Erin

Posts Tagged ‘sexuality’

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?”

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.

Girly and Girly sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g

In Sharon on October 8, 2009 at 2:43 am

I have been having not such a good day, and writing on this blog makes me feel better, so for a special treat you’re going to get 2 posts in 1 day!  And, after reading Erin’s spectacular work on the kiss-boys-on-the-butt incident, and having her tease us with the lesbian closet incident, I figured it was only fair that I cough up the other alluded-to lesbian incident.  So here goes:

You already have some idea, no doubt, that the setting for this incident is the Unnamed Religious Private School .  I’m sure I have awkward stories about sex and sexuality from middle and high school too, but right now they don’t seem NEARLY as interesting to me as the lesbian incident and the vague fog I wandered through in the elementary grades.

As we’ve mentioned before, we were goody-two-shoes rather than bad-dy bats.  For the most part our friends followed the same pattern.  We hung out with people who mostly stayed clear of trouble and did as they were told (within reason), so moments when we suspected we might possibly get in TROUBLE were a very big deal.  One such incident occurred in (again!) the 4th grade when our friend Alexandra (Alex) and I had wandered into the bathroom at the end of recess and were late getting back to class.  Not surprisingly, the memories of that we-might-get-in-trouble feeling are much stronger than the memories of why, precisely, we were about to get in trouble.  I sense that this particular incident had something to do with not tucking in our uniform shirts.  We were on the playground when a group of kids nearby got seriously harangued for their un-tucked shirts.  Ours must have been disheveled too, and we ran to the bathroom to either (1) escape notice and remain untucked or (2) tuck in our shirts ourselves before we got chewed out too.   This seems ridiculous, but I’m almost positive it’s true.

So Alex and I were hiding out in the bathroom, waiting out the bell signalling us to return to our rooms, when we heard someone coming down the outdoor corridor leading up to the women’s restroom.  “Quick!”  said Alex.  “Someone’s coming!  It might be Ms. Ditch.  Hide!” We turned to hide and, without really formulating a plan, ran into the same bathroom stall.  As soon as we shut and latched the door, the sound of some older girls (5th graders, no doubt) echoed off the tiles.  The noise hadn’t been Ms. Ditch after all, and we weren’t in trouble for our shirttails.  But now we faced a very different menace: the specter of homosexuality.

“Stand on the toilet!”  Alex hissed to me.  I was confused about why I might do this.  What was wrong with being in the same bathroom stall?  But whether or not I understood didn’t really matter; the girls saw our feet before I had time to act.

“Are there two girls in that bathroom?” one asked.

“Who’s in there?” another called.

We didn’t know exactly why we were being taunted, but we knew for sure that we couldn’t show our faces now.

“Come on out!” they shouted.  “We won’t tell!”  Tell what?  What could they possibly do to get us in trouble?  Were they going to tell Ms. Ditch about our shirts?  About our generally unkempt appearances?

Whatever the possibilities, we knew that saying “we won’t tell” meant that they most certainly would tell someone something, even if we didn’t see what that something was.  Alex signalled to me that we would remain incased in our fortress until the girls were gone.  We were late for class, but this was the price we had to pay in order to avoid being in trouble for something worse – something unidentified.

The 5th graders were pretty determined.  And we were still extremely naive.  When we thought they had finally left, they were merely outside the door, waiting around the corner for us to emerge.  When we finally did come out we were met with a chorus of taunts.  I don’t really remember what they said, specifically.  But I knew the general idea – that they thought we had been kissing in the bathroom stall.

As you learned from Erin’s previous post, kissing in general was not at all allowed, and kissing another girl was clearly outside the realm of possibility.  I am certain that the word “lesbian” was brought up directly that day.  And the day after that.  It was a week or two before Alex and I would live down the accusations whispered on the playground.  I distinctly remember one moment in particular, when an older girl – a cool girl I knew only by sight – summoned me over to the tennis court fence and whispered to me, “Is it true you and that tall girl are lesbians?”

I don’t know what rudimentary understanding I had of homosexuality at that time.  But whatever that sense was, it could not possibly have been helped along by the hisses and jeers of the other students, taunting us for being something we’d never even heard of before.  As with Scott’s PG-porn-for-kiddies scheme, we came away from this incident with the idea that something about us was shameful.  We were dirty, and we should have gotten in trouble. We were just lucky the older girls hadn’t elected to tell Ms. Ditch or one of her other cohort.

This strange incident in my life was followed by several moments of childhood worry that my relationships with others might be taken out of context.  When I went to the movies with my recently widowed grandmother, I worried that other people would think we were lesbians.  Whatever that meant.  I worried that she would be seen as the one responsible for this, and that she would get in trouble.  Looking back at this story now, I also realize that Alex must have known at least a bit more about the topic than I did.  She clearly understood that we had a situation on our hands as soon as I ran into the stall with her.  I had no idea that this was a bad choice until long after the girls had begun their taunting.  But what I don’t understand to this day is where this topic injected itself into the culture of the Unnamed Religious School.  After all, this was the late 80’s and the early 90’s in the deep South.  While gay culture was developing a newfound voice outside of our walls, battling the AIDS epidemic and fighting for civil rights, very little in mainstream popular culture existed to bring this voice to kids like us.  Where did my 5th grade tormentors learn their lingo?  I had no idea what a lesbian was.  So how did they?

Alex and I eventually became yesterday’s news, and the 5th grade girls found new kids to tease.  But the incident left a tiny little bump in my experience.  I had always been a kid who was close to my friends.  I was affectionate and – for lack of a better word – cuddly.  So was Erin.  This is how we operated.  We followed each other pretty much everywhere, and I’m even pretty sure we bathed together once or twice when we were still pretty young.  But my week in the queer spotlight lead to a new understanding of intimacy – even spatial intimacy, like sharing a bathroom stall – as yet another object of shame.

I’m sure that, had Melissa been there, she would have told me that Cindy Crawford never went into bathroom stalls with other women.  And I’m pretty sure she would’ve been wrong.

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

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

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

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

I nodded knowingly, crunching my Ritz with peanut butter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The argument began to escalate:

“Oh yeah?  Well you kiss boys!”

“Ewwwww!  Shut up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I Think We Need to Unhook It”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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