Erin

How did we Get Here?

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2010 at 11:18 pm

It’s funny to see how markedly our posts change from the late-childhood to early-adolescence period.  There’s been more written on the unbearable awfulness and hilarity of that time of life than I could possibly hope to capture here, so I’ll refrain from waxing philosophical about what it means to grow up, or feel adult feelings for the first time.  And looking at it from the outside–that is, as an adult watching kids become teenagers, or trying to capture the meaning of that transition–always seems so inadequate.  On the other side of puberty, nothing seems as important or embarrassing or exciting as it was in that moment, and it’s tempting to do a little condescension-dance, even (or especially) about our (my) former selves.  And frankly, most of the time, those teenage selves–with all their self-centered, drama-queen myopia–deserve it.  But because this little project is about, as much as possible, remembering, I want to try to bracket the urge to qualify or apologize for my 13-year-old self, and see if I can give you a bit of a window into how she became who she was–angsty teenage narcissism and all.  Interestingly, I think this will necessarily be something of a failing proposition: we live forwards but understand backwards, as Kierkegaard says, so I don’t pretend to offer you something about who I “really was,” if by that we have in mind some access to True Lived Experience.  But what I do have is this, such as it is.

When I was almost 12, my family moved out of our main-road house, a few miles down the road into a “real neighborhood,” with a suburban entrance-sign and everything.   This marked the first time I was ever allowed to walk on the sidewalk by myself for more than a block, and a new school-bus route populated by new kids–most of whom were much cooler than I was.  Sometimes, walking home from the bus, a boy who lived a few streets over would follow me home and throw rocks at me.  I ignored him, as I was taught to do.  On the bus, I was the quiet, well-behaved kid–I sat in my seat without chewing gum (which was strictly verboten by Miss May, the angry bus driver with pancake makeup and dyed-black hair) and frequently said nothing, other than the occasional request to listen to my seatmate Lindsay’s radio Walkman after she tired of the 45th replay of Ace of Base’s “The Sign.”  Miss May would scream at the beautiful, misbehaving cool boys to be more like me when they started raucous paper-football games, which left me simultaneously proud and humiliated–especially after one named Josh sassily replied that he could quiet if he were “antisocial” too, but that he preferred to have friends.  Things were changing, and the world was not what I thought it was.

Another time, to punish an older boy, Miss May made him sit with me–and he responded by loudly unzipping his fly next to me in the seat: “Aaaahhhh, it feels sooo much better open.”  Again, as I had been taught, I looked out the window and pretended to ignore him.  It was excruciating, until Miss May realized what was going on and screamed at him to zip up.  And then it was merely humiliating again.

Throughout this period, I remember being consumed with the sense that I was leading a double life: at home I was a little girl, who was afraid of the dark and got in trouble for failing to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir,” and at school I was attempting–for the most part unsuccessfully–to be someone else.  Anyone else, as long as that someone wasn’t a kid anymore.  I bought bras, though  I didn’t really need them, and saved my allowance to buy clothes at the mall, like the cool girls.  And somehow, I had the sense that no one else knew a reality like mine, and that everyone just was the seemingly flawless image they maintained at school.

It’s lucky, I think, that I knew Sharon during this time–and, later, our other ‘dorky’ friends as well.  We were a kind of refuge for one another, a place to go where everything made sense and laughter was both possible and inevitable.  There are so many incidents that stick in my head as earth-shatteringly embarrassing from the 12-14 years (that time I sent a boy who barely knew I existed flowers on Valentine’s Day, that time I didn’t know what a “skater” was, that time we prank called and then arranged a meeting with the cool boy down the street without having the slightest idea what would happen next, those many times I wore ill-advised outfits modeled on descriptions of Claudia from the Baby Sitters’ Club series–despite the author’s admonition that “on anyone else it would have looked ridiculous”,  that time I didn’t know what a “blow job” was, and I could go on) that it was a relief to just be with someone who would still think you were fun even after seeing life on the inside of your house.

This became even more true when we started High School.  Truthfully, I was terrified.  I remember riding the bus in 8th grade, being hit by a wave of panic when I thought about it–a feeling that, unfortunately, was not helped by the pre-school revelation that (horrors!) Sharon and I had no classes together.  We were on our own.

