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Coming of Age American Fiction

It was a bad sign when they gathered us sixth-grade girls in one classroom. Something embarrassing must be coming. What grossness of impending womanhood were they going to spring on us this time? We were missing out on a chance to play softball on this beautiful fall day, and the boys got to go outside without us. what a lousy deal. Mrs. Lamm, the Health teacher, wearing her trademark shirtwaist dress, a string of pearls and a whistle on a long chain, paced in the front by Mr. Anderson’s desk.  

    Mrs. Lamm twitched. She was always jumpy around us ever since Shar Phillips, who was rumored to smoke cigarettes and to have a boyfriend, had, during Mrs. Lamm’s class on Your Developing Body, raised her hand and asked “Mrs. Lamm, what’s a wet dream?”  

    Not that any of us knew, but based on Mrs. Lamm’s stammering reaction, we couldn’t wait to find out. I didn’t think that’s what was on the syllabus for today.  

    We girls had had several classes with this teacher. The first time, in fifth grade, we had to watch a filmstrip on kotex and menstruation, sitting next to our mothers. It was horrible. There was enough blood coming from Vietnam into our lives through the television in 1967. We did not need to know it was going to come out of our bodies down there. Every month. How disgusting. The filmstrip overdid it gushing about the wonders of new womanhood. Who were they trying to kid? We knew life wasn’t fair. The boys didn’t have to sit in these stupid classes exposed to one indignity after another. Hair grows where? Body odors? Deodorant? It was not cool. 

    When the boys came back after one of the girl classes, they were dying to know what they’d missed. After the kotex class, Kevin Lapinsky chased me on the playground until he caught me.      

“What do you do when we’re not there?” he asked squeezing my wrists. 

    “It’s just girl stuff. You don’t want to know.” 

    “Boobs!” he yelled, letting go. “I knew it.” 

    It was always boobs with the boys. 

    Maybe she was steeling herself to give the birds and the bees talk? Would they do that in school? It was embarrassing enough when my mother stammered through it when she was driving me to ballet one afternoon. I couldn’t imagine Mrs. Lamm surviving that lecture.  

   Mrs. Lamm drifted to the side of the room between the bookshelves containing the Encyclopedia Britannica. Thirty-one pairs of eyes attached to eleven- and twelve-year old female bodies of various states of scrawniness (me) or plumpness (Vicky Horner), some with boobs (Debbie Greenberg, Shar and my best friend, Lena), most without. We had to twist in our uncomfortable metal desks to keep an eye on her. What was she up to? 

    “Good afternoon, girls,” she said, finally moving to the front after a quick glance at the clock. She picked up a piece of chalk. Pieces clunked into the tray when she attempted to write on the board. I coughed to stifle my laughter. As much as she annoyed me, I felt sorry for her. Who would want her job, telling girls things they don’t want to hear? 

    She rubbed her fingertips together as if she was surprised to see the dust.  

    “You are all developing into such beautiful young ladies,” she said, turning to face us. 

    I groaned to myself and put my head down on my hands on the top of my desk. Not the young lady talk again. We raised calves and piglets in 4H, and shoveled manure. We were not beautiful. No one wanted to be a lady. We liked to run and catch and hit a ball, nothing that we could do in the talent portion of the Miss America contest. There were no Miss Americas from this part of Iowa. Some of us were cute, like Lena, but most of us were bony elbowed, scabbed kneed, flat-chested messes with crooked teeth and hopeless hair. At least, I was. 

    Mrs. Lamm said, “Are you all right, dear?” 

   Had I groaned out loud? 

    I slouched against my chair back, eyes downcast. “Yes, Ma’am.” 

    She wandered back to the encyclopedias holding a clipboard in front of herself like a shield. Loudly moving air in and out of her nostrils (a calming technique I recognized from one of her previous classes), she said “Today, we are going to talk about the new rules for softball.” 

    I sat at attention. Please don’t ruin softball, I prayed. Softball was my life. 

    “Since you are all growing up,” she continued, “We thought it was time to acknowledge that and...” 

    Mrs. Lamm flinched at Shar’s raised hand. “What is it, Shar?” 

    “Does this mean we will play separate from the boys?” 

    Clutching her whistle, Mrs. Lamm said “Yes.” 

    We girls looked at each other. Cool! Sixth-grade boys were no match for us. Linda Rogers hit the ball into the soybean field on the other side of the outfield fence almost every at bat. Karen Strohmeier, too, and I was no slouch with my hard line drives down the third base line. Shar was great at short stop, and my fast pitch was better than Kevin’s, who was the best of the boys. We would have more fun without them. Plus, no stupid jokes or grabbing. An all-girls’ team would be A-OK with us.  

    She cleared her throat. “A couple more items.” 

    The pleasant hum subsided. We were excited to hear more good news. Were they getting us new equipment?  

    “One, you will no longer be able to slide into any base. If you slide, you're out.” 

    Dead silence. 

    “And two, you will slow pitch underhand with a minimum of a three-foot arc, or a ball will be called.” 

    No sliding? No fast pitch? No. My hands stung from slapping my desktop. An angry buzz of voices erupted around me.     

    “One at a time girls, please.” 

    I raised my hand and stood up, not waiting to be called on. “Don’t we get a vote on these rules?” 

    “No, it’s been decided. We can’t have you girls getting hurt.” 

    Hands raised and waved furiously. Girls talked out of turn. I joined them. “Who decided? It isn’t fair. “ 

    Mrs. Lamm blew her whistle. “Quiet!” 

