School was the center of my sex education. The School Board never voted funds for such a class, so it existed free. There I came in contact with people differently oriented, thankfully, than my parents.
My parents were good, hard-working, concerned begetters of an individual who lived in a bubble that had only windows, no doors. I couldn't leave my world or enter theirs. Being conscientious Christian parents they were very careful not to give me anything to see. I never saw either of my parents nude. Doors with locks were as important as polite smiles. Both hid something. I never remember seeing my parents kiss or touch each other. It can be that they did occasionally indulged in such behavior. If I saw it, it was blanked out of my memory bank by their embarrassment.
I was in my teens before I found out where and why they hid the medical handbook. As a child, I was intrigued by this mysterious brown leather book with gold lettering which appeared when one of us was newly ill. Mother read from it, keeping the pages bent so none of the pictures escaped, and before health returned, the book returned to its hiding place. I suspected important information could benefit me, too. Many alone afternoons were wasted trying to find where that fat tome lived between illnesses.
I had no brothers or sisters with which to conspire and ferret out the secrets of my parents. As a child I felt no need for them to further my sexual education. I found out how other girls were made by the friendly observation of friends. For my study of boys, I had my cousin, Allen, and Jane's willing brother. It took an incident at school to show me something new.
We were studying mathematics. Multiplication. To expose our weaknesses, the teacher invented a fiendish test. It was a ditto sheet containing 100 problems, like 2 times 4, and even hard stuff like, 7 times 9, but written like:
3 5 5 3 1 0 4 6 2 9 4 4 3 9 1 5 4 2 1 7 9 5
so one never knew if one was expected to add or subtract them.
We were expected to write a minimum of 98 correct answers in four minutes. Until we achieved this magic combination of nine and eight, we had to take the test every day. I hated being one of the few who still was handed one of those alcoholic fumed blue sheets, when my friends and enemies were given plain papers for drawing pictures. In my sullen heart, I knew that papers which offered their nothingness were more important to me than the ones covered with problems in math. Added to my knowledge of wasted efforts, I knew I would never know all those times numbers because of the sacredness of the seconds. The ticking of the stop watch started me aging with the first click. I was so aware of the passing minutes of my life, that multiplication melted in importance. Finding multiplication useless was not new.
When we first began learning about numbers I felt I had found a new fountain of pictures. When we learned to combine the numbers by addition and subtraction, I could accept that. One needed this method to buy cookies or eat apples. I remember, with shame, how happy I was when the teacher said we had learned all about addition and subtraction. I had felt so smart at the end of my second grade, knowing there was no more math to learn. At this age to have one course completed, filled me with pride of accomplishment.
That pride, made more painful the shock, when in the middle of the third grade, the teacher said that besides + and -, there was x and, even worse was something called divisionI felt the infinity of mathematics settle down around me like a fog that stretched out farther than I would ever go. In defeated discouragement, I put off the simple memorization of times facts as long as I could. The panic that enveloped me when slower students passed the test that I failed, massed into an insurmountable barrier. For days and tears this lasted until there were only nine of us who had not passed the test.
During Silent Reading, Mrs. Cox, took us, one at a time, to her desk to plumb our problem with her problems. To me she explained that I could not take the time to figure the equations as I had done with addition and subtraction, but must learn by memory each combination so that the second it flashed before me the answer would flash back from me. To help me, I was to make flash cards. The problem, written her way was on one side. Her answer was on the backside.
I really preferred my numbers to hers. To me, O was perfect happiness. If you added perfect happiness to dancing 7 dancing was still dancing because perfect happiness was already in dancing. If you subtracted perfect happiness from dancing, dancing was still very lovely. If, on the other hand, you had a monster 9 and added the friend 1 you got the friend with perfect happiness. If you subtracted the friend from the monster, you got watching eyes in the woods at night 8 which was frightening and taught one the value of friendship, even if you aren't perfect. The discouraging news was that perfect happiness added or subtracted from monsters, still left monsters, but one had to learn to accept that all stories don't end happily.
The flash cards convinced me that my method was useless with multiplication. You just couldn't have the mean kid crossing the street 3 times running fast 5 equaling the friend running fast because there was a terrible fight and friend was coming as fast as possible to help. Even worse was running fast times dancing because you got the mean kid crossing the street running fast so you had better quit dancing around and start running before that mean kid got you. Compare that to thirty-five. Times made the stories more complex and interesting, but they weren't made for speed. I gave up. In two days I had the jagged rows of numbers pictured in my head so I could read off what I needed.
