NYA Boys and Girls Tell Their Stories - 1938
Boys building a country schoolhouse. Girls making swabs in a hospital. A girl in a wind-beaten prairie library. Boys mending school furniture. Girls cooking lunch for rickety school children. Boys laying stones for the walls of a Youth Center.
The faces of the thousands of NYA boys and girls we have seen, flash through our minds. What does it mean to be young in these last, lean years of depression? What is it like to grow up in a relief family? What kinds of homes did these boys and girls leave in the morning when they came to work?
In a few instances, when we talked with them, they disclosed pictures of complex, seemingly insoluble problems resting on their young shoulders.
We wanted to know about more of them, to get some sense of the difference their part-time NYA employment and paychecks might make in their uneasy lives. So we asked supervisors, men and women who work with these boys and girls daily on projects, to send us typical stories of NYA youth.
We did not want tabulated case histories, with all the coldness and accuracy of fact that they often present. "Just tell us about the boy or girl," we asked. We got several thousands of these stories.
In a few cases, the young people speak for themselves. The first names, which we use only to designate the sex of these youth, are fictitious. Geographical localities are included only when they have particular significance.
Supervisors Tell About NYA Youth [Note 1]
John: Reform School to Power Plant Manager
The District Judge asked the Area Supervisor if she could "take on" another boy. He had just sentenced a high school boy to the reformatory, but hated to see him go because he had always been a good chap.
Since John came from a WPA family, he was assigned to a NYA project. He was 18 and a senior in high school when he broke into a store and stole money. The Superintendent of Schools said John was an outstanding boy.
A visit to the home revealed that a family of six, John, his mother, his stepfather, and three half-sisters, were living in one room upstairs. The stepfather felt that John should, at the very least, be taking care of himself. John had tried to get work. He was destitute of clothes and did not have money for his graduation expenses.
John worked on NYA for four months and went to night school. He was very much interested in electricity. A year ago last August, the Area Supervisor asked the Superintendent of ___ Power Company to give John a trial. He was placed as assistant at the power plant about 22 miles from town. John now has charge of the plant with an assistant working under him.
Surly Teenager to NYA Homemaker
Eight months ago, a surly girl in her late teens was assigned to a NYA resident homemaking project. She answered curtly when she was spoken to and never spoke otherwise.
Gradually, the supervisor drew her out. She went to visit the girl's home and found that the mother was a widow and this girl the oldest of a large number of children.
They lived in a shack of three small rooms. Life was haphazard—no regular mealtimes. When the children became hungry, they would eat what they could find.
The girl's project work improved, and she has become a responsible member of the NYA homemaking group. Recently the other girls elected her to the finance committee of NYA workers which directs the purchase of and payment for food and all supplies for the project.
On another visit to the home, the supervisor discovered that the girl had built herself a room, collecting scrap lumber and packing boxes so that she might live more "like other folks"—with privacy and order. There was a noticeable difference in the whole home—the younger children were better kept and meals for them were better planned.
Harry: Frail, Emaciated Boy to File Clerk
Harry is the eldest son in a family of six. His father and mother have been separated many years, and he has lived with his mother.
Harry first started working with us in October 1936 at the age of 18. He was a very frail and emaciated boy. He had completed only the sixth grade in school because it was necessary for him to find work.
He worked for one of the local newspapers as a carrier. It happened that he was not able to collect for the papers delivered, so he was forced to discontinue the work.
Since coming with us he has learned the operation and complete care of the mimeograph machine; he has become a fair typist and an excellent file clerk. Moreover, he is one of the most thoroughly reliable and trustworthy persons who ever worked with us.
We have been successful in finding him several temporary jobs. He is eager to accept them in order to build up a record of experience.
William: From Poor Home Situation to Assistant Garage Mechanic
From the beginning, William's record with the Bureau of Immigration, a NYA project to which he was assigned, was not particularly good. There was some question in the mind of his NYA supervisor as to whether William should be retained on the project.
Then one day, in the course of a talk with the boy, his supervisor discovered that his home situation was extremely bad. William informed the supervisor that "my old man run out on us," and that he was endeavoring to support himself, his mother, and his sister, two years old, on his NYA salary.
The Institute of Family Relations obtained for the mother a position as a janitress and took care of the family's immediate pressing needs for food and clothing. The effect on the boy was almost instantly apparent. He lost his surliness and began to take an interest in his work.
The NYA Junior Consultation Service, in giving him aptitude tests, discovered that the boy's mechanical ability was extraordinarily high. This came as a considerable surprise to the boy, who had been laboring under the delusion that he was essentially stupid and untalented. Arrangements were made by the Junior Consultation Service for him to take free courses in the field of his natural aptitudes.
He was transferred to another NYA job where he could obtain experience in auto mechanics. After three months of study and work in the mechanical field the boy obtained a full-time position as an assistant garage mechanic at $22 a week, and he is now capable of supporting himself and his dependents with- out outside help.
Harold: 22 Year-Old Orphan Living in Squatter's Cabin to House Painter
Harold is an orphan who was 22 years old in the spring of 1936 when he was first brought to the attention of the NYA. He had found it necessary to beg for his food and was living in a squatter's cabin, which he had pre-empted, on the edge of a river near town.
When first interviewed, he exuded antagonism toward every- one. His personal appearance could not help but be, and was, poor.
He was assigned to a park construction project. He became interested in the work and it was soon discovered that he could be left in complete charge of the work when it was necessary for the regular foreman to be temporarily absent.
The boys accepted this and worked with him easily and well. His painting ability became known and he was put in charge of the refinishing of a cabin built by WPA labor in one of the parks.
The District NYA Supervisor had arranged for several training courses at the YMCA. Harold attended these courses and was asked to take over the assistant leadership of a Scout troop.
In the spring of 1937, this youth left NYA because he had been able to secure several contracts from townspeople to paint and repaper their houses.
Robert: 23-Year-Old Diabetic in Poor Health Becomes Radio Repairman
Robert's age is 23. He has poor health, having had diabetes for the last eight years. He graduated from high school with a grade of B-plus for his senior year. His highest grades were earned in chemistry and radio and electricity, with an average mark of A in chemistry, and an A-minus in radio and electricity.
He has a shack of his own in which he sleeps and has a small radio repair shop.
Robert is a general handyman and a good worker. He has obtained several jobs for himself, but his poor health has made it necessary for him to stay close to home as he must take insulin shots every day. His jobs have consisted mostly of helping farmers in the beet fields.
Robert has a plan for the future which NYA is helping him realize. He has been studying radio repair for the past five or six years.
The money he receives from NYA has enabled him to buy books, supplies, and equipment. He hopes to have enough customers soon in his repair shop so that he may be self-supporting and leave NYA.
Jane: 24-Year-Old with Eighth Grade Education Becomes Seamstress
Jane's father left her mother eight years ago. The mother sews for a livelihood when she is well enough to do so. She has been ill for some time now and needs medical attention. Jane is 24 years of age and is of average mentality.
She completed the eighth grade. She was ill a great deal during childhood. While in the fifth grade, she had St. Vitus's dance and lost the use of her right side. Later she had a nervous breakdown. She finally had to quit school and take care of the family while her mother worked.
She has six brothers, two of whom are normal, and four are blind. She has one blind sister and one who has normal sight. The blindness is congenital. Operations during early childhood would have improved their condition, but they were considered too expensive and too risky, for the oldest boy lost an eye through a careless operation.
Jane wishes to be a seamstress if she can get enough training. She is at present on a sewing project and will be recommended for work in garment manufacturing as soon as there is a place open in the power machine class.
Mary: HS Dropout with TB Becomes Comptometrist
Mary is one of seven children in a fatherless home. At the time she applied for NYA work, there was an income of only $45 a month in the home, earned by the mother on WPA.
The girl had been ill for several years with tuberculosis of the bones, which compelled her to quit before she finished high school, as she was unable to do the necessary walking to and from school.
When she applied for NYA work in October 1936, however, she was greatly improved and has continued to improve since that time. She was neat about her needlework, and after a few weeks of work, her confidence in herself and her initiative were restored.
Through the NYA vocational lectures, she became interested in a comptometry [Note 2] course. With part of her NYA wage, she has paid for the course in installments, and has now nearly finished the course and is hoping for a job soon.
John: Malnurished Chinese-American Boy Becomes Professional Boxer and Promoter
John Lee is a Chinese boy whose family has been known to the County Welfare since 1932. There are six children in the family, and they have had a difficult time in managing. The father was murdered in a tong war. The mother has made the children feel it a disgrace to have to ask for aid.
When they first were getting help the two older boys refused to eat anything except what they could afford to buy from their own earnings as newsboys. In May of 1936, John lost his job as a newsboy, and collapsed one day in school.
After a thorough examination at the County Hospital, it was found that he suffered only from lack of food. He had not eaten in five days because the food on the table had been furnished by the County Welfare. A month later, in July 1936, he was certified for NYA.
After receipt of his first paycheck, John's attitude changed. He felt himself to be a responsible member of his household, and immediately took over the place the father had left.
During the winter 1936–37, he did clerical work at the high school. In the summer of 1937, he was given a place of leadership on the playground. He early showed an aptitude for boxing. In the winter during his spare time he practiced boxing and achieved some renown in amateur groups.
A promoter, appreciating his skill, signed a contract with him, and in the middle of February he departed with this promoter for Florida and was dropped from NYA. Since then he has won many bouts and was last heard from in Cuba.
Rosa: Italian-American Paralytic and Illiterate Transistions to Sewing Clothing
Rosa is an Italian girl. She is the second of fifteen children, eleven of whom are living. She entered school at the age of eight but became sick soon thereafter and for more than eight years was confined to an invalid's chair as a paralytic. Her eyesight also failed her for a time.
When Rosa came to us, at the age of 19, she could neither read nor write, nor even tell time by the clock. She knew very little about sewing. She was dull and heavy-hearted, and it was even hard for her to pronounce words.
