Those were the days.
Hard knocks at prep school.
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(reading time ~12 minutes)
The popular girls in the sixth grade were constantly mocking my supposed best friend, Peggy Costello, calling her Chicken Coop on account of the explosion of wiry brown curls atop her head. Peggy, the smart and gawky daughter of a teacher and secretary, had dared to broadcast her crush on a boy several rungs up the status ladder: Donald Smith, son of a Wall Street economist, a lanky lacrosse player who was already too good for any of our private-school classmates and had a mysterious absentee girlfriend at an institution even more refined.
Once, in the lunchroom, Donald fished inside his wallet and pulled out her school picture—a preppy brunette with hair pulled back tight from smooth, even features. He declared her so, so fine while cupping one hand beneath his pectoral muscle to demonstrate.
Peggy ought to have looked at that girl’s picture and understood immediately that with her own spaghetti-thin body and freckled alabaster face, she was never going to compete.
She and I hovered together near the low end of the middle-school pecking order. When a few of the high-status girls learned of Peggy’s hapless infatuation, they started to stage-whisper Chicken Coop, Chicken Coop whenever she and Donald were in the same room. One afternoon a spontaneous coven managed to corral Peggy into the corner of a study hall, and on a dare Donald grabbed her shoulders and bent her backwards to force a kiss on her mouth.
I had been there, sort of, near the door of the room, not close enough to see the action and not brave enough to step in and stop it. The witch-girls whooped and cackled. Peggy escaped Donald and went rushing past me into the hallway, her narrow, hollow cheeks now flushed crimson, her crazy hair flying. I followed her into the girls’ room, but she wouldn’t look me in the eye or accept my feeble attempts at comfort. Feeling unaccountably wounded I backed out of the bathroom and stood there in the hallway, paralyzed.
Beneath a layer of concern for my friend was an angry awareness of my cowardice. I could feel myself pushing and pulling at the emotions inside me, trying as hard as possible to make it Peggy’s own fault she had been tormented, which would absolve me of responsibility. I loved my supposed best friend and I hated her. I felt bad for her because her parents were mean and strict; I resented her because my parents were mean and strict, too, so get over yourself. I wanted to help her and I wanted her to feel more pain than I did.
At that early stage I knew almost nothing except what I’d learned from pop songs. They were couriers of cold hard truths, of secrets and mysteries the grown-ups tried hiding. The larger world of the late 1970s was at a remove, mediated by television. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal had annoyed me by preempting broadcasts of The Banana Splits or Lost in Space. Anti-war protests, continued violence against black citizens—none of that registered.
Even mundane realities closer to home were shrouded in a mist: stagflation, outlandish interest rates, the energy crisis. As far as I could tell, my parents were never out of work, never missed a car or mortgage payment; we never went hungry or without shoes and clothes. The troubles and turmoil right outside my door were kept hidden by the delirious combination of childhood ignorance and doctor-parents’ money.
So I knew nothing about anything and yet somehow I knew exactly what it was like to be a white forty-one year old spinster named Delta Dawn whose Daddy still called her baby, or a poor black boy from hard time Mississippi leaving home for New York City, or a girl begging her boyfriend Billy not to run off to war and be a hero and get himself killed.
I knew that suicide was painless.
I knew that everyone hates rainy days and Mondays.
I laughed with rueful recognition at the irony when Rupert Holmes scheduled an assignation to meet an other woman for Pina Coladas only to find himself reacquainted with the same woman.
I bristled with understanding at the hard-won cynicism of Paul Simon considering fifty ways to leave his lover.
That particular word thrilled and frightened me: lover. It suggested something impermanent and dirty. If that song was playing in the car with my parents, I would start chattering loudly just to drown it out, so that they wouldn’t hear me hearing it, wouldn’t hear me being exposed to vulgar American culture. Good girls from Christian Indian families weren’t supposed to know about lovers and ways to leave them, of course.
At least Patti LaBelle in “Lady Marmalade” hid her shamelessness in a foreign tongue. Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir? At that point I knew only the basic mechanics of couchez-ing, which I and all the other girls in fifth grade had learned in a single cartoon film strip that raised more questions than it answered. I lacked practical knowledge yet I recognized the deep urgency of the question. I knew it as well as my own crying face in the mirror.
At age eleven, I pulled a few 45s out of my Dad’s stack in the living room and scurried them upstairs to my own small gray turntable, his most recent Christmas gift to me. There I encountered a woman named Mary Hopkins singing “Those Were the Days.” I would listen to this one song six or seven or twenty-five times in a row, obsessed with its danceable melancholy, its wistful look back at happier times.
