TT: Getta Letta Sweata

This past week has seen windstorms knocking out power in the U.S. – including that of  Paul, whose opinions are so crucial to today’s post.  Alan was shaken badly when a serious earthquake hit New Zealand.  Here in New Mexico, record high temperatures are crisping what they’re not melting.

It’s a lot more fun to wander.  Page back for my Wednesday Wandering and offer your opinions on how to deal with awkward realities.  Then join me and Alan as we examine some quaint customs from the days of yore.

JANE: So, once again, we return to our exploration of the mysteries of

Lettered Ladies

American school terms and rituals.  Alan, what’s your next question?

ALAN: What’s a letter jacket? We do have jackets with letters on them here and presumably they are copied from the American model. But the only people who seem to wear them are thuggish teenagers hanging around shopping malls, chilling out with their mates. I’m sure that’s not what letter jackets mean to you!

JANE: I don’t remember these at my high school.  If they were around when I was in college, I had no idea.   I know Roger (Zelazny) was very proud of having “lettered” in fencing.  I knew this meant he’d been good, but I don’t know much more.

Let me ask a few people…

ALAN: By all means.

JANE: Okay.  I’m back.   According to my friend, Paul, the more common term is “letter sweater.”   He goes on to explain:

“You could earn a letter mostly for participating in athletics – football, baseball, track, wrestling, field day, whatever. Some high schools also awarded non-athletic letters (I had one for various activities –  school paper, school annual, probably some other things I’ve forgotten). But the main emphasis was on athletic letters (I got one in college for soccer, even though I didn’t get into a whole lot of the games).

“The letter would be of the school color or colors – a gray “R” for Roanoke College, a blue and white “W” for Woodstock High, etc.

“There was a popular song back in the ’50’s, “Dungaree Doll,” one verse of which went:

‘I want you to wear my high school sweater,
‘The beat-up sweater with the high school letter,
‘Gonna make a chain of paper clips,
‘Chain us together while I kiss your lips…”

I don’t even remember who the singer was, but it’s funny how songs you heard during those years tend to stay with you. Anyway, it indicates how common high school letters were.”

ALAN: Oh I see! Do you know, it had never occurred to me that the letters indicated the school name. If I thought about it at all, I thought they were just randomly chosen.

JANE: What interests me about this is the question of whether or not letter sweaters are still common.  As I said, I don’t remember them.  Jim says that when he was in high school in the late sixties, letter sweaters were common enough that Friday was the recognized day to wear yours to school.  However, he doesn’t remember them being common when he was in college.

I’d be curious as to what our readers tell us about this custom and whether it still exists.

ALAN: Me, too.

At our school sporting achievement was rewarded by the giving of school “colours.” The recipient was allowed to wear a slightly different uniform from everybody else.  The standard tie was blue with thin gold stripes. The colours tie was gold with thin blue stripes. I think the badge on the blazer was a slightly different design as well, but I don’t remember the details. I presume the tradition of colours derives from the “blues” awarded by Oxford and Cambridge.

I have another question. Why do students need a hall pass and what is it?

JANE: Students are not supposed to leave the classroom during class.  A hall pass indicates that permission to be out of the classroom (in the hall) has been issued by an authority figure.

ALAN: I don’t recall us having any equivalent of a hall pass. If anyone was found out of class they might be questioned, though that was unlikely. The assumption would always be that they were on an errand of some kind.

Once we reached the sixth form (age seventeen) our timetable often had free periods where there was no formal instruction as such. We were expected to study on our own which essentially meant that we had the run of the school and nobody much cared what we did as long as it didn’t disturb other people. My friends and I used to sneak down to the cellars and smoke cigarettes, though later we developed an obsessive interest in cards and we spent the time playing bridge instead.

JANE: My school had study hall rather than free periods.  You could do what you wanted with the time, but since you were required to be in a specific room, you didn’t have a lot of choice.  I usually got started on my homework.  My school gave a lot of homework.

ALAN: So was the room where you did homework a home room? What exactly is a home room?

JANE:  Around fifth grade (at least for me, this may vary), students stop receiving all their instruction from one teacher in one room.  “Home room” is where a student reports at the beginning of the day to hear announcements and such.

Again, my high school experience was atypical.   I was in the orchestra and practice was right before classes started.  Therefore, where other students would go to home room and chat or catch up with homework, I’d slide in just in time to hear announcements and leave for class.

ALAN: Hang on. Slow down. I understand home room now – we had the same thing, except we called it a form room. But fifth grade? High school? You’ve mentioned high school several times.

JANE: That’s long and complicated. Let’s do it next time.


9 Responses to “TT: Getta Letta Sweata”

  1. Pat McGee Says:

    At my high school (“Hail to thee, oh Irving High School”), it was definitely a jacket, not a sweater, and it was a big deal. What made it a big deal was that the letters were awarded to guys, but that girls wore them. A girl’s social status was very strongly influenced by the number of letters their guy won for them to wear. The guy who wore his own jacket was announcing his unattached status and he likely wasn’t single for long after that. (This was the late 1960s in Texas. YMMV)

  2. Chad Cloman Says:

    At my high school, circa 1984, it was a letter jacket — heavy enough to serve as a coat. It had a fuzzy (almost carpet-like) torso in the school colors, with white leather arms. See this image for an example. If you did enough varsity athletics in any sport, you’d earn a large letter that was sewn on the front of the coat. Subsequent letters earned, in the same sport or others, were just pins that you attached to the letter. So a senior who lettered in wrestling all four years would have a letter and three wrestler pins.

