Junior high is rarely the bastion of fashion in a person’s life. In rural Illinois circa 1997, we must have known this on some level, as much as any adolescent can claim self-awareness. But there was a confidence just the same. On school days, fashion meant No Fear T-shirts for the boys and denim, velour, or corduroy overalls for the girls. Flared jeans as a throwback to our parents’ college years paired with Doc Marten sandals, tie-dyed tees, and self-made hemp necklaces on any breezy Midwestern summer night. And, only when our mothers really insisted did we pull out the add-a-pearl necklaces and charm bracelets for a birthday brunch at the country club.
Maybe it was the confusion of puberty or maybe it was the fact that our school was located in a not-even-a-dot-on-the-map town in Central Illinois. Regardless, this weird blend of Shania Twain meets the Grateful Dead meets Samantha Parkington pretty much summed up who we were. A little country. A little hippie. Mostly just living large in a small town, trying on different combinations and slowly piecing together projections of self, one accessory at a time.
I remember being embarrassed by my parents plenty, but their clothing was never an issue. When your dad wears the standard golf polo, khaki Dockers, and topsiders (even to mow the yard), there isn’t too much to worry about. My mom always seemed ahead of the fashion curve, but in junior high, it wasn’t her Chanel bag or Trina Turk shift that I asked to borrow. Somewhere in the depths of her cavernous jewelry box, I discovered my mother’s high school class ring. Round and brassy gold, it wasn’t your typical Jostens fare with a gem vaguely resembling your birthstone. No, this ring was different. St. Mary’s Academy, a boarding school for girls, delivered a hunk of gold, pressed with the school’s crest, made to endure the aftermath of a Catholic education. And, in the end, it wasn’t the sentimental value or the fact that my mother wore this ring as she processed across the graduation stage in Nauvoo, Illinois. It wasn’t that I was looking ahead to the end of my own high school education, trying on a symbol of progress and completion. And, it certainly wasn’t that this ring was likely blessed by the Benedictine sisters of St. Mary Monastery. It just so happens that this ring was physical proof that my own mother graduated high school in 1969.
Two numbers that when smushed together nearly made seventh grade guys’ heads explode. Never mind that I had no earthly idea what was so special about that pair of numbers. Sixty-nine had something to do with sex, and the boys would love it. So, I asked permission to wear it daily.
It was in these early years that I discovered that what makes the boys sit up is never what you planned for. Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker chapstick? Hardly. Abercrombie & Fitch perfume? Forget it. But, the etchings of a couple numbers on your mother’s class ring turned out to be a game changer. For Cliff, Tyler, Joe, Tim, it was as if I’d smuggled a porno into the hallways of our small school. “Cool as shit,” they said. “Baller.” “I wish my mom had graduated in ‘69.”
It would take until college, at least, for these boys to outwardly acknowledge that somewhere in their own fathers’ armoires were cool-as-shit relics of their own. A guitar, perhaps. A fringed vest from that epic frat party at the U of I. Maybe even a list of digits straight from ’69 of all the Debbies and Rondas and Pattys a guy could ask for. But, all that was a long time coming for my peers. In seventh grade, I had found the golden ticket to five minutes of middle school fame. —katherine sutcliffe