One afternoon in the sixth grade, all the girls in my class were sent to the cafeteria for a special, one-time class whose topic was a secret. We’d already had the men-stroo-ation talk, so why the mystery?
The lunchroom chairs were arranged in rows. The teacher of the class was the mother of one of our classmates, who stood before us in a crisp yellow dress, hair teased and swept up like a movie star, with pink lipstick and white patent leather sandals. When we were all seated, she introduced herself and explained that the thing she was going to teach us this:
How To Behave Like Young Ladies.
We were silent except for one or two incredulous snorting sounds. In the era of “Whole Lotta Love” and Billie Jean King, the “ladylike” concept was retro, laughable, and a waste of time, even to 12-year-olds in Southern Arizona.
But not to me.
I was voracious for this information. I could barely hide it. I affected an eye-rolling face like all the other girls, but inwardly! Inwardly I clung to every word she said, imprinting on her wisdom like a baby duck. Or a wolf. A gangly wolf that comes to school in the same dirty human clothes every day and yearns to be included among the humans.
I was weird. My family was weird. Role modeling was not entirely happening at home, what with the never-ending vortex of trouble and inattention that flowed from my mother’s alcoholism. I had no idea how to be a lady. My way of playing dress up back then was to pull the thin hypotenuse of cardboard from a coat hanger and light it on fire, gesturing grandly with my “cigarette,” ordering people around in a New York accent and demanding a “drink.”
So this is what I learned in the cafeteria that day:
- A young lady is naturally beautiful. Instead of cosmetics, her makeup kit is a) good sleep, b) nutritious food, c) plenty of water, and d) a smile. On very special days, she can apply a dot of petroleum jelly to her lips and eyelashes to make them shine. But the beautiful colors already in her features are exactly the right colors.
- A young lady’s good posture tells the world that she is somebody. You can practice good posture by walking with a book on your head. You should do this every day, until the posture is second nature.
- When you sit in a skirt (and remember, they were often short back then), don’t flop down in the chair, knees everywhere. Gather the back of your skirt with your ring and pinky fingers, and lightly drop onto the edge of the seat, then (still sitting straight) scoot back. Keep your knees together. Cross your ankles if you like.
For years, we laughed about this odd, one-time class, crossing our ankles and making snide remarks, and I went along with the joke. It’s easy to laugh at things like modesty, decorum and etiquette when you are already steeped in them, when you grew up with parents who made you wash your hands and brush your teeth and eat with a knife and fork and come home at night. It’s easy to think that the right thing to do is obvious to everyone, when ordinary politeness has been taught so well it flows from you naturally — even when you’re angry, even when you’re hurt.
God bless the wise woman in the crisp yellow dress, who stood before me and the others who needed her — like normalcy, like sunshine itself. There ought to be a bracelet: WWTWITYDD? In my imagination I’ve called upon her 1000 times. Help yellow-dress lady, I’ve lost everything! Or What do I say yellow dress lady, I’ve totally humiliated myself! And from somewhere inside me she tells me how to act, how to get through things and stand up straight again. I’m the slightly feral version of her, but I’ve been practicing a long time. It’s starting to be that I can share how it’s done.
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