Lost In High School

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: You barely graduated from high school. If you could relate your experiences in high school and also what happened after you graduated from high school since both of these experiences have an important bearing on your later thoughts on education.

JM: Yes, that’s a very important area. First of all—let’s see—it was 1931 that I started high school. During that period, I knew I wasn’t academic and I knew that I wasn’t very interested in academic subjects. I really didn’t know much about what I wanted to get into, which is typical. I knew that I loved the outdoors and I thought that maybe I could become a forest ranger. I was also interested in different kinds of art subjects. I was interested in biology. I was interested in learning how to write. Another area that I was interested in was drafting. And possibly, architecture. I ended up settling on the high school I went to because it had one of the most extensive art programs in the city. I decided to go there because I knew I had some kind of skill in the art areas. And so in the first year, I had a pretty nice balance between various art classes and some simple academic courses. And as the year progressed, it became more and more exciting for me. They had us designing cloth—patterns on clothing. They were teaching us how to design labels for canned goods. And so they were taking us into the practical application of art. Not just fine arts. It was almost like a trade school. But at the end of the school year or before the beginning of the second year, there was a new director of the school system in Buffalo, New York. And he eliminated anything that had to do with art or the trades in the high schools, I guess, in keeping with the increasing trend to make high school all about college prep. And I can still remember that in starting my second year, I felt very lost. Because the only thing that I was facing was a whole range of academic studies. And that’s not my nature. So I remember going to my home room teacher—I think they still have those—and I can remember talking with this teacher. She was not a counselor, she was a teacher. And I told her, “I’m completely lost. All of these things that are listed here that I need to take in the next three years, so many of them are of no interest to me and the things that I really love have been taken away.” And she was a very kind person, she listened well, and she said, “Tell you what. Go into a general program. That’s going to be less academic and more what you’re searching for.” So if it hadn’t been for her, I think I would have been overwhelmed my second year and I might have dropped out. One of the classes I had to take was biology and I found that I loved the biology class. The biology teacher took us out on many field trips, which is quite different than the typical biology class. I found I also liked physical geography. But then I also had to take courses in algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, English, and a foreign language. I chose French for a foreign language. And I really began to struggle with those courses. As far as math goes, they took me into geometry that seemed to me pretty complicated and I kept saying to the teacher, “What’s the purpose of my learning this stuff?” And she said, “It’s important for your brain.” It’s the only thing she could tell me. So I failed geometry. I never could understand what it was all about. And if I thought geometry was rough, algebra I couldn’t understand at all. I talked to the teacher time and time again, and I said, “What do you mean we’re trying to add A to B and C to F, and so forth? I’m totally lost.” She said, “Well, you’ve got to learn it.” And so I did my best. I did my homework. But I failed algebra. Now, I did pretty well in history because most of history is memory. But it wasn’t very interesting to me because I was more interested in the history of the Native Americans than I was of Europe of five hundred years ago. So I had very little interest in history, but I could do it. So I passed that. But then the big hurdle for me was English. I had a great desire to be able to speak effectively, do public speaking, to be able to write and to get my thoughts on paper. But unfortunately, the English class focused primarily on grammar. And I got totally lost in grammar. I kept going to the teacher and saying, “I really don’t understand how what you’re teaching about grammar is going to help me write better.” Once again, the teacher said, “It’s essential for you to learn grammar and to learn writing you will have to wait until you go to college.” And I said, “I’ll never get to college because my family is destitute,” It was the middle of the Depression. “I’ll never have the money. And I’m not academic.” So I failed English. And all my math classes. And I did all of those over again. I had to.

BW: Were you working while you were going to school?

JM: I had to work. That time, my brother and I were supporting our family.

BW: Do you think that has something to do with your difficulty in school? Do you think that you just didn’t have enough time to study? Or were the classes just confusing to you?

JM: I think it was more the classes and academic subjects were confusing to me. And what I’ve learned as time has gone on is that I don’t have the kind of mind that can learn in an abstract, academic way. I tend to learn best experientially. If you want me to learn something about English, give me a writing assignment or have me give a talk. Then in the process of doing that, the teacher can then begin to help me see that I’m using adjectives and verbs, and I can see the value of grammar. For me, application is important. To just learn academic things for purely academic reasons doesn’t make sense to me.

BW: What was it like working while going to school?

