November 13, 2021
One in a series of 25 first-person narratives of offense, outrage, innocent transgression or principled affront, in attire, display, speech or spectacle.
THE BRIEF LIFE OF FRANCES POTTER
The red-and-white striped Brooks Brothers blouse says “I belong to something better that you don’t.” Its hideous tuxedo frills have a casual crumpledness, like I just got off the boat from Chappy and was too lazy to change. The dull brown skirt? Talbots, knee length, correct matronly ugliness. A cheery pink sweater tied at my throat, whale logo hidden but recognizable a mile away. I slip into my loafers and head out the door to the L train to Williamsburg. Frances Potter is in full force.
A few years ago, I briefly linked arms and sallied forth with the Brooks Brothers in hopes of fitting in at the private school where I worked. Those Old Boys never saved me. I worked it. But it didn’t work. I dressed exactly like one of the most lauded teachers. And I spent the school year being prodded with a hot iron by the school director, aka the Overlord. Yes, she’s real.
When I took a job at Manhattan Collegiate Country Day School, I was thrilled. I had been teaching dyslexic children for over seven years in private homes, slotted somewhere between the piano teacher and the math tutor. There were no other teachers to talk to. I pictured a faculty room abuzz with gossip and smart people sharing ideas. This was mainly true. But every once in a while a suit with shellacked hair and sensible pumps would blow in. The laughter would fizzle. The suck-ups would compete for her attention. This was the Overlord. I would come to know her well.
The Overlord was a gaslighter. At first, she smiled and praised me; the kids liked me, the parents were with me. But she didn’t like it when anyone else got attention. She figured out, somehow, what I was most self-conscious about and used it against me. My appearance, my clothing, both were found unacceptable. Mind you, I wore dowdy work pants and a men’s oxford every day. I was pressed and clean. But I was told by my supervisor that I had to “work on my clothes.” In a frank talk, I was told that to get the Overlord to stop targeting me I must wear make-up, a low heel, have short, conservative hair in a natural color, sweater sets. My current look was called disheveled. Maybe it was. But I wasn’t the only one. I went home and cried.
I decided to create a character: the perfect private school teacher. I took my name and scrubbed it of any dirty ethnic taint. I bought a bunch of used clothes and told my hair stylist to make me look as Upper East Side as possible. Francis Potter was born.
But this made my boss angrier. She pulled me into her office constantly for personal critiques. One day I was speaking to a parent and she glided up, gave me a side hug, and whispered in my ear “thank you.” For no reason, except to uncomfortably touch me, hopefully demean me. And it did.
I told my supervisor what was going on. She could have protected me but it would’ve cost her, so she didn’t. I can understand, on some level. Schools can be brutal.
I thought creating Frances Potter would be a joke, a funny “Haha on them.” But it wasn’t totally. It was also me in middle school, trying to fit in. And so on. Not surprisingly, I was told not to return the next year, though my performance reviews were great. Frances had failed.
The happy ending is that somehow the pandemic did all that in. During lockdown, all my Frances clothes were put on my fence. The next day they were gone.
PROJECT:OBJECTIONABLE: INTRODUCTION by Adam McGovern | Adrienne Crew on MAKIN’ BACON | Lynn Peril on BABY’S FIRST ASHTRAY | Lisa Levy on TOILETTE-À-TÊTE | Maria Swisher on STEALING GENIUS | Oliver Baer on CTHULHU SEX MAGAZINE | Yelena Tylkina on A DRINK TO DEATH | Elke Claus on URINAL SHRINE | Jeff Lewonczyk on SUSPENDERS OF DISBELIEF | Jenn Mehm on TWIN SKIN | Marlon Stern Lopez on SOUVENIR OF THE LAPD | Lauren Curtis on NAILED IT! | Josh Glenn on K-TEL TRUCKER TAPE | Fran Pado on THE BRIEF LIFE OF FRANCES POTTER | Nikhil Singh on HASHTAG FASHIONPOLICEPROBLEMS | Adam McGovern on PERSONA NON GRATA | Crystal Durant on LICENSE TO SHOCK | Dean Haspiel on DIRTY DOORKNOB | Justin J Bowen on UNKLE KRAMPUS | Annie Nocenti on STICKY FINGERS | Michele Carlo on THE MANY HATS OF CARMEN MOFONGO | Alice Meichi Li on BEDTIME FOR CATWOMAN | Whitney Matheson on GYNECOLOGICAL GOODFELLA | Ran Xia on PROJECT GREENCARD | Mimi Lipson on MEIN KITSCH | Art Wallace on ELECTRIC KOCH.
MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | & 20 MORE.
LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.
FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.
FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.
FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.
LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Allison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.
ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.
TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.
POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.
ALSO SEE: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | POLITICAL OBJECTS (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 (4Q2017) | FLAIR (2Q2018) | FOSSILS (4Q2018) | FETISHES (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS (2Q2020) | SEMIO OBJECTS (2Q2021) | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS (cross-posted from Significant Objects website). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | LOST OBJECTS (forthcoming from Hat & Beard Press, 2022) | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.