Erin

Posts Tagged ‘unnamed religious private school’

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.

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.

“It’s not like I’m going to send you to school in blackface”

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2010 at 8:40 pm
I remember a bit more about the mechanics of choosing our “role models” than Erin does.  I know that we were sent to the library with the specific direction to ask the librarian for “biographies” (probably a new word for us), and that the biographies we chose would eventually lead to a presentation in front of the class about our subject.  Each subject could be assigned to only one student, leading to a girl-fight over angelic white ladies with gender-appropriate careers (the most popular being Florence Nightingale), and a boy-fight over assorted sports heroes.  But for me, the most memorable aspect of the assignment is one that just barely glances Erin’s memory: we were to come to school dressed in costume as our new role models.  Both props and costumes were allowed, but the costumes were expected to represent something worn in a scene from the book.
For some kids this meant frilly dresses or baseball uniforms.  Initially I thought the assignment would be no problem for me.  My biography focused at least a third of its pages on my subject’s childhood, so my mom and I planned a costume with a simple pink skirt and white button-up shirt – something someone might sew at home for a little girl in the 50’s.  I would carry a babydoll and wear my hair in braided pigtails.  Soon, though, I learned that Mrs. Busy Street (or perhaps Not-Tina-Turner – we aren’t positive) was skeptical of my ability to fully embody my role model.  When I told her about my choice, she snickered uncomfortably.
“I’m not sure about this book, Sharon,”  she said in an attempt to cast doubt on my project.  “I— I think it might be too old for you.”  (For the record, this was true.  But it isn’t as though I’d never read a long book or a tough book before.  And it came from our own library!  The elementary school library!)  I talked her out of this assumption and she tried a different track, this time closer to the truth: “Well, it’s just that it’s going to be hard for you to really come dressed as your subject.”
No it isn’t, I thought.  I already have my outfit all planned out!  “Don’t worry, Mrs. BusyStreet!  I already talked to my mom and I’m going to dress like her as a kid.  I won’t have to wear a fancy dress like the one on the cover.”
I was NOT getting the point.  But for whatever reason, the teacher chose to back down and let me have my choice – likely because not doing so, being honest about her feelings, would have revealed something about her that most people at our school kept carefully hidden beneath the surface: that she was basically afraid of difference.
You see, while Melissa and Natalie and Rachel and the like fought over Lottie Moon and Florence Nightingale, I had chosen a biography from the bottom of the stack provided by the librarian.  For my report, I would read about Mahalia Jackson: gospel singer, Civil Rights Activist, and – more importantly for my teacher – a woman of color.
Much like Erin in her post about the Jesse Jackson book fair debacle, I have no idea what drove my choice.  I can speculate, of course.  As Erin has said, this was an assignment about role models – about the people we wanted to be.  In a sense, we were expected not only to study our subjects, but to embody  them for our report.  We’ve mentioned before that as kids we were both performers – fascinated by the sounds of our voices in our throats.  Mahalia’s story was told as the story of the strength of a voice.  Much of the last portion of the bio focused on her songs at Civil Rights rallies.  When she opened her throat, people sat still and listened.  I wanted nothing so much as to have a powerful voice.
But my reasons for identifying with the famous gospel singer were completely overcome by my teacher’s apparent concern that I could not possibly come to school “dressed as” Mahalia Jackson because, well, she was just too different from me – i.e., our racial designations were too different, and she was therefore an inappropriate icon.
This is another of those times when I credit my mother’s sanity for saving my childhood.  She didn’t blink twice when I told her that the teacher had kind of snickered at my choice and asked her why everyone said I couldn’t pick Mahalia.  Her explanation was clear and simple: “Sharon, there is nothing wrong with you wanting to have Mahalia Jackson as a role model.  It’s not like I’m going to send you to school in blackface.”  Of course, explaining to me what “blackface” meant – and why it was horrible – took a little bit longer, but I eventually understood that my teacher’s unwillingness to address their objections to me directly had to do with their general unwillingness to talk to us about race at all – a topic that rarely came up in a school that was probably more than 90% white, and upper-middle-class to boot.
This post is already getting a bit long, and is well overdue, but there are some issues here I’m hoping we can revisit sometime in the future.  In fact, I’m hoping Erin will agree to do a liveblogging type of thing with me on the issue of race in our childhoods, because I think we could uncover some interesting items buried under some very pale rocks.