Once things got underway, we were fine, of course.  Sharon had warned me never to accept an “Elevator Pass” from an upperclassman–“They try to sell it to you, but the thing is, there is no elevator,” she had knowingly explained.  And we were also warned to avoid anything called the “Sappho Club,” which was apparently code-word for “Lesbian,” as our Magnet-and-Arts-specializing high school had a reputation around town for being a haven for The Gays.*  So we went about our business rather uneventfully for the first month of school.

And then, in September, everything changed.

Or, it did for me.  I have wondered about how I should talk about this time of my life, and even now, it is…fraught (though this description is a sort of grasping) for me.  I have, now, lived more of my life on this side of it than before, which is at once unbelievable and deeply sad.

In September of 1995, my cousin–who, as I was quick to tell people in the months and years that followed, was also my friend–was killed in an accident.  His name was Brent, and he was 14.

It was a Saturday.  I had gone with my mom to the grocery store, where I had gotten my favorite indulgence, frosted Teddy Grahams. They had round rainbow sprinkles stuck to the frosted side, which crackled satisfyingly in my teeth.  I was eating a handful–biting the heads off one at a time, with the frosting side against my tongue–when the phone rang.  It was my mom’s sister.  I told her, between Teddy Graham bites, that my mom was in the bathtub, could I take a message?

No, she said.  I need to talk to her right now.  I heard the urgency in her voice, which was a mix of tears and anger.  I told my father, who ran to get my mother.  I stood in the kitchen alone, my heart racing.  From the other room, I heard a kind of desperate yelp, and then, uncontrolled sobbing.  Seconds or minutes passed.  My parents emerged from their bedroom, and my father seemed to be holding up my mother by the sides of her arms, still wet and in her bathrobe.  I had never seen her like this–weak, devastated, entirely without self-possession.  It was terrifying.

Moments later, we were in the car, racing to the hospital in north Louisiana.  I was wearing the Mickey Mouse shirt that Dawn would later borrow without asking.  The ride was a blur of darkness and incomprehension, full of words that I heard numbly without understanding them: head trauma, comatose, brain-dead.

I had last seen Brent two months earlier.  Every summer, he and his sister spent at least a week with me and my brother, and this year, we had together made a satirical video of a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s show with a skeezy host (played masterfully by Brent), as well as my brother’s birthday cake, which we decorated elaborately with a “Riddler” theme inspired by that summer’s blockbuster, Batman Forever.  We had seen the movie twice in the theater, and giggled uncontrollably through much of the second showing, after I stepped in a neighboring patron’s bucket of popcorn on the way back from the bathroom.  The last time I ever saw his face was in the parking lot of the Sizzler in Natchez, Mississippi, where our parents met (halfway between our houses) to transport him and his sister, Lauren, back home.  He was handsome (if awkward, in that 14 year old way) and smiling, with his dark hair perfectly combed, and his preppy polo-collared shirt neatly tucked into his light khaki shorts.  I hugged him goodbye, and smelled the smell of his parents’ immaculate house.  He got into his mother’s van, and was gone.

In the hospital, we waited.  We waited for days.  And then, it became apparent what we were waiting for, as we gathered in an ugly room with wood paneling, where the doctors  told us that there was no more hope.  I felt myself ripped apart, disoriented, surrounded by an unrelenting flood of blinding pain that I saw repeated and magnified in the faces around me.  I did not understand.

Back in the main waiting room, which was equally as hideous but which featured walls painted an institutional light blue, rendered more piercingly grotesque by the fluorescent lights and ticking clock, I sat with my mother and waited for everyone to say goodbye.  She and my father had just gone themselves, and she asked if I wanted to go.  I refused again, physically recoiling from the thought of being confronted with the visible evidence of this reality.  She sighed and stroked my hair, her eyes red.  In the midst of our exhaustion, she pulled me onto her lap, and I curled into the fetal position and wept.  Through my tears, I heard her whisper over and over again–to me?–it’s going to be ok…it’s going to be ok…it’s going to be ok…

At some point during all of this, my parents gave me their phone card and told me that I could call a friend.  At the bank of pay-phones, I dialed Sharon’s number, and spoke to her about everything that had happened.  I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember the feeling of the cold, plastic receiver against my cheek, and somehow getting out the words: “I’m ok.”

