Erin

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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?”

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Sticks and Stones

In Erin on January 17, 2010 at 9:16 pm

In preschool, I used to love to play with blocks.  You could gather a few together, stack them up, and–like magic–a wall would appear, or a house, or a tower.  You could make anything, even something bigger than yourself – which, at 4 years old, is a phenomenon of untold awesomeness.  I might have been small, but my block towers?  Those were glorious.

On one particular day, I had constructed a stunning specimen out of wooden blocks about the size of small bricks (in the days before pink plastic princess blocks for girls, all children shared the same ones) that towered over my head.  I reached to place the final piece on top of the rickety structure, and before I knew it–

OOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWW!   WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”

The blocks had tumbled onto the head of the boy next to me who had been playing with a truck, unaware of the impending doom.  I was stunned.

“I’m sorry!!  I’m sorry!” I exclaimed.  This is what you said when you hurt people.

“Sorry doesn’t help!” he shouted indignantly through tears, running to get the teacher, Ms. Loker (who, incidentally, had a terrible habit, when walking with you–at least, if you were 4–of holding your entire hand in a tight ball, rather than holding your fingers and thumb separately, like a normal human being).

Ms. Loker approached, and I fidgeted, worried.  “I said I was sorry!  I said I was sorry!”  I yelled pre-emptively.

Her reply was short and swift:

“Sorry doesn’t help.”

It’s hard to describe what I felt at that moment.  It was as though someone had told me that Santa Claus didn’t exist and that I would be getting coal in my stocking for all eternity.  There were no magic words, and there was nothing I could do to atone for my mistake.  I was at a complete loss.  Where could I go from here?  What kind of world did we live in, if saying “sorry” were ineffectual?  What was to be done?

Apparently (this time anyway), time out.

Still, there were hundreds of other situations in which Ms. Loker’s assertion was patently contradicted.  People said sorry all over the place.  I was ordered to say sorry to my brother on multiple occasions, my parents said sorry to one another, and I’m sure that I had to tell Sharon I was sorry for waking her up in the wee hours of the morning to watch cartoons or get a snack when I slept over.  Sorry had to help, or at the very least it wasn’t nothing – why else did everyone keep saying it?

***

When Sharon and I were in third grade at the Unnamed Religious Private School, there was a new girl in our class.  She was socially awkward, talked too much, and had a vaguely disturbing need to draw her dog, Benji, on everything she owned, including an oil-pastels art project that was supposed to be an under-sea view.  In that one, much to the art teacher’s chagrin, Benji was a mermaid.  Her name was Dana, and to make matters worse, her last name sounded like a playground insult.

While it’s true that Sharon and I were decidedly not cool, I think we shared the sense that it was important not to be associated with Dana, and, while we were generally nice to her, we did not befriend her.  I saw her occasionally at after-care, since her mom sometimes worked late, and we shared a fairly normal play relationship…until something happened.

One day when Dana and I were both in after-care, some of the older boys who were also after-care regulars (and who I thus had a serious social interest in impressing) started picking on her, making fun of her name and suggesting that she was disgusting.  This was mean, but it was (in retrospect, anyway) pretty generic playground fare–especially for a boys-versus-girls kind of confrontation.  But it didn’t stop there.  Things escalated.  Another older girl said something about Dana being gross, and having a disease.  I laughed uncomfortably.  I wanted to be part of the group.  Dana was whining in her loud, annoying voice, “Stop it!  Stop it!”  And then I said it:

“Dana has AIDS!”

I didn’t know what that meant, not really.  I knew how people talked about it, of course: like it was a combination of leprosy and sin itself, a contagion that would infect one’s blood and soul through mere proximity.  As soon as I said it, I knew I had gone too far.  Dana burst into tears and ran away crying.  The other kids laughed uncomfortably, and quickly dispersed, to avoid any ensuing trouble.

I hid behind the playground equipment for the rest of the afternoon, certain that punishment awaited me.

