Erin

Posts Tagged ‘reiterations’

Adventures in Imperialism

In Erin on October 18, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Ah, the school play!  Sharon’s post reminds me of the frequency with which our elementary school required us to engage in performances or activities that necessitated elaborate costuming–and, interestingly, the concomitant frequency with which these performances or activities involved  (what I now understand as) highly political, and potentially problematic, themes.  There were the Christmas plays, of course (the video of which, by the way, I think we should consider posting as a youtube clip!)…but there was also the Thanksgiving Play, which was truly cringe-worthy in retrospect.

The Thanksgiving Play was, perhaps, unremarkable in the sense that it was exactly what you might expect–especially in the South, in a Christian school, in the Reagan Eighties.  The class was divided into “Indians” and “Pilgrims,” who, in full costume, reenacted (with singing!) the mythical “First Thanksgiving.”  I remember that I, as a blond, was cast as a Pilgrim, while Sharon, who had darker hair and eyes, was cast (along with the rest of the less-Aryan-looking kids) as an Indian.  My only line in the play was as representative of the Pilgrim Women, who, when the time for the First Thanksgiving was determined, declared: “We’ll cook the meal!”  Interestingly, though I was (as I’ve mentioned previously) no stranger to the wonders of performance, this experience–on a stage, in front of a room of people, in a dress and bonnet–terrified me, and I recall that, despite repeated stage direction to the contrary, I steadfastly spoke my line facing the back wall.

All of this now, of course, strikes me as so deliberately gendered and racialized in its ideology as to be ridiculous–but I haven’t yet even approached the most incredible part.  This was a musical, after all, which meant that we learned and sang songs that purported to be representative of the respective Thanksgiving parties.  I don’t remember any of the Pilgrim songs–probably because they were so boring–but I do have vivid memories (complete with hand motions!) of the “Indian” song, which are…well, difficult to adequately describe with a single adjective.  The words went as follows:

We go hunting near and far,

[Something] with our long-nosed squaw

Pow-wow, pow-wow,

We’re the men of the old-old time!

For we are the red men,

Feathers in our headband

Down upon the dead men,

Mm-Pow-Wow!

Mm-Pow-Wow!

The song, like all of our songs, was accompanied by the piano, and made use of heavy staccato beats and minor chords–presumably to evoke the sense of a drum-beat.  It was entrancing to me, and, when combined with the “Indian” outfits complete with brightly-colored feathers from the craft store, it made me wish, heartily, that I had been so lucky as to be born a Native American.  The story, of course, omitted any reference to any colonial interactions with Natives that were more fraught with conflict than the division of labor for meal preparation.

That’s how it was: you wear a fancy outfit and sing some songs–and, *poof*, America!  The mystery of the Incarnation was similarly solved during the Christmas pageant, so it didn’t seem that the establishment of a new country on an already-inhabited continent should be any more complicated.  At the end of the day, everyone sets aside their differences and has a meal–which, coincidentally, just happens to look exactly like the Thanksgiving meal your mom makes, or at least, how it would look if it were made out of papier mache instead of Turkey.  It doesn’t matter that underneath their costumes, everyone is white and attends a wealthy private school, because hey, it’s about being Thankful for the Gifts of God.  And the Gifts of God just happen to include meat, corn, money and the land that was previously being kept company by the “red men.”

What’s fascinating to me now is how closely this political ideology was wedded to our school’s religious message–a fact that you certainly get a glimpse of in the general Gifts of God language.  Indeed, the Thanksgiving play wasn’t just an after-school event; we performed it for the rest of the elementary school during our weekly chapel: pray, sing songs about the greatness of God, learn about the greatness and beneficence of American origins (and the exotic backwardness of the Natives!) , pray some more, go back to class.  Remember kids: Columbus discovered America, and Jesus loves you!  Both facts, both repeated until you get them straight, incorporate them into the fabric of your self.

Oh, and don’t forget: girls cook and boys lead.  Class dismissed!

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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.

“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.

