That’ll teach you

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‘My high school field trip to the state penitentiary’

So I was having my hair cut last week and telling Anthony about last week’s post — the one about driving and road trips — and had gotten to the part about how in my high school the Drivers’ Ed teacher was always the same guy who taught gym and something called ‘social studies’.

Drivers’ Ed/Gym/Social Studies teacher Mr. K

We got to talking about how different high school was way back when, even in Brooklyn, where he grew up. How we had classes like Industrial Arts (AKA ‘Shop’) and Home Economics (‘Home Ec’) and organizations like FFA, which stood for Future Farmers of America.

I don’t know whatall went on in Shop (except that it looks a tad oily) since Shop was strictly for boys. In fact, boys were required to take either Shop or Agriculture. Girls had no choice, but were similarly required to take the aforementioned Home Economics. I don’t know where the ‘economics’ came in, since basically we were taught cooking, sewing, setting the table — all skills designed to make us better wives and mothers. Interesting note: Home Ec was taught by a Miss Ford, who was neither.

We had some fun in Home Ec, though, in between running up hems and stamping out biscuits. Once we put a bag of mice destined for biology lab dissection into Miss Ford’s freezer. As I recall, she didn’t bat an eye — or drop a stitch.

Incidentally, those pictures of Shop and Home Ec are from my own personal high school yearbook, the Tomahawk, where I sharpened my early writing skills. My BF Norma and I were rather teacher’s pet-ish and got away with journalistic murder. We once put this caption on a photo of language lab: “These earphones are designed to fit any shaped head”. The photo (which I won’t show in order to avoid embarrassment — his or mine) showed a boy with a set of very large earphones clamped to his rather unfortunate squarish noggin.

The staff of the Tomahawk, including me (the one with the non-bouffant hairdo standing in the back, wearing a jumper I made). I’m listed as a ‘writer’. I don’t see Norma here; maybe she was up to mischief in the language lab

Anyway. Back to Anthony. Who is hilarious, by the way. He and his wife used to ‘do’ the hair on movie sets. He once pitched an idea to Woody Allen. The result? A film called ‘Fading Gigolo’. Anthony’s name is in the credits. And not as the hairdresser.

So Anthony is snipping away, and we’re reminiscing about high school, and he says “What about that field trip?” And I go “What field trip?” And he says “The one to the prison.”

Ah. The field trip to the prison! How could I forget?! Yes, when I was, I think, a junior in high school, our social studies class went on a trip to Chester, Illinois, to visit Menard State Penitentiary.

Menard State Pen in the early aughts. Looks kind of like a school, don’t you think? Well, except for the razor wire and the guard tower

Now I’m not sure whether going on a field trip to a prison was a normal part of the Midcentury Modern High School curriculum in Southern Illinois, but it sure surprised Brooklyn Boy Anthony. He couldn’t get over the fact that we kids got on a school bus and went to tour a prison.

And not just any prison. Menard was then a maximum-security facility. There were some Very Bad Dudes in there. (Men only, this prison; still is, unlike Shop.) They even had a death row. And an electric chair. According to Wikipedia, between 1928 and 1962 there were 18 executions. Viewing said Chair was one of the highlights of our trip. But at least they didn’t make us sit in it.

My high school when I was a student there. Can you tell it was built on a treeless former corn field? I’m not sure what that tall thing is, but it’s not a guard tower

I mention this because they did, in fact, put us, one by one, into an empty cell — and lock the door. I’m not quite sure what, exactly, this was supposed to ‘teach’ us. Crime doesn’t pay? Being an inmate is no fun? Having your own room isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

At any rate, it made for a pretty darned memorable lesson. But if you ask me, being locked-in-the-cell wasn’t the worst part. It was the eating-what-the-prisoners-eat. We actually pushed trays along the cafeteria line and got goop ladled onto tin plates — right in front of the lunching prison population. (We girls had been warned to wear ‘modest dresses’ that day. These were the days when girls had to wear dresses to school; these were also the days when dresses were short.)

Me, at about the time of the prison field trip. Yes, I made that dress too. I suppose I should have chosen fabric with stripes

So we picked and poked at whatever-it-was on our plates; I do remember that the creamed corn had hunks of cob in it. Then we toured where they made license plates (it looked a lot like Shop), and then we piled on the bus and went back to school.

Thanks, Anthony, for this week’s inspiration. Not sure what I’ll write next week, but I’m thinking I won’t be going back to prison. And I’m happy to report that none of my class did — to Menard, or any other state facility, as far as I know. So I guess the lesson worked.

New York City. January 2017

19 thoughts on “That’ll teach you

  1. Wow! Health and safety would have a field day with a trip like that now a days. Can you imagine parading a group of young students in front of hardened criminals?!!!
    When I was in the Brownies (young girl guides) we visited the police station are were put in a cell and had our finger prints taken to deter us from crime. I guess it was quite a way to build the national database!!! Thanks for joining the #weekendblogshare

    • Hey, Hannah. Thanks for weighing in with your Brownie memories (I was in Brownies too; such fun! I was sad when there weren’t enough girls interested to go on to Girl Scouts!) Anyway. I had completely forgotten that we all got fingerprinted too. I guess we’re both in the database! xoxo

  2. I don’t suppose schools take that field trip any more? These days, kids might see one of their parents in there! We took our boys to the police station and the officers took them through the building and showed them the cells (didn’t lock them though) and showed them the “Hungry Man” meals they serve. No need for the school field trip, I took them myself!

    • Good for you, taking your boys to visit ‘the lockup’! So glad you didn’t lock them in the cells, though. That’s a tad too ‘realistic’, in my opinion. Though they, as young boys, would probably have gotten a kick out of it! Thanks, as always, for reading — and weighing in with a comment. Let’s hope all our jail trips are ‘just visiting’!

  3. Lovely photos! I took shop against my will (we had the practical classes assigned randomly) and was terrible at it, but at least I was given an opportunity to be terrible! I went to high school in the 90’s and we too had a prison field trip – to Foxboro State in Mass. I wonder if they are still scaring kids straight with this “method”! 😉 Nothing as exciting as being locked in a cell though! Your hairdresser sounds like he has some great stories! 🙂 Steff (here from #weekendblogshare )

    • Hey Steff! Thanks for stopping by (isn’t #weekendblogshare great? I’ll go back to make sure I visited you) I can’t believe high-schoolers were still subjected to the Prison Method as late as the 1990’s! I’m sort of jealous that you got to take Shop instead of Home Ec xoxoxo

  4. judy robbins

    Ha! In retrospect a dress with stripes would have been quite appropriate. I do remember Home Economics – I think the economics part had to do with making something from nothing. Never went to a prison for an educational warning though. We have quite a few prisons nearby here and often see the the better behaved inmates on the road crews, wearing neon orange jumpsuits.

    • Thanks for the report on your local prison system, Judy! If I were in high school now, I suppose I should make my Home Ec dress out of neon orange (!) See you next week, if I’m not in the Slammer xoxo

  5. Ruth Meisenheimer

    Having grown up in Chester, I was accustomed to going to the prison with choral groups to entertain. Then worked as a medical records librarian in the hospital on the hill above the prison that housed the criminally insane. At that time they would blow a loud whistle if an inmate escaped. Along with making license plates they had a farm, garden, among other “jobs” to help inmates to rehabilitate. Times have changed but the old part of the building looks the same. Brought back memories, Alice!

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