I spent second-grade in the Potter School for sick and frail kids, and by the end of the year, I thought it had been good for me.
Taxis took me to and from school, and the cabbies I liked were the guys who let me ride in front so that I could see out and chat during the 15-minute trip. However, maybe in self-defense, some put me in the back seat and I rode in silence. We often arrived before the students who came in small busses, so I could play with other early children on the see-saw or swings before we went to class.
The trip and the play were a relaxing way to start my morning.
Potter School Clothing
In the picture of my classmates, a few things about the Potter dress code are obvious. We all had hats, hoods, scarfs, or earmuffs. Having any part of our head covered was good enough.
I would have liked any option other than my felt tam hat, but it came with the coat and other used school clothes that Mom purchased from a stylish friend who had a daughter a year older than me. Mom thought the tam belonged with the fashionable coat and drew attention from the coat’s missing button. As I ran and played on the schoolyard, I thought earmuffs would be niftier than a hat that kept falling from its lofty perch, but Mom mentioned something about earmuffs not complimenting my face.
To emphasize it’s importance, Mom had me practice placing the tam on my head while standing in front of a mirror. By the time that photo was taken, I’d gotten the cockeyed look down pat.
All the girls who went to the Potter school had to wear thick cotton hose when it was cold. Looking at the group picture, some girls look like they only had on anklets, but Potter girls often wore anklets over long nude-colored stockings so that when you looked in the mirror, you felt like a typical kid.
Of course, there weren’t any tights back at mid-century, so our hose had to be held up by a garter belt. But if you were a skinny kid, you weren’t built to hold up a regular garter belt, so you got one that went over your shoulders like a harness. There were straps and adjustments all over the thing to make sure it worked well with a slip and undershirt that we were also required to wear. My stockings were hitched high so that bare legs didn’t show under my skirt while low enough for me to pull down my underpants and pee without getting anything wet.
It all took practice, but finally, I got life working almost without incident.
Since the Potter School was being evaluated on how much weight we gained, they were into fattening us up, and I loved every bit of it.
My preschool years had been spent eating food designed to make me a perfect specimen of childhood. Wasted sweets weren’t on Mom’s list–even for my Grandmothers’ treats.
At Potter, we had morning snacks that always included sugar. My favorite was buttered whole-wheat toast with hot cocoa. Some of the cooks delivered the toast sliced in diagonals that were perfect for dipping.
I loved that soggy mess!
Another Soggy Mess
Schoolwork was boring, but I seemed to be making progress with the worksheets. When I started school, I was placed in the primary room, but then I heard that I would be moving over to the next class. That teacher was rumored to be stricter, so I worried.
The desks in the new classroom were arranged in columns with an aisle for the teacher to walk down the middle. I was assigned the second desk on the third column and right next to the teacher’s walkway so that it would be easy for her to keep an eye on me.
Unlike in the primary room, this teacher had strict schedules for bathroom breaks. Early on I found myself in need of peeing when it wasn’t my posted time. But this was a strict teacher who had a schedule, and she knew that I’d never learn to manage if she reinforced me for not sticking with the program. So she pointed to the schedule and motioned for me to sit right where I was.
I’d like to say I peed in the class to be rebellious, but I just lost it as I stood in the middle of the teacher’s walkway trying not to hold my crotch while I softly begged for a chance to go. The warm liquid went down my legs, and along the way, the panties, the hose, the slip, the lacy anklets, and my shoes weren’t enough to stop it from puddling onto brown asbestos floor tiles.
As my mortification brought hushed gasps from other students, I was quickly ushered into the classroom bathroom where I waited for someone to help me out of my wet clothes—right down to that garter harness. A blanket swaddled me as the helper took my clothes and then brought library books for entertainment as things dried out.
As I sat wrapped and warm, I realized that peeing might have been a good thing. Students may tease me, but they would probably be nice because they were glad that it didn’t happen to them.
When my clothes were dry enough, I was sent back into the classroom–an apprehensive kid with scrawny legs stuck in almost dry shoes. The students smiled kindly as I took my place in the third column of desks.
Indeed, it seemed the flood of pee had smoothed my way into the new class, and I concluded the soaking was well worth the embarrassment.
Fresh Air schools provided naps in solariums after lunch. These airy rooms were often chilly as we settled down for rest on assigned cots. Our wool blankets and eyeshades were government issues and predictably sterile.
My assigned cot was right next to a brick wall. I loved the security of the bricks because my bed at home was stuck out in my room where it would be obvious if I tried to pick the wallpaper.
At school, there were nap monitors, so there wasn’t much margin for sneaky activity anyway.
I was already good at feigning sleep because before I started kindergarten, napping for at least 90 minutes was a big issue with my Mom. She always checked on me, and if she caught me not sleeping, she added extra time to my nap. I couldn’t sleep so I learned to stay very still and drool on my pillow to fake her out.
The nap monitor would have nothing on my mother.
In the solarium, when I pulled on my eyeshades, the blackness became a theatre, and the shows I directed were always a welcome relief from reality. I pretended I was on a kid version of Queen for a Day and could tell my made-up story of hardship. I was excited as the audience voted for me, and imagined where my gifts could take me. And when I didn’t win, I knew how to act like a good loser.
With the screen before my eyes, I could forget I was a sickly kid who went to school in a taxi and did mimeographed worksheets to try and learn. There was no worry that my foster brother would wake me up to give him icky pleasure that I didn’t understand. He had been chastened and the wake-ups had stopped, but his presence at home was an ongoing reminder of grossness.
Consequences for teen boys and expectations for little girls were very different in those days. I couldn’t forget, but in my worry-free theater, I was a kid with imaginations and stories that usually had happy endings, and I started moving forward.
The darkness became a comforting friend.
During my year, I gained weight and had only common illnesses like colds and the chickenpox. I was a Potter School success story, and so I would be off to Irvington Elementary for third grade.
I was ready to ditch the garters and become a regular kid.
Photos of the Potter School cafeteria and solarium are used with the permission of the Indian State Library.