Sunday You Learn How to Box

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Overview

Sunday You Learn How to Box presents an unforgettable portrait of fourteen-year-old Louis Bowman in a boxing ring—a housing project circa 1968—fighting "just to get to the end of the round." Sharing the ring is his mother, Jeanette Stamps, a ferociously stubborn woman battling for her own dreams to be realized; his stepfather, Ben Stamps, the would-be savior, who becomes the sparring partner to them both; and the enigmatic Ray Anthony Robinson, the neighborhood "hoodlum" in purple polyester pants, who sents young...
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Overview

Sunday You Learn How to Box presents an unforgettable portrait of fourteen-year-old Louis Bowman in a boxing ring—a housing project circa 1968—fighting "just to get to the end of the round." Sharing the ring is his mother, Jeanette Stamps, a ferociously stubborn woman battling for her own dreams to be realized; his stepfather, Ben Stamps, the would-be savior, who becomes the sparring partner to them both; and the enigmatic Ray Anthony Robinson, the neighborhood "hoodlum" in purple polyester pants, who sents young Louis's heart spinning with the first stirrings of sexual longing. Blending quirky humor and clear-eyed unsentimentality, Bil Wright deftly evokes an unrelenting world with lyricism and passion.
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Editorial Reviews

Steve Fullwood
In contemporary literature, you won't find a more realistic and sensitively drawn portrait of an impovished black mother living in the ghetto, in conflict over her boy child's sexuality. Sunday You Learn how to Box delivers a knock-out punch.
Venus Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Growing up in urban Connecticut's impoverished Stratfield Projects in the late '60s is hard enough for Louis Bowman, the 14-year-old narrator of this excellent, plainspoken debut novel: he's got a misguided mother who is by turns violent and vulnerable; a stepfather who both hates and ignores him; and an array of neighborhood bullies to dodge. To make matters more difficult, Louis is gay, a realization he comes to slowly as he becomes enthralled with Ray Anthony Robinson, an older boy his neighbors consider an "out-and-out-hoodlum." Enigmatic Ray becomes Louis's unofficial protector, though the two teens never speak of their bond. Louis's home life, meanwhile, becomes increasingly brutal and confusing. His mother, Jeannette, engineers Sunday boxing matches between Louis and his stepfather, Ben, hoping Louis will learn to protect himself from the other boys in the projects. Ben, however, uses the matches as an opportunity to knock Louis around the apartment. Jeannette dreams of owning a house outside the projects, but drinks a lot of scotch and often loses herself in the memory of her one brush with fame, years before, when she designed a dress for Billie Holiday. Louis is a likable na f, a boy for whom a simple nod indicates a world of acceptance. He is keenly aware of how racial discrimination affects him; when his teacher insists on calling him Louie, he notes: "Mom says white people always do that with a black person's name, change it to something that sounds like nobody could take the person seriously." Wright's prose is both straightforward and subtle, and his ear for dialogue is first-rate. Louis is a winning character, an adolescent coping gracefully with his bitter lot, whose emotional strength and resilience ensure his survival into adulthood. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-This deeply felt coming-of-age novel reads like the best of memoirs. It's 1968 in the projects, and 14-year-old Louis Bowman has committed the unforgivable social crime of sissyhood, preferring mental activities to physical ones. The beatings he takes on the streets prompt his mother to force him into Sunday boxing lessons from his disgusted stepfather, Ben. To Louis and to readers, these feel more like sanctified opportunities for Ben to take out his violent frustrations on the boy. Louis's hardworking mother, though motivated by concern for his safety, is desperate to please Ben, hoping he'll be the family's ticket out of the projects. Meanwhile, Louis's grades drop and his school counselor diagnoses him with depression. Keeping the boy afloat is his budding crush on Ray Anthony Robinson, an eccentric "hoodlum" as isolated as Louis. The crush (more romantic than sexual at this point in his life) helps Louis to hold on, offering him moments of beauty and awe to counterbalance the darker circumstances of his life. His homosexuality, rather than being a cause for self-torment, recalls him to the wonder and warmth one can find even in the midst of the bleakest conditions. Wright has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a genuine gift for capturing the intricacies and indeterminacies of family and community life. Both ensure that Louis Bowman will live with teen readers long after they close the book.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
The Philadelphia Tribune
“A realistic, poignant story. It grabs you from the beginning, digs at your heartstrings, and doesn't let go.”
The New York Times
"Understated humor marks Bil Wright's first novel, Sunday You Learn How to Box... the absence of sentimentality is refreshing."
New York World
“With striking immediacy, keen insight, and grace of language, Wright captures the anguish of adolescence and the complex bond between mothers and sons...riveting.”
Booklist
“A poignant coming-of-age story. Wright has written an unsentimental portrait of a vulnerable young black man.”
The New York Times bestselling author of Abide with Me - E. Lynn Harris
"Heartbreaking and heartwarming. I was touched in so many ways by this absolutely dazzling and elegant debut. You won't be able to put it down. "
Judy Lightfoot
"The patient, subtle rendering of one boy's developing emotional life leads us right into the mystery of how love grows in us all."
Karin Cook
"Sunday You Learn How to Box has all the rhythm, drama, and dance of a good fight but in this case the battle matters more because the soul of a boy is at stake. In elegant and agile prose, Wright matches brutality with passion and heartbreak with hope. And a man in purple polyester pants walks off with the prize. This book is a knockout."
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg
"A mother's uphill battle to forge a better life for her family, her young son's struggle to survive in a world where the lines of "manhood" and "masculinity" are harshly drawn — Bil Wright's wrenching novel about growing up gay is sometimes crushing, sometimes exhilarating, but always full of grace. In this elegant and honest book, Wright engages difficult themes of love exhausted and renewed, dreams derailed and put back on track again, and the stubborn will to create one's destiny instead of falling prey to it. I was powerfully moved by Sunday You Learn How to Box. Its images singe. Its characters gleam."
E. Lynn Harris The New York Times bestselling author of Abide with Me
"Heartbreaking and heartwarming. I was touched in so many ways by this absolutely dazzling and elegant debut. You won't be able to put it down. "
From the Publisher
“A realistic, poignant story. It grabs you from the beginning, digs at your heartstrings, and doesn't let go.”

