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Jack Smith

Notes that parents have written to school officials over the decades are in a class by themselves

December 23, 1985|Jack Smith

Laura Bridge, former registrar of Lincoln High School, some of whose collection of notes from parents excusing children's absences were printed here the other day, was not the only school official to save such original Americana.

My cousin Annabel Thompson, who was school secretary at Richland School in Shafter for 16 years, beginning in the early 1950s, has sent me a few from her own treasure.

At that time Shafter, a farm center in Kern County 18 miles northwest of Bakersfield, was a temporary home for many migrants who lived in farm labor camps. It was "Grapes of Wrath" country.

Her notes from migrant parents reflect their dispiriting poverty, their transiency and their struggle for dignity.

"I didn't share these with anyone," my cousin writes, "since, in no way, did I want to make fun of these parents. . . . I held hope that this type of note would soon fade from the scene with better education for these people. . . ."

One of the notes suggests that school cafeteria food was no better then than it is now:

"Cleeta has felt sick over the spinage she eat in the cafeteria Monday. I dont want you making her eat anything else she dont want. . . ."

Some of the notes reflect the parent's bitterness:

"If there is a law to force children to go to school there is a law to furnish clothes for them to wear and school lunches. So I will have to take Nadine, Edgar and Joe out of school if they don't have clothes to wear. . . ."

The transitory life of the migrants is revealed in one:

"Tommy wasn't at school yesterday because we moved again Sunday night after dark. We moved to a place on Central Valley Highway in a little camp behind a Hancock gas station. . . ."

Martha McOuat of La Habra has also saved a few notes she received when she was a teacher:

"Please excuse Debbie for being late as a monkey came into the house, and I needed her to help us catch it."

Sometimes parents' rigid moral codes conflicted with the more liberal codes of the school:

"James informed me that you made him dance today against his will. I have survived without dancing and don't feel I missed anything except temptation. Dancing usually leads to ballrooms, night clubs and alcohol, and many teen-agers get a bad start in life in such places. . . ."

At least one parent rebelled against the consequences of the creative impulse:

"Jimmy came home yesterday with paint on his shirt. Now if that happens again I will have to stop him from painting. I think that's what you are there for, and I may see someone higher than you."

One's heart goes out to this harassed mother:

"I am sorry Rebecca is late this morning. Their is no excuse as we were up at 6:30, but her grandmother is a very nervous person. She had to get her hair done and one thing led to another. She makes me so nervous."

Betty Mallery, attendance secretary at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, sends a list of excuses collected many years ago by Walter Zabriskie when he was principal of Belvedere Junior High School:

"Dear School: Please excuse John for been abcent on January 28, 29, 31, 32, and 33."

That was an absence to remember.

"My son is under the doctor's care and should not take P.E. Please execute him."

"Please excuse Sandra from being absent yesterday. She was in bed with gramps."

"Ralph was absent yesterday because of a sour trout."

Sounds like a really disagreeable dish.

Even celebrities are sometimes obliged to write notes excusing their offsprings' absences. Bill Clark of Covina sends one that his great-aunt, Ella Sinclair Barnes, received when she was principal of "a Hollywood school for the scions of the rich and famous."

"Dear Madam: Kindly excuse Creighton for being late this morning, as it was a case of everybody overslept. Trusting it will not occur again, Respectfully, Lon Chaney."

Clark says he has always wondered what went on in the house of "the man of a thousand faces" that caused everyone to oversleep. His Aunt Ella would never confirm or deny that there was a recurrence. "Good Aunt Ella was never one to fan the flames of scandal."

By the way, some alumni of Lincoln High School remember Miss Bridge fondly, even if she was the truant officer, so to speak.

"Miss Bridge had the finest memory of any person I have ever known," writes Santo Garbo of San Gabriel. "I believe she knew the first and last name of every student that had paid a visit to her attendance office."

Garbo recalls his 10th reunion. "Five of us graduates were walking up the driveway at Lincoln when we spotted Miss Bridge walking toward us. She stopped and called each of us by our first and last names. Can you believe that?"

Leo Villarreal is grateful to Miss Bridge for guiding him into a skill by which he was able to make a living. She was helping him make up his program for the next term, and noting that he had an extra period, she asked what he wanted to do with it.

"I told her that I wanted a study period. A study period was noted for being a goof-off period. Miss Bridge said, 'Oh, no, you don't. How about taking Typing I?' "

Villarreal agreed, "never thinking for a moment that this would be a part of my livelihood."

Some of them made a difference.

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