But none came.  My mom arrived to pick me up and take me to my friend Cate’s birthday party, which was scheduled for that evening.  I fidgeted uncomfortably in my seat, sure that she was waiting for just the right moment to let on that she knew what I’d said.  But she said nothing.  At Cate’s house, I walked into her room–and there was Dana.

“Do you still think I have AIDS?,” she pointedly cried as I walked into the room, her face still blotchy and red.  Cate and the other girls in the room stared, wide-eyed.  “We were just joking…” I lied.

“Well it wasn’t funny!”

“I’m sor–” I began.

Sorry doesn’t change anything!” she cut me off.

I stood there, bewildered, guilty, and ashamed.  I felt the other girls looking at me.  I hated the sound of Dana’s voice.  I wanted to hide in the closet.

And then it was time to have cake and open presents.  Somehow, I made it through the rest of the party without having the entire story recounted.  Maybe it was because everyone else in the room merely tolerated Dana’s presence, or maybe it was because Cate didn’t want our drama to ruin her birthday–but not another word was said about it.  Still, I lived in fear of my mother finding out for at least a week, and dreamed about it for years afterward.  If Dana were still upset about it, she never told anyone.  I have no idea what all of it meant to her, or even what happened to her later.

***

When I left for public school a year or so later, I had to switch classes 2 weeks into the semester.  I had completed some state-mandated testing, and was to be placed into the 5th grade “Gifted” class, which was, it seemed, an elite and exclusive world to which few had access.  During the first week in my new room, I was talking to Marisa, one of the coolest girls in the class, at recess.

“We were worried when we heard that there was a new girl coming to our class,” she said coolly, “since, you know, there are already only three cute boys.”  I nodded, pretending to understand, and waited for her to finish.

“But then, when we saw you, we said, oh, good, at least she’s not pretty.  Now we can be friends with her.”  Marisa smiled at me a bit condescendingly, as though she had just congratulated me on winning a remedial spelling bee.  I was shocked.  It was the first time I’d been insulted so brazenly, so unapologetically.  I said nothing.  She walked away to talk to her other friends, and I sat alone, waiting for the bell to ring.

I didn’t ask for her to say that she was sorry.  I knew that she wasn’t, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.  What was said was said, and there was nothing that could have been done to take it back.

That isn’t to say that I’ve lost my faith in apologies.  Since the playground, I’ve done and said my fair share of terrible things, and my neurotic obsession with mentally replaying those mistakes (yes, even in dreams) continues to throw me onto “I’m sorry” as a wild, grasping effort at changing the unchangeable.

I want to believe that Ms. Loker’s mantra wasn’t entirely true.  I want to believe that though a “sorry” will not right the fallen blocks or words, it might change something.  I want to believe that my “sorrys,” to Dana or Sharon or any of the other people I have wronged, will not have been so many empty words.  And perhaps just as fervently, I wish I could believe that a simple “I’m sorry” would heal the wounds that I’ve acquired myself along the way.   There are times, though, when I simply cannot.

It’s in those times that I wish all we were dealing with were a few wooden blocks.

Role Models

In Erin on December 6, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Being in elementary school is a lot like being in training to be a monk.  You have a highly-regimented schedule through which every minute of the day is accounted for.  You learn a few book-style facts as well, but mostly, your learning is about molding your behavior: sit like this, talk like that, value these things, avoid those at all cost, hold your fork this way, position your hair like so, keep your workspace clean, smile only in certain circumstances…

The list goes on, of course, but you get the idea.

What’s really interesting to me is how frequently this sort of behavior-training figures in my memories of childhood–I have the sense that I can look back on these little vignettes of life that we chronicle here and see how they functioned to make us, little by little, into the people we are.  It’s true that the salience of some experiences over others is affected by who we are now, obviously–so I don’t pretend to have a clear or neutral view of what our lives were like then–but I still like to think that in remembering our turkey-chase or reading material, we recover something important.  Maybe it’s not “who we are,” so much as a piece of our training at “being” anyone at all…but it’s something, all the same.  But I digress.

At some point during our time at the Unnamed Religious Private School, our class was given an assignment: read the (children’s level) biography of a famous person you’d hope to be like, and give a report to the class on her or him.  Sadly, my Jesse Jackson bio did not make an appearance here.  In fact, I don’t remember the specifics of how the books were chosen, but I know that the figure I ended up reading about was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to go to medical school, and consequently, the first woman to become a Doctor in the contemporary age of medicine.

Interestingly, I remember being a bit scandalized by parts of the book: it wasn’t that I was confused or upset about the prospects of Elizabeth Blackwell as a female doctor, on the contrary, it was my discovery that women and girls were (in the same century as me, even!) prohibited from going to real school.  I had heard before then that girls didn’t go to school in some places, or–more often–that girls “went to school at home in the old days.”  Somehow, I had missed the fact that this arrangement wasn’t just a matter of convenience for someone who didn’t have a carriage, or a matter of preference for ladies who preferred needlepoint to books.  No, the book informed me, the men at Elizabeth Blackwell’s medical school hated her, and protested against her even being in the same room as they were.

Needless to say, I was quite troubled.  Still, Elizabeth triumphed in the end, a fact that was portrayed rather rosily in this children’s-book version, and I was able to give my presentation (in Victorian dress!) armed with the knowledge that things were totally different now, and that no one would ever discriminate against me because I was a girl.  (Until, of course, I started wearing a bra.)

And so, we learned to be proper kids, proper boys and girls with proper life goals, which were laid out well in our library’s kid-section biographies.  That way, the next time our teachers would ask “Erin, what do you want to be when you grow up?”, the answer would be something other than “I want to be a sportscaster!!”

The whole prospect of “being” something was always fascinating to me, and I tended to adopt a new answer on a semi-regular basis, which would then become my obsession and adopted identity until a new one came along.  In addition to “sportscaster,” my list included (not in order):

Pharmacist/Chemist: I didn’t really have a clear distinction in mind here, though once I found out that they weren’t the same thing, and that this “thing” in neither case consisted entirely of mixing things together that caused fizzing, the dazzle was gone.

Teacher: I really just liked being in charge.  Maybe I still do.

Minister: It was very confusing to find out that this was disallowed by my ladybits.  What about Elizabeth Blackwell, the glass ceiling breaker??!

Meteorologist: Seriously, those maps were awesome!

Gwen Stefani: I really, really wanted to be her as a teenager.  Big pants!  Tiny shirts!  Gavin Rossdale!

Lawyer: The sad fact is that trials are not Law and Order, which made me realize that what I actually wanted was to be an…

Actress: It was the best of both worlds–you appear intelligent, and all of your lines are scripted.

Artist: This was never going to happen, even if I did do a marginally better job drawing flowers than Sharon.

In retrospect, I think I really, really wanted to be able to say that I was something.  Whenever our classes would talk about careers, the teacher would go around the room, asking everyone “and what does your dad do?”  The odd thing was that everyone else’s answer was a thing: Alex’s dad is an engineer, Sharon’s dad is a scientist, Melissa*’s dad is a doctor (though I think he was actually a pharmaceutical rep), Scott’s dad is a football coach.  And when we learned about working class jobs–because, obviously, there were no such people in our school–it was always “Joe is a farmer; Johnny is a policeman; Fred is a fireman; Frank is a garbage man.”

When the teacher came to me, I had my answer ready: “My parents work for the state.”

Silence fell over the room.

“What’s that mean?” Rachel (whose dad was a missionary) squawked.

“It means they work for the Louisiana Department of–” I began.

“They work for the government,” Ms. Busystreet interjected, eager to get on to the next student.

We moved on, but I was confused.  Everyone else was something.  My parents worked somewhere, but what were they?  That night when I went home, I asked my mom.  I don’t remember exactly how I worded it, but I do remember her answer:

“If anyone wants to know, tell ’em your parents are Bureaucrats.”

I didn’t grasp the humor in this for some time, but I did leave with the sense that if I was going to be like anyone, I wanted it to be her–just with a cooler job.

Roald Dahl at the Book Fair with Rev. Jackson

In Erin on November 5, 2009 at 11:38 pm

There are so many amazing things to say about Sharon’s post, but I want to approach them through the somewhat roundabout route of telling you about The Book Fair.  The Book Fair was a magical event for kids such as us, who eagerly awaited new spelling lists and reading assignments.  Now, with the advent of amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, I doubt whether The Book Fair even exists–or if it does, whether anyone would actually send their kids to school with money to spend on it–but at the time, it was wonderful.  Basically, it amounted to a mobile bookstore kids section, which parked itself in the auditorium for a day.  I believe that we might have been allowed to make book purchasing decisions right there in the moment, but for the most part, we had already made our book choices in advance with the help of colorful (yet flimsy) Scholastic catalogs, which listed the newest titles and which were distributed in class the week before.

I remember going through the scholastic catalog each time, circling everything I wanted (usually almost every book in print, except for the boring ones about horses or basketball), and then painstakingly narrowing my list down to accord with the budgetary restrictions imposed by my mom.  When I was younger, the final list almost invariably included some fantasy or coloring book involving stickers or unicorns.  One year, though–I believe in fourth grade–I began to branch out.  My Book Fair purchases that year included 1) a biography of Jesse Jackson and 2) one of the Scary Stories books Sharon mentioned.

To be honest, I have no idea where the Jesse Jackson thing came from.  I have my doubts about whether I actually knew who Jesse Jackson was.  I do remember thinking that the description in the Scholastic catalog made him seem interesting, and that I was beginning to feel weird about the fact that I knew no Black people other than the lovely woman who cleaned our house (Ms. Gertie), despite the fact that I was growing up in a pretty diverse city (which, incidentally, was later ranked by Ebony as one of the best 5 cities for African-Americans to live  in the U.S.).  So I think I must have had vague aspirations of self-education, but these were sadly never realized.  I still remember bringing the book home, and hearing my dad ask why I would possibly have wanted a Jesse Jackson biography–and putting it onto the shelf, never to be opened again.  I’m not sure that he meant to be disapproving, but his tone–the same one he used when asking, “You don’t like those New Kids on the Block, do you?“–was enough for me, a lifelong Type A pleaser, to take the hint (or at least, what I perceived as the hint).

In a way, the Scary Stories book is even more enigmatic to me.  Sharon’s suggestion that I had a “complex” relationship with fear is–for me–putting it generously.  I was a full-on fraidy-cat, wuss, chicken, whatever.  I hated, and still hate, scary movies.  It’s hard for me to remember what things were like then, since there’s something about adulthood self-awareness that makes the childhood versions of our present neuroses seem unrecognizable.  For whatever reason, though–maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were starting to go to camps, and have sleepovers, and ghost stories were a consistent part of the TV versions of these things–I got the Scary Stories book, and read it with Sharon.  That is, I read most of it (minus “The Black Dog,” since I had a black dog of my own).  I still remember some of the more vivid phrasings in Sharon’s voice:

The drum beats grew louder and faster!  Suddenly, Jack pitched forward, dead.

Ah, childhood!  So many beautiful stories.  I do wonder how it was possibly acceptable for us to acquire such a text, given its general morbidity.

Of course, I don’t actually remember The Westing Game being forbidden.  In fact, I was almost certain that we read it in school…or at least, that we read some mystery book that had a cover with a black background and a spooky looking old mansion.  Though this may have happened after I left for the alien world of public school (more on this later!).  Still, I do remember at least one instance of literary censorship at the Unnamed Religious Private School, so it’s far from being out of the realm of possibility.

At some point (I don’t remember when), our class read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Having seen the movie with Gene Wilder several times (and having had a chocolate addiction from a young age), I was pretty excited about this…though was somewhat disappointed that the book was a bit darker than the movie, with fewer bright colors and decidedly less singing.  Nevertheless, it was an exciting time in my elementary school life, not only because it was a story about chocolate–two of my favorite things!–it also involved getting a new book, copies of which Ms. Ditch (we’ll just say it was her) had passed out to each of us on the first day of the unit.