Failed Incantations

In Erin on September 27, 2009 at 9:33 pm

In kindergarten one day, I cut my hair.  Just a little piece, about 2 inches long, off the back.  I don’t know why I did it, and after I’d lopped it off with my brightly-colored scissors, I didn’t know what to do with it.  I knew, however, that this was probably bad, and that I should do something to get rid of the evidence.

So I put it in the bookshelf.

I realize that this was an unconventional choice, but it was borne out of necessity, as the teacher was approaching on her rounds about the classroom.  I shoved it between a couple of books, put the scissors away, and said to myself “No one will know.”

Moments later, the teacher had discovered the little tuft of white-blond hair–but much to my surprise, she did not look to me.  “Shawna!” she gasped at the only other blond-haired girl in our class, “Did you cut your hair?!”  Startled, Shawna was unable to produce a convincing argument to the contrary, and she was given the dreaded “time out.”

My spell had worked.

Or, it almost did.  The point was to keep me out of trouble, and that part came through.  I did feel bad for Shawna, but since my greatest fear as a child was to be in trouble, I was more relieved than anything.  And, I was just as convinced as ever that belief was like a magic wand, brandished when something was really important–or at least when I really, really wanted it.

After all, it wasn’t just at church and school that I heard over and over that belief changed things.  My favorite TV shows, the Care Bears and Rainbow Brite, also regularly told me that if I only believed, and concentrated, and said the right words in the right frame of mind, magical things would happen.  I remember vividly standing in my room at home, positioning Rainbow Brite’s horse just so, turning my back and whispering a fervent incantation designed to turn the plush toy into a real unicorn.  When it didn’t work out as well as the hair thing, I was disheartened–but more with myself than anything else.  Someday, I thought, my faith will be strong enough.

So it was confusing to me, as a child, to hear the story about Jesus and the children–and not only because of that odd use of the word “suffer,” which made it sound like Jesus was really struggling to put up with my childish faith.  “The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these,” He said, as quoted by my parents, my Sunday School teachers, and the blond-haired principal.  This was exciting and terrifying all at once.  We were supposed to be Kingdom-of-Heaven-perfect, just by being kids…and I was the doofus pinning my hair-cutting scandal on other people and failing to bring my stuffed unicorn to life.  I was a child, and my faith was secretly flawed.

When you’re a kid, you think everything will be more awesome when you grow up.  You’ll be able to reach things on the counter top, and drive the car, and run faster, and decide when to go to bed, and have faith that can really make mountains move, just for the heck of it.  But when you grow up, things never quite turn out the way you think they will.

Twelve or fifteen years later, I was in college.  I had gone to another protestant school, where we memorized Bible verses and talked about what they meant, and where all the cool kids were the leaders of their very own worship bands.  And I was still waiting for my perfect faith to arrive.  I’ve never been much of a shrinking violet, and my outspokenness, I was then learning, was read by some people–at least, the ones I wanted to impress–as abrasiveness, as a lack of humility, as unbecoming of a “Godly woman.”  I wanted very much to do/be/love the right thing, and so prayed the same prayer, over and over again: “Lord, make me completely humble and gentle.”

And I waited.

And I prayed, and I cried.  And after all my struggling in vain, I was admonished (by someone I will not name here, but whose opinion mattered deeply to me) that my faith was not the faith of a child.  My faith was complex and battered and confused yet resilient–but it was not the simple faith of a child.

*     *      *

When we were in third grade, the class Sharon and I were in did a unit on Little House on the Prairie, which ended with a set of day-long festivities called Prairie Day, when we all dressed in pseudo-period costume and did pseudo-period activities, like churning milk into butter and square dancing.  There’s a lot I could say about it here, but for the purposes of this current post, I just want to mention something about the butter churn.  I think the point of this activity was some sort of historical consciousness-raising about the miracles of modernity, but all I remember thinking was “Gosh, this must have taken a long time.”  In fact, though we all took turns running the churn with our little 9-year-old arms, we could not seem to turn the cream into anything but cream, and because there were square dances to do, Ms. Busystreet let us leave the the churn and have mass-produced butter with our picnic lunches.  I was glad to leave it alone, because–let’s face it–it was both boring and exhausting, but felt a vague sense of remorse that we hadn’t seen what might have happened.

