Erin

Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Giants, Furry Collars, and The Westing Game

In Sharon on October 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm

I apologize, loyal readers (do we have any of those?) for the long space between posts.  Things have been a little nutty, but hopefully it won’t happen again.

The gap in posting, though, leaves me with the realization that we’re getting ever closer to the holidays, and all these school play-related memories are very timely.  So I’m going to attempt to keep them going, in honor of the upcoming Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas triad.

First of all, let me point out that my memories of the Thanksgiving play match Erin’s almost exactly, in the sense that I don’t remember much beyond the one song and the fact that I was always, always cast as an Indian.  I must not have had a line in this particular play, or, if I did, I don’t remember it the way I remember my lines as Gabriel.  I do remember that song though, and I remember absolutely LOVING it.  (The only variance in our recollections is that I could have sworn that the line was “feathers in our head men” rather than “feathers in our headband”, but that might just speak to my love of parallel structure.)  For me, there was something about the slow, staccato rhythm and the mysterious line about being “down among the dead men.”    I’m still fascinated by that line, and I’ve been digging around in my brain lately trying to understand what it might have meant to me when I was a kid.

But more on that later. For now, in the sense of timeliness, I want to return to THE DEVIL’S BIRTHDAY!!

I love being scared.  Yes, that’s right, I’m a humongous cliche.  I love bad horror movies, good horror movies, and stories that keep me from sleeping at night.  Back when I was a grad student I spent inordinate amounts of time researching Victorian  and early modern ghost stories (which I still hold are some of the best around).  The same was true when I was a kid: I devoured anything that made me want to run and hide in the closet.

As I remember it, Erin had a complex relationship with fear in childhood.  She participated with me in many a sleepover reading of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (volumes 1 through 3!).  But I also remember that these activities would make her nervous – a condition she always gives away by talking veryveryvery fast.  (If you ever ride a roller coaster with her, I advise tape recording her, as you would then have the most realistic vision of stream-of-consciousness ever imagined.)

Once, sometime around 3rd grade, she invited me to a lock-in at her church.  In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, a lock-in is a sort of massive slumber party generally associated with youth groups.  A few adults gather together girls from a variety of ages and let them all spend the night in the church rec hall and participate in church-sanctioned activities.  (I wonder if other religions do these too.  If they do, I bet they don’t play “Christians and Romans,” another fascinating topic I’ll be broaching later on.)  Somehow, Erin’s church youth leaders must not have been as strict as the ladies at our school, because there was much ghost-story telling that evening.  It started fairly early in the night when all of us were crammed into someone’s minivan and an older girl convinced us we were reliving the hook-on-the-car-door urban legend.    But it continued throughout the night, and I distinctly remember after a certain point Erin leaned over to me and whispered, “Maybe we should go lie down now.”  This was code for “I have hit my maximum limit of scare tactics.”

So I don’t know whether she’ll have the same memory I do about ghost stories at our elementary school – specifically about what we spook-addicts were given as replacement for our banished tales.  Because they were definitely banished.  During 4th grade I had the library’s copy of The Westing Game taken away before I had a chance to finish it – once the teachers realized it contained eery material – and even a run-in with a corpse!  That same year, close to Halloween, a rainy morning had us all disappointed that we’d have to stay inside for recess.  Our teacher promised she’d make it worth our while by telling some holiday-appropriate spooky stories.  Someone must’ve reported this activity to the principal, however, because by the time the promised recess rolled around she was no longer so enthusiastic.  She let us know that ghost stories weren’t a good idea after all.  Then in the 5th grade I got chastised for doing my book report on a collection of ghost stories – a report that I introduced by saying, “Some people will tell you that these tales aren’t true… but that’s just SOME people.”

So there was plenty of material considered untouchable.  I have some suspicions that the librarian felt bad for me, though.  She was the one who had given me The Westing Game in the first place, only to see it taken from me later.  She was trying to encourage reading as best she could, and she needed something to put in my hands that sparked my interest.  For a while she succeeded with books that piqued my fascination with mystery, getting me hooked on a biography of JFK that included a complete diagram of Dealey Plaza and a detailed account of the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination.  I was convinced for weeks that if I stared at that diagram long enough I could solve the case.

Even weirder, though, was the final solution that Mrs. B finally reached in her attempts to find suitable literature for me: The Door In The Dragon’s Throat, a weird children’s archaeology thriller by Christian author Frank Peretti.

Peretti has now made a suitable name for himself (amongst evangelicals, at least) in adult literature.  But back in the 80’s he wrote mostly for kids.  His main series featured a Christian archaeologist and his two kids as they were sent around the world (sometimes by the president!) to unearth lost mysteries usually connected to ancient Christianity.

Peretti was the perfect substitute for my missing ghosts.  In many ways, he was probably better – or at least more memorable.  I don’t remember the books being particularly prosthelytizing, although I’m sure they must have been in parts.  What I remember is the monsters.  Peretti dealt with Old Testament lore and often featured creatures like giants and – I swear – a cyclops.  The existence of such creatures was backed up somehow by scripture.  Wise Dr. Cooper was always explaining to his kids how various verses in the Bible described people and things that no longer existed in our world, including races of giant men and women like the Goliath who fought David.

I am here to tell you that Biblical times were TERRIFYING.  There are 3 images I retain from childhood literature that still occasionally haunt me in the middle of the night.  One is the infamous girl-with-spiders-in-her-face from Scary Stories.*  The second is the girl bouncing around the ceiling in her sleep in Nightmare on Elm Street.  And the third is Peretti’s Biblical giants.**

The question I keep coming back to, though, is why?  I mean, technically I know the answer: the Peretti books were acceptable because they were by a Christian author, featuring Christian (sort of) themes.  The figures in the books couldn’t be considered supernatural because they were historical – Biblical figures traced directly back to scripture (sort of).  This raises an interesting issue that’s a constant for kids raised in religious environments: Christianity (and indeed religion in general) is filled to the brim with bizarre supernatural stuff.  Wonders and miracles, stigmata, mystery pregnancies, narrow escapes from death, talking bushes… I could go on.  All you have to do to get the idea is listen to an Eddie Izzard routine.  If you think about it, a kid raised amongst all that stuff shouldn’t need ghost stories at all.  But those ideas are generally presented in such a matter-of-fact tone (in class!) that they never seem frightening at all.  Or at least, they never did to me.***

Remembering Peretti makes me wonder why we didn’t tap into the natural spookiness of the Bible more often.  It may have been for the same reason that our teachers shied away from Halloween: they simply weren’t equipped to deal with the consequences of a room full of scared kids.  Fear makes people do odd things, and if the Bible hadn’t been like a cozy bedroom in our parents’ house, we might have been less likely to turn to it for all our answers.  I probably got away with reading Peretti because his name was familiar and safe – because he was a Christian author.  But the contents of the books touched on something we didn’t see much of in school – but that I DID see a lot of in my favorite stories.  Peretti showed me a world that was unstable and contained unimaginable danger.  He put me in the same world hinted at by Halloween and the phrase from our “Indian” song: a world where we were down among the dead men, where the unknown haunted us in stacatto rhythms.  His Christians faced down giants and carried the ghosts of the past with them.  I’d be curious to read those stories again now, to see whether they hold up – and to discover whether they contained more prosthelytizing than I remember.  I want to know if those giants are still scary, or if the they seem more like monsters made to pound a message into my skull.

