The first morning after my last day of fifth grade, Mom informed me that my summer vacation and girlhood were over.
Me: Reading A Wrinkle in Time in my room, hoping to pull a Meg Murry and tesseract to another planet.
Mom (with a cursory knock while opening the door): “Great news! You get to attend those Summer Enrichment Seminars you enjoyed so much last year. And you can wear … ” she pointed with her thin, well-manicured finger at the second drawer of my white dresser — “your little bra.”
That was how she pronounced those words, italicized, the final “ahhh” birthing in slow motion as it burrowed like a parasite. I ignored her. She smiled and shut the door, knowing I didn’t think this news was great at all; I was going to be shuttled off to a glorified babysitting venue against my will, and the two pink pop-up tents on my chest could no longer be ignored.
I stared with great intent at my book, praying that Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit would come for me, after which Calvin O’Keefe would remove my glasses, see past my frizzy hair and braces to the real, beautiful me, where my oddball quirks increased my charm.
I pointedly avoided the drawer where the dreaded white-eyelet garment lurked. Inside, straps criss-crossed over a tiny pink rose, cups padded with wisps of cotton to puff the nipple buds into a shape. A video at school had warned me that I might need one of these someday, a training bra. The word conjured images of Wheaties box champions, teams of pre-teen girls racing, arms outstretched, as they competed for Olympic breasts.
The pink rose didn’t fool me.
Sure, I was in training. Training for hell.
The first day of the Summer Enrichment Seminars I lucked out. Mom enrolled in summer school so Dad would be driving me. No way would Dad confront me about anything to do with undergarments. That morning I insisted on wearing my yellow rainslicker to cover myself, even though it was July in Alabama.
“I’ll freeze in there,” I insisted. I had a point. Southerners, in retaliation to the heat, generally keep their interiors the temperature of a meat locker.
Dad gave me a sideways glance but he didn’t argue. We drove in silence. I didn’t even whine about why I had to attend more school right after regular school was out. I hated the constant shuttling about, and many of these so-called educational events were suspect. One time, my mother enrolled me in a baton twirling class – held inside a trailer. And all the coach did was yell at us while she ate McDonald’s. After that, I begged my father to let me stay at home. But then he dropped this on me: “Boy, when I was a kid I sure wish I could have done all this great stuff.”
Dad had grown up in a cold, grimy Catholic orphanage in Buffalo, New York, and there was just no arguing with that. He had scrounged and strived so I could live the pampered life of a middle-class ingrate. Still, I’m guessing Dad never had to Fancy Strut in front of a former soy bean queen who yelled, “Glimmer, little glo worm! Glimmer!” between bites of her Big Mac.
All I am saying is this: if you are going to eat, you should bring enough for everyone.
I was plunked on the curb of Holt Elementary with a bologna sandwich in a rumpled paper bag and a Chronicle of Narnia stashed in my shorts. I filtered inside with the other nerds of Tuscaloosa County. We were handed a regimen ranging from Life Sciences to Macramé, and dutifully marched to our classrooms so we could become enriched, like flour. The seminars were for “gifted” children, those of us who had passed some third grade Mensa quiz that made sure we never got to spend our summers hanging out at the pool or skipping rocks.
Our first activity of the day was Dramatic Arts, which was held in the gym. When I put on my slicker that morning I had counted on the usual Alabama indoor arctic blast. The gym was a sauna. Within a minute I had mortifying armpit stains and removing the slicker wasn’t an option. Soon, sweat began to drip down my back. I waited in dread for one of the odd looks directed at my slicker to become an outright accusation. At some point I knew some loud-mouthed girl (there was always a loud-mouthed girl) would shout, “Why are you wearing that stupid jacket?” while everyone stared and I stammered through some lie. I carefully shifted around to keep myself a moving target. To my relief, this teacher was the bossy kind who left no room for chitchat or humiliation.
The woman’s hair was albino blonde drawn back in a severe bun. She wasn’t old or young. She didn’t wear make-up or speak with a Southern accent. Her thin lips like a slash said there was a special treat in store for all of us. We would get to perform Macbeth. She informed us she was a real live director from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival who was going to help us perform a modified version of the play. We came to understand this woman was no ordinary educator and we were very fortunate to have her. This opportunity would be an experience.
We tried to look impressed even though we had no idea what she was talking about.
“Shakespeare was a great playwright!” shouted Norvin Richards, a scrawny dweeblet who came up to my neck. Norvin was a tow-headed philosophy professor’s son with glasses held around his head by an elastic band.
The director dutifully acknowledged Norvin’s superior knowledge, which fired the geek cadre into life. We were all used to being number one in our classrooms, but now all the number ones were gathered together. Who was number one now? We didn’t know anything about the Great Bard, but we were familiar enough with school plays to know that someone would get to be the star. The director furrowed her brows for a minute before she arranged us in groups. Then she stood back, hand on hip, scrutinized, frowned, and re-arranged us again. This second grouping appeased her. I was moved to the back. The slicker stuck to my skin where her hand cinched my forearm.
With a heavy sigh (Oh! Woe! Why had she agreed to this?) the director handed out scripts and explained how things would be: there wasn’t much time, and this wasn’t how a theatre was usually run, but she would make do. We were not to roughhouse around the stage props, which were very generously on loan. Auditions would be held at our next meeting. The performance would be held in two weeks.
It wasn’t too hard to figure out that if the name of the play was Macbeth, then the female lead was Lady Macbeth. While the director paced and lectured I took inventory of the competition. These girls with bony limbs and terrycloth onesies weren’t of the sleek blow-dryer tribe from public school. One girl with a freckle-smeared face adjusted her scoliosis brace. Another bent to scratch her scabs. No gleaming, tanned, tube-topped cheerleaders here. I had a shot. The Norvin kid poked my arm. A shot of panic ran through me. I had almost made it through the day unnoticed.
“Hey, lemme tell you a secret,” he said.
I bent down. He cupped his hand over his mouth, leaned into me, and belched.
Our last enrichment of the day was Living Chemistry. Within a minute we were all in the thrall of Miss Bussian, a college chemistry student with honey-blonde hair, tan skin and a mesmerizing Aztec skirt. The despair of our lost summer vacation melted in a desire to merge with her orange-blossom scent. She loved us each the best, we could tell.
Miss Bussian gave us each a Petri dish and a sterile cotton swab. We were instructed to lightly touch a surface, and then lightly touch the agar, and see what grew on the special medium. Just like real scientists!
Being the enriched child I was, I gripped my swab and over-analyzed the situation. I had already bombed Life Science earlier that day. While everyone else oohed and ahhed over the paramecium flagella in their microscopes, I had faked fascination over a water bubble. The pressure of redemption weighed heavy. This was my chance to make visible the microscopic, to reveal an object’s true nature. Everyone else seemed confident as they ran around the room, dabbing the aquarium or the pencil sharpener, but every time I started to make a move, I froze. I mean, who really cared to reveal the inner spirit of a crayon?
Then I thought of something I wanted to know more about.
I snuck the swab into the bathroom, locked the door, pulled down my shorts, and performed a pre-teen version of a pap smear. I slipped back in the classroom, stealthily lifted the glass lid, touched the cotton end the exact way I was instructed, and sealed the dish.
“Out, damn spot! Out, I say!” I practiced in my closet to escape parental scrutiny. If I tried to add intensity, I only sounded shrill. Mostly I sounded drab, put to shame by the dramatic skills of the housewife who mourned “those dirty rings” on her husband’s shirts, before she discovered the delights of Spray ‘n Wash. For the sake of High Art the word “damn” had been approved for minors, but it stuck in my craw. Raised in the Bible belt, I just couldn’t shout a curse word. As I tried to project “How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me,” I knew the word “milks” was gross somehow, causing me to fumble.
Yet I persevered. My desire for the female lead was rooted in a long history of frustration. As an early puberizer who had always been tall for her age, I had always been assigned male parts in school plays.