I was a privileged child, I had a home, a good school, books and toys. Barbie dolls and Weebles and chemistry sets, a blue Schwinn ten-speed bicycle, thick cotton bath towels almost as tall as me, multiple pairs of clogs and Dr. Scholl’s sandals in the closet, a couple of sweet huggable cats and a dumb-as-dirt puppy-mill cocker spaniel lazing around on the furniture: I had absolutely everything. Most of the time I was absorbed in the present and secretly focused on my bright shining future.
And yet even as a whippet-thin schoolgirl I had this feeling of mournfulness and regret deep in my bones, as if planted there by genes or by some infant surgical procedure I’d long forgotten.
In eighth grade a transfer student named Kendra Holderman bounded into our little world with chest thrust up and toes pointed outward, her thick auburn bob encircling her head like a warrior crown. She showed up in gym class once with a plastic baggie full of Quaaludes stolen from her parents or older sibling or somebody. When she loosed her loud, sarcastic laugh through the hallways, it was like metal ball-bearings being dropped on stone floors.
Feza Aslan was her sidekick, a tall, zaftig beauty with blood-red locks. Both girls had blazing white smiles and imperious upturned noses. They seemed to ionize the air around them. Hey bitch was how they greeted each other in the mornings. I hated them; I couldn’t take my eyes off them; I grievously envied them their Teflon coatings.
For some unfathomable reason this pair of beautiful bullies took a strong dislike to a couple of our teachers. Slender, smooth-faced Mr. Geoffries tried to teach us earth science when he wasn’t having to discipline one of the boys for dumping butane out of the Bunsen burner onto the marble lab countertop and lighting it with a match. Kendra and Feza tormented him. Are you a fag, Mister Geoffries? Are you sure you’re not a fag? Smiling Kendra would ask him this right to his face, in the middle of class. He’d deign to answer No, Kendra, I am not, before attempting feebly to shush and discipline her.
The other target was a woman named Miss Denton. I think she was a Spanish teacher, and had study hall duty. I don’t have any idea why the girls hated her so.
Miss Denton, is Mister Geoffries your boyfriend? Oh wait, he’s a fag, right?
Behind her back they’d call her a bitch and, for some unaccountable reason, conceptualized their feelings about her by saying they wished she would just go sit on broken glass. Henceforth she was known between themselves as “Glass Ass.” Glass Ass assigned extra homework tonight, what a bitch!
One day in spring I saw Miss Denton go flying, with reddened face and wet, angry, faraway eyes, out of the study hall—the same room in which my friend Peggy had been violated in front of the coven. It seemed as if everyone else, or at least a significant portion of the kids who actually mattered in the middle-school social hierarchy, were inside that room. From it emanated laughter that sounded half shocked, half triumphant.
Again I was paralyzed on the outside of the action. Later I found out that someone had gone out to the school parking lot, picked up pieces of a broken soda bottle, and put them on Miss Denton’s chair. She saw the threat and imminent harm just before sitting. She quit her job that very day and never came back.
The girls? It’s unclear to me. Maybe no one ever confessed. Maybe someone’s parents gave an extra-large donation to the school to smooth things over. I think Kendra and Feza were suspended for a couple of days before returning. Whether their attitudes upon return were victorious or humbled or nonchalant, I don’t recall. In either case, the teacher was gone but they remained.
It was an early lesson in how the world really worked. Mean, charismatic people seem to hold all the cards. Bullies prosper. Assholes profit. Power corrupts, even the seemingly limited power of a snide teen girl to vanquish a beleaguered educator. There in front of my 12-year-old eyes was the evidence.
This is probably why, 45 years later, the worst news of the day sometimes shocks me but rarely ever surprises me.
The songs that fed me, that made me, sometimes told a different story. Disco was ascending, at least in some quarters. Flash and glamor, shiny sequins. Cocaine-fueled joy: a manically alive musical culture that had emerged from the rampant death-dealing of a new plague.
There were many people who hated the music. There were even those who, bizarrely enough, rioted against it: in a ballpark in Chicago, a mob of mostly white rock fans, egged on by a local DJ, made a bonfire of vinyl records and more or less tore the place up in a frenzy of anti-black, anti-gay, anti-disco jubilation.
Is it just my imagination, or was there not a brief glorious moment when you could hear The Beatles and Donna Summers, Stevie Wonder and Tito Puente, Pink Floyd and Celia Cruz and The Jackson Five and Dolly Parton, all on the same station? Was there not a time when a hit was a hit was a hit?