"Understated humor marks Bil Wright's first novel, Sunday You Learn How to Box... the absence of sentimentality is refreshing."

“With striking immediacy, keen insight, and grace of language, Wright captures the anguish of adolescence and the complex bond between mothers and sons...riveting.”

“Louis is a winning character, an adolescent coping gracefully with his bitter lot, whose emotional strength and resilience ensure his survival into adulthood.”

“A poignant coming-of-age story. Wright has written an unsentimental portrait of a vulnerable young black man.”

“This deeply felt coming-of-age novel reads like the best of memoirs. …. Wright has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a genuine gift for capturing the intricacies and indeterminacies of family and community life. Both ensure that Louis Bowman will live with teen readers long after they close the book.”

"Heartbreaking and heartwarming. I was touched in so many ways by this absolutely dazzling and elegant debut. You won't be able to put it down. "

"The patient, subtle rendering of one boy's developing emotional life leads us right into the mystery of how love grows in us all."

"Sunday You Learn How to Box has all the rhythm, drama, and dance of a good fight but in this case the battle matters more because the soul of a boy is at stake. In elegant and agile prose, Wright matches brutality with passion and heartbreak with hope. And a man in purple polyester pants walks off with the prize. This book is a knockout."

"A mother's uphill battle to forge a better life for her family, her young son's struggle to survive in a world where the lines of "manhood" and "masculinity" are harshly drawn — Bil Wright's wrenching novel about growing up gay is sometimes crushing, sometimes exhilarating, but always full of grace. In this elegant and honest book, Wright engages difficult themes of love exhausted and renewed, dreams derailed and put back on track again, and the stubborn will to create one's destiny instead of falling prey to it. I was powerfully moved by Sunday You Learn How to Box. Its images singe. Its characters gleam."

