Erin

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

How did we Get Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, in September, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Confessions of an Artless Nerd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screw You, Sorry. I’m Not Your Bitch Anymore.

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2010 at 12:38 am

“Sorry” is a magic word.

I’ve talked about these before.  The performative phrases, the things you say out loud that are supposed to alter the state of being, change the substance of the air around you.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about “sorry” and its power.  And I’m beginning to realize that Dana was right; sorry doesn’t help.  Sorry is an easy answer, sure.  It’s a way out of a real conversation.  But I think it’s more than that.  “Sorry” can hurt.  In fact, I think it’s hurt my life a lot.

So fuck you, sorry.  I’m not taking your shit anymore.

When Erin and I were young, I think it’s safe to say that both of us were astoundingly afraid of treading on anyone else’s toes.  We didn’t like getting into trouble.  We didn’t like “being bad.”  And we most definitely did not like hurting another person.  So one of my earliest “sorry” stories mirrors hers almost exactly.  I was playing with my neighbors from across the street, a girl and boy very close to my age who were my first real companions in childhood.  I was around 4 I’m sure, meaning that Girl was 5 and her Brother was about 3.  Brother was the sort of kid who was always underfoot.  He wanted to be around me and Girl, but he was still a little young, a little bit behind us.  One year of difference matters a lot more when you’re that small, when every year is such a huge portion of life lived.  And we, being older, were always in a race to get away.

On this particular day, Girl and I were in a major hurry to play outside.  Rain had plagued us all week and we had been cooped up.  As our mothers sat and dallied in the living room, we were insisting loudly that we needed to move, to get going. Wasn’t it dry enough yet?  Couldn’t we just go out and see, test the ground to find out if it was still wet?  We promised we wouldn’t track in mud.  Finally they relented, giving one of us the key to unlock the back door and head into the yard, unattended.  I ran to the door and fiddled with the lock, Girl standing next to me all the while hurrying me along.  The lock gave in and I swung the door back, ready to push through into the sunshine.

As I swung back the door, an enormous moan came from somewhere near the ground.  And then the sound of sobbing.  Brother had been trying to follow us out.   In the haste to get what I wanted, I hadn’t noticed him underfoot, where he always was, his head close to the door.  When I swung it open it knocked his head and sent him tumbling over, crying.

“I’m sorry!”  I started crying too.  Just as loud and just as long as Brother did.  I was inconsolable.  I had hurt someone else.  He had a bump on his head, a mark.  And I had put it there.  I was so destroyed, so “sorry,” that eventually, once Brother was calm, he waddled over and hugged me at the urging of our mothers, trying to show me he was okay.

It’s the sort of thing that happens in childhood all the time.  In adulthood too.  We hurt someone because we aren’t paying attention.  And we feel bad, because we don’t want to be that person who isn’t paying attention to the feelings of others.  We don’t want to be that person who hurts someone else.

Or at least, that’s how I would have interpreted it once.  But the prevalence of “sorry” in my life – the insidious way it’s made a home for itself inside my head – is beginning to make me question whether this is the only way to see things.

“Sorry” did something else for me that day too.  It made me the center of attention.  This isn’t how I intended it – at least I don’t think so.  But my regret was so big, so desperate, that it required immediate forgiveness and attention (in the form of that hug) from the boy I’d injured.  Saying “sorry” wasn’t enough.  I needed  to know everything was okay, that the world had been righted again.  I learned that saying “sorry” did a lot for me – but it did hardly anything for the kid I’d hit with the door.  I learned to NEED sorry.

Over the course of my childhood I became a veritable “sorry” machine.  I became hyper-aware of any and every offense I had caused someone.  Because of my reliance on sorry – my willingness to claim a mistake or to suggest that I’d wronged someone else, the standard of behavior became different for me than it did for others.  For the most part, I was a quiet kid in school.  I followed the rules and kept my mouth shut, keeping me off the radar and leaving me to my own private world.  The majority of kids in our school were not this way.  They were mostly rowdy, mostly loud, mostly “baddy bats.”  Everyday in line from the classroom to recess they talked and pushed and shoved.  Same thing on the way back, or on the way to the lunchroom.  The teacher tried to quiet them down, to no avail.  One day, I decided to talk.  I don’t remember why.  I whispered two or three words to Alex, and the teacher snapped around.  “Is that SHARON talking in line?” she gasped.  “Sharon?”  I uttered a shy “Yes, Ma’m” and then immediately followed it up with a reflexive “I’m sorry.”  “I’m glad you know when to apologize,” she said.  She acted disappointed in me the rest of the day.  Every day, all day, those other kids talked.  None of them ever apologized.  None of them were ever asked to.  I had taught her – and most of the adults in my life – that I would tow the line. And so the boundaries of my freedom became different, tighter.

