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By Jane Patten
Back in May, a Florida high school made news when it released its yearbook. To the dismay of at least 80 female students, their photos had been altered to cover the girls’ chests because a faculty member deemed that they were showing too much skin. For women and girls, this is not a new story, for most of us— not matter our age— can recall at least one time when we were shamed for the clothing that covered—or didn’t cover—our bodies in a way someone else deemed appropriate.
I can. It was in my eighth-grade history class in 1967, in a small public school that housed grades 1-12. The class was a large one, at least 35 students, and a surprisingly well-behaved one, who for the most part followed the rules and generally wanted to learn. Our teacher that year was Mr. Johnson, a young man fresh from college, with imposing height, intense eyes, longish hair, a variety of turtlenecks and a guitar. Each day, he breezily covered the curriculum that included note taking and vocabulary so he could at last get to the part of the class we enjoyed most. He’d whip out his guitar, take a seat on top of one of the student desks, and teach us the songs from his college days: Jamacia Farewell, Sloop John B, and our favorite, The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
“Girls,” he’d say, “let’s practice the ‘wi-mo-wehs.’ Guys, you’ve got the ‘bah bum bums.’ Russell, you’re going to play these two chords on the guitar. And I brought my banjo today.” Of course, Mr. Johnson sang the melody, strummed his banjo, and we sang and laughed and basked in this newfound headiness of being in the first year of our teens. This teacher was the greatest one we’d ever had. Funny, smart, talented. If the Kingston Trio wanted to be a quartet, Mr. Johnson could be their guy and would fit right in on an album cover. If he had wanted to make it as a solo artist, we’d gladly sing back up. Never had a teacher been more fun than he. Never had a teacher sat on top of the desks among us. Never had a teacher past third grade taught us songs and made learning them such fun.
Then one winter day, the classroom climate changed from friendly warmth to hostage chill—at least for the girls. “Katie,” Mr. Johnson addressed one of my classmates, “Stand up.” Katie confused, did as she was told. She looked especially stylish that day– turtleneck top and tights in a matching black and white Harlequin design and a bright red pleated mini skirt.
“That’s an interesting outfit you have on, Katie,” Mr. Johnson said. “Now, how about pulling your skirt down and sitting properly so we don’t see all of the outfit, if you know what I mean.” Katie’s face turned as red as her skirt as she quickly sat down. Mr. Johnson began singling out other girls for the same offense, not every day, but often enough that I began to dread the moment he’d stop talking, mid-sentence, as his gaze rested on the legs of a female classmate. It was always the same:
“Debbie, stand up.”
“Bonnie, stand up.”
Each time the girl would stand and adjust her skirt and sit back down. Sometimes the girl giggled throughout Mr. Johnson’s admonishment, but always the girl looked embarrassed or humiliated. The thing is we girls weren’t violating the school’s dress code. The only dress code we were aware of is that we had to wear a dress or skirt to school—no pants, no jeans. It didn’t matter how cold the winter was, it didn’t matter if we wore tights or knee socks with our skirts and dresses, it didn’t matter if we went barelegged. As long as we wore a dress or skirt, we were fine. And miniskirts were in fashion— all females we knew, including our own mothers, wore them. No one had said a thing about our skirt length except for Mr. Johnson.
“Maybe his girlfriend broke up with him” some students speculated.
“Maybe the principal doesn’t like him,” others said.
“Maybe he’s a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.”
Whatever the problem, Mr. Johnson seemed to have changed. Even when he led us in a new song, we wondered if he would humiliate another girl because of her dress.
One late winter day, I sat at my desk in his history class, furiously taking notes for the test the next day. I felt his presence first and stopped writing. There he was, just inches from my desk, hovering over me and looking downward. And there I was, suddenly aware that my legs were crossed, and my short skirt was riding up my thigh. It was my turn. I had not thought what I would do if and when Mr. Johnson’s attention turned to me, but at that moment, my unease in his class turned to indignation. I willed myself to not uncross my legs or to pull my skirt down. When he said, “Janie, stand up,” I answered with a single word.
“I said stand up. You need to pull your skirt down.”
I answered again, “No.”
At that moment, my classmate, Bonnie, called out, “Way to go, Janie! He’s just jealous because his legs don’t look that great!”
The class erupted in loud laughter, and the voices of the girls in my class rang out:
Why are you so interested in our legs, Mr. Johnson?
What’s it to you how we dress?
Why don’t you just teach and keep your eyes to yourself?
Mr. Johnson kept shouting, “Be quiet!” to the class, and “You are insubordinate!” to me. His face became redder and redder as the girls chorused their anger in even louder voices.
Finally, he turned and stomped out of the classroom, slamming the big wooden door so hard that the glass panels rattled. We sat until the bell rang and went to our next class. Nothing else happened.
The next day we entered Mr. Johnson’ s class quietly. He taught history for the whole period— that day and for the rest of the school year. There was no more plucking of the bango, no more strumming of the guitar, and definitely no more Kumbaya.
There was also no more mention of our short skirts, no more orders to stand up, no more apparent interest in what we girls were wearing. As a young teen on the precipice of womanhood and a new era for women, I never articulated to another classmate what had happened the day I was reprimanded by Mr. Johnson. I lacked the maturity to express myself as well as the vocabulary not yet used in 1967. It wasn’t until much later that I understood that I had experienced girl power and sisterhood and the single word “No” that became infinitely more powerful with a loud chorus of support behind it.
For the girls in the Florida school whose yearbook photos were altered: I hope you stick together. I hope you realize that your chests were not the issue. I hope you shout a resounding “no” together.
After retiring and moving to Huntsville, Jane Patten decided to write about her adventures thus far, including growing up in Delaware and her career as a teacher in rural Georgia. Her poetry has been published in Outloud HSV: A Year in Review for 2017, 2018, and 2019.