Erin

Posts Tagged ‘Sharon’

True Confessions of an Artless Nerd

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2010 at 11:42 pm

If we’re going to start talking about The Teenage Years (insert horror movie soundtrack here), it’s important that I confess something up front: I am entirely incapable of cultivating an image.

It’s true.  I am the sort of person who will announce to a group of L.A. hipsters that I absolutely love the band Counting Crows.  My wardrobe still consists almost entirely of t-shirts, jeans, and cardigans.  In an upturning of gender dynamics, many of my boyfriends have been appalled enough by my style of dress that they had to make me into their own personal paper doll.  I still don’t really understand how to style my hair.  My bookshelf displays no coherent sense of taste beyond being skewed vaguely Victorian.  My music and film collections are ALL over the place and, again, have no interwoven theme other than, “Man, wasn’t that AWESOME?”  I describe almost everything as “The best (or worst) thing EVAR!!!!”  I am a sucker for Greatest Hits albums.

This doesn’t mean that I am not conscious of image in general.  I am not a holier-than-thou, “I’m better than you because I don’t NEED an image” type.  (That in itself would be an image, and is therefore beyond my capabilities.)  In fact, for a good deal of my life, the fact that I had no image was one of my greatest sources of self-consciousness.  But no matter what I did, I just couldn’t change that aspect of myself.  My most consistent personality trait is my inconsistency.  I just can’t stick with something long enough to be identified for it.  When I was a little kid, I frequently changed outfits four or five times a day.  When my mother finally confronted me about this, pointing out that it made an awful lot of dirty laundry, I countered, “But, Mom!  I HAVE to change clothes because I need to be different people!”  That pretty much sums it up.  I’ve always lived buried inside my own head somewhere, and inside of that world I am constantly shifting identities.  I have a jillion different contradictory identities always fighting for attention.  And I’ve never managed to figure out exactly how to project a singular image – how to cultivate an appearance and style that magnify rather than diminish all the things that I am on the inside.  And ultimately, the self-consciousness about my lack of identity came from a basic teenage drive – a desperate desire to find a place where I truly “fit in.”*

So when Erin began what she references as her “freak” phase, I was insanely jealous.  I wanted a Freak Boyfriend too!  I wanted to hang out with the “weird” kids who were in bands or occasionally might have smoked pot (Horrors!).  And, more than anything, I wanted to be accepted by the “artsy” crowd, the kids who liked indie movies and did their makeup in experimental ways.  I KNEW that I was NOT “Vanilla.”  But no one else seemed to notice this at all.  At least as far as my appearance was concerned, I was your basic everyday Goody-Two-Shoes, the same that I’d been in our elementary school days.

Since Erin included some photographic evidence for her post, I’ll be brave enough to pony up some of my own.

This is a pic of the two of us in the church rec room.  The dress Erin’s wearing is one she made herself, from scratch.  Although she’ll make fun of herself for it now, you have to admit it’s a pretty cool dress.  And it looks good on her.  I, on the other hand, am wearing jeans that don’t really fit, along with what was my favorite top – a sleeveless black sweater from (gasp!) The Gap.  I loved this shirt.  You know what it says about me?  Absolutely nothing.  Same goes for the jeans.  From this picture, I could literally be any generic white girl.  And that’s pretty much what I felt like I was during the years from about 6th grade on.

So again, I repeat: insane jealousy.  What I didn’t realize about myself, though, is that the same qualities that prevented me from actively cultivating an image also prevented me from editing myself in any way.  I said pretty much whatever I felt like saying, pretty much wherever I felt like saying it, regardless of the consequences to my image.  At school this wasn’t such a big deal.  For middle and high school, Erin and I attended large public “magnet” institutions – meaning that we had big student bodies made up mostly of kids who were slightly smarter than average.  Because we got classified as the “smart” kids, more than a few of us were fairly self-righteous and loudmouthed.  We liked to argue, liked to show off our “knowledge” of important “issues.”  My tendency to spout off wasn’t unusual in the least in such a setting.  However, that same tendency made my presence at church more than a little bizarre.

Before joining Erin’s church in what I’m pretty sure was the 8th grade, I had spent one year as an official part of a church congregation – the year that I was four years old.  I have exactly two memories of church: coloring pictures of Jesus walking on water (my Jesus’ robes were always orange) and the day when a boy named Michael got his head tangled in the volleyball net in our church’s gymnasium.  And that second one I really only remember because my mom reminded me of it when Michael later became a beautiful specimen and member of the Untouchable Popular Group at my middle school.**  Despite my attendance at the Unnamed Religious Private School (or URPS, as I will refer to it from here on out), I didn’t really understand what constituted “appropriate” church behavior.  I wasn’t familiar with the politics and hierarchies of church, the way that a congregation can divide itself into cliques the same way that any other body of children or adults will do.

