Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mrs. Brown's School of Dance and Etiquette

Note: The characters are fiction to protect the innocent and guilty alike from untold embarrassment, save where I mention myself. . Anyone however who grew up in Tyler, Texas knows they were there. Mrs. Brown was a real person.

Tyler was a small town that never really realized it was small. As cities go, it was quite prosperous in the fifties and sixties when this author was growing up there. Between oil money, the rose growers and a bulging middle class, it really seemed idyllic if a bit provincial. But even in a smaller place like Tyler, with a population at the time hovering around 50,000, drama could still be found.

There is no greater drama in a growing boy or girl’s life than facing those insane years we call puberty. For Jimmy, it meant the early peach fuzz that would later be called a beard to be shaved off. His voice changing, he stumbled over his own growing feet. He was attracted to girls but had no clue what to say or do. For gay kids like me, the daily torture of showering in the locker rooms after P.E. deathly afraid my body would give away my little secret. On top of it all there was a ferocious pecking order and if you were not at the top in that game of scratching and clawing, then life pretty much sucked anyway.

For Barb, her body was changing too. She was beginning to learn to use makeup. Not only had she grown taller, but her breasts were beginning to bud too. That wasn’t all though. She began to her horror to experience her period. She whispered into the teacher’s ear that first time. Quietly she smiled, and was prepared for such eventualities. What would it have been if she had Mr. Peter’s class that hour? She shuttered at the thought. Every moment was high drama and emotional overload relieved by periodic nervous giggling the occasional shrill scream. During these years, dislike became hate, sorta cute meant OMG GORGEOUS, and there was no superlative too extreme. She and her friends whispered feverishly about this or that boy either in a little huddle nervously looking about just in case, or in long extended telephone conversations. For Janet, it was a bit different as she kept looking at Barb’s face and body and she wanted but, no, that would be wrong. So she just sat quietly as all the others went on about their boyfriends real or imagined.

Amidst all this bedlam of rampant hormones and extreme drama, Tyler Junior High students had one more hurdle to pass. That of course was Mrs. Brown’s School of Dance and Etiquette. The very name still sends shivers through my body in an involuntary flashback to those grim days. This was a fate as demonic and cruel as anyone could face anywhere in the world. Forget Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay and water boarding is over pretty quick anyway. But those classes? They lasted all three years of Junior High.

Here’s how it worked. The class was in a large hall, or it seemed large to us. There were chairs on each side of the wall. The girls all sat on the East Wall, the boys on the West. Each girl was dressed in an appropriately frilly dress, much to the chagrin of Barb who would rather be in jeans given her choice. They were all made up, little ladies preparing for their day to be introduced to the larger society. They whispered nervously to each other. The boys were all dressed up in Sunday finest. Their shiny shoes, perfectly tied ties (Mom had to make sure it was just right) crisp white shirts with starched collars, and suits were in contrast to their nervous scratching and coughing and the look of terror on their faces screaming help me get out of here!

A slim, stern appearing woman immaculately dressed rose, tapping a pointer against the table to get everyone’s attention. I wondered if the pointer was used to keep us in line since clearly there was nothing to point at. I had a vision of her slamming that across somebody’s knuckles. Had she been a nun before coming here?

“My name is Mrs. Brown. We are here to learn basic etiquette and how to dance. Please stand up everyone. She pointed to one of the boys in the class. “Come here. Now how would you ask a lady to dance?”

He stumbled a bit then said, “wanna dance?”

“Nice try, but a gentleman makes a lady feel needed. Approach her,” pointing at the blonde headed girl near the end.

He did. “Now, bend from the waist to a half bow. Everybody watch!” He did so and several of the boys started giggling. “Shut up and pay attention! Now what do you say?”

“Wanna dance?”

“No try this. May I have this dance?”

“May I have this dance?” He stammered.

The girl responded, “Sure!”

Mrs. Brown said, “Complete sentences please. ‘I would love to.’” Okay, no object to the preposition but we didn’t notice. Well I did because I also had Mrs. Lowe's Class of Grammar also and could be a bit of a smart ass from time to time, if only to myself.

She went on. “We’re going to learn several dances in this class. We start with the Foxtrot. Later we will do the jitterbug, the waltz and the cha cha cha.”

The entire class snapped their heads towards her at once. One of the bolder students spoke up. “What about the bop? Or the slow dance? That is what kids are doing now.”

Those dances are vulgar. I am here to teach you proper dances for young ladies and gentlemen.” Instantly she jumped into her first lesson with the fox trot.

Thus began three years of clearly defined hell. Awkward nervous boys dancing with girls they were afraid to even approach outside the class. The stench of nervous perspiration filled the room regardless of deodorant anyone used. Still the classes went on for what seemed forever. The final gathering was a dance at the Rose Gardens. In the hall there was a small pond with goldfish in the center. The boys had to do something to make the event memorable. That was when Jimmy spoke up. “Um, Bill?” Bill was the football hero with enough nerve to fill a hall this size. “I’ve got ten dollars here. You want it?”

“Yeah sure.”

“Well you gotta do something for me first.” Jim whispered in his ear.

A smile crossed his face. After a few dances, the teacher played a waltz. To the music of Strauss, Bill rose and danced with an imaginary partner around the room, circling around the room with this invisible woman. He circled around, closer and closer, then dancing right He through the middle of the goldfish pond. Water splashed everywhere to the beat of one two three one two three! The entire place broke out in laughter and applause. Mrs. Brown was apoplectic, screaming for him to get out of the pond assuring him she would be telling his parents. The dance came to an end, as did Mrs. Brown’s Class of Dance and Etiquette.

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