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.

Chasing Turkeys in the Country Club

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Erin is cornered in the Great White North this year, and is hosting a party to teach the People of Other Lands the true meaning of American Thanksgiving (with Tofurky!).  In honor of her party and the upcoming holiday, I thought a post reminding her of Thanksgiving via the Unnamed Religious Private School would be apropos. 

I’ve had to mull this post over a few times, because this is the first time that I’ll be posting a memory that’s very scattered.  It doesn’t exist in my brain as a narrative, but rather as a bunch of scattered, disparate parts that might actually come from a series of years rather than a single event.  So rather than fudging anything resembling linear narrative, I will provide you with a series of remembered events, which may or may not be connected to one another.

 Erin has already mentioned the Thanksgiving Play, and my memories of this are much the same as hers.  I’m certain that the plot of the play was “Pilgrims set out for America.  Pilgrims land and are extremely righteous, but in order to teach them a lesson God sends them a Very Harsh Winter.  Some people get sick.  Some people even die!  Helpful Indians (played by dark-haired children such as myself) help them grow crops.  Helpful Indians join Pilgrims at First Thanksiving, where the women cook the meal while the men teach the Indians about Jesus.  The Indians readily accept Jesus despite what must have been some really difficult translation barriers.  Everyone is happy, and thus thankful, despite all the bodies still lying around from the Very Harsh Winter.  (I believe that one year we actually did have some kids play sick people, and I think one of them stayed on stage longer than he was supposed to, thus giving the impression that the neglected dead were still lounging about during the festivities.)

 Thanksgiving is always a troublesome holiday at religious schools, because it’s the only holiday (besides Halloween, which is OFF LIMITS) that isn’t specifically referenced in scriptures.  When teachers talked to us about the “true meaning” of Christmas, they inevitably spent several days pouring over the birth of Christ with us.  The meaning of Easter was similarly divined through readings of the Crucifixion.  But the Pilgrims aren’t technically IN the Bible (as much as our teachers might have wanted them to be), and so somehow we escaped with having a fairly secular time at Thanksgiving.  We made the traditional Hand-Turkey crafts and lists of things we were thankful for.  And I can’t imagine that our play was that much more culturally insensitive than anyone else’s.  The myths of Thanksgiving are a pretty ingrained part of American childhoods, public- and private-schooled alike.  (This makes me wonder what kids who grow up on Reservations think of the holiday.)  We also did additional crafts projects to eat up the time that would normally have been dedicated to something less secular, like a scripture reading.  The year we did the play, we created our own set (featuring a giant cave!) out of papier mache. 

A few years later (I think), someone must have made the decision that crafts were not adequate to teach us about the meaning of Thanksgiving.  Because that year, we were sent to the M family’s house to learn about all of the chores and tasks that go into planning a True American Thanksgiving.

Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with the Family M.  They are the family that includes Melissa and her twisted sisters, along with their theatrical mother and the father who donned tiny bathrobes.  Erin has already mentioned that they were the family who attempted to provide our class with “culture”, carting us all to plays and Junior League events.  This year their role as cultural attaches was extended somewhat, as they taught us the proper way to plan a Thanksgiving feast.  One morning the week before Thanksgiving break, we all hopped in cars driven by chaperoning parents and took a field trip to the country club, where Mrs. M greeted us at the door to her stately mansion and informed us we would learn how to be real ladies and gentlemen this Thanksgiving.

Did I mention that we were all wearing Pilgrim and/or Indian outfits?  We were requested to come in costume as members of the first Thanksgiving.  Most of us just used our costumes from the annual play, meaning that I was dressed in my felt Indian vest and headband, complete with feathers and two long pigtail braids.  So a group of mostly Pilgrims and a few select Indians stormed the mansion door, still uncertain what, exactly, we were going to learn.