Then again, that’s all lots of horror movies and stories are, really: just coded messages meant to play on the things we fear the most – like communism, or shopping malls.  Or Texas.

Except the bloody fur collar story (mentioned in footnote *).  That one was just creepy.

*Okay I just remembered a fourth.  During that infamous 5th grade book report I read a story about a girl who goes to spend the night at a friend’s house.  She wakes up to some weird sounds and finds herself alone in the room.  The lights have all gone out, and she goes prowling around the house in the dark, hands out in front of her.  As she feels her way around, she touches something that she realizes is the furry collar of her friend’s nightgown — with nothing above it but a stump!  Something has chopped off her friend’s head.  I don’t remember how this story got resolved, but the image of that furry collar still rears its head (or stump!  ha ha!) once in a while.

** Peretti makes an appearance in a great book called Rapture Ready, a compendium on the phenomenon of Christian pop culture.  He doesn’t come off TOO shabbily, and the author’s comments about him and his adult fiction make me wonder what I’d think of those books now.

***I have a friend who used to lie awake at night because she was afraid that if she fell asleep the Holy Spirit would impregnate her.  So I guess not everybody was as nonchalant about religious mythology.

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Adventures in Imperialism

In Erin on October 18, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Ah, the school play!  Sharon’s post reminds me of the frequency with which our elementary school required us to engage in performances or activities that necessitated elaborate costuming–and, interestingly, the concomitant frequency with which these performances or activities involved  (what I now understand as) highly political, and potentially problematic, themes.  There were the Christmas plays, of course (the video of which, by the way, I think we should consider posting as a youtube clip!)…but there was also the Thanksgiving Play, which was truly cringe-worthy in retrospect.

The Thanksgiving Play was, perhaps, unremarkable in the sense that it was exactly what you might expect–especially in the South, in a Christian school, in the Reagan Eighties.  The class was divided into “Indians” and “Pilgrims,” who, in full costume, reenacted (with singing!) the mythical “First Thanksgiving.”  I remember that I, as a blond, was cast as a Pilgrim, while Sharon, who had darker hair and eyes, was cast (along with the rest of the less-Aryan-looking kids) as an Indian.  My only line in the play was as representative of the Pilgrim Women, who, when the time for the First Thanksgiving was determined, declared: “We’ll cook the meal!”  Interestingly, though I was (as I’ve mentioned previously) no stranger to the wonders of performance, this experience–on a stage, in front of a room of people, in a dress and bonnet–terrified me, and I recall that, despite repeated stage direction to the contrary, I steadfastly spoke my line facing the back wall.

All of this now, of course, strikes me as so deliberately gendered and racialized in its ideology as to be ridiculous–but I haven’t yet even approached the most incredible part.  This was a musical, after all, which meant that we learned and sang songs that purported to be representative of the respective Thanksgiving parties.  I don’t remember any of the Pilgrim songs–probably because they were so boring–but I do have vivid memories (complete with hand motions!) of the “Indian” song, which are…well, difficult to adequately describe with a single adjective.  The words went as follows:

We go hunting near and far,

[Something] with our long-nosed squaw

Pow-wow, pow-wow,

We’re the men of the old-old time!

For we are the red men,

Feathers in our headband

Down upon the dead men,

Mm-Pow-Wow!

Mm-Pow-Wow!

The song, like all of our songs, was accompanied by the piano, and made use of heavy staccato beats and minor chords–presumably to evoke the sense of a drum-beat.  It was entrancing to me, and, when combined with the “Indian” outfits complete with brightly-colored feathers from the craft store, it made me wish, heartily, that I had been so lucky as to be born a Native American.  The story, of course, omitted any reference to any colonial interactions with Natives that were more fraught with conflict than the division of labor for meal preparation.

That’s how it was: you wear a fancy outfit and sing some songs–and, *poof*, America!  The mystery of the Incarnation was similarly solved during the Christmas pageant, so it didn’t seem that the establishment of a new country on an already-inhabited continent should be any more complicated.  At the end of the day, everyone sets aside their differences and has a meal–which, coincidentally, just happens to look exactly like the Thanksgiving meal your mom makes, or at least, how it would look if it were made out of papier mache instead of Turkey.  It doesn’t matter that underneath their costumes, everyone is white and attends a wealthy private school, because hey, it’s about being Thankful for the Gifts of God.  And the Gifts of God just happen to include meat, corn, money and the land that was previously being kept company by the “red men.”

What’s fascinating to me now is how closely this political ideology was wedded to our school’s religious message–a fact that you certainly get a glimpse of in the general Gifts of God language.  Indeed, the Thanksgiving play wasn’t just an after-school event; we performed it for the rest of the elementary school during our weekly chapel: pray, sing songs about the greatness of God, learn about the greatness and beneficence of American origins (and the exotic backwardness of the Natives!) , pray some more, go back to class.  Remember kids: Columbus discovered America, and Jesus loves you!  Both facts, both repeated until you get them straight, incorporate them into the fabric of your self.

Oh, and don’t forget: girls cook and boys lead.  Class dismissed!

And a peacock too!

In Sharon on October 16, 2009 at 10:26 am

I have seen the video, my friends.  We don’t get all that many opportunities in life to confirm our memories with hard proof, but in this particular case I have a VHS tape full of proof, and the main point I want to make, based on this footage, is that our elementary school was often PROFOUNDLY RIDICULOUS.

I am referring to a tape my grandfather must have made of our 2nd/3rd grade Christmas musical.  I’m sure all of you were in Christmas  plays at one time or another.  In the South they’re unavoidable, even if you attend a supposedly non-sectarian public school.  (My friend Sarah, who is Jewish, has a great story about the Christmas-Around-the-World pageant she was required to perform in during 1st grade.  The teacher was going around assigning countries for each student to represent.  When it was Sarah’s turn, she tried to protest, telling the teacher, “but I’m Jewish!”  The teacher said, “That’s perfect, Sarah!  Then you can be Christmas in Israel!”)  Everyone did a Christmas play.  I’m sure most of the ones we did had the basic Jesus-Mary-Joseph theme, with a backup cast of wise men, shepherds, and angels.  But this one year, our music teacher decided to put on Angels and Lambs, Ladybugs and Fireflies – a performance that in the end required a literal ton of fabric, sparkles, and fake feathers.

