20

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.

9

Out of the Mouths of Babes

For a little over a month now I’ve been volunteering in a reading program for kindergartners at our local primary school. 

Since my grandkids are in school pretty much full time now, and my daughter has either been working from home or at her new office digs during school hours, I found that after eight years “on the job” my services as child caregiver were no longer required. 

I knew all along that day was coming, but it arrived a little sooner than I’d bargained for, leaving me with feelings akin to being told by a supervisor to pick up my severance pay from human resources and it’s been nice working with you.

Even though I’m essentially a creative, “free spirit” (cough) Gemini, I’m still a creature who needs some structure in her life in order to feel grounded. 

To me, one of the worse things that can happen to an otherwise healthy person who’s retired is not having a reason to get up in the morning. 

I know too many people who have taken to tippling during the day (and night) after retirement because they don’t have someone or something that needs them; something that requires their attention on a regular basis. 

So my “something” has become five kindergartners, four days a week, in one-on-one reading sessions that usually last about twenty minutes each.  I have two girls and two boys on Mondays and Wednesdays, and one teeny, tiny little ESL (English as a second language) girl on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

If you want to maintain a young outlook on life, go no further than a bunch of kindergartners. 

They are a hoot.

Today, one of my boys was regaling me with a description of a picture he said he’d seen at the library of a horse giving birth.  (I’m thinking he must have seen it at the public library, not the school library which has books just for Pre-K through kindergarten.) 

Needless to say, it involved some very inventive thinking about horses’ butts and things that emerge from them. 

I don’t know who was getting more of an education—him or me.

But when it comes to inventive thinking, today’s prize has to go to my first little girl of the day.  She and the other girls came twirling into the reading room decked out in construction paper Indian headdresses and macaroni bead necklaces in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

As I admired her get-up I murmured something about how clever the necklace was, being made entirely of dried macaroni of various colors.

My little Pocahontas wanna-be laughed at my patent cluelessness and said:

“That’s not macaroni!  That’s dead food!”

I stand corrected.

Although, it could have been that the teacher had told them it was “dyed” food. 

And, more likely, it could have been, with my diminished hearing, that I misheard entirely what Pocahontas said. 

Either way, a good time was had by all.

I can’t wait to get up tomorrow morning to see what the day brings.

12

E Pluribus Unum

Mom fights school district over Spanish ‘Pledge’ assignment

EDMOND, OK (NBC) – An Oklahoma mother is fuming over a mandatory assignment given to her son.

Melissa Taggart is now taking her fight to Edmond, OK Public Schools after her son was threatened with a zero because he wouldn’t complete an assignment that would require him to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish.

“My husband and I are appalled by it. We don’t believe in it and I do not want my child doing it,” Taggart said. “I just feel that it’s wrong, that he’ll have to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America in Spanish. That’s not how it should be taught. That has nothing to do with the Spanish language.”

Officials with Edmond Public Schools said that Melissa’s son was going to receive a zero for the project. A few hours later, they changed their minds and are now offering him another assignment.

“There are poems, lyrics, and great writers that she could have chosen that emphasize the Spanish culture … Why the Pledge of Allegiance,” Taggart asked.

When I was in high school back in the Stone Age of the 1960’s, I took Latin as my foreign language choice.  My teacher, Mrs. Cargill, was from Argentina.  Besides Latin, she taught Spanish and had a working knowledge of Italian and German.  Even though she was one tough cookie when it came to making us toe the line, I adored her.

Since our class was during the first period of the day, we heard the principal’s morning announcements over the room’s intercom.  These were always preceded by the Pledge of Allegiance, which he recited while all the students in the school stood and recited it in English with him. 

Except for us. 

Mrs. Cargill thought it was important to take advantage of any opportunity to bring the language alive by using it in situations that got us outside of the textbook.  So, we memorized the Pledge in Latin and recited it that way while the principal spoke it in English.

My, how subversive.

I wonder if this same parent would object to the Pledge being recited in Latin. 

How about French?  German? 

Somehow, I suspect there wouldn’t be anywhere near the fuss.  The Pledge is not a sacred text that will be defiled if translated into Spanish.  If anything, instead of giving a robotic and rote memory recitation as many students find themselves doing after years of saying it in English, it may get her son thinking about what the words actually signify. 

 Now, wouldn’t that be something?

