After a year of purely academic curriculum, we had to get down to the serious matter of how to become a woman or a man. There was some cursory sex education – a film ‘A sister for Susan’ – which seemed to miss out many of the salient points. We were never allowed to see ‘Growing Up’, even though it was made in Birmingham. The film included masturbation scenes and became a cause célèbre. Fully cognisant of the dangers of idle hands, our school distracted us with manual labour: woodwork and metalwork for the boys, and needlework and Home Economics for us girls. These practical subjects were the real key to our development into correctly gendered adults.
So we started with needlework and were introduced to the instruments of torture: Simplicity patterns that were never simple, sewing machines that were strangely recalcitrant one minute and zooming out of control the next, rulers, tracing paper, pins, needles. Our first task was to make an apron out of cotton gingham in the colour of the House we belonged to. Despite its socialist aspirations our Comprehensive could not resist the model of the Grammar or even Public School, and so every pupil belonged to one of four Houses: Severn whose colour was cheerful red and whose members excelled on the stage and sports field; Mersey, cool blue and basking in the glory of association with The Beatles and Cilla Black; Thames, sunny yellow, with all the splendours of Oxford and London beckoning; and last, in everything, my House, sad green Trent. While the other Houses held assemblies in the main building, where civilised Humanities subjects were taught, Trent’s base was the science block, also the location of the main school toilets. The Housemaster’s rallying cries, the quotations from Kipling, all fell on deaf ears, since our noses were assailed by the evil combination of rotten egg fumes from the Chemistry labs, the odours of the boys’ urinals, and the lingering stench of burning from the sanitary towel incinerators. I so fervently longed to be in Severn with my best friend Janet that sometimes I broke the rules and fled to the pure air and uplifting ambiance of the Severn assembly. But in needlework there was no escape, our teacher Mrs Wallimara had a list, so green gingham was my lot, and my badge of shame. The aprons were mostly machine stitched, with embroidered decoration on the pocket and bib. After several weeks of laborious hemming and decorative cross stitch, we emerged like checked butterflies, ready to be released into the kitchen.
The first few Home Economics classes were a lot less taxing than needlework. First of all there was quite a lot of drawing and copying – the diagram of the perfectly balanced meal, collages of fish and eggs and meat cut out of magazines, to illustrate protein. When finally we started cooking Mrs Wallimara seemed to have the measure of our capabilities: week 1 – tea and toast, week 2 – scrambled eggs on toast, week 3 – poached eggs. So far, so good, especially as we were allowed to eat the results. Then Mrs Wallimara tired of toast and leapt forward in the syllabus to the complexities of shortbread, fruit cobbler and Victoria sponge. We had to lug baskets of ingredients into school, along with our satchels and P.E. kit, and then lug the baked goods home again to our admiring or long-suffering families. Getting a basket full of fruit cobbler and your satchel upstairs on the school bus with the boys down below leering and jeering and trying to catch a glimpse of your knickers was no mean feat. Despite this, cookery had its – mostly sugary – satisfactions. Just as we were getting the hang of it, Mrs W. switched us back on to sewing. We were to make a simple, sleeveless summer blouse, and to this end Mrs W. took our measurements, commenting as she did so on our state of development. The more curvaceous girls received an approbatory smile, and sometimes a discussion of bra sizes, while the rest of us were condemned by a resounding ‘Not much here’ or ‘here’s a flat one’. The resulting garment was forever tainted with this humiliation, and soon consigned to the rag bag.
The apron, on the other hand, proved indestructible, and has accompanied me to every kitchen I have cooked in since. It has the status of a relic, as if the soul of the girl who made it has left its trace on the checked fabric, now thin with age, and another, deeper pattern lies under the cross-stitched initials, etched out in green and white sylko.