We turned her over to a teacher who had a great deal of patience and ability in handling backward and sensitive pupils. Eleven months later Rosa was in the fourth reader. She does well in her arithmetic and uses the dictionary with ease and understanding.
At the same time she has been progressing rapidly in the sewing room. Rosa can now make her own dresses as well as sew for others in her family.
Donald: Boys with Sixth Grade Education Becomes Skilled Workman
Donald seemed incapable of doing good work when he came to the NYA program. He was careless, awkward, and indifferent and when assigned to a task could not be trusted to do a finished job. He had left school after the sixth grade.
Donald worked on the NYA program about eleven months. The foreman encouraged him to do some further study in arithmetic, and it was not long before he could do any practical problem expected of the eighth grade. In a few months he became a skilled workman.
He was released from the program because he was married. I had a letter from him three days ago in which he stated that he had a good job making $84 per month with a furniture company in Michigan.
This is only one case. A large number of youths, formerly employed on the NYA program in this county, are now employed in Ohio and other States in private industry.
Just how much the NYA helped them to obtain their positions, it is difficult to estimate with accuracy. It is safe to say, however, that the NYA checks helped secure their transportation out of this hill country [Breathitt County] of Kentucky.
Julia: With Sixth-Grade Education Becomes Dry-Cleaning Worker
When Julia, who had been unable to attend school beyond the sixth grade, was given work on one of the NYA sewing projects in our county, she became very anxious to do anything that was given her because she needed employment.
This is a small town and there are not many places for girls to work. In September of this year I learned of a vacancy which was to be in one of the dry-cleaning plants of the town.
I went to the owner and told him of Julia's ability and asked that she might come over for a try-out the following Monday. He agreed, and because of her ability to take instructions and to alter and care for clothing, he gave Julia the job.
She is now able to have someone care for her invalid mother while she works. The owner states that she is the most efficient help the plant has ever had. She now makes $10 per week for four days, giving her three days to devote to the duties of the home.
Andrew: Unskilled Laborer to Construction Company Timekeeper
Andrew began work the first part of 1936 as an unskilled laborer on a NYA work project. He was next made a timekeeper and, after a few weeks' experience and instruction, became outstanding as to speed, accuracy, and neatness.
Very soon after this, a large construction company called upon our supervisory force for a timekeeper. Andrew was recommended for this position and is now receiving approximately $65 per month salary, with prospects of an immediate advance.
Before Andrew's last employment, his father was doing manual labor far too heavy for his strength. Andrew has now induced his father to give up this heavy toil and is assisting the family by providing the necessities of life.
Andrew's employer called upon us some few weeks ago for other timekeepers, stating that Andrew was giving very efficient and satisfactory service.
Herbert: Boy Whos Family Lived in Tent Becomes Breadwinner as Carpenter
Herbert's mother died when he was quite young, and his father married four times afterward. At the time Herbert was assigned to NYA, the family was living in a canvas tent, with a wood foundation around the bottom of the tent to keep out the cold air.
Furniture consisted of a stove, two beds, two chairs, a table, and a safe. At the time of the boy's certification he stated that the family had been practically living on walnuts for the past two weeks.
After a few weeks' NYA work, Herbert proved to be very capable at almost any job he was given. He was an exceptionally good carpenter and could grasp instruction readily. His NYA training included setting out shrubs, painting, and carpentry, and acting as foreman.
Before his NYA job, Herbert had not been able to find employment of any kind. This, perhaps, was due partly to his father's bad reputation. All of this quite naturally had a bad effect upon the youth. When Herbert was given the job as foreman over some NYA boys, he seemed to gain a great deal of confidence in himself.
About six months ago, the NYA Project Supervisor met a towboat man who was inquiring about a carpenter's helper. He was told about Herbert, who was recommended by the supervisor as a satisfactory worker. Herbert was soon interviewed and hired for $70 per month, eight hours per day.
His wages were later increased to $110 per month and he recently wrote the NYA supervisor that he is expecting an increase to $150 per month.
The family is now living in a three-room house with sufficient furnishings. Herbert pays the rent and bought all the extra furnishings.
Twin Brothers 18-Years-Old With Eighth Grade Education Employed as Trailer Builders
As their father was an invalid, twin brothers, 18 years of age, were forced to quit school after they had finished the eighth grade and seek work to support the family of six. They started on our NYA work project February 18, 1936.
The boys proved to be adept with tools. For more than a year they worked in the woodshop making chairs, cabinets, tables, etc. At the shop the boys were helped to make a turning lathe for their own use. In less than six weeks they had sold eighteen chairs of their own making for $2.00 each.
During April 1937, an uncle, who is a carpenter and has a trailer shop in Oregon, visited the boys' family. When he learned that the twins were interested in carpentry work and saw that they were really accomplished workers, he assisted them in building a trailer of their own.
With his car and their trailer, they embarked on their journey to Oregon, where they are still gainfully employed making trailers in their uncle's shop.
James: High School Graduate from Poor Household Becomes Shipping Clerk
When picked up by the NYA, James (a member of a family of six and a high school commercial course graduate) had practically abandoned all hope of obtaining clerical work.