A couple of days into our reading, we came to the part of the story where Willy Wonka explains to Charlie and his grandfather that they should never ever drink the Fizzy Lifting Drink, since it previously resulted in the death of an Oompa Loompa.  The book description is much more intense than that of the movie, culminating when Wonka recounts the dreadful scene, in which he desperately shouts to the rapidly ascending Oompa Loompa: “Burp!  Burp you silly , burp!”

Or, at least, that’s what he shouted in my book.  He shouted that in all of our books, actually, because the copies Ms. Ditch passed out to us had that word blacked out.  Interestingly, however, rather than moving along past the offending passage without remark, our class was then forced to have an in-depth discussion of why Roald Dahl (or Willy Wonka?) would have used such terrible language in the first place, thus drawing even more attention to the fact of its censorship.  I don’t remember what the outcome of that discussion was, or whether it was decided that Willy Wonka was a bad person.  But I do remember that, holding the page up to the light, I could barely make out the word: A-S-S.

I didn’t really know what it meant, but I did know one thing: whatever it was, it was worse than The Devil’s Birthday and Jesse Jackson.  And that seemed like kind of a big deal.

 

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!

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.

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.

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

Failed Incantations

In Erin on September 27, 2009 at 9:33 pm

In kindergarten one day, I cut my hair.  Just a little piece, about 2 inches long, off the back.  I don’t know why I did it, and after I’d lopped it off with my brightly-colored scissors, I didn’t know what to do with it.  I knew, however, that this was probably bad, and that I should do something to get rid of the evidence.

So I put it in the bookshelf.

I realize that this was an unconventional choice, but it was borne out of necessity, as the teacher was approaching on her rounds about the classroom.  I shoved it between a couple of books, put the scissors away, and said to myself “No one will know.”

Moments later, the teacher had discovered the little tuft of white-blond hair–but much to my surprise, she did not look to me.  “Shawna!” she gasped at the only other blond-haired girl in our class, “Did you cut your hair?!”  Startled, Shawna was unable to produce a convincing argument to the contrary, and she was given the dreaded “time out.”

My spell had worked.

Or, it almost did.  The point was to keep me out of trouble, and that part came through.  I did feel bad for Shawna, but since my greatest fear as a child was to be in trouble, I was more relieved than anything.  And, I was just as convinced as ever that belief was like a magic wand, brandished when something was really important–or at least when I really, really wanted it.

After all, it wasn’t just at church and school that I heard over and over that belief changed things.  My favorite TV shows, the Care Bears and Rainbow Brite, also regularly told me that if I only believed, and concentrated, and said the right words in the right frame of mind, magical things would happen.  I remember vividly standing in my room at home, positioning Rainbow Brite’s horse just so, turning my back and whispering a fervent incantation designed to turn the plush toy into a real unicorn.  When it didn’t work out as well as the hair thing, I was disheartened–but more with myself than anything else.  Someday, I thought, my faith will be strong enough.

So it was confusing to me, as a child, to hear the story about Jesus and the children–and not only because of that odd use of the word “suffer,” which made it sound like Jesus was really struggling to put up with my childish faith.  “The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these,” He said, as quoted by my parents, my Sunday School teachers, and the blond-haired principal.  This was exciting and terrifying all at once.  We were supposed to be Kingdom-of-Heaven-perfect, just by being kids…and I was the doofus pinning my hair-cutting scandal on other people and failing to bring my stuffed unicorn to life.  I was a child, and my faith was secretly flawed.

When you’re a kid, you think everything will be more awesome when you grow up.  You’ll be able to reach things on the counter top, and drive the car, and run faster, and decide when to go to bed, and have faith that can really make mountains move, just for the heck of it.  But when you grow up, things never quite turn out the way you think they will.

Twelve or fifteen years later, I was in college.  I had gone to another protestant school, where we memorized Bible verses and talked about what they meant, and where all the cool kids were the leaders of their very own worship bands.  And I was still waiting for my perfect faith to arrive.  I’ve never been much of a shrinking violet, and my outspokenness, I was then learning, was read by some people–at least, the ones I wanted to impress–as abrasiveness, as a lack of humility, as unbecoming of a “Godly woman.”  I wanted very much to do/be/love the right thing, and so prayed the same prayer, over and over again: “Lord, make me completely humble and gentle.”