This is where my memory gets splotchier than I would like.  I am certain that a day at the house of M must have been beyond hilarious, but I can’t get a clear picture of what, exactly, we did once we were there.  I know that a major portion of our “lesson” involved cooking and cleaning.  Mrs. M had arranged for us to prepare specific T-day dishes – potato salad, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green been casserole.  And she also taught us the importance of having a clean house; some of us were assigned to polish various furnishings and mop the hardwood floors in preparation for our feast.  (I feel that I must commend the school here, as this lesson was surprisingly gender neutral.  As far as I can remember, the boys were assigned to cook and clean right alongside the girls.)

What I remember most vividly, though, is the moment when Mrs. M and our teacher gathered us all together and talked about the importance of remembering the first Thanksgiving as we set about preparing our own feasts.  The Pilgrims, they reminded us, had not only to cook and to clean, but also to hunt, fish, and gather.  They lived off the land, and the preparation of any feast involved the hard legwork of the hunter.  (I would swear too that when we cooked the meal, Mrs. M made the preparations as primitive as possible, leaving out the use of electric appliances wherever feasible.  But this might be a misremembrance.)  Thus, on this day we were going to learn how hard it was to hunt a turkey.

I have no idea why someone in the country club had turkeys.  But someone did.  Specifically, he was a grouchy old man who shouted a lot and didn’t seem all that happy about having us on his property.  He had a pretty extensive plot of land that included foul of all kinds, cows, and I think even a pig or two.  Now that I’m older I look back on him and wonder if he was one of those old men who thinks the government is coming for his money one day and keeps a small farm-like plot just in case someone steals all his worldly goods.  But whatever the reason, he had animals, and we needed those animals in order to learn about the First Thanksgiving.

Mrs. M showed us around the “farm,” explaining how each animal would have served the Pilgrims in the creation of their feast.  (Cows?  In early America?  I’m not so sure about that one.  But they probably didn’t eat sweet potato casserole with marshmallows either, so I guess I shouldn’t expect this even to have been historically accurate.)  We learned that any and all food came from plants and animals, not from the grocery store.

But the capper of the event was when the grouchy old man stepped in to tell us how hard it was to catch a turkey.  If we were learning about the hardships of the early days, it was important to understand that nature was difficult to tame, and that most wild animals didn’t just walk right into the path of your rifle.  As he made his point, he walked towards a small fence at he back of the property, threw open a gate, and set free three enormous turkeys to run about the yard.  He claimed that they were “wild turkeys,” although I think that adjective becomes moot once an animal is kept in a pen in your yard.  But either way, the man was taken with the majesty of the turkey (just like Ben Franklin!) and wanted us to understand how hard a bird it was to bag.  “Just try to catch those turkeys,”  he challenged.

And with that, 20 elementary school kids dressed as Pilgrims and Indians took off after 3 big birds, scrambling across the acreage, bumping into unsuspecting cows and pigs in our plight to grab the centerpiece of all Thanksgiving meals.  We got close a couple of times, including one in which I swear the thing turned around and nipped my arm.  But I doubt any of us succeeded.  After much scrambling around, Mrs. M called us back and told us it was time to head back to the house.  Luckily for us, some astute shopper had already provided us with a bird via the grocery store, so our feast would not remain incomplete, despite our failure to bag the turkey.

I don’t know where our teacher was during all of this.  I suspect it was a nice day off for her.  I’m really crossing my fingers this time, hoping that Erin remember SOME of this, because I’m certain there’s more to this story.  Anytime a crazy rich lady teaches a bunch of costumed kids about the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving, there are bound to be some comedic scenes.  But all of them were pushed out of my mind by the crazy old man who got a kick out of watching us chase his turkeys.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Roald Dahl at the Book Fair with Rev. Jackson

In Erin on November 5, 2009 at 11:38 pm

There are so many amazing things to say about Sharon’s post, but I want to approach them through the somewhat roundabout route of telling you about The Book Fair.  The Book Fair was a magical event for kids such as us, who eagerly awaited new spelling lists and reading assignments.  Now, with the advent of amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, I doubt whether The Book Fair even exists–or if it does, whether anyone would actually send their kids to school with money to spend on it–but at the time, it was wonderful.  Basically, it amounted to a mobile bookstore kids section, which parked itself in the auditorium for a day.  I believe that we might have been allowed to make book purchasing decisions right there in the moment, but for the most part, we had already made our book choices in advance with the help of colorful (yet flimsy) Scholastic catalogs, which listed the newest titles and which were distributed in class the week before.