For one thing, he was unable to buy the clothes necessary to make the proper impression on a prospective employer. His morale was broken, and he had given up all hope of bettering his lot in the future.
He was assigned to a NYA project as a clerk. The clerical experience gained on the project revived his desire for permanent employment and restored his confidence. The wages received made it possible for him to improve his appearance and with the encouragement of his supervisor he resumed job-hunting.
After numerous applications he was successful in February 1937 in obtaining a position as a shipping clerk in a large factory. Since starting on this job he has received two raises in spite of the current recession. The second of these advancements resulted from a suggestion he made to his superior which brought about a marked improvement in the routing of forms in his department.
Margaret: Sweat-Shop Clothing Factory Worker to Managing Hospital Laundry Room
Margaret's father is an unskilled laborer and has not had steady work. Her mother has been dead ten years. There are eight in this family.
Before her NYA employment, Margaret worked for one year in a shirt factory which closed and threw her out of work. She then worked in another sweat-shop shirt factory, which she was forced to leave because of an injury to her finger.
When assigned to NYA, Margaret was placed in one of the city hospitals in the laundry department, where she did fine hand-pressing and operated a mangle. She satisfactorily participated in classes offered by the WPA Adult Education Department.
She was self-assured, had a pleasing personality, and a neat appearance. After nine months with NYA, her own abilities, together with the intercession of the NYA supervisor, brought Margaret a permanent job in the hospital which put her in charge of all fine laundry work.
George: Musician with HS Diploma Obtains Scholorship to Boston Conservatory of Music
George, age 21, was passionately fond of music. He had graduated from high school, taking academic subjects and music, but could not continue with studies because his stepfather insisted that he "get a job."
The youth applied for NYA assistance in September 1936 and was placed on a project where he was very satisfactory as a messenger and was encouraged to keep on with his studies.
During this period, George attended night classes in musical composition and played a saxophone in a small orchestra. His ambition was to go to the Boston Conservatory of Music.
He took every odd job that he could find, canvassing the office force for any sort of work, and whenever he had a spare moment, he kept busy transcribing musical notes.
George did so well in his work in class that he was awarded a scholarship at the Boston Conservatory of Music in September 1937. He has since written asking for a work reference, stating: "But for the help of NYA I could never have made it."
Mary Lou and Emma: Members of Large, Poor, African-American Family Become Domestics
Mary Lou and Emma are the eldest of a rural Negro family of eighteen, ranging in age from 21 years to twelve months and including three sets of twins. The father is dead.
The family lived in a four-room cabin so dilapidated that the owner charged no rent. In the bedroom were four beds, only one of which had on it what might have been termed a mattress. The others had quilts pieced from whatever scraps the mother had been able to get.
The children took heated rocks to bed with them at night, but even these and sleeping three in a bed did not serve to keep them comfortable. The other two rooms, another bedroom and the kitchen, had no windows or doors, cracks an inch wide in the walls, and little left of the floor. Before the two girls were assigned to NYA there were many days last fall when they had nothing to eat except locusts and hickory nuts.
The mother, though illiterate, talked quite intelligently. Her greatest sorrow was that none of the children had had any chance to go to school. There used to be a school six miles from their home, she said, but by the time the children walked that distance in all kinds of weather and "'thout no breakfast, dey couldn't learn nothin' when dey got dere."
The girls walked five miles every day to the end of the streetcar line, and then rode the car to reach the NYA project on which they worked. Mary Lou had never been to town alone in her life. Both girls are learning to read and write and are teaching the younger children at home to read and write also.
Mary Lou and Emma are eager to learn and to improve themselves. They always come neatly dressed. They have mended for the other children used clothing which the supervisor was able to get for them. In cooking class they are learning how to buy more wisely with the small income the family has and make the family meals more nutritious.
With the supervisor's encouragement, the family has moved to another section of the county near a school, so that all the children are at present going to school. This new locality is also near a white community in which Emma will probably be able to find domestic employment.
19-Year-Old Cross-Eyed Boy Becomes Welfare Office Worker
On the morning of a bright day in October 1937, a timid knock was heard on the door of the NYA area office. When no response came to the call, "Come in," the supervisor opened the door and found a bashful, cross-eyed boy about 19 years old standing there.
The youth was so frightened he could hardly speak. Upon further investigation it was found that the youth lived on a tenant farm and was the second of three boys. The oldest son had part-time employment at a mill, which was the only income for the family of five.
An instructor of a local business school was very much interested in this shy lad and was anxious that he be given a chance to earn some money in order that he might finish a business course which had to be stopped because of lack of money. So, on October 20, the youth began work in the welfare office.
He has now paid the debt on his business course and has had his eyes straightened and recently he purchased a new pair of glasses.
Elizabeth: Arthritic Handicapped Girl Becomes Dressmaker
Elizabeth is a handicapped girl. She has a severe case of arthritis, so serious that she has been chair- and bed-ridden since she became ill while she was in the eighth grade. Her parents died shortly after this. They had been providing her with medical treatment during the brief period before their death, and now this was discontinued. She was assigned to NYA on March 3, 1937.