JM: As far as work was concerned, I was up at five in the morning delivering papers. At the school by eight. In the afternoon, after school, I had another paper route. After that, homework. I was a good boy and did my homework, the best that I could. And then on Saturdays, I was spending most of my time working. Doing little jobs in the neighborhood, delivering groceries in my wagon and stuff of that nature. It wasn’t easy, but I think the work was good for me.

BW: Why do you say the work was good for you?

JM: Let’s see... Let me think. This is a good one. I think the work was helping me to develop work habits that serve me well even today. I think that the work also gave me a sense of self-esteem. I was doing a good job with my various odd jobs and also helping to take care of my family. And also the work helped me to learn how to survive, which I think to this day is essential. The people I talk to now that are going through major financial problems because of the financial meltdown—many of them have no idea how to survive. They seem bewildered, like they don’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. It’s amazing to me. So one of the things that I think my work did for me is give me the confident attitude, “I can survive!” To give an example, my mother said on a Wednesday evening, to my brother and myself, “We don’t have any more food in the house for tomorrow.” My brother and I would begin to put our minds to work on how to earn a dollar or two and get food. And we would go out and we would mow lawns or shovel snow or do housecleaning or spade gardens. Anything to bring in a buck to put food on the table. And I think that kind of living gives you a wonderful foundation.

BW: I think it also gave you a wonderful humility.

