Confessions From a Home Economics Failure

            In 1965, I entered Wareham High School. I had one major goal: graduation – period – nothing else. Graduation meant, as far as I was concerned, total liberation from teachers who, for the most part, tolerated me as I tolerated them. Not that I was a class clown or worse, troublemaker, no. I was just an anonymous frowning face in the crowd, destination unknown. But there were certain classes I enjoyed either because of the teacher or in spite of the same.

            I liked typing and shorthand. Good thing because my rudimentary skill-level of those business-office must-haves landed me much-needed jobs right out of high school. I also enjoyed Civics (if you were born after 1970 you won’t know what that is), Social Studies, History, English Literature (not grammar as you know), and Science.

            Most of the other girls in my class also enjoyed Home Economics simply called “Home-Ec.” These girls liked learning about household budgets, baking pans, cooking from scratch, and sewing. I did not. But Home-Ec was mandatory for girls as shop classes were for boys. It was either in the sophomore or junior years we were conscripted for duty in our practical vocational classes.

            At home there had been times when I was pressed into cooking duty because Ma was sick, or when I was younger still because I needed to make a fully planned meal for a Girl Scout badge. But I didn’t enjoy being in the kitchen. For one thing, my mother didn’t enjoy cooking. It was a chore primarily featuring canned meats and frozen vegetables. Occasionally she’d get creative and cook-up cream chipped beef over mashed potatoes, French toast as a dinner entrée or macaroni soup with melted Velveeta cheese. Yum. But mostly it was food for sustenance, not flavor.

            Sewing in our home was handwork, not sewing machine. Like prepackaged foods, Ma preferred off-the-rack clothing.

            In Home-Ec class, the bubbly instructor, Miss Jackson, enthusiastically described the joys of cooking, keeping a clean home, especially the bath and kitchen, and (drum roll please) how to operate a sewing machine.

            The Home-Ec classroom was set-up in two sections: a fully equipped kitchen and the sewing-machine room. We were required to spend half the year in the kitchen and the other at the machines. While the boys were busy learning carpentry and automotive skills, we were being prepped to become homemakers.

            Our teacher was perfect for her role. Miss Jackson was a peach; really, if a person can be called a fruit, peach suited her. She was originally from the south, wore her hair in a teased bouffant up-curl of yellowish fluff, and dressed each day in a stiffly starched, shirtwaist dress. She was a vision complete with either pinky pink or peachy peach lipstick. I did like her.

            Unfortunately, I was an incompetent seamstress, making me the bane of Miss Jackson’s day whenever my group rotated into her schedule. First and foremost, while I could darn socks, replace buttons, sew up a split seam and other small clothing-maintenance functions, the sewing machines terrified me. The worst part was winding the bobbin and threading that thick mechanized needle.

            Operating the sewing machine, whether it was an antiquated black Singer or a modern Zig Zag style, required the capabilities of an engineer to operate. There was the take-up lever, the tension wheel, spool pins and, last but not least, the needle.

            I wish I could tell you that I eventually achieved a level of adequacy that gave Miss Jackson the opportunity to move on to more complicated details of making a garment from whole cloth, but I’d be lying. I did not. She always had to help me, going slowly step-by-step until the machine was ready to actually sew parts together.

            Every year for decades, girls were required to complete two sewing projects to receive credit for the class – an a-line, wrap-around skirt and an apron with a pocket. These were considered easy projects quickly executed by anyone capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time. 

            As memory serves, we had to shop for the patterns at the 5 & Ten Store. Back in class we gingerly removed the paper patterns from their envelopes. Miss Jackson decoded the pattern’s language and symbols with the precision of an archeologist at a pyramid dig. Everyone seemed able to grasp the inner meaning of the markings on the pattern except yours truly. Fear coursed through my arms and hands as I tried with everything I had to understand the mathematics involved – yes, math. Another class I struggled with while learning how to operate an adding machine. But that’s another story.

            Suffice to say, Miss Jackson had to stand beside me to ensure I didn’t ruin the denim fabric intended to become, through some miracle, a skirt I could actually wear to school. Those who were really good at sewing were making two-piece ensembles of tweed trimmed with velveteen. I was simply hoping the seams of the four panels that made up my skirt would hold.

            Here’s what I remember clearly: I wasn’t able to finish on my own and, as the deadline for the fashion show, yeah the fashion show, approached, Miss Jackson helped me. The waistband’s attached belt was left for me to finish. It was a bit too short and poorly executed to say the least, but I sewed it onto the skirt and was grateful this exercise in humiliation was over. I was sick (cough-cough) the day of the fashion show.

            Oh, the apron faired a bit better, but the pocket was crooked and the tie uneven. My aunt, who wore a fresh clean apron every day of her life, became the recipient of that work of abstract art. Bless her soul, she did wear it whenever I was around.

            Sewing with a needle and thread minus the machine has served me well over the years. But today one of my regrets is not learning how to operate a sewing machine. I could and would be sewing up face masks instead of suffocating my husband and myself with the “no sewing required” models.

            I have been able to purchase cloth facemasks online. They arrived today. I studied the seams and the shape of the fabric while thinking, “I should have tried harder in Home-Ec.”

            Miss Jackson, wherever you are, thank you and I am sorry.

This Mattapoisett Life

By Marilou Newell

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