It was necessary for her to work at home. We naturally thought that any work she would do would be inferior, since it is impossible for her to move around and her hands are so badly crippled. Her work has been unusually satisfactory and has improved considerably during the year.
We have been giving the dresses that she has made to local welfare agencies for distribution. She has used her NYA money to buy a wheelchair and a sun lamp. She has been able to leave her home for the first time in six years.
Poor Boy Who "Lived Across the River" Becomes Dairy Farmer
Here was a boy who "lived across the river," a phrase which means to the natives little shacks, poor food, ragged clothes, scrawny children, and, generally, dirt everywhere.
He was certified, and his name came to the NYA office for assignment. We had to hunt him out; he was too shy and rustic to come in. He was assigned to a road project near his house.
He worked willingly, although unskillfully, and spoke only when spoken to. Gradually, he became surer of himself, his work was well done and done without orders, and he began to fraternize with the other men.
Later, he was transferred to a town job. I really believe it was almost the first time he had ever been in a town. He became acquainted with more people and finally tried to get a job on his own initiative, which represented a real achievement on his part. He failed to get a job but kept right on looking.
In the meantime, he had been able to buy some clothes that were more presentable; he was better fed and looked it; he had a little money for trips to hunt jobs. Finally he got one on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, where he is still employed.
Paul: HS Graduate Becomes Electrician
Paul's mother and father died before he finished high school. He and five younger brothers and sisters went to live with their grandmother and grandfather in a shack out in the country.
With free school transportation, Paul was able to complete high school but could not go to college, which was his ambition. Preliminary try-out experience on several kinds of NYA projects indicated that Paul, 19 years of age, was very much interested in electrical and radio work.
The ___ Trades School opened in the fall of 1936 and Paul was one of the first to enroll. He would work on the NYA and go to school after project hours. Paul was then placed in the ___ School Board workshop, an NYA project, where he could gain experience in wiring and in electrical work.
When the ___ Electric Company called for young men to work, in December 1937, Paul went to apply for the job. He was selected and worked with the ___ Electric Company until he received employment with the ___ Engineering Company the last of February 1938.
Since then, Paul has moved his grandparents, brothers, and sisters into a real home.
Perry: African-American Becomes Hospital Orderly
Perry's family (Negro) consists of a mother and three children. The mother was once on a WPA sewing project but is off now because of bad health. Perry's salary is the only income.
On being referred to the NYA, he was placed on an orderly project at the ___ Hospital and very soon won the attention of those in charge by his polite manner, efficiency, and personal neatness. When a vacancy occurred on the orderly staff, he was offered the place; his salary is $8.00 per week.
He says he was put on the NYA at a time when he didn't know which way to turn. When he found out that the hospital had vacancies sometimes on the orderly staff, he made up his mind to do his work so well that they would want him.
Caroline: 20-Year-Old African-American Becomes Nanny/Maid
Caroline, 20 years old, a Negro girl, is the second in a family of seven children. The father has no steady employment and does odd jobs when he can find them. The mother takes in washing.
Caroline was assigned to the homemaking project and was trained for maid service. She was taught cooking, meal planning, table-setting, serving, some sewing, and all phases of housework.
She is now working in a private home where the mother is employed during the day. Caroline takes full charge of the home and of two small children while the mother is at work.
Stella: Poor 19-Year-Old Becomes College Student With Help from NYA
Stella is a girl 19 years of age whose mother is a widow with three children younger than Stella. The family income was only $26.40 a month, which the mother received from her WPA sewing room work until Stella began working on NYA.
Stella was put to work on our Public Service Project. Each month she saved a part of her NYA money and deposited it in a savings account. After a year's time she had saved enough to make a down payment on a little home for her mother with arrangements to make monthly payments of the same amount that she had been paying for rent.
Last fall Stella entered ___ College as an NYA Student Aid pupil; she is studying to become a teacher.
Pedro: Mexican-American with 7th Grade Education Finds Work in Rock Masonry Construction
Pedro comes from a Mexican family of fourteen, consisting of his father, mother, and eleven brothers and sisters. Pedro was forced to drop out of school in the seventh grade to help support his family.
He was referred to the NYA work program in November 1936 and started to work on the construction of a retaining wall. The NYA foreman encouraged Pedro to learn all he could about rock work.
The foreman on this project was called on one day by an El Paso contractor to recommend a couple of youths who showed promise as rock masons. Pedro's work experience gained on his NYA job qualified him for this private employment, and he has been working steadily on rock masonry construction since that time.
Pedro's case is typical of many Mexican boys who have made excellent rock men and who have received their start in that direction from the training they received on an NYA construction project.
Thomas: Poor Boy Becomes Self-Sufficient Woodworker & Entrepreneur
Thomas lives with his aged grandparents in a dilapidated, two-room frame house.
He was recommended to the NYA as a promising student, one who was very much interested in woodworking. The shop foreman recognized his willingness and his ability to learn the trade. Thomas was soon raised to sub-foreman.
Thomas has gained confidence in himself. He knew very little about woodworking when he entered the shop, but "caught on" very quickly, and is now very efficient. He is leaving the NYA and is buying some equipment to open a shop for himself.