JM: I did get an occasional A or B in school, but that didn’t give me the self-esteem or confidence that my work experience did. I think that’s one reason perhaps I don’t get stopped even when I’m in the middle of a crisis. I’ve learned there’s always a way out. So back to school. In each of those subjects—in biology and physical geography, I got I think a B+ or an A, which helped a lot. In all the other subjects, after I took everything over again, I think I got either a D+ or C-. And so, at the time of graduation, they were going over this stuff. And I can remember the homeroom teacher saying, “You’re just barely going to graduate.” And I think, for my four years, I was able to get either a D+ or a C- average. And you had to be somewhere there to graduate. So I graduated in June of 1935. And that was deep in the Depression. So in 1935, at the end of June, here I am, with a high school education, feeling like I can go no further, partly because I had no interest in college. There were factories but I remember feeling uneasy about working in factories. I knew I liked being outdoors. I did want to go up in the Adirondacks—there was a special school there, a two year program to train forest rangers. But that would have cost, I don’t know, a couple thousand dollars and we didn’t have a cent. So picture me sitting there at the end of June, first week of July. I’m thinking to myself, “What good has my high school education done for me?” That was my feeling quite a bit after graduating from high school. But because I was focused on survival, I began to search and I found that I could work at the YMCA for two months. Be the fellow that passes out towels, and stuff of that nature, at a very, very low hourly rate. And I thought, I’m not good for anything else, so I’ll take it. And so for July and August, I worked at the YMCA which was about a mile away from my house. There was no idea where I would go next. So when that job finished, because the fellow that I replaced came back from summer vacation, I was in the same fix in September, that I was in at the beginning of July. Once again, I was focused on survival and it paid off. I found a little place called the Poplar Shack—named after poplar trees—because it was built like a shack and it had, I think, four poplar trees growing around it. And what it was, was what we used to call a hamburger joint. And they gave me a job to work all night. So I would go there at six o’clock and they taught me how to make hamburgers, how to scramble eggs, and how to make coffee. And I would be on duty until about two in the morning. And at two o’clock, when I locked the doors, I had to clean up the place, which took another two hours. And so I worked until four in the morning. But in the meantime, I was hanging on to my morning paper route. That brought me in, I think, three dollars a week. So I would get home, say at 4 o’clock. Go to bed, get up at about six, deliver my morning papers, go back home, have some breakfast, go to bed, and then relax a little bit in the afternoon and maybe do some gardening for neighbors or something like that and then at 6 o’clock, I’m back at the hamburger joint. And so I worked at that from September until I think, early December. The reason I’m bringing these jobs up is all during this time I kept saying, “Why didn’t they help me learn things in high school that were actually useful?” Even in those days, they put the emphasis on—prepare for college. But very few kids had the money to go to college. So I think that a lot of my attitudes and beliefs were taking shape at that time. I know at that time, I was resentful that they took away the art program I originally entered. I kept saying to myself, “If I had been able to stay with the particular art skills, I could be making some kind of living from it. Not fine art, but commercial art. So by taking that away from me, I felt they took away my living. Because even during the Depression, you could earn some kind of living with commercial art. That would be designing advertisements, designing labels for various goods, designing signs and displays, anything commercial really. So all I had were those two jobs. In early December, the Poplar Shack closed down. So because I was oriented on survival, I said, “Well, it’s winter, it’s cold, what am I going to do?” And somebody told me, “Why don’t you go to one of the department stores downtown because they need extra help for Christmas.” I still remember going down canvassing the department stores. And I got a job in the rug department at one of the department stores. And that was hard work. And I knew that when Christmas was over, I would be out of work again. And so, I would say, the day after Christmas, they let all the extra help go. And here I am again, saying, “What did my high school education do to help me figure out what to do next?” And I would say, “Nothing. I’m on my own. I better figure it out.” So I remember at that time, that most everybody, my friends and others were saying, “There is no work. There’s nothing you can get.” And I said, “We have to survive. And my father’s sick, there’s eight of us in the family. We have to survive.” So I started going door to door on I think Myrtle Avenue which was kind of a main street laying across the city. It was all store to store for part of the way, because in those days, there would be a little store for everything you needed like meat, clothing, hardware, that sort of thing, instead of big chain stores. So what I did was I started walking down the main street going into every business and asking if they had any kind of work at any price. Each place I went to said they had nothing. And then I hit a place, I guess today we would call it an ice cream parlor. You could get milkshakes, ice cream, and sandwiches. And when I talked to the manager there, he said “Sure we got work for you. We need a dishwasher.” I said, “What pay?” And he said, “Good pay. Two dollars a night. But you have to work seven nights a week” And I said, “What hours?” “From six in the evening until four in the morning. Seven nights a week.” I said, “I’ll take it. Show me where I’ll work.” In the back of the restaurant was this great big open area which was dirty and smelly, and there was a big washtub where you have the left side for the hot water, right side for the cold water. And there was a sealed ramp that came from the restaurant side, and they would put the dirty dishes on it, and the dishes would slide down, and I would stand there all night washing dishes. And my arms and hands got red from the hot water, because it had to be real hot. I didn’t know anything about rubber gloves in those days. And I used to complain at times to myself and say, “This is awful,” but then I would also think, “This is better than doing nothing or working in a factory.” So I washed dishes until two in the morning, and after they closed the place, from two to four, I had to mop this huge building from stem to stern and clean the kitchen. What I did not know until the first night, when everybody was gone, and it got really quiet—I noticed the walls were moving. They were completely