He said things to me in this low voice that didn’t make any sense, that showed he didn’t know me but he wanted the idea of me to be his. His golden student, his secret genius, his protege. He paid me compliments on my hair, telling me, You look mature with your hair down. He was extremely disappointed and needed to talk to me, in private, upstairs, away from the rest of the school, at lunch, when I got a B on one of his tests. He whispered in my ear during chapel once that he wanted to hear about my curing cancer one day, which didn’t even make any sense: I didn’t want to be a doctor.
I was so uneasy. I would race out of the classroom so I would never be the last to leave, so he couldn’t catch my attention. He made me shudder. He was also a swim coach, which really made me want to throw up and die. My mean best friend was on his swim team. You should join the swim team, she said, just come once. Maybe he joined in the asking. He always called me Miss Stone. Miss Stone, do you like to swim?
Some people have brains that get literally tickled, filled with sparks, at certain sounds. In grade school we’d do that trick where you pretend to break an egg on someone’s head, then stroke their hand and back with waving fingers. Crack an egg on your head, let the yolk run down. It felt good and weird, an excuse to touch. All the excuses were tricks to touch. An burn where you grabbed someone’s arm and twisted the hairs in opposite directions. (One of my students did this to me the other day, trying to get my attention. It still hurts). One friend had hairless arms, she was invincible, her skin at least. She cried and screamed about playing piano and her mom slapped her hand with a ruler.
Another way of touching was light as a feather, stiff as a board. I was scared of that, and Bloody Mary, and Ouija. Nobody was allowed to have Ouija, but one girl always swore she saw a face in the mirror. (Twenty years later, I’m still too scared to try.)
I hid out in someone’s room while they and their cousins and all the sleeping-over friends watched Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. I read an article about blood diamonds and child soldiers. I checked out (with my eyes, not my hands) the emergency call button you could push if a rapist was crawling through your room, or wedged between the bed and the wall. You could just reach out and press it and the police would come. She used to make out with her cousins. She’s a libertarian now.
He never crossed a solid line. He never said anything sexual. I would bet that many, many women have a man like this, tucked away where they hide all the things that make them cringe, make them feel unexplainable panic.
That was over half my life ago. In sixth and seventh grade I wrote a novel, filling 70 page, wide rule, spiral bound notebooks with the very mundane life of my alter ego, Drew, named after my favorite actress, because of Ever After, until I saw 10 things I hate about you and fell in love with Julia Stiles instead.
It has been suggested that my witnessing my parents’ troubled marriage made me gay, but I like to think it was Julia Stiles in 10 things I hate about you or Drew Barrymore in Ever After or perhaps even the blow job scene in Pretty Woman.
Sexual harassment figured prominently in my novel. Drew would respond with righteous indignation to any and all slights and violations, my handwriting sloppy and emphatic (Freud might say sublimated) rage.
I was powerless, spineless, a good girl with a mean best friend, a teacher I was afraid of for no tangible reason. (I think he’s trying to encourage you, my mom said. Take it as a compliment, he thinks you’re a good student.)
The thing about being a twelve year old novelist is that you have a lot of free time. Especially in the summer but after school too. Slouching, in awkward positions on my bed or laying across my hot pink carpet like a model in Seventeen. All those hours prone and hunched over set the bar very high for what it means to write. To be prolific. I will never write as much as I did in the long, hot summers of ’99, 2000.
In high school, Mr. P–, an angel. He did not monitor us in the darkroom, despite working for a public high school in the months and years after school shootings, 9/11. It was a Foucaultian blind spot, then, one pitch black room for winding film into reels, the other lit by an amber glow. We, gay and bicurious art punks, touched each other’s knees and occasionally kissed. I almost had my third kiss in there, tucked away in the Panopticon.
He was always entirely appropriate. He invited us to critiques at his house where we ate snacks and met his college students, small town artists a few years older than us. He accompanied a group of us, and someone’s mom, to Savannah, to visit SCAD, where one of us ended up going. We ate pizza and he showed us the graphic design building.
I cannot stress this enough. He was a really nice man, an older man in a position of power over teenage girls, that he actively took a role in mentoring and he never, ever made anyone feel weird. He lent us books and let us do our own thing. We really liked to paint curse words on our backs and stomachs and arms and take pictures, like Kathleen Hanna did.
We kept journals for our senior art projects and he graded mine weekly. It was probably borderline inappropriate– I was after all developing a feminist consciousness and becoming a sexual person, a fact that startled me greatly– I was seventeen, I wanted to make Subversive Art, and he was just totally– chill. If he didn’t want to see something, like a nip slip, he just– didn’t.
Around this time I was writing long short stories about eating disorders and interracial relationships and Catholicism and AIDS, Weetzie Bat-inspired stories where Art Heals and everyone is kooky and in love; and I wrote a lot of make out poems.
Mr. R–, my senior year English teacher was snarky and had a ponytail and was younger than I am now. He’s still teaching twelfth grade, but I think he’s cut his hair. He advised the literary journal and somehow I learned that he studied poetry in college. I gave him typed copies of my poems, woven through with curse words and Teen Sex, and he gave them back with thoughtful margin comments in masculine scrawl.
One poem had the word ‘cunt’ it.
He wrote a comment on each stanza but that one.
He was witty. Plenty of students– girls I know and probably boys too– had crushes on him. One friend had a particularly graphic fantasy about his desk, which was in the back corner of a windowless internal classroom with flexible, institutional yellow-gray metal walls. We showed up at his house once, over Christmas break. I think we looked him up in the phonebook. He was wearing Nikes and watching stock car racing and drinking red wine. He was polite and annoyed/amused, he made us leave. If you were the last person left in the classroom, he would make you stand in the doorway to talk to him.
Once in high school the dean called me out of class. “What you girls doing, taking obscene photos?” he kept yelling at me in the empty hallway. This was the first and only time I ever got in trouble at school. He showed me some spotted and grainy hand-developed, seriously under-exposed photos of myself, left in the darkroom by one of my friends. My white shirt was washed out to the point where it looked like—not a shirt. I was supposed to carry the photos home in a sealed envelope, have them acknowledged by my mother, and brought back to the school. My mother burst out laughing. I was absolved, of this at least.
I still blister when I think about that. My art, my friends, my writing were precious and special, private, lovely. I shared them with care. They were the things that made me separate and distinct from my family, from other people. Showing and sharing writing was and is such an intimate and squirmy act.
In many places, including school and as a minor, you have little privacy. You are surveyed, inventoried, searched and questioned, even harmlessly, making conversation. What did you take pictures of today? Can I see? What books did you get at the library? Can I see?
Some adults see things that aren’t there, assume the worst. This calls to mind Foucault too, the obsession with sexuality in order to monitor it, seeing things that aren’t there, jumping at shadows. Seeing teenagers as people to be assigned things, risks to be managed.
Did men make me gay? Did movies make me gay? Did I become a writer because I was harassed by my seventh-grade social studies teacher? Did I feel dirty when I was accused of taking obscene photos? Did that drive me, defiant, to keep—making?
History teachers hate the thought experiment, “what if X had happened instead?” These are pointless questions, questions with no answers. In any case, I can’t imagine myself if I hadn’t known Mr. R—and Mr. P–. These men took me seriously, they took my art and writing seriously, they didn’t treat me gingerly or make assumptions about teenage girls or scoff at teenage girls. They were safe. They were so, so safe.
Did writing make me gay because it gave me the interior monologues of women and girls, so many women and girls, their treasured belongings and the little things they thought and tied around their wrists? Because I wanted to know what was happening on the inside, on the inside of others? I do not know, what, if anything, or what confluence of things, made me gay, or how.
I do know this: that writing did make me queer—as in, peculiar or unusual—because it gave me a way to see and be seen, to know and be intimate—away from sex or bodies. It gave me the most private things and the people to share them with.