It was almost true.  In the weeks and months and years that followed, I vacillated between trying to be ok and defiantly refusing to be ok.  I wanted, desperately, for all of this to mean something, to fit into my life in a coherent narrative–whether that turned out to be a story of triumphant overcoming or of a sinking into immovable despair.  But it was neither of these things.  It was senseless pain, utter loss.  And as I learned, much, much later, such senselessness simply does not fit, and defies our attempts to render it coherent.

In the face of that incoherence, our lives went on.

That’s what happens, as it turns out.  For survivors, I mean.  Life just keeps going on, and at some moments, that is all you can say of it.  It goes.  You do your best to make sense of it–sometimes that involves listening to loud music that your parents hate and wearing black nail polish with over-sized pants, and sometimes it involves throwing yourself headlong into religiosity–but at the end of the day, it just keeps going, regardless of your success.

But the funny thing about this, at least for me, is that the going isn’t always so deadly serious.   You join the JV soccer team, and have your first kiss, and still have moments of goofiness that make you laugh yourself silly.  You try out new identities here and there, declare yourself an ALFD, and write a bit of terrible poetry.  But the kicker is that through all of this “going on,”–living, I suppose–the senseless loss remains.  I don’t mean that you stay immovably sad forever.  In truth, the fact that I was so unpredictably happy at times was incredibly frustrating to me for the first few years.  I mean that through all the “going,” the loss becomes no less real, nor less incomprehensible.

The best thing that can be said, I think, is that if you’re lucky, you have a friend or two to bear with you, through all the going.

*In retrospect, the homophobia involved here is horrifying and ridiculous (especially considering who we became later in life)…and, I hope, dated.

True Confessions of an Artless Nerd

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2010 at 11:42 pm

If we’re going to start talking about The Teenage Years (insert horror movie soundtrack here), it’s important that I confess something up front: I am entirely incapable of cultivating an image.

It’s true.  I am the sort of person who will announce to a group of L.A. hipsters that I absolutely love the band Counting Crows.  My wardrobe still consists almost entirely of t-shirts, jeans, and cardigans.  In an upturning of gender dynamics, many of my boyfriends have been appalled enough by my style of dress that they had to make me into their own personal paper doll.  I still don’t really understand how to style my hair.  My bookshelf displays no coherent sense of taste beyond being skewed vaguely Victorian.  My music and film collections are ALL over the place and, again, have no interwoven theme other than, “Man, wasn’t that AWESOME?”  I describe almost everything as “The best (or worst) thing EVAR!!!!”  I am a sucker for Greatest Hits albums.

This doesn’t mean that I am not conscious of image in general.  I am not a holier-than-thou, “I’m better than you because I don’t NEED an image” type.  (That in itself would be an image, and is therefore beyond my capabilities.)  In fact, for a good deal of my life, the fact that I had no image was one of my greatest sources of self-consciousness.  But no matter what I did, I just couldn’t change that aspect of myself.  My most consistent personality trait is my inconsistency.  I just can’t stick with something long enough to be identified for it.  When I was a little kid, I frequently changed outfits four or five times a day.  When my mother finally confronted me about this, pointing out that it made an awful lot of dirty laundry, I countered, “But, Mom!  I HAVE to change clothes because I need to be different people!”  That pretty much sums it up.  I’ve always lived buried inside my own head somewhere, and inside of that world I am constantly shifting identities.  I have a jillion different contradictory identities always fighting for attention.  And I’ve never managed to figure out exactly how to project a singular image – how to cultivate an appearance and style that magnify rather than diminish all the things that I am on the inside.  And ultimately, the self-consciousness about my lack of identity came from a basic teenage drive – a desperate desire to find a place where I truly “fit in.”*

So when Erin began what she references as her “freak” phase, I was insanely jealous.  I wanted a Freak Boyfriend too!  I wanted to hang out with the “weird” kids who were in bands or occasionally might have smoked pot (Horrors!).  And, more than anything, I wanted to be accepted by the “artsy” crowd, the kids who liked indie movies and did their makeup in experimental ways.  I KNEW that I was NOT “Vanilla.”  But no one else seemed to notice this at all.  At least as far as my appearance was concerned, I was your basic everyday Goody-Two-Shoes, the same that I’d been in our elementary school days.

