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Find more Weighing In: On the Street Where I Lived
There were a number of kids on my street when I was growing up, and we spent a lot of time together. We played pickup games of softball, raced go-carts down a steep hill in front of my house, and built hideouts in a nearby wooded area. We shared library books, ghost stories, and our love of I Love Lucy or The Roy Rogers Show. I thought I knew all the kids and their families well, but I was in college before I learned why the two sisters who lived at the end of my street sat on their front steps crying as they watched a car pull away with their mother in the passenger seat. It turns out that their mother suffered from mental illness and was committed to the state mental hospital for months at a time.
In another house, just behind us, a girl my sister’s age lived with her paternal grandparents. Her father was sometimes there, but I never heard anyone mention her mother until the day I overheard two women on my street whispering that Mrs. Jones was in a tuberculosis sanatorium. I had never heard of tuberculosis, and to this day, I don’t understand why they felt the need to whisper.
My best friend lived next door. She was an only child, and we were inseparable until we got to high school. I was in her home a lot, and I have a vague memory of seeing her dad occasionally stagger in at night and her mother pace up and down the driveway wringing her hands. Not a word was spoken about what was going on in that home. Then, when I was much older, I understood that the mother’s nervous condition was caused by the dad’s problem with alcohol. He outlived her.
When I was in kindergarten, a girl with polio moved just a few houses down the street. We all wanted crutches like hers until we visited her when she was hospitalized at Warm Springs, the hospital in Georgia that Franklin D. Roosevelt made famous. Seeing kids in iron lungs and in wheelchairs or on gurneys with both legs paralyzed changed our wish, and not one of us protested when the county health department came to our school to administer the polio vaccine.
None of the books in our school library offered even a glimpse into the lives of families like the ones on my street. There was Colin, the handicapped boy in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. But no character had a father who drank too much, or a mother who suffered from mental illness. There were characters who died of smallpox, yellow fever, diphtheria, and various plagues in historical fiction, but these devastating epidemics were often incidental to the plot of the stories.
How much more informed we would have been about public-health issues if we had had books like Fever, 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson; and The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, by Deborah Hopkinson. I’m certain that science and social-studies classes would have been more interesting and memorable if there had been books like Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History, by Bryn Barnard; An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy; and The Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918, by D. Getz.
Immunizations were required but never explained to us. We all wailed when the county nurse lined us up for a yearly typhoid shot, but we may have quieted if we had read Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hess. The necessity of the smallpox vaccination would have been evident if A House of Tailors, by Patricia Reilly Giff, had been available to us.
Children may be more aware of the realities of devastating illnesses today. But a little knowledge doesn’t build empathy in the same way a story does. I’m certain I would have shown compassion for some of the kids on the street where I lived if there had been books like Nest, by Esther Ehrlich, about a girl whose mother suffers a mental illness, or Breathing Room, by Marsha Hayles, which tells the story of a girl who is hospitalized with tuberculosis. Even though polio was very real to me, I know I would have read Chasing Orion, by Kathryn Lasky, because it is about a new girl in the neighborhood who has polio. Give children stories, and they will become kinder and gentler toward those who are suffering, whether it’s on the street where they live or in another part of the nation or world.
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