The week after graduation I started teaching classes in grooming, posture, walking, finding the right style for your figure, entering a room, and presenting yourself in an interview, everything that was part of the Barbizon curriculum except make-up, which I never mastered.
I’d been a nervous wreck on my first day as a student, but I sailed into my first class as if I’d been a skipper all my life. I’d just taken the program, the teaching materials were excellent, and my fellow teachers were supportive.
We were encouraged to be creative and I had each of the girls make a personal style scrapbook of magazine pictures captioned with phrases that expressed how it felt to wear clothes that made you feel good about yourself.
To provide an example I put my own book together and asked a friend who did calligraphy to design the cover with the words, “As you go down the runway of life, SMILE!”
This was the message I wanted to give the half-dozen beautiful young girls who hung on my every word every other Saturday morning, and I needed to hear it as much as they did.
Despite having long lean agile bodies it was hard for them to overcome their teenage shyness enough to stand erect instead of hunching their shoulders to shield their breasts.
In the beginning, they looked more like whirligigs than models when they turned, but I’d line them up on one side of the room and we’d play “Teacher May I?” Instead of baby steps, giant steps and umbrella steps, I’d have them do a right pivot, a left half turn, or a Dior. I’d played the same game with my kids when I was practicing my turns at home, and my students got just as silly.
The only part of the program I didn’t like was Photo Shoot Saturday. The school hyped the promise of being a model to make extra money by selling students the head sheet required by agencies, a letter-size, glossy poster with photographs of the student’s face in frontal and profile views, like a glamorous mug shot, and a full-figure shot in the outfit of her choice.
My task was to keep the girls calm while they waited their turn to be photographed. In my classes I could right-size their expectations, but on that day they were too made-up, dressed up and filled with dreams of a full-page spread in Seventeen to be brought back down to earth.
Teachers had to have a head sheets, too, and when my photos came back I was gently told that photographic modeling was out for me because I had a “bad” (i.e. sagging) neck. This news didn’t trouble me because I’d already come to terms with looking like my grandmother, who looked like the woman in American Gothic painting, and all three of us had turkey necks.
I was perfectly happy just being a teacher, especially when I got to watch my classes graduate. They all looked so beautiful up there, striding up and down the runway with dignity, giddy with delight when they saw a family member in the audience, hugging each other after it was over.
I was so proud of what they’d accomplished and hoped the self-respect they gained by learning to treat themselves as if they were special would serve them well, whether or not they did any modeling. I also hoped it might even keep some of them from getting pregnant.
Six months after I started teaching, Jean Curt asked me to give talks at high schools to girls’ gym classes. The lectures were scheduled for late morning or early afternoon, which worked perfectly with my motherly duties. I’d make breakfast, pack lunches, get everyone on their school buses, and clean up the kitchen.
Then I would change into my lecture outfit, find the school using a road map and check in at the office. My entrance in a wide-brimmed mauve hat trimmed with peacock feathers caused quite a stir, and I’d often be escorted past gawking students and teachers to the auditorium by the principal.
The phys-ed teachers were thrilled I’d come because it gave them a day off from dodge ball, and the girls acted as if a rock star was in their midst. What they saw was a lavishly accessorized model, not a mother of four little kids who wore the same outfit to schools all over Fairfield and Westchester Counties.
The lectures were about good grooming, manners and etiquette, and though they were designed to promote the school, I liked giving them because it was an opportunity to be of service to parents.
If a mom or dad tells their daughter to sit up straight, say please and thank you, or stop picking on their little brother, they get an argument or a nasty look, but if the woman from Barbizon says the same thing, demonstrating the difference between an unladylike slouch and a model’s stance while talking about how being a model is not only about how you look but how you act, they are all ears.
When a girl who had been at one of my lectures showed up at the school with her mother to see if she qualified for acceptance into the course, she would be assigned an interviewer who would ask a series of screening questions, but in truth anyone who could pay the fee was eligible.
At first when Jean asked me to become an interviewer, I resisted, even though there was a generous commission for each student enrolled. I wasn’t comfortable with Barbizon’s fake selection process and yet I believed in the course. I knew how valuable it had been in building self-esteem and confidence—my only wish was that I taken the program fifteen years earlier.
If the parents could afford the fee, helping their daughter learn to believe in herself in her mid-teens seemed well worth the price. I couldn’t pitch a false promise, but I could sell the benefits of the Barbizon as long as I could be forthright. I went back to Jean and told her I’d to it if I could use my own approach and she agreed.
I’d start every interview by turning to the mother and saying that it was highly unlikely that her daughter would become a model, and while the mother nodded with understanding, the daughter would sit there thinking she’d be the one in a million. Then I’d tell the daughter her parents were making a big investment and it was her job to take the program seriously.
She might not wind up on the cover of Teen magazine, but she’d be preparing for her future success. I would underscore that potential to her mother by telling her that the course would give her a daughter a modern day version of what used to be called a “finishing school” education. And though every once in a while I’d get a stage mother, this was what most of them really wanted.
Within a year I was teaching or interviewing every Saturday in either Stamford or White Plains, giving a couple of high school lectures during the week, and earning enough money to buy stylish clothing to expand my wardrobe beyond the teal dress.
I was attracted to the western look, and I knew the first time I put on an ankle-length skirt that in another life I was a strong, savvy frontier woman, like Victoria Barkley, as portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck in the television series The Big Valley, who ran her ranch with as much true grit as John Wayne.
My new look clashed with the preppy style of Connecticut, but it fit right in when we went on a family vacation to rural Vermont.
I wore a red-and-black buffalo plaid jacket over a long black skirt with side slits and knee-high lace-up boots. When we stopped at the Putney Market to buy food, the kids ran up to me very excited. “Mommy, Mommy, there are three men in the store dressed just like you!” they shouted, pointing at my jacket and boots.
I could barely keep from laughing out loud at myself every time I ran into a local man wearing a jacket like mine and imagined what he must be thinking. I felt like I did when I was a teenager starting to break away from dressing like my mother, except that back then I was too afraid to wear the leopard print parka I spent all my babysitting money on. Now, I rather liked being stylishly odd.
Bob liked me to look good, but only for him. He had not said anything positive or encouraging since I started working. Instead, I could expect an evening of silent pouting when I came home, or snide remarks about my “silly little job,” or full- blown outrage with yelling and name calling.
One time his disapproval escalated to point where he blocked my car with his truck to keep me from going to work.
Somehow I managed to maneuver around it and cried all the way to White Plains. I had to ask a fellow teacher, who was better at make-up than I was to fix my red eyes. But then I straightened my posture, lifted my head, fixed my eyes on the door to my classroom, broke into a broad smile and walked with long strides, one foot in front of the other, down the hall as if it were a runway.