When Erin and I were in middle school, we went to church with a girl I’ll call Dawn.  To a bunch of goody-goodies at age 12, Dawn was odd to say the least – odder, even, than the Dana Erin mentions in her previous post.*  (She once painted her fingernails and then set them on fire, just to see if the “flammable” label was true.  We were far too “safe” for activities like this, even though I now realize lots of kids did things like this.)  The thing is, though, she was made to seem even MORE different from us by the way the adults in our church introduced her.  We were given a “talking to” the first time she came to church – a speech to let us know that Dawn was different, that she came from a home with a single mother who was mentally ill (in exactly what way no one said).  She was “troubled.”  She was moody and dark; she pitched fits and stormed out of rooms.  She talked back to figures of authority.  She was decidedly unchurchy.

The truth was, we (Erin, Alex and I) had encountered “troubled” kids before.  Plenty of the kids in our school could have been classified as “troubled” according to the vague definition of our youth ministers.  The kids at our Unnamed Religious Private School pitched fits, were churlish and combative.  They set things on fire just to watch them burn.  But the thing was, those kids were the royalty at school.  They WERE the people of privilege.  At church, Dawn was the Other – the girl with a single mom (who didn’t come to church, mostly), who was decidedly less light-skinned than we were**.  Because she was Other, she made our youth ministers and other figures of authority decidedly uncomfortable.  They knew that by the dictates of Southern Baptist politeness they HAD to let her into youth group if she wanted to come.  Having her there meant they were Good People.  They were supposed to be showing kindness!  And pity!  In the name of God!  But they really, really didn’t want to.

You know how I KNOW they didn’t want to?  Because Dawn immediately became the sole responsibility of Erin, Alex, and myself.  We were the “good” kids.  We would “be kind” to her.  We would “influence” her.  But most of all, we would “look after” her so that the adults didn’t feel like they had to.  Like good little robots, we would do FOR them the things they thought they OUGHT to do but didn’t really WANT to do.  It was a lose-lose situation for all of us.  Dawn didn’t get any of the healthy, normal companionship kids of that age need.  She just got three friends who were trying really really hard to do what they were “supposed” to do.  And we got tossed into a situation we couldn’t really parse or understand, with other people’s prejudices and fears bouncing around in our heads.

Dawn had a serious temper.  She also lived in a house where tantrums were fairly standard and completely acceptable.  She and her mother and grandmother communicated mostly – at least in our visits to her house – in shouting.  Erin and Alex and I had all been taught to be appropriately repressed.  When we got angry, we mostly didn’t talk about it, or only talked about it quietly to each other.  Explosive rage was “inappropriate” and “bad” – something the Baddy Bats would do.  Dawn expressed her rage – at everything and everyone – openly and with fairly hostile intent.

During her first year at the church, we took a trip to New Mexico (three states away!  A REALLY long drive) for summer church camp.  The drive was so long that it required an overnight stopover in Amarillo, TX, home of the play Texas – a musical (I think?) about pioneers hosted in the Palo Duro Canyon.  The Palo Duro is deep, and we visited it at night – a group of gawky teenagers and tweens, restless and rowdy and excited to be out of the van for the day.  Prior to the drive from the hotel to the canyon, one of our Sunday school leaders had sat down with Erin, Alex, and me to inform us that while we were at the play we should take care to “keep an eye” on Dawn.  “You know how she can be,” she said, winning the award for most predictable sweeping generalization ever.

Shortly after we arrived at the Canyon, Dawn got angry with us about something.  I don’t remember what.  We were 13.  We were mad at each other all the time.  But because she was different from us, Dawn chose to storm off from the group rather than sit and stew in silence.  And we couldn’t find her.  We wandered through the crowds some, called her name, even looked back at the vans.  She was nowhere to be found.  It was time to report our error to the adults.  They were angry, of course.  Furious – you might say with Righteous Anger.  And Disappointment (which was even worse).  We had let Dawn out of our sight.  We had made her angry.  It was all Our Fault.

And so we apologized.  We apologized to the youth leaders.  When Dawn finally wandered back of her own accord, we apologized to her too.  We said more “sorries” than I have ever said, and we said them all night.  We felt genuinely bad.  We had made Dawn angry.  We weren’t supposed to upset her.  We were supposed to patronize her.  Because we were Good People!   And Dawn was made to “sorry” too.  She had wandered off, after all.  She had put herself in danger.  She had acted out of accord with the way good church kids act, and so she was made to say “sorry” too – sorry just for being who she was.

When I look at this situation as an adult, I realize that all those apologies I issued that night allowed my youth leaders – the ones whose attitudes towards a young girl had led to her ostricization in the first place – to continue to pat themselves on the back, convinced they’d done a “good deed” in allowing such a troubled girl to be in their exclusive group.  It was their job as adults – not mine as a teenager – to recognize that the tensions we experienced with Dawn were more a result of their own prejudices than Dawn’s actual behavior.  Had we not been taught that she was “special”, we might have come to consider her a friend rather than a project to help us win a gold star in our crowns.

“Sorry” helped everyone maintain the status quo.  Someone had to be “sorry,” and so it was us.  If no one was sorry, then that would mean all of our assumptions about the situation were wrong.  It would mean stopping to think, parsing the situation, and reexamining what we thought about the way the world worked.  The adults in our lives (our church lives) wanted nothing more than to avoid all that parsing and reexamination, and so they accepted our “sorries” and allowed us – me, Erin, Alex, and Dawn – to take all the blame.

“Sorry” taught me to take responsibility for things that were not really my fault.  It taught me to carry on my shoulders the weight that everyone else refused.

I have plenty, plenty more to say about this.  This dynamic has worked this way in so many corners of my life, and I’ve only addressed one so far.  But I worry that this post is getting too long, so I’m going to stop and post for now.  Maybe Erin will have some other examples of how “sorry” functioned as a barrier?  I don’t know.  I hope.  But even if we go on to other topics, I’m going to come back to this one.  Because it crops up again and again until I have given up on “sorry” almost entirely, and I want to be able to show you exactly why.  To show you why we need to rethink the word and its implications, the ways we try to use it as a “magic word” to escape the difficult task of thinking.

*When I talk about how “odd” Dawn was to us, keep in mind that she was “odd” to a bunch of privileged middle-class white girls who had the luxury of extremely extremely stable families.  I completely acknowledge my privilege here.  Hold on, cause that’s going to be part of the main point – how I and the adults in my life handled that privilege.

** I am intentionally vague here.  I have no clue as to Dawn’s racial make-up.  Her mother was white, but we knew only that.  So there was, of course, constant speculation at church – among the adults – about who (or “what”) her father might have been.  This speculation Othered her even more than her class status or her single mom.

“It’s not like I’m going to send you to school in blackface”

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2010 at 8:40 pm
I remember a bit more about the mechanics of choosing our “role models” than Erin does.  I know that we were sent to the library with the specific direction to ask the librarian for “biographies” (probably a new word for us), and that the biographies we chose would eventually lead to a presentation in front of the class about our subject.  Each subject could be assigned to only one student, leading to a girl-fight over angelic white ladies with gender-appropriate careers (the most popular being Florence Nightingale), and a boy-fight over assorted sports heroes.  But for me, the most memorable aspect of the assignment is one that just barely glances Erin’s memory: we were to come to school dressed in costume as our new role models.  Both props and costumes were allowed, but the costumes were expected to represent something worn in a scene from the book.
For some kids this meant frilly dresses or baseball uniforms.  Initially I thought the assignment would be no problem for me.  My biography focused at least a third of its pages on my subject’s childhood, so my mom and I planned a costume with a simple pink skirt and white button-up shirt – something someone might sew at home for a little girl in the 50’s.  I would carry a babydoll and wear my hair in braided pigtails.  Soon, though, I learned that Mrs. Busy Street (or perhaps Not-Tina-Turner – we aren’t positive) was skeptical of my ability to fully embody my role model.  When I told her about my choice, she snickered uncomfortably.
“I’m not sure about this book, Sharon,”  she said in an attempt to cast doubt on my project.  “I— I think it might be too old for you.”  (For the record, this was true.  But it isn’t as though I’d never read a long book or a tough book before.  And it came from our own library!  The elementary school library!)  I talked her out of this assumption and she tried a different track, this time closer to the truth: “Well, it’s just that it’s going to be hard for you to really come dressed as your subject.”
No it isn’t, I thought.  I already have my outfit all planned out!  “Don’t worry, Mrs. BusyStreet!  I already talked to my mom and I’m going to dress like her as a kid.  I won’t have to wear a fancy dress like the one on the cover.”
I was NOT getting the point.  But for whatever reason, the teacher chose to back down and let me have my choice – likely because not doing so, being honest about her feelings, would have revealed something about her that most people at our school kept carefully hidden beneath the surface: that she was basically afraid of difference.
You see, while Melissa and Natalie and Rachel and the like fought over Lottie Moon and Florence Nightingale, I had chosen a biography from the bottom of the stack provided by the librarian.  For my report, I would read about Mahalia Jackson: gospel singer, Civil Rights Activist, and – more importantly for my teacher – a woman of color.
Much like Erin in her post about the Jesse Jackson book fair debacle, I have no idea what drove my choice.  I can speculate, of course.  As Erin has said, this was an assignment about role models – about the people we wanted to be.  In a sense, we were expected not only to study our subjects, but to embody  them for our report.  We’ve mentioned before that as kids we were both performers – fascinated by the sounds of our voices in our throats.  Mahalia’s story was told as the story of the strength of a voice.  Much of the last portion of the bio focused on her songs at Civil Rights rallies.  When she opened her throat, people sat still and listened.  I wanted nothing so much as to have a powerful voice.
But my reasons for identifying with the famous gospel singer were completely overcome by my teacher’s apparent concern that I could not possibly come to school “dressed as” Mahalia Jackson because, well, she was just too different from me – i.e., our racial designations were too different, and she was therefore an inappropriate icon.
This is another of those times when I credit my mother’s sanity for saving my childhood.  She didn’t blink twice when I told her that the teacher had kind of snickered at my choice and asked her why everyone said I couldn’t pick Mahalia.  Her explanation was clear and simple: “Sharon, there is nothing wrong with you wanting to have Mahalia Jackson as a role model.  It’s not like I’m going to send you to school in blackface.”  Of course, explaining to me what “blackface” meant – and why it was horrible – took a little bit longer, but I eventually understood that my teacher’s unwillingness to address their objections to me directly had to do with their general unwillingness to talk to us about race at all – a topic that rarely came up in a school that was probably more than 90% white, and upper-middle-class to boot.
This post is already getting a bit long, and is well overdue, but there are some issues here I’m hoping we can revisit sometime in the future.  In fact, I’m hoping Erin will agree to do a liveblogging type of thing with me on the issue of race in our childhoods, because I think we could uncover some interesting items buried under some very pale rocks.