Since Erin included some photographic evidence for her post, I’ll be brave enough to pony up some of my own.

This is a pic of the two of us in the church rec room.  The dress Erin’s wearing is one she made herself, from scratch.  Although she’ll make fun of herself for it now, you have to admit it’s a pretty cool dress.  And it looks good on her.  I, on the other hand, am wearing jeans that don’t really fit, along with what was my favorite top – a sleeveless black sweater from (gasp!) The Gap.  I loved this shirt.  You know what it says about me?  Absolutely nothing.  Same goes for the jeans.  From this picture, I could literally be any generic white girl.  And that’s pretty much what I felt like I was during the years from about 6th grade on.

So again, I repeat: insane jealousy.  What I didn’t realize about myself, though, is that the same qualities that prevented me from actively cultivating an image also prevented me from editing myself in any way.  I said pretty much whatever I felt like saying, pretty much wherever I felt like saying it, regardless of the consequences to my image.  At school this wasn’t such a big deal.  For middle and high school, Erin and I attended large public “magnet” institutions – meaning that we had big student bodies made up mostly of kids who were slightly smarter than average.  Because we got classified as the “smart” kids, more than a few of us were fairly self-righteous and loudmouthed.  We liked to argue, liked to show off our “knowledge” of important “issues.”  My tendency to spout off wasn’t unusual in the least in such a setting.  However, that same tendency made my presence at church more than a little bizarre.

Before joining Erin’s church in what I’m pretty sure was the 8th grade, I had spent one year as an official part of a church congregation – the year that I was four years old.  I have exactly two memories of church: coloring pictures of Jesus walking on water (my Jesus’ robes were always orange) and the day when a boy named Michael got his head tangled in the volleyball net in our church’s gymnasium.  And that second one I really only remember because my mom reminded me of it when Michael later became a beautiful specimen and member of the Untouchable Popular Group at my middle school.**  Despite my attendance at the Unnamed Religious Private School (or URPS, as I will refer to it from here on out), I didn’t really understand what constituted “appropriate” church behavior.  I wasn’t familiar with the politics and hierarchies of church, the way that a congregation can divide itself into cliques the same way that any other body of children or adults will do.

Like Erin, I was obsessed with being Good.  I wanted to Do the Right Thing.  I wanted to be Perfect perfect perfect perfect.  Desperately.  The thing was, I was still really too young and unaware to know that the definition of “Good” and “Perfect” change depending on the crowd you’re hanging around.  My ideas of Good were based mainly on my parents’ notions of right and wrong.  I practically worshipped my parents for most of my childhood, and as far as I was concerned they were the ultimate arbiters of Truth.  For some kids Parents and Church are virtually one and the same.  They live in households where their moms and dads uphold the laws and dogmas of an organized religion.  My house was a bit different and this, combined with my  general loudmouthedness, made me into an accidental outcast.

There was no CHANCE I would have been invited to Sam’s private Bible study.  Sam maintained a fairly open distaste for me, actually.  And I’m pretty sure I know why.  Here are some (not all) of the things I said and did during the 4 or so years that I was a member of the Major Religious Institution of Baton Rouge:

1. I declared myself to be, along with Erin, a member of the Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats – four out of four of those things were unacceptable adjectives for women.

2. I once told off the child of a visiting minister, in my most professorial tone, because he explained to our Sunday school class that “religious tolerance” was a sign of weakness and that, basically, we were fighting a spiritual war with every other major belief system on earth.  I believe that somewhere in my speech I used the phrase, “I don’t care who your father is.”

3.  Erin and Alex and I once planned to stage a PROTEST, complete with feminist signage, at a church picnic because we girls had been excluded from the all-male basketball tournament that was the main event.

4.  I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper decrying the poor behavior of Christians on the gay rights front.  (I received actual hate mail from members of our congregation for this one.  And I received some letters of praise from other members.  Although I will sometimes portray the church as the Bogeyman, we were surrounded by plenty good and well-meaning people.  It’s just that they tended to fade into the background when I was on a tare and telling people off.)

