Sunday, August 16, 2009

Miss Scary, Miss Evil, and a Lost World of Embroidery

I don't do sewing these days. It's not that I can't, you understand - it's just that I don't. I can take up the hems of trousers to make them shorter, if the occasion demands. I can sew on a button, properly, so that it doesn't come off again.

But I'd never sew for pleasure, and I'm sure that a lot of that is due to how we were taught sewing at school.

There were two Domestic Science teachers at the Girls' Grammar School that I went to and they were called Miss Scary and Miss Evil.

In a sort of minor twist on getting the criminal to build his own scaffold, the first thing that Miss Scary got us to make was our cookery apron, to be used in the Terrifying Cookery Classes run by Miss Evil.

The apron was made of cotton, large and white with lots of straps and loops and it had to have a front facing in House Colours all neatly sewn on. The Houses were Stuart, Tudor, Plantagenet and Windsor. I was in Stuart, which was yellow. So a yellow gingham facing. Our summer dresses were gingham too, in house colours. Strangely, I retain a sneaking affection for gingham to this day, which slightly worries me.

Once you'd got to grips with the treadle sewing machine, and spent weeks doing hems on all the straps and loops, and sewn on the facing crooked and taken it off again and sewn it on again straight, then you had to use it for the subsequent cookery lessons with Miss Evil.

You had to turn up with it, neatly washed and ironed, every week and woe betide you if you ever forgot the blasted thing. Detention, lines, and if you were really considered criminal, an Order Mark.

I don't know what happened if you amassed enough Order Marks - - ritual humiliation in front of the whole school, I expect, because that was the kind of thing they went in for.

I never found out. I never got an Order Mark and I never forgot my cookery apron. Firstly, because I have a good memory and I had enough sense to use it for self-preservation, and secondly, because even in those days I had learned to generate a spurious air of Respectability and a good front of appearing to be doing whatever I was supposed to be doing, whilst reading Jackie - beloved teen mag - under the desk.

In those days it was expected that everyone could sew. For P.E. (ie Physical Education), we had to wear a polo shirt in our House Colours - yes, yellow, in my case - with your name embroidered on the front in chain stitch. It was just expected that you would turn up with this done - - because it was expected that you'd have a nice middle-class mummy at home who would embroider your PE kit, and who would wash and iron your Important Cookery Apron.

In my case, I was fine with all this nonsense - didn't agree with it, but I could cope with it. I found school annoying in many ways, and even in those days I disliked many aspects of it: but on the surface, which was what mattered on a day-to-day basis, I fitted in with it fine as I was a natural grammar-school swot from a reasonably well-off family, and I lived just a ten-minute walk away.

And, of course, the sense of order was comforting. This was how things were done at this Girls' Grammar School. This was how they had always been done, and how they always would be done. It was all carried out with supreme confidence by a staff of Educated Ladies.

But now to my darker point. This was not a private fee-paying school - it was a state grammar school. To get in there, all you had to do was apply and then pass your eleven-plus examination. So, theoretically, any girl could go there if they did just that.

But, in practice, things didn't quite work that way. I remember Brenda Johnson. Johnson was not her real name - though I remember that too - but her name was indeed Brenda.

She was there in my first year at the school, when we were eleven. She came from a big family in working-class Harehills: the rest of us lived in more middle-class parts of the city. Her parents had sent her to the school - - but didn't have enough money or resources to provide many of the uniform items. She lived in a house that lacked a washing machine and an iron.

So she didn't have a polo shirt in House colours with her name embroidered on the front.

Rather than wondering why this should be, and then making further enquiries, and perhaps even - heaven forbid! trying to help - the staff just gave her hell about it, week after week. Why did she not have the correct PE kit? Detention! Lines! Order Mark! Firing Squad!

Eventually, Brenda could stand it no more and, in a most cack-handed bid to solve the problem, she stole someone else's polo shirt from the changing rooms.

It was the right colour - - but, of course, it had someone else's name on the front.

What could be done? In desperation, Brenda tried to take out the embroidery with a pair of nail scissors.

Of course, she was caught. Who knows what her punishment was? Detention for the rest of the term, probably.

She left at the end of that first year. I never found out what became of her, though I have never forgotten her and the unjustness of how she was treated.