Angels and Lambs is actually a fairly popular children’s Christmas musical written by a man named Fred Bock.  I mention Mr. Bock because when I lived in California, I was often confronted with people who believed that intense religiosity was the strict provenance of the deep South.  What I learned from living in both places is that each has its own brand of religion.  The difference is that California’s is more televangelism than ours.  SoCal is home to Mr. Bock (who was music minister for the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for enormous numbers of years) as well as the weird weird weird world of the Crystal Cathedral – whose yearly Christmas play completely outdoes anyone else’s standards of absurdity.  (Their angels actually “fly” in from the super-high vaulted ceilings using Hollywood-type props – and with looks of sheer fright on their faces.  Their stage has a hidden fountain, and they use real animals during production – including a couple of camels.)

The basic plot of Bock’s work is that a population of wild creatures – bugs, birds, lambs, and for some reason a peacock –  are present during the shepherds’ conversation about the birth of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  They (meaning the creatures) then have a discussion about whether they should go to the birth too.  They eventually decide that as creatures of the air and field they can spread the good news about Jesus’ birth, and that they will head to Bethlehem, telling everyone they meet along the way.

What I remember most about this play is the costumes.  We had a huge contingent of kids spreading across all classes of two grades, and the stage was filled with little ones dressed as creatures of the earth and sky.  Now, if this had been a public school production, the costumes would likely have been fairly simple – affordable.  But we were not a public school, and most of our student body had money coming out of their ears and other orifices.  So our teacher (whom I actually remember liking) decided she would follow the VERY PRECISE instructions on costume-construction that come from the booklet accompanying the play.  (This play is available for purchase through Amazon, by the way.  It comes with sheet music, a play booklet, and detailed costume and set designs, should any of you want to put on your own production.)  Erin and I had to go to a professional seamstress to have our butterfly wings sewn onto our little black leotards.

So the first thing that struck me as my mom and I watched this old home movie were the crazy costumes.  The back of the stage was lined with birds of all types – eagles, parrots, flamingos, and one poor kid sporting a peacock’s outspread feathers made from cardboard and taking up 3/4 of rear-center stage.  Whenever he walked to the microphone at the front of the stage to deliver his one line, he had to move sideways to keep from hitting anyone.

Secondly, I really was very tall.  I am by far the biggest butterfly.  Also, somehow in a cast of probably 80 kids Erin and I still managed to get placed right next to each other on stage.  We’re both butterflies and we’re standing next to each other the entire time, even though I’m on the back row with the tall kids and all you can see is the top of Erin’s head.  I am always amazed at how much time we were able to spend together.  In most cases good friends get separated during events like this, mostly because teachers are afraid they’ll talk and cause a ruckus.  I guess our reputation as Goody-Two-Shoes prevented this.  In fact, I am SUCH a Goody-Two-Shoe that I get cast as the butterfly who eventually argues that yes, all creatures great and small SHOULD go to the birth of Jesus.  This seems on par with my childhood go-with-the-flow philosophy.   (I was also the angel Gabriel – wrongly gendered – in numerous Christmas productions.  My niche in these plays seems to be as the figure of ultimate Good.  Interesting.  I think maybe it’s because I had a pretty loud, clear voice for a kid.  If there’s one line you want people to hear, it’s the line about how “God has sent his baby son to be a savior for everyone!”)

Thirdly, I remembered something about the powerful politics of school plays.  We’ve already mentioned that Melissa was part of our school’s elite.  And Erin mentioned a few posts back that Melissa’s mother was very young and pretty.  But she was also a member of one of the local Baton Rouge theater troupes.  In Melissa’s words, she was an “actress” – the sort of person who was always talking about doing “legitimate theater”.  And it’s true that Miss Annie* always seemed to have costumes and props lying around the house when we visited.  Once Miss Annie and her Junior League friends decided to throw an elaborate tea party with a 1920’s theme for one of Melissa’s younger sisters.  Melissa and Erin and I were somehow recruited to serve tea at the party, and Miss Annie dressed all of us up in authentic Roaring 20’s garb.  I have no idea why this happened.

At any rate, Melissa constantly bragged about her mother’s theatric connections.  And somehow, some way, she always managed to get appointed as the “star” of any school play.  During Angles and Lambs, she played Mary, one of the only two actual human characters and the ONLY one who got to sit down through the entire production, while the rest of us had to stand for hours during rehearsals, trying not to twitch or fidget.

I was complaining to my mom about this as we watched the video.  And then she reminded me of something I had completely forgotten.

(Beware: cheesy moralistic ending fast approaching…) At the end of the performance that night, I was standing around getting hugs and congratulations from my parents and grandparents, who all attended our one-night show.  (My dad even attended despite his bronchitis.  You can hear him coughing during the video.)  Melissa walked over to us and started talking to my parents, shaking hands with my grandparents, ever the big adult girl.  Then, still in complete Mary regalia, she said, “Can you drive me home?”

My mom was puzzled.  “Melissa, aren’t your parents here?”

No.  They were not there.  My mom continued questioning her for a few minutes, just to make sure she had full grasp of the situation.  “So your mom told you to just grab a ride with someone else?”  She had.

So Melissa rode home with us that night.  And my mom reports that, even in the car, she was still the consummate actress.  She delivered an extensive monologue on the pains of working with Mike, the very sweet boy who had been her Joseph.  He was NOT an adequate Joseph, and he had NOT listened to Melissa’s various directives.  My mom says that this really was a monologue – that Melissa was already more grown up than the rest of us, and that she knew how to work an audience.  She was self-aware in a way that most of us wouldn’t be until years later, when we started grasping the border between fantasy and reality.  Melissa was a girl who always knew EXACTLY what she was doing.

So, as cheesy as this is, it’s nice to realize that even though I hated her star power at the time, my whole family was at that play.  Hers left her to find a ride, even though she had a solo and was ostensibly the star.  I guess they needed to sit around and try on short robes again, or something else equally important.

*again, not her real name.  But it should be noted here that we did refer to all mothers by their first names, with a “Miss” prefix.  This is just what you do in the South.  Only teachers were known by their last names.  And although I am now a full fledged adult in my late twenties, if I ran into Erin’s mom on the street I would probably still use her name with “Miss.”  I just can’t do it any other way.

Which one of us was that, again?

In Sharon on October 11, 2009 at 4:09 pm

It’s difficult to follow up Erin’s revelation of the LCI, especially because it’s a completely new tale to me.  When she says she’s never revealed it before, she must not be exaggerating.  I’m certain that if this tale had been tellable, I would have heard it by now.

That’s one of the things that we’re learning about our memories in doing this project.  When I started out, I thought we would find that our recollections of different incidents varied wildly, that we would be hit over the head with the faultiness of human recollection and the power of storytelling.  Instead, I’m finding that in most circumstances we shared a single brain – so much so that Erin is certain she was present during the Bathroom Stall Incident, even as I’m certain that Alex was the one hiding with me. *  So when something happened to her that I don’t remember, I’m taken aback a little – as though a part of my brain were missing.  Something about storytelling in childhood must be very different than it is after the age of official adulthood.  When two children share stories, they’re sharing experiences.  When the first girl you know gets her period, everyone learns about periods.  She’s the only one with literal cramps, but all of you feel like you’ve moved on to a new stage of life.

