Monday, 23 February 2009
No Charm School Charmer
When I graduated high school in 1957 at the age of 17, my parents were reluctant to send me away to college for fear that I would get even “wilder” than they already thought I was.
I wasn't really wild – I mean, I did date a guy with a motorcycle. I did once stay out until 2AM sitting on the curb talking with a boy I knew who had just run away from boarding school. I did come home a little drunk several times. Well, I guess I can see why my folks were worried.
So they enrolled me in the John Robert Powers Charm School on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and I spent three days a week that summer before leaving home getting my rough edges polished. I took the commuter train from Yonkers, dressed 50s appropriately in stockings, heels, a dress and white gloves. No white shoes, however. These were not considered appropriate for city wear, even in the summer.
There were several other girls my age in my charm school class, but the only two I remember are a slim, athletic and naturally attractive girl from Darien, Connecticut, and a short, ill-proportioned, homely girl who lived in a grand manor on the Long Island Sound. I know that because the wealthy girl invited the other two of us to a party at her house. She came to pick me up in a limo and asked me and the other girl to stay overnight.
Coming from a middle class family, I was pretty overwhelmed by the family portraits on the walls, the tennis courts overlooking the Sound, the maid who served us breakfast in the morning, the rugs that seemed as soft as pillows. I don't think the girl from Darien was as impressed; I think she came from a similar background.
I had nothing in common with those two girls, but for three days a week for six weeks, we helped each other get through the training that each of us was being forced to endure because our parents felt we had something lacking.
We had elocution lessons from a dramatically made-up young woman (probably an aspiring actress) who had us repeat “the little bottle is on the metal table” and “the man ate a ham sandwich” to train our ears and tongues away from our New York City area accents.
We learned to put on a fur coat without elbowing anyone nearby (I have never owned a fur coat). We learned how to sit on the edge of a chair with our ankles crossed and how to gracefully get up and down from sitting on the floor without exposing anything private.
We learned how to style our hair, what clothes we looked best in, and how apply makeup. And, yes, we learned to walk with a book balanced on our heads. I still have the ring binder with notes and pictures that I cut from magazines to illustrate what I was learning.
Most interestingly, for me, we learned how to enter and exit a room like Loretta Young did at the beginning and end of her television series in the 50s. (I have made use of that technique many times.) The trick is to never turn you back on the people in the room. The swirling skirts give it that extra flair.
I never kept in touch with those two girls whom I met in charm school. I imagine that the girl from Connecticut wound up marrying a doctor or a lawyer and continued to play tennis. I thought often of the girl from Larchmont-on-the-Sound, for whom no amount of learned charm could change her acne or large nose or her odd shape. I still wonder how her life went. Maybe her parents made her get plastic surgery. Maybe she grew into a strong, self-aware woman who took control of her own life. Maybe she became a therapist who helps other awkward young women discover who they are and want to be.
As for me, I went away to college and I rarely went back home except for Christmas. I even stayed on campus over the summers and took courses. I stayed out late, drank, partied and procrastinated. I wrote poetry, danced in musicals, joined a sorority, was feature editor of the school paper and graduated. I stayed through graduate school.
I found that I rarely used any of the techniques I learned in the John Robert Powers Charm School. And when I did, it usually was to get a laugh.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]