Ahh, the old grammar-school system. Many mourn its passing. How well it worked. What an excellent education. What glorious opportunities it gave.

In the case of the one I went to, though, there was one proviso. You had to be middle-class.


Blogger Debby said...

I went to Catholic grade school for 8 years. No uniforms, I could have only dreamed of that. No, me, the fat kid wore old lady type clothes and was made fun of by the skinny girls. We probably had more money than them, but that did me no good in the clothing dept as they just didn't make 'cool' clothes in big sizes.

We didn't have detention either. The nuns beat us and called our parents who beat us again. Not a bad system if you asked me! I only got the ruler once and it wasn't even my fault.

Ahhh, the joys, or not, of days gone by.

4:22 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ah yes, the Grammar School Sewing Mistress. Shudder. The first term we had to make our sewing apron - with a kangaroo type pouch for the work in progress - also in the house colours. We had to embroider our initials in the corners. The MP's daughter, who was the first person I ever met to have a double barreled surname, had to use her middle initial, too, so it balanced. DJ in one corner, CJ in the other. The second term we made the horrendous white cookery apron, and the third term a 'nice' gathered skirt. I never wore my cookery apron; I escaped domestic science classes after the first year, via a well hidden clause that forced the school to provide Welsh lessons if enough of us demanded them.
I do remember a girl from a large poor family in tears once, because the week's recipe demanded sugar in the middle of the sugar shortage of about 1968, and her mum hadn't been able to get any.
I was also a working class kid in the middle class lions' den. I was bullied at school for coming from Queens Park, and bullied in my home area for going to the grammar school. Best days of my life - no way!
I still love Latin and Welsh and hate sewing and cooking, though!

6:24 pm  
Blogger rhymeswithplague said...

Enough about Miss Scary and Miss Evil, already. I am still awaiting an answer to my question about Miss Rose's class that I left on your recent Roman post!

flunko, flunkare, flunkuisti!

7:51 pm  
Blogger Daphne said...

Debby - ah yes, the uniform-wearing was supposed to prevent all that kind of thing - - sadly it didn't work.
Dfco - clearly a similar school to the one I went to!
Bob - - oops, sorry, I've replied to it now! Teachers had very strong ideas about the pronunciation of Latin - how they thought they knew beats me!

8:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So there really is a thing called sewing for pleasure? That is a little hard for me to grasp, but Okay :o.

11:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Daphne, this sounds so much like the Girls Grammar School I attended in the '60s. Even the teachers sound much the same, and although I love most crafts sewing is NOT one of them! They let me stop Latin after my mock O level result, approximately 20% if I remember correctly. So much too learn and none of it useful then, often quite useful for working out what words mean now though.


9:01 am  
Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:57 pm  
Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

This may seem big-headed of me but I suspect that my reference to domestic science after your last post may have provided the seed of an idea for this one.

It seems amazing that in my lifetime I have seen a huge sea-change in teaching - from the uncaring institutionalised cruelty that you describe to a world in which you can't touch children, where you mollycoddle them and fret about making mistakes that might be leapt upon, a world in which we bend over backwards to bring out the best in them, make allowances for them, give them undeserved second chances. There ought to be a happy medium.

1:00 pm  
Blogger Daphne said...

Mary - I know lots of people who seem remarkably normal, who enjoy sewing for pleasure. But it doesn't seem normal to me!
Christine - actually I'm glad I did do Latin, it's been really helpful with other languages. I just wish it had been taught in a different way.
YP - yes, you're right - it WAS your comment about Domestic Science that started my long rant! And I think you're right about the happy medium, too.

3:30 pm  
Blogger Kim said...

I did sewing in school, hated it then, mind you the teacher was EVIL, she barely explained how to use a sewing machine and then expected us not to break it

mind you I do like sewing now, but never on a machine, I quite like knitting too :p

5:16 pm  
Blogger Daphne said...

Kim - I'm glad you came through it all to like sewing and knitting!

8:14 pm  
Anonymous Milo said...

At the school I went to (late 80s) the girls did needlework with the Chaplain's wife and the boys did woodworking. We were terrified of the woodworking teacher who was known to have a very short temper and be something of a psycho. By my 3rd year everything changed, both were done away with and replaced by co-ed CDT.

8:09 am  

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