Friday, April 11, 2008

From the files

Pretty much every single morning of my life from age seven to age eleven I stood in the kitchen in front of my mother as she wielded a large black Mason Pearson hairbrush,* undoing one braid, brushing the hair out with a stern hand and plaiting it very tightly back up, then fastening the end with something we just called "a hair thing" or "hair bobbles" (I have no idea what they are really called--you know, the hard clickety-clackety brightly colored plastic spheres like marbles joined by an elastic band!) before undoing the second one and repeating the process.

As I grew older I sometimes had a single braid instead of those two distinctive plaits, but in seventh grade it was inevitably time to get it cut.

(And I still remember a slightly bizarre conversation the next year in ninth grade--I had skipped eighth grade--with a not very pleasant girl, the possessor herself of two very flyaway blond braids that had perhaps not over the years met with my mother's seal of approval, who commented that it was a good thing I had gotten my hair cut, since people were already jealous enough of me for having skipped a grade! Which was a very strange moment, because it had quite simply never occurred to me--despite various after-school-care-type scenes of random girls enthusiastically running their hands through my temporarily undone hair and sort of gloating over it!--that anybody would particularly like or admire such hair, it was just a thing, I was in a non-essential relationship to it. It was hair! Who cared about it?!?)

My mother is retiring this June, after teaching at Germantown Friends School for thirty years. My brothers and I grew up in that school, even more than one might ordinarily be said to grow up in school; I feel myself to be very much shaped by its ethos and curriculum, in all sorts of ways but especially because of the quite magical approach to elementary-school teaching that characterized my years in the Lower School.

In second grade, I was in love with the animals in the school science room. In third grade, my Jane Goodall obsession came into full force and I fantasized about an adult life of studying chimpanzees in Africa. (And wrote a lot of stories.) I was also always and from start to finish a maniacal and wildly enthusiastic filler-out of pages in math workbooks!

But in fourth grade, the full magic of history and literature began to possess me by way of a very rich and integrated curriculum built around the study of ancient Greece. I had already been in love for some time with the D'Aulaires' book of Greek myths, but I plunged into the study of ancient Greece that year with utter love and fervor. I read and wrote stories about it (and I seem to remember laboring over a papier mache head of Medusa that I built over a frame of chicken wire in the sink in the pantry at home!), I became obsessed with Heinrich Schliemann and the excavation of Troy (my affections moved from anthropology to archeology, indeed I would soon be spending more time reading about early hominids than about living great apes!), I learned the words dendrochronology and isthmus.

(I consoled myself for the certain foreknowledge that I would not acquit myself particularly well in any of the track and field events at "Greek Day" with the fact that I got to read out loud a Prayer to Dionysus written by me in the style of the Greeks...)

One of my mother's colleagues, also retiring this spring, was recently cleaning out her files and found this photograph.

We are in the art room stenciling patterns onto our chitons. . .

* ED. Has memory played me false? I may have mentally suppressed the possibility that the hairbrush was actually PINK...


  1. Hi Jenny, My (best) friend Becca has been talking about you for years, I've read your triathalon blog with awe (since I'm contemplating running one) and I'm eager to read you book. Today I figured out that I actually know you and taught you at GFS!!! Small world! What an impressive person you are! Kathy Schultz

  2. Kathy! Becca just e-mailed me to fill in the connection--that's amazing... I think very fondly of that year, it was great--another detail I did not mention was reading out loud a piece in assembly about why we should vote for Carter--because he supported the ERA!

  3. My own daughter is starting kindergarten (in California) in the fall, and will probably be going to a public elementary school in town that everyone describes as "magical." When I visited, I found myself deeply, deeply happy at the thought of her going there, because of how much it reminded me -- in feel and look -- of GFS. And D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths has taken over her imagination at least as much as it took over mine when we were in Miss Corson's clas ...