I remember going through the scholastic catalog each time, circling everything I wanted (usually almost every book in print, except for the boring ones about horses or basketball), and then painstakingly narrowing my list down to accord with the budgetary restrictions imposed by my mom.  When I was younger, the final list almost invariably included some fantasy or coloring book involving stickers or unicorns.  One year, though–I believe in fourth grade–I began to branch out.  My Book Fair purchases that year included 1) a biography of Jesse Jackson and 2) one of the Scary Stories books Sharon mentioned.

To be honest, I have no idea where the Jesse Jackson thing came from.  I have my doubts about whether I actually knew who Jesse Jackson was.  I do remember thinking that the description in the Scholastic catalog made him seem interesting, and that I was beginning to feel weird about the fact that I knew no Black people other than the lovely woman who cleaned our house (Ms. Gertie), despite the fact that I was growing up in a pretty diverse city (which, incidentally, was later ranked by Ebony as one of the best 5 cities for African-Americans to live  in the U.S.).  So I think I must have had vague aspirations of self-education, but these were sadly never realized.  I still remember bringing the book home, and hearing my dad ask why I would possibly have wanted a Jesse Jackson biography–and putting it onto the shelf, never to be opened again.  I’m not sure that he meant to be disapproving, but his tone–the same one he used when asking, “You don’t like those New Kids on the Block, do you?“–was enough for me, a lifelong Type A pleaser, to take the hint (or at least, what I perceived as the hint).

In a way, the Scary Stories book is even more enigmatic to me.  Sharon’s suggestion that I had a “complex” relationship with fear is–for me–putting it generously.  I was a full-on fraidy-cat, wuss, chicken, whatever.  I hated, and still hate, scary movies.  It’s hard for me to remember what things were like then, since there’s something about adulthood self-awareness that makes the childhood versions of our present neuroses seem unrecognizable.  For whatever reason, though–maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were starting to go to camps, and have sleepovers, and ghost stories were a consistent part of the TV versions of these things–I got the Scary Stories book, and read it with Sharon.  That is, I read most of it (minus “The Black Dog,” since I had a black dog of my own).  I still remember some of the more vivid phrasings in Sharon’s voice:

The drum beats grew louder and faster!  Suddenly, Jack pitched forward, dead.

Ah, childhood!  So many beautiful stories.  I do wonder how it was possibly acceptable for us to acquire such a text, given its general morbidity.

Of course, I don’t actually remember The Westing Game being forbidden.  In fact, I was almost certain that we read it in school…or at least, that we read some mystery book that had a cover with a black background and a spooky looking old mansion.  Though this may have happened after I left for the alien world of public school (more on this later!).  Still, I do remember at least one instance of literary censorship at the Unnamed Religious Private School, so it’s far from being out of the realm of possibility.

At some point (I don’t remember when), our class read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Having seen the movie with Gene Wilder several times (and having had a chocolate addiction from a young age), I was pretty excited about this…though was somewhat disappointed that the book was a bit darker than the movie, with fewer bright colors and decidedly less singing.  Nevertheless, it was an exciting time in my elementary school life, not only because it was a story about chocolate–two of my favorite things!–it also involved getting a new book, copies of which Ms. Ditch (we’ll just say it was her) had passed out to each of us on the first day of the unit.

A couple of days into our reading, we came to the part of the story where Willy Wonka explains to Charlie and his grandfather that they should never ever drink the Fizzy Lifting Drink, since it previously resulted in the death of an Oompa Loompa.  The book description is much more intense than that of the movie, culminating when Wonka recounts the dreadful scene, in which he desperately shouts to the rapidly ascending Oompa Loompa: “Burp!  Burp you silly , burp!”

Or, at least, that’s what he shouted in my book.  He shouted that in all of our books, actually, because the copies Ms. Ditch passed out to us had that word blacked out.  Interestingly, however, rather than moving along past the offending passage without remark, our class was then forced to have an in-depth discussion of why Roald Dahl (or Willy Wonka?) would have used such terrible language in the first place, thus drawing even more attention to the fact of its censorship.  I don’t remember what the outcome of that discussion was, or whether it was decided that Willy Wonka was a bad person.  But I do remember that, holding the page up to the light, I could barely make out the word: A-S-S.

