Lessons in Mischief from the Eastern Mennonite High School Class of 1959

The Eastern Mennonite School centennial a few weeks back provided the opportunity to reflect on, as Donald Kraybill has put it, one hundred years of countercultural education. Hopefully, the reunions and reminiscences also provided the chance to reflect on a quintessential aspect of student life: mischief. But if you’re looking for more, read on. 

In March 2014 I sat down with five women from the EMHS class of 1959. They shared about many aspects of student life in the 1950s, perhaps most gleefully reminiscing about the little ways they pushed the boundaries of good behavior. What follows is a list of things I learned about how to get away with mischief from the self-described “good kids” of 1959. (The women are identified below by their initials. All quotes come from the transcript I prepared, titled “EMHS 1959 Transcript,” available at the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA).

#1. Spies are all around: know who to watch out for (and where to watch for them)

It’s not just teachers, staff, or parents who enforce good behavior. College students, too, could act as “spies.”

MH: You remember the spies? [they all laugh]. They were college kids. We didn’t know who they were. College kids were designated spies so when you were in the dorm [Northlawn] in the social room…You never knew who was watching you. So you tried to sit there with your hands down here [indicates under the table] so you could hold hands [with a boyfriend]. We did that a lot…. I never got caught but it’s not that we never held hands.

#2. Break one rule at a time and make the most of your image

In 1959 looking plain signaled that all was right within you. You could be trusted. And this meant you could get away with more.

MH: And one day, I lived in the dorm and [boyfriend] had a sister that lived down close to where the seminary is now. They wanted us to come for supper so Miss Barge and Esther Longacre were deans and I had to get permission to go walk from this dorm [Northlawn] to there with him and it was dark. And that was almost a no-no. They didn’t want to let us go but [boyfriend] at that time was very conservative. He wore a plain coat. And Miss Barge liked him. [laughing]. And I still remember her words: we’re going to let you go but you know we trust you.  [more laughter]. Little did they know! [laughter]

CB: If you looked conservative.

MH: Yeah.

CB: You could get by with just about anything.

#3. Mischief is best accomplished within the safety of a group — and in a way that uses modesty to your advantage

The women recalled a particularly conservative faculty member and what they did to irritate him:

CB: …one time just to be kind of ornery, some of us girls sewed little bells on our crinolines, under our skirts. And then when we walked it jingled a little bit. Wasn’t real loud but you could hear these little bells. And I know…one of the professors, it would agitate him so. Of course he couldn’t see them but he started quoting scripture about these tinkling cymbals or something. [Laughter.]…. he thought we were very sinful because we had bells on.

#4. If possible, be a boy

CB: And remember the boys found out that I was so afraid of mice…We had these desks which opened up. I opened it up and there’s a mouse!

UK: a live one?

CB: No, dead. And I screamed. [Laughter]. They had the biggest kick out of that. But I don’t think they got in trouble. [More laughter].

UK: You probably got in trouble for screaming.

#5. Sometimes you need a little help from worldly items (like an eyebrow pencil)

WR: You were supposed to wear hose all the time.

Shen61 02

Girls playing volleyball, c. 1961. Is that truly a stocking seam on the back of the girl’s leg? Or a cleverly drawn line, courtesy of an eyebrow pencil? (Girls playing volleyball, 1961 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.)

WR: And they had to be dark.

ED: And they had to have seams.

HS: What was it about seams? [the younger interviewer is confused, having only known a world where hose don’t have seams]

ED: So they knew you had hose on.

CB: Eyebrow pencil worked.

UK: You just took eyebrow pencil and —

UK: There’s always a way to get around everything! [Laughter]

CB: You could use an eyebrow pencil and put the mark up your leg and you’d look like you had stockings on.

HS: And that worked? [wondering how they all had eyebrow pencil; wouldn’t make-up have been forbidden?]

WR: For a while! [Laughter]

#6. Enjoy the ironies that will come when your elders don’t think through the logical results of certain rules

The women remembered rules about wearing skirts even during gym class. Bad news for the girls; potentially appreciated by the boys. 

MH: And the boys really enjoyed going to the basketball games. Because they couldn’t wait until we’d fall over and then they’d see our skirts would fly up. I remember them talking about it. [laughter.]

57Shen010

Girls playing basketball in the old gym at EMS, c. 1957. Their skirts appear well in order. (Girls playing basketball, 1957 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA)

#7. Sometimes you just have to risk it

CB: The most sneaky thing we did was we snuck out in front of the chapel, got on motorcycles with two of our male classmates and they took us for a ride through Park View and back and then we worried for weeks; we were afraid that somebody would find out. That would have been terrible.

UK: We’d have been sent home.

#8. When you get older and are looking back, have some grace for your elders

CB: You know I have done a lot of fussing about the way things were but I really appreciate the bottom line was a good religious base and some of these far out things that they demanded, they were just carrying out what they needed to, I suppose. But I am thankful for what the church stands for, the Mennonite church.

#9 But also acknowledge that amid the fun was real hurt—and real mistakes

It may be funny sixty years later to think of boys hoping the girls’ skirts would fly up in gym class; it could very well have been deeply embarrassing for the girls then. But embarrassment is the least of the problem—sexism, double standards, and all the problems inherent in the male gaze also come to mind.

And while pushing the limits in small ways was one thing, the costs were real for those who didn’t quite fit in. The women remembered one classmate who left school because she would not confess to the error of having a boy student put his arm around her shoulder on the couch. They remembered this student had “looked a little wordly” and always been under suspicion. Speaking of another issue, one woman recalled that her sister had red, curly hair. Just having this bright, unruly hair meant “she looked like a wordly student…And everything that went wrong, she got blamed for because she just looked like somebody that would be mischievous or break the rules or whatever. And she carries that stigma with her today.” Whether kicked out of school, or just being under suspicion for how you naturally look, inequality and injustice lurks in many of these memories.

What lessons in mischief do you have from your school days? What gems could be recorded at your family dinners? Thanksgiving is coming. In the centennial spirit, think about purchasing a small digital recorder (I use an RCA VR5320 R digital voice recorder which costs around $30) and sitting down to record some stories. If you interview a Mennonite women, consider donating the recording to the collection where the interview I quote from here is housed: Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, in the Eastern Mennonite University archives. I am happy to answer any questions about the logistics of recording interviews or about how to donate recordings to an archive.

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