Just before I entered sixth grade, my family moved to what had been our summer home in the wilds of New Jersey. Even my father, a lifelong New Yorker, had had it with the city. Back then (1970), New York was well on its way to complete disaster. For a great pictorial of what the city looked like back then, see the superb “Death, Destruction, And Debt: 41 Photos of Life In 1970s New York.”
While my parents were in agreement that we had to leave, my mother was very concerned about moving to a place she considered a cultural wasteland, a place without sidewalks or ballet lessons, never mind good schools. “Mom!” I said excitedly after my first day of school.” Someone told me that I can take tap dancing lessons!” “Tap,” said my mother, her voice dripping with disdain. In my mother’s mind, tap was akin to stripping. There would be no tap lessons for me.
A year later, when I was in 7th grade, my mother had relaxed slightly. The sky hadn’t fallen, and I hadn’t turned into a tap-dancing stripper.
Along Came Home Economics
Then came Home Economics (“Home Ec”). Back in the Dark Ages, every girl had to take Home Ec; every boy, Wood Shop (don’t get me started). Home Ec consisted of two half-year courses: I had Cooking in Semester 1 and Sewing in Semester 2.
Cooking was amazing. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to class and make pancakes? Sewing, however, was an entirely different matter.
I hated, hated, hated sewing. This did not go over well with my mother, who grew up working in the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills, as did my grandmother. If you want to know how tough the Lowell textile mill women were, the original Lowell mill women created the first union of working women in American history. In the 1830s (!!!). These were not women to trifle with. According to this same AFL-CIO history piece, “Lucy Larcom started as a doffer of bobbins when she was only 12 and “hated the confinement, noise, and lint-filled air, and regretted the time lost to education,” according to one historian.
The Capstone Project
I didn’t know anything about Lucy Larcom at that time, but she was clearly my soul mate. Rather than form a union, however, I gamely went about attempting to create our “capstone” project, an A-line skirt. I chose turquoise denim for the fabric. Hey, it was 1970.
As the A-line skirt pattern below demonstrates, this is supposed to be a pretty simple project, as befits 7th-grade girls, most of whom have lost all of their brain cells to raging hormones.
My skirt was almost this simple, but we were required to include a zipper and darts. In case you don’t know, “darts” are something done to clothing to provide “shape.” I’m sure there’s more to it, but I still have Sewing PTSD.
The Worst Grade I’d Ever Gotten
Suffice it to say, my project didn’t go well. I submitted the skirt to my teacher and received it back with a grade of C, the worst grade I’d ever gotten in my life (up until then; we won’t discuss college today).
That night, at home, my mother examined the skirt, the grade, and me. Let’s call the teacher Mrs. Smith, since I have no idea what her name was but really, if she’s still around, she has no desire to be reminded of me anyway. Here’s how the conversation went:
Mom: “You got a C?”
Mom: “This is not a wearable skirt. The darts are bunched, and the zipper is [wait for it] UPSIDE DOWN.”
Mom: “What’s the name of this teacher?”
Me: “Mrs. Smith.”
Mom: “Well. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to march into that school and tell them that they have two choices: you can either remake the skirt, or she can change your grade to an F. By giving you a C, she is saying that you know how to sew, which you obviously do not. And I will not have my daughter misled into believing…”
Losing the Parent Lottery
Did you faint? OK, good. And I know, I couldn’t believe it either! I was sure I’d lost the parent lottery. I’m confident that my mother still holds unique distinction of “only parent ever who went to her child’s school to insist that they change the child’s grade to an F.”
It was as if all of my mother’s pent-up frustration of leaving that cultural center of the universe, New York, for this heathen world of no sidewalks and no ballet, finally came out. She just couldn’t take anymore, but she was sure of one thing: I might not have been able to continue my ballet lessons, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to get a substandard education. No, sirree.
Sure enough, she marched into that school the next day, C-level (or F-level, depending on whom you ask) skirt in hand. An hour later I arrived in Sewing class; Mrs. Smith wordlessly handed me a seam ripper. I knew by the look on her face that if she detested me before, she hated me now. I’m sure that that “C” was her way of ensuring she would never have to see me again, but thanks to my mother, neither her wish – nor mine – would be granted. In hindsight, I realize that my mother probably could have lived with the bunched darts, but the upside down zipper did her in; it was the pièce de résistance of my failure, so to speak.
Equally wordless and enraged, I set to work. Unbunched the darts. Reversed the zipper. Turned it into the teacher. I have no idea what grade I got, but here’s the lesson I learned: If insist that your child get a good education, chances are, they will. All it takes is a seam ripper. ⧉