A minor example: At a certain point in her life, Erin was deemed old enough to watch out for her younger brother for a few hours when her parents would run to the store or to other magical lands that adults visit.  During one of these afternoons alone, the two of them decided to “make a cake.”  To them, this meant coating slices of Bunny Bread in sugar and Hershey’s syrup, then stacking them to create a fancy layered effect.  There might also have been some “baking” involved.  And a microwave explosion.

I have told this story to people at least four times in my life as though it were my own, as though I were there in the kitchen with them.  I even picture myself standing on a chair in their kitchen, holding the bottle of chocolate gooiness over the bread tower and squeezing.  I know that I wasn’t there.  But I can taste the sticky syrup and the soggy bread.  And, more importantly, this story can be used to represent things about my own life – ideas that I’m certain I had, goofy things that I’m certain I did but that I can’t remember as vividly as I remember the Bread Cake Story.  So it becomes mine somehow, just like the Bathroom Stall Incident became a part of Erin’s repertoire.

This doesn’t happen so much for adults, who seem better able to draw boundaries around themselves, to separate out their own lives from those of the people surrounding them.  When you get older, your stories become your sole property.  And you tell them less often.

At least, I imagine that’s true for normal adults.  I’m not so sure it is for me, and that may be part of what draws me to this project.

Another thing about childhood stories is that kids will repeat tales to the people who were actually there.  They do this all the time.  Just listen to a group of middle school girls sitting around a lunch table on the Monday after a sleepover weekend.  One will inevitably start laughing about something that happened.  She will point to another of the girls and say, “It was so awesome!  You were like, ‘I hate Morgan’ and then she walked right into the room!” Or something to that effect.  Kids do this constantly – tell each other what they already all know.  Maybe it has something to do with the magic of language that both of us have referenced.  When we’re young, we’re still playing around with the idea that there’s a difference between story and lived event.  We try it out, learn that by recounting an incident we can highlight different parts, make ourselves the hero, the villain, or the butt of the joke.

We’re hoping to have some other friends join the blog soon, and I’m hoping that their presence will point to another fascinating aspect of childhood – the fairly limited quality of a kid’s world.  Children are known for their imaginations and their fairly loose grip on reality.  But what we forget about them is how small their physical worlds are.  While they might be able to imagine fortresses and castles and alternate Unicorn realms, it’s very difficult for them to comprehend what the life of another regular person in the world might be like.  I might have dreamed about what it would be like to be an astronaut, but I never thought about what it was like to be my neighbor down the street.  Inside the tiny world of our Unnamed Religious Private School, Erin and I knew a limited cast of characters with a fairly small set of experiences.  But across the city, our friend Cori, for example, was a Southern Jewish girl attending a fairly liberal public institution.  We learned about the Devil’s birthday and sang songs about Jesus.  Cori probably learned about things like cultural diversity or foreign countries.  She didn’t learn anything that involved Jesus, I bet.  Her life was foreign to us, since neither of us knew her until later in life.  We literally could not have imagined what it was like to be her, just as she couldn’t have imagined the sorts of things we considered everyday activities.

I’m planning to follow this up with a regular post in our standard storytelling format, but before I could move on to the next topic I thought I needed this little segue.  The academic in me just can’t help but think I’m learning something here.  But if you’re bored with this theorizing, I promise the next post holds much more entertainment, in the person of kids dressed up as angels and lambs, ladybugs and fireflies…

And also, for all of you who have stumbled across this blog accidentally via our sexually explicit-ish tags, I promise more stories about breasts in your future.

*Erin: for the record, there are two reasons I’m sure about this.  One is that I distinctly remember the 5th grader asking whether “that tall girl” and I were lesbians.  I can’t think that this could’ve referenced anyone but Alex.  But I also have this distinct feeling that the person in the stall with me was angry or upset with me for somehow causing the whole thing. I have the sense that she “knew better” somehow – and I can’t help but think that you would’ve been just as baffled as I was about why this stall sharing was inappropriate. Also, at the time Alex and I didn’t know each other all that well, so her frustration with me seems more natural.  But maybe I’m wrong… Do you still keep in touch with her?  We should ask her.  Maybe she would like to write too!

Queering the Slumber Party

In Erin on October 8, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Today is an important day, friends–for today is the day I break my silence on The Lesbian Closet Incident.  While its image has remained vividly in my mind for the last 20 years, I have spoken of its existence to no one.  Interestingly, though, the LCI (as it shall henceforth be called) was not witnessed by me alone: in fact, it was clearly staged–yes, staged–for no less than 5-7 other girls…who, I can only assume, likewise told no one, or moved in rather different circles than I, such that I never again heard it discussed.

Before coming to this, however, let me prolong the mystery awhile and return to Sharon’s story.  What was so fascinating to me about it (besides the fact that it spoke to the all-encompassing disciplinary rules of our elementary school experience) is how clearly I remember it.  As Sharon describes it–running down the corridor and into the stall, hearing the sound of the approaching 5th-graders, jumping onto the toilet in complete terror, emerging later only to be shamed semi-publicly–I have the sense that this is too real, too first-hand-feeling for the experience of reading. I have the sense that I was there, or in some situation nearly identical; I have the bizarre sense that this is my memory.

I could not tell you what happened for sure.  It might be that it was me in the stall with Sharon and not Alex; it might be that I am conflating this narrative with another experience I recall that involved being similarly shamed by an older girl for smacking one of my girlfriends on the rear end.  Or it might be that, as with so many of our more striking memories, Sharon’s detailed reiterations of the story over the years of our friendship have created for me stories that seem to be mine, but which have become so only through the proxy of narrative.  In any case, I find this story to be oddly (queerly?) close to me, even though I would not have been able to articulate it without Sharon’s written memories.

The part of her story that brings the entire thing full-circle for me, though, is the seemingly-innocuous detail about the girls who taunted her (me? us?) being 5th-graders.  I believe that one of them–the one, in fact, who questioned her presence in the stall with another girl–was a girl named Chrissy*, and she figures prominently in (you guessed it!) The Lesbian Closet Incident.

I had a friend in fourth grade named Joy, who was over a year older than me as a result of having been held back a grade.  She was a sweet person and lived in the neighborhood behind my family’s main-road house, so when I wasn’t spending time at Sharon’s, I would ride my bike to see her.  There were moments I can recall in which our age difference struck me as significant–she used to beat the crap out of me at basketball, and seemed much more knowledgeable about the ways of the world than I was, as the youngest kid in our class.  For the most part, though, she was just a nice person, and never made me feel weird about wanting to spend time with her.

I was invited to her birthday party…either that year, or in fifth grade, when I’d left the Unnamed Private Christian School for the unknown world of Public School.  The party was a slumber party, full of older girls, and it was Popple-themed.  I spent most of the evening quietly turning a purple Popple inside and out again, trying to be cool, attempting to disguise the fact that I was intimidated by these (probably) 5th graders.

