Does it make sense to worry about someone you've never met? Someone to whom you have no social or familial connection? Someone who's already dead?
I've been pondering those questions since I learned about a girl named Doris Abravaya, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in the early 1930s. Many decades later, I found her report card, along with several hundred other student records. (For the full story on how I found the cards, look here.) Of all the report cards in my collection, Doris' was by far the most troubling. The notes in her file from the school's staff included the following:
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 foster 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. … Doris cannot work in a factory or workroom because her constitution cannot stand it. She had a nervous breakdown after her two weeks at [a previous job].
Poor Doris—life dealt her a very difficult hand. Her employment record indicates that she was eventually able to work after all, but she had the added misfortune of finishing her schooling in 1933, so she had to deal with the Depression-ravaged labor market as well.
Doris' difficult upbringing, combined with the very sweet-looking photo of her on the front of her report card, made for quite the heart-tugger. As I worked on the Permanent Record project, she often crossed my mind. What had become of her? How had her life turned out? Did the scars from her childhood carry over into her adult life? Did she ever find happiness, or at least some level of comfort and security?
When I showed the report cards to friends, Doris' card packet was usually one of the first ones I reached for. "Look at this one," I'd say. "Pretty amazing, right?" I also began to ask myself some hard questions about why I was so fascinated by Doris' plight. Was I simply a voyeur, a rubbernecker at the train wreck of her life? Was it wrong that the saddest, most pathos-laden cards in my collection, like Doris', were my favorites? Did the fact that Doris was probably dead make all of this okay? Or did that somehow make it even worse?
I thought about all of these things. Mostly, though, I worried about Doris.
* * *
In early March I drove out to New Jersey, where I met with Judy Helrich and Marilyn Saias—Doris Abravaya's daughters. I had made contact with them about a month earlier and emailed them copies of Doris' student record. They had both acknowledged that it was a difficult read but also said it gave no hint of the amazing woman Doris had become. They were eager to tell me the full story of her life, and I was eager to hear it.
After we got acquainted over brunch, I asked Judy and Marilyn what it was like to read about their mother's early years. "It was overwhelming," said Judy. "It was a real awakening. I knew she had a very difficult childhood, but I didn't know the details."
Here's what Judy and Marilyn did know: Doris told them that she'd grown up in a series of foster homes. Many of the homes were extremely poor environments—there was physical and sexual abuse, and the children were often underfed. "She said that when the inspectors from the foster agency came, the foster parents would rouge the kids' cheeks, so they looked healthy," said Judy.
But many of the other details in Doris' student record were new to Judy and Marilyn. "I never knew our grandma was in a mental institution," said Judy. "I knew she was in 'a home,' but we didn't really know what that meant. I only met her once, when I was about 7 years old. I remember going on a train from Grand Central Station to the facility where she lived, somewhere upstate, but I was too young to understand. And we never knew our grandfather. He died way before we were born. We never knew he was a lampmaker [the occupation listed for him on Doris' card], or that he was an alcoholic."
"I cried when I read all of that," said Marilyn. "It made me wish she had told us more, but it also helped me understand why she didn't, because she knew it would be painful for us to hear, and probably painful for her too. And it really made me marvel over this woman, my mother—what she became, and how far she came."
Judy and Marilyn said Doris never talked much about her time at Manhattan Trade, and they weren't familiar with any of the employers listed in her work record. But they agreed that the turning point in Doris' life came in the late 1930s, when she was introduced to a man named Max Schweitzer. They married in 1940 (here's the contract for the band that played at their wedding—$40 for four hours, not bad!) and soon settled in an apartment in the Bronx. By 1943, Judy had been born, and Marilyn rounded out the family three years after that. Doris stayed home with the kids during this period, while Max managed a local chain of supermarkets. (He'd had polio as a child, so he couldn't serve in World War II.)
"She always said she started living when she met him," said Judy. "It was a wonderful marriage—he adored her. And she was a great mother, very involved. She was active in the parents' association, and in the Brownies. That's why it's so strange to see her described as 'timid' in the report card—she was active in all sorts of things."
Photographs of Doris from this period show a poised, happy woman who's easy to pick out because she always has the biggest smile. How could this be the same person who was described as being so fragile and unstable? She clearly had an inner reserve that that the school administrators hadn't picked up on. It reinforces one of Permanent Record's strongest lessons: Something written on a report card does not necessarily indicate that student's destiny.
After Judy finished high school and went off to college, Doris decided to go back to work. She had relatives working for National Screen Service, a Manhattan company that distributed movie trailers and posters, and they arranged for Doris to manage the mailroom there. It was a fun job for everyone in the family, as Doris would bring home press photos and posters. "Sometimes we'd go to openings, too," said Marilyn. "I got to see the premiere of Help!—the Beatles!"
Doris kept that job until 1984, then she and Max moved to Florida, where they enjoyed a comfortable retirement. Max died from liver cancer in 1998 and Doris passed away later that same year—"of a broken heart," said Judy. They were both 83.
After all the time I'd spent worrying about Doris, it was a relief to learn she'd had a good life. But one question still nagged at me: If she never chose to share the more painful details of her childhood with her own family, how would she feel about my sharing them? How would she have responded if I'd found her while she was still alive?
"If you had approached her, I think we would have encouraged her to come forward and speak with you," said Marilyn. "I think Daddy would have encouraged her, too," added Judy.
"Anyway," Judy reassured me, "we're glad you shared this material. Sometimes things like this, they were just meant to be."
* * *
Much of the handwriting in Doris' student record is familiar to me. It is the unmistakable penmanship of A. Kotter, who ran the Manhattan Trade School's job placement office from 1929 through the mid-1930s. Variously referred to as "Miss Kotter," "Mrs. Kotter," or just "AK," she is a major character in the Permanent Record saga, providing colorful commentary on dozens of report cards and essentially serving as the voice of the school for a large chunk of the cards in my collection.