Malcolm: 23-Year-Old with 7th Grade Education Repairs and Paints Buildings.
Malcolm, 23 years old, the son of a farmer, went through the seventh grade of school, but for the last eight years the boy has had no work except farming on very poor land.
When Malcolm went to work on the NYA program, he had no work experience other than farming with simple hand implements, and he was afraid to try new activities. His first NYA work was on the building of small foot bridges.
He soon learned how to handle the tools and at the end of a month he could build a good bridge without supervision. His next job was the building of playground equipment, merry-go-rounds, teeters, etc.
Again he was fearful of the work, but he mastered the new technique and gained a little confidence. He was then one of a crew sent to repair a building for the Department of Public Assistance. He expressed a desire to try to paint and worked for some time at painting, doing a fair piece of work.
Last week Malcolm was busy plastering a room at the county poor farm. He explained his work with pride and satisfaction. He said: "Until I came to work on the NYA, I knew things were done but I had no idea that I could ever do them, so I didn't try. Now I'd try to do any kind of work."
Eileen: Poor 19-Year-Old Girl Becomes Home Hygienist
Eileen is 19 years old and one of nine children. The health of this family is appalling. The mother is in need of an operation for a tumor, one girl has tuberculosis, another has heart trouble, and a brother is suffering with a broken back as a result of an automobile accident in 1937.
Eileen was sent to the NYA for work by a Red Cross nurse who was interested in trying to teach her some home nursing.
When Eileen appeared at the office of the NYA supervisor and asked to be put to work, she wore a pair of soiled white slacks and a tattered sweater, although the weather was cold. She did not associate with the other workers and evaded her duties in the nursery to which she was assigned whenever it was possible.
She enrolled in the Home Hygiene and Care of the Sick course but gave no indication of interest. She said that she did not wish to care for sick people, even her own brother. After two pay periods, she appeared in a skirt and sweater, and had made an attempt to improve her appearance generally.
This change seemed to carry over into her work, and better reports were given of her work and attitude in class. She worked with the other girls and did not attempt to avoid her duties. By the end of two months she was intensely interested in all she did. She passed the Home Hygiene course with the second highest grade in a group of twenty.
Quiet follow-up in this case showed that Eileen had changed in her attitude at home. She devotes much time to the care of her invalid brother and is using a part of her small NYA salary to help pay the doctor who cares for the boy.
Doris: Awkward 23-Year-Old Grade-School Dropout Becomes HS Student Earning Straight A's
Doris, 23 years of age, lives with her eccentric mother, two brothers, and a sister. From childhood she was brought up to think she was different from other people, appearing for work clad in garments that were the style twenty years ago including a long, slat sunbonnet.
While having lived within just a short distance of modern conveniences, she was wholly ignorant of their use, not even having talked over a telephone. She had not finished grade school.
With her ideas and appearance, she was unable to obtain private employment. Today she has overcome her inferiority complex, decided to live and act like those around her, realized her lack of education, and, by arrangement with the county Superintendent of Public Instruction, she is studying in her spare time, and on days she does not work carries two courses in high school, where she is making A's.
Through her work in the sewing room she has become a good seamstress, and through her association with other young people has become a popular girl with all whom she meets. I realize that I cannot describe this case as it has really developed, but her transformation has been unusual to those of us who are associated with her.
Richard: 19-Year-Old with 7th Grade Education Earns Praise and Job from Workshop Foreman
Richard, 19 years old, who lives with his mother and two other children in a poor home, had to leave school at the end of the seventh grade. He was assigned to a NYA workshop project in April 1937.
Here he gained experience in repairing school desks, varnishing seats, installing plumbing, and painting buildings. He spent all the time he could spare learning to do the various tasks in the shop, learning to use the machinery and to operate the drills, saws, etc.
His mother, sewing on a WPA project, was receiving $36.20 per month. Rent was high and Richard had to help all he could. He picked up odd jobs but would rush back to the shop to learn more.
The foreman of the workshop of the Public School Board was in need of help and decided to give Richard the chance. He made good and is now earning $75 a month.
Joan: Epileptic with 8th Grade Education Becomes Self-Sufficient
When Joan's family was first interviewed, they lived in a one-room tarpaper shack. Joan was a very nervous, shy, timid, but proud girl and did not wish to have her family's circumstances disclosed.
She was unable to obtain more than an eighth grade education because of her mother's illness and the family's meager resources.
In February 1936 Joan was placed by NYA in the ___ County health office. At the time of her employment she was suffering from frequent attacks of epilepsy, which we were not aware of until she had started working.
After she had been working for a while, she was financially able to begin treatments for this disorder. We cannot say she is cured but the nervous condition is controlled and does not occur.
After this disease was controlled, there was a very noticeable change mentally and socially. She was no longer timid and was able to meet and talk with people more readily.
Joan managed to save enough from her earnings to build an additional room on their house. She is now saving her money for the purpose of building another room.
Ben: Handicapped Boy with Toxic Thyroid Condition Earning HS Diploma and Works in Hospital Chemistry Lab.