At some point in the evening, Chrissy suggested that we play a game.  I don’t recall now what the game actually was, but it seems that it must have incorporated elements of truth-or-dare and putting on a play, because when she decided that she would take her turn first, Chrissy informed us that she would need to practice with a partner, and would be ready very soon.  She and another girl–I’ll call her Rachel, since I don’t remember her name–then disappeared into the closet, from which the rest of us, confused, heard nothing but giggling for the next 5 minutes.

When they emerged, it was apparently for the purpose of demonstrating their completed work: a slightly unorthodox, and rather abbreviated version of that classic work, Romeo and Juliet.

Standing on a chair, Rachel gushed: “Oh Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?!”

Coming from behind the closet door, Chrissy-as-Romeo appeared, leaped atop the chair, and took Rachel somewhat awkwardly in her arms.  She then, in front of a room of at least 6 conservative Christian girls, kissed  Rachel.  With lots of tongue.  Then, unsatisfied that this performance had been adequately carried out–I believe because it failed to elicit the proper audience reaction, which, weirdly, was supposed to be laughter–they repeated it, closet-entrance and all, no less than three times.  Eventually, Chrissy suggested that it wasn’t working because a different Juliet was needed…though, perhaps sadly for her, this was met with a declaration by several of the girls that they didn’t think this was funny, and that we should play another game entirely.

Now, I know that all manner of so-called “adult” videos portray slumber parties as breeding grounds for exactly this sort of sexually transgressive behavior, but this is hardly the case.  Every other slumber party I’ve ever been to has been dominated almost entirely by cookies, dancing, fart jokes and (later in high school, when we got really cool) Trivial Pursuit.  How ironic, then, that the Lesbian Closet Incident should come out of one–and that this should happen just as our blog’s hit-count soars, in no small part because viewers in search of just such material come across our (undoubtedly disappointing!) sex- and bra-related tags!  It’s interesting, of course, to tell the story here and now: as a discrete incident, with a hindsight view, as a person whose academic work is interested (among other things) in sexual transgression.  Even labeling the LCI as I have makes it something other than what it was then…and “what it was,” is, as with Sharon’s bathroom stall memory, unclear to me.  I doubt that I knew what a “Lesbian” was then, and I had only vaguely begun to understand myself as having “crushes.”  All I knew was that I felt weird, that I didn’t want anyone to know that I did, and that some of the older girls had begun to act like something was terribly wrong.

From my perspective now, though, I wonder what’s happened to Chrissy.  I hope that she’s ok, and that somewhere along the way she learned to stop overcompensating.

Sometimes, so it is said, a closet–or a stall–is just what it is, and nothing more.  But today, if you asked me (or, perhaps Chrissy), I’d say that “what it is” is a little more than you might think.

*After some thought about the smallness of the Internet world and the relative uncommonness of her real name, I’ve decided to refer to her by a pseudonym.

Girly and Girly sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g

In Sharon on October 8, 2009 at 2:43 am

I have been having not such a good day, and writing on this blog makes me feel better, so for a special treat you’re going to get 2 posts in 1 day!  And, after reading Erin’s spectacular work on the kiss-boys-on-the-butt incident, and having her tease us with the lesbian closet incident, I figured it was only fair that I cough up the other alluded-to lesbian incident.  So here goes:

You already have some idea, no doubt, that the setting for this incident is the Unnamed Religious Private School .  I’m sure I have awkward stories about sex and sexuality from middle and high school too, but right now they don’t seem NEARLY as interesting to me as the lesbian incident and the vague fog I wandered through in the elementary grades.

As we’ve mentioned before, we were goody-two-shoes rather than bad-dy bats.  For the most part our friends followed the same pattern.  We hung out with people who mostly stayed clear of trouble and did as they were told (within reason), so moments when we suspected we might possibly get in TROUBLE were a very big deal.  One such incident occurred in (again!) the 4th grade when our friend Alexandra (Alex) and I had wandered into the bathroom at the end of recess and were late getting back to class.  Not surprisingly, the memories of that we-might-get-in-trouble feeling are much stronger than the memories of why, precisely, we were about to get in trouble.  I sense that this particular incident had something to do with not tucking in our uniform shirts.  We were on the playground when a group of kids nearby got seriously harangued for their un-tucked shirts.  Ours must have been disheveled too, and we ran to the bathroom to either (1) escape notice and remain untucked or (2) tuck in our shirts ourselves before we got chewed out too.   This seems ridiculous, but I’m almost positive it’s true.

So Alex and I were hiding out in the bathroom, waiting out the bell signalling us to return to our rooms, when we heard someone coming down the outdoor corridor leading up to the women’s restroom.  “Quick!”  said Alex.  “Someone’s coming!  It might be Ms. Ditch.  Hide!” We turned to hide and, without really formulating a plan, ran into the same bathroom stall.  As soon as we shut and latched the door, the sound of some older girls (5th graders, no doubt) echoed off the tiles.  The noise hadn’t been Ms. Ditch after all, and we weren’t in trouble for our shirttails.  But now we faced a very different menace: the specter of homosexuality.

“Stand on the toilet!”  Alex hissed to me.  I was confused about why I might do this.  What was wrong with being in the same bathroom stall?  But whether or not I understood didn’t really matter; the girls saw our feet before I had time to act.

“Are there two girls in that bathroom?” one asked.

“Who’s in there?” another called.

We didn’t know exactly why we were being taunted, but we knew for sure that we couldn’t show our faces now.

“Come on out!” they shouted.  “We won’t tell!”  Tell what?  What could they possibly do to get us in trouble?  Were they going to tell Ms. Ditch about our shirts?  About our generally unkempt appearances?

Whatever the possibilities, we knew that saying “we won’t tell” meant that they most certainly would tell someone something, even if we didn’t see what that something was.  Alex signalled to me that we would remain incased in our fortress until the girls were gone.  We were late for class, but this was the price we had to pay in order to avoid being in trouble for something worse – something unidentified.

The 5th graders were pretty determined.  And we were still extremely naive.  When we thought they had finally left, they were merely outside the door, waiting around the corner for us to emerge.  When we finally did come out we were met with a chorus of taunts.  I don’t really remember what they said, specifically.  But I knew the general idea – that they thought we had been kissing in the bathroom stall.

As you learned from Erin’s previous post, kissing in general was not at all allowed, and kissing another girl was clearly outside the realm of possibility.  I am certain that the word “lesbian” was brought up directly that day.  And the day after that.  It was a week or two before Alex and I would live down the accusations whispered on the playground.  I distinctly remember one moment in particular, when an older girl – a cool girl I knew only by sight – summoned me over to the tennis court fence and whispered to me, “Is it true you and that tall girl are lesbians?”

