Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  I had been warned that when a little girl goes to school she prefers to wear dresses and pigtails, but Jannie thought she would rather wear shorts the first day, and an old baseball hat of Laurie’s. I struggled out of bed on the morning which was to see Jannie off to school for the first time and combed my hair and dressed myself with the idea of appearing before teachers and other mothers, escorting my daughter, but Jannie told me at breakfast, “If I am going to go to school at all, I think I would prefer to go by myself.”

  After five busy years I no longer attempted to argue with Jannie before breakfast; I nodded and slipped my shoes off under the breakfast table. “You don’t mind my coming to the door to wave goodbye to you, I suppose?” I asked, and Jannie, considering, said, “If you don’t cry or something.”

  “Do I have to take her to school?” Laurie demanded. “On the bus and all?”

  Laurie regarded the new school bus as his personal and exclusive conveyance. “She’s got to go to school,” I said. “They don’t let children grow up and not go to school.”

  Laurie, regarding his sister, laughed bitterly, and Jannie said, “I believe I’ll sit in the other end of the bus from Laurie. I don’t care for unpolite boys.”

  “Do I have to hold her hand?” Laurie asked.

  “Certainly you do not,” Jannie said. “I prefer to go by myself, thank you. If I am going to school at all, that is.”

  The notion that she might, upon consideration, decide not to go to school at all, was enough for me. “Will you be careful?” I asked.

  “Once,” Jannie remarked exclusively to Sally, “I had a friend named Susan, and Susan went to the horse racing and she betted on a horse named Susan, and the horse fell through the side of the track and all the horses went to see if he was all right and he had broken the gate and all the men got away and the horses couldn’t catch them to bring them back.”

  “Ah,” said Sally intelligently. “You can’t come to my house.”

  I had no trouble not crying when Jannie left; after all these years during which I have seen one child or another go off to one place or another and managed to control myself except during major crises like Cub Scout award meetings and nursery school Dancing Days—after all these years my goodbye kiss and my wave from the front window no longer exhibit more than the mildest apprehension. Jannie climbed stoutly into the school bus, her brother behind her pretending unsuccessfully that she was just some girl who happened to get on at the same stop he did, and I saw Jannie’s head move down the bus to a seat at the end. “Sister’s gone to school,” I said to Sally.

  “Ah,” said Sally. “And will she come home again?”

  Laurie reported, when he came home at three o’clock, that although he looked for her, and waited at the bus, and even, with some faint vestige of fraternal feeling, asked a couple kids if they had seen his sister, Jannie had not got on the bus, and at four o’clock I was driving back and forth between our house and the school for the sixth time when I saw Jannie wandering and singing along the side of the road. I stopped the car next to her and leaped out, babbling, and she took my hand amiably and said, “I think school will be all right for me, after all.”

  “Where have you been?” I said.

  “I followed my teacher home,” Jannie said. “I wanted to see where she lived.”

  At the end of her second week in first grade Jannie remarked one evening at the dinner table, “Mrs. Skinner says paper napkins are vulgar.” Mrs. Skinner is the first grade teacher, and it had already, by then, begun to get through to the rest of us that Mrs. Skinner’s opinions, relayed through Jannie, were inclined to be vehement, positive, and perhaps even a shade on the critical side. “Mrs. Skinner,” Jannie went on, eyeing her brother, “says little boys are made of snails.”

  “Who’s little?” Laurie demanded, stung. “Seems to me—”

  “I beg your humble pardon,” said Jannie—“I beg your humble pardon” is another Skinnerism—“I beg your humble pardon, but Mrs. Skinner says that boys any size are made of snails and little girls like Sally and me—”

  “Sally and I,” said Laurie.

  “I beg your humble pardon.—like Sally and me are dainty and sweet.”

  “Huh,” said Laurie eloquently.

  “And now I think of it, what’s so vulgar about paper napkins?” I wanted to know.

