Monday, July 4, 2011

Everybody Hates Middle School: My Story Girls

When I was 13, more than anything, I wanted to be a governess. Oh, to lord lovingly over a flock of grubby children dressed in their sepia-drenched breeches and frocks, all ruddy cheeks and scuffed shoes--the idea was addictive and I spent hours play-acting my way through the role.

I was a lonely teen. I binged on novels by L.M. Montgomery and spent a lot of time alone in the forest. Montgomery's stories of imaginative young girls--always sensitive and strong willed (like myself, I liked to believe)--creating vivid worlds out of words, just words, fed this intense desire of mine to escape, to get away from the static buzz of middle school drama into a world where I made friends with the moon, talked to the trees, and believed I could wish myself into a time and place where I belonged.

This may have been one of the loneliest periods of my life, but I remember it as being the happiest. I read so much that I think I half floated my way to and from school, drenched in this euphoric optimism, this insistence to look at everything--dandelions and pine trees, pebbles and cracks in the pavement--as something hopeful, something beautiful. I was fueled by passages from Montgomery's work that read like odes to nature--I wanted to see the world as beautifully as her characters did. I must have sensed the underlying melancholy in her works, because looking back, it was just so fitting--bright hopes budding in the face of cloudy realities.

I was drawn to books about young girls becoming young women--Little Women, Good Wives, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Emily of New Moon--and relished the idea of taking care of little ones, of telling them stories, of keeping everything in order. I suppose I welcomed the responsibility, the control over spheres of happiness--I could be in charge of a child's experience of the world, make sure things were as bright and hopeful as I imagined they could be, as I knew they should be.

At 13, I started a weekend job as a Sunday school teacher at the local mosque. It was the last thing I wanted to do at the time (seriously, waking up before noon on a weekend?). But more importantly, I had horrific memories of Sunday school as a child--chaotic roomfuls of screaming kids, screaming teachers, and pages of Arabic I had failed to memorize--everything was absolutely terrifying. But my father's insistence that I 'do something good' combined with the fact that there was no one else who wanted to take the job, lead to my reign as Queen of a bunch of 4 to 9 year olds every Sunday at 9 AM.

Once I had the job, I recognized my power. I could be Jo from Little Women (and later, Little Men) who grew up and ran a private school for forlorn little boys; I could be Polly from Peppers who cheerily took care of her brothers and sisters in their little brown house; I could be Sara from The Story Girl and tell these kids one amazing story after another. Most of all, I wanted to make sure their experience of Sunday school was vastly different from mine--I wanted them to look forward to this class, not fake headaches, stomachaches, aches of every kind, so they could avoid what I remembered as an unpleasant experience.

And so I was enthusiastic. I taught them their alifs, bas, and tas with vigorous smiles and emphatic hand gestures. We played games, had story time, and threw parties. Islamic history turned into playacting which turned into "adventure walks" into the fields behind the mosque. I was insistent that these kids have a good time. The connection to Prophetic stories may have been tenuous; leading very small children through shoulder-height grasses in back fields being prepped for construction was mildly dangerous; but, I was on a mission. The world of fantasy I lived in half the time was transpiring into something real and I wasn't going to let go.

In retrospect, my reliance on fictive worlds where girls wielded incredible creative powers may have been a sign of my own inner struggles as a misfit, but even more, these story girls served as sources of strength and confidence. I could take the magic of their world and weave it into my own. I could find solace within pages where there were girls like me. I was happy being the weird girl who wore funny clothes and talked to trees--I didn't want to be anyone else.

The images are the book covers that I recognize from my youth. I still get the same thrills and chills just looking at them now: Little Women from Scholastic and Emily Climbs from Tower Books.

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