Chasing Turkeys in the Country Club

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Erin is cornered in the Great White North this year, and is hosting a party to teach the People of Other Lands the true meaning of American Thanksgiving (with Tofurky!).  In honor of her party and the upcoming holiday, I thought a post reminding her of Thanksgiving via the Unnamed Religious Private School would be apropos. 

I’ve had to mull this post over a few times, because this is the first time that I’ll be posting a memory that’s very scattered.  It doesn’t exist in my brain as a narrative, but rather as a bunch of scattered, disparate parts that might actually come from a series of years rather than a single event.  So rather than fudging anything resembling linear narrative, I will provide you with a series of remembered events, which may or may not be connected to one another.

 Erin has already mentioned the Thanksgiving Play, and my memories of this are much the same as hers.  I’m certain that the plot of the play was “Pilgrims set out for America.  Pilgrims land and are extremely righteous, but in order to teach them a lesson God sends them a Very Harsh Winter.  Some people get sick.  Some people even die!  Helpful Indians (played by dark-haired children such as myself) help them grow crops.  Helpful Indians join Pilgrims at First Thanksiving, where the women cook the meal while the men teach the Indians about Jesus.  The Indians readily accept Jesus despite what must have been some really difficult translation barriers.  Everyone is happy, and thus thankful, despite all the bodies still lying around from the Very Harsh Winter.  (I believe that one year we actually did have some kids play sick people, and I think one of them stayed on stage longer than he was supposed to, thus giving the impression that the neglected dead were still lounging about during the festivities.)

 Thanksgiving is always a troublesome holiday at religious schools, because it’s the only holiday (besides Halloween, which is OFF LIMITS) that isn’t specifically referenced in scriptures.  When teachers talked to us about the “true meaning” of Christmas, they inevitably spent several days pouring over the birth of Christ with us.  The meaning of Easter was similarly divined through readings of the Crucifixion.  But the Pilgrims aren’t technically IN the Bible (as much as our teachers might have wanted them to be), and so somehow we escaped with having a fairly secular time at Thanksgiving.  We made the traditional Hand-Turkey crafts and lists of things we were thankful for.  And I can’t imagine that our play was that much more culturally insensitive than anyone else’s.  The myths of Thanksgiving are a pretty ingrained part of American childhoods, public- and private-schooled alike.  (This makes me wonder what kids who grow up on Reservations think of the holiday.)  We also did additional crafts projects to eat up the time that would normally have been dedicated to something less secular, like a scripture reading.  The year we did the play, we created our own set (featuring a giant cave!) out of papier mache. 

A few years later (I think), someone must have made the decision that crafts were not adequate to teach us about the meaning of Thanksgiving.  Because that year, we were sent to the M family’s house to learn about all of the chores and tasks that go into planning a True American Thanksgiving.

Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with the Family M.  They are the family that includes Melissa and her twisted sisters, along with their theatrical mother and the father who donned tiny bathrobes.  Erin has already mentioned that they were the family who attempted to provide our class with “culture”, carting us all to plays and Junior League events.  This year their role as cultural attaches was extended somewhat, as they taught us the proper way to plan a Thanksgiving feast.  One morning the week before Thanksgiving break, we all hopped in cars driven by chaperoning parents and took a field trip to the country club, where Mrs. M greeted us at the door to her stately mansion and informed us we would learn how to be real ladies and gentlemen this Thanksgiving.