I don’t know what rudimentary understanding I had of homosexuality at that time.  But whatever that sense was, it could not possibly have been helped along by the hisses and jeers of the other students, taunting us for being something we’d never even heard of before.  As with Scott’s PG-porn-for-kiddies scheme, we came away from this incident with the idea that something about us was shameful.  We were dirty, and we should have gotten in trouble. We were just lucky the older girls hadn’t elected to tell Ms. Ditch or one of her other cohort.

This strange incident in my life was followed by several moments of childhood worry that my relationships with others might be taken out of context.  When I went to the movies with my recently widowed grandmother, I worried that other people would think we were lesbians.  Whatever that meant.  I worried that she would be seen as the one responsible for this, and that she would get in trouble.  Looking back at this story now, I also realize that Alex must have known at least a bit more about the topic than I did.  She clearly understood that we had a situation on our hands as soon as I ran into the stall with her.  I had no idea that this was a bad choice until long after the girls had begun their taunting.  But what I don’t understand to this day is where this topic injected itself into the culture of the Unnamed Religious School.  After all, this was the late 80’s and the early 90’s in the deep South.  While gay culture was developing a newfound voice outside of our walls, battling the AIDS epidemic and fighting for civil rights, very little in mainstream popular culture existed to bring this voice to kids like us.  Where did my 5th grade tormentors learn their lingo?  I had no idea what a lesbian was.  So how did they?

Alex and I eventually became yesterday’s news, and the 5th grade girls found new kids to tease.  But the incident left a tiny little bump in my experience.  I had always been a kid who was close to my friends.  I was affectionate and – for lack of a better word – cuddly.  So was Erin.  This is how we operated.  We followed each other pretty much everywhere, and I’m even pretty sure we bathed together once or twice when we were still pretty young.  But my week in the queer spotlight lead to a new understanding of intimacy – even spatial intimacy, like sharing a bathroom stall – as yet another object of shame.

I’m sure that, had Melissa been there, she would have told me that Cindy Crawford never went into bathroom stalls with other women.  And I’m pretty sure she would’ve been wrong.

Losing my Innocence, One (Private) School Day at a Time

In Erin on October 7, 2009 at 11:48 pm

One afternoon as we drank kool-aid and ate crackers at Sharon’s dining room table after a day at school, she came up with what seemed like a truly innovative idea.

“You know how all the mean kids are always calling kids like us goody-two-shoes?”

I nodded knowingly, crunching my Ritz with peanut butter.

“Well,” she said, “I think we should come up with a name for them.”  Pausing for effect, she unveiled the scathing new term: “‘Bad-dy Bats!’  You know, because they’re bad.”

Obviously, we were not the coolest kids in the class.

Sharon and I were the sort of kids who were always more amused with things like puns and wordplay than sneaking away from our parents or accidentally breaking things.  The most vivid memories I have of our friendship usually revolve around repeating new words or phrases until they formed Da-Da-esque strings of syllables that made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt (examples include “fjord,” the aforementioned “empty cat…” and the similarity of “M” and “B” sounds in the presence of sinus congestion).  So I think it was more than a little confusing to both of us when we started getting hints of the world’s more salacious or shocking elements–which, interestingly enough, we encountered not so much through TV or public school (or anything else that’s typically held up as a site of child-corruption ), but through awkward–and at times, pretty inappropriate!–interactions with other kids at our Unnamed Religious Private School.

There was, of course, the bra-snapping.  Though I, as the latest of bloomers, was entirely exempt from this experience.  Still, my wide-eyed ignorance of all things regarding sexuality was to be troubled, perhaps fittingly, by the same duo Sharon mentions in her post: Scott and Melissa.  I’ve already mentioned one such incident, in which Scott demanded (and somehow received) a sort of PG-rated group Porn-For-the-Blind performance.  As if this weren’t enough, there was the time when he tricked me into looking under his desk–through the very sneaky method of asking me to–only to see him holding a yellow #2 pencil up against his crotch, as a(n apparently very skinny!) phallic stand-in.  This was weird, but not nearly so weird as the event at Melissa’s house, which I will refer to hereafter as “The Closet Incident.”*

Melissa’s family was extremely wealthy.  Living in a gated community, in a house I remember as a Southern mansion (complete with white columns), they often magnanimously took every girl in the class to upper-crust outings around town–to their community’s private pool, to the Junior League’s Christmas decoration sale, to a magical place with a backwards-running conveyor-belt mountain, where even those of us whose families couldn’t afford trips to Aspen could experience the feeling of skiing…if, that is, skiing were like riding on a carpeted conveyor belt.  Her mother was young and beautiful, and her father used to wear a (very) short silk robe while reading the morning papers.

One time when I spent the night at Melissa’s house, we were playing with her two younger sisters in a tiny closet play-room that opened out of a 3-foot-high door in the corner of her beautiful bedroom.  I believe that Barbies were somehow involved, but I don’t recall the specifics.  The important thing is that whatever pretend event we were engaged in creating somehow took a bit of a turn, and Melissa accused her sister (or her pretend identity? ) of riding on motorcycles with strange boys.

The argument began to escalate:

“Oh yeah?  Well you kiss boys!”

“Ewwwww!  Shut up!”

“No, you!  You kiss boys!  You looooove kissing boys!”

“Well, you know what?  You let boys kiss you on the butt!!!

As soon as she said it, we all knew what was coming.  I felt my body getting hot, and I wanted to hide…but in the Tiny Closet, there was nowhere to go.  I hid my giggling, mortified face behind a Barbie.

“I’M TELLING,” bellowed Cindy, the youngest sister.  Before any of us could do anything to stop her, she was out of the closet and running to find her parents.  My heart pounded, and I could hear her tiny feet racing down the dramatic entrance-hall staircase.  For a moment I hoped that Melissa’s mom and dad would be asleep already, or trying on new silk robes.  It was not to be.

Quicker than I thought was possible, Cindy was back upstairs with her parents in tow.  They demanded that Melissa and her other sister come out to own up to what they’d ‘done’…meanwhile, I hid in the little closet.  Once the terrible story was confirmed, Melissa and I were instructed to go directly to bed, while the middle sister was taken downstairs to reap what her actions had sown: a mouth “washed out” with soap.  I don’t know what happened after that, but I remember, as I lay in one of Melissa’s two twin beds with matching pink quilts, hearing Melissa try to bargain with her mother in the darkness: “You know, mom, I understand now how bad it was for me to say that.  I don’t think I need the soap anymore.”  Her mother only replied “Mmmm hmmm.”

I assume that Melissa must have eventually gotten the soap…it appeared to me then that nothing she could possibly say would result in a reprieve.  She had mentioned that which must not be named, and from this there was no escape.  For my part, I lay awake for hours, agonizing over whether I would be rousted in the middle of the night for my own soapy treatment, or whether Melissa’s parents would tell mine what “we” had done the next day.  What would I say?  What was there to say?  I had no idea what Melissa’s butt-kissing accusation meant in the first place (and I have my doubts about whether she did either), so defending against it was a rather difficult proposition.

