Erin

Posts Tagged ‘getting in trouble’

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?”

Giants, Furry Collars, and The Westing Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s in there?” another called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.