Did I mention that we were all wearing Pilgrim and/or Indian outfits?  We were requested to come in costume as members of the first Thanksgiving.  Most of us just used our costumes from the annual play, meaning that I was dressed in my felt Indian vest and headband, complete with feathers and two long pigtail braids.  So a group of mostly Pilgrims and a few select Indians stormed the mansion door, still uncertain what, exactly, we were going to learn.

This is where my memory gets splotchier than I would like.  I am certain that a day at the house of M must have been beyond hilarious, but I can’t get a clear picture of what, exactly, we did once we were there.  I know that a major portion of our “lesson” involved cooking and cleaning.  Mrs. M had arranged for us to prepare specific T-day dishes – potato salad, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green been casserole.  And she also taught us the importance of having a clean house; some of us were assigned to polish various furnishings and mop the hardwood floors in preparation for our feast.  (I feel that I must commend the school here, as this lesson was surprisingly gender neutral.  As far as I can remember, the boys were assigned to cook and clean right alongside the girls.)

What I remember most vividly, though, is the moment when Mrs. M and our teacher gathered us all together and talked about the importance of remembering the first Thanksgiving as we set about preparing our own feasts.  The Pilgrims, they reminded us, had not only to cook and to clean, but also to hunt, fish, and gather.  They lived off the land, and the preparation of any feast involved the hard legwork of the hunter.  (I would swear too that when we cooked the meal, Mrs. M made the preparations as primitive as possible, leaving out the use of electric appliances wherever feasible.  But this might be a misremembrance.)  Thus, on this day we were going to learn how hard it was to hunt a turkey.

I have no idea why someone in the country club had turkeys.  But someone did.  Specifically, he was a grouchy old man who shouted a lot and didn’t seem all that happy about having us on his property.  He had a pretty extensive plot of land that included foul of all kinds, cows, and I think even a pig or two.  Now that I’m older I look back on him and wonder if he was one of those old men who thinks the government is coming for his money one day and keeps a small farm-like plot just in case someone steals all his worldly goods.  But whatever the reason, he had animals, and we needed those animals in order to learn about the First Thanksgiving.

Mrs. M showed us around the “farm,” explaining how each animal would have served the Pilgrims in the creation of their feast.  (Cows?  In early America?  I’m not so sure about that one.  But they probably didn’t eat sweet potato casserole with marshmallows either, so I guess I shouldn’t expect this even to have been historically accurate.)  We learned that any and all food came from plants and animals, not from the grocery store.

But the capper of the event was when the grouchy old man stepped in to tell us how hard it was to catch a turkey.  If we were learning about the hardships of the early days, it was important to understand that nature was difficult to tame, and that most wild animals didn’t just walk right into the path of your rifle.  As he made his point, he walked towards a small fence at he back of the property, threw open a gate, and set free three enormous turkeys to run about the yard.  He claimed that they were “wild turkeys,” although I think that adjective becomes moot once an animal is kept in a pen in your yard.  But either way, the man was taken with the majesty of the turkey (just like Ben Franklin!) and wanted us to understand how hard a bird it was to bag.  “Just try to catch those turkeys,”  he challenged.

And with that, 20 elementary school kids dressed as Pilgrims and Indians took off after 3 big birds, scrambling across the acreage, bumping into unsuspecting cows and pigs in our plight to grab the centerpiece of all Thanksgiving meals.  We got close a couple of times, including one in which I swear the thing turned around and nipped my arm.  But I doubt any of us succeeded.  After much scrambling around, Mrs. M called us back and told us it was time to head back to the house.  Luckily for us, some astute shopper had already provided us with a bird via the grocery store, so our feast would not remain incomplete, despite our failure to bag the turkey.

I don’t know where our teacher was during all of this.  I suspect it was a nice day off for her.  I’m really crossing my fingers this time, hoping that Erin remember SOME of this, because I’m certain there’s more to this story.  Anytime a crazy rich lady teaches a bunch of costumed kids about the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving, there are bound to be some comedic scenes.  But all of them were pushed out of my mind by the crazy old man who got a kick out of watching us chase his turkeys.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Dad, Do We Believe in Jesus?

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2009 at 3:06 am

Erin’s post reminds me of something I’ve been wanting to address but haven’t found the proper segue for yet: the religious beliefs of our school.  Because even though I had countless moments of “learning the facts of life” like Erin mentions, none of them are as memorable for me as those involving religion.

As much as we had in common, there was one other major difference between the two of us.  Erin’s family went to church.  And at our school, this was an important factor.  As we’ve mentioned, this school was a fairly religious institution.  It was founded by a church, and “Bible” was a subject covered in every class.  We went to “chapel” every Wednesday – basically a big church service where the school’s principal (or was it someone else?  I don’t remember) gave a sermon and we sang Bible songs, some of which were cleverly set to the tune of old significantly-less-holy standards.  (My personal favorite was the song about Jesus set to the tune of “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor.”)  The school had some (fairly) extreme beliefs.  I can’t speak to how much what Erin learned in church or at home fit with or contradicted what we learned at school, since that wasn’t really something we talked about as kids.  But I can tell you that her family actually attended a church.  Mine hadn’t been since I was 3, and I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in school with that fact hanging over her head.

My parents aren’t exactly irreligious.  It’s hard to explain – or at least more complicated than a single blog post can get across.  Suffice it to say that the reason I was in the school had nothing to do with God and everything to do with  the fact that forced busing in East Baton Rouge Parish would have had me getting on a bus at 5 am at the age of 6, being carted halfway across town, CHANGING buses, and then finally arriving at school for 7.  I wouldn’t have made it home until well after dark each day.  My mom was having none of this, and she and my dad put me in private school.  As far as I know, there were no nonsectarian private schools in the city, at least not then.  And the Catholic schools certainly weren’t likely to take me, so non-denominational Christian school it was.  ( I also now recognize what I didn’t then – that while I was priviledged enough to be able to afford private school, my cohorts from the neighborhood – those who weren’t in Catholic school – would have no choice but to get on that bus at 5.)

There’s a lot I could say about this, but any point I could make can be summed up with one story:

In elementary school I loved getting the right answers.  I was a teacher’s pet and used to being told how smart and clever I was.  (You know that episode of The Simpsons where the teachers go on strike and the schools close?  Lisa can’t handle it, and she runs up to Marge saying, “Please please please grade me grade me!  Evaluate and rank me!”  I was Lisa Simpson from age 6 until around age 12, when I started studying mostly just the things I liked.)  And I was NOT used to being uncertain of an answer.  Usually religion class didn’t pose a problem with this.  After all, there’s a book.  All I had to do was read it.  But occasionally a teacher would ask a real stumper, and I would panic, afraid that my non-church-going status would be revealed.

The first time this happened was in Not-Tina-Turner’s class.  We were all sitting in a semi-circle (probably “Indian style”, with our legs folded in front of us) in front of her chair, and she was telling us about Heaven.  (Teachers at unnamed religious private schools LOVE talking about Heaven to little kids.  Obviously.  I’m always floored by those tv shows that portray religious teachers discussing hell with 5-year-olds.  I don’t remember this ever happening.  They stuck with Heaven until we were closer to 10.  Got us hooked, then told us what would happen if we didn’t stay that way.)  “And what is the only thing you have to do to get to Heaven?” she asked.

I knew this one.  It was in the book.  “Believe in Jesus!”

“That’s right!  So how many of you will go to Heaven when you die? Raise your hand if you KNOW you’ll go to Heaven.”

I had no idea what to do.   I mean, technically I knew what she wanted was for us to all raise our hands.  But somewhere in my very young brain, I understood that a belief is different than an answer.  I had no idea if I would go to Heaven.  I had never thought about it.  But as every other hand in the room shot up, so did mine.

Still, that night I remember vividly walking up to my dad and asking, “Dad, do we believe in Jesus?”

I have no idea what answer he gave.  Whatever he said, though, I came out of it understanding that when it comes to believing things, there is no right or wrong answer.  Belief was something personal, and it was up to me to decide what I believed.  And I didn’t have to tell anyone at school – teachers or students – what I believed if I didn’t want to.  One of the things I love most about my dad is that he never talks down to anyone.  He never shied away from complicated questions, and no matter how young I was, he would provide me with a truthful answer, no equivocation.  I mentioned before that he’s a scientist, and I think that has something to do with his belief that inquisitiveness should be rewarded with knowledge.

I never asked him if I would go to Heaven when I died.  I guess somehow I already knew what the answer would be.

I went back and forth about what I believed a lot over the course of those years.  I wanted very badly to be “good,” and it seemed that believing in God and Jesus made you “good.”  But I also thought my parents were good, and I knew that they didn’t believe exactly the same things that the teachers at school did.  In many ways, though, I’m grateful for the confusion.  I learned early on that ideas are constantly evolving, that questions should always be asked, and that beliefs are something that have to come from within.  If they come from outside forces – from parents or teachers forcing them down your throat – then they’re never really beliefs at all.  They’re just more facts for you to stuff inside your head.  Whatever you’re told about God as a child, it doesn’t really hit home – doesn’t really MEAN something – until you decide for yourself whether you accept it.  (The same is true, by the way, for rejecting a belief.  I don’t cotton to forcing children to reject beliefs anymore than forcing them to hold one.  Just for the record.)

I would also like to put in here that I’m certain Erin’s parents must also have had an attitude at least resembling that of my parents.  I don’t ever picture them as indoctrinators.  And they never reacted strangely to the fact that my parents weren’t church-goers, the way that many of the other parents did.  I know my mom often felt uncomfortable at school events, but she was never uncomfortable with Erin’s family.  She can speak to that better than I can, obviously.  I just wanted to mention that I have only positive memories of them in this arena.

