Middle School Makeover

All of the hoopla surrounding the Royal Wedding in England and the subsequent extreme scrutiny of the attendees’ attire and figures reminded me of my own first encounter with a body image critic at the young age of twelve or thirteen and what it meant to be a girl in the late 1950′s.

Here’s a post I wrote about it in this blog’s infancy:

“Does This Teacher Make My Butt Look Big?”

The phantom of Miss Elwell still follows me about, even after fifty years.

It was 1959 and I had just entered junior high school. In those days, a girl’s highest aspiration was to become a wife and mother. This may not have been stated outright, but it certainly was implied by society and the general culture of the times.

The curricula for seventh-grade girls included a year of “Home Economics.” This entailed a semester of cooking instruction and a semester of sewing. Having just come from a previous school year where I had excelled at touch football with the boys at recess, this was not welcome news. I could kick and pass a perfect spiral and, because the boys were still on the shrimpy side at that age, I had reigned supreme. Now I was supposed to be a lady? I was completely thrown for a loop.

The Home Ec. teacher was a rather portly woman in her 50′s by the name of Miss Frances Elwell. She was charged with the formidable task of trying to whip all this green talent into some kind of reasonably feminine shape by year’s end.

I never did quite figure out why this domestic onslaught had to be imposed on the seventh graders and not the more “mature” (relatively speaking) ninth graders. I guess the school board felt that we were more malleable at that age, before we got any further into the smart-ass teen years where it would be next to impossible to get any kind of response out of us beyond a sneer.

By the luck of the draw, I had been assigned the cooking section for my first semester. We were divided up into groups and given our own little versions of the Happy Homemaker kitchen. No Easy-Bake ovens here. This was the real deal.

Thinking back, I was so oblivious to everything of a domestic nature at that age. My Mother didn’t make me do any housework at home under the assumption that ”You’ll be doing it for the rest of your life” so why bother with it now? The fallacy in all that was how will you know what to do when the time comes if nobody shows you how to do it beforehand?

Consequently, my Mother did quite a bit of my homework for me for cooking class. Make that just about all. One important assignment was to create a place setting for an imaginary individual whom Miss Elwell had randomly chosen for each of us. My Mother and I slaved over every detail. Well, she slaved and I watched her slave.

When I presented the setting to Miss Elwell, I closely watched her face for some sign of benevolence. She critically observed the place setting before her and looked at me with twinkling eyes. Then she said, “Do you really think an elderly bachelor would want a pink paper parasol in his juice glass?”

If I knew then what I know now, I would have responded with:

 “Yes, if he were Truman Capote.”

The actual cooking assignments in class were ones that I had to wing on my own. Only one of those stands out in my memory. (There may have been successes, but I doubt it.) We had to bake muffins, which sounds easy but can be very tricky. You’re not supposed to over beat the batter because that can cause too much air to become incorporated into the mix, creating all manner of havoc and the end of the world, apparently.

After my batch came out of the oven, I nervously took my burnt offering up to the altar of Miss Elwell and waited for the verdict. She broke one open and studied it like an oracle examining the entrails of a goat. Then she pronounced,

“These have tunnels so large you could drive a truck through them.”

I mentally made a note to look for a husband who was wheat intolerant.

Having gone down in flames in the cooking department (figuratively, not literally) I had the sewing semester to redeem myself. It turns out I was even less adept at this than I was in the culinary arts.

My Mother, of course, was a veritable whiz at sewing. She made most of my clothes for school and really knew her way around a sewing machine. I viewed it as an instrument of torture. So, again, my Mother commandeered my sewing projects while I wandered off and watched American Bandstand on t.v.

The main project for the semester was a circle skirt or full skirt. It should have been a fairly straight-forward task but, again, nothing came easy for me in Miss Elwell’s bastion of the feminine arts. I couldn’t find a pattern that fit me. My Mother had to do a lot of cutting and pinning and sweating to get the thing to correspond to my dimensions. All those years of being a tomboy had given me an athletic build. Not good in the world of Elwell.

So when I went before her with the finished product, it was pretty obvious that my Mother had cranked it out. I couldn’t do work like that and Miss Elwell knew it. She gave it a cursory glance and said simply “C,” for my grade. Which was fine with me because I just wanted the ordeal over with.

But when I said something about not being able to find a pattern to fit me, Miss Elwell uttered the words that have stuck with me to this very day, some fifty years later. Words that have haunted me in every dressing room of any clothing store I’ve ever been in and before every mirror where I have stood and contemplated my visage.

Sitting at her desk she looked up at me with those twinkling eyes and said,

 “You have an oddball shape.”

This was spoken by a woman who was as wide as she was tall.

There was one happy memory from that year of living femininely. I had to sew a shank button on a piece of fabric, which meant sewing the button on loosely and then wrapping the thread many times around the bottom of the button to make it more secure. I tentatively placed it in Miss Elwell’s hands and waited for the usual. Instead, she looked at me with those twinkling eyes, smiled and said “A.”

I may be an oddball, but I wouldn’t be an old maid after all.

This ATC’s for you, Miss Elwell.

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20 thoughts on “Middle School Makeover

  1. Young people certainly can be affected by some off-the-cuff remark made by an adult who we are supposed to respect. Who knows what that meant? It could have been that you were fit or your development was happening in stages. Yet, I suspect you always carried it as a criticism. Since you didn’t know what she meant, you would assume the worst.