5.  Most of the time, our Sunday school classes were separated by gender.  Once, however, most of the girls were absent for some reason and the few of us who remained were “invited” to sit in with the boys.  Their leader, whom I will call Lee, was teaching a lesson that somehow involved discussion of the death penalty.  I told him off too, in dramatic fashion.  And he did not back down an inch.  We spent a good deal of the lesson debating the ethics of capital punishment.  I remember that at one point Lee read me a verse in the Bible that basically says “God put earthly leaders in charge, so it is our job to follow their laws” and implied to me that this meant all laws must be good.  Because leaders are from God.  I wish I’d been savvy enough to bring up Roe v. Wade here.  Dammit.

6.  I committed the rather large sin of forgetting that I had boobs and hips.  I dressed without regard to how much skin I was exposing.  And I really really love dresses with spaghetti straps.  I also loved tiny tank tops.

I was NOT in the cool group at church.  I remember being jealous too, but I also remember realizing vaguely that I had no hope of being included.  And that that was okay.

I have never had a great explanation for how I ended up at church, especially coming from a family where church was not part of the requirement.  But now that I look back on it, I realize that perhaps not fitting in was part of what I loved so much.  Like I said, I’d always been jealous of people who could cultivate an image.  I’d never been able to do it.  I wanted, so very badly, to be a “freak.”  I wanted people to stop thinking of me as the quiet, unassuming girl I’d been in elementary school –  the one with the perma-white shoes and perfectly straight belt.  I wanted to be seen for the abrasive girl I wanted to be.

Simply by joining a Baptist church, shoving myself in amongst people who thought differently than I did, I was able to experiment with a new identity – an image.  I had accidentally found the one place where my developing teenage assertiveness allowed me to be viewed exactly the way I wanted, Gap clothes or no.  I was still included; I was still given the impression that I belonged.  (As Erin said, a great deal of what we did was met with closed mouths or shrugs.  I’m sure the preacher’s wife talked behind my back when I refused to participate in part of the Sunday school lesson, but no one ever asked me to leave.)  But I was on the outskirts.  I was edgy.  Sometimes I was even tough.  And because my parents weren’t there, I was answerable only to myself.  I decided who I was, and I loved the feeling.

At some point I want to address some things about Jeff as well, but I don’t feel what I want to say quite fits in here.  Perhaps for a different post?  For now let’s just say that Jeff for some reason never treated me in the particularly bad way he often treated Erin – and I’ve been unable to figure out exactly why.  Jeff had a lot of power in our youth group.  He was an attractive guy – attractive in the way politicians are attractive.  And he was charming.  He sang in the church worship band (Swoon!), and he was uber-involved in all church activities – including the drama group that Erin’s dad started for us.  He was a hand-shaker, a baby-kisser.  And at some point all of us had crushes on him.

But somehow, Jeff never tried to exercise his sense of power over me.  He let me get away with a lot.  At church camp each year, we were separated into Bible study groups that would become our “families” for the week(s) we were there. These groups consisted of kids from all across the country, and they were intended as centers for mingling and meeting new people.  Thus, only two or three kids from one youth group could be assigned to any given Bible study.  Our second year at camp, Jeff and I were on our own in one group.  The entire week, I made fun of him mercilessly.  I referred to him, for no particular reason, as “Sparky” and patted his head as though her were a small puppy dog.  I got in the way when he tried to flirt with out-of-state girls and lectured him about how his tastes were “too narrow.”  (I guess what I meant by this was that he always chose the most obviously traditionally pretty girls – pretty like politician’s wives are often pretty.  Or I could have meant anything.  I was an angry abrasive liberal feminist democrat!)  I also, along with Erin, would tease him for his dandruff problem, reciting under my breath a satirical  poem Erin had written referencing said dandruff.  (We were nothing if not creative about our insults.)

Jeff and I continued to be acquainted through college, and our relationship remained in this vaguely friendly-antagonistic state.  We argued politics, and he would ask my opinion on poetry he’d written.  He told me about his girlfriends.  He told me about his crisis of faith.  And I sat and listened.  And I was honest with him about my opinions, just as I’d always been.

