I did not grow up in the America of today. My elementary school principal took great risks to enable students to acquire skills that would equip them to not only survive in a world of constant conflict, but to become happy contributors to society. What happened?

To be honest, not all principals took risks for all their students. Some principals were risk averse. As the pressure to make students conform to curriculum and deportment increased during the 1950s, more students didn’t – or couldn't – make the grade.

My lifelong friend Frangene couldn’t make the grade and was put back a year in elementary school, a wound he carried to his dying day. But Frangene developed a survival skill that enabled him to thrive into his 80s. What was it? Drumming!

Gene loved drumming. It made him happy. And it enabled him to strive to learn other skills so he could drum. He began to dress smartly. He learned to read, however slowly.

He even got on the honor roll and memorized a Shakespearean sonnet, which he recited for our assistant principal when we visited him years later. He got into the school band and the jazz band. With his successes, his parents bought him a drum kit.

Gene sought a career in a military band but ended up in the military police. As a kid, he started fights, but in the Air Force Police he used his skills to stop fights. He rose to master sergeant with a specialty in counterintelligence. He survived three tours in Vietnam.

These confounding times have piqued my interest in other people’s survival skills. Mine peaked in singing, improv piano, and get this, washing dishes. I call the latter “water play.”

As a kid, I was drafted to clean up after supper. Everyone else disappeared. Mom had done the cooking, my brother went off to do homework, Dad sequestered himself with a book three rooms away.

And I discovered I actually enjoyed cleaning the dishes, scouring the pans and polishing silverware. I rarely had help. But because I liked doing this, family members or guests occasionally picked up a dish towel while we talked.

So, deeply saddened over our government’s destructive activities, I still look for and find survival skills in other people. When you’re happy doing something, you may be less likely to be make trouble for others. Of course, there are notable exceptions.

The other day, I was privy to a group discussion about repairing holes in socks. Yes, socks. The prevailing opinion was that nobody darns socks any longer. What a shame, I said.

My mother spent many happy hours darning socks, usually sitting quietly. But she was more inclined to fret. She made us all uptight, miserable.

But when I returned from school in the afternoon and found her darning socks, we could have the best of times talking together. Darning was her survival skill. What gets you out of a foul mood? Hang onto it.

Bob Brodsky lives in Rowley.

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