Erin

Posts Tagged ‘repetition compulsion’

Belonging

In Erin on February 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

When I was a teenager, I–like many people, I imagine–wasn’t a big fan of apologizing, particularly to the people closest to me.   I wanted to “be myself” and “speak my mind,” and all the other cliché-ridden things that I learned from Teen magazine and MTV.  At least, I thought I wanted those things.  I also, somewhat paradoxically–and again, like virtually everyone who has ever been to junior high or high school–desperately wanted to be liked, to be interesting, to be cool, to be quirky-yet-fascinating…and, through a magical twist, to be really, really good.  At everything.

This overwhelming desire to be someone who was worth knowing, envying, loving, rather geekily played itself out in some typical “Type A” ways: with extra-curricular activities and honor-roll grades, and also in a way somewhat less typical: an obsessive involvement with our church’s Youth group.  I (and for a time, Sharon as well) was regularly in church 3 times a week, attending Sunday School, choir, handbells, and drama ministry group in addition to worship services.   I liked church–in large part because all of my friends were there–but I also really, really liked doing The Right Thing.  Mainly because when you did The Right Thing, people told you how Good you were…or, at minimum, didn’t point out all the ways you messed up.  So I plugged along, spending most of my non-homework-filled free hours at church or with people from church, all the while trying to maintain an “interesting” streak by rebelling in inconsequential ways–most of which involved professing to be a Democrat (horrors!) and refusing to wear khakis, or anything else that might be procured at The Gap.

What’s really amusing, in retrospect, is how effective this was.  I was usually awash in approval from adults who admired my academic and Bible-related diligence, while simultaneously being treated–at least at church, where things were decidedly capital-V Vanilla–as quirky and daring…and maybe just this side of dangerous.

But there were moments in which things broke down, when I was not the unique and valuable snowflake I had hoped to be, and those are the times that interest me now, because they were also times in which apologies featured prominently, when “sorry”–or some approximation thereof–had to be dragged out and brandished like some sort of self-respect-preserving weapon.

Around the time that I turned 14, things started to feel a bit different in the Youth group: I noticed that a particular group of kids, including my friend Alex and the boy that both of us had recurring crushes on (I’ll call him Jeff), were becoming something of a clique.  They had private jokes and seemed to have spent significant time with one another outside of church–and, worst of all, from my perspective, Jeff began hanging around Alex, asking her advice on serious Churchy questions and suggesting that they pray together, alone.  Only a year prior, Jeff had gone “with” me to the 8th-grade dance out of pity–he was significantly more popular than I was in our public school, but when I asked him, I think his church-related sense of obligation was too much to ignore.  By now, I had transferred my interest to a different boy, but the idea that Alex was getting Jeff’s attention, and that both of them were involved in some kind of exclusive group of which I was not a part was almost too much for my insatiable, approval-requiring teenage brain.  I’m sure you can guess how subtle my attempts to rectify the situation were.

“Alex, what are you guys all doing on Saturdays, anyway?” I whined one day, after realizing that, yes, closed gatherings were being regularly held.

“We have a special Bible Study with Sam,” she said, “at his house.”  Sam was one of the Youth leaders, a gawky, awkward middle-aged engineer who drove the world’s oldest minivan.  He seemed to care deeply about us, but showed it in odd ways, like charging interest on loans of a dollar to “teach us a lesson” about…either being prepared or capitalism.  It was never totally clear to me which.  I thought about all of this as Alex told me about the Bible Study, which involved both matching workbooks and rotating lunch-duties.

“Can I come?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I think it might just be us.”

Around that time, Jeff showed up, coming around the corner from the boys’ Sunday School room.  He put his arm around Alex, playfully.

“I want to come to your Bible Study!” I blurted.

Jeff just smiled his regular, cocky half-smile and explained, “It’s already started.  You can’t start coming now.”

“But how did you even know about it?  I never heard about it!”  I was getting desperate.

“Sam asked us to be in it,” he said, his arm still around Alex’s neck, “He might ask you next time.  If he didn’t ask you now, he probably thinks you’re not ready.”

I felt the words fall on me.  Jeff left to find his friends, and I looked at Alex, jealous and embarrassed.  I remembered the time I had just barely stopped myself from saying “fuck” in an argument just outside the Youth room–who else had heard me?  I looked at my blue nail polish and ill-fitting  baggy pants.  I remembered, a few months before, declaring to Sam–with Sharon–that we would like to be known, henceforth, as “Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats.”  (I swear I am not making that up.)

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he’d said.

For some reason, at the time, such a response was totally unexpected to me.  I knew that most people in the church were conservative–indeed, that most people in our city were (I vividly recall, for example, being the only kid in elementary school who rooted for Dukakis in the ’88 election)–but usually, my politically rebellious declarations were met with some mixture of amusement and indifference.  Sam seemed genuinely horrified and disappointed…a fact which I had, in true ALFD fashion, brushed off before running off giggling with Sharon about “protests” we would stage at the next church picnic.

Until now.  Now, Sam’s disapproval meant something more than that I would owe him an extra ten cents on the dollar.  There was a group that was both Good and Cool, and I was Not Invited.  I have the sense, now, that my being excluded from the Bible Study had less to do with my espoused political views (such as they were) than with my goofy, teenage need to broadcast them–like my clothes–as a marker of my difference.  It was church, after all, and Good kids, especially Good Girls, might be different, but they were above all to be respectful and humble and outspoken only about how great Jesus was.

I had learned that lesson, in a way, on my first-ever Sunday in Youth group.  I was in 6th grade, an 11-year-old whose sheltered existence had left her  ill-prepared for interacting with teenagers.  That day, the Youth Minister entered the gathering carrying what he said was a letter he had received from a member of the congregation expressing concern over the behavior of some of the church’s Youth.