I will never understand how we managed to stay friendly, especially now that I know the full extent of the way Jeff treated Erin.  It’s something I want to explore further, as we tell what I’m sure will be a few more stories about Jeff and the cameo appearances he would make in our teenage lives.

*I want to acknowledge here that I know I am insanely lucky in this department.  Although I will sound here like I am bemoaning my life as an outcast, I want to acknowledge that I am the bearer of an insane amount of privilege that in most of life allows me to fit in really anywhere I want.  I am white.  I am upper-middle class and have the bearings and education that go along with that class identity.  I am cis-gendered (feminist lingo for not being trans-gendered.  I am a woman with distinctly feminine features who identifies socially as a woman).  I am also naturally petite.  I am (at least apparently) able-bodied.  Although I do not identify as straight (I’m bi, for whatever it’s worth), I am also not gay and can therefore “pass” as straight.  I have enough features that are close to the modern standard of beauty to get by and not be ridiculed for my appearance, even when I’m understyled or dressed down.  In other words, I recognize that a lot of kids suffer for being socially marked in ways that I am not.  So although I had some awkward moments based on my inability to cultivate image, I got off really easy because of a set of social and genetic factors that are a pure accident of privilege.

**Erin and Alex and I also once made a series of prank calls to said Michael – something that still constitutes one of the most amusing and terrifying evenings of 7th grade.  I hope we revisit this later.

Belonging

In Erin on February 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

When I was a teenager, I–like many people, I imagine–wasn’t a big fan of apologizing, particularly to the people closest to me.   I wanted to “be myself” and “speak my mind,” and all the other cliché-ridden things that I learned from Teen magazine and MTV.  At least, I thought I wanted those things.  I also, somewhat paradoxically–and again, like virtually everyone who has ever been to junior high or high school–desperately wanted to be liked, to be interesting, to be cool, to be quirky-yet-fascinating…and, through a magical twist, to be really, really good.  At everything.

This overwhelming desire to be someone who was worth knowing, envying, loving, rather geekily played itself out in some typical “Type A” ways: with extra-curricular activities and honor-roll grades, and also in a way somewhat less typical: an obsessive involvement with our church’s Youth group.  I (and for a time, Sharon as well) was regularly in church 3 times a week, attending Sunday School, choir, handbells, and drama ministry group in addition to worship services.   I liked church–in large part because all of my friends were there–but I also really, really liked doing The Right Thing.  Mainly because when you did The Right Thing, people told you how Good you were…or, at minimum, didn’t point out all the ways you messed up.  So I plugged along, spending most of my non-homework-filled free hours at church or with people from church, all the while trying to maintain an “interesting” streak by rebelling in inconsequential ways–most of which involved professing to be a Democrat (horrors!) and refusing to wear khakis, or anything else that might be procured at The Gap.

What’s really amusing, in retrospect, is how effective this was.  I was usually awash in approval from adults who admired my academic and Bible-related diligence, while simultaneously being treated–at least at church, where things were decidedly capital-V Vanilla–as quirky and daring…and maybe just this side of dangerous.

But there were moments in which things broke down, when I was not the unique and valuable snowflake I had hoped to be, and those are the times that interest me now, because they were also times in which apologies featured prominently, when “sorry”–or some approximation thereof–had to be dragged out and brandished like some sort of self-respect-preserving weapon.

Around the time that I turned 14, things started to feel a bit different in the Youth group: I noticed that a particular group of kids, including my friend Alex and the boy that both of us had recurring crushes on (I’ll call him Jeff), were becoming something of a clique.  They had private jokes and seemed to have spent significant time with one another outside of church–and, worst of all, from my perspective, Jeff began hanging around Alex, asking her advice on serious Churchy questions and suggesting that they pray together, alone.  Only a year prior, Jeff had gone “with” me to the 8th-grade dance out of pity–he was significantly more popular than I was in our public school, but when I asked him, I think his church-related sense of obligation was too much to ignore.  By now, I had transferred my interest to a different boy, but the idea that Alex was getting Jeff’s attention, and that both of them were involved in some kind of exclusive group of which I was not a part was almost too much for my insatiable, approval-requiring teenage brain.  I’m sure you can guess how subtle my attempts to rectify the situation were.

“Alex, what are you guys all doing on Saturdays, anyway?” I whined one day, after realizing that, yes, closed gatherings were being regularly held.

