Jell-O Shots, Cross-dressing, and Soviet Russia: Elementary School in the Reagan ’80s

The entire time I was in school from Kindergarten through 12th Grade, I rode the school bus for a grand total of three weeks. I started off going to Inlet View Elementary in Anchorage, which was our normal boundary-apportioned elementary school for West Anchorage. It was far, and across treacherous terrain, so I had to ride the school bus. That wasn’t much of a big deal, although I can still remember the smell to this day. What was even more fun was the actual Kindergarten, which was like a vacation from the drudgery of home. I finally had things I could call my very own – not my parents’ but mine. I had a cubby, a coat hook, and an entire play house to myself (by default, I was really the only one interested in it – everyone else seemed to want to eat paste and complain about the bathroom door not locking.) If I remember correctly, the teacher’s name was Mrs. Borg (assumed to have been forced to teach Kindergarten because kids in upper classes would have understood the Star Trek implications inherent in her name and would have been insufferable), and she was pleasant.

The best part of the playhouse was the second floor, reached by a ladder, which had an entire closet full of costumes to which we could help ourselves. Success! Finally allowed to dress myself (nobody could really be trusted with clothes in the ’80s, and my parents were no exception) I opted for a lovely floral Mother Hubbard dress, and returned to the ground floor to fetch the kettle which had been brewing a lovely batch of playhouse tea on the plastic stove, crack open One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and see if I could entice one of the boys into the kitchen for a teatime reading-aloud.

I was immediately confronted by a pair of blonde pigtails, which are instantly identifiable as the international symbol for pugnacity. I braced myself and clutched the (thankfully fast-cooling)  teapot to my breast; I wasn’t about to share a drop of my hard-brewed tea with some girlShe gave me a once-over and an awful smile began to spread across her face.

“Ooooh, I’m telling!” She taunted.

I looked down at the dress, and back up at her.

“You know, now that you mention it, I’m not crazy about the fit either, but this was the only size they had upstairs.”

I turned around to make sure nobody was raiding the play fridge, and that the kitchen door that looked out over the naptime mats was clear of eavesdroppers. I put my hand up to my mouth and continued in a loud whisper, “But I didn’t want to mention it to Mrs. Borg, poor thing, because I was afraid it would hurt her feelings.” We had learned about feelings that morning and I was very impressed with myself that I was putting my new learning to immediate use.

She ignored me and ran off in the direction of Mrs. Borg’s desk, and I felt a cold sweat break out, and waited silently for the clear humiliation that was the only possible end game a five-year-old fashion plate could have reasonably expected. Thankfully, Mrs. Borg appeared to be trying to unglue somebody’s hand from one of the craft tables, but Pigtails was not to be easily put down – the next stop on her itinerary was the beanbag chairs in the reading area, in an attempt to roust the troops. I began to panic when I remembered the adjacent Old MacDonald playset featured a large plastic pitchfork that would any doubt be wielded in my direction. Worse than humiliation from the teacher would have been perishing Frankenstein-style in a playhouse fire surrounded by an angry Kindergarten mob, or being chased up the ladder to the loft only to fall to my death like King Kong.

Thankfully, before Pigtails could gather the tar-and-feather party, Mrs. Borg had succeeded with the ungluing, and called everyone over to the craft tables for the next installment of Jell-O making class. In a very soft introduction to the concept of liquids and solids, we were making rainbow Jell-O (which might have explained Mrs. Borg’s seeming indifference to having a transvestite in her class). We had already poured two colors of Jell-O in thin layers in a little plastic airline beverage cup, and it was time to carefully watch as Mrs. Borg and a Teacher’s Aide poured the next scalding layer of hot liquid into our cup. Now this was learning:

“Don’t touch pan or the liquid, children, because it’s hot and if you touch it you WILL DIE but just watch, and in five days we’ll all have snacks.”

Unfortunately the waiting list at Northern Lights ABC School opened up, and I never got to have the damn Jell-O.

Northern Lights was one of several magnet schools in the Anchorage School District, and one of two on our side of town, the other being Chugach Optional.  ABC stood for Alternative Basic Curriculum and students were taught with a greater emphasis on “back-to-basics” like the Three R’s, and were subject to a higher standard of deportment and citizenship. Basically, we had to dress up and it was a cardinal sin to spit, curse, wear shorts or a dress more than an inch above the knee. Basically, cross-dressing was now completely out of the question, and Kindergarteners were expected to sit in a desk and actually pay attention for the entire three and a half hour school day. So ABC was the very sort of Republican, conservative, capitalist type alternative. From what I understood at the time, Students at Chugach Optional called their teachers by their first names (invariably Dawn, or Grass, or Kimber), received “grades” that resembled Donkey Kong levels, and could wear whatever they damn well pleased, from parachute pants to nothing at all.

Screw it: I’ll cross dress at home then.

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Another of the bizarre differences about Northern Lights was the so-called “Red, White, and Blue Assembly” during which we were all expected to dress in the nation’s primary colors and toddle down to the gymnasium to sit cross-legged on the floor and listen to the assigned class sing songs, recite poems, and engage in skits, all with the same theme: We’re much more fortunate than the poor Soviet children who live in abject poverty because their parents hate freedom, and even other countries like Canada aren’t as free as us because they didn’t have the foresight to invent liberty like we did. 

“Sally, your word is Communism.”

“Can you use it in a sentence, please?”

“Children in Russia aren’t allowed to have Christmas because of Communism.”

“Communism. E-V-I-L E-M-P-I-R-E. Communism.”

“Very good, Sally. Now point out somebody in your class or among the faculty you think might be a Communist.”

Just my luck, it would have been on the day that I wore a red dress.

Because I never got to eat any of the Jell-O, I later revised the recipe during my college years, and I’ll leave it with you now.

Scott’s “There’s Always Room For Long Island Tea”

Simply put, we’re making multi-layered Jell-O shots in the same cup. You’ll need:

One package each 

Orange Jell-O

Lime Jell-O

Lemon Jell-O

Peach Jell-O

Berry Blue Jell-O

Prepare according to directions on package. After boiling, instead of adding water, substitute an equal amount of the following alcohol for each flavor:

Orange – Triple Sec

Lime – Tequila

Lemon – Gin

Peach – Vodka

Berry Blue – Rum

Layer in cups by adding two fingers of each flavor and letting it cool entirely in the refrigerator before adding the next layer. (It will take less time than indicated on the package because the doses are much smaller). When all five layers are completed, top with whipped cream and enjoy.

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