Here’s to you, Mrs. Cargill.  I’m sure you would be “appalled” that a valuable learning tool could be twisted around to such ignorant ends.

     Ego vexillo Unitorum Statuum Americae ac rei publicae, quam refert ipsum, fidelitatum voveo: Uni Nationi sub Deo indivisibili, cum Libertate atque Justitia omnibus.

2

Fowl Play

grammar_crackers_large

 

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?

“FOWL”

4

The Case for a Little Benign Neglect

By today’s standards for parenting, my entire generation shouldn’t have made it to adulthood.

lg_27helicoptersThe other day my daughter attended a “meet and greet” with the teachers at the private school my grand-kids attend.  She figured it would be the usual get-together where the teacher expounds upon the lesson plan for the year, the parent listens while politely munching on a cookie provided by the room mother, and then the teacher fields a few questions on mundane topics such as “can little Herkimer wear his orthodontic headgear in class.”

Instead, my daughter was taken aback by the grilling some of the mothers gave my grandson’s second grade teacher, Miss F., a young single gal with a bookish demeanor but, apparently, nerves of steel. 

The intensity and depth of the questioning were quite surprising. 

Sarah Palin was given more leeway by Katie Couric than the young Miss F. received from her inquisitors.

The climax of the interrogation arrived when one of the mothers said she wanted to personally deliver a Subway sandwich to her daughter every day for snack time.  (I will interject here that the kids in kindergarten through second grade get out of school at 12:15, so there is no actual lunch period.) 

Our Miss F. maintained her cool while informing the mother that this was not an option.  She explained if the children want a snack, they must bring it with them from home.  Anything out of the norm would be disruptive to the class and interfere with the egalitarian atmosphere that the school was trying to project.

The mother wasn’t listening.  She pressed on by asking if she could just “hang it on the classroom doorknob” so as not to disturb anyone.  Miss F. wasn’t buying this either, but apparently it took some discussion before the case was closed.

When my daughter related this conversation to me, I raised my hands to shoulder level and made little fluttering motions with my fingers. 

“What is that?” she asked.

“Helicopter parents” I said, to clarify that I wasn’t having a stroke or something. 

She hadn’t heard that before, so I went on to explain the concept of parents who continuously hover over their kids, anticipating their every need.  These are parents who have completely invested themselves in their children, possibly setting up their kids for a rude awakening at some point when they discover the universe is not centered around them.

In the days since hearing of Miss F.’s inquisition, I’ve been reflecting upon my own upbringing.  Certainly my mother worried about things like me putting my eye out if I ran with scissors, but there wasn’t a lot of concern about many of the things that are taken for granted with child raising today. 

We rode bikes everyday and didn’t wear protective helmets.  We wandered around the neighborhood and beyond all day and into the dusk, only returning home after hearing my father’s loud whistle from the front yard. 

My mother used to put big gobs of Vicks Vapor Rub up our noses when we had colds.  If you actually read the directions, it emphatically says not to use it anywhere internally, only on the chest.  I should be dead right now.  But, if my mother had her way, she would have found a way to cure cancer with Vicks, she loved it so much.

My parents had a baby-blue Oldsmobile.  There were no seatbelts and the dashboard was solid metal.  We kids used to rattle around in the backseat and very often I would ride in what we called “the way back”, that spot that was sort of a ledge behind the backseat and below the rear window.  If there had been a quick deceleration, I would have been a projectile object.  No one gave it any thought.

I practiced a form of benign neglect with my own kids.  Yes, they wore seat belts, always.  (By that time we did have them, thankfully.)  But when it came to overseeing every little detail of their day, that I didn’t do. 

Maybe this attitude of “live and let live” was a result of my mother always wanting to know what I was thinking.  It wasn’t out of concern for my well-being.  She just wanted to know what was going on in my little head at all times.  So perhaps allowing my kids to have some independence from the Thought Police resulted in my being more of a laissez-faire parent overall.

Yes, things have changed in this country since the 50’s and 60’s and not in good ways.  There are a lot more threats out there to children than there used to be.  But kids need room to grow into individuals and they can’t do it with Mom and Dad always fluttering overhead. 

Be like my mother.  Send the kid to school with a warm tuna sandwich. 

Now, that’s living dangerously.

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3

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 for the future 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.

heights