    Then Mr. Ralph, the other sixth grade teacher, opened the door to let the boys in to get their book bags. We were dismissed. 

    On the walk home, Keven pestered me. “What did you talk about? Huh? Huh?” over and over. I couldn’t get away from him. He got too close and tried to feel my chest. I punched him in the nose. No blood, too bad. But he finally left me alone. 

    The next day, Mr. Anderson led both six grade classes to the multipurpose room. With his booming voice he said “Listen up, people. Time to divide into teams. Boys at this end,” pointing to the wall with the cafeteria tray return, “Girls at that end,” pointing to the opposite wall hung with the American flag, “and count off by twos.” 

    The boys began their chaotic shuffle to their side. We just stood there for what felt like forever, but was just a heartbeat, enough time for a decision to pass through us like a school of fish. I was in front, but we moved as one, marching across the floor to join the boys. 

    Mr. Anderson raised his already loud voice. “Hey, I said boys here, girls back there.” 

    We girls stood like militant statues, chins up, arms crossed with our mitts in our armpits, wearing shorts under our dress-code skirts.  

    I counted off: “One.”  

    Shar: “Two.”  

    Lena: “One.” Lena and I were always on the same team. 

    Karen: “Two,” until all the girls had been assigned a team. 

    Kevin, to his credit, got it. He called out “One,” but he was the only boy who did. 

    Mr. Anderson said “OK, outside, all of you. Boys to Field 1.” 

    Shar and Linda picked up the equipment bags containing bats and balls. 

    Mr. Anderson blocked the door. “Nope. Not gonna happen. You girls are doing laps. You, too, Kevin.” 

    They had a meeting with our parents. They brought in a guidance counselor to talk with each girl. Why did we want to be boys? Weren’t we happy the way we were? They wanted to know who was the ringleader. They couldn't believe we’d acted together on the spur of the moment without conferring or conspiring.    

   I was identified as the girl who acted first. It worried my mother. We were not troublemakers in our family. But it made me proud. It was the first time I had ever thought of myself as a leader. I had to stay in at recess for two weeks as punishment. 

    This is America, I thought during those 15 minutes twice a day. If we didn’t stand up for our rights, who would? I hadn’t done anything wrong. We didn’t want to be boys. Yuck. We just wanted to play softball. Not girls’ softball. Real softball.       

    But softball was over. After that day, they had us run track. 

    My mother bought me a bra around this same time. I refused to wear it. For what? So the boys could snap it on the playground? No thank you. 

    “Just wear it,” my exasperated mother said to me. “They think Womens Lib has turned you girls into Lesbians.” 

    Lesbians? “What’s that?” 

    “It’s when girls like girls instead of boys,” she said. 

    “But I like girls. Lena’s my best friend.” 

    “You’ll like boys eventually. You’ll see.” 

    Liking girls is an option? In Iowa? Huh. 

    I gave in on the bra for my dance recital in May. It was too embarrassing to have my nipples attracting attention through the leotard, and the undershirts my mother made me wear were hot and ugly. I began to stand with my arms folded across my chest. 

    I went to a new school in the fall. Junior High. New dress code. In the hall between classes, girls had to kneel on the floor in front of the Assistant Principal, a large balding man in a black rumpled suit. He carried a yardstick to measure the distance from the floor to the hem of our skirts. If it was more than two inches, we got sent home to change. I was 5’7” by then. I could not buy skirts long enough to pass muster. I took distant staircases to avoid the man, but he was everywhere.  

    So, I learned to make my own. My skirts were not fashionable, but they kept me from being sent home every week. I would have preferred to take Shop, but girls weren’t allowed. At least I could sew in Home Ec. 

    Lena and I were in advanced algebra together, along with three other girls and twenty-five boys. One day, our math teacher, Mr. Simms, in his usual blue tie and white short-sleeved button-down shirt walked up and down the aisles, slapping our test papers face down on our desks. His bare forearm with its bulky watch and dark hair over the muscles brushed my sleeve as he went past. I felt a funny scrunch in my belly. My cheeks got hot. 

    Lena looked at me from across the aisle.  

    “Are you ok?  You’re all red.” 

    “I’m not sure,” I said. I wanted him to walk by again, even though he seemed so old.

    My body had made its choice. Men. Boys were still smelly, annoying and oblivious, but they got more interesting as time went on. I hated when my mother was right. 

    Then one winter day, feeling pretty in my favorite outfit—a yellow sweater and matching store-bought skirt that flattered my long frame—my period started. My skirt was ruined. Lena walked behind me all day between classes so no one could see the stain. Everyone knew anyway. As soon as a girl started carrying a purse, it was like a flashing neon sign. Kevin’s older brother Joe was hanging out by his locker with his basketball friends when we went past. I thought Joe was cute, so I was mortified. I heard them laughing. “Old enough to bleed, old enough to butcher,” one of them with a deep voice said.  

    The only ones going to slaughter are you guys, I thought. I was aware enough by then of current events from Social Studies. Vietnam showed no signs of ending any time soon. Four more years, and their numbers would come up, these boys. No one was going to draft me. I had a lot to be upset about but getting blown to bits in a rice paddy wasn’t one of them.  

    That night, I curled up in bed like a forlorn baby, feeling crampy and soggy in my kotex diaper. My mother tucked me in for the first time in years. She kissed my forehead.  

    “Good night, my little woman.” 


    Why didn’t I get a vote on this? 

October 18, 2021 01:41

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1 comment

J. Wilson Davis
14:56 Oct 25, 2021

Hello fellow writers. I'm new to this forum. Comments, suggestions, pointers all welcome and appreciated.


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