Stephanie Grant
"Sunday You Learn How to Box is smart and sexy. Bil Wright's gorgeous first novel overflows with wit and lyricism, the wonders of desire, and the brutality of racism. Louis shows us the power of salvation when the savior and saved are one — I couldn't put it down!"
Children's Literature - Jill Walton
It is 1968 in the projects of New York City and Louis Bowman and his mother have had their last physical fight with his stepfather, Ben. Ben is dead. Louis Bowman is this amazing fourteen-year-old kid who is intellectual, over-protected, abused and loved by his ambitious mother. And he is a survivor, not a victim. So is his mother. He is unique in his observations about the people around him and he may not know how or want to physically fight or box but he is a lifelong contender, never down or out. When Louis speaks, he is the age he is and he has an innocent voice that introduces the reader to his world of awakening sexuality. He is wiser than most of the adults around him but he is not without role models. Two strong males in his life are his taciturn grandfather and a colorful older teen, Ray Anthony. This award-winning young adult novel is on the reading list for colleges for good reasons. Teens need to hear Louis and give him justice. Louis Bowman has to return to tell us what is going on in his life in his latter teen years and Louis needs to report how things turn out for his mother and sister, too. Reviewer: Jill Walton
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781442474727
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
  • Publication date: 8/27/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Age range: 12 - 18 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Bil Wright is an award-winning novelist and playwright. His novels include Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Lambda Literary Award and American Library Association Stonewall Book Award), the highly acclaimed When the Black Girl Sings (Junior Library Guild selection), and the critically acclaimed Sunday You Learn How to Box. His plays include Bloodsummer Rituals, based on the life of poet Audre Lorde (Jerome Fellowship), and Leave Me a Message (San Diego Human Rights Festival premiere). He is the Librettist for This One Girl’s Story (GLAAD nominee) and the winner of a LAMI (La Mama Playwriting Award). An associate professor of English at CUNY, Bil Wright lives in New York City. Visit him at BilWright.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Sunday You Learn How to Box


  • 1968

Mom and I were both sure Ben was dead. If I’m never sure of anything else in my life, I knew the exact moment Ben and I had stopped speaking to each other for good. And I knew Mom could tell he wasn’t listening to her anymore, either.

Ben was on the driver’s side, Mom was in the middle, next to him. I was squeezed up against the door. There should have been more room, since none of us was what you’d call big. When I was eight and first saw Ben, he looked like a craggy mountain with long arms. He was tall alright, about six three or four maybe, but he had no stomach, no hilly butt like a lot of black men have. By the time he died, he didn’t look like a mountain at all. He was more like a high pile of rocks. Mom was short and small like me. But that Sunday, she had on a handmedown fur coat she called “the grizzly” that took up most of the front seat.

When we heard the siren, Mom put her head on Ben’s shoulder and her arm around him like you see teenage girls doing with their boyfriends when they cruise past you on the highway. The difference was, Ben was Mom’s second husband and I’d never seen her sit next to him that way before, anywhere.

It couldn’t have been more than twenty-five degrees outside, but inside Ben’s car it felt like there was a bonfire in the backseat. Mom and I were sweating. I’d even seen water running from Ben’s mustache along the top of his lip when she was pounding on him. He’d sneered at us like he always did when Mom and I were going crazy, but his forehead was shiny and wet looking, which was different for him. The three of us had been in plenty of fights and Mom and I would be dripping afterwards like we’d been pushed underwater with all our clothes on. But Ben never looked any different at the end than he had at the beginning. The first time I remember seeing him sweat was the Sunday he died.

The cops came screeching into the projects parking lot and blocked Ben’s car. One of them ran over, threw open the door on my side and jumped back with his hand on his gun. A freezing wind blew in on all of us. The world was larger, again, than the inside of Ben’s Pontiac.

I hadn’t even heard the radio. One of us must’ve kicked or knocked into it accidentally during the fight. Martha and the Vandellas were singing “Jimmy Mack,” which meant it was on a station Ben wouldn’t have approved of. He didn’t usually allow the radio to be played at all, because he said it wore down the battery. When he did turn it on, the only station we could listen to was the one that played music from the thirties and forties. I’d asked Ben once why that was. He’d frowned into the rear-view mirror. “You think I’m going to argue about what to play on the radio in a car I bought with my money? When you buy your own car, buddy, you can play all the stations at the same time if you want to.”

•  •  •

“C’mon now, c’mon!” the cop ordered us with his hand still on his gun. I pushed out staring at the ground, shivering. Mom came behind me, gasping like she was drowning. She opened the grizzly, trying to pull me inside, but I jerked away. No matter how cold I was, I wouldn’t let her wrap me up under her coat like some baby faggot kangaroo. If they were going to accuse anybody of killing Ben, I wanted them to think it could’ve been me as much as her.

By the time the cops got there, just about everybody who lived in the projects was in the parking lot. A lot of them had circled the car and watched us, so there were plenty of witnesses eager to tell what they’d seen. When we’d stopped fighting and Ben was sitting there without the sneer on his face anymore, Isabelle Jackson, the girl from next door, put her nose up ag ainst the window and whined to Mom, “Mrs. Ben, you can’t get out?” She ran to tell her mother, who called the police to report a man had just murdered his wife in the Stratfield Projects parking lot. Once they got there, the police didn’t seem to care that the details they’d been given were wrong.

“Jimmy Mack” was over. The announcer was saying if he got enough calls he’d play “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. “If you remember one song from this year, I betcha it’ll be this one,” he said. “Dial my number, kids, and tell me you wanna hear it. Call Uncle Davie and tell him how bad you want ol’ Otis to sing that song.”

When the ambulance arrived, one of the men examined Ben, listened to Mom’s version of what she called an argument and told the police Ben probably had a heart attack. They had trouble pulling him out of the car because he was so long. Every time his head thumped against the steering wheel or the door, Mom winced and whispered, “God. Oh, God.” When they got him onto the stretcher, she grabbed for me again, making an appeal to the cops. “We have to go back. My baby girl’s alone.”

It was true we’d left my sister Lorelle behind, but she was five years old and no one including Mom ever called her a baby anymore. At first, it looked like they weren’t going to let her go. She began to sob. The sobs seemed to be coming from somewhere deep inside the grizzly, getting louder with each breath. People from the projects backed away like they didn’t know what Mom would do next, but reasoned it was better to give her some room, just in case.

“Where’s your baby, lady?” one of the cops asked her. “I’ll go with you.”

Mom apologized to me over her shoulder as the two of them started toward the apartment. “I’ll be back, Louis. I will.” That left me alone with the gun-happy cop, the gawkers from the projects and the ambulance men banging Ben’s body around. The Fifth Dimension had just started “Stoned Soul Picnic” when the cop reached in and finally turned the car radio off. Now Ben’s battery had been wasted on Martha and the Vandellas, Otis Redding and The Fifth Dimension.

With everybody from the projects staring, waiting to see whether I’d be dragged away in handcuffs, I couldn’t tell whether it was the cold or my nerves making me twitch. I focused hard on a broken Coke bottle frozen in the ice, concentrating on the curves in the glass and the part of the letter C that was left, trying to control my shaking.

Somebody called my name. Although it sounded like the voice was coming from a million miles away, I knew who it was without having to look up. Miss Odessa. She lived at the other end of the projects but it goes to show you they were all there. That’s how it was in the projects when something bad happened to somebody. It was always better to witness someone else’s hard luck, the closer the better, rather than hear a second or third hand version later on. Being a witness could make people give you some respect, at least for as long as it took you to tell what you’d seen.

Miss Odessa put her hand on top of my head, so strong it felt like she was trying to push me into the ground. You want to talk about somebody big? Talk about Miss Odessa.

“Louis?”

I didn’t answer. I only looked up because I could feel her pressing harder on my head and my knees were folding under me. I was trying to keep from sinking into the parking lot in front of the entire Stratfield Projects. I didn’t want to look at her directly, so I stared instead at the Christmas corsage she had pinned to her coat with a huge gold safety pin. The corsage had white bells that looked like they were carved out of mothballs. I was focusing on the mothball bells when the cop asked me, “So what was the fight about?”

Trying to figure out how I was going to get out of saying anything to either Miss Odessa or him, I stared into the mouth of one of the bells and imagined sound coming out. Martha and the Vandellas again. “My arms keep missing you.” But now Miss Odessa was pushing even harder.

“Louis, the policeman’s talking to you. Don’t you hear the policeman talking to you?” The cop had his hand on my shoulder. The pressure from her was featherweight compared to the cop’s grip.

First, I looked real hard at Miss Odessa to let her know even if she was pretending to be a friend of Mom’s, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t like her and never had. Then I focused on the cop’s face. I wanted to make sure he knew I was lying.

“I can’t remember what the fight was about, sir. I can’t remember anything.”

And while both the cop and Miss Odessa kept pushing me down like trash in a can, they couldn’t get me to say another word. I went over it in my mind, though. From the beginning. For myself. To make sure I really could remember it. It was important to keep all the details in some part of me that was safe, for later.

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First Chapter

Chapter Two Ben had been in the bathroom with the door open for at least an hour, shaving and whistling in his suit pants and stocking cap. I was downstairs in the living room reading the Sunday comics, but I could look upstairs from my chair and see him. He always left the door open when he was shaving. And he always whistled when he shaved. He'd go through one song pretty simply, then start at the beginning again, doing a jazz version of the same thing, except this time he'd add a trill like opera singers do with their voices. So it was kind of a jazz-opera whistle.

Mom was in the kitchen banging the pots around and slamming the oven door. I couldn't tell if she was mad because she thought I should be upstairs doing homework instead of reading the comics, or if she was furious at Ben for something I hadn't heard about yet.

He was really showing off now, patting aftershave on his cheeks in time to the whistling. Lorelle stood at the foot of the stairs staring up at him, swaying, hypnotized by the same trills I rolled, then crossed my eyes at in disgust. Ben whistled himself into the bedroom, put on a shirt, tie, his suit jacket and the double-breasted black coat he kept in a fancy plastic cleaners bag and almost never wore.

The whole time he was shaving, dressing, patting and whistling, Mom threw silverware onto the table, piece by piece, each fork and knife harder and louder than the last. Finally Ben came downstairs, jingling his car keys as another layer of accompaniment. Mom flew out of the kitchen. She had on a dark green dress dusted with white fingerprints all over it. She looked as though she'd dipped her hands in flour, then slapped herself from head to toe. There was flour in her hair, on her forehead, up and down her stockings. With her chest leading and her arms beating the air, she was a colored woman windmill spinning across the floor, spitting flour.

"Where are you going, mister?" she yelled into the space between his shoulders.

Ben kept walking toward the front door. He was doing a long, spiderleg stroll at an easy, good-time pace with Mom screaming at his back. He answered her, looking straight ahead like she was actually in front of him instead of behind.

"I am going to a Christmas party." He sounded cheerful, cocky, like he was about to add, "And I'm leaving your screaming butt here." Mom called him a Christmas party liar and asked him why the hell he didn't have the guts to say he was on his way to deliver his Christmas bonus to his woman. I always tried to picture this woman Mom was so sure Ben was going to. But there were never any real clues that I could put together.

He stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder to face her. He smiled as if he was looking at somebody who was going to disappear in a few minutes so it didn't matter what she said to him.

"Cause you already know that, don't you?" He turned around, opened the door and kept walking.

"Yeah, but what you don't know, mister bastard, is that I'm coming with you."

Mom ran past me to the hall closet. I jumped out of the chair as though she'd yanked a rope tied around my neck. When she whizzed back by me again in the grizzly, following Ben out to the parking lot, I turned to Lorelle. With a look of terror in her eyes, she asked, "Louis, are you leaving me?"

"You stay here. I'll be right back." I ran after Mom. She was running now to keep up with Ben, even though he still didn't look like he was in much of a hurry. The grizzly looked like it was covered in powdered snow. Mom kept slipping on the ice yelling, "Christmas party, huh? Well, let's go!" But she didn't go down. I did.

By the time I got up, Ben had made it out to the parking lot, right up to the car. I thought, this will be the fight, because I knew he wouldn't let her get in with him. When he opened the door on his side, though, Mom pushed right past him. Ben stopped for a second -- she'd surprised him -- but then he got in too, closed the door and leaned over to start the engine.

I ran around to her side and pounded on the window. "Get out of the car, Mom. Get out."

She leaned over and opened her door. "Go back, Louis! Go back and stay with Lorelle!"

Instead, I got in the car, she moved to the middle and started beating on Ben. "Christmas party, huh!? Christmas party!?" with a punch for each one. Ben blocked her, grinning. "That's right. That's where I'm going." He grabbed both her arms so that all she could do was throw her whole body at him, kicking. I tried to pull her away, but there was too much of the grizzly for me to get a hold on her. Ben wouldn't let go. I reached past her and hit him myself.

Ben's grin disappeared. He held Mom off with one arm, and punched me square in the mouth, his high school ring knocking against my teeth. Now Mom went crazier, pulling herself free from him. Her fist thudded into his chest, his face, his chest again.

Ben's eyes popped wide like a jolt of electricity had gone through his body. His arms flopped to his sides. Mom stopped screaming. She looked at Ben, confused, as if in the six years they'd been married, she never remembered seeing him look exactly the way he did at that moment. We both watched him, waiting for him to move. It looked as if he was concentrating on how to steer the car out of the space it was in; like Mom and me had disappeared just that quickly and it was time for him to get on with driving to wherever he was going.

Then he made this noise as if he was pushing all the air out of his lungs. I watched his mouth. The color in his lips was fading, leaking out with the air. Till there wasn't any sound or color or air at all.

Mom whispered, "Je-sus." I think she knew then that he'd died, but I didn't. I never thought about him dying. I didn't think Ben could die.

When Isabelle Jackson ran up to the window, I realized how many people were standing around the car. Right away, I began to dream I could drive through all of them. Ben's green Pontiac with the bird shit splattered across the windows was lifting off at the end of the parking lot and ascending high above the projects, sailing out over the city.


I thought the cop might arrest me for not answering his questions. I knew I wasn't too young. Other kids had been hauled away in handcuffs. For stealing, mostly. But nobody, not even the worst ones, had killed anybody.

I stood there waiting in the cold between the cop and Miss Odessa. She was making sure everybody would think she was an important part of what was going on. It probably looked to some people like she was helping the cop by not letting me get away, or to somebody else like maybe she was protecting me from him because my mother wasn't there.

Mom came back carrying Lorelle as the ambulance was leaving the parking lot with Ben. Lorelle looked more confused than she had when I'd left her. Mom never carried her anywhere. Lorelle was tall for her age and too heavy to be lifted, except in emergencies.

Nevertheless, Mom looked pretty calm, if a little winded, until she saw that Ben wasn't completely gone.

"Oh God, Ben! Oh God!" she called out to the back of the ambulance.

Miss Odessa ran over to her, but the sound Mom made then scared Miss Odessa so badly, she jumped back like she'd run over to a howling, killer dog. Mom continued half-calling, half-barking to Ben in the ambulance, although it was now completely out of view. The cops, the neighbors, no one took their eyes off her. Lorelle pulled away and stared, looking more curious than afraid. I studied Mom's eyes, the way she clamped her bottom teeth against her upper lip, how she clenched her fists around Lorelle's thighs so that the skin above and beneath her wedding ring looked pale and swollen around it. Nobody ever wanted to know what Mom would do next more than I did. But with Mom, I could never even begin to guess.

Copyright © 2000 by Bil Wright

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2000

    Not just on a 'SUNDAY'!

    SUNDAY, YOU LEARN TO BOX was a touching story and a good book centering around Louis Bowman, a teen-ager learn to cope and deal with his sexuality and his unsupportive parents trying to make him more masculine by teaching him how to box and defend himself. A coming-of-age story designed to follow Louis through the pains of what cruel teenagers are capable of, first crushes, curious sexual attractions, and supporting your own inner being, this book was a worthwhile trip.

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