Here we have Judy Helrich (left) and her sister, Marilyn Saias, holding the report card of their mother, Doris Abravaya, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in the early 1930s.
As you may recall, Doris is the student whose record read like a horror story:
May 2, 1933: Doris's mother is insane and in Mental State Hospital. Father is paralyzed and crippled and a drunkard. Three children [including Doris] live in [a forster home]. … Doris has low mentality and is very timid and unstable. She constantly fears becoming like her mother. Children see mother often because father takes them there whenever he is intoxicated.
And that's just a snippet of the challenges described in Doris's file. By any measure, she was dealt a rough hand.
On Sunday I met with Judy and Marilyn for the first time (we had been e-mailing for the past month or so), and I'm pleased to report that the Doris went on to have a very happy, successful life that gave few hints of the challenges she faced during her childhood. Interestingly, Judy and Marilyn had no idea that their grandfather (who they never met) was an alcoholic, or that their grandmother (who Marilyn never met and Judy met only once, when she was very young) was confined to a mental institution. Doris didn't talk much about those aspects of her life. So my interactions with Judy and Marilyn have been as much of a learning experience for them as it's been for me. I love it when that happens.
Doris's case is probably the strongest example so far of a trope I've been aware of since the start of this project: An adult's assessment of a child -- whether in the form of a report card or in any other format -- is not necessarily that child's destiny. It certainly wasn't in Doris's case. I'm looking forward to telling her full story in a future article on Slate.
Incidentally, I'm slowly building a nice little gallery of these portraits of people posing with their ancestors' student records. You can see the ones I've shot so far here.