On Not-Tina-Turner and Overachieving

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Sharon,

First of all, I agree with your mom: hold your pencil however you want!  I’m glad that you shared this story, because it helped me to remember that Not-Tina-Turner was also Not-a-Nice-Lady.  At the time, I didn’t think of it this way, I think because it took years before I learned to verbalize dislike of or upsettedness with adults…I just tended to assume that when they were mean or critical, it was because I had messed up.  This was often true, obviously–I was a messy, goofy kid–but sometimes it was just unnecessary.  Case in point (which, if my parents are reading this, they will recognize, because I became so indignant about it as an adult that I repeat this over and over):

At some point during second grade, we had to make picture frames for our parents out of cardboard and dried beans.  The point was to glue the beans in a pattern on the cardboard cutout frame, and then to put our school pictures in the frame.  I was minding my own business, spreading glue over the frame and beginning to stick on the beans, when Not-Tina-Turner appeared over my shoulder.

“Erin!” she yelled, “Don’t use so much glue!”

Embarrassed, and looking sheepishly at the Elmers that was dripping off the sides of my frame and oozing around the few beans I’d managed to secure, I said nothing and tried to wipe the excess with a paper towel.

“Don’t do THAT,” she shrieked, whisking the gluey mess out of my hands.  She held aloft the sticky white frame for the benefit of the class.  “Don’t ever hire Erin paint your house; you’ll wind up with paint everywhere!!”  Returning the frame to my glue-covered desk, she softened her tone slightly: “You only need a little.”

Thanks, Not-Tina-Turner.  I’ve never wasted glue since.  Oh, and by the way, I’m a fabulous house-painter.  It’s just that my talents are better exercised elsewhere.

As far as other kids go, I can’t seem to remember them.   No one else was such a horrendous glue-waster, apparently.  Now that you mention it, I do remember the pink-loving boy, and I believe that there was a boy named Kyle who I later developed a crush on in 4th grade.  And yes, I remember the cast of characters who followed us throughout our time at this private school, but I don’t have explicit memories of them in our second grade classroom.

As far as private school Bible-verse memorization goes…well, it’s funny.  It’s hard for me to characterize that practice now, because I feel so conflicted about it.  At the time, I loved it, because I loved the feeling of memorization and the feeling of pleasing adults, both of which contributed to my lifetime of over-achieving.  I was good at memorizing, because it was really just another form of word-repetition, which (as I’ve mentioned) was intensely enjoyable to me.  I loved being good at things, getting good grades, being the first one to memorize that week’s verse.  In retrospect, I’m suspicious about the practice of forcing children to repeat particular phrases as an ideological tool (especially when, as you point out, only certain phrases are permitted to be repeated).  And this suspicion is exacerbated in this particular instance, when the person training children in religious repetition is the same person who trains them in the recitation of math facts…there’s a conflation of authorities with which I’m not particularly comfortable.  When you take all of the authority at work there–the math, the religion, the glue-use…it all seems like a bit much.

Of course, if Not-Tina-Turner hadn’t been such an overbearing authority figure, who knows where we’d be?  I should probably write her a thank-you note for my academic success and general parsimony.  I’m sure that without her encouragement, I’d be a slovenly painter with an average memory.  Horrors, indeed!

Performing

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 3:03 pm

The camcorder and the cassette recorder (the black one had an orange “Record” button–and I would swear in a court of law that there was a plastic red and white one, too) remind me how prominently performances figured in our playtime.  Sometimes we’d require our ever-so-patient parents to watch or listen to the performances, and sometimes they were just for us.  I mentioned before how much I loved the feeling of spoken words and phrases…though I don’t remember consciously articulating that thought as a kid, my memories of performing–radio plays, church skits, mugging for the video camera–are thoroughly visceral.  Embodying a character (my over-the-top acting notwithstanding), feeling a different voice come out of my mouth, experiencing physical expression in an unfamiliar way: this is what stands out to me now as pleasurable.  This, and the making things up part, of course.  I love that Sharon remembers this as my not being afraid to be silly–because while I think this is absolutely true (I’ve always been a little on the side of ridiculous), it’s something I never really conceptualized in that way, because (at that young age, anyway) it never occurred to me as something to be afraid of.  Being larger-than-life felt good, and though I actually was shy around people I didn’t know well, I reveled in the opportunities to perform when they arose–or better, when we created them.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Sidebar on (Not)Tina Turner and Treehouses

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 4:03 am

Erin,

I have just written an absurdly long post philosophizing about working moms, economic conditions, and mystery theater.  And I had all of that tumbling around in my head all day, so I had to get it on paper to see what you’d say.  But in leaning toward the philosophical, I feel like I left out some of what I wanted this blog to be: the visceral.  So here’s my secondary post, addressed straight to you, included my visceral reactions to the other stories you mentioned in your initial post:

