Permanent Record

How I Found the Report Cards, and How They Changed My Life

Paul Lukas

Meet Marie Garaventa.

What you see above is the front of her report card from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, a vocational school she attended in the late 1920s, after she had finished the eighth grade. As you can see, she had a perfect attendance record—this despite moving several times, having a deceased father, and being hard of hearing.

If you click through the rest of Marie’s student record, you’ll see that the school’s staff initially described her as "slow" and "irritable" (perhaps due to her hearing problems) but that she eventually gained confidence and made the honor roll. You’ll also see that the school helped to place her in more than a dozen sewing and dress-finishing jobs after she graduated, and that at one point she was scolded for not returning to a job after her lunch break.

It all reads like the storyboard for a movie or a play—the rough outline of a young woman’s life, from her mid-teens through early adulthood, with the later chapters still to be written.

Now imagine nearly 400 of these stories. Four hundred little dramas, all sketched out on cardstock. Marie’s report card comes from a large batch of old Manhattan Trade School student records that I stumbled upon more than a decade ago and have been obsessed with ever since. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life poking around antiques shops, yard sales, and abandoned buildings, but these report cards are by far the most evocative, most compelling, and most addictive artifacts I’ve ever come across.

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