Featured Artwork:”The Rays of Aries” by Elizabeth Ridge
I move along with the flow of students exiting New Ulm Junior High for the day. The speckled, stone floors of the old hallway amplify our footsteps and conversation, and the noise echoes against the rows of lockers. I am wearing my cheerleading outfit – a short purple and white pleated skirt, a tight, itchy purple sweater with a big NU sewn on the front, and purple and white saddle shoes. We had a pep fest today over the lunch hour. My smooth, straight brown hair hangs to the small of my back. The golden highlights from too much time in the summer sun still linger.
I pause just outside the doors and lift my face to this beautiful, warm autumn day, but my enjoyment doesn’t last long. I look around to make sure that Mark Peterson and Joe Swenson are nowhere in sight. They like to punch my chest as I walk past. They think it’s flirting. They also ride my bus. Too often I am trapped in my seat when they begin calling my name and suggesting I move back to sit with them amid the chuckles from some of the other kids. The bus driver pretends he doesn’t notice. I turn in the opposite direction from the bus zone to walk home.
My house is only about a mile away, so the distance isn’t a problem, but I dread the attention. I am twelve years old and, between fifth grade and seventh grade, I have gone from flat-chested to a Double D cup. Some girls envy me, and gossip, but they don’t understand what it’s like — teachers that stare at my chest while they talk to me; boys who call out “Cadillac!” when I walk by (I am told it’s because Cadillacs have big bumpers); rumors that fly about who I went all the way with last weekend, though I have never even been kissed; the Thompson triplets’ threats to beat me up because I did it with one of their boyfriends; high school boys who stop by our house after supper to flirt with me. I am confused. I may be twelve, but I look seventeen. In some ways I like feeling wanted. It is the mid-seventies, and the message society is sending to young girls is that your main value is your looks. You are supposed to be popular, to want a boyfriend, and to have lots of men notice you. You are also supposed to be sweet and not cause a fuss. At the same time, I am filled with fear. This attention is too aggressive, and I have no idea how to handle it. I shrink with bewilderment and self-loathing. My parents have noticed the way men and boys act around me, and they yell at me for calling too much attention to myself. It is my fault that these things happen.
Now the walk home looms before me. For the first few blocks as I walk along Center Street, I feel mostly safe. The buses, cars and trucks move by quickly on the four-lane road, and the trees lining the street help to hide me from sight.
When I reach Center Street hill and begin to climb though, there are no trees. Cars zoom past. A semi blows its horn. Cars full of high school kids fly by. From one of the cars, I hear “Tits!” shouted at me. I am entirely focused on the turn I will make halfway up the big hill.
When I turn onto Summit Avenue, I begin another climb. I walk past the small, conservative Lutheran college above me. A few girls are sitting on the stairs or lounging on the hillside, but they ignore me. This road leads home. It is also the road to the country club. I see a large white town car drive past, and then I hear the sound of it turning around behind me, and I brace. The Lincoln creeps beside me and keeps pace with me as the driver’s window glides down. I see a man in his fifties wearing a dark suit and tie. He has salt and pepper hair, and his jowly face is grinning at me.
“Hi there, Honey,” He smirks.
“Hi.” I have been raised to always be polite. Still, I don’t look at him, hoping he’ll drive on.
“Hey . . . Hey, Baby – You want to go for a ride?”
“ No.” I speed up, but he doesn’t go away. “No thank you.” And then, “No, please,” as the car continues to purr beside me. I stare straight ahead and push myself to an even faster pace. I am helpless. For several tense seconds he lingers. From the corner of my eye I can see that he has one arm propped across the top of the steering wheel. His other hand holds a cigarette near his lips. Suddenly the car revs and pulls away, and I feel lightheaded. I’m about four blocks from home.
It is not always the men from the country club in the cars that creep beside me. Once it was a young man with long, curly, dark hair and a thin beard wanting me to go for a ride. He had a baby in a car seat in the back.
Finally, finally, I turn into our driveway, and breathe in relief. I go inside and settle at the dining room table where I can focus on my homework. It is something I can excel at, and I am proud of my grades. Later I will sit at the piano and practice for my solo at the upcoming choir concert. I am good at that, too. I do my best to hold fast to the positive things about me. I am more than just my body.
Still, my world is changing. I am not safe, I am not protected, and there is no help.