Charmed & Dangerous
Junior High. The Who am I? Where do I fit in? hell on Earth. The dark chasm between the pleasant memory of grade school and the hope of high school. A blessed time of abundance and bounty—of oil, on the skin and in the hair. Pimples, periods, and armpit odor. Feet that grew so quickly they couldn’t step without tangling around one another. Emotional havoc, exploding hormones, the whole social lion’s den.
But in my eyes, I had it harder than most. It was the dawn of the ’70s, and as Preacher Arnold’s youngest daughter, I competed for attention, not just with two older sisters but with Dad’s boss (God) and his Greenwood church. I rebelled by making it my one goal to establish myself as an individual, cooler than—and separate from—my parents.
Too young for Woodstock, not old or brave enough to move to New York, I settled for dropping off of the honor roll, upgrading lunch tables to sit with older kids who smoked cigarettes and knew how to acquire beer, and perfecting the fine art of raccoon-heavy black eyeliner. I secretly pierced my ears, which I hid with my long, stringy, middle-parted hair, and established a system for skipping Sunday school without getting caught: After dilly-dallying over my toast, I would claim the final time slot in the lone family bathroom, avoiding my mother Maggie’s radar until she panicked, banging on the door, yelling “Past time to go!”
“You go on, and I’ll walk,” I would reply. The quarter-mile trek from the parsonage to the church allowed for a quick smoke and the perfect excuse for a tardy arrival.
The antics didn’t fool my June Cleaver–apron-over-her-Sunday-dress mother. Aghast at my appearance and behavior, she was willing to try anything to make me into a lady—even letting the local department store take a crack at it. My eighth-grade year, she enrolled me in the Sears School for Young Charmers, a course designed for the “charming up” of female teens during the 1960s and 1970s, held at the Greenwood Shopping Center’s Sears Roebuck. A cotillion of sorts, for the less affluent.
My mother used two factors to convince me: my fascination with runway modeling—I would lie on my stomach for hours, twirling my hair and poring over Seventeen magazine, dreaming of such a career—and my affinity for my oldest sister. Susie was the superstar of our household, the sister born with the “how to please adults” chip: straight-A report cards, a leading role in the high-school play, and not one friend ever in juvenile detention.
“Let me go first,” Susie told me once while we waited for our lesson with the piano teacher. “You always put her in a bad mood.”
I wanted to be just like Susie, and she and her friend Diana had attended the Sears etiquette school a few years earlier, as a lark. “Where’d you get your charm?” they would joke. “Sears?”
For me, the opportunity was no gag. I wanted out of Greenwood, and this would be my ticket. Fashion and poise, to the rescue.
In 1966, the Greenwood Shopping Center was touted as the biggest of its kind in Indiana, long before the days of Greenwood Park Mall. “The Center,” as we referred to it, consisted of Sears, L.S. Ayres, Woolworth, Paul Harris, and several smaller shops connected by a metal awning covering the sidewalk. Two fountains stood as bookends: one directly in front of Sears; the other in front of L.S. Ayres, where folks perched on benches and made wishes with the toss of a coin.
On my first day of charm school, I felt thrilled to walk through the set of secret “Employee Only” double doors and down a flight of gray linoleum stairs into a basement classroom in the inner sanctum of Sears. Who knew that a department store even had such a thing?
In that dingy, echo-filled room, Bonnie, our teacher, greeted us. She was a life-sized Barbie doll: maybe five feet tall, including her bitsy spiked high heels. A perfect size 4 with huge boobs, pierced ears, and long, teased, bleached-blond hair. Her petite hands directed her sentences with long, manicured, crimson fingernails. Her lips matched her nails, and the spirit of the entire room was lifted by her signature perfume. She talked softly and sat with her legs crossed at the ankles, hands resting in her lap. Perfect posture: back straight, knees together, chest out. When she sashayed across the floor, everyone watched. She was God’s gift to sexy and a walking advertisement for the charm school: Here is what you could be.
We spied on her one day in the Sears cafeteria as she provocatively inhaled and exhaled smoke, fondling her long, white cigarette as if she were holding hands with a lover. She was Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy rolled into one. The term “girl crush” did not yet exist, but I had one.
At our first class meeting, we were given a loose-leaf binder that housed our printed materials, and it became one of my most cherished childhood souvenirs: Sears School for Young Charmers, Copyright by Sears, Roebuck and Co., 1965, revised 1970. These days, a copy of the book can go on eBay for $100 or so—probably four times what my mother paid in tuition. One seller billed it as an “astonishing look at the ‘proper’ side of life in the mid-20th century.” But how true was that look?
