Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Seams that Endure

I resented her.

Her name was Peggy King and she taught me Home Economics at Tennessee High School, home of the mighty Vikings. I didn’t like her because she reigned in a world that was inaccessible to me.


I had waited a long time to set sail on that mighty Viking ship. Once on board, I hoped I could put distance and closure between my elementary and junior high experiences and me. I hoped to erase some mortifying memories of those earlier years.

The memory of that fourth grade lunacy of altering a pair of shoes given to my mother by a woman she cleaned for still gnawed at me. They were too small for my mom but quite pretty and I yearned for such things. The idea to saw the spiked, pointy-toed pumps down to half-inch heels and wear them to school sprang from an ache to walk in anyone's shoes other than my own.

 I was quite surprised to find lowering the darn things resulted in the toes tilting upward. Nevertheless, I slipped them on and hobbled down the Central Elementary School hallway that day only to drown in embarrassment while sipping water from the school fountain. The kids lining up behind me were laughing. Instead of impressing them, I realized I was an object of ridicule.

High school also meant leaving behind the humiliation of my George W. Vance Junior High Christmas choral concert. Wanting to feel grown-up that night, I borrowed a pair of dark tan nylons from a worldly friend. One of the dark stockings was streaked with a long, jagged run that made me think of the muddy creek snaking behind our house.

Dashing into the school bathroom before the program, I tied the stockings up with strips torn from an old pillowcase. Not owning a garter belt, I was afraid to sneak Mama’s. She’d told me I was too young to wear hosiery so slipping behind her back would be disastrous if my disobedience fell down around my ankles mid-performance. I tied the bonds a little tighter.

As well as I recall, all sensation in my legs began disappearing not long after the choir's opening number. As I stood perched on the top riser, the roaring of blood in my ears mocked the fact I had cut off my own circulation from the thighs down. My alto and confidence had sunk pretty low by the time Joseph led Mary, great with Child, into the darkened stable. Thanking Jesus for the final curtain, my numb legs buckled.

Yep, high school would be both my eraser and clean slate. Things would be different...or so I thought.

I eventually found myself under the tutelage of Peggy King, a woman hell bent on fashioning her female students into gracious ladies and model homemakers.

The very attractive Mrs. King, tall, confident, and immaculately groomed, carried herself like royalty. Everyone knew she belonged to one of the most prestigious families in town. I assumed she must have had gilt edged security in the H.P. King Department Store downtown.  

I recall the class time spent on dressing for success and purchasing power. Mrs. King would bring in beautiful outfits, using them as object lessons. Spreading each garment she would show us how to examine the linings for tiny, tight, even stitches-the hallmark of topnotch workmanship. We fingered raw silks, crisp linens, supple leathers, and textured tweeds, experiencing the feel of quality. It certainly felt different from the thin, frayed, cotton shirts I ironed for my brothers on the weekends.

She also stressed the importance of the right accessories. I learned that buttons had the power to make or break an outfit. After force-feeding us details on how to identify genuine bargains, she exposed the sales hype that lulled us into making poor clothing choices.

On and on and on she droned, day after day. Had we understood that a bias is a forty-five degree angle to the selvage in the fabric, often used in the cutting of garments to insure a smoother fit? Would we remember to invest wisely in classic pieces that would wear well for years while avoiding "trendy" clothes that would be outdated in no time?

Wearily I would trudge into the Home Ec department wondering how this worthless information could ever relate to the life I knew. What did this woman know of soup bean suppers, sleeping three to a bed, and being jarred awake by the thunder of passing trains?

Having mastered Concepts in Clothing, Mrs. King then introduced us to the culinary arts. After covering myriad details in food preparation and gracious entertaining, my tormentor put all to the test. She divided us into groups of four and gave us our assignment; she wanted us to prepare a home cooked meal. As her students dutifully gravitated to the fully equipped kitchen/dining stations, she gave us the recipe for what she called the entrée. It was a strange sounding dish. Lasagna. Such a foreign sounding word to me. Was it French?

My kitchen crew and I set about the task of boiling the large flat curly-on-the-side noodles while measuring dry curd cottage and ricotta cheeses and opening cans of tomato sauce. We browned ground beef and onions and pinched off tiny quantities of a pungent herb called oregano. This process resulted in my foursome generating a massive mess as we managed to use every pot, mixing bowl, and measuring device available to us. But...we got the job done in the allotted time frame with no one more surprised than I at the incredible aroma wafting from the oven.

Our team mother carried the main course to the pre-set table and we settled down to enjoy our meal. As we placed our napkins on our laps, Mrs. King strolled by our table and, with disappointment in her voice, asked us to stand.

"Do you not realize your food will only be as appealing as your environment?" she gently chided. Peggy King went on to cite research verifying that people ate better and enjoyed food more in pleasant surroundings. We would not be allowed to eat until we delivered a tidy kitchen.

So as the rest of the class ate and our meal cooled, we cleaned. Seething with anger, I again begged. "Please God, help me get out of this class and let me get on with the rest of my life."

And so I did and the years passed.

After leaving THS I found myself following paths I never dreamed I would walk. One of the most rewarding of these was my service as a member of the Bristol Tennessee Board of Education.  I remember the day I visited Central Elementary School with my fellow board members and as I passed the fountain I drank from so long ago, I realized then how small it seemed. The "drowning" that took place there seemed even smaller. Years do have a way of changing perspectives.

Just like the times Mrs. King, when teaching, would walk around the room and occasionally lay a hand on my shoulder as she passed. I, at the time, would stiffen and sit up straighter, thinking she was reminding me of my posture. No, it took me a long time to realize that was just a gentle hand of reassurance. Yes, time does put things in perspective.

And throughout those years I never forgot Peggy King. In fact, I still think of her often when I go shopping. I delight in beautiful clothes and I lean heavily toward the classics. Trendy things seem here today, gone tomorrow and such a foolish investment of hard-earned dollars.

I know quality when I see it. I inspect seams and finger fabrics. If the buttons do not enhance an otherwise perfect outfit, I make a trip to a fabric shop in search of the perfect complement. Though I have been known to buy expensive dress suits I never pay anywhere near the asking price. I know quality but I also know how to find a true bargain. A good friend taught me that long ago.

Even to this day, I cannot help but think of Mrs. King when I prepare a special dinner. I enjoy gathering friends, preparing delicious dishes and setting a pretty table. I learned long ago how to entertain with ease. It goes without saying, when I sit down for dinner, I want my kitchen spic-and-span. I find that I, and my guests, enjoy the meal so much more in pleasant surroundings.

 I will always remember with fondness Mrs. King and the Home Ec class I resisted so long ago. As I faced many of the challenges and opportunities life brought my way, I did so with fewer hesitancies and more confidence because this exceptional teacher chose to expose her students, especially students like me, to a way of life some may never had known.

Isn’t that what teaching is all about?
The things I learned from the regal Peggy King are still tightly woven into the fabric of my everyday existence. Stitch by stitch the lovely, kind and gracious Mrs. King sewed seams that have endured a lifetime.

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