I heard an incredible story in Florida.
On certain gigs, I work alongside a sewing machine specialist, or “educator.” My portion of the day’s program will include patchwork instruction, design theory, demos, show n’ tell of quilts, discussion about the industry and the shows I host, etc.; the educator shows the good people all the backflips and the loop-the-loops the machines are capable of performing. I sew a lot, but in no way do I know all the marvelous things Babylock sewing machines can do — that’s why the specialist is there.
I love the women who do this stuff. These are lifelong sewists, women who were sewing doll clothes at five, quilts at ten, and made their own clothes — and often their children’s clothes — until it became economically irrational to do so.** Educators are technical masters, true engineers. They could probably figure out how to sew a small house if you asked them to.
Joyce was my educator down in Florida and I liked her a lot. A Wisconsinite, an extremely spry great-grandmother, and an experienced teacher with a Midwest work ethic, Joyce and I easily formed a united front against the unknowns that face you on any gig. We were a good pair and we did a good job.
Driving in Joyce’s white rental car on our second morning together, I asked her when she had started teaching.
“Oh, that’s a good story,” she said. We were passing through cotton fields, deep in the Panhandle.
“When I was in high school,” Joyce said, “I took every home ec or sewing class they offered; the regular classes, the advanced stuff — everything. They made me take woodworking, you know, which was silly. I loved to sew. I like to say I was born with a needle and thread in my hand. By the time I was a senior, I was pretty good.
“The woman who taught home ec was a terrible alcoholic. She would come in in the morning and you could smell the booze on her a mile off.”
“How awful,” I said.
“Yep,” said Joyce, “It was pretty sad. Well, one day, first period, she was in such bad shape she asked me if I would take over for her. I knew the stuff we were doing, so I said sure and I taught the class. After that, she made me a deal.
“She said, ‘Look, kid: you teach my first and second period class, I’ll give you an A the rest of the year, no questions asked.’
“I said that sounded good to me. So that’s just what I did. Miss Knickerbocker^^ would come into school and go straight to the cloak room. We had cloak rooms back then, and she’d go in there where it was nice and dark and she’d sleep it off for a few hours while I taught home ec.”
My eyes were wide as dinner plates.
Joyce laughed. “Isn’t that funny? I taught high school home ec for a year while I was in high school.”
I have thought about this story every single day since she told it to me. I picture that teacher, Miss Knickerbocker, forty-something, once attractive but now really showing wear and tear, stumbling into the school, sucking on peppermints to hide the smell of booze on her breath. I see her in a matching skirt and jacket, maybe a brooch. Oh, Miss Knickerbocker! You are such an uncomfortably fascinating character. I wonder what happened to you.
Thanks to Joyce for the story.
**For several decades, now, it’s been cheaper to buy clothes than it costs to make them yourself, which is a crazy, crazy paradigm shift in our nation’s history so far.
^^I changed this lady’s name.