Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Gradeby Clifford Chase
Seventh grade: You remember it, don't you? Sweet sixteen seemed impossibly far away, an elegant, unattainable future. All that we had was the doldrums of thirteen -- not so sweet, and definitely queer. Now, some of the finest observers of the gay experience take us back to the homerooms and hallways of our youth, in a collection of original essays that captures that time of adolescence when social and sexual development was at its raging worst. From gym class to kissing parties, obsessive crushes to after-school pummelings, every day held the possibility of discovery -- and complete humiliation. For those of us who are gay, our sexuality added another twist, that extra little way we didn't quite fit in. It was a time of becoming who we truly are, a passage into adulthood that was as memorable as it was agonizing. Queer 13 tells these tales of teenage trauma -- from funny to painful, reflective to literary -- all ringing with the universal truths of a poignant, extraordinary time.
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In sixth grade, students in the Springfield, Virginia, school system were required to take the four-section science/health requirement, "Man: A Course of Study," unhumorously nicknamedMACOSon all the stickers, folders, filmstrips, textbooks, and worksheets. In MACOS, we studied four creatures: the salmon, the herring gull, the baboon, and the Eskimo, one each quarter. We learned about their traits, instincts, and habitat, but now I remember only one thing about each organism: the salmon swims upstream to spawn and then dies; the herring gull regurgitates its food to feed its young; baboons exist in close-knit packs and have no single mother after birth; Eskimo families live tightly together in their igloos. We were supposed to see there was a consistent, common thread among all living things: that we are born, we reproduce, we die.
I had somehow conned my mother into doing my final projects for me for the first two sections. Trying to be firm with me, she would occasionally suggest I start thinking about myMACOS final project a month in advance. I would always procrastinate until she'd angrily whip something up, with me looking on, trying to be innocently repentant, as if I were learning a vast amount about fish or birds by observing her.
She cooked salmon cakes for the first section, and I brought them to school on a gigantic shallow tray covered in tinfoil. For the second section she made a herring-gull pillow stuffed with cotton balls with Magic Marker eyes and feathers. "I am not giving you any help on your baboon assignment, do you hear me?" she snapped, roughly handing me the stuffed gull.
My MACOS teacher, Mrs. Moore, didn't like me. I think it was because I was quiet,frightened, dutiful, and unpopular. There were many teachers who, like Mrs. Moore, loved only the popular kids. Behind the sham of rewarding good quiz grades and completed homework, Mrs. Moore secretly encouraged the popularity hierarchy, which in sixth grade was delicately taking shape like a larva. Mrs. Moore's face shone bright when Kristi Cook, a pretty, blond, well-dressed girl being groomed for future homecoming courts and cheerleading squads, asked a question. And if the sporty, soccer-playing Chris Graham burped loudly in class, she would admonish him with a tiny detectable grin. Mrs. Moore wore wrap dresses that exposed her pale, minnow-thin collarbones. We called her Moore the Whore because cleavage meant you were loose. Ian Gordon, the burnout, also got special treatment from our MACOS teacher, even though he was more delinquent-popular than a member of a cliquish inner circle. He had unbrushed teeth, greasy, long, bowl-cut hair, far-apart slitty eyes, and wore a Judas Priest baseball shirt every day. With his dark peach-fuzz mustache and a body odor vaguely reminiscent of Campbell's soup, he seemed to exude the oil of early puberty. He slept in school, skipped class, walked the halls cruelly, making comments about anyone who was unpopular. "Pick 'em up, you little fag," he said to me once in the hall, kicking the books out of my hands.
Ian Gordon sat next to me for the baboon section of MACOS. He brushed into class minutes after the bell, a waft of smoke, beer, and leather Camaro interior following him. I was afraid to look at him. Mrs. Moore was showing a film from the Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom "Classroom Series" in which Marion Perkins and his sidekick, Jim, trailed a pack of baboons. They observed the baboons as they hunted an injured antelope and whooped across the yellow, flat, African landscape. In an unfortunate example of the cruel jungle, the youngest baboon was killed in a sudden chase and attack by cheetahs. As the baboon let out its last breath, Mrs. Moore gasped and turned away from the screen.
I sat stiff and primed, but Ian Gordon didn't bother me in class. He did tease Kristi Cook constantly, until finally she raised her hand and asked to be moved. Ian said, "Why shouldn't she sit next to me, she's carrying my child!"
"Shut up that's a lie!" Kristi cried. Mrs. Moore released a nervy laugh, telling Ian to go out in the hall. A few days later, or a week or so, I can't remember, he was not in class anymore. From then on, my friends and I called Kristi "Mother of the Baboons" behind her back.
I had lied to my mom and told her I'd finished my baboon final project, but the hard reality was undeniable: I had once again waited until the night before. At eleven o'clock that night (late for sixth grade), I remembered Mrs. Moore's soft spot for the baby baboon. I decided to write a poem about its sad death. I can only remember the last two lines: "And so the littlest baboon! Sadly waved good-bye." To my shock, Mrs. Moore's eyes teared up when she read it the next day.
That year Linda Ronstadt released her album Living in the U.S.A. with her on the cover in a red satin jacket, tight blue satin shorts, and big rubber-wheeled roller skates. I loved roller-skating, and this album cover affirmed what I deeply knew: that someday, somewhere, when I got to be older, I would be a part of a supportive, joyous roller-disco crowd. At lunch, I ate quickly and went to the tennis court, which had a smooth, debris-free skating surface that made you feel professional and somehow more mature when you skated on it. I would roll around and around the edge of the court all through lunchtime.
It was almost spring; buds were becoming blooms, the custodians were repainting the blacktop, and in MACOSwe started the Eskimo section. We were shown filmstrips of Idee Magmak and his wife, Kinyook, depicting how they lived hand-to-mouth, ate whale parts, relied on the capricious tundra for survival.
On a warm day, I was skating during lunch on the tennis court and a rock flew by me. I stopped and looked around but didn't see anything. A minute later another rock whizzed right by my eye. I looked up again and saw Ian Gordon walking toward me. He threw another rock, this one hitting my arm.
Next to him was a girl my age whom I had never seen before. She had winged brown hair, thick eyeliner, and she wore torn jeans and a Rolling Stones baseball shirt. Her stomach was unnaturally fat -- perfectly, centrally round. She was pregnant. She looked at me with an absent expression, and I immediately thought she was "on something," even though I had no real concept of drugs. I began to quickly take off my skates and put on my shoes so I could run. Ian Gordon glowered at me with his shoulders pushed back, in a parody of a bully. He blocked the opening to the tennis court.
"Hey, you little fairy." Sick with fear, I reacted the way I always did in these situations, as if I were possessed by some sort of British ambassador.
"Why are you doing this to me?" I said shakily, with this weird sense of propriety.
"Fuck off!" Ian Gordon said. "Fuck you! I'm gonna fuck you up."
"Just leave me alone," I said.
"No. I'm gonna fuck you over," he said. "Do you know what it's like to be fucked?"
I looked at the girl, thinking that she knew because she had been fucked, and also thinking she would help me because she was a girl and not as naturally malicious. But she stepped up next to him with this bitter, foul expression on her face. She lifted a hand, pointed at herself, and said with a theatrical, Afterschool Specialvibrato in her voice, "It hurts. It really hurts."
Even then, businesslike with fear, I couldn't believe how staged this seemed. I was so drawn to Ian and his wife, and I looked at them with concern. I thought I could help them or still befriend them, or train them like animals to like me by somehow sending the right signal. And later on, in junior high, when the burnouts were at the peak of their power, and I heard about Drew Groves getting it on with two girls out by the baseball field, or Alisa DuShaw getting an abortion, or Tammy Brownside swallowing Andrew Schwertzer's come, or even later on in high school, when the burnouts did burn out, I knew I had missed my chance at communicating with them. On the tennis court, the teachers came out and yelled at Ian Gordon to get off the school grounds, and someone gently pulled me back in through the blue school doors. I just remembered to remember them -- because they were important, because I felt fear, because they made me meek.
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