I read this New York Times piece about an incredible book project my friend Paul is in the midst of (that I did not know about) and I'm jealous. Briefly, Paul acquired over 300 report cards-cum-tracking documents dating from the 1910s through the 1930s from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. Each dossier records physical measurements, family and ethnic facts, observational commentary, and has a small passport photo-like portrait. Each is a palimpsest of notations, crossings-out, updates and tantalizing glimpses of social and cultural history. Paul is deploying his obsessional researching capabilities and is attempting to track down the life paths indicated on these cards. How did the girls turn out? Where did they go?
The cards are poignantly forward-looking (this girl has these promising traits, she can become X) yet at the same time the modern viewer looks back on them as fossil records of a long ago time. The journeys they portend are already finished—whatever the girls were to have become either came to fruition or not. And surely in virtually all cases, the "girls" are already dead.
The article made me think of my own collection of report cards— all of one student—which I picked up at a flea market several years ago. My cards, far less interesting or informative, are the spotty school records, 1911—1921, for Edwin Lawrence. He attended P.S 164 and, later, Manual Training High School (now John Jay High School, just a few blocks from where I live) in Brooklyn. The cards are sad documentation of Edwin's slide from A's and B's in elementary school to his dismal showing in high school. Racking up 40's and 50's, failing hygiene, what on earth went wrong with this kid? His one shining moment appeared to be a strikingly incongruous 90 in music one semester. Perhaps if he had guidance, music might have led him out of his desultory adolescence.