I decided, in the end, to say nothing–and if push came to shove, to invoke Sharon’s as-yet-untested moniker.  What could one expect, after all, from these Nouveaux Riche derelicts, these country club hooligans…these “Bad-dy Bats”?

These, I submit, are the things I learned in private school–that is, if you don’t count the rules for celebrating The Devil’s Birthday.

*NOTE: This is not to be confused with ‘The Lesbian Closet Incident,’ to be reported in conjunction with Sharon’s upcoming Lesbian-related post.

“I Think We Need to Unhook It”

In Sharon on October 7, 2009 at 6:46 pm

I started wearing a bra in 4th grade.  I briefly sported a training bra and then, within a few months, had moved straight up to the standard wires-and-padding, full-fledged, technically complicated bras.  We could no longer find my size at the store where they sold our school uniforms.  We had to venture to Dillards and buy the kind that came in boxes and had frolicking buxom women on the covers.  I think they were Playtex, and even then I understood that they looked like something an old lady would wear.

I also remember the first day that I learned the bra was visible, as Erin mentioned, through our extremely translucent uniform shirts.  At least five boys popped my straps that day.  At recess Erin and I stood on the tennis courts, pondering solutions.  “I think you have to unhook it,” she said, staring at it through my shirt and considering alternatives with a thoughtful, 9-year-old gaze.  She probably had a yarn ribbon in her hair.  We were still young enough for ribbons, but we were getting old enough for bras.  I agreed, but confessed that I wasn’t adept enough to unhook it myself, through my shirt.  So we found a fairly unobtrusive (we thought) corner of the yard where my best friend worked tirelessly to unhook my bra for me, through the slippery fabric of my shirt.  After she managed it, she stood back to look at me and declared that “I can still kind of see it, but only if I try hard.”

Little did I know that the absence of my bra would be just as obvious as its presence.  As we took our seats back in class, I heard Scott (yes, him again) whisper something to a friend.  (I don’t remember who the friend was, although I imagine it being a big kid named Jordan who was always up for trouble.  Although it might also have been Mike, who was new that year and once punched me in the arm.)  They asked me, “Did you take it off?”

They knew I knew what they meant.  But somehow, I honestly didn’t understand that I was supposed to be ashamed, that the bra was like a Scarlet Letter.  “So?”  I said.  And I went back to my work.

I was a kid who walked around with my head someplace else most of the time.   All of the time, really.  I had a fairly elaborate fantasy life, and I was happy with that life.  I didn’t venture very often into understanding what other kids were discussing.  I’m sure that there was already a lot of talk about sex and puberty around campus, but I honestly remember only two incidences of this: the bra struggle mentioned above and one other strange item that I’ll get to in a later post (it involves accusations of  lesbianism and therefore deserves its own section).  But first, I want to make a point that I consider vital to an understanding of my elementary school psyche: I had breasts and hips and various sexually connotative features LONG before I understood what those things meant to other people.  Frankly, I had barely noticed them beyond the practical fact that they required new clothes.  I just didn’t care much.  There were books I needed to bury myself in, and various elaborate stories I needed to tell, and games I needed to play with my neighbors outside after school.  My breasts seemed completely irrelevant to anything.  In other words, people read my body like a text, and they learned to interpret it  long before I did.  (This can likely be attributed at least in part to my mother, who is one of the few people I know who genuinely believes that appearances shouldn’t matter.  When she would be diagnosed with breast cancer 5 or 6 years later, she did not hesitate to request a double mastectomy.  And when she explained to me what this surgery would involve, she did not do so with the standard lamentation for lost femininity.  It was a surgery, plain and simple.  It would help her get better, and breasts weren’t a big deal anyway.  I imagine – although I don’t remember for sure – that this is also what she told me about them when I grew some.  They just aren’t a big deal.)

One extremely bizarre memory of my disconnect stands out, but even now I have no idea what this memory means.  It’s one of the few moments from elementary school that I wish I could revisit through an objective eye, so that I could understand how and why it happened.  I’m hoping Erin will remember this too, but somehow I doubt it.  I’m not sure I ever told her about it – ever told anyone.  Which is strange, because in and of itself it seems harmless and off-beat.

Our 3rd and 4th grade worlds involved lots of activities that required choosing students at random – pop quizzes, presentations, doing math problems on the board.  The teacher needed an easy way to pick students/victims, and so she wrote each of our names on a popsicle stick.  Anytime she needed a “volunteer,” she could pull out one of the sticks and call a name – easy and fair, no arguments.  One day during recess there was rain coming down hard (as it often does in South Louisiana), and the girls in the class had wrangled permission to stay indoors and work on art projects rather than venturing outside and getting wet and muddy.  Sometime during this indoor session, I noticed a small group of probably 3-4 girls standing around the teacher’s desk.  (I have no idea where she had gone; it’s likely that the boys – who must have been outdoors – were deemed less trustworthy than the girls and that she left us unsupervised while she watched them.  These sorts of things happened often, even though the girls would frequently come close to tears every time they were all left alone in a room.   At Unnamed Religious Schools, boys = bad and girls = good/angelic.)  I started to walk over to them to find out why they were snickering when the Lead Girl, Melissa *, broke away from the crowd and marched over to me.  “Look, Sharon.  Look what somebody wrote on your stick.”  She held up the popsicle stick with my name across it and flipped over.  Across the back, in pencil, someone had neatly scripted the words “Cindy Crawford.”

Now, I have tried as best I can to tell you only the things that I am CERTAIN were true about this memory, without adding in what I imagine in my head.  Because how you view this story is all in the details. I have a very solid interpretation of this scenario, which is that the girls – lead by Melissa – had written this to mock me in some way.  I was not a cool kid, nor was I a pretty kid.  There were girls in our class who already wore makeup and had neatly combed, brightly colored hair.  Melissa was one of these.  I was not.  I had a fairly awkward, childlike appearance – except for the slowly widening hips and the now bra-necessitating chest.    I cannot fathom a situation in which a smitten boy would compare me to an adult supermodel – but I assume that that’s what I was meant to think had happened.  In my memory, the neat cursive on the stick was clearly a girl’s handwriting – probably Melissa’s herself.  Her tone was knowing and mocking, as though she had some knowledge I did not.  And the snickering girls huddled around the table had to have been the perpretrators.

So this part is open to interpretation.  I have no idea how Cindy Crawford’s name got on that stick, or why it was put there.  All I have is my best guess.  But there’s an added bonus to the story: whatever intended effect Melissa wanted to have by showing me her find/creation, she failed miserably.  Because I hadn’t the foggiest idea who Cindy Crawford was, or why her name was being shoved in my face.

Melissa grew quickly frustrated.  “You know,” she said.  “She’s a supermodel.”

“What’s a supermodel?”  (Really.  I mean, why would I need to have known this in the 4th grade?  Did YOU know this in the 4th grade?)

Groan from Melissa, the all-knowing cool kid.  “She’s on tv sometimes.  She’s on that Pepsi commercial.  You know, on the cruise ship.”