I didn’t really know what it meant, but I did know one thing: whatever it was, it was worse than The Devil’s Birthday and Jesse Jackson.  And that seemed like kind of a big deal.

 

Giants, Furry Collars, and The Westing Game

In Sharon on October 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm

I apologize, loyal readers (do we have any of those?) for the long space between posts.  Things have been a little nutty, but hopefully it won’t happen again.

The gap in posting, though, leaves me with the realization that we’re getting ever closer to the holidays, and all these school play-related memories are very timely.  So I’m going to attempt to keep them going, in honor of the upcoming Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas triad.

First of all, let me point out that my memories of the Thanksgiving play match Erin’s almost exactly, in the sense that I don’t remember much beyond the one song and the fact that I was always, always cast as an Indian.  I must not have had a line in this particular play, or, if I did, I don’t remember it the way I remember my lines as Gabriel.  I do remember that song though, and I remember absolutely LOVING it.  (The only variance in our recollections is that I could have sworn that the line was “feathers in our head men” rather than “feathers in our headband”, but that might just speak to my love of parallel structure.)  For me, there was something about the slow, staccato rhythm and the mysterious line about being “down among the dead men.”    I’m still fascinated by that line, and I’ve been digging around in my brain lately trying to understand what it might have meant to me when I was a kid.

But more on that later. For now, in the sense of timeliness, I want to return to THE DEVIL’S BIRTHDAY!!

I love being scared.  Yes, that’s right, I’m a humongous cliche.  I love bad horror movies, good horror movies, and stories that keep me from sleeping at night.  Back when I was a grad student I spent inordinate amounts of time researching Victorian  and early modern ghost stories (which I still hold are some of the best around).  The same was true when I was a kid: I devoured anything that made me want to run and hide in the closet.

As I remember it, Erin had a complex relationship with fear in childhood.  She participated with me in many a sleepover reading of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (volumes 1 through 3!).  But I also remember that these activities would make her nervous – a condition she always gives away by talking veryveryvery fast.  (If you ever ride a roller coaster with her, I advise tape recording her, as you would then have the most realistic vision of stream-of-consciousness ever imagined.)

Once, sometime around 3rd grade, she invited me to a lock-in at her church.  In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, a lock-in is a sort of massive slumber party generally associated with youth groups.  A few adults gather together girls from a variety of ages and let them all spend the night in the church rec hall and participate in church-sanctioned activities.  (I wonder if other religions do these too.  If they do, I bet they don’t play “Christians and Romans,” another fascinating topic I’ll be broaching later on.)  Somehow, Erin’s church youth leaders must not have been as strict as the ladies at our school, because there was much ghost-story telling that evening.  It started fairly early in the night when all of us were crammed into someone’s minivan and an older girl convinced us we were reliving the hook-on-the-car-door urban legend.    But it continued throughout the night, and I distinctly remember after a certain point Erin leaned over to me and whispered, “Maybe we should go lie down now.”  This was code for “I have hit my maximum limit of scare tactics.”

So I don’t know whether she’ll have the same memory I do about ghost stories at our elementary school – specifically about what we spook-addicts were given as replacement for our banished tales.  Because they were definitely banished.  During 4th grade I had the library’s copy of The Westing Game taken away before I had a chance to finish it – once the teachers realized it contained eery material – and even a run-in with a corpse!  That same year, close to Halloween, a rainy morning had us all disappointed that we’d have to stay inside for recess.  Our teacher promised she’d make it worth our while by telling some holiday-appropriate spooky stories.  Someone must’ve reported this activity to the principal, however, because by the time the promised recess rolled around she was no longer so enthusiastic.  She let us know that ghost stories weren’t a good idea after all.  Then in the 5th grade I got chastised for doing my book report on a collection of ghost stories – a report that I introduced by saying, “Some people will tell you that these tales aren’t true… but that’s just SOME people.”

