It started with Stella Atkinson’s skirt. On the first day of school, she walked straight to the first desk in my art classroom with a two-inch black panel hanging like an afterthought at the end of her hem. I had her march right back into the corridor.
“Stella, your skirt violates dress code.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Wheatland.” Her cheeks reddened as she spoke. “I had a growth spurt over the summer. Mother did the best she could.”
“Well, why on earth didn’t she take you to Jessop’s for another?”
Stella’s eyes fell to the speckled gray tile of the classroom. When she brought her eyes back up from the ground, they didn’t go any higher than my chin. I noticed a stitched-up tear on the shoulder of her white blouse.
“Daddy says people will always need food. It’s only temporary.”
I understood. Atkinson’s Grocery, southern California’s grocery franchise and Stella’s family’s business, was usually full to brimming with neighbors chatting about produce and cuts of meat. But that all changed. The aisles had grown quiet. I was convinced on my last visit that I had entered one of those “other dimensions” the pulp magazines were always writing about. Instead of people, cans of soup and cantaloupe occupied the aisles. The bins of vegetables were stacked higher than I was tall. The newspaper said that grocery stores were experiencing a surplus of goods on account of the stock market crash a few years ago. People just weren’t shopping there anymore, and the white collar business owners here in Whittier, California, began to feel the repercussions of what the newspapers call “the Great Depression.”
“I see. It’s fine, Stella. Go back to your desk and sketch the still-life I’ve set up.” I smoothed down my own plaid dress, folded a pleat in my favorite cotton cardigan.
Later, I broached the subject in the teacher’s salon. We discussed the little things they’d noticed. Miss Frankenfield said she’d started turning a blind eye to the students grabbing third and fourth servings during luncheon, and Mr. Petty told us of Norman Reilly, the student whose family pulled him from school without notice.
“It’s probably best if we relax the rules until the situation improves, Ruth,” Mrs. Grassell whispered as we walked back to class together.
Relaxing the rules proved easy as 1933 progressed. The dress code violations became too numerous to enforce, so we focused on other things: the talent of this year’s tennis team or Dorothy Gibbons’s prize science project. We let the signs of the Great Depression recede into the background. I thought about that on the day I taught my students about foreshortening– the illusion of objects receding from our perspective.
This is my submission to mocavo.com’s My Story writing contest in which I won first place!