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My family history: Living in New York

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My family history: How we were educated
Joan Feynman Scientist
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I went to kindergarten and in kindergarten... it was during the Depression. And one of the things that Roosevelt did to help was he bought... they bought the milk from the farms that couldn't sell it because people didn't have the money to buy it. And then they gave the milk to the schools so that the kids in the schools drank the milk and they somehow or other got cookies to go with it. So the cookies were round cookies about that big and they were half chocolate and half vanilla, and I was in kindergarten. Well, I was shy. So when the kids got the cookies, I always got the vanilla and somebody else got the chocolate. And I was very sad about that happening for a week or two. And I asked my mother, 'What can I do? They won't give me the chocolate'. She says, 'Well, cut it the other way so each piece was half and half'. I was so impressed, so impressed by this great idea of my mother's. I've used it ever since.

In kindergarten, there were black and white kids. There were two kindergartens because there were too many kids in school so there was a kindergarten that was supposedly smarter than the other kindergarten. The other way of putting it is that there was one white kindergarten, one black kindergarten.

There were couple of... there were three black girls in the white kindergarten. And when we went...  we had to go to the bathroom once or twice a day, all of us. And we were supposed to take the hand of somebody and go two by two down into the basement, which was a stinking mess and we hated it. It was never cleaned. It was nauseating. It was horrible. It was because the roof leaked... and the floor... and the floor leaked below that and so on. They cleaned the other places but they never cleaned the toilets apparently, so we hated it.
 
But anyway, we lined up and I realized there were two little black girls holding each other's hands and there was nobody holding the other one's when she was walking behind the two. So I went in ethical culture and took her hand. And she looked so surprised and so delighted. It was so easy to do that... I remember it still, obviously, how nice it was to do something so simple as so recognize she was a human being.

When I went to kindergarten, another thing started which was throughout my life. There were two teachers. One was behind the piano and the other was teaching. The one behind the piano came out one day and said, 'Are you Richard Feynman's sister?' And I said, 'Yes'. And she said, 'Are you as smart as he is?' And I said, 'No, few people are'. So it started early.

So I said I wasn't as smart as Richard. But later on when I got to be six... probably around 10, I was... I worked in the office of the school. And I noticed that there were these drawers where they kept their records and I realized there were all kinds of records in there, including IQ records. So I went to see what my IQ was and I found that my IQ was 123. Then I looked up my brother's IQ, it was 122. So I was smarter than my brother!

OK, how we were educated, not how we went to school. Well, my father... my father was very interested in science. He didn't go to college because people didn't go to college in those days. So he was always reading about it and so on. And he took us for walks in the woods and things like that. And he turned over a rock and under the rock there was usually an ant... ant nest or whatever it is. And the little ants when that happened, they somehow immediately grabbed an egg and then carried it out of the nest. And so that was one of our things that we watched. And we watched... everywhere we went, we watched for something in nature or something.

Joan Feynman (b. 1927) is an American astrophysicist. She has made important contributions to the study of solar wind particles and fields, sun-Earth relations and magnetospheric physics. In particular, Feynman is known for developing an understanding of the origin of auroras. During her career, Feynman was an author or co-author of more than 100 scientific publications. She also edited three scientific books. In 2002, she was awarded NASA's distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes Alexander Ruzmaikin

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: milk, cookies, kindergarten, IQ, racism, education

Duration: 7 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2019

Date story went live: 05 November 2019