And I waited.

And I prayed, and I cried.  And after all my struggling in vain, I was admonished (by someone I will not name here, but whose opinion mattered deeply to me) that my faith was not the faith of a child.  My faith was complex and battered and confused yet resilient–but it was not the simple faith of a child.

*     *      *

When we were in third grade, the class Sharon and I were in did a unit on Little House on the Prairie, which ended with a set of day-long festivities called Prairie Day, when we all dressed in pseudo-period costume and did pseudo-period activities, like churning milk into butter and square dancing.  There’s a lot I could say about it here, but for the purposes of this current post, I just want to mention something about the butter churn.  I think the point of this activity was some sort of historical consciousness-raising about the miracles of modernity, but all I remember thinking was “Gosh, this must have taken a long time.”  In fact, though we all took turns running the churn with our little 9-year-old arms, we could not seem to turn the cream into anything but cream, and because there were square dances to do, Ms. Busystreet let us leave the the churn and have mass-produced butter with our picnic lunches.  I was glad to leave it alone, because–let’s face it–it was both boring and exhausting, but felt a vague sense of remorse that we hadn’t seen what might have happened.

This was the way I thought of most things when I was a kid…and, as it turns out, when I was a young adult.  If only we’d waited longer, tried harder, really believed, or said just the right words: who knows what might have been? When I finally grew up, when I learned to be a child again, when my faith at last became what it was supposed to be…

And all around: discarded locks, failed incantations.

Bearing Witness to Weirdness

In Erin on September 22, 2009 at 1:30 am

This past summer, while having lunch with a couple of friends,  the conversation somehow veered to the topic of Mormonism.  My friend Natalie (who was raised Catholic) and I were in agreement that Mormonism was beyond the pale of reasonability in terms of  faith commitment, while our friend Mary (who grew up as–in her words–a Militant Atheist) strongly disagreed.  In fact, Mary revealed to us in the course of the conversation that, despite her background, she had very nearly chosen to convert to the Mormon faith as a teenager, partly out of spite for her parents, and partly because the Mormons she met were such lovely people.  This was truly shocking to me, since Mary was certainly a reasonable person, and I had been so accustomed to thinking of Mormonism as outlandishly unbelievable.  When I expressed this feeling to her, however, she said something that struck me as deeply important: “When you grow up in a completely a-religious context,” she said, “Mormonism is no weirder than any other religion.”

My point here isn’t to suggest anything about the status of religious belief as such, but rather to highlight something that helps me to make sense of the differences in my memory of education at a religious school and Sharon’s.  Specifically, I think that our experiences and memories of Christian school will necessarily vary because of the differences in the religious environments we grew up with at home.  I did grow up going to an evangelical church every week, and so it is not particularly surprising to me that I can’t recall specific instances of teachers quizzing us on the Plan of Salvation.  That was just in the water for me, like getting a week off for Mardi Gras and taking a Spelling test every Friday.  But I do have vivid recollections of other moments where my experience of mainline protestantism butted up against the fundamentalism of the school–and it’s interesting to me now, as an adult, to compare those moments of apparent religious zealotry with the ones that stuck out to Sharon.  Because, as my friend Mary would say, it’s all equally unreasonable for an outsider.  It just depends on your context.

I do, of course, remember Chapel–and the moment when I learned, courtesy of Sharon’s mom, that the song I knew as “Jesus the King Has Risen” was a reappropriation of  “What do you Do with a Drunken Sailor?”  But because church services were such a regular part of my life, nothing about them seemed especially significant to me.  What did strike me as bizarre were moments when religious belief began to inform the goings-on of daily life in ways that went beyond praying before meals or obeying your parents.

