Adam Golub is an associate professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. His syllabus for AMST 420, “Childhood and Family in American Culture,” can be found on his faculty web page.
This semester marks the fourth time I will teach an upper-division American Studies elective called “Childhood and Family in American Culture.” One of my main goals in teaching the course is to help students engage critically with the deep nostalgia and powerful mythology that surrounds childhood in the United States. I want students to reflect on the ways in which the sentimental stories we tell ourselves about childhood—stories of innocence, happiness, comfort, and coming-of-age—tend to obscure the diverse experiences of actual children. One way I teach this disconnect between myth and experience is to start the course by pairing two childhood narratives: one that reinforces the American mythology of childhood, and one that exposes the margins and silences in that mythology.
I begin the semester with an in-class screening of The Sandlot (1993). The film tells the tale of a group of boys who play baseball together in the summer of 1962. The setting is infused with the trappings of innocence. The place is an all-American small town—replete with milkman, local drug store, community pool, and period-specific cars—that provides a safe, comfortable haven to children who idly spend their days playing the all-American game of baseball in a pastoral sandlot. The year, 1962, invokes a postwar America that is more fifties than sixties, a nation still innocent of the assassinations and social upheavals that will soon define the decade. The Sandlot is narrated by an adult character who fondly recalls the “greatest summer” of his life, thus cinematically replicating the process by which nostalgia shapes our childhood memories. In addition, the movie opens with an invocation of an American legend: the narrator recounts the mythology of Babe Ruth’s famous point to the center field bleachers prior to hitting a home run in 1932. This national mythology is then connected to the personal story the narrator is about to tell us: how, thirty years later, his childhood friend Benny became a local legend in their small town.
In The Sandlot, the boys themselves are also depicted as innocent, especially of adult ways. They play baseball without choosing sides or keeping score, untainted by the adult value of competition. They are a mildly diverse group—a Hispanic (Benny) and African American boy play side-by-side with the majority of white boys; on the youth baseball field, there is no segregation or racial tension. The biggest threat to their well-being is the dog behind the outfield fence, the “beast” they imagine as larger-than-life from whom they can never retrieve lost balls. Overall, the film reinforces the notion that childhood was once simpler and better in the United States, when it was cradled by small town America. It also reflects a tendency in American culture—from Tom Sawyer to Stand By Me—to mark childhood as male.
I supplement our discussion of The Sandlot by talking about the myths of childhood that Steven Mintz delineates in the prologue to his book Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (you can find a helpful summary of the myths on this syllabus for an “American Childhoods” course offered by University of Exeter). In this way, we begin the course by reconstructing the dominant mythology of childhood in the United States and then talking about what’s at stake in preserving this mythology: why do we—why must we—continue to tell ourselves these stories about childhood? As a side note, I’ll say that I especially like screening The Sandlot because many of my students have fond memories of seeing the film for the first time when they were children. The story is part of their own nostalgia, and they quickly recognize their own resistance to deconstructing the film’s underlying cultural work.
Next, I have students read Elva Treviño Hart’s memoir, Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child (1999). In the book, Hart recounts the childhood that she spent growing up in a family of migrant workers who moved regularly between Texas and Minnesota. While The Sandlot opens with an homage to the mythical Babe Ruth and local legend Benny, Barefoot Heart begins, “I am a nobody. And my story is the same as a million others. Poor Mexican American. Female child. We all look alike: dirty feet, brown skin, downcast eyes. You have seen us if you have driven through south Texas on the way to Mexico.” While The Sandlot depicts an idle sixties summer in every town U.S.A., Hart, born in 1950, shows us a postwar childhood that was defined by labor, poverty, racial discrimination, segregated education, and crowded living spaces (“my whole childhood, I never had a bed”). However, the book is not strictly a lament; Hart vividly describes the social conditions of her childhood, but she also warmly remembers the food, songs, games, family stories, and cultural traditions that gave her comfort and joy. In fact, at the close of the book, Hart reveals that she has used the writing process to try to reconcile her identity: after earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University, Hart worked for IBM, though she increasingly found that her involvement in corporate culture had alienated her from her cultural roots. She wrote Barefoot Heart because, “I needed to integrate my childhood Mexican side back into myself.”
When we discuss Barefoot Heart, I introduce students to George Lipsitz’s idea of counter-memory. In Time Passages: Collective Memory and Popular Culture (1990), Lipsitz writes,
Counter-memory is a way of remembering and forgetting that starts with the local, the immediate, and the personal. Unlike historical narratives that begin with the totality of human existence and then locate specific actions and events within that totality, counter-memory starts with the particular and the specific and then builds outward toward a total story. Counter-memory looks to the past for the hidden histories excluded from dominant narratives. But unlike myths that seek to detach events and actions from the fabric of the larger history, counter-memory forces revision of existing histories by supplying new perspectives about the past… Counter-memory focuses on localized experiences with oppression, using them to reframe and refocus dominant narratives purporting to represent universal experience.
The theory of counter-memory helps students read Barefoot Heart with and against The Sandlot. Hart’s book offers a counter-memory of childhood, a hidden history, that reframes and refocuses the dominant American narrative of youth. It offers a different perspective that does not comport with the myth of childhood, showing just how detached that myth can be from the localized experiences of actual children. By converging on these two cultural texts at the start of the semester, I can introduce one of the course’s main themes and model a line of inquiry that we will pursue for the remainder of our class meetings.