covered with cockroaches—literally. So the next day, when I got there at six o’clock, I said to my boss, “What’s causing that?” And he said, “Oh, they come every night. They feed on all the stuff that’s around.” And I said, “Well, they’re kind of squirmy.” “Well, we’ll give you some spray.” So I started spraying the next night, and thousands would fall to the floor dead, and I’d have to sweep them up and get rid of them. But over a period of time, I got the kitchen pretty clean. In the meantime, I’m an expert dishwasher. So every night, at six o’clock I went to—it was called something Dairy—and worked until four in the morning. I would never want to do that again, but I was bringing in two dollars a night. So then I had fourteen dollars a week. At the same time, I was holding on to my paper route. And so I would go home at roughly four o’clock in the morning for an hour or so, do my morning paper route, come back home, have breakfast, say hi to my mom and my sisters went off to school and I would sleep in til about three in the afternoon, get up and take a walk. There was no way to do anything with friends and at six o’clock I was back on with washing dishes. So that job ran from January of 1936 until April 1 of 1936. And I remember that during this time, I kept reading a great deal and thinking about how much I wanted to be doing things in the outdoors. And I knew that I could never get to the forest ranger school, because there was not enough money. So I began to say to myself, “What is some way I could work outdoors? I can’t do construction work, but I love to do gardening and things like that.” And a great idea hit me. I suddenly got this idea, “Oh, in Buffalo there’s two or three landscape companies and nurseries. I could work in a nursery because those are acres of plants and greenhouses. Maybe that’s what I could do to be outdoors all the time.” And so I can still remember at the end of 1936, that I started going through the yellow pages looking at the ads of the landscape companies and one of them was called Four Winds Nursery. They had the biggest ad and I liked the name—it sounded romantic. And I said, “Ok, this is the one I’m going to go after.” So I sat down and said, “I wish I had learned more about how to write a decent letter in high school.” I sat and stewed because I wanted to write a letter to this company. Remember, I was just a kid at this point and in those days, you didn’t use the phone much. It was not a major tool. And sometimes our phone was cut off. So we did a lot of stuff by mail. So I sat there and  wrote a letter. In the letter, I told the owner of Four Winds Nursery everything I had done taking care of neighbors’ gardens and I put down the plants that I loved, what kind of trees I loved, how much I loved the wilderness. I must have written three pages. Probably way beyond what was needed. And two days later, after the owner of the business, Bill Boocock—yes, that was actually his name—got the letter, he called me. He said he sat there and laughed and then he picked up the phone and called me. He told me, “You’re hired.” I thought, “Holy smoke!” He said, “That’s the most beautiful letter I ever received.” And keep in mind, I failed English in high school. And then I said, “How much do you pay?” because I had no idea and I needed money for my family, and he said, fifteen cents an hour. And at Four Winds, they usually worked a nine hour day, six days a week. So that was good money for that time, so I took it. So my father had an old car and he drove me out to Four Winds. Now this is a major changing point in my life, Brandy, because when I arrived there, I was elated. As we drove into this beautiful drive, there was twenty acres on the main street, rows and rows of beautiful plants for the garden to sell, rows and rows of young trees. And there was this big, beautiful barn, the kind they used to build a hundred years ago. And the offices were in the barn. Everything about it was kind of what I had been dreaming about. And so I walked in and found that Mr. Boocock was a very friendly fellow. I began to feel at home. I said to myself, “I made the right choice.” But again, as my father was driving me home, I said, “They didn’t do anything in high school to help me prepare for this job, but this job, I think, is what I want.” I think my father said something like, “Well, high school is to help you go to college.” And I said, “You know, Dad, there’s no way to go to college.” And he said, “I know. Because I have failed you.” I said, “No you didn’t. College is academic. I need to work with my hands. I need to learn a skill, a trade and so forth. Here I can learn to become a landscaper, gardener, nurseryman, all kinds of things.” My point is, Brandy, that this was a turning point because I stayed at the Four Winds Nursery from April 1, 1936 until October 15, 1943. That’s when I was inducted and went into training for the war. Now during that time, I realized I had a very eager mind to learn. I realized I actually learned very well and that I learned experientially. I was very fortunate—the manager of the nursery and greenhouses was a nice fellow and I can still remember his name. It was Francis Rohr. We just called him Fran. But my point is, he loved to teach. About everything. So he taught me how to work in the greenhouse, how to grow plants from the beginning. He taught me everything I needed to know about the nursery, about all the plants, how to get them started, how to cultivate them, and it was very exciting. For the first time, I was learning in a way that I loved to learn. And I remember saying to Fran, “I don’t have to know algebra to be here, do I?” He said, “Hell, no! What you need is a love of plants and the outdoors and some good hands.” So I was just a worker. I worked in the greenhouses and did all kinds of stuff during the good weather from early April until probably late October. Worked outdoors, worked on the landscape crews, mostly just manual labor, but learning a great deal as I went. But then come the first of November, and as you know from living in Erie, Pennsylvania, you can’t do any more work outdoors. And so, I was out of work from November 1st until April 1st the next year, except for part of November and December, when we made Christmas decorations and Christmas wreaths out of natural materials like holly. So guess what? When I was out of work, I went back to the creamery and for three months washed dishes. Then on April 1st, I was back at the nursery and because I was learning well and doing well, Mr. Boocock raised me up to twenty cents an hour. Some weeks in the spring, we would work 60 hours a week, so the money was quite good in those days. And I was learning more. I was finding that I worked well with the other men. Also what I began to discover is that I enjoyed working with the customers. And I began to learn how to relate to customers, how to work with them on designing their gardens. The nursery had a landscape architect who came in periodically. He found that I was eager to learn, so he taught me how to do simple architectural design of gardens. So another area