That day I actually looked forward to math and the One Hundred Times Test. I knew I would easily pass it today! Perhaps some of the others might not, and I still would get in a day or two of drawing. Before the time for math came, we had a visitor.
It was an honor to have one's mother come unexpectedly into the classroom. Mrs. Cox's scurrying around to wheel her chair to a place where the mother had the best view of her child was a like a spotlight of attention. The kids would use Mrs. Cox's distraction to whisper the news about whose mother it was we had. Today, it was William's mother, Mrs. Henderson. More different people there couldn't be. William was small and thin, hunched shouldered and shy with tears. His hair was soft browns that clung to his round head like a cap of gentleness. It was a pleasure to watch the silky way his hair arched above his cheekbones and marched precisely up over his ever pink ears. If William saw me enjoying his hairline, his green eyes held such a pools of hurt, I could only exchange my delight for his sadness.
Mrs. Henderson was a big fat lady in the vastness beyond the word. When she sat down on the teacher's chair her heavy stomach hung down springing her flabby knees apart. The shifting of her bulk from standing to sitting used up so much of her dark slippery rayon dress that, at our eye level, we in three rows, could see the color of her underwear. Pink. Above that, she had in her arms a blanket wrapped bundle, sticking out of which, was a head, soft like William's. It was whispered that this was William's baby brother.
I knew that babies came out of the crack between women's legs. That I had learned from Margaret Ann's poetry. I stared at the bundle of blue blanket, wondering how much was cloth and how much was kid. Was the amount of kid small enough to fit back up there between her fat legs? Could you ever put them back once they were out? What was the getting out like? Was it like having a bowel movement? But, how could something as big as a baby come out there? Even though I was near the front of the classroom, I was free from fear of Mrs. Cox calling on me to read or recite. When a mother came to visit, her child got to answer all the questions.
We put away our reading books. The monitors passed out the blank and problem sheets. Those of us who still got the problem sheets, had to hold up our hands until one was brought to us. I was relieved that the noise of our putting our reading books away had been so loud we had upset William's brother. Mrs. Henderson became involved in shaking and bouncing the kid to make him be quiet. She didn't see that I was one of the dumb ones with the problems.
Mrs. Cox made a speech about how nice it would be if today, in honor of our visitor, all of us would pass the test. I nodded in agreement. I thought I could do that.
"Ready, set, begin, now!"
Our nine pencils began scribbling across the bottoms of the equations. I was whizzing along barely listening to the tick of the stopwatch. Four and a half rows down, I heard a noise. Looking up, I could only go on looking up. Mrs. Henderson had opened the front of her dress so that one half of her front was now the biggest titty in the whole wide world. I never would have thought that all that skin could be inside a woman's dress.
The shape was appalling. That huge sack of flesh hung down to where it fastened onto that silky ball of head. As I gaped, pencilless, Mrs. Henderson moved to prop her elbow on the chalk trough. Now I could clearly see that clamp like mouth chewing on her skin. That child is eating her, I thought. Oh, God, that poor woman! How can she stand that? I dropped my head to shut out the view with my problems. Before I could retrieve my pencil from the floor and focus on the moving multiplications, Mrs. Cox snapped the watch shut and called, "Stop! Everyone lay down your pencils until all the papers have been collected."
While the monitors were picking up our out-held sheets, there was nothing to do but watch Mrs. Henderson being devoured. She was looking at her child as if she was very interested in what he was doing to her. She seemed neither pained or pleasured. Cautiously I moved my eyes left and right, without moving my head. Every other kid was staring just as I had been. Mouths hung open, arms laid like broken doll parts on the tops of the desks. Everyone was so quiet, even the monitors began tip-toeing in reverence. In the silence were the slurping, sucking sounds coming from Mrs. Henderson's front. Between her skin and the baby's mouth a bit of white foam was forming. I was sweating hot. I felt my forehead. I held my hands cupped to my chin to throw up.
Dear Mrs. cool-headed Cox. She took a book from her desk, stood squarely on the opposite side of the room, in front of the windows, to read to us from Greenbriars Bobby, our favorite dog story, until recess.
The next day in mathematics we all began, together, to learn about division. With half completed tests, all nine of us had passed our problems with multiplication.
I guess William died that day. He still went to school but I never saw him again.