This was the way I thought of most things when I was a kid…and, as it turns out, when I was a young adult.  If only we’d waited longer, tried harder, really believed, or said just the right words: who knows what might have been? When I finally grew up, when I learned to be a child again, when my faith at last became what it was supposed to be…

And all around: discarded locks, failed incantations.

Of WASPs and Knowledge

In Erin on September 20, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Sharon’s last response about the kids in our class jogged my memory quite a bit, and I realized that much of what sticks out to me about school between the second and fourth grades are moments of revelation: those times as a kid when you hear something that shatters your sense of stability–of how the world works or should work, of what “normal” is, of who you (or your teachers, or your parents) are.  I nearly lost my mind, for example, when I was told in fourth grade that, despite what I’d heard up till that point, it was possible to subtract a larger number from a smaller.  (Don’t even get me started about how much that messed me up, especially after the saga of struggling to learn math “facts.”) Anyway, as I was preparing to tell a couple of these stories, I also realized that they had in common central characters whose names were all laughably and uncommonly WASPy, so in the interest of humor, I’m going to tell them with names that –as much as this is possible–capture the distilled essence of these people and their names, as they exist in my memory.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Not-Tina-Turner and Overachieving

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

Sharon,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sidebar on (Not)Tina Turner and Treehouses

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

Erin,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I remember about houses

In Sharon on September 18, 2009 at 2:56 am

We’re off and rolling now, and I’m ecstatic about the way things are going. I’ve already found at least two places where our memories are different, and countless places where hers fill mine in seamlessly, as though she were carrying around half the story in her brain, and I the other half. That’s not necessarily what I expected, and it’s fascinating to me. I have responses, but first a quick bit of business. We’ve elected to go with first names, so I will go ahead and explain that I am Sharon and my fellow poster is Erin (a revelation that should explain the rhyming names fiasco. Add on to that that we once went to winter formal with guys named Rob and Bob, and that we have simultaneously dated guys named Josh, and you have a real banana-fana-fo-fana mess on your hands.)

And now, to the memories: Read the rest of this entry »

Giving an Account of Myself(s)

In Erin on September 17, 2009 at 3:12 pm

When Sharon asked me to be a part of this blog, I really couldn’t say yes fast enough.  I’m still trying to parse the reasons for this eagerness, but my hunch is that they revolve around a deep love for stories and the sense that I’ve lost so many of my own over the years.  In the course of my nearly 30 years on the earth, I’ve had what I think of as several different lives–and these sweeping changes have had a way of disconnecting me from former iterations of myself, such that I actually find myself (often pleasantly, but sometimes unpleasantly) surprised when someone tells a story that reminds me of one of those former lives.  It helps me to remember that the disjointed narratives I think of as dead or clumsily tacked on in fact form a shared history, and that–despite the fact that I may sometimes wish otherwise–we carry our pasts with us, even as those pasts are continually shifting.  So I’m glad to be part of telling our stories, because I think this re-telling both retrieves something lost and creates something new.

I don’t remember meeting Sharon.  I do remember the first day of our second grade class, but my thoughts of that day primarily circle around an outrage that I was not assigned to the classroom with a treehouse in it.  In fact, as I recall, there were two other second grade classrooms, both equipped with forts made of 2x4s, which, in retrospect, must have been built by one of the teacher’s husbands, who apparently did not like the third teacher enough to be so accommodating.  So we  were stuck with this less popular woman, who, for whatever reason, had a poster or pin displayed above her desk reading, “No, I’m not TINA TURNER.”  At any rate, Not-T-T used to call each of us up to her desk individually, in what now strikes me as a rather creepy scene, to recite the Bible verse we had to memorize that week.  My earliest memories of Sharon are set during that trek to the desk: our names rhyme, and in the narcissism of childhood, this is enough to cause constant confusion–we were forever both responding when the other was called. Read the rest of this entry »