Musings + Essays

Serious Backbone.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image above via Tory Burch.

“Lower the volume,” Mrs. Branch used to say with an air of begrudging frustration, gesturing, desultorily, downward with her palms, when my third grade class was growing unruly. She was the teacher’s assistant, and she wore shockingly long and glamorous bright purple nails and a blinkingly blase face, and I could not grasp how those two details fit together. She would trail behind the neat line of my nineteen classmates and I with an air of apathy, but if one of the boys in my class started goofing around, she’d yank him by his shirt back into the line.

One morning, on the blacktop behind my parochial school, my classmate Justin was showing off with a kickball, punting it into clusters of classmates and swinging his legs too close to those around him. I can’t remember the specifics of my intervention, though I am sure it was graceless and flushed — only that he shoved me backwards, and as I tumbled into the hedge that lined the first floor of the school building, Mrs. Branch emerged from a creaky green metal door with more speed than I’d ever seen her use, and she plucked me out of the bushes by my shirtfront and stood me up in front of Justin and said:

“Don’t you ever — and I mean ever — hit a woman.” She was holding her pointer finger upright in Justin’s face, and his eyes were wild and animal-like, and I think I was just as scared as he was. We stood there, the three of us, in tense silence, a triangle of charged emotions and hurt.

“Yes, Mrs. Branch,” Justin said — and he said it loud, like he meant it, like she had scared the bejesus out of him, discarding the standard-issue performative mumbling I tended to hear from the chastised eight-year-old boys in my class. She lingered there, with her purple lacquered nail in his face, for another beat, and I remember finally working my eyes up to the steely set of Mrs. Branch’s face and feeling like I was seeing something I shouldn’t have, because just as she relaxed her hand, I saw her look down at the ground and shake her head in what I took to be a private gesture towards her own adult experiences, and I had a sense for what that meant and it made me feel sick and scared.

She rested her hand on my shoulder and didn’t say anything else — didn’t coddle, didn’t ask after possible injuries, didn’t fill the void with explanations. She just left her hand on my shoulder for a full and excruciating minute before she turned and retreated into the building.

I could have sworn that Mrs. Branch winked at me every now and then in the following months, though her affect was so deadpan it was hard to tell. Mainly, I was intimidated by her, and I was terrified of the private story she had conjured looking down at the asphalt that morning, and I couldn’t see her wave her fancy purple nails without thinking about it all.

My sophomore or junior year of high school, I caught word that Mrs. Branch had passed away, and I wondered about her and thought, fleetingly, about tracking down the details of her funeral — but I was self-absorbed and immature and such effort seemed beyond my ken, and so, selfishly, I did nothing. I don’t know why she crossed through my mind the other day for the first time in perhaps a decade, but there she was, her tarrying gait and her purple nails and her breathless, immediate intervention on my behalf and on behalf of women everywhere, for that matter.

Every now and then, my adult life has intersected with a person of serious backbone, and I have left these interactions enriched and humbled and doubled-down in my own convictions. But when you are young, you see only the shape of severity. You shy away from that person, feeling uncomfortable with the unusual-for-the-grown-ups-you-know breadth of her expressiveness. At the same time, you draw careful lines around the subject at hand. You whisper about it when it comes up again: “I think he tried to hit a girl” — with your eyes are wide as saucers and your face screwed up in horror at the fact that a serious transgression — an adult-sized one — has been made.

Only with the passage of time have I wondered about Mrs. Branch, have I wanted to go back and thank her, my callow fear of her having given way to a kind of understanding only age can afford. I am probably not that much younger than Mrs. Branch was when she looked after me in third grade, and I wonder about her, and I think that she might have been one of those women planting trees under whose shade she had no time to sit.

In memoriam.

And in honor of the many guardian angels that take the shape of teachers and teaching assistants.


+On backbones and wishbones.

+On turning 36.

+Things I have learned from my mother.

+Three very chic shoes for fall/winter: these pearled flats, these feather-embellished satin sandals, these $70 velvet ballet flats.

+Sad I missed out on this long-sleeved striped polo in micro’s size, but glad I was able to stock up on these Lacoste polos for him, on sale for 40% off.

+Chic wicker task lamp for $59!

+Still a few sizes left in mini’s ($18!) adorable fall knit dress, which is now also available in gray.

+In love with this glen plaid coat.

+This $16 knit bubble is beyond adorable for a baby girl. I’d pair with ribbed knit tights.

+Custom vinyl labels — eat your heart out, fellow organization-obsessed Type As.

+As you know, I am obsessed with my collection of Kule striped tees. I just saw they also have turtlenecks in their signature stripes and may have to order this.

+These star-print ice cream bowls are adorable.

+Love these lamps for a nursery.

+People absolutely love these insulated coffee mugs. As a mother who frequently drinks her coffee on the tepid side, I can see why.

+Yoga mat cleaner! I just dusted my old yoga mat off so that I can do crunches/push-ups post-run (slowly and modestly adding to my fitness regimen) and this will do the trick.

+A favorite top for fall.

+Recent Amazon finds.

+Love these big black shades.

+This Emerson-Fry-esque caftan is the perfect thing to lounge in post-shower / after a long day of work. $25!

+Statement sweaters for fall.

+Love these tees for layering, lounge, and sleeping — they are tagless and so soft. I also like the look of a simple white tee under a fun tweed blazer like this.

+This faux shearling coat is absolutely adorable for a little girl.

+A stylish, plush, and affordable rug for a playroom or entertainment space. (More of my favorite rugs here.)

+Obsessed with this feminine sweater.

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5 thoughts on “Serious Backbone.

  1. Wow — again, this recollection brought tears to my eyes! Being the same age, I have found myself recently thinking about certain people I haven’t thought about in literal decades (!) — I think this nostalgia could be a side effect of COVID. Not sure, but either way, I relate. And as the sister of a teacher, I also deeply appreciate your line about the guardian angels that watch over us in school, and continue to do so every year for children the world over. Their strength and sacrifices leave me deeply grateful every day.

    P.S. I want a YETI mug — was on vacation with my parents and two of my siblings last week and they ALL had YETI bottles and coolers and such! I need to join the club. 😉


    1. So interesting – you could be right about the COVID-induced nostalgia. I also always find myself more sentimental at the turn of the seasons. I think it makes me even subconsciously more aware of the passage of time. This year, though, I’m just like “TAKE ME ALL THE WAY TO 2021 AND STAT PLS.” Ha. xx

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