“I’ve blacked out the name,” he said, raising the letter aloft so that we could all see it, “but I want to read part of it to you.”  The letter-writer, he explained, had witnessed some teenagers engaging in several forbidden activities while outside the mall.  “Not only were they all smoking,” he read, as my heard began to pound, “not only were they all swearing, but one of the girls – who was wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen – was from our Youth group.”

I was descending into panic.  Is this what happened in Youth group?  The older kids were less horrified, but more eager to exonerate themselves: “It was totally you, Shelly!” one yelled.  Shelly, half-laughing and half-aghast exclaimed that it was not, and and shouting match ensued amongst the girls, who were each desperately attempting to out the others as shameless sluts.  Finally, one of the older girls who Knew All the Answers raised her voice to exclaim over all of them, “Y’all, it’s not important who did it; what’s important is what we’re going to do about it.”  The Youth Minister nodded approvingly.

And then he confessed to having made the whole thing up.  The letter from the congregant was a fake, designed apparently for the dual purposes of slut-shaming and teaching a lesson about how Good Girls were to behave publicly–whether that public were Sunday School or outside the Mall.  Be demure, be respectful, be sensible, and for Chrissakes, cover up.

Of course, parts of that message had failed to stick with me, and thus, my 14-year-old self was on the outside peering in, wanting to belong while at the same time struggling to have my “independence” recognized and valued.  I began to try and prove my Christian devotion to everyone at church (and probably to myself): I volunteered to go on mission trips, I wrote Jesus-poems, I bought t-shirts with Jesus-related slogans.  And, somewhat counter-intuitively, I also started hanging out with some of the “freaks” at school.

How I got involved with them is another story entirely, but my short-lived Lindsay Weir-esque time only encouraged my fantasy of being both Cool and Good–a blue-haired Bible-thumper who loudly professed her love of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Youth group.  The summer after our Freshman year of high school, I took the opportunity of a Youth camp trip to show off my (poseur-rific) “freak”-ness by wearing a fantastic outfit-and-hairstyle that is best expressed not in words, but in this photo:

(And yes, I cut it up to make it look more awesome before hanging it on my wall.)  Before heading to church camp, we were on our way to a wholesome, fun-filled day at Six Flags over Georgia, followed by a laser show at Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta.  Needless to say, my outfit was a fantastic success–until the log flume ride.  In a departure from my general baggy-pants style, the shorts I’d worn that day were some of my mom’s old cutoffs from the 70s (they were vintage, you guys, which meant that they had to be cool), which were tight and a bit mid-drift-exposing.  After the log-flume soaking, I was getting more than a little uncomfortable, as both my tight stripy top and the vintage cutoffs chafed against my skin.  Ever the sensible one, Sharon suggested that I change out of my mall top and into the sweet Led Zeppelin t-shirt that I’d bought earlier that day for my “freak” boyfriend (who shall, for the moment, remain nameless).  This wasn’t a perfect solution–I still had to wear the cutoffs, after all–but it made sense.  So, before long, I was sporting a much-too-big black ZoSo t-shirt with my braids, and ready to watch some freaking lasers already.

Stone Mountain was crowded, as it was apparently the place to bring Youth groups on their way to various church camps.  It was also, unfortunately, ridiculously boring, and by the time it was time to load up and leave, I was hot and tired and cranky.  As we were walking back to the bus, Jeff appeared over my shoulder.

“Justin is here,” he said.  Justin was a friend of his from our hometown, who I had “gone out with” for a total of 3 days in 8th grade.  “You should say hi to him.”

I didn’t really have much of a desire to say hi, but I did, and Justin gave me a hug.  We chatted for a moment and then left to rejoin our respective Youth groups.  As we were walking back, Jeff said to me, “see, he was nice to you.  You didn’t have to worry, he’s a nice guy.”

I tried to interrupt an explain that I wasn’t worried; I just didn’t give a shit, when Jeff cut me off.

“Besides,” he said, “I had already prepared him.  I said, ‘Look man, Erin’s here, but she looks like a freak today.  She doesn’t normally look this weird, though, I promise.’  And he was cool with it.”

And with that, he slipped away and caught up with his friends.  I looked down at myself, was simultaneously embarrassed and enraged.  My shirt was enormous, and my braids had gotten frizzy.  But who the fuck was he, to “prepare” someone for my appearance?  And what the hell did I care about what some dude I held hands with in the hallway when I was 13 thought of me, anyway?  I sulked on the bus and talked to no one.

Later that week, when we had finally been at church camp for a few days, I showed up to the evening worship service to find our Youth group’s resident odd girl, Dawn (who Sharon mentioned in her last post), wearing my clothes.  I had been recruited to room with her–maybe because I was a little odd myself, or maybe because I’d made such a show of being Good over the last few months–and she had borrowed my favorite vintage Mickey Mouse t-shirt, jeans, and Airwalks.  Without asking.  I was livid, in that incomparable teenage way that shrieks (if only internally) those are mine, and people will think that you had them first!

I wish I’d had enough self-awareness then to realize that Dawn, too, only wanted to belong.  I wish I’d realized that neither she nor I needed to prove anything to anyone, least of all a group of judgey church kids.  But that’s what you do when you’re a teenager, I suppose…at least, that’s what we did, or tried, desperately, to do between the moments of self-preserving apology.

After the week at church camp was over, I never got to give the Led Zeppelin t-shirt to my boyfriend, who broke up with me to head to greener–and probably, less Vanilla–pastures.  I still remember what Jeff asked me after he found out:

“So, are you going to stop dressing like a freak now?”

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!

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.

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.

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.”

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 »