Sunday, November 16, 2008

On a Cold November Night

Redrawing My Past
Pastel on paper

I’ve been trying all week to write something funny. I like to be funny. Folks like funny people. But it’s been a gray November week, and maybe because gray November days remind me of my first 8th grade dance, my thoughts are more introspective than humorous.
MaryJane’s dad had dropped us off at the door of our newly built junior high. Right away we headed not for the gym but for the girls’ lav, an exotic space with a six-foot-wide mirror surrounded with light bulbs, Hollywood style. The backs of the chairs (chairs!) were fashioned in a vaguely heart-shaped curlycue. Mary Jane and I carefully applied the Tangee lipstick we were forbidden to wear at home, cinched the belts one notch tigher around our matching poodle skirts, and went out onto the gym floor.
Girls were dancing...with boys! Dave walked up. I tensed the corners of my eyes in the manner that I was certain made them sparkle (a look that I later learned made me look vaguely insane), and took a step forward...only to inwardly gasp as he asked Mary Jane to dance. There I stood, embarrassed and sweating profusely. I did what any thoughtful, perceptive 14-year-old girl did...I ran. To the lav. Alone. But my place of refuge was filled.
K. sat, small and silent, in front of that huge mirror, surrounded by seven or eight girls from what some of us called “The Clique.” Small tears made tracks down her cheeks. “Here, try my lipstick,” someone said as she applied a smear of bright orange over and around K.’s lips. “Oh,” added another, “you need eye shadow!” And an aqua blue streak went over K’s right eye. “Blush is what she needs!” said a third. And two pink circles were applied to K’s cheeks to the sounds of shrieking laughter.
And there I stood. Everything I’d ever learned, everything I’d ever believed about myself, told me that I should step in. I knew that all it would take to stop this cruelty was a verbal acknowledgment of it. But K wasn’t popular, and neither was I. And I wanted to be. So I turned away.
I’ve told this story to students many times when a classroom analysis of the cruelty in Lord of the Flies led to a discussion of why cruelty happens. I don’t have an answer now any more than I did when I taught. But I do know this...there was nothing about my 14-year-old behavior that was excusable that night. But by sharing it, more than a few of my students have told me that they found the courage to speak up when it would have been easier to turn around and leave.

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