that I loved I was able to do. On rainy days, I would sit at a drawing board in the office which was in the barn. This was a huge barn, like in the old days that went up clear into the sky. And they had redone the lower part of the barn into a very pleasant, homey office. Which I liked. And outside there was an old apple tree which was about fifty years old. And there were flowers everywhere, and gardens, all the stuff I loved about the outdoors. And so I was happy during that period. As I went along, I began to learn from this architect how to do simple drawings and design gardens. Keep in mind, this is one of the things I was interested in. Then customers would call in and want somebody to come out and do an estimate for a garden design or landscaping. One day, Mr. Boocock said, “I am going to try you out. Because I think you’re good with people.” So I started going out and meeting with these people and found that I was very successful. Mr. Boocock said to me, “You have a very natural ability with people that’s going to serve you all your life.” Well that was in 1938 maybe, 1939. And I said, “They didn’t teach me anything about that in school.” He said, “That’s right. That’s right.” Nobody has ever told me one of the most important areas in terms of work is relationships. They never taught that school. For the most part, they still don’t. So then as time went on, Mr. Boocock asked me to become the supervisor of the landscape crews. So my income was going up a bit. Then in 1941, when Pearl Harbor hit, everything changed. The war changed the whole country almost overnight. Totally. Way of living, everything. Just about every plant in the United States was converted to manufacturing war equipment and goods. You couldn’t buy a car, you couldn’t buy a refrigerator, you couldn’t buy anything new that was manufactured because everyone was mobilizing toward the war. Most of the older men who were not able to serve in the army went to work in what was called a war plant. And so Bill Boocock went to work as a manager or supervisor in a war plant, and he turned Four Winds Nursery over to me, to run the business. At that time, let’s see, ‘41—I would have been twenty four. My older brother was recruited into the war first. I was supporting the family at the time. And I didn’t know a damn thing about business. I knew simple arithmetic—I could add and subtract and divide and multiply. But I didn’t know how to run a business. But somebody had to run it. And the men that worked for us were older, most of them were in their fifties and sixties. Most of them were originally farm boys. And they were not called into war service because each one had a farm. And they did not recruit farmers. And so I ran the business from ‘41 until ‘43. Now during that time, and periodically before the war, a garden club would call up and want somebody to come speak on various topics such as plants, soil, fertilizer, that sort of thing. Francis Rohr was very good at it, very knowledgeable, so he did quite a bit of it. Within maybe fifteen, twenty miles of Buffalo, there were quite a few garden clubs. So there came a time when he could not do all of it, so he thought I would be good at it. Keep in mind, when I went to high school, I wanted to learn how to do public speaking. Here again was an opportunity, but I was scared to death. So he said to me, “You know more about plants, soil, and fertilizer than any of these people, so just get over there and talk.” So I started making the rounds of the garden clubs. Usually a garden club was about twelve or fifteen women. And usually they would serve a little something to eat and coffee. I began to feel at ease spending an hour or two telling them how to design their gardens, prepare the soil, and so forth. And I began to realize, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this.” I remember saying to myself, “I don’t know anything about the damn grammar, but I’m pretty good at talking.” So I remember telling one president of a garden club about my problem in high school and she said, “You don’t need to know grammar to be a good speaker. You’re a good speaker.” And she helped me to see what it was that made me a very interesting speaker. And around that time, they set up what was called a Victory Garden program. This would have been the end of 1941 or ‘42. Probably ‘42 because we were running short of food. Because of the war, there was a high demand for food. And our country couldn’t produce it all. So the Victory Garden program went into effect. The people in government decided it would be very important for every family to dig up their front yard and plant vegetables and of course nobody knew how to dig up their lawn and plant vegetables. And so, for my area, I became the Victory Gardener. They sponsored me all over the area. Oh gosh, I talked everywhere. And then they told me, “We need you to go on the radio. We want you to be on the radio fifteen minutes a day as the Victory Gardener. We’re desperate. We need thousands of families raising vegetables in their front yard.” So here I was now, once again, finding that I had skills I had never known. And so I was the Victory Gardener for about a year or more until I was drafted. I was written up in the newspapers, my picture was in big displays in the department stores. And all I did was teach people how to raise vegetables in their front yard. The very thing I loved to do. Now in addition to speaking publicly, I was designing gardens, making drawings, doing the design stuff that I loved to do, I was dealing with customers, managing the business as well as I could. I was doing everything that I loved to do. So that kind of gives you the picture of my life in high school and after high school until I was drafted. It was during this time that I began to realize why I had such great difficulty going through high school. I was not the kind of person that learned academically. I was also not the kind of person that wanted to learn to be an electrician or a mechanic. So the trade schools were not appealing to me. It was during this time that I began to realize that I loved to work with people. I also realized I related to people well. I understand now that part of what I was seeking for was people skills. I began to understand that relationships with people were very important in all areas of life and work. And so during that period from 1935 until 1943, quite frequently, I would pause long enough to say, “I wonder why they didn’t teach some of these skills in high school.” Because in those days, what we now call “human relations” wasn’t ever discussed or addressed. So you wanted to know a little bit about my experience in high school and now you have it. Kind of interesting as I talk and answer your questions. I’m sitting here thinking, “There wasn’t anything I learned in high school that I used later on except arithmetic and I learned arithmetic in elementary school.” I can remember my arithmetic classes, learning how to add and subtract, divide and multiply and I enjoyed it. But everything I really loved and eventually got paid to do, I learned none of it in school. None.