Monday, March 19, 2012

A Time To Clown

Seventh grade was the year I, inexplicably, decided I needed tinted eyeglasses. Because we were not, as my parents informed me, the Rockefellars, I was stuck with these glasses for the next 3 years. They were round, huge, and heavily resembled the dark sunglasses worn by the visually impaired. It was, to say the least, an error in judgment. After much negotiation, including a last-ditch recruitment of my grandma, my dad agreed to let me wear jeans to school. This was a HUGE victory for me since we were still practicing Pentecostals, at the time. Sometime in the previous years, we stopped attending the Shiite Evangelical churches and slowly made our way to the Light version of Charismatics. Jeans were a gray area, but having lost the battle over make-up, high heels, and tank tops, I was ready to claim my victory in the pants department. Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to specify color, brand, or size.

This was also the year that I learned to refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. Mrs. Henderson taught Texas History, but was apparently bored by the topic, so she ventured into states’ rights history. Her great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and although she had never met him, was deeply aggrieved by his death. Throughout the school year, she read aloud excerpts from his war diary, often stopping to wipe her eyes and let out a long, honking nose blow. I remember thinking she should probably let his death go, but the time never seemed right to express this sentiment.

Mrs. Frazee was my English teacher and Pentathalon Academic Team coach. She was a tiny woman, maybe 5 feet tall, with round John Lennon glasses, and frizzy permed hair. She wore the kind of old fashioned button up boots that you always see in Victorian movies and floor-grazing jumper dresses in heavy floral prints. She was the first teacher I remember talking to students like we were adults. When speaking to us, she didn’t slow her speech or adopt a sickeningly sweet voice that indicated she thought we were a few bricks shy of a full load. She also told jokes and listened and laughed and treated us as if we were her equals. She loved literature and spent the year begging us to put down our Babysitter’s Club books and check out Tuck Everlasting and Great Expectations. She frequently urged us to “tear the cellophane off the unused English books and DIG IN. A whole new world is waiting!”

In Pentathalon, we studied Broadway plays. Prior to this, I had never seen a play or watched a musical. In fact, my family had only owned a television set for 3 years. Naturally, I was completely enamored. I spent the next 5+ years quoting lines from obscure 1920s Vaudeville Acts to showboat what a cultured brainiac I was. Judging by the veritable slew of friends I had (4), my coolness must have gotten lost in translation. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Mrs. Frazee would meet us after school, give us king-sized Hershey’s bars, and quiz us on the last 100 years of Broadway. Later that year, our team won 2nd place in State. I took home a gold medal in writing. My mom was so proud; she kept my medal in the living room until I moved away to college.

Halfway through the year, Buddy Dalton moved to our school. Buddy was….different. He was tanned, muscular, tall like a high school boy, and the poster child for socially awkward pre-teens everywhere. By all rights, Buddy should have been popular. In Texas, football is the Holy Grail, and Buddy dominated the gridiron. Sure, he wasn’t one of “us”, one of the kids from the surrounding neighborhoods, but he made the Varsity football team as a walk-on during mid-term tryouts, and that was as good as being native. But, he was a close-talker, an over-sharer, and painfully unaware of his voice decibel. “HOWDY Y’ALL!” he’d bellow as we passed one another in the hallways. He had a home haircut, reading glasses, and a throwing arm made for quarterback stardom. He wore all the wrong clothes, a fact that was pointed out by Mr. Popular (Derek Pomeroy, he of the braided leather belts and khaki pants) during the school talent show.

After that, Buddy quit trying to fit in, even in his awkward, lilting way. Instead, he started doing random things like participating in bets with the football players that centered on his ability to ram his head repeatedly into the locker banks until he shattered his glasses or started bleeding from his nose. Two weeks before Homecoming, Buddy threw his helmet at Derek during practice. Derek had been taunting Buddy about his mother’s death from breast cancer, but nevertheless, Buddy was asked to leave the team; Derek took his spot as Varsity quarterback.

From then on, Buddy ramped up his over-sharing and began telling anyone who would listen about his dad being taken away to prison and how he had been moved to 5 different foster homes in the previous school year. The stories became more detailed and much grander, until eventually Buddy would sink into a crying fit that usually ended with him kicking a desk across the classroom or storming out of school, not returning for the remainder of the week.

During one such absence, Derek started the rumor that Buddy was gay. Whether he was or wasn’t, was of no consequence. In 7th grade, in the heart of the Bible Belt, the mere accusation was equivalent to having leprosy. It was Buddy’s death sentence. When he returned to school, none of his football buddies would speak to him. His locker was covered in marker graffiti, and he began eating his sack lunches outside, by himself, under the football stands. One day in science class, he turned to me and shouted, “THANKS FOR BEING NICE TO ME. I’M NOT GAY, YA KNOW. I’M JUST WEIRD.” I smiled and told him I didn’t care if he was or wasn’t. He scooted his desk right up against mine and we spent the rest of the period playing hang man on the back of his binder.