That commentary was sometimes rather harsh and reproachful. Her voice and tone were so distinctive that when the first five Permanent Record articles appeared on Slate last fall, I included a sidebar of some of her most memorable lines. I wanted to learn more about her, but I couldn't even figure out her first name.
Thanks to some additional research, I now know A. Kotter's first name was Althea. She was married during the period when she worked at Manhattan Trade, so she was "Mrs.," not "Miss." Interestingly, her husband's surname was actually Koetter, not Kotter; it's not clear why she dropped the first "e" for all her Manhattan Trade correspondence. (Adding an "e" after a vowel was a common German variant for vowels with umlauts, since American typewriters couldn't type umlauts. So Althea's husband—who was indeed German—may have been named Kötter and dealt with the umlaut issue by adding an "e," while Althea may have dealt with it by ignoring the problem altogether.)
But the biggest surprise is that Althea was born in December of 1906, which means she was only 22 years old when she started working at Manhattan Trade. I had imagined her as the prototypical middle-aged schoolmarm—not only because of her sometimes scolding tone but also because of the very businesslike, mature sensibility that came through in many of her notes. I was stunned to learn that she wasn't much older than the students themselves. (When she described Doris Abravaya's terrible home life in 1933, for example, Althea was only 26; Doris was 18.)
I learned all this after recently making contact with Althea's son, Matthew Borden, and her niece, Linda Brooks. They both adored Althea and were surprised by the sharp tone in some of her commentary. As we discussed Althea's life, however, the origins of that tone become more understandable.
Althea Dreyer grew up in Naugatuck, Conn., where she was a child actress. She was the second-youngest and smallest of five children—so small that when she was 11, she was playing the roles of 6-year-olds onstage. According to a written account by one of her sisters, "Althea had an interesting look. She had jet black hair, Dutch cut, with bangs. Neat but not fancy."
Althea graduated first in her high-school class and attended the Connecticut College for Women for one year before transferring to Barnard. In September of 1928, just prior to the start of her senior year, she married Carl Koetter. By all accounts, it was not a happy marriage.
Althea apparently began working for Manhattan Trade as her first job after graduating from Barnard in 1929. Matthew, her son, envisioned how it must have been for her: "Here she was, the smallest child, always having to compete for attention, in a marriage that wasn't working out very well, very young—and looking even younger—in a job with a lot of responsibility. And then came the Depression. It must have been a very tough time for her." Compounding matters, Althea's parents lost everything after a bank failure in 1932.
Matthew and Linda both think Althea's stern tone was essentially a survival tactic—a way to hold her own and establish herself during challenging circumstances. "I think she mellowed later on," said Matthew, "in part because she had me. She couldn't be as tough on her own son as she'd been on those students."
Althea's life took a turn for the better in 1932 or ’33, when she met an industrial engineer named Edwin Borden. Although they were both married, they fell in love, and they divorced their respective spouses and were wed in July of 1934. "He was the love of her life," said Linda, Althea's niece.
Althea's notes stop appearing on Manhattan Trade report cards around 1935, so that's apparently when she left the school, presumably because she was pregnant with Matthew, who was born in 1936. He was Althea and Edwin's only child, and she stayed home to raise him until 1944, when Edwin died of cancer.
At that point, Althea went back to work, eventually finding her niche as a personnel director—a natural transition from her earlier work in Manhattan Trade's job placement office. She ran the personnel department at the high-end Manhattan jeweler Georg Jensen from 1948 through 1951 and then held the same position at the Museum of Modern Art from 1951 through 1962. "That was her best job, her happiest time," said Matthew. She died in 1971, at the age of 64.
Matthew and Linda both told stories about Althea that belied the stern image presented in her report card commentary. "She was my favorite aunt, and she had a great sense of humor," said Linda. "One time she taught me a song in French that was a bit off-color, and I got scolded when I sang it in front of my class in elementary school. We both laughed about it later." And Matthew recalled this tale of academic impropriety: "She told me that one time she got an A on a term paper, and then another student borrowed the paper from her and turned it in, and that student got a C-minus." Imagine if the students at Manhattan Trade (or Althea's colleagues on the school's staff) had known about that!
As I listened to these stories, and as my preconceptions about Althea slowly dissolved, I was reminded again of that recurring Permanent Record lesson: A comment on a report card does not necessarily indicate the destiny of that student—or of the person who wrote the comment.
* * *
Althea's son, Matthew Borden, is a very gracious, gentle-spoken man. As I wrapped up my interview with him, he asked if I'd be writing an entire article about his mother. I explained that I'd probably tell her story in conjunction with the story of a Manhattan Trade student whose report card included some of Althea's notes.
Matthew paused. In a soft, concerned voice, he said, "Can I just ask you this: Was Althea hard on her?"
It was a touching moment—a son concerned about his mother's behavior and her reputation, simultaneously feeling responsible for her and instinctively defending her.
As I explained to Matthew, he needn't have worried. Althea wasn't hard on Doris Abravaya. On the contrary, Doris' file shows that Althea worked extensively with various social workers and agencies in an attempt to help Doris navigate her difficult path.
Doris and Althea's lives never intersected again after their time at Manhattan Trade. From a superficial standpoint, they had little in common. But I'm glad to have learned that there was more to both of their stories than I would have guessed—or feared—based on the evidence from the report cards.
(Special thanks to Catherine Bloomquist for her Herculean research efforts on this article. Wendy Piquemal provided valuable assistance as well. Keep up with the Permanent Record project by following the Permanent Record blog. If you have questions or want to be added to the Permanent Record mailing list, contact me.)