Life Lessons Learned from Old School Records

Pages from a photo book created for my mother-in-law, Arlene Boubek Biallas. Included in the book are photos, awards and report cards from Arlene’s high school days in Chicago in the early 1950s.

Recently I’ve been taking some online genealogy courses through the National Institute of Genealogical Studies (NIGS) to enhance my knowledge in certain areas of professional interest—methodology, immigration, copyright, probate and social history to name a few.

One course I recently completed was “Institutional Records” which covers—among other topics—how to locate, understand and use hospital, prison, school and other institutional records in genealogical research. Like most classes, whether in person or online, there’s plenty of reading, writing and research involved as well as assignments and exams.

This was the assignment related to researching old school records:

“Describe an experience you have had finding an educational record for an ancestor amongst family papers or elsewhere. What did you find? Where did you find it? How did it help you understand the person’s life better?”

Part of my response to that assignment included the following:

Several years ago for about 6 weeks, my elderly mother-in-law Arlene Boubek Biallas, met with me weekly to share details on her family of origin and her  years growing up in St. Louis and Chicago from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. We also sorted, purged and organized more than 75 years of her personal photos, documents, awards, and other mementos. My goal—unbeknownst to her—was to create a personalized photo book for her that would showcase her entire collection of memorabilia all in one place.

All went well and I was very pleased to see that she loved the finished product—that is, until, wide-eyed—she stopped in her tracks on a page that showed a VERY large photo of her final high school report card from Oak Park River Forest High School from 1953.

Though it was laden with “A”s and “B”s in Public Speaking, Typing, Home Ec, and Phys Ed, Arlene was shocked and upset to see that she ALSO garnered a “D” that semester in American History.

She was mortified that the proof of her poor academic performance in that one subject was now permanently ensconced in a photo book for all time, for all of the world to see.

An unexpected grade in American History memorialized for all time.

She was 76 years old at the time and died a few years later—two years ago today, to be precise.

Arlene was always a good sport though, and got past her embarrassment over that unwelcome grade from 60 years earlier pretty quickly. We even had a few chuckles over it together in the years that followed.

I truly loved my mother-in-law, and the shock, embarrassment, and eventual laughter that incident provoked fosters fond memories of our weekly get-togethers when she shared her family history with me. And now, thanks to the generosity of her time back then,  I can now share her memories with her descendants.

Every time I see that report card of hers from 1953 in that photo book though, I can’t help but smile about how lucky I was to have her for so long.

I learned a lot from Arlene over the 33 years I knew her. Some of the best lessons I learned from this particular incident though, were to keep things in perspective, don’t sweat the small stuff, and learn to laugh at yourself. Most things we worry about simply don’t warrant the worry.

Arlene may not have not have excelled in American History back in 1953, but if she were taking a course in Family History today, there’s little doubt she’d earn a big fat “A” on her final report card—at least in my book, that is.


Copyright © 2017 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in Biographies, Family Legends, Family Stories, Social History. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Life Lessons Learned from Old School Records

  1. Nancy says:

    What a sweet memory. Poor Arlene for the D in American History, but good for her for getting over it. (My husband still thinks I was an A student — and I’ll never show him the report cards that prove otherwise!)

  2. Patricia,

    What a beautiful book! And what a great idea to create a photo book containing all of your sweet mother-in-law’s memorabilia. I’m sure her book is a treasure for your family. I also want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  3. What a beautiful gift (and great post). How did you produce the book?

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