The earlier part of Ben's life had been deficient in nutritious food, and he was therefore decidedly weak and frail. Despite apparent physical handicaps he went on through school to the eleventh grade. He then studied chemistry evenings at the ___ High School.
When Ben came to us in August 1937, we attempted to place him in a State laboratory because of his ability in chemistry. This could not be done since he was not a high school graduate. He was given a temporary assignment as a clerk on the record project, and the boy planned to complete his high school work at the ___ Preparatory School.
We received word several times that Ben could not adjust himself to this work and that he was also seemingly not interested. His mother reported a development of "temper tantrums." We called Ben in for a physical examination, which disclosed that he had heart trouble which might have been a "toxic thyroid" condition.
Because of this physical handicap we transferred him to the chemistry department of the ___ Hospital, where he immediately proved a valuable assistant. He was allowed to attend operations and to assist at post-mortem examinations.
Another examination at the clinic discovered a decided thyroid condition which had resulted in a heart lesion. By this time, the hospital was so interested in Ben that they arranged for his thyroidectomy without any cost to the boy.
The operation has been performed, and the hospital assured Ben that as soon as he is fully recovered they will be glad to have him return to the chemistry department and after a few months more of training and some special study they will give him permanent employment.
David: Aggressive Juvenile Delinquent Becomes Grocery Store Manager
David has no mother. He lived with his stepfather, who, he states, mistreated him, making his home life extremely unpleasant. He therefore left and went to live with his brother- in-law, sister, and their two children. (His brother-in-law was at that time earning $16 per week.)
David, a very aggressive, ill-tempered, and troublesome youth, was familiar to the neighborhood as a "tough gorilla" with pugnacious tendencies.
Through a series of circumstances, David's behavior and activities were brought to the attention of Sergeant ___, in charge of juvenile delinquency. David confessed that he and his "gang" had been stealing cars. Although he was only a grammar school graduate, he showed an aptitude for learning that went beyond his educational background.
For the first two weeks in NYA work, the supervisor found David unmanageable. His work habits were poor and his general attitude was one of antagonism and distrust.
The next two weeks, however, brought a distinct change. His manner improved and he performed his duties with conscientious zeal. For this good behavior, he was transferred to office work, as filing clerk, where he worked for about three weeks.
A local grocery store proprietor asked the NYA supervisor to select one of the youths for a job open in his store. Seeking to rehabilitate David, the supervisor selected him as an applicant and informed the proprietor of his background.
David worked in the store for three months and was made manager. His employer found him so completely trustworthy that he left him in charge of the store while on vacation.
Elsie: One of a Poor Family of Five Becomes Student Nurse Through NYA
Elsie applied for work on NYA in March 1936. In our interview with Elsie, we found that she was one of a family of five including a none too sympathetic stepmother. Elsie wanted to leave home to go into training as a nurse.
The NYA supervisor referred her to the ___ Hospital. The hospital superintendent agreed to take Elsie as a probationer, provided she had the money to pay for her tuition and books. With the NYA supervisor, Elsie worked out a plan whereby, if she were assigned to NYA and could continue working for one year, she could save the needed amount.
In March 1937 she came into the office and announced that she had saved the required sum of money and was to be admitted to the nurses' training course on April 1. She is now in her second year at the hospital.
Lawrence: 20-Year-Old with Sixth-Grade Education Learns Carpentry
Lawrence is one of seven children. This large family lives on an isolated, worn-out farm in a frame house with no conveniences. Lawrence, 20 years old, has two older brothers trying to wrest a living for the large family from this plot of land. The father has rheumatism so badly that he cannot work.
Lawrence has gone to school for only two years, but he managed to do the work through grade six in that period. Since he was 14 years old, he has had no work except on NYA during the last year.
He is interested in becoming a carpenter and the NYA in ___ County has done many pieces of work which have given experience in the building trades. Lawrence has been a very good worker, absorbing all the knowledge on building he possibly could.
He has never been late or missed a day's work. He is reliable and thorough and feels that he is now capable of being a carpenter's helper and is making an effort to find such a place.
The county in which Lawrence lives provides almost no chance for employment but Lawrence is willing to go anywhere to earn a living.
Arthur: 20-Year-Old Son of Tenant Farmer and HS Graduate Becomes Florist Grower and Vegetable Farmer
Arthur is the 20-year-old son of a tenant farmer. His four brothers and one sister, all younger than he, attend school and work on the farm after school.
The father appears to be an intelligent man, who has had a hard time raising his family on a small income. Having never spent a single day in school himself, he seems especially anxious that his children be given the advantages of an education.
His chief and only crops are and have always been rice, cotton, and corn. Besides that, he works as a laborer on other farms whenever possible. The family income is approximately $200 a year.
While Arthur was in high school, he worked before and after school on the farm and often missed the first six weeks of the fall session in order to help out at home. However, he was a good student and graduated in June of 1937.
He was assigned to a NYA horticulture project and has shown an aptitude for floriculture and vegetable-raising. He is a tireless worker and puts in many more than the required number of hours. Arthur states that he believes that his NYA experience will enable him to make money at farming and keep him from being just another tenant farmer.