“We have a special Bible Study with Sam,” she said, “at his house.”  Sam was one of the Youth leaders, a gawky, awkward middle-aged engineer who drove the world’s oldest minivan.  He seemed to care deeply about us, but showed it in odd ways, like charging interest on loans of a dollar to “teach us a lesson” about…either being prepared or capitalism.  It was never totally clear to me which.  I thought about all of this as Alex told me about the Bible Study, which involved both matching workbooks and rotating lunch-duties.

“Can I come?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I think it might just be us.”

Around that time, Jeff showed up, coming around the corner from the boys’ Sunday School room.  He put his arm around Alex, playfully.

“I want to come to your Bible Study!” I blurted.

Jeff just smiled his regular, cocky half-smile and explained, “It’s already started.  You can’t start coming now.”

“But how did you even know about it?  I never heard about it!”  I was getting desperate.

“Sam asked us to be in it,” he said, his arm still around Alex’s neck, “He might ask you next time.  If he didn’t ask you now, he probably thinks you’re not ready.”

I felt the words fall on me.  Jeff left to find his friends, and I looked at Alex, jealous and embarrassed.  I remembered the time I had just barely stopped myself from saying “fuck” in an argument just outside the Youth room–who else had heard me?  I looked at my blue nail polish and ill-fitting  baggy pants.  I remembered, a few months before, declaring to Sam–with Sharon–that we would like to be known, henceforth, as “Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats.”  (I swear I am not making that up.)

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he’d said.

For some reason, at the time, such a response was totally unexpected to me.  I knew that most people in the church were conservative–indeed, that most people in our city were (I vividly recall, for example, being the only kid in elementary school who rooted for Dukakis in the ’88 election)–but usually, my politically rebellious declarations were met with some mixture of amusement and indifference.  Sam seemed genuinely horrified and disappointed…a fact which I had, in true ALFD fashion, brushed off before running off giggling with Sharon about “protests” we would stage at the next church picnic.

Until now.  Now, Sam’s disapproval meant something more than that I would owe him an extra ten cents on the dollar.  There was a group that was both Good and Cool, and I was Not Invited.  I have the sense, now, that my being excluded from the Bible Study had less to do with my espoused political views (such as they were) than with my goofy, teenage need to broadcast them–like my clothes–as a marker of my difference.  It was church, after all, and Good kids, especially Good Girls, might be different, but they were above all to be respectful and humble and outspoken only about how great Jesus was.

I had learned that lesson, in a way, on my first-ever Sunday in Youth group.  I was in 6th grade, an 11-year-old whose sheltered existence had left her  ill-prepared for interacting with teenagers.  That day, the Youth Minister entered the gathering carrying what he said was a letter he had received from a member of the congregation expressing concern over the behavior of some of the church’s Youth.

“I’ve blacked out the name,” he said, raising the letter aloft so that we could all see it, “but I want to read part of it to you.”  The letter-writer, he explained, had witnessed some teenagers engaging in several forbidden activities while outside the mall.  “Not only were they all smoking,” he read, as my heard began to pound, “not only were they all swearing, but one of the girls – who was wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen - was from our Youth group.”

I was descending into panic.  Is this what happened in Youth group?  The older kids were less horrified, but more eager to exonerate themselves: “It was totally you, Shelly!” one yelled.  Shelly, half-laughing and half-aghast exclaimed that it was not, and and shouting match ensued amongst the girls, who were each desperately attempting to out the others as shameless sluts.  Finally, one of the older girls who Knew All the Answers raised her voice to exclaim over all of them, “Y’all, it’s not important who did it; what’s important is what we’re going to do about it.”  The Youth Minister nodded approvingly.

And then he confessed to having made the whole thing up.  The letter from the congregant was a fake, designed apparently for the dual purposes of slut-shaming and teaching a lesson about how Good Girls were to behave publicly–whether that public were Sunday School or outside the Mall.  Be demure, be respectful, be sensible, and for Chrissakes, cover up.

