Friday, November 15, 2013

The Wilder women on the Prairie

from the Tuesday, November 12, 2013 edition of the Boerne Star
It was President Ronald Reagan’s favorite TV show and Sarah Palin’s most beloved childhood book. Just like Reagan and Palin, the “Little House on the Prairie” stories are uniquely American. How they came to be written is the subject of  Susan Wittig Albert’s new book, A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses.
From the time that they were first published in the 1930’s, the “Little House on the Prairie” books have captured the hearts of both children and adults. These endearing stories of  life on the American prairie chronicled a much simpler time in history, a nineteenth century lifestyle filled with stories of a close-knit family overcoming obstacles as they built their homestead and helped settle this country.
            While Albert’s book is fiction, it is based on fact. She used Wilder’s and Lane’s diaries, journals,  letters, and scholarly research materials as her guide. Just as Wilder and Lane were true to real life events in the “Little House” fictionalized stories, Albert is just as true to history in A Wilder Rose.
            Rose Wilder was the only child of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder. Born in 1886, she grew up under austere conditions. She and her parents lived a hard-scrabble life working long hours to eke out a living from the unforgiving South Dakota prairie. Because Laura’s attention was focused upon physically demanding manual work, she did not have a surplus of time to spend with her daughter. Rose often felt neglected.
            Not only did Rose feel that she was deprived the mothering she so desperately wanted and needed, she suffered from the absence of childhood friends. Her classmates poked fun at her bare feet, shabby clothes, and odd ways. Rose was envious of the other girls’ fancy store-bought dresses and she longed for even the plainest pair of shoes. She was an outsider, not only because of her clothes, but also because her behavior was bizarre—she even spoke her own language that she called “Fispooko.” Rose learned at a tender age to conceal her true feelings behind a fictional fa├žade and she carried that trait with her throughout her life.
            There was not enough money for Rose to attend college, so she taught herself to write and learned several languages on her own. She worked as a journalist, some would say a “hack,” for publications such as the “San Francisco Bulletin,” the “Call,” and the Red Cross. Many of her stories were filed from distant locations—Paris, Russia, Albania—and she lived a rather wild, bohemian lifestyle. Rose made enough money to travel to exotic places and to flit in celebrity circles. She subsidized her parents’ income so that they could have some comfort in their advanced years.
            It was largely because of Rose’s generous financial assistance that Laura gained the freedom to establish her credibility in her community. She joined ladies’ circles and began writing for the “Missouri Ruralist” and other farming publications. Throughout Rose’s life, she and her mother had a contentious relationship—sometimes openly, sometimes passively, but always grating just under the skin with only a word or slight causing an eruption.
            The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out Rose’s and her parents’ savings. Rose began ghost writing books for Lowell Thomas, Frederick O’Brien, and pulp biographies of Hollywood celebrities. Publishing houses took a beating during the great depression, but Rose was a prolific writer and managed to stay afloat. Laura had toyed with the idea of writing accounts of her childhood on the prairie and she sought Rose’s advice about the possibilities of publishing these stories. Rose saw a possible market for fictionalized versions of Laura’s life and, through her own agents and publishers, she made sure that her mother’s books were given an opportunity to succeed in the marketplace.
            Rose dutifully typed up the stories that Laura wrote by hand on orange tablets, sprucing them up and adding her own editorial flourishes and she was able to secure good publishing deals for Laura.
            “A Wilder Rose” is a fascinating story of a complex mother-daughter relationship and is a departure from Albert’s serialized fiction. On the surface, the “Little House” books are uncomplicated, simplistic stories of life on the American prairie but Albert does a masterful job of carrying the reader through the complexities of the evolution of Rose and her mother.
            For “Little House” fans this book is essential reading. For Susan Wittig Albert fans, it is pure pleasure.

 “A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses,“ by Susan Wittig Albert,  ISBN-13: 978-0989203500, Persevero Press, September 2013.

"Books and Butts" chronicles high school life in the 80's

Published in the September 9, 2013, edition of the Boerne Star
With the ink barely dry on his school administration certificate, in 1980, Joseph F. Doenges, Ed.D., accepted the position of Assistant Principal of Boerne High School. During the chaotic year that followed, Doenges very quickly discovered that he would be called upon to handle disciplinary problems on an order that he could have never anticipated during his training.
            It wasn't as if he had not been forewarned. The Assistant Principal position was a new one, established in response to demands that something be done about the discipline problem in the school.
            “The graduation ceremony in May was a farce,” Superintendent Bob Chambers told Doenges during his interview for the position. “It was held in the football stadium. Some of the kids were drunk. They were throwing Frisbees and spraying shaving cream at one another. The whole thing was an absolute disgrace. All summer long there were letters to the editor in The Boerne Star about graduation.”
            “The purpose of this book is to reveal the frustration and failure, as well as the joy and success that exist in any public school system,” Doenges writes in the preface of his new book, Books and Butts: Diary of an Assistant Principal (, ISBN13:  9781300827177, July 4, 2013). “It is difficult to do so truthfully without offending someone. It is certainly not my intent to tarnish reputations, damage carefully nurtured images, or cast doubt on the ‘sacred cows’ of education. Nevertheless, if some are offended, reputations tarnished, images damaged, or doubts cast, so be it.” Doenges changed the names of the students whose discipline problems he chronicled.
            From the first day of school, Doenges was called upon to deal with truancy, disruptive behavior, fights, students selling their free lunches, irate parents defending their childrens’ bad behaviors, and students who repeatedly set off strings of firecrackers and deliberately clogged up toilets. 
            Three weeks into the school year, Doenges wrote in his journal, “One discipline problem after another came through my office. It was the busiest day yet. Two boys knocked a hole in the sheetrock wall in English class. Several students were put out of class by the teacher for incessant talking. Three girls were sent to the office for passing notes in class, and two more for chewing gum. Most of these problems should have been handled by the teachers involved, but it was one of those days when tolerance and patience were in short supply.”
             There were serious discipline problems, too, that were difficult for Doenges to handle. Most of these were incidents of vandalism, drinking on the school grounds, or worse, drinking and driving. In these situations he had no other option but to call the Boerne Police Department.
            Doenges kept his wife’s old sorority paddle on display in his office. It served as more of a threat than a viable method of disciplining disobedient teenagers. That is until one day he had to call a student’s father to discuss his son’s constant interruption of his teacher. The father immediately came to the school. When he saw the paddle in Doenges’ office, he got right to the point.
            “I want him paddled, and I want him paddled every time he gets in trouble in the future.”
            Doenges had never actually used the paddle, but this time he did.
            “I got Martha’s old sorority paddle from my desk, where it had been stored since August, just in case I ever needed it. The boy bent over and grabbed his lower legs while I gave him three swats as dad witnessed. I knew by his reaction that the paddle stung, and thus the desired effect had been achieved. I then reached out and shook the boy’s hand, told him there were no hard feelings, and sent him back to class. Dad thanked me, reminded me that future problems were also to be handled with the board, then left.”
            At the end of the school year Doenges did some soul searching about his role as Assistant Principal. He felt that his greatest accomplishments were that he had helped to establish order and control at the school and that he had earned the trust and respect of students, teachers, and parents. It was a frustrating year but he was satisfied that “things were better in May than they were in September.”
            Doenges was conflicted about renewing his contract. That one year had been more physically and emotionally draining than any he had experienced as a teacher. He  returned to his job in August, but it didn’t last very long. During the year the principal resigned and Doenges was appointed in his place. By May, he had decided to accept a position overseas. He returned as Assistant Principal at Boerne High School in 1985. When the superintendent of schools retired, Doenges was persuaded by the Board to take over as superintendent. He served in that capacity for eleven years.
            Books and Butts is an entertaining read filled with humor and wisdom. At the conclusion of his book, Doenges reflects upon his many years of experience as an educator and provides the reader with his personal philosophy concerning issues such as corporal punishment, school and class size, advanced placement, and foreign language instruction.

            The bottom line, says Doenges, is that expectations are too low in the American educational system.