By Katia Hetter
I blame it all on the polyester green pants.
Unlike today’s fashion-conscious eight-year-olds, I was not in charge of buying my own clothes in the third grade. In 1977, my mother bought my clothes on sale or made me wear the clothes my grandparents had sent us. When I had burned through all the Toughskins and jeans in my closet, and my mother still hadn’t done laundry, all that remained were the green pants with the elastic waistband.
I should have just worn a sign that said “dork.”
The nasty little boy who made a sport of picking on me in the third grade may have called me Jolly Green Giant or String Bean. I can’t remember. What’s clear is that my pacifist mother’s suggestion to “ask him why he’s making fun of you” didn’t work. He just mockingly repeated my question. I seemed always to be wearing those pants when he came after me.
Polyester was indestructible in the 1970s and my divorced mother, who was often broke, loved it. She’d say that cotton shirts needed ironing, even after going through the dryer, and that we didn’t have money to pay for dry cleaning.
Mostly, the pants reminded me that in conservative San Diego, we were different.
A free-thinker in a town dominated by the Republican Party, my mother lived the courage of her convictions. She kicked my father out when I was a toddler because he drank too much. After the separation, she earned her master’s degree in psychology while working part-time and enrolled me in a hippie pre-school.
When she went to work full-time, she still sent me to alternative schools. She was a big believer in A.S. Neill’s free schools movement, which preached freedom and non-repression, and radically, didn’t force children to attend classes. Children held all the power. They could choose to go to class, and they could choose what to learn.
My mother was considered normal at the private Yellow Submarine pre-school and John Muir, a public alternative school for grades K-12. Gender rules were not enforced. Boys and girls could have short or long hair and play with baseballs or dolls.
Even when parents lived together, my friends’ fathers cooked breakfast and played with their children and helped with art projects. Mothers were lawyers and social workers and artists. Men and women called themselves feminists without apology. They fed us healthy whole-wheat bread and preservative-free cereals.
With those values ingrained in me, I had some adjusting to do when I enrolled at Fremont Elementary School for the second grade. I had to leave Muir because my mother heard through the grapevine that some teachers were smoking pot with older students. It was nothing official, but it was the last straw for a school where she thought my teachers were failing to teach me the basics. So it was back to a mainstream public school to get a real education and avoid the dangers of marijuana.
Fremont required boys and girls to stand in separate lines to enter the classroom. Boys had short hair, and girls had long hair. Boys could be rowdier than girls and not get into trouble. All of this confused me.
Most Fremont students lived with both parents, and most mothers were housewives. The mothers set out snacks for us, cooked most of the meals and disciplined my friends with the ominous, “wait ’til your father gets home!”
Television taught me that was the way it was supposed to be. Parents stayed together and divided the work according to gender. Even when parents were widowed, like in the Brady Bunch, the goal was to remarry and return to following the rules. Or play rock ‘n roll with their children, like the Partridge Family. There weren’t any Gilmore Girls to tell me how to be a child with a mother who broke the rules.
Seeing her daughter being overpowered by mainstream society, my mother returned to her alternative universe. We joined a single-parents group, where parents wanted to hang with their children instead of meeting in bars. We had potlucks where nearly everyone accidentally brought desserts from a nearby bakery (no time to cook). There were camping trips where we all hiked into the mountains, spotting birds and snakes along the way. No one cared what pants I wore on those hikes.
An immigrant who left Cuba in 1961, my mother wasn’t one to complain or tolerate much whining about green pants or anything else. After Fidel Castro closed down the airport and made her airplane ticket worthless, my mother talked her way onto a friend’s entertainment boat heading to Key West.
“Green pants?” she’d say. “At least you’re not worried about your family getting rounded up and shot after a phony trial or lifelong friends turning you into the police for favors.”
More than 20 years later, I am grateful for my offbeat upbringing. I’m in touch with some of my pre-school teachers and classmates, sharing my adventures as a writer with them, opening up my home to those who come through New York City. The teachers are still fighting battles for quality education for all children. My classmates mostly turned out to be kind and smart and interesting people who care about the world. Some of them may discover a cure for cancer, but mostly, they’re just decent people. And many still eat whole-wheat bread and stay away from preservatives.
But that perspective was still to come. At the time of the green pants incident, I was only eight. I knew nothing of torture beyond what one mean boy was doing to me in my third grade classroom, from which there seemed no escape.
My mother wouldn’t instantly make us “normal” by finding a Mike Brady father of three boys to marry or forming a band with me, like Shirley Jones did with stepson David Cassidy. But she did give me the power to solve some of my own problems.
I can remember the day when she showed me how to sort my darks and lights before filling the washing machine, even though I wasn’t much taller than the washer. She showed me how to pour the detergent and the pink store-brand fabric softener into their slots near the top of the washer, watching the machine fill up with water and bubbles. We picked the right setting (“normal”) and I pressed the button.
From that day forward, I never depended on anyone else to make sure I had more than one clean pair of trousers. And I never had to wear the green pants again.
Katia Hetter is an editor at New Youth Connections, a teen-written magazine published by Youth Communication, non-profit focusing on teen development through journalism. She previously covered City Hall for the San Francisco Chronicle and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site for Newsday.
Published August 2007