This part is true.  There was a Pepsi commercial out at that time featuring Cindy Crawford.  But I don’t know that I’d ever seen this commercial.  Or if I had, it hadn’t stuck with me.  I’d had no reason to remember the buxom lady in the bathing suit.

So in the end I was laughed at for new reasons – for my complete ignorance of pop culture, a state I occupied happily until well into middle school.  And I bumbled my way into an awareness that somehow, somewhere, some discussion about me was occurring that I didn’t understand.  It wasn’t until at least ten years later that I would hit on this memory and recognize that, for all its weirdness, no matter how you interpreted it, this story had something to do with my body.

No one will remember this now, but being among the first to develop is a little like being the sick gazelle.  Sure, breasts are powerful things later in life, when you know what they can do and what fascination they hold.  But when you’re young – especially if you’re the kind of kid I was – they can be confusing and dangerous.  People suddenly hold intimate knowledge of you.

The same happens, I’m sure, to girls who develop later.  People have knowledge of them too – but it’s knowledge of a lack rather than a gain.  Either way, our assets are suddenly visible and on display.  And we have NO IDEA what to do about that.

I got lucky, I think, in my cluelessness.  At the time I didn’t care at all what Melissa meant by her taunts, nor did I care all that much about the bra strap popping.  It stopped fairly quickly – the boys got bored and moved onto something else, like hanging pairs of underwear out the window of a speeding car on their way to a field trip at the Livingston Parish Safari Park.  And I think this might be the clear-headedness Erin references in her post.  I’m proud to be remembered this way, and I suppose she’s kind of right.  When I was very young, I didn’t let things like this get to me for very long.  There were times later in life when I would fight hard with my body, try to suppress it and change it into something long and lean and lanky, something without all those external markings of sexuality.  But those years wouldn’t come until much, much later – very near my graduation from high school.  Right now we’re concerned with childhood, and in my childhood breasts just weren’t an issue.  For me.  It wasn’t until I got older that I realized they had been for everyone else, boys and girls alike.  And I’m thankful for the good friends who continued to let me live in oblivion, and for the strange, insular mind that let me ignore most of the talk that surrounded me.

I sure do wish I could go back and ask who wrote that on my stick, though.

*Also not her real name.  I wonder why it is that we’ve protected the girls from specific names but haven’t shrouded the boys quite as much.  For some reason I feel completely comfortable in saying that “scott” is Scott’s real name, and that I am sorely tempted to tell you his last name too.  Also, I’m amazed at how much coverage he gets here.  I never realized except in retrospect how big a part of that school he was.  You’ll learn that Melissa is a similar character, part of the cultural elite and also the absolute wealthiest kid at the school, at least as far as we were aware.  We have many, MANY stories about her.  Some of those stories may even be a part of this sexuality thread.  More to come.

On Being a Girl

In Erin on October 6, 2009 at 10:38 am

Sharon always was a good bit taller than I–at least until middle school.  This was a fact whose implications were limited to my inheriting her old clothes (including one of those sweet t-shirt clips!) until a few years into our relationship, when she and a few other girls in our class started to look…well, much less like children.

It was in fourth grade that I first remember seeing our friend Cate* being harassed by boys on the playground for wearing a bra.  Cate had begun to grow into her adult body earlier than many of us, and the white Peter Pan-collared uniform shirts we had to wear at the Unnamed Christian Private School  didn’t exactly prepare for this eventuality.  The girls who had begun to need more adult undergarments were thus effectively displayed for the world, a fact which the boys–usually led by some jerk whose older brother had already initiated him into the ways of catcalling and other such subtleties–never failed to remind them of.  Thus, it was creepily evident to me (and probably everyone else) each time another one of my friends crossed over into the bra-wearing zone, leaving me behind in the land of pre-adolescence.

Of course, even in pre-adolescence, we weren’t exempt from the reminders of the ostensible weirdness of our bodies.  One day in after-care, a boy named Scott, who was typically picked up right after school by his stay-at-home mom, sneaked into the girl’s bathroom with another girl who had alerted him to the existence of menstrual blood in the toilet.  It was a bold transgression, to be sure, which only heightened the breathless giggling and pointed questions that followed.  Scott was good-looking and popular, one of the elite members of our insular fourth-grade world.  So when he demanded to know more about this bizarre sight, all of the girls in the class crowded around to offer their knowledge–such as it was in fourth grade.

“Tell me about it,” he said, with gleaming eyes and devilish smile.

“Well, whenever you don’t get pregnant–”

“No,” he interrupted, “tell me the bad part.”

“Um, well, the blood can get on–”

No, I mean the bad part.”

And it was thus that we all jointly recounted what we knew, foggily, about the mechanism of sex and the apparent shamefulness of the female body.  Ironically (or perhaps not), Scott’s mother showed up during this illicit story-time, and was alerted to its content by the hushed  voices intermittently punctuated by squeals of laughter.  Instructing Scott to leave immediately, she turned to the group of girls with the sort of tone you might take with someone who just taught your 3 year old the f-word:

“You do not tell boys about that!”

I spent the rest of the afternoon paralyzed with fear that my parents would find out that I’d been involved in such “bad” things.

At that age, so much of the world seemed to me a mystery, and despite the fact that growing up apparently meant having a body that was open for discussion by everyone and their brothers, I was desperately anxious for it.  I remember grilling Sharon and our other similarly-developed friends on their experiences, filled with wonder over the realm of training bras and “sanitary” pads.  Like Scott, I wanted first-hand knowledge of  the secrets of puberty–but that knowledge was not forthcoming.  On the other side of the puberty fence, of course, things don’t look quite so exciting…but on the monkey bars in fourth grade, the rumors of periods and undershirts were enough to make me wish and pray, in spite of the certain public humiliation that would accompany it, for my own “development.”

It was, interestingly, years before I learned that girls weren’t alone in undergoing bizarre bodily changes.  In fact, it was only through illicit late-night sitcom watching that I began to get a vague clue that boys’ bodies did something potentially embarrassing around the years of adolescence, a shocking turn of events that left me so confused that I threw caution to the wind and asked my mother.  She informed me that they went through something just as we did, even though no one really talked about it.

“But why,” I said, “Why does everyone make fun of us and not them?

“Because,” she said matter-of-factly, “they’re sensitive about their privates.  And, because they’re the ones who run everything.”

I didn’t stop hoping to join Sharon and everyone else in the gnostic cult of puberty then, and neither did I wish to become a boy.  I did, however, feel that I had something, that I knew their secret, that this little bit of information had freed me from being forever shut up in the box of bad stuff. It definitely wasn’t anything like feminist consciousness–I still desperately wanted to have a bra and to have the other boys and girls know that I had a bra–but it was a little move out of the world of feeling trapped in my own girl-ness.

Really owning that girl-ness, though, took some time.  But thankfully, for that there was Sharon, and Designing Women, and my mother, each of whom (it seemed to me then) saw the world with clear eyes, and just the right amount of defiance.

*Not her real name