Like Erin, I was obsessed with being Good.  I wanted to Do the Right Thing.  I wanted to be Perfect perfect perfect perfect.  Desperately.  The thing was, I was still really too young and unaware to know that the definition of “Good” and “Perfect” change depending on the crowd you’re hanging around.  My ideas of Good were based mainly on my parents’ notions of right and wrong.  I practically worshipped my parents for most of my childhood, and as far as I was concerned they were the ultimate arbiters of Truth.  For some kids Parents and Church are virtually one and the same.  They live in households where their moms and dads uphold the laws and dogmas of an organized religion.  My house was a bit different and this, combined with my  general loudmouthedness, made me into an accidental outcast.

There was no CHANCE I would have been invited to Sam’s private Bible study.  Sam maintained a fairly open distaste for me, actually.  And I’m pretty sure I know why.  Here are some (not all) of the things I said and did during the 4 or so years that I was a member of the Major Religious Institution of Baton Rouge:

1. I declared myself to be, along with Erin, a member of the Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats – four out of four of those things were unacceptable adjectives for women.

2. I once told off the child of a visiting minister, in my most professorial tone, because he explained to our Sunday school class that “religious tolerance” was a sign of weakness and that, basically, we were fighting a spiritual war with every other major belief system on earth.  I believe that somewhere in my speech I used the phrase, “I don’t care who your father is.”

3.  Erin and Alex and I once planned to stage a PROTEST, complete with feminist signage, at a church picnic because we girls had been excluded from the all-male basketball tournament that was the main event.

4.  I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper decrying the poor behavior of Christians on the gay rights front.  (I received actual hate mail from members of our congregation for this one.  And I received some letters of praise from other members.  Although I will sometimes portray the church as the Bogeyman, we were surrounded by plenty good and well-meaning people.  It’s just that they tended to fade into the background when I was on a tare and telling people off.)

5.  Most of the time, our Sunday school classes were separated by gender.  Once, however, most of the girls were absent for some reason and the few of us who remained were “invited” to sit in with the boys.  Their leader, whom I will call Lee, was teaching a lesson that somehow involved discussion of the death penalty.  I told him off too, in dramatic fashion.  And he did not back down an inch.  We spent a good deal of the lesson debating the ethics of capital punishment.  I remember that at one point Lee read me a verse in the Bible that basically says “God put earthly leaders in charge, so it is our job to follow their laws” and implied to me that this meant all laws must be good.  Because leaders are from God.  I wish I’d been savvy enough to bring up Roe v. Wade here.  Dammit.

6.  I committed the rather large sin of forgetting that I had boobs and hips.  I dressed without regard to how much skin I was exposing.  And I really really love dresses with spaghetti straps.  I also loved tiny tank tops.

I was NOT in the cool group at church.  I remember being jealous too, but I also remember realizing vaguely that I had no hope of being included.  And that that was okay.

I have never had a great explanation for how I ended up at church, especially coming from a family where church was not part of the requirement.  But now that I look back on it, I realize that perhaps not fitting in was part of what I loved so much.  Like I said, I’d always been jealous of people who could cultivate an image.  I’d never been able to do it.  I wanted, so very badly, to be a “freak.”  I wanted people to stop thinking of me as the quiet, unassuming girl I’d been in elementary school –  the one with the perma-white shoes and perfectly straight belt.  I wanted to be seen for the abrasive girl I wanted to be.

Simply by joining a Baptist church, shoving myself in amongst people who thought differently than I did, I was able to experiment with a new identity – an image.  I had accidentally found the one place where my developing teenage assertiveness allowed me to be viewed exactly the way I wanted, Gap clothes or no.  I was still included; I was still given the impression that I belonged.  (As Erin said, a great deal of what we did was met with closed mouths or shrugs.  I’m sure the preacher’s wife talked behind my back when I refused to participate in part of the Sunday school lesson, but no one ever asked me to leave.)  But I was on the outskirts.  I was edgy.  Sometimes I was even tough.  And because my parents weren’t there, I was answerable only to myself.  I decided who I was, and I loved the feeling.

At some point I want to address some things about Jeff as well, but I don’t feel what I want to say quite fits in here.  Perhaps for a different post?  For now let’s just say that Jeff for some reason never treated me in the particularly bad way he often treated Erin – and I’ve been unable to figure out exactly why.  Jeff had a lot of power in our youth group.  He was an attractive guy – attractive in the way politicians are attractive.  And he was charming.  He sang in the church worship band (Swoon!), and he was uber-involved in all church activities – including the drama group that Erin’s dad started for us.  He was a hand-shaker, a baby-kisser.  And at some point all of us had crushes on him.

But somehow, Jeff never tried to exercise his sense of power over me.  He let me get away with a lot.  At church camp each year, we were separated into Bible study groups that would become our “families” for the week(s) we were there. These groups consisted of kids from all across the country, and they were intended as centers for mingling and meeting new people.  Thus, only two or three kids from one youth group could be assigned to any given Bible study.  Our second year at camp, Jeff and I were on our own in one group.  The entire week, I made fun of him mercilessly.  I referred to him, for no particular reason, as “Sparky” and patted his head as though her were a small puppy dog.  I got in the way when he tried to flirt with out-of-state girls and lectured him about how his tastes were “too narrow.”  (I guess what I meant by this was that he always chose the most obviously traditionally pretty girls – pretty like politician’s wives are often pretty.  Or I could have meant anything.  I was an angry abrasive liberal feminist democrat!)  I also, along with Erin, would tease him for his dandruff problem, reciting under my breath a satirical  poem Erin had written referencing said dandruff.  (We were nothing if not creative about our insults.)

Jeff and I continued to be acquainted through college, and our relationship remained in this vaguely friendly-antagonistic state.  We argued politics, and he would ask my opinion on poetry he’d written.  He told me about his girlfriends.  He told me about his crisis of faith.  And I sat and listened.  And I was honest with him about my opinions, just as I’d always been.

I will never understand how we managed to stay friendly, especially now that I know the full extent of the way Jeff treated Erin.  It’s something I want to explore further, as we tell what I’m sure will be a few more stories about Jeff and the cameo appearances he would make in our teenage lives.

*I want to acknowledge here that I know I am insanely lucky in this department.  Although I will sound here like I am bemoaning my life as an outcast, I want to acknowledge that I am the bearer of an insane amount of privilege that in most of life allows me to fit in really anywhere I want.  I am white.  I am upper-middle class and have the bearings and education that go along with that class identity.  I am cis-gendered (feminist lingo for not being trans-gendered.  I am a woman with distinctly feminine features who identifies socially as a woman).  I am also naturally petite.  I am (at least apparently) able-bodied.  Although I do not identify as straight (I’m bi, for whatever it’s worth), I am also not gay and can therefore “pass” as straight.  I have enough features that are close to the modern standard of beauty to get by and not be ridiculed for my appearance, even when I’m understyled or dressed down.  In other words, I recognize that a lot of kids suffer for being socially marked in ways that I am not.  So although I had some awkward moments based on my inability to cultivate image, I got off really easy because of a set of social and genetic factors that are a pure accident of privilege.

**Erin and Alex and I also once made a series of prank calls to said Michael – something that still constitutes one of the most amusing and terrifying evenings of 7th grade.  I hope we revisit this later.

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Screw You, Sorry. I’m Not Your Bitch Anymore.

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2010 at 12:38 am

“Sorry” is a magic word.

I’ve talked about these before.  The performative phrases, the things you say out loud that are supposed to alter the state of being, change the substance of the air around you.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about “sorry” and its power.  And I’m beginning to realize that Dana was right; sorry doesn’t help.  Sorry is an easy answer, sure.  It’s a way out of a real conversation.  But I think it’s more than that.  “Sorry” can hurt.  In fact, I think it’s hurt my life a lot.

So fuck you, sorry.  I’m not taking your shit anymore.

When Erin and I were young, I think it’s safe to say that both of us were astoundingly afraid of treading on anyone else’s toes.  We didn’t like getting into trouble.  We didn’t like “being bad.”  And we most definitely did not like hurting another person.  So one of my earliest “sorry” stories mirrors hers almost exactly.  I was playing with my neighbors from across the street, a girl and boy very close to my age who were my first real companions in childhood.  I was around 4 I’m sure, meaning that Girl was 5 and her Brother was about 3.  Brother was the sort of kid who was always underfoot.  He wanted to be around me and Girl, but he was still a little young, a little bit behind us.  One year of difference matters a lot more when you’re that small, when every year is such a huge portion of life lived.  And we, being older, were always in a race to get away.

On this particular day, Girl and I were in a major hurry to play outside.  Rain had plagued us all week and we had been cooped up.  As our mothers sat and dallied in the living room, we were insisting loudly that we needed to move, to get going. Wasn’t it dry enough yet?  Couldn’t we just go out and see, test the ground to find out if it was still wet?  We promised we wouldn’t track in mud.  Finally they relented, giving one of us the key to unlock the back door and head into the yard, unattended.  I ran to the door and fiddled with the lock, Girl standing next to me all the while hurrying me along.  The lock gave in and I swung the door back, ready to push through into the sunshine.

As I swung back the door, an enormous moan came from somewhere near the ground.  And then the sound of sobbing.  Brother had been trying to follow us out.   In the haste to get what I wanted, I hadn’t noticed him underfoot, where he always was, his head close to the door.  When I swung it open it knocked his head and sent him tumbling over, crying.

“I’m sorry!”  I started crying too.  Just as loud and just as long as Brother did.  I was inconsolable.  I had hurt someone else.  He had a bump on his head, a mark.  And I had put it there.  I was so destroyed, so “sorry,” that eventually, once Brother was calm, he waddled over and hugged me at the urging of our mothers, trying to show me he was okay.

It’s the sort of thing that happens in childhood all the time.  In adulthood too.  We hurt someone because we aren’t paying attention.  And we feel bad, because we don’t want to be that person who isn’t paying attention to the feelings of others.  We don’t want to be that person who hurts someone else.

Or at least, that’s how I would have interpreted it once.  But the prevalence of “sorry” in my life – the insidious way it’s made a home for itself inside my head – is beginning to make me question whether this is the only way to see things.

“Sorry” did something else for me that day too.  It made me the center of attention.  This isn’t how I intended it – at least I don’t think so.  But my regret was so big, so desperate, that it required immediate forgiveness and attention (in the form of that hug) from the boy I’d injured.  Saying “sorry” wasn’t enough.  I needed  to know everything was okay, that the world had been righted again.  I learned that saying “sorry” did a lot for me – but it did hardly anything for the kid I’d hit with the door.  I learned to NEED sorry.

Over the course of my childhood I became a veritable “sorry” machine.  I became hyper-aware of any and every offense I had caused someone.  Because of my reliance on sorry – my willingness to claim a mistake or to suggest that I’d wronged someone else, the standard of behavior became different for me than it did for others.  For the most part, I was a quiet kid in school.  I followed the rules and kept my mouth shut, keeping me off the radar and leaving me to my own private world.  The majority of kids in our school were not this way.  They were mostly rowdy, mostly loud, mostly “baddy bats.”  Everyday in line from the classroom to recess they talked and pushed and shoved.  Same thing on the way back, or on the way to the lunchroom.  The teacher tried to quiet them down, to no avail.  One day, I decided to talk.  I don’t remember why.  I whispered two or three words to Alex, and the teacher snapped around.  “Is that SHARON talking in line?” she gasped.  “Sharon?”  I uttered a shy “Yes, Ma’m” and then immediately followed it up with a reflexive “I’m sorry.”  “I’m glad you know when to apologize,” she said.  She acted disappointed in me the rest of the day.  Every day, all day, those other kids talked.  None of them ever apologized.  None of them were ever asked to.  I had taught her – and most of the adults in my life – that I would tow the line. And so the boundaries of my freedom became different, tighter.

When Erin and I were in middle school, we went to church with a girl I’ll call Dawn.  To a bunch of goody-goodies at age 12, Dawn was odd to say the least – odder, even, than the Dana Erin mentions in her previous post.*  (She once painted her fingernails and then set them on fire, just to see if the “flammable” label was true.  We were far too “safe” for activities like this, even though I now realize lots of kids did things like this.)  The thing is, though, she was made to seem even MORE different from us by the way the adults in our church introduced her.  We were given a “talking to” the first time she came to church – a speech to let us know that Dawn was different, that she came from a home with a single mother who was mentally ill (in exactly what way no one said).  She was “troubled.”  She was moody and dark; she pitched fits and stormed out of rooms.  She talked back to figures of authority.  She was decidedly unchurchy.

The truth was, we (Erin, Alex and I) had encountered “troubled” kids before.  Plenty of the kids in our school could have been classified as “troubled” according to the vague definition of our youth ministers.  The kids at our Unnamed Religious Private School pitched fits, were churlish and combative.  They set things on fire just to watch them burn.  But the thing was, those kids were the royalty at school.  They WERE the people of privilege.  At church, Dawn was the Other – the girl with a single mom (who didn’t come to church, mostly), who was decidedly less light-skinned than we were**.  Because she was Other, she made our youth ministers and other figures of authority decidedly uncomfortable.  They knew that by the dictates of Southern Baptist politeness they HAD to let her into youth group if she wanted to come.  Having her there meant they were Good People.  They were supposed to be showing kindness!  And pity!  In the name of God!  But they really, really didn’t want to.

You know how I KNOW they didn’t want to?  Because Dawn immediately became the sole responsibility of Erin, Alex, and myself.  We were the “good” kids.  We would “be kind” to her.  We would “influence” her.  But most of all, we would “look after” her so that the adults didn’t feel like they had to.  Like good little robots, we would do FOR them the things they thought they OUGHT to do but didn’t really WANT to do.  It was a lose-lose situation for all of us.  Dawn didn’t get any of the healthy, normal companionship kids of that age need.  She just got three friends who were trying really really hard to do what they were “supposed” to do.  And we got tossed into a situation we couldn’t really parse or understand, with other people’s prejudices and fears bouncing around in our heads.

Dawn had a serious temper.  She also lived in a house where tantrums were fairly standard and completely acceptable.  She and her mother and grandmother communicated mostly – at least in our visits to her house – in shouting.  Erin and Alex and I had all been taught to be appropriately repressed.  When we got angry, we mostly didn’t talk about it, or only talked about it quietly to each other.  Explosive rage was “inappropriate” and “bad” – something the Baddy Bats would do.  Dawn expressed her rage – at everything and everyone – openly and with fairly hostile intent.

During her first year at the church, we took a trip to New Mexico (three states away!  A REALLY long drive) for summer church camp.  The drive was so long that it required an overnight stopover in Amarillo, TX, home of the play Texas – a musical (I think?) about pioneers hosted in the Palo Duro Canyon.  The Palo Duro is deep, and we visited it at night – a group of gawky teenagers and tweens, restless and rowdy and excited to be out of the van for the day.  Prior to the drive from the hotel to the canyon, one of our Sunday school leaders had sat down with Erin, Alex, and me to inform us that while we were at the play we should take care to “keep an eye” on Dawn.  “You know how she can be,” she said, winning the award for most predictable sweeping generalization ever.

Shortly after we arrived at the Canyon, Dawn got angry with us about something.  I don’t remember what.  We were 13.  We were mad at each other all the time.  But because she was different from us, Dawn chose to storm off from the group rather than sit and stew in silence.  And we couldn’t find her.  We wandered through the crowds some, called her name, even looked back at the vans.  She was nowhere to be found.  It was time to report our error to the adults.  They were angry, of course.  Furious – you might say with Righteous Anger.  And Disappointment (which was even worse).  We had let Dawn out of our sight.  We had made her angry.  It was all Our Fault.

And so we apologized.  We apologized to the youth leaders.  When Dawn finally wandered back of her own accord, we apologized to her too.  We said more “sorries” than I have ever said, and we said them all night.  We felt genuinely bad.  We had made Dawn angry.  We weren’t supposed to upset her.  We were supposed to patronize her.  Because we were Good People!   And Dawn was made to “sorry” too.  She had wandered off, after all.  She had put herself in danger.  She had acted out of accord with the way good church kids act, and so she was made to say “sorry” too – sorry just for being who she was.

When I look at this situation as an adult, I realize that all those apologies I issued that night allowed my youth leaders – the ones whose attitudes towards a young girl had led to her ostricization in the first place – to continue to pat themselves on the back, convinced they’d done a “good deed” in allowing such a troubled girl to be in their exclusive group.  It was their job as adults – not mine as a teenager – to recognize that the tensions we experienced with Dawn were more a result of their own prejudices than Dawn’s actual behavior.  Had we not been taught that she was “special”, we might have come to consider her a friend rather than a project to help us win a gold star in our crowns.

“Sorry” helped everyone maintain the status quo.  Someone had to be “sorry,” and so it was us.  If no one was sorry, then that would mean all of our assumptions about the situation were wrong.  It would mean stopping to think, parsing the situation, and reexamining what we thought about the way the world worked.  The adults in our lives (our church lives) wanted nothing more than to avoid all that parsing and reexamination, and so they accepted our “sorries” and allowed us – me, Erin, Alex, and Dawn – to take all the blame.

“Sorry” taught me to take responsibility for things that were not really my fault.  It taught me to carry on my shoulders the weight that everyone else refused.

I have plenty, plenty more to say about this.  This dynamic has worked this way in so many corners of my life, and I’ve only addressed one so far.  But I worry that this post is getting too long, so I’m going to stop and post for now.  Maybe Erin will have some other examples of how “sorry” functioned as a barrier?  I don’t know.  I hope.  But even if we go on to other topics, I’m going to come back to this one.  Because it crops up again and again until I have given up on “sorry” almost entirely, and I want to be able to show you exactly why.  To show you why we need to rethink the word and its implications, the ways we try to use it as a “magic word” to escape the difficult task of thinking.

*When I talk about how “odd” Dawn was to us, keep in mind that she was “odd” to a bunch of privileged middle-class white girls who had the luxury of extremely extremely stable families.  I completely acknowledge my privilege here.  Hold on, cause that’s going to be part of the main point – how I and the adults in my life handled that privilege.

** I am intentionally vague here.  I have no clue as to Dawn’s racial make-up.  Her mother was white, but we knew only that.  So there was, of course, constant speculation at church – among the adults – about who (or “what”) her father might have been.  This speculation Othered her even more than her class status or her single mom.

Sticks and Stones

In Erin on January 17, 2010 at 9:16 pm

In preschool, I used to love to play with blocks.  You could gather a few together, stack them up, and–like magic–a wall would appear, or a house, or a tower.  You could make anything, even something bigger than yourself – which, at 4 years old, is a phenomenon of untold awesomeness.  I might have been small, but my block towers?  Those were glorious.

On one particular day, I had constructed a stunning specimen out of wooden blocks about the size of small bricks (in the days before pink plastic princess blocks for girls, all children shared the same ones) that towered over my head.  I reached to place the final piece on top of the rickety structure, and before I knew it–

OOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWW!   WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”

The blocks had tumbled onto the head of the boy next to me who had been playing with a truck, unaware of the impending doom.  I was stunned.

“I’m sorry!!  I’m sorry!” I exclaimed.  This is what you said when you hurt people.

“Sorry doesn’t help!” he shouted indignantly through tears, running to get the teacher, Ms. Loker (who, incidentally, had a terrible habit, when walking with you–at least, if you were 4–of holding your entire hand in a tight ball, rather than holding your fingers and thumb separately, like a normal human being).

Ms. Loker approached, and I fidgeted, worried.  “I said I was sorry!  I said I was sorry!”  I yelled pre-emptively.

Her reply was short and swift:

“Sorry doesn’t help.”

It’s hard to describe what I felt at that moment.  It was as though someone had told me that Santa Claus didn’t exist and that I would be getting coal in my stocking for all eternity.  There were no magic words, and there was nothing I could do to atone for my mistake.  I was at a complete loss.  Where could I go from here?  What kind of world did we live in, if saying “sorry” were ineffectual?  What was to be done?

Apparently (this time anyway), time out.

Still, there were hundreds of other situations in which Ms. Loker’s assertion was patently contradicted.  People said sorry all over the place.  I was ordered to say sorry to my brother on multiple occasions, my parents said sorry to one another, and I’m sure that I had to tell Sharon I was sorry for waking her up in the wee hours of the morning to watch cartoons or get a snack when I slept over.  Sorry had to help, or at the very least it wasn’t nothing – why else did everyone keep saying it?

***

When Sharon and I were in third grade at the Unnamed Religious Private School, there was a new girl in our class.  She was socially awkward, talked too much, and had a vaguely disturbing need to draw her dog, Benji, on everything she owned, including an oil-pastels art project that was supposed to be an under-sea view.  In that one, much to the art teacher’s chagrin, Benji was a mermaid.  Her name was Dana, and to make matters worse, her last name sounded like a playground insult.

While it’s true that Sharon and I were decidedly not cool, I think we shared the sense that it was important not to be associated with Dana, and, while we were generally nice to her, we did not befriend her.  I saw her occasionally at after-care, since her mom sometimes worked late, and we shared a fairly normal play relationship…until something happened.

One day when Dana and I were both in after-care, some of the older boys who were also after-care regulars (and who I thus had a serious social interest in impressing) started picking on her, making fun of her name and suggesting that she was disgusting.  This was mean, but it was (in retrospect, anyway) pretty generic playground fare–especially for a boys-versus-girls kind of confrontation.  But it didn’t stop there.  Things escalated.  Another older girl said something about Dana being gross, and having a disease.  I laughed uncomfortably.  I wanted to be part of the group.  Dana was whining in her loud, annoying voice, “Stop it!  Stop it!”  And then I said it:

“Dana has AIDS!”

