How Joyce Learned To Sew: A Truly Scandalous Tale

posted in: Day In The Life, Story 14
Classroom, 1943. Photo: Wikipedia, via National Archives and Records Administration.
Classroom, 1943. Photo: Wikipedia, via National Archives and Records Administration.


I heard this totally true tale some years ago. Heaven knows why it came back to me today; sometimes you just remember things and isn’t that lucky?

Out on a gig in Florida, I met a woman I’ll call Joyce. She was in her late fifties, I’d say. We had a few hours in a car together, driving out to Pensacola past the blooming cotton fields, just 30 miles or so in from the coast. We liked each other right away. In these kinds of situations (okay, in most situations) I’d rather learn about someone else’s life than talk about my own, so I unofficially interviewed Joyce as we drove along. Of course, one of the first questions I asked her was how she learned to sew. Joyce was very good at sewing, you see.

She chuckled. “Well, I’ll tell you the real story, Mary, because I like you. I don’t always go into it because it’s really very sad.”

I leaned forward in my car seat. (Not like, a baby car seat. I was in a normal car seat.)

“Neither my mother or grandmother did much sewing, so I sewed my first stitch in high school,” she said. “I took a home economics class* my freshman year. The cooking lessons and so forth, that was okay, I guess, but I just loved the sewing. Took to it right away. Before long, I was making all my clothes and clothes for my friends.”

“The woman who taught all the home economics classes was a nice woman and a good teacher in her way, but — and this is the terrible part — she was… Well, she was a drinker. A terrible alcoholic, you know, and she would come into the classroom in the morning, even in the middle of the day, smelling like liquor. She lived alone, I seem to remember. It was terrible, really sad.”

“Oh, Joyce!” I said.

“So, by the time I got to the end of sophomore year — it might’ve even been earlier than that — I had gotten so good at sewing and making clothes and home things, you know, like curtains and ironing board covers and all that, I was helping the other girls quite a bit. Well, one afternoon, she asked me if I would teach the class for her.”

“She was drunk?” I asked, my eyes big.

“She didn’t come out and say that, of course, but oh, she was in terrible shape. And that was how it started: I ended up teaching all the sewing lessons in the home economics classes my entire junior and senior year…while she slept in the coat closet.”

My mouth hung open.

“Joyce,” I said, “You’re telling me you taught two years of high school economics classes as a high school student while your teacher slept it off in the coat room??”

“That’s right.”

“Didn’t anyone say anything??”

Joyce shook her head. “No one said anything. We were having fun and turning her in just didn’t seem kind, I guess. She was a nice woman.”

“No wonder you’re so good sewing,” I said, trying not to stare.

“Oh, I’ve still got plenty to learn. But it’s true that if I was good at sewing before all that, I got better fast, having to have my lesson plans ready,” Joyce laughed. “Anyway, that’s how I learned to sew.” She paused. “But I usually just say I learned in high school.”

Wherever you are, Joyce, thanks for the story. And wherever you are, Home Economics Teacher, I hope you’re in a better place.


*This field of study is formally called Family and Consumer Science, but Joyce used the term “home economics classes” when she told me the story, so I’m going with that. 

14 Responses

  1. Dee
    | Reply

    I the 70’s it was called I Home Ec or Home Economics, at least in MN

    • Cindy Frederickson
      | Reply

      You’re right, Dee, it was formally called Home Economics back in the 70s. i lived in South Dakota.

  2. Kelly Ashton
    | Reply

    Yep: Home Economics (“Home Ec”) in the 70’s in NE, too.
    I also learned to sew in “Home Ec”. No tipsy teacher, though.
    What a story!!! Bless Joyce!!

  3. Shermie
    | Reply

    What a story! I took my home economics courses in the ’60’s and that’s what it was called in IL also. For those of us that loved our sewing, teaching it would hav made it even more interesting I think! Sad for the teacher, for sure., but she was still able to impart her joy of sewing to Joyce. Thanks for sharing, as always!

  4. Kathryn Darnell
    | Reply

    Now THS was a drive in Florida! So glad you got to hear her sewing tale. Yep, she liked you!

  5. Kristina
    | Reply

    I took Home Economics in high school in the early 1980s in Spokane, Washington, from one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Cromer. Iwas so much fun and she was so awesome that I went on to become her T.A. during my junior and senior years. I wonder when they stopped calling it Home Ec? They didn’t even offer it at my daughter’s high school (circa 2011-2014).

  6. Ellee
    | Reply

    My high school home ec teacher was so incompetent that she didn’t make tenure. She was exasperating in her excessive demands for perfection — anything less than perfection was failure. She reeked of insecurity. I learned absolutely nothing from her. My best teachers unquestionably were my classmates.

  7. Mariaa
    | Reply

    I took the class in high school in the 70’s in TX and it was called Home Economics. Mary this was a great story.

  8. Jody
    | Reply

    It was Home Ec as well for me in Ohio. In high school it was separate cooking and sewing classes.

  9. Shannan Sabby
    | Reply

    It was Home Ec in the 80s too (MN). My Home Ec teacher is retired now but we are friends on Facebook and she comments on all my quilts that I post. She’s very proud to be the one who taught me to sew.

  10. Alicia
    | Reply

    I went to high school in Maine in the late 80’s and it was still called Home Ec.

  11. Summer
    | Reply

    I was one of those bookish kids and took all the science classes that were offered at my high school. Now that I’ve had a little more world experience, I wish I had taken home economics (yes, that’s what it was called early 90s) and not psychology (which has never been useful to this day!). I did trial and error with cooking in college, and the results are partly why I was a vegetarian for about 10 years! Now that I’m quilting and sewing bags and pillows, I really think I shouldn’t have been so intellectually snobbish about home ec. I would’ve learned some very valuable life skills!

  12. Debby K.
    | Reply

    In the 60’s it was also called Home Ec. In New Berlin, WI.
    My mom taught me how to sew the summer before my Freshman year. She told me she would purchase all my materials if I learned how to sew. With the extra instructions from my Home Economics teacher, I was making lined suits. My mom stopped buying material and I had start babysitting to earn my sewing material money.

  13. Neame
    | Reply

    Great story, Mary! The undercurrent of kindness and sweetness in this story that is very affecting. I suppose that today that teacher would be run out of town on a rail Yes, she was remiss, but needed help more than anything else. I, too, hope she is in a better place today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *