Erin

Posts Tagged ‘memory’

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.

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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!

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.

And a peacock too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which one of us was that, again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queering the Slumber Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded knowingly, crunching my Ritz with peanut butter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The argument began to escalate:

“Oh yeah?  Well you kiss boys!”

“Ewwwww!  Shut up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I Think We Need to Unhook It”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Being a Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, well, the blood can get on–”

No, I mean the bad part.”

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

“You do not tell boys about that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Not her real name

In churning butter, I accidentally churn myself

In Sharon on September 30, 2009 at 10:31 pm

I remember churning butter.  Vaguely.  And I remember that we didn’t succeed at it, and that it was hard.  But I remember these things for very different reasons than Erin does – and for the first time since we’ve started this project, I think, the difference in the way we remember says something about who we were – and are – as people.

I remember thinking that my arms weren’t strong enough, and that that surprised me.

You wouldn’t know it now to look at me, but I was a big kid in the 3rd grade.  I always stood in the top row of photographs, was always bigger than the boys.  I had height, and speed, and a strangely adult body for my age.  Once in the 4th grade this kid Jordan and I had a pizza-eating contest to see who could devour more slices at lunch.  I’m pretty sure I won.  I liked being the big kid.  It’s something I was known for.  So when we churned the butter at Prairie Day, all I remember is being certain that I would be the one to finally make it turn into something.  I was big and tough.  I even remember other kids thinking the same thing about me, although this might be a trick of my small mind, enforcing the way I thought of myself.  I have no proof.

I couldn’t do it, of course.  None of us were going to.  But when we failed to produce the desired result, all I could think was, “I wasn’t strong enough.  I’m supposed to be strong.  Why wasn’t I strong enough?”  And I walked away.

I had a very strong sense of self as a kid.  And with that very strong sense of self came the notion that there was somewhere I ultimately “belonged.”  So where Erin saw a lack in herself, I saw a lack in the world.  It wasn’t fitting around me the way it was supposed to, and I was befuddled constantly.  I was the big kid, the strong kid.  That cream should have bent to my will.  When it didn’t, that was obviously because I wasn’t “meant” for churning butter.  It wasn’t my calling.  My strength was best used elsewhere.

Erin’s tale of her journey from childhood through young-adulthood is poignant for me because she describes a quality that I never possessed: patience.  All the while that she was waiting for her faith to arrive, all the time she wondered if she should have tried a little harder – all those moments, I was turning away from things, leaving things behind because I didn’t see the point in waiting – on anything.

Things I have quit at various stages of my life include:

Churning Butter

Girl Scouts

Calculus/anything math related

Assorted friendships

Assorted boyfriends

Acting

Teaching

The clarinet

Dancing

Beta club

Graduate school

Eating Meat

Vegetarianism

Eating in general

Most of my jobs

California

… I could go on.  And now I’m starting to wonder if all of this leaving can be traced back to Prairie Day in the third grade.  Because every time I’ve ever experienced a failure – or even a slight hiccup, a tear in the veneer of perfection – I have walked away, thinking “Well, I guess I just wasn’t meant to (churn butter, be a girl scout, work in a clothing store… etc.)” If I don’t come equipped with the perfect skills, then the job doesn’t belong to me.  It’s someone else’s destiny.  Forget hard work.  Forget patience.  If I don’t fit right in, it isn’t mine.  I don’t belong.

My biggest reason for leaving relationships behind has always, always been that the other person “just doesn’t understand me.”  I want to fit, like a puzzle piece.  I want to open my eyes and have the world inside of them be visible to someone.

There are lots of moments in childhood where we realize that we are separate from the world around us – that we don’t create it with our own will.  These are difficult moments for everyone.  They’re incredibly popular fodder for stories.  The problem with me, I suppose, is that I never learned anything from these moments.  I simply refused to believe them.  When Erin’s incantations failed to bring her unicorn to life, little bits of doubt slipped into her world.  I didn’t like doubt, and so I ignored it.  And somewhere along the way there’s a lesson I failed to learn – that things will never be exactly as they are inside your mind.  You cannot will the world into being around you.  And you will never fit exactly.

For these same reasons, I am very susceptible to narratives of children taken away to magic kingdoms and alternative realities.  I cried when I saw the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are.  When I have a bad day – when I bump up against one of those pesky imperfections – I still imagine the main character of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon; he draws a rocket ship for me, so that we can fly away to a place where we really belong.

Since early childhood I have displayed a very strange notion of authenticity.  I have a particular selfhood, and I have always seen that self as unalterable – pure, somehow.  I grew up being certain that somewhere out there was a place, a way of life, a vocation that my identity could slide into perfectly, unchanged.  I would not have to wait.  Once I found this place, this thing, I could simply be. Who I am would be enough.  I would be perfect.

I imagine that’s what I thought Heaven was.

Even today, even as I write these words this very second, I am still looking for this place.  Even though I sit here claiming to know better, I still refuse to settle for anything other than finally, at long lest, finding my place of being.  I know it isn’t real, and yet I still manage to walk away from so much.  I’ve changed so many times over the years in the name of finding myself that I’ve lost track of that kid who was once so cock-sure.  I don’t feel solid anymore.  Instead I am malleable – someone who changes to fit the situation, but who never returns to being herself.  I am consumed with the desire to return home – to go back in time, so that I can find that identity again, and protect her.  She’s been tossed about on the wind a lot, and I miss her.  I wish I could go back to being that strong-headed kid who was bigger than everyone and knew her arms were powerful enough to bend the world.