Phyllis: Member of Very Poor Family of 15 Sews for NYA to Help Support Family
Phyllis is one of a family of fifteen. Victims of the North Dakota drought, they drifted west to Washington, where they spent the winter, eating only dried corn and potatoes because they were afraid they would be sent back to North Dakota if they applied for relief at the Welfare Department. Finally this family was brought to the attention of the Welfare Department by a church from which they had received aid.
Phyllis has been placed on the sewing project in her district and is earning $14 per month. The change in her personality since she went to work is very noticeable.
She is much more talkative and seems to feel that she is more on a level with the other girls now. This is entirely different from her attitude of gloominess and hopelessness when she began.
Arnold: Dirt Poor with Fifth-Grade Education Entered NYA Resident Agricultural Project
Arnold is the oldest of four children in a tenant farmer's family. With the only school ten miles away and with no available transportation, he did not enter the first grade until he was 11.
Before going to school each morning, he worked two hours on the farm. He was too fatigued to be a good pupil. He managed to finish the fifth grade at 18.
Barefoot, in dirty and ragged shirt and overalls held by a rope around his thin middle, he slouched into the NYA office. By this time, Arnold's younger brother was old enough to help with the farm work.
It was decided to send Arnold to a NYA resident agricultural project. A few persons co-operated in obtaining shirts, a sweater, a suit of clothes, and even shoes. For the first time in his life Arnold had pajamas.
Some months later Arnold was at home because of a school holiday. Here was a tall, neatly dressed youth. His shoulders, not so thin now, were erect. He spoke with interest of the training he had received in crop rotation, farm management, and animal husbandry.
This was not Arnold, the hopeless, ignorant, Southern farm hand, probably destined to become another relief case. This was Arnold, the potential independent farmer.
Grace: Unwanted Child from Family of Ten Children - Father Dead, Mother Insane - Finds Work Through NYA Employment
Grace was the youngest of ten children. Her father died, and her mother was committed to the State Asylum for the Insane. All the other children married. No one wanted Grace and she was sent from one relative to another. She was placed in various private homes as a maid without any remuneration but her board.
Finally she went to stay with her brother-in-law. She was unable to obtain work and the brother-in-law gave her carfare to a near-by city and told her to get out. At this time she obtained NYA employment.
Ellen: Poor Child of Family of Eight Becomes Dry Goods Store Worker
Ellen was one of six children whose father had developed silicosis and was unable to work.
Ellen was employed on NYA in October of 1937. At the time she began employment she was very poorly dressed and untidy. This, I believe, was the main reason why she could not obtain private employment. Ellen proved to be a good conscientious worker.
Each month she saved her money and purchased a few articles of clothing to make herself presentable. With new confidence and a good appearance, Ellen, after persistent trips to the __ Dry Goods Store seeking work, was finally employed in February 1938.
Alvin: Oldest of Nine Children Becomes Fisherman Like Father
Alvin, the oldest of nine children of a Gloucester fisherman, has recently been employed on an NYA project at the Government Fisheries Station.
With a desire to follow in the footsteps of those who have made the Gloucester fishing industry famous, this boy saved enough out of the money he has been receiving for his part-time NYA work to buy a little fishing dory, for which he paid $20. The dory, containing a gas engine, had been used for many years by an older fisherman.
Alvin has already gone into business for himself and is capable of earning $7.00 per day above his expenses, and he looks forward to the time when, through careful saving, he may be able to own a larger boat.
Caleb: Crippled with Infantile Paralysis, Boy with HS Diploma Gainfully Employed in Jewelry Repair Business
Caleb has, since childhood, been crippled with infantile paralysis. After graduating from high school, he obtained a position in a jewelry shop in order to learn the business. He had one year of experience when, because of the depression, he was let out.
He came back home and, with his father's help, was endeavoring to pick up repair jobs of any kind that he could do. With the extra help NYA furnished him, he gradually established himself in the jewelry repair business and today is making good. He has married and is a fine example of the worthwhile help NYA furnishes toward self-sufficiency.
Howard: 24-year-Old Learning to Become Self-Sufficient Farmer Through NYA
Howard, a 24-year-old Massachusetts boy, lives with a younger brother and an uncle, his only relatives. He has been able to acquire a small farm, which he has nearly paid for out of his NYA wages. A social organization gave him a setting of goose eggs, which our supervisor is helping him to hatch in a home-made incubator.
The boy feels that he can make a living on the farm, with an occasional one or two days' work a week in the town and, as he is receiving NYA training in town work, we expect to have him prepared to go off the NYA in a few months.
Note 1: For the sake of brevity, we have condensed these stories in some instances. As nearly as possible we have kept to the original accounts of supervisors, since they indicate so clearly the relationships of the supervisors to the NYA youth.
Note 2: The comptometer was the first commercially successful key-driven mechanical calculator, patented in the United States by Dorr E. Felt in 1887. A course in Comptometry teaches the student how to use the calculator, becoming fluent in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "These Are Their Stories" and "Supervisors Tell About NYA Youth," in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 122-149.