I didn’t know what that meant, not really.  I knew how people talked about it, of course: like it was a combination of leprosy and sin itself, a contagion that would infect one’s blood and soul through mere proximity.  As soon as I said it, I knew I had gone too far.  Dana burst into tears and ran away crying.  The other kids laughed uncomfortably, and quickly dispersed, to avoid any ensuing trouble.

I hid behind the playground equipment for the rest of the afternoon, certain that punishment awaited me.

But none came.  My mom arrived to pick me up and take me to my friend Cate’s birthday party, which was scheduled for that evening.  I fidgeted uncomfortably in my seat, sure that she was waiting for just the right moment to let on that she knew what I’d said.  But she said nothing.  At Cate’s house, I walked into her room–and there was Dana.

“Do you still think I have AIDS?,” she pointedly cried as I walked into the room, her face still blotchy and red.  Cate and the other girls in the room stared, wide-eyed.  “We were just joking…” I lied.

“Well it wasn’t funny!”

“I’m sor–” I began.

Sorry doesn’t change anything!” she cut me off.

I stood there, bewildered, guilty, and ashamed.  I felt the other girls looking at me.  I hated the sound of Dana’s voice.  I wanted to hide in the closet.

And then it was time to have cake and open presents.  Somehow, I made it through the rest of the party without having the entire story recounted.  Maybe it was because everyone else in the room merely tolerated Dana’s presence, or maybe it was because Cate didn’t want our drama to ruin her birthday–but not another word was said about it.  Still, I lived in fear of my mother finding out for at least a week, and dreamed about it for years afterward.  If Dana were still upset about it, she never told anyone.  I have no idea what all of it meant to her, or even what happened to her later.

***

When I left for public school a year or so later, I had to switch classes 2 weeks into the semester.  I had completed some state-mandated testing, and was to be placed into the 5th grade “Gifted” class, which was, it seemed, an elite and exclusive world to which few had access.  During the first week in my new room, I was talking to Marisa, one of the coolest girls in the class, at recess.

“We were worried when we heard that there was a new girl coming to our class,” she said coolly, “since, you know, there are already only three cute boys.”  I nodded, pretending to understand, and waited for her to finish.

“But then, when we saw you, we said, oh, good, at least she’s not pretty.  Now we can be friends with her.”  Marisa smiled at me a bit condescendingly, as though she had just congratulated me on winning a remedial spelling bee.  I was shocked.  It was the first time I’d been insulted so brazenly, so unapologetically.  I said nothing.  She walked away to talk to her other friends, and I sat alone, waiting for the bell to ring.

I didn’t ask for her to say that she was sorry.  I knew that she wasn’t, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.  What was said was said, and there was nothing that could have been done to take it back.

That isn’t to say that I’ve lost my faith in apologies.  Since the playground, I’ve done and said my fair share of terrible things, and my neurotic obsession with mentally replaying those mistakes (yes, even in dreams) continues to throw me onto “I’m sorry” as a wild, grasping effort at changing the unchangeable.

I want to believe that Ms. Loker’s mantra wasn’t entirely true.  I want to believe that though a “sorry” will not right the fallen blocks or words, it might change something.  I want to believe that my “sorrys,” to Dana or Sharon or any of the other people I have wronged, will not have been so many empty words.  And perhaps just as fervently, I wish I could believe that a simple “I’m sorry” would heal the wounds that I’ve acquired myself along the way.   There are times, though, when I simply cannot.

It’s in those times that I wish all we were dealing with were a few wooden blocks.

Role Models

In Erin on December 6, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Being in elementary school is a lot like being in training to be a monk.  You have a highly-regimented schedule through which every minute of the day is accounted for.  You learn a few book-style facts as well, but mostly, your learning is about molding your behavior: sit like this, talk like that, value these things, avoid those at all cost, hold your fork this way, position your hair like so, keep your workspace clean, smile only in certain circumstances…

The list goes on, of course, but you get the idea.