Though the materials had been updated in the Age of Aquarius, the drawings and photos remained a time capsule for the fashions of our mothers—the sophistication of the Jackie O pillbox hat, the Doris Day bob—rather than showcasing the swinging-ball earrings and micro-minis touted by flower child Goldie Hawn, whom I adored. The innovative ideas and attitudes of Gloria Steinem were ignored.
I slowly began to realize that much of what we were learning was similarly outdated. The introductory page of the notebook defines charm as a “knowing-how” when it comes to appearance, manners, and “the arts.” It even provides a formula for achieving charm: analyze one’s assets (“glorify them!”) and then one’s flaws (“camouflage those!”). Take the chapter we studied titled “All About the Art of Looking Natural,” authored by Wilhelmina, “generally regarded in the modeling profession as the high priestess.” The book pictured Ms. Wilhelmina looking like a goddess sculpted from lipstick and eyeliner. Priestess-looking? Yes. Beautiful? Oh my, yes! Natural? Not a chance.
Still, who could argue with a curriculum that encouraged a young girl to exercise, organize her clothes, brush her teeth, and wash her face regularly? To choose an apple or carrots over candy for a snack, try new things, develop a positive attitude and varied friendships? But it also gave us unrealistic—and sometimes superficial—expectations. “Becoming as beautiful as a model” could come true for any girl, said the Sears handbook, if she implemented the proper attitude and state of mind to overcome “temporary” obstacles: bad skin, being too fat. Furthermore, girls who took an honest look at themselves and honestly decided they wanted to be beautiful and “go after it”—avoiding bad habits, lazy beauty routines, and poor posture—would be beautiful. Just short of promising a modeling career for all, the text implied that with the right smile and beauty regimen, true beauty was an impression one could create.
During one lesson, we dumped the contents of our purses into a heap on a table to assess their appropriateness. While the other girls giggled about a tampon, my friend and I quietly slipped our packs of Marlboro Reds into our pockets. Other days, Bonnie drilled us about the best makeup looks for our complexions, the best haircut for our face shapes, and which “figure” category we fit into. I was just tall enough to test out of “Alice Average” and into “Winnie Willowy,” described as “a real fashion model figure!” More hope for my future.
At all moments, we had to follow the notebook’s “perfect posture” instructions: legs crossed at the ankles, knees pressed together. With a book balanced on our heads, we practiced pivoting akin to dancing. Left foot behind, toes pointing outward, supported body weight. A smooth half-turn on the balls of both feet, resting with the right foot behind on a diagonal. Finishing with a step forward with the left foot and a smooth half-turn, resting the left foot behind at an angle. The moves proved a snap on the slick tile floor. Catching the book before it clobbered a fellow charmer was not as easy.
Sadly, every single “check here” box on the worksheets of my binder was left blank. If only I had better archived my adolescent self. But I didn’t, and my memory is fuzzy as to why. Perhaps I was afraid my mother, my perfect sister, or my friends would have judged my answers. Maybe I lacked the self-confidence or self-knowing to actually commit to a decision. I like to think I realized the entire questionnaire was intended to not-so-subtly guide me into someone else’s idea of charming instead of my own, and protested. But most likely, I deemed the worksheets as “homework” and simply refused to complete them.
For the closing ceremony, each graduate participated in a skit or demonstration of proper walking and sitting. We then received our diplomas before an audience of parents and guests. My model turns were flawless. I can still swing one today.
The community I was sure I was destined to leave—I’m still there. The farm fields that surrounded my home yielded huge neighborhoods. The small, rural school I attended ballooned into what is now Center Grove High. And instead of a modeling career, I taught English to the kids and grandkids of my classmates—and became more convinced modern teens could stand a little of what Sears had to offer back then. I’ve witnessed young girls walk into my classroom and belch loudly. I’ve seen one too many muffin tops and leopard-print thongs peeking out above the waistband of too-tight jeans. I’ve seen a gorgeous young girl obsess over a teeny-tiny blemish on her face or bawl in the restroom because “he” didn’t ask her to prom. Bonnie would have been appalled.
Soon after my time at Sears ended, I ditched the cigarettes, adopted a more mainstream sense of style, and renewed my enthusiasm for homework. How much the transformation had to do with charm school is up for debate. After all, can true charm be canned and condensed into 14 chapters and pictured in an illustrated binder? But the binder’s final sentiment—“Never stop listening and learning”—made an impression.
Even I, the rebellious preacher’s daughter, could appreciate that my mother cared enough to provide a unique opportunity for me (and that my busy, embarrassed dad didn’t strangle me for my antics). Together, my parents never stopped loving me, and buoyed by them—along with nuggets of influence from Bonnie and Twiggy and Wilhelmina and my superstar sister alike—I eventually developed my own brand of charm. Original, just as I always wanted. And that, I propose, could not
possibly be taught from a binder in the basement classroom at Sears Roebuck.
This article appeared in our September 2015 issue.