Martin Litvin. Good Morning, Miss Freeman. A Memoir.
Readers of the Zephyr will not find either this story or the author unfamiliar. Listeners to WGIL will easily recognize Martin's friendly "Goood Mourning, Mizz Freeman." Readers of his previous books on Galesburg, its history, and its ethnic communities will probably make a mental note to stop by The Prairie Peacock to pick up copies for themselves and friends who now live far away.
This memoir does not go as far into the past as did many of Martin Litvin's earlier books: it deals with 1944 and 1945, years when America was at war, sure of winning but unable to hurry the process more swiftly, when Galesburg was attempting to enjoy its long-awaited escape from the Depression only to find its way blocked by shortages and rationing, and when "Marty" was sixteen, longing to crawl out of an extraordinarily deep case of the teenage blues but frustrated by a materialistic family, a lack of obvious scholastic or athletic abilities, an inability to make even a single close friend, or figure out what the point of life really was.
The person who brought the three themes together was Irene Freeman, a substitute teacher in drama, hurried hired to replace the handsome, talented, and popular Bill Allen, who had just been drafted. It was an impossible assignment, as difficult for a woman in her late Thirties as growing up was for young sixteen-year-old Marty Litvin, who was then paying for his parents' decision to start his schooling early. But she threw herself into her job with an enthusiasm that was contagious; at least, it was contagious to the point of passing on a love of the theatre and literature to one of the shyest, most naive young man in Galesburg High School.
Galesburg High School in those days was right downtown, just south of the square. The collection of Victorian-era buildings, all connected by enclosed corridors, would probably be the pride of a restoration-minded community today, but America then as now was to some extent a knock-it-down-and-forget-it country. Consequently, probably most citizens cannot truely appreciate what it meant for a city to have a true center where everything happensCbusinesses, professional services, groceries, transportation, and schools. Galesburg is not unique in this, of course; everywhere we have lost much of what was best and have forgotten most of the rest.
Not all was for the best, of course. Galesburg had its social classes, even its castes within classes. There were slums; in fact, most people lived in housing that we would consider slum-like todayCjust remember what the wallpaper was like back then! There were grasping politicians, gropping businessmen, bootleggers; ethnic origins were still obvious, blacks were employed as household help, and few were confident that the war-time prosperity would last when peace returnedCit never did. Nevertheless, life in those years beat those of the depression era, and to those who were living then, whatever life was was "normal." Certainly, it was all the normality that high school kids could remember. They had never been seventeen before, kissed a person of the opposite sex (this was 1944, remember!), or, in many cases, been in a high school play.
Martin Litvin's genius is his ability to make our mind's eye see the buildings, our ears hear the undertones of conversation, and our memories call up old friends and acquaintances: "yes, we knew someone like that once; in fact, we were just like that ourselves." This is the sort of book that makes one want to attend a high school reunion. It is also the kind of book that forces us to confront the fact that the years of adolescence were not necessarily ones we enjoyed or that we would go through willingly again; what makes those years seem so good is an even stronger memory of the trials and troubles we had making on our own afterward.
What everyone needs in making this transition from that awful combination of physical near-maturation and emotional near-childhood into adult society is a handful of models. The Irene Freemans of this world have their own faults. In her case, furtive chain-smoking, a lack of the social graces that extended even to her wardrobe, and an inability to master the complexities of wartime shopping. But she had other gifts: an undisguised love of drama and literature, a willingness to work hard, a high level of energy and enthusiasm, demanding the best from the busy young people in her charge, and praising honest effort and worthwhile achievement. That's what makes a great teacher. She does not have to be Superwoman, but she has to give it the super effort.
One cannot hardly imagine an Irene Freeman married and with children, trying to balance the needs of family and spouse with the demands of the calling. It is a calling, not a job. Yet, there are Irene Freemans out there today, doing just that. And, moreover, most of them probably cannot guess which students they will influence they most. Certainly, to judge from this account, Miss Freeman could not have anticipated much from young Marty, not even when he got onto the Santa Fe to enroll at USC (then 5,000 students but to swell to an incredible 32,000 when the GIs returned home in 1946). It's a reminder that every teacher needs from time to time, both as an encouragement on days when no one seems to care and a warning against becoming too strongly attached to one's favorites (and how easy that happens!).
Did young Martin Litvin ever make a friend? Did he ever discover a skill that would impress his father, much less Miss Freeman, who was much less demanding. Did he ever figure out what the point to life really was? Should he be satisfied with peanuts, use his now-proven talent for finagling to make himself into a successful mobster, or try somehow to become a writer, even a struggling, frustrated one.
It would be unfair to give away the plot, even a simple and straight-forward one that is to some extent a love prose-poem to a community and its people. Let's just say that the plot is sufficient to deliver its messages to teenagers of both yesterday and today. I'd like to see it used in GHS literature classes. But what do I know? I teach history.