Erin

Posts Tagged ‘Melissa*’

“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.
Advertisements

Role Models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meteorologist: Seriously, those maps were awesome!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence fell over the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

And a peacock too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded knowingly, crunching my Ritz with peanut butter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The argument began to escalate:

“Oh yeah?  Well you kiss boys!”

“Ewwwww!  Shut up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I Think We Need to Unhook It”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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