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    • At that point in my life, there was no development! The next year, eighth grade, I wore a bra to school so rarely it was a big deal when I did. Someone in gym class would invariably yell “Hey, come look–she’s wearing a bra today!” :)

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  2. I’m very short, so the width issue has always been my nemesis. Most of us must have oddball shapes, because I don’t know very many women who fit into the standard sizes of garment manufacturers!

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    • That is so true what you’re saying about so-called standard sizes. I’ve found that petite size tops work the best for me because I’m short-waisted, but I wear regular size pants because I have long legs. In truth, if my top and bottom halves were proportionate, I should be 5’11″. And blonde. With big boobs.

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  3. Dear TTPT, I love, loved this post. It took me back to Enid, Ok. 1961, where Mrs. Unruh, and Mrs. Henneke reigned supreme over cooking, and sewing, AND THOSE FILMS intended to keep us chaste, std free, young women. Did you have those? Anyhoo, I was awarded the Betty Crocker Future Homemaker of the Year, thus not suffering your angst…………………..instead loathing P.E. and math with a purple passion. We do come in all varieties, thank God. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Michele

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    • Wow, you were a Home Ec. rock star! Kudos to you, Michele. Math was not my strong suit either–never has been. I always say that one of the main reasons I became a dental hygienist was because I only had to count up to thirty-two!

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  4. I went to high school in rural east Texas where girls were required to take Home Economics for two years. In 1973, I created quite a stir by enrolling in Agriculture instead. I was the first female in the district to sign up for, and be granted permission to, take Ag. I took it for four straight years and earned the respect of ‘the boys’. Of course the girls thought I was weird. I loved it!

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    • Good for you, Angelina! The boys in our school had to take either wood shop or metal shop class. I’m sure there were some of them who would rather have switched places with me. I know I would have gladly given up sewing class for learning how to use power tools!

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  5. Oh, this post takes me back to those horrid days in Home Ec. And you are one of the people I detested…i.e., whose mother knew how to cook and sew. My mother did neither of those so I was on my own. We had to make a border print skirt and a blouse with a Peter Pan collar. And a big part of our grade was that WE ALL HAD TO WEAR THEM TO SCHOOL ON THE SAME DAY!!! Do you know what a teenager’s first attempt at sewing a skirt and blouse looks like? Of course not, and neither did most of my classmates because their mothers gave a little help. Meanwhile I wore a sweater all day even though it was far too warm. Better than having people seen those horrid sleeves I didn’t know how to do. My Home Ec teacher hated me because I was a klutz and had never sewed on a button, much less made a buttonhole.

    Thanks for letting me get this out of my system after all these years. I always wanted to tell my Home Ec teacher that I did very well, thank you very much, in spite of my poor homemaking skills.

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    • That sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to make all of you actually wear your Home Ec. creations! My sympathies. Even though my mother could cook and sew, I still didn’t get off easy. I felt like a fish out of water among all the girls who at least knew how to set a table. In my brief stint with the Girl Scouts (another post altogether) we were being evaluated on setting the table and all I could come up with was putting the plate down on the table. My scout leader, trying to be charitable, said “Good. That’s a start!” but I felt like an idiot. I didn’t have a clue where to go from there.

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    • You got that right, Hook. Sometimes I’d like to go back in time and give that young lady a good talking to; along the order of “Pay no attention to the negative stuff!”

      Thanks for stopping by–y’all come back!

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  6. Hi,
    Oh yes I remember those days, I just couldn’t seem to get anything right, but at least we can look back at it all and just shake our heads in wonder. Thank goodness things have changed for the all the girls, and at least now you can have a choice.
    Your post has brought back a lot of memories, as I was reading I was nodding and thinking yes I remember those awful days. :)

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    • What I envy of girls nowadays is that they can wear jeans to school. We had to wear dresses or skirts, along with the requisite nylons (and girdle!) every day. I would have loved to have the comfort of wearing more practical clothing at that age.

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  7. My home ec teacher was, in those days, an “old maid.” I think it was requisite for teaching that class.

    Oddball shape, huh? Don’t you worry, Girlfriend. It moved into your brain and morphed into wit. And we love you that way.

    Oh, I do remember those days where we had to freeze our butts off because it was unladylike to wear pants. Do you remember that coats had “leggings” in those days–wool pants which matched our winter coats? I remember one terribly cold day when I had to wear them under my dress… and got teased for it. (It made Alexander’s Terrible Day absolutely woosy by comparison!0

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    • Whoa–wool pants to match your coat? Growing up in Southern California, I never experienced that particular torture. I always liked to wear my new school clothes the first week we went back and I remember wearing a wool skirt to the first day of school in the ninth grade and nearly sweating to death. But, damn, I looked good!

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  8. Okay this post scared me. Seriously. I could never sew (except I made giant, orange felt carrots once…that’s the only time I used the sewing machine). My sis was a whizz with the sewing machine and sewed all my clothes (because of MY odd shape…long arms like an orangutang…all the blouses on the rack where too short for me …still are). At any rate, I was so nervous about Home Ec but by the time I got to high school (mid ’70s) we had to take typing instead, which as it happens, is darn handy and am using that skill as we speak! Thanks for this post. Loved it. Also, all the comments!

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    • I have long arms too! I was being measured for a school service club sweater once by the guy representing the manufacturer and he told me I should be a basketball player. Great. Just what you want to hear at 15. He and Miss Elwell should have gotten together as the “Self-Esteem-Crushing Duo.”

      Glad you liked the post, Ronna. I wish I could sew giant orange felt carrots!

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