She was a force that didn’t tolerate resistance, especially if it was obvious you weren’t going to win. So, when she announced, quite suddenly, I was going to a southern girls’ school for my upcoming senior year in high school the decision was not arguable, try as I did.
Mother had several good reasons for her insistence :
- She thought it best for me to have at least one year of focused study under my belt before entering an institute of higher learning, since I had drifted through the past 11 years thinking school was a social experience rather than an educational one
- She wanted me to have a taste of southern culture with the hope that some of the rough edges would be smoothed out,
- And her main reason (drum roll please)…
She wanted me far away from that pimply faced boy I was dating, fearing I would marry before I was 45. What better way to break up a relationship than 947 miles and 10 months of separation?
- I had a year of social activities already planned, i.e. drum major of the band, class officer, very few required classes
- I’d never been to Mississippi
- I’d never been to a girls’ only school, and most importantly,
- I probably couldn’t wear jeans to class
I knew nothing about the Deep South, its strong mores, its rich history, its unspoken traditions, so I was ill prepared for the restrictions placed on a teenage girl by the rules of a southern ‘finishing’ school.
It quickly became clear that the intent of the facility was to make ‘southern belles’ of each student, even though by 1960 there was little demand for such refined young ladies. But the faculty and staff hadn’t realized the end was in sight, so they diligently insisted we wear stockings and dresses to all meals and classes, no gum chewing or using toothpicks in public, daily formal meals, Sunday teas with a reception line, and of course, chaperoned dating.
To clarify, ‘stockings’ in the South did not mean bobby socks,but rather those dreadful nylons that were secured with a garter belt usually attached to a girdle. As sexy as it looks, this is not a fashion statement that needs to be revived.
My biggest challenge, aside from the dress code, was learning to eat fried chicken with a knife and fork. My first few attempts raised eyebrows when the tasty morsel landed on the floor. I soon learned the technique, and to this day I find it almost impossible to nibble on a chicken breast held in my hand.
There were a few other niceties I picked up in that year:
- A restaurant cannot be considered first class if a butter knife is not placed at each setting
- When passing a salt and/or pepper shaker, it must be placed on the table before the next person picks it up
- The head of the table fills each plate and passes it to the person on her/his left who passes it to the person on her/his left until it reaches a person who doesn’t have a plate.
- Pitiful describes persons who were not born in the south
- It’s difficult to imitate a true Southern drawl
I know some of these things were customs in high society even in the North, but most of us in Littlefield, Texas had never heard of these practices. My family came from Oklahoma, so ‘earthiness’ better described our culture.
I look back on my year in the Deep South as an adventure, a learning experience, and a gift. Just think, I’d be picking my teeth right now without those strict rules, or worse, I’d be sticking my gum on the bottom of a chair.
My mother didn’t care about the lessons I learned, she was just grateful that the boy I was dating had married someone else by the time I returned to my ‘unfinished’ friends.