|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I call it my shrug, but it’s not a regular shrug. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about stuff, or that I don’t want to talk. It doesn’t mean “I don’t know”though if my story were made into a famous book, some English major would probably write about how not knowing is a big deal in the main character’s life. But meanings aren’t the point. The point is, sometimes, for no particular reason, my right shoulder just jumps up.
This quirk of mine does not exactly help in the coolness department. Frankly, it’s a miracle I got through Cragmont Elementary, King Junior High, and now Berkeley High School, class of 1972, rah-rah, go Jackets, without ever getting hit at school. Maybe the kids have always considered me so pathetic that it’s never occurred to them to clobber me. Teasing, rolling of eyes, snickering, spitballssure. But no hitting.
Sometimes I forget I wasn’t born with the shrug. It started when I was five, right after my mother got mad at my kindergarten teacher and wound up pulling me and my older sister, Hildy, out of school for a month in protest. Even in Berkeley, where people make a point of being against the establishment, parents didn’t do things like that.
I remember I couldn’t wait to start kindergarten. Mainly, I think, I wanted to show the teacher how much I already knew. For two years, since she’d started kindergarten herself, Hildy had taught me everything she learned. After school, she’d grab the little wooden step stool from our bathroom sink and drag it into the room we shared. She’d turn it backwards so the stool’s bottom step was my seat and the top step the surface of my desk. I’d climb in, and then she’d stand in front of me with a little portable chalkboard. Even though she knew my mother would get mad, Hildy had taped her hairbrush to the chalkboard as a handle. She had a worn-down piece of white chalk that she’d use to write on the board. Then she’d hold the thing up to show me what she’d learned that day.
I’d sit up with a straight back and listen, my hands folded neatly in front of me on the surface of the “desk.” If I wanted to ask or answer a question, I’d raise my hand just like a real student. I had to wait for Hildy to call on me“Yes, Martha?”and if I forgot to raise my hand and blurted something out, she’d pretend she hadn’t heard.
If my mother happened to pass Hildy’s room while I was being tutored, she would tell Hildy to stop being so officious, or she’d say Hildy had no concept of child development. I’m serious. To a seven-year-old.
Even at five, I knew it would hurt my mother’s feelings if I defended Hildy. But sometimes I just had to, because of all the games Hildy and I played, teacher-and-student was my favorite. My mother was always reading to us, and telling us how important books were, and how important it was not to skim them, to really savor them and understand them thoroughly. You’d think she’d be happy that I wanted to learn. But that wasn’t how things worked with my mother.
I hoped my mother couldn’t tell how excited I was to be starting school, because she might start crying if she knew I didn’t want to stay home with her anymore. Plus, she said Miss Kitchen, who had also been Hildy’s kindergarten teacher, was “rigid.” My mother didn’t approve of Miss Kitchen’s rules, her perfect tight curls, her garish coral lipstick, her ironed, pleated dresses, her long, skinny body. My mother was getting fatter because she was pregnant with our younger brother, Drew, and she said that was the natural way for a woman’s body to look.
Natural: to this day, I can’t stand that word, even though all the cool kids at school think natural means good. Which, obviously, they wouldn’t think if they had a natural tendency to shrug.
If I liked Miss Kitchen, my mother might have a conniptiontell me I didn’t have good taste, or say I didn’t understand how “impera- tive” it was to preserve a child’s natural creativity and individuality. So I was pretty anxious going in.
When I was little, I used to suck my thumb, and at the same time (this is really embarrassing) rest my other hand over my crotch. I did this outside my underwear, and I was really young, but it’s still embarrassing to talk about. Anyway, my mother told me that other mothers were ignorant and got angry with their kids for that kind of thing, but that she didn’t believe in squelching children’s natural instincts.
The night before school started, my mother overheard Hildy telling me I was going to like Miss Kitchen, but that I shouldn’t suck my thumb or reach underneath my dress at school. My mother told Hildy to stop trying to damage my self-esteem.
I woke up early. I got up and put on my very best dress, white socks, and the white patent leather shoes Hildy had grown out of. I climbed up on the step stool and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I brushed my teeth, and then I brushed my hair, an unruly mess of thick chin-length brown curls going who knew which way. If I left it up to my mother, my hair wouldn’t look as good. When I was ready, I woke Hildy, and we went downstairs to have cereal.
Eventually, my mother got up and came downstairs. I thought she’d make me change clothes. I thought she’d say it was ridiculous to put on a party dress for school, or that dressing that way wasn’t going to make the teacher like me, because clothes don’t matter, it’s only what’s on the inside of a person that matters, blah blah blah. Instead, she just patted me on the head and smiled.
That was another thing about my mother: sometimes, she was nice. To me, at least. I can’t think of a time when she was nice to Hildy or Drew, but then, neither of them made the kind of effort with my mother that I made. How was I supposed to know that all my effort wasn’t going to save me?
During the walk to school with Hildy that first day, lugging a pillow under my left arm and a scratchy, faded-green army blanket under my right, I started crying. Hildy grabbed the blanket and carried it for me, and assured me that school was going to be a lot more fun than being at home. I wiped the tears away with the backs of my index fingers.
It turned out Hildy was right. Miss Kitchen’s room was a spacious wonder of art supplies and books and pictures on the walls and wooden cubbyholes with all the children’s names already printed on them. The wooden cubbyholes were each painted, and there were four colors: red, blue, green, and yellow, in that order. I loved being in a big class with lots of kids and the activity schedule written out neatly on the blackboard. Because of Hildy, I could read.
In the middle of the morning, it was rest time. I saw that only a few other children were sucking their thumbs. But I had that five- year-old idea that my mother knew everything; I was worried she’d find out I hadn’t been natural and have a fit. So I put my thumb in my mouth and slipped my other hand under my dress. I fell right to sleep, and when Miss Kitchen came around with her magic wand to wake each of us up, my thumb was still in my mouthand my hand was still under my dress.
I pulled my hand away quickly, even though I could tell it was too late: Miss Kitchen had already seen. My eyes filled with tears, but I managed to blink them back. Even that was something my mother wouldn’t like: she thought if you felt like crying, you should goddamned well cry, and not worry about what other people think.
I tried to do all the right things until the end of the day, when my mother came to pick me up. Second graders weren’t dismissed early the way kindergartners were, so Hildy couldn’t walk me home. Miss Kitchen wanted to talk with my mother. My mother was too big now to use a kindergartner’s chair, so she plopped herself down on Miss Kitchen’s desk chair while Miss Kitchen sat on a kindergartner’s chair with a cheerful smile, unaware that she was defying my mother, who said life was not all about cheerful smiles and the perfect hairdo.
Even at five I just kind of found my mother ugly and embarrassing to have as a mother. She had long honey-blond hair like Hildy’s, but she wore it in a messy asymmetrical braid whose three sections were never equal. Sometimes she didn’t even brush her hair before braiding it. Also, she didn’t shampoo often, and there was something icky about the sour smell of my mother’s hair, something burdensome that, at its best, reminded me of the feeling I had just before crying, and at its worst, made me gag. I never seemed to get used to my mother’s smell in general, the smell of milk that wasn’t fresh, or one of those fermented dairy products that grownups liked and ridiculed you for being too childish to appreciate.
As she and Miss Kitchen talked, I wandered around the classroom, exploring the empty, high-ceilinged quiet. I remember wondering whether my mother was a bank robber. She’d warned me that you never knew if someone was a criminal, so you had to be careful. Didn’t that mean she herself could be a criminal, and I wouldn’t know it? I took myself as far away from my mother and Miss Kitchen as I could, enjoying how different the space felt without all the other children there. I tried to fit myself into an open vertical art cubbyhole on the far side of the classroom, but I was a little too tall, and the coat hook jabbed me.
Suddenly my mother was pulling my arm, getting me into the car to go home. Her belly was so big, it was touching the steering wheel. She was crying, and she was angry. Miss Kitchen didn’t understand the needs of children, she said.
Why hadn’t I listened to Hildy instead of my mother? I’ll tell you why: because I always did what my mother wanted, even though God forbid she should ever help me when it came to fitting in. Or when it came to practically anything else.
A few weeks later, after Drew was born, Hildy and I finally returned to school. I remember being worried about leaving Drew. He was tiny and adorable, and his cry sounded like the bleat of a lamb.
I didn’t suck my thumb anymore, and I didn’t touch my crotch either. Somehow the shrug was there instead, kind of like a reminder: being natural wasn’t good. If I wanted to do well in school, or any-where else, I had to be careful, because wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I might be about to make a mistake.
At first I was grateful for the signal my body gave me, but of course, I quickly grew to hate it. I spent years trying to get my mother to help me get rid of it, but she’d always say I didn’t have to be perfect, and that self-esteem comes from within, not from what other people think. See, she always sounded like she knew what she was talking about.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways to deal with the shrug, like wearing my thick wool pea coat from the army-navy surplus store year-round and draping it over my shoulders when I’m in class. That was my best friend Stephanie Kenyon’s idea. No one in my family gives me ideas like that, stuff that actually might help you solve a problem.
I’ve noticed that if I catch the shrug right before it happens, I can think of my whole arm as being very heavy, which sometimes delays the inevitable for a few seconds. That definitely comes in handy. Or maybe I should say shoulder-y, ha ha.