    Here’s an example of how to earn a letter (I’ll use wrestling since I’m most familiar with it). For each varsity wrestling match that you competed in, you’d get a certain number of points depending on whether you won or lost, and if you won by points or by a pin. At the end of the year, if you earned at least a certain number of points, then you lettered. Also, if you made it to the state tournament, you automatically lettered.

  3. Katie Says:

    I’ll chime in as a more recent high school graduate (2004) than most….

    We had letter jackets that look much like what Chad described and linked to: fuzzy torso in school colors and white (or school-color) leather sleeves. And letters and pins worked similarly to: first you’d earn a letter, and then if you qualified for a letter in subsequent years there was a little bar pin that you pinned to the letter. The letter was for your school (S for Sandia). There were patches for the arms, too, for different activities and of course one for your graduation year. And on the back you had your name or something like that embroidered (maybe the name of the school and then your name? I’d have to go look at mine).

    Apparently in other parts of the country you earn letters pretty much only for sports, but in Albuquerque you could earn them for all sorts of activities. So I had a jacket that sported letters for academics (this was a GPA qualification, as I recall), choir (you earned points for participation in extra choir activities, fundraising events, etc.), Youth and Government, problem-solving competition programs, etc.

    Also, only juniors and seniors wore them. Obviously you couldn’t earn a letter until you had been there at least a year, so freshmen didn’t have them, but I don’t recall sophomores ever having them either. So it was sort of an upperclassmen thing.

    Anyway. They were nice warm cozy jackets (and Albuquerque campuses are spread out so you have to go outside frequently, not all one building like in the midwest), and it was cool to have one. Alumni wear them when they go back for football games or whatever, and it’s interesting to see how the designs (of the coats, the letters, etc.) have changed over the years.

  4. heteromeles Says:

    Glad you guys beat me to the punch on what a letter-man jacket looked like. For what it’s worth, I remember a cartoon about a fairly profane but athletic high schooler who was known as a “four-letter man.”

    To give Jane a leg up on the grades: In the US, there are 13 grades, K-12. The K stands for kindergarten, and then each school year gets a number: first grade through twelfth grade.

    When I went through it (mid-seventies to mid-eighties), the grades were arranged as:

    K-6: elementary school, 7-9: junior high school, and 10-12: high school.

    Now days, most schools use the following:
    K-5: elementary school, 6-8 middle school, 9-12 high school.

    Elementary, middle (or junior high) and high schools are typically separate campuses, although some schools combine, say, a middle and high school.

    The junior high/middle school distinction, as I understand it, relates to educational research and puberty. The older idea (junior high school) was to separate the pubescent kids off, but to give them what amounted to a light version of high school. The newer idea (middle school) assumes that kids learn differently during puberty (something linked to hormones and short attention spans, perhaps?), and so middle school is taught differently than both elementary school and high school. The grade range likely also reflects the fact that most kids are hitting puberty much younger.

    In any case, the thing to remember is that kids start first grade about the age of six, and graduate from high school about the age of eighteen, most go to three separate schools over the course of their childhoods.

    • Peter Says:

      In the wilds of Canuckistan where I grew up we did things a bit differently, splitting it into primary or elementary school (generally K-8, although some smaller schools only did K-6, then shipped off students to a larger school for 7+8), then secondary or high school for 9-12+13.

      Yes, 13, with 13 being the “university track” year – students who didn’t plan to attend university graduated after 12, either entering the work force or going on to community or technical colleges. Technically grade 12 graduation and grade 13 graduation were different, and graduating from grade 12 wasn’t strictly required to enter grade 13, but most people I knew ended up with both a secondary school graduation diploma (for completing grade 12) and an *honours* secondary school graduation diploma (for completing grade 13).

      Being an odd duck, I managed to graduate from grade 13 without ever having technically finished grade 12 (I took some classes early, so I fell below the minimum number of courses required to graduate from grade 12, but had good enough marks in 13 to get into a decent university – university entrance criteria at the time being based on grade 13 high school marks, rather than any kind of w/o/r/t/h/l/e/s/s standardized test. This sometimes led to people switching schools for grade 13 in order to attend schools rumoured to have laxer marking). Grade 13 was phased out about ten years ago, and Ontario high schools now finish with grade 12.

      In Quebec things are, naturally, distinct (Canadian constitution joke in honour of the 30th anniversary of our constitution): Students in Quebec do six years of primary school (1-6), followed by five years of secondary school (7-11), followed by two-three years of CEGEP (College d’enseignement general et professionel – “General and Vocational College”.). CEGEPs generally offer either a 2-year university preparation course or a 3-year technical/trades program. Some offer both.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Neat to know the “letter jacket” (and presumably sweater) continue on.

    One of the “ghosts” commented that at her school the jacket was made of the heavy felt-like fabric all over, without the leather sleeves. She wore hers until it wore out!

  6. Alan Robson Says:

    Thanks everyone. That’s cleared up a lot of mysteries that have puzzled me for decades.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: