Vital Signs

The Great San Jose Finger Flap

Remembering Jessica Mitford

I recently watched a television special about the life and times of Jessica Mitford, and the program took me back fifteen years or so to my first meeting with Jessica. It was mid-December, the beginning of the Christmas recess at San Jose State College, and Jessica had been informed that, at the close of the present semester, she would not be rehired as Distinguished Professor of Sociology. Because she had refused to comply with the California State College rule that all teachers in the system had to be fingerprinted, she had been fired, or, as the dean of social sciences, James Sawrey, put it—to Jessica's immense delight—"dehired."

Rather than fingerprints, Jessica had submitted to the college trustees a set of her toeprints, and on the San Jose State campus stickers and buttons proclaiming "Jessica Thumbs Her Toes" abounded.

To interview Jessica, I had arranged to drive her from San Jose to her home in Oakland, and during the drive, in high spirits, she discussed her upcoming dismissal. "Prom distinguished professor to extinguished professor in three short weeks," she twitted. "Really, I haven't the faintest idea how I got to be a distinguished professor. I never even went to school. Mother insisted that I learn to read, though, and that's been jolly useful, learning to read, I mean." She wore red pumps and a red and blue dress patterned like a stained glass...

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