Life Among the Savages

In her memoir of young family life, Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson tells the story of the outsize influence of a child’s first grade teacher. We get a delicious profile of her daughter Jannie’s Mrs. Skinner:

We had been exposed to Mrs. Skinner from about the third day of school, when Jannie came home with a mimeographed sheet of paper containing her instructions for conduct in the first grade; she was not, I noted from the paper, to come to school with dirty fingernails, broken shoelaces, or odorous lunches. She was to wear dresses or skirts. (“Mrs. Skinner says girls wearing pants are vulgar.”) Her hair was to be cut short or braided, her socks matching, and no pins were to be in evidence. (“How about a dental plate for that missing front tooth?” I asked impolitely, and Jannie smiled at me with sweet tolerance.) She was not to wear jewelry (vulgar) or earmuffs. If she intended to visit anyone after school, or to sniffle moderately (immoderate or obtrusive sniffling was not countenanced) or to require a container of milk with her lunch, she was to bring a note. If her shoes needed soling, or she squinted at the blackboard, or created a disturbance during Songtime, Mrs. Skinner would send a note back. No parent was, under any circumstances whatsoever, for any reason up to and including absolute national emergency, to visit the classroom at any time except—Mrs. Skinner’s unwilling bow to the school authorities and their tyranny—during Parent’s Visiting Week. Children were not encouraged to discuss their home life at school.

Mrs. Skinner is quite the Svengali. Jannie begins to parrot her.

“A girl,” [Jannie] told me, “who does not keep herself clean is unwomanly.”

What choice did her mother have but to sling it right back?

“Talking about being clean is vulgar,” I told her nastily.

I laughed with recognition at this dilemma of parenthood. An obedient child is a good thing, right? But why is it never so simple? These moments of be-careful-what-you-wish-for are maddening. Having a co-conspirator in a spouse can lighten the tension.

My husband and I flipped a coin—secretly, because money is vulgar and gambling is unwomanly and our expressed opinions were, to say the least, unsanitary—to decide which of us would stop by during Parent’s Visiting Week and beard Mrs. Skinner.

Her husband loses the toss. But he does get the last laugh. When Jannie wonders what dad and Mrs. S discussed, he shuts down the inquiry:

“Curiosity,” he said, “is unwomanly.”

Mic drop, as we would say in modern times.

I think I would like this Mrs. Skinner. It’s her classroom and she has a comprehensive plan for law and order. No immoderate sniffling. Amen. At my college, we have an ongoing, and sometimes heated, discussion about odorous lunches. Mrs. Skinner has settled that debate and can focus on the business of learning.

I don’t regulate hair and nails. But I do not allow students to use their electronic devices, perhaps an offense they consider on par with squinting at the blackboard. Electronic devices in the classroom are vulgar, to say the least. And if not unwomanly, then definitely ungentlemanly, in the broadest sense!

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