University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Jack Somers
A Nut for a Jar of Tuna
A Nut for a Jar of Tuna
"The era known as the 'Roaring Twenties' was not so much a time of roaring but a time of meowing—not like a calm purr of contentment but like the piercing noise that follows a cat being dropped into a bathtub filled with soapy water—because the world was trying its best to nag its citizens to look after its resources," Purrfessor Tabby droned on. It was my last period of the day; I was in SIAmESE class (Social Inquiry in Ameowican Economic Systems & Eras—a long name, I know) diligently taking notes in preparation for my next quiz. I looked down at my notebook: "Causes of the Great Depurrsion," the top of my page had been labeled, because we needed some historical context before we could delve into our close analysis of society and behavior in this era. My notes were illegible and incoherent at their best, unrecognizable scribbles at their worst.
Finally, the bell dismissed us for the day. As my class departed, the purrfessor concluded, "Make sure you understand the causes of the Great Depurrssion and the period before it! If anything is unclear to you, consult our textbook or class page by tomorrow because we will be having a quiz!" I thanked my teacher and began my walk home, chilly on a brisk autumn day, entranced by the vibrant colors of overhanging foliage, and captivated by the Great Depurrsion. Reaching into the depths of my mind, I remembered that my grandfather had actually lived through this era, so (after texting my mom, which really scratched up my phone's screen) I detoured to his home so I could hear some of his experiences.
A moment after I rang his doorbell, I could see my grandfather walking from his living room, surprised by a visitor. When he opened the door, I immediately caught sight of his whiskers, flowing like a waterfall out of the small part of his face around his nose. The ends of his whiskers were frayed, giving the illusion of a white foam arising from where the stream crashed down. The smile on his face was barely visible beyond his translucent cascade of whiskers. He invited me inside, and as I told him about what I was learning in school and how I was interested in his experiences, he was touched by my curiosity. For a few moments he pondered before saying, "I have just the purrfect story to encapsulate the feel of the era." He began:
"1932 was a cruel summer, so hot that trees, distorted by heat reflecting off the pavement, became a mirage. Capital was scarce. So, too, were jobs. So many lost their jobs chasing mice that the government intervened, offering jobs chasing squirrels or other second-rate rodents. Too many remained too proud. 'I won't chase a squirrel; that's a dog's job,' they said; they soon learned that pride doesn't put food on the table during tough times. Aside from the proud ones, we fostered an unreal sense of community; no one was left behind. I could ask any of my neighbors for a car ride, schoolbook, or fresh litter, and they would always share as much as they were able.
"My family was hit especially hard, with three kids in school (your mother was born 6 years later, after the worst of the depurrsion) and a husband-wife team who both lost their lucrative jobs engineering mousetraps. Luckily, I got a job chasing squirrels, but the government did not allow your grandma to get a job (nor did it seem to approve of her previous job). On my first day of the job, as I walked out of my home, your grandma asked me to cash in our food stamps on my way home. That day I was assigned to chase squirrels in the uptown district, which had not been hit as hard by the depurrsion. Chasing squirrels is much harder work than catching mice! Squirrels can climb, run faster, or even glide to evade me; no wonder so few people took these jobs!
"After what felt like hours of being outrun and outsmarted, I finally caught a lucky break when an infirm squirrel led me to his burrow at the base of an equally infirm tree. Per the government's orders, I confiscated the squirrel's acorns and asked him to leave the neighborhood. My boss, pleased with my work, sent me home early and gave me some of the confiscated acorns as a bonus, probably trying to convince me to keep my job.
"As I walked to the grocery store that accepted my food stamps, I caught sight of a small market, with stands left barren after the depurrsion hit. But, in the back corner, I saw one stand, the last stand open at this time, with an emaciated family of squirrels trying to sell whatever miscellaneous goods they could offer. I asked the father, the owner of the stand, if he had any food for sale. He looked at me with glee, and with the help of his family, he placed a large glass jar filled with imported tuna fillets in front of me. 'Sir, for whatever you can spare us, we will give you this jar. After we were evicted from my burrow by government workers, we struggled to find a home and have come to this market to sell whatever usable goods we can scavenge on the streets,' he said to me. 'All I have is one acorn,' I said to him, not sharing that I took this acorn from a squirrel earlier. 'I understand we're both going through tough times,' he said, 'and I hope that this jar can alleviate some of your stress right now.' He pushed the jar of tuna over to me. I handed him the acorn. We both seemed very relieved that this trade was completed. I left the market and hurried home, eager to show my family the treat I bought for them.
"I walked into my home, smiling from ear to ear. 'Everyone, we're eating tuna tonight!' I exclaimed.
'Where did you get the money to buy tuna?' my wife inquired, confused.
'I struck a deal!'
'What kind of deal?'
I paused, grinning, before I exclaimed, 'A nut for a jar of tuna!'
That night, I invited my neighbors over to enjoy a great meal of tuna casserole, feeling happy that I could finally treat them in return for the help they'd always given me."
I looked at my watch. It was getting late. "I really appreciate the insight you've given me about this era!" I told my grandpa. "Any time, kid! It's good that you're interested in your history!" I thanked him, then headed home, pondering his story in my head. Different questions flooded into my mind: Why would the government target squirrels in such a way, even though they were experiencing equally difficult times? How could my grandfather only trade a single nut for a jar of tuna, when he had more in his possession? Why was his society so split?
I realized "a nut for a jar of tuna" could be a great deal, as it was for my grandfather, or a last resort, for the family of squirrels. Looking beyond the surface of a brief interaction, like this barter my grandfather told me about, could allow me to inquire more deeply about the intricacies of this split society during the Great Depurrsion.
When I walked into Purrfessor Tabby's class the next day, I was excited to share my grandfather's story and my insights about it. Then, he started walking around the classroom, placing a blue sheet of paper face-down in front of each student. Only at this moment did I realize that I forgot to prepare for my quiz! However, in retrospect, this experience of mine was a nut for a jar of tuna—a small price (i.e., a below-average quiz grade) for a much greater, realer understanding of the era we covered in class. But this deal had a second side: my purrfessor's experience. He was not at all thrilled to see that I did not recall the definition of anthracnose or the overfishing of tuna, despite how insightfully I contributed to our class discussion that day.