The next day, Buddy dropped out of school.

Years later, I heard he was starring in a drag queen runway show in metropolitan Houston. I don’t know if it’s true, nor do I care. I just hope wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, he’s happy.

This year marked the beginning of a 16 (and counting…) year friendship. I met Ashley just before our 13th birthdays. We would become fast friends, and nearly 2 decades later, we’re as close as ever. Over the years, we would date brothers, one of us would be the Maid of Honor in the other’s wedding, we’d vacation together, we'd celebrate and grieve births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and family tribulations. But, in 7th grade, we were just 2 Pentecostal kids looking for someone to backslide with by listening to Boys 2 Men and Mariah Carey while our parents thought we were deeply engrossed in scholarly theological study, as evidenced by our artfully placed Student Bibles and worn copies of In His Steps.

Ashley was a clown; literally, a clown. Her parents were Children’s Church ministers who strong armed their 6 kids into participation as party clowns at various children’s religious rallies. Ash hated this career with the passion of a thousand burning suns, but gamely put on whiteface every Saturday. Despite her embarrassment, this was a huge novelty to me. My dad was a pastor at the time, and my involvement in “pleading the blood of Christ Jesus over the Babylon of America” consisted of passing out cartoon religious tracts to strangers in the grocery store. To me, Ashley was on the frontlines for Christ’s Youth Army; she was reaching children via biblical balloon animals!

The first time we met, she was wearing floral MC Hammer pants and I had on a purple t-shirt with shoulder pads. We bonded over using the same deodorant (Very Berry by Teen Spirit). We spent that first evening listening to a Christian Alternative Rock band (the Newsboys) and talking about boys (Ben for her, Gary for me) while our parents played cards downstairs. Ashley was home schooled, so we never had the same classes or circle of friends. Rather, our parents would meet up at Charismatic religious movements, shuttle Ash and I back and forth from her house to mine, and set up weekend slumber parties for us.

Once, in a fit of Preacher’s Kids (PKs) rebellion, we snuck a cd of Savage Garden into my overnight bag. Safely hidden away in her garage-turned-bedroom, we turned the stereo volume to a blaring 2, leaned into the speakers as close as possible, and quietly hummed along as the lead singer declared his everlasting love for his wife. SCANDALOUS. Friday nights would find us furtively watching Dirty Dancing, the volume turned to a safe 10 on the television, while we did our best rhythm impaired dance attempts. Because Ashley was tiny, and I was a towering 5 foot 7, she always insisted I play the part of Johnny. Apparently, no one put Ashley in a corner.

In the ensuing weekends filled with babysitting her twin brothers, Ashley and I had deep discussions about our future as missionaries (inevitable; we were PKs), boys (and whether or not they were “right” with the Lord), our parents, demons, the best method for effective exorcisms, which Newsboy we planned to marry, and whether or not spaghetti strapped tank tops would tempt our crushes into thoughts of perversion when glancing at our lily white bared shoulders. We slathered our faces in make-up we secreted from our moms’ caboodles, stuffed our tiny, size AA bras with cotton balls, and ate gallons upon gallons of mint chocolate chip Blue Bell ice cream. Together, we discovered Cover Girl clear mascara, jointly convinced our parents this was perfectly acceptable in the eyes of Jehovah, and donned it with the vehemence and excitement of a pair of new streetwalkers.

Ashley became my ultimate confidant, my best friend, my adopted sister. When I cried, she cried. When I laughed, she laughed. When I was soaring, high on the excitement of my very first engagement, she was there, camera in hand. Years later, when I called, devastated, in the midst of a painful and bitter divorce, she was there. When I sent pictures of my new, post-divorce boyfriend, she sent ones of her new love. In the years to come, we would receive wedding invitations, graduation announcements, birth notices, and house warming messages. We would continue to call one another to discuss everything from new recipes to cancer treatments to weekend plans.

In tandem, we would leave our religious upbringings behind, explore the hidden world of right-wing, fundamental Christianity, and ultimately make our way back to personal relationships with Christ. There would be tears, laughter, thrilling happiness, pointless jealousies, soul-baring confessions, and ultimately a calm, peaceful understanding. Ashley was, and continues to be, the single least judgmental person I have ever known. She loves with her whole heart, and while that is worth quite a lot at any age, to a 13 year old 7th grader, it meant the world.

Today, she owns a tattoo studio with her handsome husband, is mother to a beautiful, big-eyed baby, and although she would never admit it, can probably still make a mean balloon animal.

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