Sunday, August 21, 2011
When I decided to track down some of the families of the Manhattan Trade School students whose report cards I'd found, one of my biggest concerns was how people would respond to negative or personal information about their loved ones. After all, just about everyone's student record includes some embarrassing information, and some of the comments and notations on the Manhattan Trade cards were particularly harsh and personal. How would people respond when they saw these comments about their mother (or aunt, or whatever)? And how would I handle such situations when interviewing these people?
The student who epitomized these concerns was a girl named Tessie Karapura, whose card is shown above. Here's a larger view -- take a look at the bottom. As you can see, it reads, "Irregular menstruation (no pain). Dr. says girl will outgrow this."
There was good reason for the school to have made this notation. Irregular periods can be a sign of malnutrition, and many of the Manhattan Trade students came from impoverished families, so diet and nutrition were a constant concern. Nonetheless, this seemed like a very personal detail for me to know about.
But that's nothing compared to a note that appears later in Tessie's file, where a school administrator wrote, "Walks around as if she were dying. Absolutely pepless." Pepless! It would be amusing if it didn't seem so devastating. Between this comment and the menstruation note, I wasn't in any particular hurry to sit down with Tessie's descendants.
When I started trying to find students' families, I didn't go about it with much rhyme or reason. I was lucky enough to have a small army of research volunteers assisting me, so I pretty much just typed up a list and said, "Okay, you look for these five students' families, and you look for these five, and you take these five…" and so on. I knew it would be difficult research (Manhattan Trade was a girls' school, so almost all the students had presumably gotten married and changed their names), so I figured I'd just follow leads as they came in.
If this were a movie, the first family to be located would be Tessie Karapura's. Fortunately, this is real life, so that's not what happened.
Instead, hers was the second family.
One of my volunteers had located Tessie's brother. And I couldn't just not follow up on the lead -- for all I knew, we might not find any additional families. But man, why did we have to hit paydirt on this particular student right at the beginning of the project? I imagined myself going over Tessie's report card with her brother: "And yes, apparently your sister had irregular periods as a teen…" Ugh.
I reluctantly called Tessie's brother, who was in his 80s and living in New Jersey (Tessie herself had died several years earlier). He seemed a bit confused by my inquiries but agreed to meet with me at a coffee shop near his home. I mailed him copies of Tessie's student file and prepared to meet with him a few weeks after that, but then he called and said I'd be better off contacting his niece and nephew -- Tessie's daughter and son, respectively -- because they would have more to say about her. He gave me their contact information and said goodbye. I'm still not sure why he changed his mind about meeting me. Had he found the information in Tessie's file distasteful, or was he just uncomfortable with the whole notion of discussing family matters with a stranger? Maybe a bit of both.
I followed up with Tessie's daughter and son. Both of them were polite and gave me some perfunctory information about Tessie, but neither one seemed eager to meet with me or even be interviewed over the phone. Given my own reservations about some of the content in Tessie's file, I decided to put her in the "Well, I did what I could" category and move on.
Happily, most of the other families I've contacted during the course of Permanent Record have been remarkably generous-spirited about meeting with me. There have been a few tense moments about some of the material in the report cards, but they've all been handled with grace and humor.
As for Tessie, she had enough "pep" to raise a family, which seems like a good rejoinder to that comment in her file.