What’s really interesting to me is how frequently this sort of behavior-training figures in my memories of childhood–I have the sense that I can look back on these little vignettes of life that we chronicle here and see how they functioned to make us, little by little, into the people we are.  It’s true that the salience of some experiences over others is affected by who we are now, obviously–so I don’t pretend to have a clear or neutral view of what our lives were like then–but I still like to think that in remembering our turkey-chase or reading material, we recover something important.  Maybe it’s not “who we are,” so much as a piece of our training at “being” anyone at all…but it’s something, all the same.  But I digress.

At some point during our time at the Unnamed Religious Private School, our class was given an assignment: read the (children’s level) biography of a famous person you’d hope to be like, and give a report to the class on her or him.  Sadly, my Jesse Jackson bio did not make an appearance here.  In fact, I don’t remember the specifics of how the books were chosen, but I know that the figure I ended up reading about was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to go to medical school, and consequently, the first woman to become a Doctor in the contemporary age of medicine.

Interestingly, I remember being a bit scandalized by parts of the book: it wasn’t that I was confused or upset about the prospects of Elizabeth Blackwell as a female doctor, on the contrary, it was my discovery that women and girls were (in the same century as me, even!) prohibited from going to real school.  I had heard before then that girls didn’t go to school in some places, or–more often–that girls “went to school at home in the old days.”  Somehow, I had missed the fact that this arrangement wasn’t just a matter of convenience for someone who didn’t have a carriage, or a matter of preference for ladies who preferred needlepoint to books.  No, the book informed me, the men at Elizabeth Blackwell’s medical school hated her, and protested against her even being in the same room as they were.

Needless to say, I was quite troubled.  Still, Elizabeth triumphed in the end, a fact that was portrayed rather rosily in this children’s-book version, and I was able to give my presentation (in Victorian dress!) armed with the knowledge that things were totally different now, and that no one would ever discriminate against me because I was a girl.  (Until, of course, I started wearing a bra.)

And so, we learned to be proper kids, proper boys and girls with proper life goals, which were laid out well in our library’s kid-section biographies.  That way, the next time our teachers would ask “Erin, what do you want to be when you grow up?”, the answer would be something other than “I want to be a sportscaster!!”

The whole prospect of “being” something was always fascinating to me, and I tended to adopt a new answer on a semi-regular basis, which would then become my obsession and adopted identity until a new one came along.  In addition to “sportscaster,” my list included (not in order):

Pharmacist/Chemist: I didn’t really have a clear distinction in mind here, though once I found out that they weren’t the same thing, and that this “thing” in neither case consisted entirely of mixing things together that caused fizzing, the dazzle was gone.

Teacher: I really just liked being in charge.  Maybe I still do.

Minister: It was very confusing to find out that this was disallowed by my ladybits.  What about Elizabeth Blackwell, the glass ceiling breaker??!

Meteorologist: Seriously, those maps were awesome!

Gwen Stefani: I really, really wanted to be her as a teenager.  Big pants!  Tiny shirts!  Gavin Rossdale!

Lawyer: The sad fact is that trials are not Law and Order, which made me realize that what I actually wanted was to be an…

Actress: It was the best of both worlds–you appear intelligent, and all of your lines are scripted.

Artist: This was never going to happen, even if I did do a marginally better job drawing flowers than Sharon.

In retrospect, I think I really, really wanted to be able to say that I was something.  Whenever our classes would talk about careers, the teacher would go around the room, asking everyone “and what does your dad do?”  The odd thing was that everyone else’s answer was a thing: Alex’s dad is an engineer, Sharon’s dad is a scientist, Melissa*’s dad is a doctor (though I think he was actually a pharmaceutical rep), Scott’s dad is a football coach.  And when we learned about working class jobs–because, obviously, there were no such people in our school–it was always “Joe is a farmer; Johnny is a policeman; Fred is a fireman; Frank is a garbage man.”

When the teacher came to me, I had my answer ready: “My parents work for the state.”

Silence fell over the room.

“What’s that mean?” Rachel (whose dad was a missionary) squawked.

“It means they work for the Louisiana Department of–” I began.

“They work for the government,” Ms. Busystreet interjected, eager to get on to the next student.

We moved on, but I was confused.  Everyone else was something.  My parents worked somewhere, but what were they?  That night when I went home, I asked my mom.  I don’t remember exactly how I worded it, but I do remember her answer:

“If anyone wants to know, tell ’em your parents are Bureaucrats.”

I didn’t grasp the humor in this for some time, but I did leave with the sense that if I was going to be like anyone, I wanted it to be her–just with a cooler job.

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.

On Being a Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, well, the blood can get on–”

No, I mean the bad part.”

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

“You do not tell boys about that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Not her real name