North Country Girl: Chapter 18 — The Sixth and Seventh Circles of Junior High Hell: Home Ec and Gym
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
Wendy and I were the epitome of pre-teen girl best friends: we spent hours debating whether boys we had crushes on even knew if we were alive, slept over every weekend, in Wendy’s tiny apartment or at my house (bigger TV but annoying little sister looking for an audience for her “Let Me Entertain You” strip tease), and talked on the phone for hours about nothing until my dad, infuriated, would stomp over to the kitchen phone and click down the lever, hanging up on Wendy, without even giving me a look or a chance to say good-bye.
On Saturdays, Wendy and I took the bus downtown to cruise through Glass Block and Orech’s and Maurices, looking at the clothes in the Junior Department, which were usually the exact same ones that were there the week before. We would drop in at Woolworth’s to paw through the racks of cheap makeup, once in a while pulling a crumpled dollar from our pockets to buy a Yardley Slickers beige lip gloss or Evening in Paris talcum powder.
We ate cheeseburgers and French fries at the counter of the Carib, even though that yellow-and-green Formica and tiled diner gave me the creeps. Driving back one night from a gargantuan Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents, I looked into the glass front of the Carib, which was garishly lit from within, the only light on a block where every other business was dark. There were few grey men spaced evenly apart on stools along the counter, each hunched over an equally gray plate of food, and I was struck with a pang of loneliness and despair no 10-year-old should feel. I never could really enjoy my burger there; the ghosts of those solitary men sat around me.
Unlike Becky Sweet, Wendy did not demand a monogamous relationship. Junior high kids flowed and reassembled like amoebas in the halls and classrooms of Woodland. Wendy and I had only one class together, where we were constantly under threat of expulsion. I’m sure Mr. Peleski’s orchestra would have sounded better if Wendy and I had been allowed to whisper instead of scratching away at our violins.
I met Kathy O’Dell in art, where three times a week we perched on high stools next to each other and made charcoal drawing after charcoal drawing of an apple, a pear, and a water jug. Kathy was a willow blonde as pretentiously egg-headed as I was. I am positive that by eighteen she was stunning, but back then she was like me, a smart girl who wore glasses, and therefore a seventh-grade pariah.
Kathy was a romantic who was obsessed with a series of French novels: Angelique, Angelique and the King, Angelique and the Pirate, Angelique and the Sultan, and a bunch more. These were ur-bodice rippers: the unworldly beautiful Angelique, blonde and green-eyed (like me!) has rapturous sex with her husband, and, after she thinks he is dead, with a few other special men, and semi-rapturous non-consensual sex with man after man, all of whom are overwhelmed with a throbbing, not-to-be-denied passion for her. One of her captors was a dashing pirate with an eye patch who stars in my sex fantasies to this day. Kathy thrust these books in my hands and we discuss every one with the intensity of Talmudic scholars. Kathy generously shared with me her daydream of being Angelique, feted at the court of the Sun King, captured by Mediterranean pirates, wed to a Sultan, forever being torn from the arms of her swarthy, handsome husband and true love, and then joyfully and sexily reunited. I would read those books all over again if I could find them, and I have looked.
My other friend, Karen Ringwald, was calm, quiet, smarter than me, and unaffected by any teenage madness. Karen and I were the only girls in advanced math, where we were treated as if we were just funny-looking boys. For an hour each day, I was in the blissful state of feeling accepted by a junior high group, the smart, funny boys. Unlike other classes, in math we all rushed to sit at the front of the room, where we could be first to jump up to the chalkboard, yell out the answers, and entertain the rest of the class. Our teacher, Mr. Abrams, was as smart and funny as we were; he didn’t mind the wisecracking as long as all the work was done, and since we were all a bunch of nerds who loved math, that wasn’t an issue. Two of the smart boys in math, the handsome Steve Olson and Rick Bryers, were also jocks in training. All of us seventh grade girls sighed over them, drew hearts with our initials joined by a plus sign (quickly scribbled over so no one could see), and fixated over which of us they liked. Steve was blonde and friendly and quick to smile, Rick was dark and serious and had a baby Burt Lancaster chin cleft. If either of them spoke to me in class, (“What did you get for problem C?” “Do you have an extra pencil?”) I would repeat their exact words to Wendy, and we examined them like the entrails of a chicken, searching for hidden meanings. The other boys in math were funnier, but most of them had yet to outgrow the oversized noses and Adam’s apple of preteen boys. Some, like the appropriately nicknamed Turkey, never did.
