Erin Grauel just passed her thesis defense and will be receiving an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of New Orleans in May 2011. She grew up on the beaches of South Carolina has an English Degree from Coastal Carolina University. Erin is currently working on a collection of essays tentatively entitled, "Essays in which a Militant Nerd has Fun."
As a kid, my older sister would call me a feminist as an insult. I had this habit of developing crushes on women on television. Not just any women, but ladies who thought women and men were equals. My sister took these gals to be militant nerds who had no fun. She thought I was also a militant nerd who had no fun. I first learned to use the phrase "male chauvinist pig" from the Saturday morning show about kids in a California high school, Saved by the Bell. Jesse Spano was an uptight, straight-A, student, and she often called her jock boyfriend, A.C. Slater, a pig. To which A.C. would respond with some genius retort such as, "Oink, oink, baby." A.C.'s lame responses to Jesse only affirmed for me that girls ruled and boys drooled. If a neighborhood boy banned me from a basketball game because I was a girl, or told me that boys were better tree climbers, I had no problem hurling the Spano line at him. Not that the boys usually cared. But to me, it felt like a victory for women.
My two other favorite TV women were Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls, a show about older women who live together in Miami, and Julia Sugarbaker from Designing Women, a show about middle-aged women who work together at an interior design firm in Georgia. Both women were smart and sarcastic, and each had her own crew of supportive female friends (who did not engage in backstabbing or cat fighting). But the most important part of these women was that they were never at a loss for words. They had the ability, which only people with scripts have, to say exactly what they want to say when they want to say it. Of course I wanted to hone this ability even if it was an entirely fictional skill. Dorothy Zbornak's specialty was witty one-liners usually fired at one of her roommates. Like when dim-witted Rose asks Dorothy if she can ask her a stupid question and Dorothy responds, "Better than anyone I know." Julia Sugarbaker's specialty was long-winded, left-leaning rants that usually ended with the phrase, "as God is my witness." Anything could set off Julia Sugarbaker. The NRA, school prayer, someone insulting the South; it didn't really matter; she would find a way to get on her soap box. Julia lived for the opportunity to rail against stupidity and inequity. When asked about the battle of the sexes Julia delivered a rant which pretty much blamed all of the world's problems on men. Of course I loved it:
"In general it has been the men who have done the raping and the robbing and the killing and the war-mongering for the last 2,000 years.... It has been the men who have done the pillaging and the beheading and the subjugating of whole races into slavery. It has been the men who have done the lawmaking and the moneymaking and the most of the mischief-making! So if the world isn't quite what you had in mind, you have only yourselves to thank!"
Because I was typically quiet and shy, I lived vicariously through the feminists on TV. Back in the real world, calling a boy a chauvinist pig was about as far as I ever got, and I stopped that soon after I got teased for it. I didn't have the support of a laugh track or audience cheers like the old broads on the sitcoms did.
T.J. Johnson* (*name changed to protect the "innocent") was an asshole. To this day, I wish I had stood up to him. He's the kid I suddenly remember when I'm about to fall asleep. I then spend hours imagining responses to some insult he tossed at me almost twenty years ago. Funny how the brain never remembers old compliments. T.J. was the definition of a chauvinist bully, and he had no problem asserting his dominance over people. By fifth grade he had already dated (as much as you can date in fifth grade) and broken up with every pretty girl in our age group. I was not a pretty girl (I had a bowl cut, and dudes did not like girls with the same haircut as theirs), so he teased me along with the rest of the kids he did not deem "on his level." He was the kind of kid who you know is going to grow up to be a frat guy and then maybe a lawyer or business executive. The kind of guy you don't want to run the world, but who does anyway. He got away with all manner of bullying, even when he did it right in front of teachers.
Once he blew a spit ball into my face. I pulled the wet ball off my cheek and threw it to the floor, not making eye contact with T.J. I stared at my desk and hoped he would move on to someone else. In my mind I had a well-rehearsed Julia Sugarbaker rant that I knew I would never dare to say out loud. Mentally, I called him a jerk and pointed out that he was not as cute as he thought and actually resembled a freckle faced rat. Also he was mean and dumb. In silence I said, your life is going to peak in high school because you only care about shallow things. I would declare that the only reason he had any friends was because people were afraid of him and because his parents had money, so he had cool toys. You're short, T.J., and you have bad breath, and you kind of look like the bully from A Christmas Story. You're going to end up fat, and bald, and alone someday (the miracle of Facebook has affirmed the fat and bald part).
