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 skirt 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 finally looked up, her gaze didn’t rise higher than my chin. I noticed a mended tear on the shoulder of her simple 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 had 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 stories 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 were beginning to feel the repercussions of what the newspapers call “the 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 story was written for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors and is based on research I’ve done for a great-grandaunt, Ruth Wheatland, who was a “spinster” teacher well into her 30s. I saw that she had taught high school art at the begining of the Depression and tried to imagine what that time would have been like for her.