Today’s subject is, again, the uncanny, but not the supernatural kind. This morning when the duck-rabbit groggily grabbed its phone and glanced at its inbox, it was startled by the appearance of a name both utterly unexpected and instantly recognizable, a name that instantly transported it back to being eleven years old. The name, to borrow eighteenth-century convention, was S— H——- It is the name of a boy who went to my secondary school and who made me miserable for a year or two. He was now emailing me to ask if he could join the Facebook group that I inexplicably and uncharacteristically took it upon myself to create last year for everyone in my year at school.
At age 11, S— H——- was probably the coolest boy in my year, if by cool you mean a smack-dealer and truant, which is what most of my peers did mean. I was probably the uncoolest girl in my year if by uncool you mean an unabashed swot. My most transgressive act—cover your eyes, librarians!—was to steal Noel Streatfeild books from the school library, a petty crime that I felt was morally justified because it was simply not possible that anyone at school could love Streatfeild’s books as much as I did, and I felt passionately that the books deserved better than to sit, forlornly, on the rickety metal shelves of the school library.
I also insisted on wearing my hair in Pippi-Longstocking-style pigtails for the entire first year of secondary school. The cool girls had permed hair and wore bomber jackets. Pigtails were childish and unequivocally uncool and that was kind of the point. This little-girlish hairstyle was my determined stand against puberty. I felt that this hairstyle communicated effectively to the universe that I was not ready for the onset of breasts, periods, and all the rest, and hoped that the universe would take note accordingly and arrest my development until such time as I was ready to embrace Womanhood.
S— H——-, when he was at school, which was thankfully not all that often, took a particular pleasure in tormenting me. His favored technique was to ask me to go out with him over and over and over again. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but this is not that story (although I’m flattered that you think it is, really I am). This is not the story it would be in the movies about the improbable romance between the roguish bad boy and the strait-laced girl. Much as I wish that I could claim otherwise, it was simply not the case that I was startlingly beautiful beneath my National Health specs and with my pigtails undone.
No, the point of S— H——- repeatedly asking me out was that he would never be caught dead with me even though, let’s be honest, he was no great catch himself. This was still the age, you see, where all the girls towered over the boys, and S— H——- was distinctly on the small side. I see in retrospect that he had a certain Artful Dodgerish charm, but at the time I despised him with all of my might. I don’t think it would be too strong to say that I regarded him as my nemesis. Moreover, even if he had been a bookish, charming lad with the ability to look past my pigtails, braces, and glasses and see, the, ahem, sleek, well-groomed duck-rabbit that I was destined to become, he would have held no interest for me.
I was a very young eleven. I had no interest in romance. My fantasy life concerned not boys (or girls) but the possibility of getting to Narnia. I had developed a unique theosophy with its own trinity and every night (and I swear this is true), I would pray to my three deities, who were: Aslan, the wise Lion and Christ-figure from the Narnia books; Carbonel, the talking witch’s cat* from a series of books by Barbara Sleigh; and, Fred Astaire, the aging and soon-to-be-deceased legendary dancer. I was fully aware that Aslan was an allegorical figure, Carbonel was a fictional character, and Fred Astaire was a real person. Maybe this ontological diversity added to their appeal; I can’t really recall. But I do know that I regarded them as my special protectors and that I felt that was in dire need of protection, especially from S— H——-.
The lowest point in my fraught relationship with S— H——- came on the fateful afternoon that he decided to sneak into the girls’ changing rooms when we were getting dressed after P.E. He burst in at the very moment when I had my shirt off and, somehow, nobody else did. Funny, that. Of course, it instantly spread like wildfire around my year that S— H——- had seen the Duck-Rabbit semi-naked. Accompanying this gossip was also his verdict that—and, oh, how I remember these words—I had “nothing to show.” Now, you may think that I remember these words because they stung, as they were no doubt intended to, but in fact it was quite the opposite. This assessment came as a relief, when I first heard it, mostly because it was patently untrue, which made me suspect that he hadn’t actually seen my breasts at all.
Other girls in my year regularly took it upon themselves to helpfully point out, especially during P.E., that I was in need of a bra, which I stubbornly refused to wear until it became too uncomfortable not to (see taking a stand against puberty, above). I was hopeful that S— H——-’s authoritative assessment that I had nothing to show might, somehow, have a moderating effect on the girls who were so vocal in their concern for my burgeoning bosom’s lack of structural support. Surely, I reasoned, I could not simultaneously be mocked for having too ample a bosom and for having nothing to show. You’re ahead of me, reader, I can tell! Of course I could be (and was in fact) derided simultaneously for having too ample a bosom and for being exposed as having nothing to show! When I informed my peers of the contradiction—how could all the girls believe that S— H——- had seen my breasts when his assessment that I had nothing to show plainly contradicted the girls’ own ocular assessment?—they remained unmoved by my argument.
Who would be 11 again, I ask you? Not I, for all the world. I’ll take 40—and all that comes along with it, which in my case includes being up for tenure, and on the cusp of a mid-life crisis—over 11 any day of the week. However, I would also like to emphasize that this is not meant be a sob story about a Great Trauma of My Youth. I am fully aware that what I experienced was pretty run-of-the-mill teasing. I’m sure many of you experienced similar or worse. In fact, I would go further and say that what I experienced at the hands of S— H——- was, really, the optimum amount of teasing. It was not so bad as to have been terribly scarring but it was also quite bad enough for there to be a distinct pleasure in revisiting these humiliating memories in the present and thinking, bloody hell, I’m grateful for my life now. So, perhaps, really, I should be thanking S— H——-. Thanks, dude!
Oh yeah, and, sure, you can join the Facebook group. I would even shake your hand and buy you a drink at a school reunion. Why? Because I’m a grown woman and you, sir, have no power over me.**
* That’s right: at age 11 I was obsessed with both a compassionate Lion, who would say encouraging things like, “Courage, dear heart!” and a rather severe talking cat, who would admonish me with words like, “I can’t think what they teach you at school.” I suppose you could see them as the dual sides of my animus, if you wanted to be Jungian about it.
** To adapt, ever-so-slightly, Sarah’s words to Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth, a movie that was released the same year that S— H——- was my tormenter. I most certainly would not have had the fortitude to have uttered that line to S— H——- had he resembled David Bowie, which, most unfortunately for me, he did not in the slightest.