Julia Sugarbaker once said that we love to see beautiful people grow fat and old. I am no exception to that shallow rule.
My rants were never so well put together as the ones on TV and because they were delivered in my head only, they didn't stop me from being teased. After hitting me with the spit ball T.J. asked why my teeth were so messed up (I would get braces the next year) and why all my friends were so weird? (I had weird friends because they were more fun, and also because I was weird.) I didn't respond. I blushed and squirmed and waited for the teacher to notice the asshole in her class was at it again. Eventually T.J. was told to be quiet, and I was allowed to return to silent contemplation of the injustices of life. Why couldn't I stand up for myself? Why couldn't the shoulder-padded specters of Julia Sugarbaker and Dorothy Zbornak appear at my side whenever I was being teased. They would know the right words to end the situation.
Dorothy, five foot ten inches of sheer sarcasm, would float in wearing some 1980's pantsuit that could only be described as "blousy." She would loom over T.J. and narrow her eyes into slits of hate. Even when taking the self-deprecating route, Dorothy's baritone gets across the point that it is time for the mean conversation to end. So Dorothy might ask T.J. as she leered down at him, the sequins on her outfit flashing in the fluorescent lights, if she should spray paint the phrase "too ugly to live" on his hump. Then she might call him a hairy little troll (she was fond of calling her sassy Sicilian mother that). Or she might use the line she used in the episode where the Golden Girls ended up in jail after being mistaken for prostitutes (yes, a real plot line). She warns jail mates who try to pick a fight that she's done time in Attica. When they point out that Attica is a men's prison Dorothy's response is, "I know. I was there a year before they found out." I can't think of anything that would scare T.J. more... Except for a Julia Sugarbaker rant.
When Dorothy was done with T.J., Julia would swoop in, curly hair haloing out into a coif of professional vengeance, her smile pulled into a smirk. She might say, "Just so YOU know, the next time you speak to me in that tone of voice, you're going to the moon." And Dorothy, standing behind Julia with her arms folded would nod in agreement. Then Julia would give T.J. a rant meant to shame him for being such an awful person and to bolster me into not caring what someone like T.J. thinks. It's a rant she'd said before, in an episode of Designing Women when her sister Suzanne felt bad for not being a beauty queen anymore. Placing a hand on my shoulder and still somehow leering at T.J., Julia would say,
"In the end it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about you. You have to be exactly who and what you want to be. Most everyone is floating along on phony public relations. People who say being beautiful, or rich or thin makes them happy - people who are trying to make their marriages and their children seem better than they actually are.... and for what?! Appearances. Appearances don't count for diddly! In the end, all that really matters is what was true, and truly said, and how we treated one another."
Then both guardian angels would fade out, and the audience would applaud and cheer and whoop. Instead, the bell signaling the end of class rings, and I have to deal with the fact that I'm stuck with T.J. until graduation.
I think I relied on the TV feminists to be my guardian angels because they offered a viewpoint different from that of my own mother. Not that my mom isn't a feminist; she's just not outspoken. She doesn't care what other people think about her. At all. She is a female in the construction industry and faces all sorts of derision from men on the job site. That is until they see her get to work and realize she is stronger, faster, and smarter than they are. Mom doesn't brag; she doesn't whine; she doesn't rant. She just Gets The Job Done. When I was home for Christmas break, we took apart and rebuilt a bunk bed for my nephews as a "quick after-work project." On a recent family vacation we went ice skating. As I wobbled onto the ice like a new-born deer, my mom glided away like Kristi Yamaguchi, spinning and skating backwards in circles around me. I had no idea Mom even knew how to ice skate let alone do spinny skate moves. All she said to my amazed response was, "Oh, I used to live by a skating rink when I was a kid." The woman just has skills and doesn't feel the need to talk about it. Whenever I would complain to my mom about someone being mean or derisive to me her response was always, "So? What do you care?" She cannot comprehend wasting time worrying about other people's opinions. I don't have that kind of confidence, and therefore, I need the rant.
I saw T.J get into trouble once, in sixth grade science class, after he teased a boy sitting next to him. The boy wore brand new shoes, chunky white sneakers, not quite the right brand name or style. So T.J. said to the boy, in the middle of class while we were all quiet and working on an assignment, "Why did you pick out such ugly shoes?" The boy said something along the lines of, "Leave me alone; I like my shoes." To which T.J., galled that the boy had defended himself, said, loudly, "Ew, you're such a faggot."
The teacher, Mrs. Wilson, a tiny woman with a thick Southern drawl, exploded with unexpected intensity. She went on a Sugarbaker rant. Out loud. She squinted her eyes at T.J. looking at him as if he were some sort of large cockroach.
"Really? Really, T.J.?" she asked.
"What?" T.J. responded defiantly, pretending he was allowed to say whatever, whenever.
That's when the rant started: "What is wrong with you? You don't say that word to anyone. It's the same as cussing in the middle of class. We don't do that. It's rude, and it's mean, and nobody is going to speak to anyone else in my class that way again. Do you understand me? That word is hate speech, and I should write you up for harassment. I can't believe you don't know better than that by now. I can't believe you would talk to another classmate like that. No, really, what is wrong with you? What came over you that you thought you could use that word in my classroom? I feel like I should be able to expect more from a boy your age. Apologize right now, and then don't speak in this class again for the rest of the day."
T.J. was stunned, but he tried to hide it. He sucked his teeth and narrowed his rat-like eyes at the boy he had called a faggot. "Geez, dude, sorry, whatever." Then he slid down in his seat and stared moodily at his desk. I kept my head down throughout the rant, not wanting to somehow become involved in the conflict. I wasn't brave enough even to nod approvingly at Mrs. Wilson for not letting T.J. be a dick. But in my mind I was jumping up and down and screaming, "You go, girl!" In my mind I was older, and I would clap Mrs. Wilson on the back like a colleague and congratulate her for telling off the student we all hated.
I was terrified when T.J. called that boy a faggot, because I considered myself to be somewhat of a lady faggot. Of course, I couldn't tell that to anyone, not until college anyway. Whenever someone was accused of being gay, I was always worried that I would be next to be outed. I was already outcast for being a quiet nerd with bad hair who went around quoting lines from The Golden Girls all the time. A more assertive person might have thought that there was nothing left to lose and would have come out on her own. But I was a delusional nerd, always thinking I wasn't that uncool, and that if I kept a low profile maybe I could make it through the day without getting picked on.
The fact is, I was picked on just about every day in school, but it was never for being gay or even for having clunky sneakers. It was for being quiet, or for having a weird sense of humor, or making a good grade. By the time I got to high school, I realized that the people who picked on me weren't really that great and their opinion of me didn't matter. Why should I care if the popular girl with the awful personality thought it was stupid that I liked to read? What did it matter that T.J. Johnson, who was no looker himself, thought that I was ugly? (On The Golden Girls, when beautiful and promiscuous Blanche asks Dorothy when she started to care about her looks, Dorothy's response is, "I think it started when I came down from the bell tower and had my hump fixed.") I never stood up to these kids, making friends with the kids who could quote The Golden Girls instead.
Nobody in my high school came out as gay except for two girls who started dating each other in tenth grade. They dropped out of school after a few months of people talking about them as if they were from another planet. I never saw either of them again. I always liked to pretend that they ended up together in some gay-friendly city. They own a construction business, drive Subarus, and have two cats named Julia and Dorothy. They go camping together every weekend and have a shared love of folk music festivals. They hold hands in public and no one ever looks at them funny because they are just that cute together. The pain of high school is just a distant memory, a story they tell younger lesbians to let them know that life gets better.
When I got out of high school it was a relief rarely to see the kids who had tried to make my life miserable. Then Facebook was invented, and suddenly all those kids wanted to be my online "friend." For the most part I ignored those requests, but sometimes, morbid curiosity would drive me to accept, if just to see what life had dished up to them. One girl, upon seeing that I was in a relationship with a woman, messaged me to say that she had always suspected I was a lesbian. She offered to pray for me. Another girl said that what I was doing was unnatural, but she hated the sin and not the sinner.