One time, as I recall, two girls in our class got into a vicious fight–over what, I don’t remember.  All I do remember is that, as punishment, the teacher forced them to stay together–alone–in the classroom during recess, until they managed to “forgive each other.”  As we walked out to the playground, I remember discussing with Sharon what a terrible idea this was…though I think we may have both hoped that these particular people would destroy one another before the bell rang.  It was not to be, though.  The girls made nice, the teacher prayed with them, and I was thoroughly confused, having believed up till that point that fighting  necessarily entailed a trip to the principal’s office.

But this was hardly the most bizarre moment of religiosity I encountered.  There was the time in Ms. Ditch’s class when I brought my Paul Simon t-shirt for Show and Tell–which, by the way, I had just gotten at my very first trip to a live concert (the Born at the Right Time Tour, for those of you keeping score at home)–when some jerk on the front row pointedly asked whether Paul Simon was a Christian singer.  Before I could say anything, Ms. Ditch said ‘No,’ her eyes narrowed.  I knew then that Show and Tell was over.  And then, most upsettingly, there was the time in third grade when one of my classmates informed me that Halloween was The Devil’s Birthday.

I loved Halloween.  It was my second-favorite holiday: the candy was ok, but the best part was dressing up.  Given my propensity for performing, I was always eager for a costuming excuse.  And since my birthday was in October, I often had Halloween themed parties, which provided the opportunity for two separate costuming events.  Plus, since I’d met Sharon, trick-or-treating had become more feasible–since, as she mentioned, my family lived on a main road of town that was totally un-traversable by little kids on foot.

Just as Halloween was becoming all I hoped it could be, things at school seemed to be getting out of hand.  The curly-haired boy named Matthew came to school on Halloween day with his fingernails painted black, and the school administrators freaked out, calling his mother and demanding she take him home or find some way to remove the offending polish.  As we discussed this shocking turn of events on the tennis courts during recess, a cadre of our class’ religious elite approached:

“Christians aren’t even supposed to celebrate Halloween,” a kid named Scott declared, knowingly.

“Why not?!” I squealed, “What’s wrong with dressing up and trick-or-treating?”

“You know what Halloween is, don’t you?” a girl whose father was a minister sneered. “It’s The Devil’s Birthday.  If you celebrate Halloween, you celebrate The Devil’s Birthday!

“Nu-uh!” I had nothing else to say.  I was aghast, but had no proof.  The argument was interrupted, however, when the bell rang to go back inside.  Once we were back in the classroom, the Know It Alls refused to concede their point.

“Ms. Busystreet*,” Scott yelled, “Tell them that Halloween is The Devil’s Birthday!”

I am here to tell you that Ms. Busystreet did not deny that Halloween was The Devil’s Birthday.  She didn’t exactly affirm it either, but the knowing and concerned look in her eyes told me that Halloween was something that I wasn’t supposed to like so much.  I thought about nothing else for the rest of the day.

When I got home, my parents asked me if I was ready to go trick-or-treating.  I was evasive.  Confused by my sudden change in demeanor, especially on this, the second-grandest of days, my father asked me why I didn’t want to go trick-or-treating.  I’m pretty sure I made up a lie about being too old before finally spilling the beans about what had happened at school.  Upset at what he saw as the school taking things a step too far, he explained to me that there was nothing wrong with dressing up and getting candy, but that maybe we could draw the line at dressing as a Devil.  This lessened my growing sense of guilt, as did the reaction of my mother who was–as usual–just not having it.  Her outlook was something along the lines of “Please, you’d know if you were giving the Devil a birthday party,” and she thankfully helped me construct a last-minute Cat costume out of a long sock stuck to a leotard and some tinfoil ears on a headband.  We went to the 3 houses that were easily accessible from our main-road home, and that was enough for me.  For the moment, anyway.  As soon as I went back to school, I was filled with anxiety that the Halloween Police would find me out.

I don’t remember what happened after that.  I do remember that I was grateful to know people like Sharon, who didn’t make me feel judged about every little thing I liked to do.  Indeed, there would have been much heartache averted if I could have remembered that lesson a bit more clearly later in life, during my own moments of egregious religious zealotry!

That, however, is a story for another time…

*Not her name.  Her actual name was the same as one of the busiest streets in the town where we grew up.