Nov. 12, 2012

Night School

by Joan I. Siegel

              (for my grandmother)

In a classroom like this one where
her children once sat fidgeting
for the bell to ring so they could grab
their jackets and shout to the cold air and sun
shining on Broadway two blocks from home
where two flights up she had set out bread
and milk on the kitchen table because
she was down the street at the tailor's shop
turning a shirt collar or mending a man's coat
and nights she got down on her hands and knees
to wash floors in an office building on Second Avenue
things she had learned as a girl in Poland
and brought with her a boat ride away to Ellis Island
to the man she married and soon enough
their four children (one dead)
and after he died of influenza
to the new husband and his five children (one dead)
and in time to the new daughters-in-law
and sons-in-law in their uptown apartments
and the babies one at a time
she sat practicing her Palmer letters
connecting the fine threads of ink
each graceful curve looping to the next
like crocheting a pair of ladies gloves
making words where silence used to be.

"Night School" by Joan I. Siegel from Hyacinth for the Soul. © Deerbrook Editions, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the founder of Reader's Digest, DeWitt Wallace, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889). His father was a professor of Greek and Old English at Macalester College, but Wallace rebelled against his father's example and fell in love with business. As a young man, he was always trying to make a buck, raising chickens, selling vegetables from his garden, and operating an electrical repair service.

After college, he worked for a publishing house that specialized in agricultural textbooks. While working there, he learned that the federal government had all kinds of free informational pamphlets that were available to farmers, but most farmers didn't even know these pamphlets existed. So he decided to publish and sell a condensed collection of the free pamphlets to farmers, called Getting the Most Out of Farming. It was a huge success, and Wallace decided that making information easily available was the secret to the publishing industry.

He was still trying to figure out what to do next when World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the Army. He was seriously wounded in 1918. During his recovery, he read hundreds of magazines, and he suddenly realized that a pocket-sized magazine full of condensed general-interest articles from other magazines could be a big hit. He compiled a sample issue of the first Reader's Digest. The first issue came out in February 1922. People didn't think it would last, because it was just a reprint journal, but Wallace had a talent for finding those stories that appealed to the widest number of people. By the end of the decade, Reader's Digest went on to become the most successful magazine of all time, with 39 editions in 15 languages, and a total circulation of almost 30 million magazines a month.

It was on this day in 1954 that Ellis Island formally closed its doors after processing more than 12 million immigrants to the United States in its more than a half century of service.

Before 1890, when President Harrison designated it the first federal immigration center, the states had previously managed immigration themselves. New York's Castle Garden station had single-handedly processed more than 8 million newcomers in the previous 40 years. As conditions in southern and eastern Europe worsened, and demand for religious asylum increased, officials prepared for what would be soon be the greatest human migration in the history of the world, deciding to greet the "huddled masses" before they ever hit shore.

On January 1st, 1894, a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore became the first person to be ushered through the gates at Ellis Island. The original Great Hall was built of southern yellow pine and served well until a fire in 1897 burned it to the ground along with all the country's immigration records dating back to 1855. The government rebuilt quickly with fireproof concrete this time. First- and second-class passengers arriving in the U.S. were waved pass the island and given just a brief inspection on board to check for obvious disease. After docking in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the poorer third-class and steerage passengers were ferried to the island by barge where they underwent more thorough interviews. Officials observed the immigrants as they climbed the staircase into the main hall and marked a simple chalk code on the coats of those they suspected to be sickly. If you were in good health and your story checked out, processing might only take about five hours. Only 2 percent of all immigrants that passed through the gates were turned away, often for infectious disease.

The facilities expanded constantly to meet the growing throngs of people, and engineers steadily increased the footprint of the island by dumping ship's ballast and piling up landfill from construction of the first subway lines. The island was eventually expanded tenfold to roughly 30 square miles. In the year 1907 alone, more than a million people passed through the center. With the dawn of World War I, immigration from Europe began to slow. The Red Scare and a growing backlash against foreigners at home soon brought it to a crawl. After 1924, laws were passed allowing immigrants to be processed at foreign embassies, and Ellis Island was made into a detention center for suspected enemies.

On this day in 1954, the last detainee was released and the island was formally decommissioned. Abandoned for decades, in 1984 the island began the largest restoration undertaking in U.S. history, creating an Immigration Museum that has now drawn more than 30 million visitors. Today almost 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry through the gates of Ellis Island.

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