1. I do not remember the Tina Turner poster, but I’m glad that you do, because I definitely remember that woman.  She had a bowl haircut.  She was very tall.  She terrified me.  And I’m also pretty sure she was the most masculine teacher I ever had.  In fact, I initially scolded myself because I remember REALLY not liking her, and I started to wonder if that was because she was big and agressive and I responded negatively to those qualities in a woman as a child.  But your mom is also assertive and smart and opinionated, and I always loved her.  So I’m pretty sure the reason I did NOT get along with NOT-Tina-Turner was because of the way I held my pencil.  We had handwriting practice everyday, and she would send me home with notes about how I held my pencil ridiculously and I would never learn to write until I could hold it better.  My mom found this patently ridiculous and instructed me to keep holding my pencil however I wanted.  I’m pretty sure this contributes some to the personality I have today.  Also, didn’t she teach us swimming?  Maybe that’s the other reason I didn’t like her.  I hated swimming.  (I’m pretty good now.  Surprise, no?  I even dive.  It only took til college.)

2. I’m pretty sure the treehouses were built by one of the first grade teacher’s husbands, because we had one in my grad 1 classroom that was built by my teacher’s husband.  His name was Kirk, and this reminded me of Captain Kirk from my dad’s favorite TV show.  In a bizarre act of childish displacement, I imagined that he looked like Spock.

3. I am not surprised that the other teachers did not like Tina Turner.

4. Who else was in our class?  I literally only remember you and me for sure.  That’s weird.  I mean, I remember who else went to our school in general, cause it was the same people for AGES.  But I can’t place who was in that specific class, with the exception of Ross, because he held his pencil even worse than I did, loved hot pink, and was left-handed.

5. I am floored that you remember the red jewel.  Awesome.

6. When you talked about forming a collection of your past selves, I felt like I could relate in a big way.  Part of the significance of this project for me is that, after leaving grad school and teaching and Los Angeles, I felt more than a little like I’d lost myself somewhere.  In the past couple of years, I’ve been coming into my own again and recognizing that, even when I feel completely adrift and confused, there are aspects of myself that have been exactly the same for AGES.  And somehow that makes me feel more like a complete person (mirror stage, anyone?).  I especially reacted to your reaction to my crying during Labyrinth.  The person I was to you then – this representation of distilled emotion – is the person I’ve been to  a lot of people during my life, and I’m only just now coming to realize that I’ve ALWAYS been that way.  Apparently I just never learned how to temper ANYTHING, but especially not my emotions.  I was a full-fledged adult in my twenties before I understood that other people notice this, and that it affects them.  I also react at inappropriate times and to inappropriate things, never to the actual event that triggers the emotion.  So my emotions are powerful, but they cause waves even more because they’re usually displaced.  (When I was in grad school I took a writing class from a professor who taught something called “creative critical theory” – basically creative writing for theorists.  He pointed out that whenever I wrote anything about myself, I tended to break off in the middle of a story and start writing poetry.  Then, once I made whatever emotional revelation I needed to, I would return to prose and finish the story.  I now believe this has a lot to do with those displaced emotions, always there, but always directed at some abstract thing in a book or a movie – something outside myself.)

7. I think it says something that you still adore Bill and Ted, and I still watch Labyrinth periodically.

8. When the person you are now looks back on those Bible verse drills, does it disturb you?  Or do you see it as just another form of education and memorization?  Because I can’t ever decide.  Sometimes I feel like reciting force-memorized chunks of text out of context was scary and cruel.  But other times I’m glad for the skill of language memory that I think I derived from it.  I can recite lines from almost any text I’ve ever read the way I recited those Bible verses in childhood, and I carry those lines around with me (some of them are still from the Bible, but not all) like little talismans of protection that I recite to myself when I’m upset or anxious.  Or even when I’m happy and can’t find a way to express it.  I made a cocoon of words for myself over time, and those verses helped jump-start that.  I’m hoping we eventually delve way more into the religious aspect of our upbringings, especially because that’s one place where our backgrounds were very different – and so I imagine our experiences were too, even if we were going through the same basic things.

9.  An addendum to that thought:  one thing that I do remember as a scary aspect of the verse memorization was the time (in 4th grade, I think) when we were allowed to choose our own verses to memorize.  I’m sure we were supposed to choose things about love and kindness, but a very close friend of ours (who shall remain nameless since I don’t know if she’d want to be named) chose a verse out of Revelations describing, very artistically, the gates of Heaven.  The teacher told her she couldn’t pick that one.  I have no idea which one I picked.  But I do know that the one I remember best is the very last verse of the book of Matthew, when Jesus says “And I shall be with you always, until the very end of the age.”