Christina Daniels says
Awww you know I have been there …lovely you still have the GREEN APRON to keep those memories alive…I loved the material gingham as it was called. THAMES here so YELLOW…Trent Stairs I so know what you mean there, as my final last 5th year was top classroom for 5N with Mr Sanderson for our form teacher. Yes we also knew those stairs were a loser. MR Sanderson was head of science then and a lovely man but we smelt bad eggs every day ! When I eventually found the boyfriend that was for keeps I was so glad, I knew how to cook cheese on toast and a cup of coffee…..the skirt I had made after the apron was long gone but the nighty was still being worn ….the little book given out after the film seemed exciting to me at the time but never came in that useful funny enough….You have brought it all back so thanks especially my open cane basket up and down the stairs and safely home on the school bus…xxx
Lyn Thomas says
So glad to hear you share these memories Christina. I was in Mr Sanderson’s form too one year – and yes he was very kind…which sort of made up for being in the science block!
Yes I remember my baked egg custard pie sliding out of my basket , turned upside down in the playground floor, and taking home the pastry case!
Lyn Thomas says
Yes!! Egg custard – I had forgotten that one! Thank you for reminding me Dot…
Imogen Taylor says
I loathed ‘Domestic Science’ was this a feature of there still being Grammar Schools? There was certainly nothing scientific about it but at age 14 there was a drastic sorting out of girls into General Science and Domestic Science. To my horror, I was put in the Dom Sci group and it is the only time I remember my parents going to my school to complain about a decision. I was moved to the General Science group and my Father coached me in maths to try and ensure I managed the O Level ( I did thankfully as I needed it for university).
I hated Dom Sci, particularly needlework. The teacher was very large and frightening, I was useless at sewing and I had difficulty getting my Mother to help me buy the materials needed – she thought it was a waste of time and I agreed. I remember gingham, cross stitch and a pin cushion! Cookery was taught by another much kinder teacher but I have few memories of our achievements there.
Our teachers were all women, mostly ‘spinsters’ who seemed quite middle aged and ‘frumpy’, other than the gym and games teachers. As role models they were committed to the arts, subjects that I did well in. My maths and science owes nothing to that school and to that extent it was gendered.
Lyn Thomas says
Thank you for this Imogen. Extraordinary that you were put into domestic science….and thank goodness your parents intervened. Maths was a great struggle for me – very badly taught. I scraped through the ‘O’ level thank goodness as like you I needed it to go to University…
Probably our teachers were quite different as I was at a comp – more on that later…
And I still have the pin cushion!!
Margaret Davis says
Oh Lyn I was back there again! I was in Severn and Mr Newman was our Housemaster, for my first year, then I think Mr Palin and finally John Lloyd (bless him) who was also my form teacher in U6. We had Dave Jones in L6, in the January of that year we built a snowman on his desk during lunch break, sadly he knew exactly who to blame. I too made the apron which finally went to that great apron city in the sky in about 1999! Good stuff that gingham. Mrs Walligora was formidable when I was young but became a great and dear friend after I left school.
I remember vividly the vile smell of Trent staircase and how we used to see if we could make it to the biology lab, from the door to the covered way, without having to breathe!
I count myself lucky that, having married a member of staff, I got to know many of my old teachers in a completely different context. Truth to say some only went on to confirm my opinions whilst others became good friends. So sad to see so many go too young. Mike Crowther, Bill Leach, Phyl Lewer, John Lloyd, Sir Godfrey, Bert Hill, John MacGregor, the lovely gentle RE teacher Jane Hewitt and my own John Matthews. All incredible people who helped make Regis great and a place I hold very dear to my heart.
Lyn Thomas says
Thank you Margaret. Very interesting to hear another perspective on all of this, and I totally agree that we were very lucky with those teachers. I am so grateful to them.
I adore your apron! At least it was the green you liked when you had that lovingly hand knitted cardi. We had to make an apron, too and mine was purple. The band decorating it had to be printed with our own design which in my case was a green circle with an orange dot in it, or maybe the other way round. Orange circles rule my life. My sister probably still has her apron but I think mine eventually got too stained, sadly.
I had a terrible argument with my sewing teacher when we had to sew a large jeans fabric bag with a letter on it. I wanted it to be the letter A (because of a certain boy called Andreas) but she said it had to be my initial. I did not want to tell her about my crush, so tried to convince her that putting a letter A on it was a simply fashion statement (if I had known the term Pop Art, I would have used it). No luck, and so letter S it was – in orange of course (as was the lining).
Lyn Thomas says
Thank you so much for this comment Saskia, and for sharing your memories triggered by the piece…