  “Mrs. Skinner,” Jannie said gently, “doesn’t care if you use paper napkins. Mrs. Skinner will let you use paper napkins if you want to. But then you’re just vulgar, is all.”

  “Some people,” Laurie remarked, addressing his plate, “Some people just think they know everything, I really do believe. Some people just think they know everything.”

  “Jannie and me are dainty and sweet, aren’t we, Jannie?” Sally gestured with her fork, scattering green peas generously onto the table. “And Laurie is full of snails.”

  “Children, be quiet,” my husband said firmly. “Mother and I want to talk.” He addressed me through a profound silence. “Did you sew the button on my shirt?” he inquired.

  “Water with the meal,” Jannie murmured, “is unsanitary.”

  We had been exposed to Mrs. Skinner from about the third day of school, when Jannie came home with a mimeographed sheet of paper containing her instructions for conduct in the first grade; she was not, I noted from the paper, to come to school with dirty fingernails, broken shoelaces, or odorous lunches. She was to wear dresses or skirts. (“Mrs. Skinner says girls wearing pants are vulgar.”) Her hair was to be cut short or braided, her socks matching, and no pins were to be in evidence. (“How about a dental plate for that missing front tooth?” I asked impolitely, and Jannie smiled at me with sweet tolerance.) She was not to wear jewelry (vulgar) or earmuffs. If she intended to visit anyone after school, or to sniffle moderately (immoderate or obtrusive sniffling was not countenanced) or to require a container of milk with her lunch, she was to bring a note. If her shoes needed soling, or she squinted at the blackboard, or created a disturbance during Songtime, Mrs. Skinner would send a note back. No parent was, under any circumstances whatsoever, for any reason up to and including absolute national emergency, to visit the classroom at any time except—Mrs. Skinner’s unwilling bow to the school authorities and their tyranny—during Parent’s Visiting Week. Children were not encouraged to discuss their home life at school.

  “Mrs. Skinner says,” Jannie remarked as her father read the mimeographed notice for the third apoplectic time, “that men who smoke are vulgar, especially cigars.”

  It did not take us very long to find out that Mrs. Skinner thought that raised voices, dining in restaurants, and playing cards were all vulgar. Jannie took to keeping care of her own socks and she bathed every night, and once a week, while we were out carousing at our regular bridge game, she washed her hair inefficiently. “A girl,” she told me, “who does not keep herself clean is unwomanly.”

  “Talking about being clean is vulgar,” I told her nastily.

  “Clean talk,” said Jannie, “is womanly.”

  “I beg your humble pardon,” I said.

  “Granted,” said Jannie.

  “This is unbearable,” I said to my husband, after Jannie had set out her clean dress for tomorrow with her clean socks, and had cleaned her fingernails and gone to bed, “this is positively vulgar—I mean unbearable.”

  “What’s so vulgar about keeping your hands in your pockets, is what I want to know?” my husband said unhappily, looking up from a book catalogue. “I have to put my hands in my pockets sometimes; I keep my cigarettes and my wallet and my handkerchief—”

  “Smoking is unsanitary anyway,” I said.

  “Cats give you colds,” Jannie remarked the next afternoon when she came home from school; she dropped her jacket into the center of the hall floor and made an ostentatious large circle around poor old Shax, who raised his head and stared at her with honest sur
prise. “Cats give you colds and dogs give you mange.”

  “Now, look, young lady,” I said sternly, “you go right out and pick up your jacket and apologize to Shax. You haven’t had a cold since—”

  “I beg your humble pardon. Mrs. Skinner says cats give you colds.”

  “Cats do not—”

  “It’s vulgar to contradict.”

  During a fairly stormy dinner, during which Laurie fled the table in a blind fury, shouting, “What the hell do I have to be womanly for?” Jannie succeeded in eliminating string beans (unsanitary), coffee (unhealthy), and the clearing of the table by the lady of the house (vulgar). She told her father while I was bringing in the dessert and setting a tray to take upstairs to Laurie that we must really get a housekeeper.

  “Who is going to pay for this housekeeper?” her father asked, the way he always asks me.

