Monday, September 27, 2010

Public Humiliation

So. The Rejectionist is having one of her "uncontests" today, in honor of the beginning of banned book week. The idea is for readers to post embarrassing exerpts of their early writing on their own blog and then link to it in the commments section of her blog. Alas, I have no early writing samples. So, never being one to have the sense to avoid a chance for public humiliation, I thought I'd tell a story instead.

I went, first through eighth grades, to a small rural elementary school called Leesville R-IX. It's been expanded in the decades since I was a "bluebird", but when I started the kindergarten, first and second grades were conducted in a partitioned-off corner of the gymn (which was also the auditorium and the cafeteria)and the library was in a strange little, wedge-shaped closet at the bend in the hallway. Every classroom held two grades, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and probably the worst trouble you could get into was for taking the name of the Lord in vain.

Our principal was a lady named Mrs. Thompson, who had taught at a one-room schoolhouse before Leesville was built. She was a tall, stern, woman who brooked no nonsense from anyone. She always dressed properly in a skirt or dress, wore nylons and sensible, dark shoes, and was the first woman I ever knew who wore makeup. Looking back now, I know she was a kind and dedicated woman who cared deeply about the students under her protection, and I credit her with the high standards that Leesville adhered to and that gave us all a strong education, at least in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmatic.

In grade school, I was in awe of her.

When I was nine, Mrs. Thompson called all the fourth through eighth grade girls into the auditorium (no longer, by that time, doubling as a classroom). There were maybe 100 students in the whole school, and perhaps twenty-five of us, sitting there nervously on grey folding chairs, wondering what we'd done to get in trouble. That we were in trouble, no one questioned. Mrs. Thompson stood in front of us, hands clasped in front of her. She had a light Southern accent and spoke in a high, melodic voice that carried even over the din of a crowded playground. In the subdued silence of that auditorium, it echoed.

She said, "I understand that some of you girls have been talking about periods on the bus and on the playground."

Instand mortification! They'd been talking about periods! Mrs. Thompson knew they'd been talking about periods! And now she was talking about periods! Right out in the open and everything!

"Now, I know that this is something you're learning about, and that it's interesting to you. But you can't be talking about these things where these little boys can hear! These little fourth-grade boys like Ronnie and Radon*, they don't need to hear this sort of thing! I don't mind if you talk about it when you're alone, in the restroom or on a corner of the playground, but I don't want to hear any more about you talking about periods in front of the boys. Do you understand?"

Twenty-five little girls nodded solemnly, still not raising their heads. Avoiding eye contact.

"And, you know, you can also always talk to your teachers and me. You come to us, and we'll be happy to try to explain anything you're confused about. Understand?"

More nodding.

"Okay, well, before we go back to class, do any of you have any questions?"

Twenty-four little girls sat in uncomfortable silence, staring at the concrete floor, ready to die rather than involve themselves any more than necessary in this discussion. But I did have a question. So I raised my hand and when she called on me, I asked if we could talk about commas . . . .

*Yes, his name was really Radon, like the gas. ;)