So there was plenty of material considered untouchable.  I have some suspicions that the librarian felt bad for me, though.  She was the one who had given me The Westing Game in the first place, only to see it taken from me later.  She was trying to encourage reading as best she could, and she needed something to put in my hands that sparked my interest.  For a while she succeeded with books that piqued my fascination with mystery, getting me hooked on a biography of JFK that included a complete diagram of Dealey Plaza and a detailed account of the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination.  I was convinced for weeks that if I stared at that diagram long enough I could solve the case.

Even weirder, though, was the final solution that Mrs. B finally reached in her attempts to find suitable literature for me: The Door In The Dragon’s Throat, a weird children’s archaeology thriller by Christian author Frank Peretti.

Peretti has now made a suitable name for himself (amongst evangelicals, at least) in adult literature.  But back in the 80’s he wrote mostly for kids.  His main series featured a Christian archaeologist and his two kids as they were sent around the world (sometimes by the president!) to unearth lost mysteries usually connected to ancient Christianity.

Peretti was the perfect substitute for my missing ghosts.  In many ways, he was probably better – or at least more memorable.  I don’t remember the books being particularly prosthelytizing, although I’m sure they must have been in parts.  What I remember is the monsters.  Peretti dealt with Old Testament lore and often featured creatures like giants and – I swear – a cyclops.  The existence of such creatures was backed up somehow by scripture.  Wise Dr. Cooper was always explaining to his kids how various verses in the Bible described people and things that no longer existed in our world, including races of giant men and women like the Goliath who fought David.

I am here to tell you that Biblical times were TERRIFYING.  There are 3 images I retain from childhood literature that still occasionally haunt me in the middle of the night.  One is the infamous girl-with-spiders-in-her-face from Scary Stories.*  The second is the girl bouncing around the ceiling in her sleep in Nightmare on Elm Street.  And the third is Peretti’s Biblical giants.**

The question I keep coming back to, though, is why?  I mean, technically I know the answer: the Peretti books were acceptable because they were by a Christian author, featuring Christian (sort of) themes.  The figures in the books couldn’t be considered supernatural because they were historical – Biblical figures traced directly back to scripture (sort of).  This raises an interesting issue that’s a constant for kids raised in religious environments: Christianity (and indeed religion in general) is filled to the brim with bizarre supernatural stuff.  Wonders and miracles, stigmata, mystery pregnancies, narrow escapes from death, talking bushes… I could go on.  All you have to do to get the idea is listen to an Eddie Izzard routine.  If you think about it, a kid raised amongst all that stuff shouldn’t need ghost stories at all.  But those ideas are generally presented in such a matter-of-fact tone (in class!) that they never seem frightening at all.  Or at least, they never did to me.***

Remembering Peretti makes me wonder why we didn’t tap into the natural spookiness of the Bible more often.  It may have been for the same reason that our teachers shied away from Halloween: they simply weren’t equipped to deal with the consequences of a room full of scared kids.  Fear makes people do odd things, and if the Bible hadn’t been like a cozy bedroom in our parents’ house, we might have been less likely to turn to it for all our answers.  I probably got away with reading Peretti because his name was familiar and safe – because he was a Christian author.  But the contents of the books touched on something we didn’t see much of in school – but that I DID see a lot of in my favorite stories.  Peretti showed me a world that was unstable and contained unimaginable danger.  He put me in the same world hinted at by Halloween and the phrase from our “Indian” song: a world where we were down among the dead men, where the unknown haunted us in stacatto rhythms.  His Christians faced down giants and carried the ghosts of the past with them.  I’d be curious to read those stories again now, to see whether they hold up – and to discover whether they contained more prosthelytizing than I remember.  I want to know if those giants are still scary, or if the they seem more like monsters made to pound a message into my skull.

Then again, that’s all lots of horror movies and stories are, really: just coded messages meant to play on the things we fear the most – like communism, or shopping malls.  Or Texas.

Except the bloody fur collar story (mentioned in footnote *).  That one was just creepy.

*Okay I just remembered a fourth.  During that infamous 5th grade book report I read a story about a girl who goes to spend the night at a friend’s house.  She wakes up to some weird sounds and finds herself alone in the room.  The lights have all gone out, and she goes prowling around the house in the dark, hands out in front of her.  As she feels her way around, she touches something that she realizes is the furry collar of her friend’s nightgown — with nothing above it but a stump!  Something has chopped off her friend’s head.  I don’t remember how this story got resolved, but the image of that furry collar still rears its head (or stump!  ha ha!) once in a while.

