The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Reflections: A Reading of Memoir Vignettes. Please enjoy.
I could’ve been a cool kid if the Internet had been around when I was in seventh grade. It was 1983 and the world wide web could’ve given me the kind of information I needed to fit in. Instead, I had the first three volumes of Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia Set of Super Questions and Answers, each free with a purchase of $15 or more at Key Food. My mom wouldn’t pay for the rest of the set, so I still wonder what else there was to know after the third Book of Super Questions and Answers: About All Kinds of Boats and Planes, Cars and Trains, and Other Things That Move.
My only other resource was the Scholastic Dictionary for Elementary School Students. I had gotten it free from the Queens Library branch in my projects when they gave away out-of-date reference books to make room for new ones. The dictionary covered the full range of the alphabet but its usefulness was limited. Page 543 stated that popular was an adjective, meaning beloved or approved by the people. Popularize was a verb, to make popular.
Duh. I knew what the words meant. I even knew the meanings of words that weren’t in the dictionary. Nerd, noun: the girl who always got As but never invited to sleep overs. Pizza-face, adjective: what that turd Louis had called me in the school yard the first day of seventh grade, in front of everybody. Spic, noun: trash from the projects.
The Internet could’ve shown me how to be popular. I mean, there’s a YouTube video for everything. I could’ve studied how to apply make-up and smooth my hair. I could’ve learned awesome tips on how to be the most envied in my class from pre-teen contemporaries in California or Nebraska. The Internet is limitless. But in 1983, my resources were limited to super answers about animals, planets, or transportation, words the Scholastic Corporation felt were appropriate for elementary school-aged kids, and my own scrappy wits.
All the grades in Most Sacred Blood Elementary School spent 20 minutes in the school yard after lunch when the weather permitted. I spent the time standing by the fence, alone, watching my Bonne-Belle-lip-gloss-wearing schoolmates. I observed those girls obsessively. They wouldn’t talk to me. I wanted them to whisper to me the way they did only to each other, smiling and eyes wide like they were tasting candy. Every day, I would stand by the fence by myself and watch them until Sister Grace rang the bell for everyone to go back into the school building.
One day, a group of eighth grade girls stood within two feet of me. They were so close. I edged into a gap in their circle until my shoes lined up with those of the girls on either side of me. And suddenly, I was in. I couldn’t believe my luck. I thanked God, asked him to pass it along to the appropriate saints, and promised never again to pray for a pimple plague upon the girls in my gym class.
I didn’t dare meet the girls’ eyes. I didn’t even look around to see if everyone in the school yard saw that I was in the circle. I knew to play it cool. I laughed only when they did. The talk turned to music and a band I knew: the Go-Gos. It was my chance to say something that could make us all laugh together. Everyone turned their attention to the girl in the denim jacket with the turned-up collar. She spoke with that pretty girl confidence possessed by girls who know they’re the object of envy and desire.
“Do you know what I heard?”
We all leaned in closer. She glanced around to make sure no nuns were nearby.
“I heard one of the Go-Gos is a lesbian.”
We all stood back and gasped. A lesbian! It was my moment to express the disbelief and shock on everyone’s mind.
“You mean she’s from Lebanon?”
The girls’ eyes turned to me for the first time. I felt like I receded miles away as they laughed. I knew not to join them. I returned to the fence and stared at the toes of my shoes, certain that everyone in the school yard watched me during that eternity I waited for Sister Grace to ring the bell.
I was so ashamed and confused. It was undeniable that I was not beloved, but I had felt approval briefly. I had no idea how either had happened or where I could find the answers. My parents were in the kitchen when I returned home that day, but I knew not to walk in there and ask, “Mamí, Papí, ¿que es una lesbian?” I went straight to my room and turned to page 332 of the Scholastic Dictionary. The entry made clear my foolishness and how I could repair my status the next day.
Lesbians, noun, were not from Lebanon; they were from the Greek island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea.