Calla Jones Corner
Sixty years ago, at summer’s end, I had a dilemma.
I would be entering junior high school the day after Labor Day and didn’t have a subject for Show and Tell in English class. It was a dilemma because I knew what some of my fellow classmates had probably picked as subjects for this back-to-school tradition.
Judy Smith would show the colorful lanyard that she’d made at Girl Scout camp. I’d watched her make it.
Heidi Zarbock was going to show the charcoal sketch she’d done of her beagle puppy. Her father, Jim, a talented woodworker when he wasn’t publishing books, had made a perfect frame. I’d watched my best friend’s father make it.
Tommy Golden had gone to Los Angeles to watch the filming of one of his father’s movies. Gil Golden was a well-known Hollywood producer. It was a given that Tommy would tell about the trip.
Back then Show and Tell wasn’t a competition for Weston, Conn.’s elementary school children, most of whom had known each other since kindergarten and gone on together to each following class. Come the day after Labor Day, we all knew we’d have to get up in front of our English class, speak clearly and show and/or tell what we’d been doing for the past two months. It was more an exercise in public speaking, grammar and diction than creativity.
Those who told of something exotic, like going to Hollywood, would get the class’ attention. Those who could weave a small story with humor would get laughs.
Occasionally, there would be a new kid in class, as Weston’s wonderful school system was discovered by commuters to Manhattan. Word had gotten out that there was finally a shopping center in the small, charming town and residents no longer had to drive seven miles to Westport or Wilton for a carton of milk or to fill their cars with gas. A nice house with two acres could be had for $30,000.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” was not an issue, yet. It was just a family joke. New families were readily accepted; new children made friends easily. Show and Tell gave new children a way to feel included.
But in 1959, it was going to be different. The innocence of elementary school, sometimes with the same teacher as the year before, was going to go. For the first time, we were going to change classes to learn different subjects with different teachers. I knew because my older sister by two years, Christina, was already in high school.
She skipped eighth grade and told me that some girls (yes, mean girls existed back then) got nasty in junior-high school, especially if you were exceptionally bright and pretty, as was she. She told me that it was the first week of junior high school that would make you popular or not. I wanted to be popular, or at least keep the same friends, girls as well as boys. All of us did.
I also wanted teachers to like me. Christina told me that some teachers were nicer than others.
She also told me that being a teacher’s pet was not always a good thing. Teachers liked her because she was such a good student. Boys liked her because she was pretty as well as smart. Some girls teased her for her looks and brains. Juniorhigh school had been tough on her.
When I told my parents that I didn’t know what to do for Show and Tell the first week of school, my mother suggested that I learn to make Swedish coffee bread with my grandmother, Nelsie, and tell the class about the experience.
My grandparents, Carl and Anna Nelson, lived with us. They both had left Sweden when they were in their early 20s.
My grandfather got work building the New York El, and my grandmother became a cook for a prominent family on the Upper East side of Manhattan. When they were in their 60s, they came to live with us in Weston, in an apartment over our garage. Christina and I were the only children in Weston, who grew up with immigrant grandparents with a foreign language spoken at home.
We were also the only children in town, with a grandmother, who, every other Sunday, baked fläta, a heavenly, braided loaves and buns of cardamom-laced coffee bread that Swedish children were brought up on. The heady aroma from Nelsie’s kitchen when she baked fläta filled our house.
If Nelsie happened to have any leftovers when she babysat many of Weston’s lucky children, she would bring some buns with her. Those children adored her, fläta or no fläta.
As Labor Day approached, I still hadn’t decided if my mother’s suggestion of telling my seventh-grade class about baking with Nelsie would guarantee my popularity in junior- high school. Did I really want to risk being even more different or teased?
My father, a professional storyteller, who used not only words, but also drawings and photos to tell his tales in magazines, finally convinced me. “Why not ask Nelsie if you can help her make fläta next Sunday before school starts”, he suggested. “And ask her if you can make enough braided buns for everyone in the class to have one, including the teacher.”
That Sunday before Labor Day, I spent several hours with Nelsie, mixing flour, butter, eggs, sugar, yeast, salt and cardamom, dividing and braiding dough into 15 buns and waiting until they doubled in size. Finally, Nelsie showed me how to glaze the buns and then pop them in the oven to bake.
Judy didn’t show her jazzy lanyard from Girl Scout camp (probably too childish for a new teen). Heidi didn’t show her sweet, puppy sketch; she told about taking the train to visit her grandparents in Ohio.
But Tommy did tell about his Hollywood adventure and meeting several stars.
I told how I spent a special afternoon with my immigrant grandmother, Nelsie, in her kitchen, making Swedish bread that many of my classmates had already tasted. Then I passed out the buns, still wafting cardamom.
Needless to say, the first day of school I was very popular. I even got a laugh when I gave Mr. Coffee, our English teacher, a bun, telling him it was made especially for him and he could dunk it in his Coffee coffee, as Swedes did. If I’d written the story, I might have gotten an A. I did become Mr. Coffee’s teacher’s pet, for a while.
Were I a pre-teen now, I wonder what my Show and Tell would be? I can’t even imagine what summer tales would be now with all the mixed messages students (of all ages) are getting from parents, teachers and a cancel culture that doesn’t want children to experience traditionally innocent childhoods.
Will there even be opportunities for America’s children to get in front of their schoolmates and relate correctly and unmasked, without being shamed for their summer experiences, good, bad or just different?
The author lives in Montecito.