We were no strangers to cold winters, having spent time in the Alps during our years in Switzerland. But I was unprepared for the arcane rules of Massachusetts public elementary schools in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s: girls had to wear skirts or dresses at all times. No matter how fast I walked, how warm my coat, or how thick my tights, in winter the cold weaseled its way in and took hold. Lotte, my German-Jewish grandmother, sent parcels wrapped in brown paper tied with string containing the woolen underwear covers she knitted for me. I had several, but most clearly remember an itchy red pair. In America they seemed comical and embarrassing, but I pulled them on and was grateful for the miniscule amount of added warmth.
For girls, underwear figured prominently in our elementary school gym classes. We wore our school clothes during P.E. There was no problem as long as we were vertical with our feet planted on the ground. But the minute we had to do any kind of gymnastics or climb the ropes, the boys would begin the familiar refrain: “I see London, I see France, I see (name of a girl’s) underpants!” The tune would distract me and make me feel angry, ashamed, and powerless all at once. We hurriedly tugged down our skirts or dresses. Sometimes we tried to execute our somersaults with one hand on each side of our body, holding down the edges of our clothing. It made executing any of these physical feats near impossible. Barbara, a scrawny hardscrabble girl in my class, didn’t give a fig about the boys’ taunts. She had a similarly skinny school-of-hard-knocks twin brother, Leo, who was just like her. Barbara had crooked teeth and limp uncombed hair. Her knees were always skinned and bruised and her nose often needed wiping. But she was great at P.E.: agile, fast, and fiercely competitive, she was hell-bent on excelling at whatever challenge was presented, regardless of her underwear showing. I wished, like Barbara, I didn’t care.
Gym class was, altogether, a hugely unpleasant trial. Although I clearly recall our music teacher, I cannot remember much about our gym instructor. Most days, when the weather was good, we went out to the blacktopped area behind the school where the sun, when it was out, beat down on us mercilessly and balls would roll school-ward due to the considerable slope. The asphalt was cruel to our skin when we fell, instantly gouging up knees, elbows, and hands. When the weather was inclement, we were in the gym, with it’s golden heavily shellacked wood floors, stale air, caged lamps and windows, and high ceilings.
When we had P.E. indoors, rope climbing was a regular activity. Early in grade school I lacked the upper body strength to climb. This suited me fine because rope climbing was a sure-fire way to expose your underwear. Furthermore, the ropes were extremely thick, rough, and uncomfortable against the skin. However, after a year or so I discovered I could ascend if I followed the instructions to loop the rope around one leg and use the other leg and foot to push up. I had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment as the ground receded and I got closer to the gym ceiling. But then the taunting started and my excitement and pride were crushed. I descended quickly, embarrassed, the rope burning my skin.
A frequent accompaniment to gym class was a song that still rings in my ears: “Go you chicken fat go.”* It was offensively upbeat, artificially buoyant, annoyingly persistent, and felt somehow demeaning. The reference to chicken fat made me cringe. I pictured lumps of unsightly yellow globules on my body. Our gym teacher would blare the record at us, directing us to follow along. The exercises seemed endless and I chafed at being told what to do by a recording. Unbeknownst to me, other children around the country were being similarly tortured. I recently discovered that the chicken fat record was distributed to elementary schools across the nation, beginning with John F. Kennedy’s presidency, in an effort to improve physical fitness. Recorded by the star on both stage and screen of “The Music Man” (Robert Preston), I now understand why it grated so much.
Chicken fat had other associations for me. Reba, my Yiddish-speaking grandmother, frequently baked or boiled chicken. The chicken skin was fried in a pan along with some onions until the fat pooled and the skin curled into crunchy browned bits. The yellow mass of solidified fat was stored in a glass jar and coveted; the onions and crunchy bits were similarly hoarded: schmaltz and gribenes, respectively. When we visited, we were plied with a slice of rye bread smeared with schmaltz and a sprinkling of gribenes. It was off-putting and tasty at the same time.
The other day I played the chicken fat recording for my younger son, who is about to go off to college. He was amazed at how poor the lyrics were and how bizarre it sounded. “Is that your trigger?” he asked, then shared “The ‘Pacer Test’ is mine.“ He informed me that we were lucky to have had only 6 minutes of torture as compared with the 20 minute long “Pacer Test” he endured in elementary school. He played the recording for me on his iPhone. I remarked on the odd-sounding accent and intonation of the computer generated voice. He said he always wondered why the test punished those who did well by increasing the speed and duration of the exercise. It was easier, after all, to fail early on and be excluded from the remainder of the activity.
The prohibition against girls wearing pants to school was largely brought to an end by my fellow student and nearby neighbor. The Liebmans lived several houses over from us. They had a white ranch-style home with wrought iron handrails, a narrow and rarely used front porch, an uninspired and heavily clipped front garden, and two children the same age as my brother and me: a daughter Deborah, and a son Robert. Mr. Liebman could frequently be seen on summer weekends sporting Bermuda shorts, a shirt stretched over his large belly, a two day old shadow, and a beer in hand. Mrs. Liebman had, like many of my friends’ moms, an impossibly tall puffy bouffant hairdo and seemed to reside most often in the kitchen. We were friends of a sort with the Liebman siblings: from time to time I played with Deborah and my brother David played with Robert. Occasionally we walked to school together along gender-line duos and once in a blue moon we walked as a trio or foursome. Deborah was brash and daring, wildly self-assured and vocal. Robert, as far as I can remember, was provocative, aggressive, and obnoxious. He bullied Deborah constantly. One day on the way to school Robert was harassing Deborah even more that usual. I told him to stop and he slugged me in the stomach. I reeled back, stunned, and gasped for air. I had never been punched before and, for a few seconds, wondered if I would ever breathe again. After regaining my composure and gingerly prodding my sore stomach, I continued walking to school.
Deborah was endlessly focused on her appearance and very fond of fashion. She wore eye-catching clothes and adorned herself with accessories and make-up that made me feel frumpy. She was inordinately proud and flaunted her latest look. One winter, when we were in fourth grade, Deborah wore pants to school under her skirt. She kept her pants on in class. Along with the other girls, I was aghast at her boldness and simultaneously agog at how downright bizarre she looked. Deborah was promptly called in to see Mrs. Hughes, the principal. None of us ever wanted to be called to the principal’s office. Mrs. Hughes was a very tall, tight-lipped stern older woman with short highly coiffed brown curls and conservative monochrome matching skirt suits. Later that day, Deborah related to us how she had responded when Mrs. Hughes declared Deborah had broken school rules and was not permitted to wear pants: “But I’m wearing a skirt!” she insisted. A flurry of communications from the school to the families ensued. And then it was over, just like that. Girls could wear pants under our skirts or dresses, and in time, could dispense with the skirts and dresses altogether. Deborah turned the tide for us.
* Chicken Fat & Pacer Test
Go You Chicken Fat Go
Lyrics, see school version: http://dmdb.org/lyrics/chicken.fat.html