Fashion and Confusion at JHS 125
by Ruth Horowitz
Fuzzy memory is probably a good thing when it comes to remembering junior high school years, an unsettling period at the best of times made worse by a school that took us PS 150 kids completely off guard. If PS 150 was a school dream, JHS 125 was a rude awakening.
Although ordinary-looking like most schools of the day, I think of JHS 125 as grim and grey inside. Unlike elementary school, where classrooms had enveloped us in wood warmth, and light seemed to pour in, junior high school décor seemed designed to suck the air out of us. Dark corridors, and not much decorative tacked on classroom walls - except perhaps Mr. Mace’s oaktag “Minerals of South America” project – the ambience was drear. Nor were we often welcomed by teachers’ warm smiles.
It was, therefore, entirely memorable that Mrs. Meany, our seventh grade English teacher took great pleasure in reading aloud stories from Edgar Allen Poe, making us squirm in our seats with fear and delight, and conveying both her love for the written word and for us too. Thank you for that, Mrs. Meany.
My love of the French language probably began with my grandmother Rose reading stories in French to me; it grew in Mrs. Buxbaum’s class. Yet it was the day of no-French that I remember best. On that day, Mrs. Buxbaum burst into a theatrical monologue with memorable verve; she played two women having an animated conversation while shopping. All in English. Seated there at her desk, she transformed herself from junior high French teacher into entertaining stranger, and in the process, transported me out of the humdrum days of junior high. Stunned by the performance, I had to begin to reconsider my impressions of people too. The French stuck – and I went on to major in French in college - but it was the day without French that made the biggest impression of all.
Miss Crowley was my homeroom and Algebra teacher. She no doubt put some kids off with her appearance: her high forehead was crowned by chronically unruly hair and her eyebrows seemed permanently set in an angry frown. On top of that, her makeup was always slightly off kilter, her cheeks unevenly rouged, her lipstick often smeary. I can’t remember her ever looking neat and tidy; her slip often showed out from beneath her skirt, her slip straps fell off her shoulders, her blouse untucked from her skirt. She seemed old and tired and often cranky. Yet I found her kind and approachable. Moreover, she taught algebra well, and despite initial difficulties with the subject and needing my father's help in the evenings, I went on to love math and continue on through four years of high school.
Dear Miss Reinshagen, the typing teacher. I would have loved typing in any case: those large old typewriters, solid and black, the click clack of the keys, the multiple dings of end-of-line bells in an otherwise quiet classroom, and the focused attention needed to complete those repetitive exercises: asa, asa, asa, ded, ded, ded, fgf, fgf, fgf, etc. offering some kind of meditative respite. I would lose myself in the work. No verbal noise to have to decipher, no disturbance, no yelling. Just the busy, regular sound of keys being tapped. I think of Miss Reinshagen as the singularly nicest of all the teachers I ever had. There were others I liked a lot, but she treated us really well and had the loveliest of smiles.
JHS 125’s student population was funneled in from different elementary schools. In seventh grade, there were 9 classes, so that in 7-9, students looked, and might have been older. In any case, they seemed worldlier than those of us in the SPs, the “special progress” program which hurried us through in two years rather than three. Cosseted by our PS 150 teachers through our first six years, we SPers were generally less mature and more socially awkward to begin with…..
From the earliest days, I was impressed with a girl called “Maybelline,” probably after the Chuck Berry tune. I’d see her occasionally in the corridor when the buzzer rang. She wore black flats, black seamed stockings, a black straight skirt with a slit up the back, and a tight knit top that showed how busty she was. Her black hair was all pulled back in a tight pony tail and her eyebrows were penciled in (maybe her name actually came from the eyebrow pencil manufacturer). I really did not know what to make of her, but I was definitely in awe.
By contrast, my own fashion statement was a uniform-like gray pleated wool skirt, gray knit top, and brown vest. A grey woolen dirndl skirt, and a turquoise felt poodle skirt - both worn with a crinoline, popular undergarment of the day - rounded out my wardrobe. With knee socks and buckskin shoes, the outfits were complete, the effect, always clownish. Fashion-challenged as I was, the girls I hung out with did not seem to mind. We were a crew: Nina, Melanie, Judi and the twins, Janet and Georgia. We were not “mean girls,” but we were clique-ish enough to make it hard for me to remember many of the others in the junior high class photo I look at now.
One day in 9th Grade, I came to school dressed up. It was my 13th birthday, and I was sporting a brand new pink checked blouse with a mandarin collar and puffy sleeves, and a black taffeta skirt. At my waist was a corsage arrangement of 13 pieces of sugar? bubble gum? dangling on pink ribbons, a girly tradition closely followed in those days. Part of the birthday ritual entailed my lipsticked girlfriends kissing me on the cheeks that morning, so that by the time I walked into Mrs. Digney's English class, my face was a canvas of pink lips. Mrs. Digney took one look at me and snapped, “Disgusting,” sending me off to the girls’ room to wash off the evidence of my friends’ attention, and assigning my friend Janet to go with me. Once outside the classroom door, I dissolved in tears.
Within our group, Janet was the tough one; she could hold her own with anyone. Or so I believed. Inside the girls’ lavatory that day, however, she met more than her match. In walked a small, heavily made up girl with bleach blonde curls, there to have a bathroom smoke. Planting herself smack in front of Janet, she spat out, “If I ever catch you in here again, I’ll beat the crap out of you.” Perhaps this was the leftover venom of an out-of-school dispute, I do not know. Up to that minute, I had never seen Janet fearful, never imagined she could be, but there she was, a palpable tremor flooding her body. Needless to say, she and I beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of Mrs. Digney’s classroom. Hard to admit, I actually liked the essay booklet projects that Mrs. Digney assigned us periodically, but they were not much consolation after the way she treated me on my 13th birthday!
So it went. The indignities of junior high school years brought us low. Like the day a girl in hygiene class was asked by the teacher to take her jacket off, to which she sheepishly replied, “I can’t, I forgot to put my blouse on this morning.” Immediately dispatched back home to finish dressing, off she went, while the rest of us had a good snicker!
And what about the lowest moment of all my junior high days, when I went with my friend Nina to shop for a “training” bra, my first, at McCrorys Five and Dime Store on Greenpoint Avenue. The counter clerk took one look at me, gave a knowing look to her co-worker that suggested a silent guffaw, turned back to me and said loud and clear, “Honey, you don’t need a bra.” I did not argue with her.
Oh, the pain of it……
Ruth Horowitz has been homesteading with her husband in the back woods of Nova Scotia for the past 40 years.