Of course, parts of that message had failed to stick with me, and thus, my 14-year-old self was on the outside peering in, wanting to belong while at the same time struggling to have my “independence” recognized and valued.  I began to try and prove my Christian devotion to everyone at church (and probably to myself): I volunteered to go on mission trips, I wrote Jesus-poems, I bought t-shirts with Jesus-related slogans.  And, somewhat counter-intuitively, I also started hanging out with some of the “freaks” at school.

How I got involved with them is another story entirely, but my short-lived Lindsay Weir-esque time only encouraged my fantasy of being both Cool and Good–a blue-haired Bible-thumper who loudly professed her love of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Youth group.  The summer after our Freshman year of high school, I took the opportunity of a Youth camp trip to show off my (poseur-rific) “freak”-ness by wearing a fantastic outfit-and-hairstyle that is best expressed not in words, but in this photo:

(And yes, I cut it up to make it look more awesome before hanging it on my wall.)  Before heading to church camp, we were on our way to a wholesome, fun-filled day at Six Flags over Georgia, followed by a laser show at Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta.  Needless to say, my outfit was a fantastic success–until the log flume ride.  In a departure from my general baggy-pants style, the shorts I’d worn that day were some of my mom’s old cutoffs from the 70s (they were vintage, you guys, which meant that they had to be cool), which were tight and a bit mid-drift-exposing.  After the log-flume soaking, I was getting more than a little uncomfortable, as both my tight stripy top and the vintage cutoffs chafed against my skin.  Ever the sensible one, Sharon suggested that I change out of my mall top and into the sweet Led Zeppelin t-shirt that I’d bought earlier that day for my “freak” boyfriend (who shall, for the moment, remain nameless).  This wasn’t a perfect solution–I still had to wear the cutoffs, after all–but it made sense.  So, before long, I was sporting a much-too-big black ZoSo t-shirt with my braids, and ready to watch some freaking lasers already.

Stone Mountain was crowded, as it was apparently the place to bring Youth groups on their way to various church camps.  It was also, unfortunately, ridiculously boring, and by the time it was time to load up and leave, I was hot and tired and cranky.  As we were walking back to the bus, Jeff appeared over my shoulder.

“Justin is here,” he said.  Justin was a friend of his from our hometown, who I had “gone out with” for a total of 3 days in 8th grade.  “You should say hi to him.”

I didn’t really have much of a desire to say hi, but I did, and Justin gave me a hug.  We chatted for a moment and then left to rejoin our respective Youth groups.  As we were walking back, Jeff said to me, “see, he was nice to you.  You didn’t have to worry, he’s a nice guy.”

I tried to interrupt an explain that I wasn’t worried; I just didn’t give a shit, when Jeff cut me off.

“Besides,” he said, “I had already prepared him.  I said, ‘Look man, Erin’s here, but she looks like a freak today.  She doesn’t normally look this weird, though, I promise.’  And he was cool with it.”

And with that, he slipped away and caught up with his friends.  I looked down at myself, was simultaneously embarrassed and enraged.  My shirt was enormous, and my braids had gotten frizzy.  But who the fuck was he, to “prepare” someone for my appearance?  And what the hell did I care about what some dude I held hands with in the hallway when I was 13 thought of me, anyway?  I sulked on the bus and talked to no one.

Later that week, when we had finally been at church camp for a few days, I showed up to the evening worship service to find our Youth group’s resident odd girl, Dawn (who Sharon mentioned in her last post), wearing my clothes.  I had been recruited to room with her–maybe because I was a little odd myself, or maybe because I’d made such a show of being Good over the last few months–and she had borrowed my favorite vintage Mickey Mouse t-shirt, jeans, and Airwalks.  Without asking.  I was livid, in that incomparable teenage way that shrieks (if only internally) those are mine, and people will think that you had them first!

I wish I’d had enough self-awareness then to realize that Dawn, too, only wanted to belong.  I wish I’d realized that neither she nor I needed to prove anything to anyone, least of all a group of judgey church kids.  But that’s what you do when you’re a teenager, I suppose…at least, that’s what we did, or tried, desperately, to do between the moments of self-preserving apology.

After the week at church camp was over, I never got to give the Led Zeppelin t-shirt to my boyfriend, who broke up with me to head to greener–and probably, less Vanilla–pastures.  I still remember what Jeff asked me after he found out:

“So, are you going to stop dressing like a freak now?”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.