I don't know why when some people get on Facebook they feel the need to let the entire world know their every bigoted opinion. I thought Facebook was a place to polish your personality and only show its virtues, but a lot of people seem to think it's a great opportunity to show off what ignorant assholes they've become. It's a passive/aggressive person's dream come true. The chance to tell someone off is always at your fingertips when you're on Facebook, but for the most part I resist the temptation. It's cathartic, at first, to rant at an Internet troll, but it loses its satisfaction pretty quickly. You spend hours calculating a really well thought out and logical response, and then they respond with a passage from the Old Testament. You can't argue with that kind of intellectual laziness.
I really did want to Sugarbaker both of those girls, though. Or come up with a really good Zbornak one-liner. I wanted to tell them it's not okay to judge someone because you don't have sex the same way they do. I wanted to point out all the passages in the Bible that say ridiculous things. In fact they don't even have to work hard to find ridiculous Bible passages; flip to Leviticus 24, a few pages after the infamous Leviticus 18, and the Bible says, "Whoever utters the name of the Lord must be put to death. The whole community must stone him whether alien or native. If he utters the name, he must be put to death." A few pages after that we're told that people with crushed testicles aren't allowed to go to church. So I just want to know why they choose that one passage to pay attention to. I want to ask them if they really think that God would want them to be condescending and annoying to other people? I want to say that, if it's okay for them judge who I'm having sex with, then it's okay for me to comment on the picture they posted, the one that shows the make-out session with the homely stranger on St. Patrick's Day. (Quick Sugarbaker sidebar on the topic of "class": "That's just the point, Charlene. If you have class, you have it. It doesn't matter where you are or who you're with... and I have to go now because Craig is getting ready to drink out of the funnel.") But rather than choose passive/aggression, to spare myself a litany of Bible passages telling me I'm hell bound, I just "un-friend" the dogmatists.
Once though, in my senior year of high school, I did try to tell off T.J. Johnson. I had to stand in front of my English class and read aloud a mock graduation speech. I don't remember what I wrote in the speech, but I remember it was pretty cynical. I'm pretty sure that I said people who referred to high school as the best years of their lives had pretty shitty lives. When I was done, T.J., insult genius that he was, called me a nerd. My face turned beet red, but I looked at him and asked him if he thought people actually wanted to hear anything that came out of his mouth. Then I told him, my voice shaking and my eyes watering, to shut up and never speak to me again, or even look at me. It was the culmination of twelve years of abuse and, yes, it was a bit of an overreaction to someone who had only called me a nerd. The whole class got uncomfortable, and the teacher asked me to take my seat. There was no cheering, no applause. I learned that Sugarbaker rants are not for me to say out loud.
My mom doesn't care if she's invited to the cool table, and because of that, she always is invited to the cool table. She doesn't care if people stereotype her as a lesbian for being a woman in the construction industry, or if they doubt her ability to use a piece of machinery because she's a girl. She knows they'll be proven wrong when they see her cut, carry, and nail in a two-by-four, or go home at the end of the day with my father. I'm not that lucky. I care too much about other people's opinions, and I have to try to be nonchalant about not being like everyone else. But if I really was nonchalant, I wouldn't write about it. It wouldn't even notice that some people see me as different. T.J. Johnson would be a blip in my memory, and the girls on Facebook wouldn't matter.
As I get older, I'm learning to let go of the cool kids. Because for the most part, they did peak in high school. Or they grew up themselves and probably regret what assholes they were back when. And I'm sure they had their moments, too, when they couldn't think of the right thing to say. Maybe there are days when T.J. Johnson catches himself cringing at the memory of Mrs. Wilson yelling at him. And maybe he hasn't changed; maybe he wants to go back and call Mrs. Wilson a faggot lover. Or maybe he has changed, maybe he'd like to go back and look the boy and Mrs. Wilson in the eye and tell them he's sorry, he was young and stupid, but he's learned his lesson. Or maybe he doesn't have a memory like mine and has already forgotten the whole thing. Maybe he has moved on with life without ever making the futile attempt to reshape the past into something better. But I doubt it.