Math class was where I had my first period. Between my mother’s vague hints about where babies come from and the mythology imparted at summer camp, I was aware that eventually I would start bleeding from somewhere between my legs. I had seen the mysterious Modess vending machines in ladies rooms, and ads in Seventeen boasting that with Tampax you could swim and horseback ride all month long. I didn’t grasp the reality of this until I was sitting in math, wondering why my seat felt wet. I hoisted myself up a few inches, looked down, saw a tiny pool of dark red blood, and sat back down. Mr. Abrams was scrawling something on the chalkboard and all eyes were on him, as my own had been only seconds before. I was wearing a wool plaid skirt in black, red, and green. I squirmed in my seat, yanking up the skirt’s waistband and twisting it around, while furtively wriggling my butt. I kept doing this, wiping up the blood with my skirt every time I felt it seep through, until the bell rang for the end of class. I jumped up, made sure there was no blood on the light laminate wood of the chair, and ran for my locker and coat. I went to the nurse’s office, told her I felt sick, and asked her to call my mother.
My mother hated it when the school called. It was always on her day to deliver toothpaste to the wilds of Hermantown with the Women’s Dental Auxiliary, or to take my baby sister to the pediatrician, or to fill little cups with nuts and chocolates for her bridge party. She was not pleased to have to stop what she was doing and pick up a sick kid from school. (My mother did not approve of any of us being ill, ever. When we did get sick, we were banished to our rooms with green jello and a glass of lukewarm Seven-up on a tray until we saw the error of our ways.)
I waited in the dim nurse’s office, scared to sit or lie down, until my mother finally rushed in, dragging a crying baby Heidi by one arm, and ready to bawl me out for catching the stomach flu. I burst into tears; the nurse patted my shoulder and whispered to my mom. Once home, mom gave me a ridiculously huge pad, a sanitary belt, which was an elastic band with two sharp grommets to hold the pad in place, and minimal instruction, then left me alone to figure out how to keep that wad of cotton from migrating north to my ass crack.
It’s too bad I couldn’t have gotten my first period in home economics. It might have earned me some sympathy from the teacher, who looked upon me as hopeless and helpless. I got the first D of my life on invisible hems: the concept escaped me completely. I had to be safety-pinned into my A-line dress (two seams, no collar, no sleeves, no trimming, all too visible hem) for the home ec fashion show or it would have fallen apart on the gym floor.
We moved quickly past basic sewing to embroidery, learning dozens of decorative stitches that have certainly been lost to the sands of time by now. We crocheted scarves, a simple enough task that I got a B- (I couldn’t figure out what to do when the scarf was long enough). Knitting was a disaster for me: getting the yarn on and off the needles, casting off, dropping stitches, and what is a purl anyway?
I did not fail so spectacularly at cooking, as it did not require small motor skills and we were not making Beef Wellington, Chicken Cordon Bleu, or even the humble Minnesota hot dish. Our home ec teacher took us through biscuits (beat the hell out of them), muffins (gently fold the ingredients together), and Rice Krispie Treats (in those pre-microwave days, try not to inflict first degree burns on yourself or your classmates while melting butter and marshmallows together on the stove or pouring the boiling hot mess over the Rice Krispies). We worked, and were graded, in groups, and as long as we didn’t burn our biscuits or overbeat our muffins, we all passed.
The home economics curriculum must have been created in a prelapsarian age, preparing us for an adulthood where we would spend our days monogramming tea towels and whipping up baked goods. The message was clear: girls were meant to be decorative and pleasant, as shiny as a skein of embroidery thread, as sweet as a Rice Krispie Treat. Boys had their No Girls Allowed shop class, where they used real tools to make useful things out of wood.
Junior high gym class was also segregated by sex. It was as if the terrifying apparatus in Congdon’s gym had followed me to Woodland: once again, the horse loomed up ahead of me, daring me to approach. I managed to haul myself up to the top of the climbing bars, where I dangled from a wooden rung, unable to do a single pull-up, while the gym teacher looked at her stopwatch and shook her head.
Each gym activity went on for interminable weeks and weeks. Gymnastics was followed by basketball, then swimming, then volleyball, in an endless cycle of despair. Our gym grade (which so unfairly counted in our grade point average) was also based on the presence and condition of our gym uniform. This uniform must have been created by a monster who hated preteen girls: it was a blue button-up one-piece romper, like a toddler would wear, made of the world’s scratchiest, most uncomfortable synthetic. We were required to take our uniforms home once a week to be laundered. With my mind on higher things (Will Rick Bryers talk to me today?) than remembering to bring my gym suit back to school, I got a lot of zeros in clean uniforms.
But thanks to swimming lessons in the frozen lake at Camp Wanakiwin, I managed to boost my gym grade to a B during the weeks we spent in the school’s over-chlorinated indoor pool. I loved swimming, because I could do it, and because it drastically truncated our gym hour. First, every girl, even those unfortunates who still had the physique of a nine-year-old, claimed to have her period, and had to be personally vetted by the gym teacher, who did everything short of checking for Kotex to make sure they weren’t malingering. We then changed into hideous black wool swimsuits that fit no one, and white swim caps, making sure that every strand of hair was tucked inside the rubber, a process again checked personally by the gym teacher as we entered the showers. We had to shower again after getting out of the pool, and change back into our school clothes. I think we spent about five minutes in the pool.