** Peretti makes an appearance in a great book called Rapture Ready, a compendium on the phenomenon of Christian pop culture.  He doesn’t come off TOO shabbily, and the author’s comments about him and his adult fiction make me wonder what I’d think of those books now.

***I have a friend who used to lie awake at night because she was afraid that if she fell asleep the Holy Spirit would impregnate her.  So I guess not everybody was as nonchalant about religious mythology.

Adventures in Imperialism

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

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

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

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

We go hunting near and far,

[Something] with our long-nosed squaw

Pow-wow, pow-wow,

We’re the men of the old-old time!

For we are the red men,

Feathers in our headband

Down upon the dead men,

Mm-Pow-Wow!

Mm-Pow-Wow!

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

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

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

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

And a peacock too!

In Sharon on October 16, 2009 at 10:26 am

I have seen the video, my friends.  We don’t get all that many opportunities in life to confirm our memories with hard proof, but in this particular case I have a VHS tape full of proof, and the main point I want to make, based on this footage, is that our elementary school was often PROFOUNDLY RIDICULOUS.

I am referring to a tape my grandfather must have made of our 2nd/3rd grade Christmas musical.  I’m sure all of you were in Christmas  plays at one time or another.  In the South they’re unavoidable, even if you attend a supposedly non-sectarian public school.  (My friend Sarah, who is Jewish, has a great story about the Christmas-Around-the-World pageant she was required to perform in during 1st grade.  The teacher was going around assigning countries for each student to represent.  When it was Sarah’s turn, she tried to protest, telling the teacher, “but I’m Jewish!”  The teacher said, “That’s perfect, Sarah!  Then you can be Christmas in Israel!”)  Everyone did a Christmas play.  I’m sure most of the ones we did had the basic Jesus-Mary-Joseph theme, with a backup cast of wise men, shepherds, and angels.  But this one year, our music teacher decided to put on Angels and Lambs, Ladybugs and Fireflies – a performance that in the end required a literal ton of fabric, sparkles, and fake feathers.

Angels and Lambs is actually a fairly popular children’s Christmas musical written by a man named Fred Bock.  I mention Mr. Bock because when I lived in California, I was often confronted with people who believed that intense religiosity was the strict provenance of the deep South.  What I learned from living in both places is that each has its own brand of religion.  The difference is that California’s is more televangelism than ours.  SoCal is home to Mr. Bock (who was music minister for the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for enormous numbers of years) as well as the weird weird weird world of the Crystal Cathedral – whose yearly Christmas play completely outdoes anyone else’s standards of absurdity.  (Their angels actually “fly” in from the super-high vaulted ceilings using Hollywood-type props – and with looks of sheer fright on their faces.  Their stage has a hidden fountain, and they use real animals during production – including a couple of camels.)

The basic plot of Bock’s work is that a population of wild creatures – bugs, birds, lambs, and for some reason a peacock –  are present during the shepherds’ conversation about the birth of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  They (meaning the creatures) then have a discussion about whether they should go to the birth too.  They eventually decide that as creatures of the air and field they can spread the good news about Jesus’ birth, and that they will head to Bethlehem, telling everyone they meet along the way.

What I remember most about this play is the costumes.  We had a huge contingent of kids spreading across all classes of two grades, and the stage was filled with little ones dressed as creatures of the earth and sky.  Now, if this had been a public school production, the costumes would likely have been fairly simple – affordable.  But we were not a public school, and most of our student body had money coming out of their ears and other orifices.  So our teacher (whom I actually remember liking) decided she would follow the VERY PRECISE instructions on costume-construction that come from the booklet accompanying the play.  (This play is available for purchase through Amazon, by the way.  It comes with sheet music, a play booklet, and detailed costume and set designs, should any of you want to put on your own production.)  Erin and I had to go to a professional seamstress to have our butterfly wings sewn onto our little black leotards.

So the first thing that struck me as my mom and I watched this old home movie were the crazy costumes.  The back of the stage was lined with birds of all types – eagles, parrots, flamingos, and one poor kid sporting a peacock’s outspread feathers made from cardboard and taking up 3/4 of rear-center stage.  Whenever he walked to the microphone at the front of the stage to deliver his one line, he had to move sideways to keep from hitting anyone.

Secondly, I really was very tall.  I am by far the biggest butterfly.  Also, somehow in a cast of probably 80 kids Erin and I still managed to get placed right next to each other on stage.  We’re both butterflies and we’re standing next to each other the entire time, even though I’m on the back row with the tall kids and all you can see is the top of Erin’s head.  I am always amazed at how much time we were able to spend together.  In most cases good friends get separated during events like this, mostly because teachers are afraid they’ll talk and cause a ruckus.  I guess our reputation as Goody-Two-Shoes prevented this.  In fact, I am SUCH a Goody-Two-Shoe that I get cast as the butterfly who eventually argues that yes, all creatures great and small SHOULD go to the birth of Jesus.  This seems on par with my childhood go-with-the-flow philosophy.   (I was also the angel Gabriel – wrongly gendered – in numerous Christmas productions.  My niche in these plays seems to be as the figure of ultimate Good.  Interesting.  I think maybe it’s because I had a pretty loud, clear voice for a kid.  If there’s one line you want people to hear, it’s the line about how “God has sent his baby son to be a savior for everyone!”)

Thirdly, I remembered something about the powerful politics of school plays.  We’ve already mentioned that Melissa was part of our school’s elite.  And Erin mentioned a few posts back that Melissa’s mother was very young and pretty.  But she was also a member of one of the local Baton Rouge theater troupes.  In Melissa’s words, she was an “actress” – the sort of person who was always talking about doing “legitimate theater”.  And it’s true that Miss Annie* always seemed to have costumes and props lying around the house when we visited.  Once Miss Annie and her Junior League friends decided to throw an elaborate tea party with a 1920’s theme for one of Melissa’s younger sisters.  Melissa and Erin and I were somehow recruited to serve tea at the party, and Miss Annie dressed all of us up in authentic Roaring 20’s garb.  I have no idea why this happened.

At any rate, Melissa constantly bragged about her mother’s theatric connections.  And somehow, some way, she always managed to get appointed as the “star” of any school play.  During Angles and Lambs, she played Mary, one of the only two actual human characters and the ONLY one who got to sit down through the entire production, while the rest of us had to stand for hours during rehearsals, trying not to twitch or fidget.

I was complaining to my mom about this as we watched the video.  And then she reminded me of something I had completely forgotten.

(Beware: cheesy moralistic ending fast approaching…) At the end of the performance that night, I was standing around getting hugs and congratulations from my parents and grandparents, who all attended our one-night show.  (My dad even attended despite his bronchitis.  You can hear him coughing during the video.)  Melissa walked over to us and started talking to my parents, shaking hands with my grandparents, ever the big adult girl.  Then, still in complete Mary regalia, she said, “Can you drive me home?”

My mom was puzzled.  “Melissa, aren’t your parents here?”

No.  They were not there.  My mom continued questioning her for a few minutes, just to make sure she had full grasp of the situation.  “So your mom told you to just grab a ride with someone else?”  She had.

So Melissa rode home with us that night.  And my mom reports that, even in the car, she was still the consummate actress.  She delivered an extensive monologue on the pains of working with Mike, the very sweet boy who had been her Joseph.  He was NOT an adequate Joseph, and he had NOT listened to Melissa’s various directives.  My mom says that this really was a monologue – that Melissa was already more grown up than the rest of us, and that she knew how to work an audience.  She was self-aware in a way that most of us wouldn’t be until years later, when we started grasping the border between fantasy and reality.  Melissa was a girl who always knew EXACTLY what she was doing.

So, as cheesy as this is, it’s nice to realize that even though I hated her star power at the time, my whole family was at that play.  Hers left her to find a ride, even though she had a solo and was ostensibly the star.  I guess they needed to sit around and try on short robes again, or something else equally important.

*again, not her real name.  But it should be noted here that we did refer to all mothers by their first names, with a “Miss” prefix.  This is just what you do in the South.  Only teachers were known by their last names.  And although I am now a full fledged adult in my late twenties, if I ran into Erin’s mom on the street I would probably still use her name with “Miss.”  I just can’t do it any other way.