Permanent Record: The Wit and Wisdom of Miss Kotter

A trove of 1920s report cards and the stories they tell.
Sept. 18 2011 3:21 PM

Permanent Record

The wit and wisdom of Miss Kotter.

If you ever had a teacher or guidance counselor who seemed to specialize in ruining your day with an endless stream of stern, reproachful commentary, then you have a good sense of what Miss A. Kotter appears to have been like. Miss Kotter, who ran the Manhattan Trade placement office from the 1920s through the mid-1930s, was never at a loss for words, and those words were frequently harsh and petty, at least as expressed in many of the students' work histories. Here are some of her best lines (or worst, depending on how you look at it):

  • Carmela Panarello was initially described in 1930 as "Quite attractive, extremely likeable girl." But on Jan. 27, 1933, Miss Kotter crossed that out, wrote, "Not now," and added, "Has developed an inflated idea of herself." A few months later, after Carmela failed to respond to two messages from the placement office, Miss Kotter wrote this: "AK told Carmela we would not place her before fall season. Has to pay penance for recent negligence. This may also help to deflate her ego that has grown so lately."
  • Pasquelina Colozzo was also described as "attractive," but this appears to have been a backhanded compliment at best, because Miss Kotter also wrote, "Speech is coarse and crude. Irresponsible. Probably very popular with the boys."
  • Antoinette Alfano's mother asked Miss Kotter to help arrange a job for Antoinette. But after three weeks on the job, Antoinette stopped showing up at work. Her supervisor contacted her home and was told Antoinette was caring for a sick relative, leading to the following notation in her file: "Imagine such a feeble excuse after mother had pressed placement office to make special effort to place Antoinette because of economic need in family!"
  • Miss Kotter had strong feelings about how students should address her, as seen in this entry from Minnie Gropper's file: "Very unbecoming attitude when AK telephoned regarding a position. Seemed a little annoyed, and very fussy about position. Called AK 'Dear.' "
  • One of the nastiest and most unprofessional comments in my entire report card collection can be found in the file of Mary Baio, an Italian student whom Miss Kotter described as follows: "Very plain and foreign-looking. Garlic (?)"


It's not clear how students felt about Miss Kotter, although it's easy to imagine them calling her lots of things besides "Dear." Sometimes, however, her strict approach was effective, as in the case of Julia Paltrinieri, whose record includes this entry for March 30, 1933: "AK received letter two days ago from Julia, dated 3-21-33. Said she did not have time to write and then said she wished AK could get her something, because the days were so long with nothing to do. AK wrote to Julia, reproving her for all this, including mis-dating the letter. Told Julia she will not be put back on the [job] applicant list until she comes in to explain." The next entry, dated April 1, reads, "Sorry you had to reprimand me in your last letter. I'll be more punctual and accurate in the future."

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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