Radio stations were beginning to self-segregate by race as much as musical style. Soon we upper-middle-class kids would drop AM radio as being uncool and babyish, and instead embrace FM, abandoning the multicultural mash-up spirit of 1970s pop for the overwhelmingly white-male hegemony of 1980s classic rock. For a brief moment, though, we had the life-affirming rainbow-orgy promise of disco.
There was to be a middle-school dance and I talked my perpetually sticker-shocked mother into letting me buy white Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and a pair of Candies—plastic high heels, petroleum products for your feet! For just once I looked almost as fashionable as the popular girls. The dining hall had been turned, by our imaginations and a few gel-covered theater lights, into our own suburban Studio 54. Bass lines thumped out of quadrophonic speakers. Strobe lights sliced reality into a thousand little photographic moments. Stupid joy brimmed out of our hormonally volatile little bodies.
Carried by song, a dozen crazy beautiful storylines reverberated into our shared airspace, all sex and wonderment. No time for melancholy. Men are reportedly raining down. The YMCA is welcoming young men from everywhere, without judgment. We love the night life; we have to boogie. We are staying alive. We are dancing queens.
The girls formed a big circle: all of us, ascendant and degraded, witches and losers, together as one. We are family. We are sisters. Patent untruths that feel real for the moment.
I will survive.
It was my turn to dance into the middle of the circle and show off my moves. I sashayed to the center, deadly afraid I’d fall right off my hard plastic heels and collapse in a heap. Would anyone help me up? Or just point and laugh? But I held it together just long enough to improvise some kind of wiggling thrusting gyrating hip moves, and to shimmy my not-quite-there-yet bust. I felt eyes on me and I sort of liked it. All the girls whooped in sincere appreciation. Even the Kendra and Feza types.
On some faces I saw pleasant surprise, as if they’d never considered me a person who might know how to cut invisible sculptures into the air with my body. But I was and I did.
It was a little like a jazz band, the circle dance—female-centric analogue of a traditional improvisational combo. We were channeling a groove, bonding as one, stomping and swaying to the beat together. Then we gave each one of us a brief solo moment to express ourselves under the spotlight. For that one moment, our respective statuses outside the circle did not matter. The rules of engagement were generous and inviting. For the space of a thumping three-minute disco tune, we were just We.
Toward the end of the school year, the middle school awards ceremony took place in that very same discotheque/dining hall. The witchy girls, the popular girls, and the girls who got twenty dollars every month from their gorgeous stay-at-home moms so they could buy a pair of the trendiest designer jeans—all were seated at a table near the center of the room, beneath one of the large chandeliers. Peggy and I and a few other nerds sat together at the periphery.
Again and again my friends and I had to stand up and walk to the front of the room to receive various certificates from the dean of middle school, Mr. Bellows. Chorus, art, drama. English, math, science, social studies. Latin, French. Again and again we had to walk back to our seats, past the desultory clapping and studied indifference of the girls who possessed the real prizes by birthright. It would have been comical if it weren’t so embarrassing. Peggy probably nabbed a few more academic achievements than I did, and I tried not to let that bug me too much. At some point the painful ritual was almost over.
It was then that Mr. Bellows—a thin, wan, hook-nosed white man who seemed on the verge of retiring, or perhaps just dissolving into thin air—took hold of the microphone at the podium once more to intone some stately-sounding words about kindness, community, respect for one’s fellow man, blah blah.
Then I heard my name. What? In a daze I stood up and walked again to the podium. Mr. Bellows smiled at me with something that looked like warmth as I held out my hand to receive a thick pressed-wood plaque with a metallic blue face.
Sandhya Elizabeth Asirvatham
Bewildered, I walked back through the clatter of hesitant applause. Why? Why was I holding this thing in my hand, why me, why citizenship, why? I could think of nothing I’d done to deserve it. But then I walked back to my seat and saw the faces of Kendra and Feza and friends—saw them looking at me with horribly cold and neutral looks on their faces, saw their hands clapping listlessly. Suddenly I understood. I had not been given this award for doing anything. I had been given this award for doing nothing.
For being neither here nor there. For hovering in the hallway outside the study hall. For taking no stand. For joining no coven and leading no counter-coven. For being passive, retiring, cowardly. For being nice. Harmless little brown skinny nerd girl. Neither subject nor object. An outsider, sort of, but a threat to no one. A citizen because labeled as such, not just by virtue of having been born here.
The award wasn’t really for me. No, Mr. Bellows had given it to me in order to have the Kendras and Fezas of the world see it being given to me. I was sure of it then and I still see no other clear interpretation today. He thought he was elevating me, flattering me. I experienced it as a degradation. The Citizenship Award might as well have been a scarlet letter sewn to my blouse: L for Loser.