  “Speaking of money is vulgar,” Jannie said.

  Sally, who demonstrated the far-reaching arm of Mrs. Skinner by preserving an awed silence when her sister spoke, and by even making some abortive attempts to keep herself clean, said now, “I’m dainty, aren’t I? Can I have more dessert?”

  “‘May,’ dear,” Jannie said. “We say ‘May I have more dessert.’” She implied pointedly by her tone that her father and mother habitually and vulgarly used “can,” as we do. “Dear Mother,” she went on—“Dear Mother” is, I hardly need point out, Mrs. Skinner’s presumable manner of addressing her mother—“I need two buttons sewed on my jacket before tomorrow. Mrs. Skinner says that if you thread the needle for me I can do them as well as you do.”

  “You may tell Mrs. Skinner,” I said tensely, “that I have quite enough to do with the dinner dishes and drawing your—” I hesitated, deleting a vulgar word “—bath, without sitting down to teach you to sew. You may tell Mrs. Skinner that if she is so—” I deleted again “—womanly she can teach you to sew. And furthermore—”

  “A lady who does not know how to sew nicely is—”

  My husband and I flipped a coin—secretly, because money is vulgar and gambling is unwomanly and our expressed opinions were, to say the least, unsanitary—to decide which of us would stop by during Parent’s Visiting Week and beard Mrs. Skinner. My husband lost, but I had to promise to stand right outside the door while he was talking to Mrs. Skinner and rush in if he were cornered.

  The morning his father was to attend school Jannie looked him over carefully. “I told you a million times that standing with your hands in your pockets is vulgar,” she said. “And even though you’re made of snails you don’t have to—”

  “Show it,” my husband said miserably. “I suppose it’s this tie.”

  “The tie’s all right,” Jannie said without conviction, and sighed. “I wish you’d sort of give up Parent’s Day this month,” she said. “I’m going to have a real spell of faintness waiting for you in the car.”

  I stood outside the door of the first grade room, with a clear view of the health chart on the front blackboard and the row of trim geraniums on the window sill, and I heard Mrs. Skinner saying clearly, in a voice which carried beautifully across the empty desks and out into the hall, but in a voice also not raised and not in the least, I am sorry to say, vulgar, “Your little Joanne is a charming child, charming. So refined.” She lowered her voice slightly. “You know, sir, that there are children in every class, and from every walk of life, mind you, who are coarse. Who are even unclean.”

  “Vulgar, I suppose,” my husband said.

  “Precisely.” I could almost hear Mrs. Skinner glowing with satisfaction. “Vulgar, precisely the word I was hesitating to use. But little Joanne . . .” her voice died off tenderly.

  “How about your own children?” my husband asked.

  “They are many of them unbelievably charming, of course,” Mrs. Skinner said, “but of course from every walk of life . . .”

  “No,” my husband said, “your own children. Children you’ve—well—had yourself.”

  “I regret to say,” Mrs. Skinner said with a soft wistfulness, “that we have not been blessed—”

  “Not having children is unwomanly,” my husband said, “in a woman.”

  “True, true,” Mrs. Skinner said, and sighed again. “My spells of faintness,” she said; “my unfortunate weak limbs . . . but,” she added brightly, “you did not want to hear about my troubles, sir. We were speaking of your little Joanne—such a charming child.”

  “However,” my husband said relentlessly, “I presume that had you been blessed with little charmers of your own they would have caught colds from cats?”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “I beg your humble pardon,” my husband said. “Is Jannie doing all right in her school work?”

  “She is excellent in cleanliness—I don’t believe I ever saw a child so conscientious about her nails; her imaginative qualities are unusually good, and so is her general gracefulness. Her singing voice, however . . .”

  “How about spelling? Arithmetic?”

  “I beg your humble pardon?”

  “Granted,” said my husband.

  I tiptoed away at this point, and joined Jannie in the car. While she fidgeted nervously I smoked a cigarette with abandon, dropping ashes on the car seat. After about half an hour my husband came out of the school building; he had his hands in his pockets and he was whistling. “Well?” I asked him as he got into the car, “what happened?”

  “Were you all right?” Jannie said urgently, “did you do anything?”

  He untied his tie and draped it over the mirror, took a cigar out of his pocket and put it rakishly into the side of his mouth, and then he turned and grinned at us.

  “Curiosity,” he said, “is unwomanly.”

  The dinner table is, in our house, always the family village green, with the big salt and pepper shakers and the plastic table mats silent if appalled witnesses to the intricate weavings of our several dining personalities: Jannie’s place is always set left-handed, my husband and I use oversized coffee cups, and Sally requires at least three paper napkins; the dinner, which is cooked by me, tends to be largely upon Sally’s level and liberally adorned with chili sauce by Laurie. That night at dinner, Jannie was silent and oppressed. When Laurie pointed out virtuously that she had not touched her dinner, she barely raised her eyes. When Sally observed that Jannie was an impulent girl she did not turn her head, when her father offered her the band from his cigar she gazed sadly upon the ceiling.

  “Jannie is invited to Helen’s birthday party on Saturday,” I informed the table brightly.

  “How about I read you ten chapters in your Oz book?” Laurie asked.

  “Jannie can be the new mother,” Sally said largely, “and Mommy and I will just be the babies and Laurie is the queen and Daddy is a herd of rabbits.”

  “You may put an ice cube down my back,” my husband said earnestly to Jannie.

  “Thank you,” Jannie said wanly. “I don’t feel much like being happy now, thank you.”

  “Perhaps if I were to lend you my lapel watch?” I suggested.

  “I could even read you twelve chapters—”

  “You can come to my house.”

  “I think,” Laurie observed critically, “if anyone should ask me, I think she’s getting spots.”

  • • •

  Two weeks later, when Jannie was well over the measles and we were only waiting for Laurie and Sally to catch it, I ventured timidly—again at the dinner table—to point out that her nails were dirty.

  “What of it?” demanded Jannie, rendered reckless by two lovely weeks of illness. “You think I care?”

  “What’s your name?” Sally asked her.

  “Puddentane,” Jannie said.

  “Where do you live?”

  “Down the lane,” said Jannie.

  “You must keep your nails clean
,” I said gently, “even if—”

  “What’s your name?” Sally asked Laurie.

  “Laurence,” said Laurie.

  “Puddentane,” Sally said. “When I ask you ‘What’s your name?’ you must say ‘Puddentane.’ Now what’s your name?”

  “Laurence.”

  “Puddentane,” Sally shouted, “you bad bad webbis.”

  “You bad bad webbis.”

  “I am not a webbis, I said puddentane; I always say puddentane. What’s your name?” she said plaintively to her father.

  “Puddentane,” he said diplomatically.

  “Where do you live?”

  “Did you call the health officer?” my husband said to me.

  “You bad bad webbis,” Sally said reproachfully to Laurie.

  “Can I please leave my potato and my meat and my beans?” Jannie asked me. “I don’t feel really well yet, you know, and I’ll eat my bread and butter.”

  “Eat three mouthfuls of everything,” I said. “If they’re going to catch it,” I told my husband, “there’s nothing we can do.”

  “Penicillin?” he said vaguely.

  “That’s no good against measles,” Laurie said.

  “If I had been addressing you, young man,” his father began, “I can assure you that I would have—”

  “I couldn’t overhelp hearing,” Laurie said meekly.

  “What’s your name?”

  “What it comes down to,” I said, “is that they might as well have it now as—” I broke off abruptly with a squawk as Sally poked me vigorously with her fork.

  “I said ‘What’s your name?’” Sally reminded me.

  “She’s too young to have a fork,” my husband said. “Little girls should be seen and not heard,” he told Sally.

  “You bad bad webbis,” Sally said gratuitously to her brother.

  “If Sally came down with a high fever,” my husband said dreamily, “and Laurie came down with a high fever and—”

 
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