my great-grandmother.

Throw in siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and our clan was clogging up a cabinet they likely needed for something else.

Their plan was to digitize official transcripts only so they were kind enough to ask if we might want the rest of the stuff that they found there.

With all the appropriate permissions gathered from our families, we were happy to take some folders off their hands.

And then we strolled through history beginning with Nancy’s dad, who graduated in 1936. A fire had destroyed most everything before that.

It’s funny what we found, each one surprisingly different. Health records for some but not for all. Some standardized test scores, family information, old class schedules, teacher names we’d forgotten, and attendance records. A little of this and a little of that—the contents of each file as different as the humans they had tracked.

It only took an hour before Nancy said, “Turns out the California Achievement Test I took 52 years ago says I had a higher IQ score.”

“Well,” I countered, “If you look, I think you’ll see my SAT score was better. So there!”

Nancy and I had taken that same college admission test one time each and—good or bad—we just moved on. In fact, neither she nor I could recall any of our friends ever giving it a second try while I made our daughter take it five or six times.

Nancy dropped the hammer on our one-upmanship duel with, “Well, I have a higher credit score.”

She got me. Fifty-two years later and that’s proven to be the only mark that matters much at all.

As likely happened at your high school, we discovered all varieties of other tests our school had given through the years. Current ones like ACT and SAT of course, but we also saw results from NEDT, Dayton, Otis, Sones-Harry, California, and Kuder, and some of us had something called Mental Maturity scores—though not particularly good ones.

Thank goodness those no longer matter either.

According to the official record of their lives, our parents apparently made it through school—and life—with hardly any such outside evaluations. Their files recorded no such information. I suppose what the Sisters taught in the classroom was all they thought they needed.

I’m not sure they were far from wrong.

But most every one of our family files did contain some sort of “registration record” listing a student’s basic demographic facts of life.

It was funny to see how even the simplicity of “name and address” has gotten more complicated through the years.

We could revisit the time when there was but one phone number per home, each looking something like MA6-4444 (Madison) or OX3-8888 (Oxford).

My mom was already in college when area codes came into existence; no one ever asked for that. And, of course, there were no questions for “father’s cell phone/mother’s cell phone/student’s cell phone.”

No e-mail addresses either.

It’s not like divorce didn’t exist, but there were no questions asking, “With which parent does the student live?” It probably seemed rude to even ask such a personal question. We wouldn’t dare not ask it now.

Being as old as we are, none of the school operations were computerized. We found lots of handwritten or office-created forms, many produced with that old blue-ink mimeograph fluid that many of us can still smell to this day.

Prior to admission, it’s not uncommon for contemporary schools to require grade school transcripts, psychologicals, parental releases, and letters of recommendation. Those aren’t bad things; they prove incredibly helpful in providing appropriate services for those in need.

But none of it seemed to matter back then.

You could tell our daily attendance forms had been meticulously and time-consumingly generated on a typewriter (remember those?) with a tiny square box provided for each school day. (Try making a string of those on such a device.)

And the secretary had obviously been tasked with the daily tracking—little red A’s for absence, T’s for tardies, tallied at the end of each month and year.

Nancy weighed in on that, too: “Look at this, I had good attendance my first three years. And then we started going out, and all these days I missed senior year were when I was visiting you in South Bend.”

“You’re welcome” was all I could say.

There wasn’t a lot of financial information included, but Nancy’s file happened to include the tuition and fee charges for her ’72-’73 junior year.

The “one Catholic student” rate was $200 per year. The next level up was the “two or more in the same family” category (which described quite a few 1970s Catholic families). Those families were charged $250 per year. Total.

Except for the fees. Those added up to $32 and included access to every home athletic event.

My dad’s file had a space labeled “Health Code,” in which a parent was to enter from one of eight codes. Among others they could choose from: “N—Normal; C—Crippled; SD—Speech Defect; or FB—Feeble Minded.”

Talk about a lawsuit.

Nancy’s sister’s registration card asked the question, “Describe the facilities available for home study?” Her “private bedroom” must have been a good enough answer.

I had my own bedroom, too, but that didn’t keep my sisters’ noise out. It didn’t turn off my stereo nor keep me from putting off my trig homework. But they no longer cared or asked when I arrived.

And here’s my personal favorite: “Describe the attitude of the parents toward the school.” I wonder if any parent ever wrote anything other than “cooperative?”

I won’t lie: that would still be good information to know.

Early files all included health records apparently and occasionally compiled simply by asking the student, “Have you had the measles? Chicken pox? Do you still have your tonsils? Let me see your teeth, and can you read this eye chart?”

Our parents’ records showed their yearly height and weight with an accompanying indicator of what a “normal weight” should be. So, we apparently recorded failures in math and food.

And oddly, in 1944, it says my dad had zero teeth. He was 13 then—sounds like he was pulling someone’s leg.

It was a fun little trek through years gone by, imagining their lives and realizing just how much one school has evolved.

Sadly, though, when requests come in for transcripts, all that ever gets sent is a history of courses and grades. That’s too bad. It’s never been a complete picture of the young men and women who walk through those hallways.

Those things are important for sure. Employment and college are often offered or denied based on such—that hasn’t changed. Probably won’t.

But, thankfully, our God has a way of appreciating the whole of a person, guiding us gently and welcoming us home.

Even the feeble minded.

Dear God—Please help us value what’s on the inside where there’s a much fuller story … and a soul like none other. Amen.


George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.

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