White hair, knobby knees, beige leather shoes, the kind that you have to be fitted for because of problem feet. Support stockings, plaid wool skirt, sour face, tall and scary, strong like vibe and not in a healthy female way but in a I never got laid, I’m probably never going to get laid but I need to get laid kind of way. (This is mean, I know)
Flashback 1971 wearing my yellow calico print frilly dress with a matching purse that my mother bought me at some hip place like Saks or something, little petticoat built in so the ruffles showed at the bottom. I loved that dress. It was one of those dresses you swirled around in, like a dancer with the cool air hitting your upper thighs. It was a girly frilly dress and I was six years old.
In 1971, at Tansey Elementary School in Fall River, Mass, (a public school by the way) despite the revolutionary climate of the times, Tansey had not gotten the memo. Boys and girls were not allowed to play together outside during recess. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school yet and jeans were not even in the radar. The boys were playing kickball or soccer or something “male appropriate” on the other side of the fence. The girls were following their gender protocol by playing hopscotch or jump rope or some girl game we were forced into playing before public elementary schools caught up with Women’s Lib. Before Title 9.
I decided to show off my newly learned headstand, a big feat for a six year old, surely. Bend down, head to ground, tripod first, steady. Lift off. What a sight. On my head, beautiful pose with my frilly dress up to my ears and my white cotton underwear out there for the world to see, or rather the boys on the other side of the fence to come dashing over breaking from their game to see my fabulous headstand. The attention was grand. They were looking at my prowess as a six year old headstander, certainly not my underwear, right? I mean I was six years old, printed underwear with the cartoon of the day hadn’t even been invented yet. Christ, thong underwear and pushup bras hadn’t even been invented yet. Why would a bunch of elementary school boys come rushing over to look at a six year old girl’s white brief underwear? Thankfully the thought wasn’t even in my radar. Not until Miss Foley placed it there because the next thing was hand grabbing, marching, no more recess, fear embarrassment. The old Mean Miss Foley had me tightly by the hand delivering me like a prostitute to the principal, Miss Lenahan. Miss Lenahan was the antithesis of Miss Foley. Kind, soft, loving and grandmotherly like. I was humiliated.
“Do you know what she did outside!!!????” her mean face getting meaner with that familiar twisted scour. I can’t remember as I write this if I had a thought for a fleeting moment that the headstand was the reason, the elegant handstand that I had been practicing endlessly I was being brought to the gallows for. Before I could even have a moment to consider my offense, my dress was pulled up from my hemline to my chest exposing my underwear and my belly button. This act was to demonstrate the actual placement of my frock while I was doing something so obviously shameful. Miss F. went on to explain the horrors of my actions to my beloved Mrs. Lenahan. I am sure there were tears but what I recall the most was the shame and embarrassment about showing my body so innocently. Remember this was 1971 and the differences between old tenured teachers at the time and my 25 year old semi yoga practicing hippy walk around naked parents was quite apparent even to a six year old.
I don’t think my mother was even called. Back then teachers could do these outlandish things in the name of propriety. My mother never had any idea of this traumatic event that would stay with me until 2005 when I wrote this piece. Teachers’ ability to exploit their power had profound effects on our school experiences that our parents never even knew. Goodness knows what would happen now if this same situation occurred. This wasn’t even a private Catholic school, this was a public school.
Flash ahead. Spelling test 1972. Miss Foley as the dictator walking around class like an SS officer barking out the words we were writing down on our lined paper with our number two pencils. I was and still am an excellent speller. In 1971, good spelling, like good penmanship was a badge of honor and so was memorizing the addition and multiplication tables. It is surprising I am a good speller since the way it was taught back then was zero tolerance. No, not bringing a gun to school or saying you are going to blow up first grade with a bomb you made out of playdough and Elmer’s. Zero tolerance for a most heinous crime, spelling errors.
It goes like this. You hear the word, you write it down. Oops, you made a mistake. You write the word ‘Kind’ with a C instead of a K for example (after all this is second grade, words were simple). You realize your error during the spelling test, you erase it, you fix it. Still wrong. No arguing, no negotiating. This is 1970 at Tansey Elementary School in Fall River, Mass and it may as well have been 1930. Mean Miss Foley would smack her lips with glee with the knowledge that Miss perfect speller would be getting at least one wrong on this spelling test.
Last Miss Foley memory, 1973 or 74 now. I am a big shot third grader secure with my teacher Miss Dunn who later became Mrs. Manchester finally free of Miss Foley’s second grade gestapo command. For some reason I managed to get my hands on a forbidden jawbreaker certainly without Ann’s permission for two reasons. The no candy in the morning rule which by the way included the no sugar cereal ever in the house rule and the no candy at school rule.
Well we weren’t in class yet so technically as my young clever mind rationalized as only a seven or eight year old can do when it comes to candy decision making, the jawbreaker found its way into my little mouth and my moving body. Uh oh. The jawbreaker found its way into my throat, stuck. Like a Leave it to Beaver episode, this is a problem. Choke- die. Let someone know I am choking- get bagged for the candy, Ann finds out. I realize I am probably more afraid of my mother finding out I broke the no sugar in the morning rule than I am of choking or in this case dying. Body reacts, coughing, red face, blocked airway. Uh oh the beige shoes are coming at me, quick- this jawbreaker must come out. Smash plop. Divine intervention, just in time for you know who to discover my deviant act.
“Are you all right?” she asks with a disappointed tone. After all the candy is not actually in my mouth so I couldn’t really legally get in trouble for possession. “Yes.” I say somewhat relieved I didn’t die. “Hmmfff,” she grunts, “shouldn’t have been eating candy in the morning anyway.”
G-d Damn it I hate it when Ann is right.
Miss Foley has definitely died by now, she was likely an old sixty something back in 1971. Writing this piece was a huge catharsis for me. It released my safe and controlled writing style into the fiery and vulnerable writing it is today. As I retyped this piece today I also came to some other conclusions. Maybe the struggles I have had with my waist down body image (I haven’t yet written about but this is coming) has a direct connection to the lifting of my dress over 47 years ago. I also have considered that maybe she didn’t like me because I was Jewish. I’ll never know and I don’t need to because here’s the thing about writing; shit comes out. Sticky old dried up useless crap gets released and frees my writing soul so that it can fill back up with better words.
I can’t necessarily forgive Miss Foley’s actions because no one needs to be mean to accomplish learning especially someone 1/8 their size but I forgive her for being born in the earlier part of the century. I forgive her for not having the choices that only come with the changes in time. I am amazed as I rewrite this at the potent realization of how teachers have the ability to exploit their immense power over little children. Maybe one of the reasons I am a good writer (and speller) is because of miss Foley’s strict approach. I also wonder how much she fucked up some of the other unfortunate children who had learning disabilities and reading difficulties prior to their discovery who likely never recovered.
I have been fortunate to have experienced caring loving and kind teachers who were encouraging to my writing, but Miss Foley was not one of them. The good news is I didn’t give her my power. I stored some of it away in that tiny vault in my tiny body keeping it safe for its discovery thirty-five years later in 2005 when I wrote this piece in Hannah Goodman’s writing class. Hannah made me write this. She is one of the great ones.
The first of 4 handwritten pages in 2005 in my first Hannah Goodman writing class that got strict and cranky Miss Foley right out of me.
I haven’t stopped since.