Erin

Posts Tagged ‘puberty’

How did we Get Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, in September, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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