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.


Fowl Play



Who would have guessed that a book on grammar and punctuation could be just as much fun to read as say, Sex and the City?  Well, maybe not that much fun, but fun nevertheless.  The book I’m referring to here is Eats, Shoots & Leaves–The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, a droll and entertaining Brit.  She writes about the use and misuse of commas, apostrophes (don’t get me started on those!), semi-colons and colons much like an historian would chronicle the secret lives of the saints. 

I find it fascinating, but then I’m one of those terrible people who take umbrage at those misplaced apostrophes.  Yes, I am a “stickler” (as Ms. Truss calls her followers) and I, too, fear there has been a general dumbing-down of written English since the advent of email and text messaging.   

People just don’t give a hoot anymore. 

Mr. Townsend would be appalled.  He was my 9th grade English teacher and the pivotal force behind my emergence from the shadows of grammar apathy into the golden dawn of English language enlightenment.

Up until 9th grade I was only a mediocre student, at best.  Somehow, I found myself placed in the top English class my last year in junior high school.  It must have been my reading scores that landed me there because reading was the only subject where I excelled and exhibited any interest.  I had been floating through school on a wave of indifference.  Mr. Townsend threw me a lifeline and pulled me ashore.

About Mr. Townsend:  he was very slim and fairly short.  He was a natty dresser; given to fitted tweed suits with nipped-in waists and two back vents.  He was originally from Louisiana, so he had a Southern drawl that dripped honey when he wanted it to, but he could also make it bite like a Copperhead. 

He used to assume a sort of pose at the blackboard where he would slouch back on one hip, one arm held tightly across his waist in front, while gesturing with the other hand that held the chalk; much like Bette Davis smoking a cigarette.  All that was missing was, “What..a..dump!” 

Then, still holding this basic position, he would swivel and turn back and forth from the blackboard as he demonstrated some aspect of grammar.  Think of Tim Gunn on Project Runway and you get the picture:  he was wonderful to watch.

Early in the year, Mr. Townsend approached us with a request to help him proofread an article he was writing for a gourmet magazine.  It was about the correct method for cooking a chicken in a clay or terracotta container.  He was very serious about this article, and I’m sure he thought we would be suitably impressed with his magnificent grasp of English and be properly awed. 

He wanted us to read the draft he had written and then pass it on to the person behind us.  I happened to have the good fortune of being in the front desk in the first row.  This position wasn’t awarded to me because I was the top student in the class.  Our seats clearly weren’t assigned because of merit.  We had each chosen our own seat on the first day of class and I chose mine because it was closest to the door, allowing me the ability to make a quick exit if the need arose.

Mr. Townsend handed me the paper and went back to his desk.  I couldn’t have gotten more than half way down the first page when a glaring error leaped out at me.  To my astonishment, he had written the word “foul” in describing the star of the recipe, when what he had meant to write was “fowl”. 

I got up and took the paper back to his desk and showed him the error of his ways.  He was very embarrassed and fell all over himself in gratitude for my discovery of  this egregious mistake.  (I failed to mention that he always gave us two new vocabulary words every day.  That has come in handy over the years.)  I returned to my desk feeling somewhat good about myself and we all went about our work.

The good feelings didn’t last long.  I may have become more enlightened by Mr. Townsend’s approach to English but, apparently, he hadn’t lifted me out of my attraction to pedestrian literature.  One of my book reports was on Gidget Goes Hawaiian, and you can imagine the terrible razzing I got from him on that one.  War and Peace it ain’t.  My face flushed with humiliation, I vowed to get my revenge somehow. 

Finally, the opportunity presented itself.

Mr. Townsend was demonstrating how to diagram a sentence at the board, which required a lot of spins and turns and flourishes on his part as he tried to drum the information into our skulls. 

I don’t remember what I said that displeased him, but he was giving me a hard time for not recognizing something that he thought should be as obvious as balls on a tall dog. 

That is when I did it.

Still seated at my desk, I calmly turned over the large hand-printed card that I had been keeping face down on my binder for just such an occasion. 

I flashed it at him like a judge in an Olympic competition. 

Mr. Townsend immediately crumpled against the blackboard in paroxysms of laughter.  Still laughing, he raised his chalk into the air and said, Touché!”

The word on the flashcard?