School Discipline Hulton Archive/Three Lions
By Amy Phillips Penn


VINTAGE GOSSIP is alive and well in the elegant hands of Amy Phillips Penn, former society columnist for the New York Post.  Every Thursday, Amy pens her posts with that same touch of class, making the legends and lore of a bygone era as relevant today as they were when Jackie O was queen of New York.

 

“My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime”
— Gilbert and Sullivan

 

Imagine being a prospective parent at an Upper East Side private girl’s school. While on the tour of this elite institution, where you would be surrendering your power during school hours, you see two girls in uniform scrubbing the staircase, like maids in a PBS “to the manor born period piece.” Your guide steps over them as if they were dust enroute to a Houdini show, and you follow suit.

One of my closest friends was on that staircase. She changed schools, but still remembers being punished over some unmemorable mischief or academic imperfection.

Years later, I am paying polo in Southampton. A younger girl rides next to me. We exchange the normal New York 411, starting with where we went to school.

She attended the school with the infamous staircase punitive memories, and upon digesting its full implications she stood up in the saddle, whacked a polo ball and replied, “We would never have stood for that. We would have sued the school.”

My mother remembers a Russian piano teacher smacking her hands with a stick every time that her touch and the metronome were out of sync.

My great aunt reported seeing my father stuffed into a closet by his Governess. She was watching from a window across the street — rear window knows all.

Our home punishments were more conventional. My brother had his mouth washed out with soap for nipping a frenemy in the playground; my most cherished princess telephone was heartlessly yanked from the wall when my math grades sank into an unwelcome equation.

My grades in history were good enough. Then there was a map test. I have no sense of direction, and being precise with a location with a sharp pencil and a very welcomed eraser didn’t help.

I flunked my map test, not for lack of trying, but the old left brain/right brain order of things wiggled down its own assigned karmic map.

I disliked this test so much that I was fine with the grade being integrated in with the rest of my history average. I never wanted to have to pinpoint Chicago again, only to be met with a bold, smeared red X and an explanation point.

My history teacher would have none of this. She insisted that those of us who had failed the map test would take it again on the following Friday in study hall.

On Friday afternoons, we were let out early while the sun still let freedom ring.

My grade was an increment higher, as I weathered the annoyance of taking the test in a dark, confining library which looked out on girls who had shimmied and stripped out of their uniforms into Seventeen Magazine meets the mini — boys included.

I have no idea how many Fridays I spent trying to pinpoint St. Louis or Boise, but finally I was released. My test was returned with a high grade, greasy red exclamation points, and note that said “Finally.”

Goodbye, Boise. Hello, New York Friday afternoons.

Our rules were a Damocles’ sword begging to be toyed with. Our skirts had to be mid-knee (our student council president actually measured them with a yardstick); only gold stud earrings on upper school girls were allowed, as was pink lipstick and infinitesimal heels on Fridays. Engagements were not allowed to be announced while in school (as if?), and eye makeup was meant for Belle Watling only. Smoking in uniform was met with suspension (trench coats covered this potential sin), while smoking on the street in or out of uniform meant expulsion.

Later on, I took a writing course at Columbia University. It was a six-hour course, governed by a New York book editor who terrified most of his students. One student was rumored to have brought his psychiatrist to class for show and tell.

Might the “we would sue” and psychiatrist/bodyguard be a norm in the classroom gone politically correct? Will school applications list lawyers and shrinks as emergency contacts? Only the school master shadow knows, and his agenda is sketchy at best.

Mr. Hand: “What is this fascination with truancy? What is it that gets inside of your heads? There are some teachers at this school who look the other way at truants. It’s a little game you both play. They pretend they don’t see you, and you pretend you don’t ditch! Now, in the end, who pays the price? YOU!”
— Fast Times at Ridgemont High

 


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