Words for Boys and Girls Print
Essays and Memoirs

boys(San Diego Writers' Monthly August 1993)

The thing I most feared in kindergarten was peeing in my pants. I was no bedwetter; nor was my bladder weak, requiring trips to the toilet every hour. My affliction was more complicated. In the first week of kindergarten I couldn’t yet read those separate words, carved into small brown rectangles high up on the bathroom doors:


BOYS                                                                       GIRLS


In those days—the 1950s—illiteracy wasn’t accommodated: There were no figures of thick-limbed stick people with and without a skirt to classify gender. Maybe I was slow (I had just turned five), but I could read very few words; cat was one, dog another. To choose the right bathroom, I simply followed the older boys. Recess made it easy. Everyone usually went then.

If I ran to the bathrooms (I knew where they were) and no one pushed open either door, I just held it. It wasn’t as hard as you thought. You squirmed, you squeezed, you sucked in your stomach to relieve the pressure. You could do it. Sometimes, while holding it, you forgot, and it went away, magically. One moment you expected to burst, the next moment you felt immense relief because bursting had disappeared like a washing machine that changed cycles. The magic of holding was invigorating. It was in the blood. It set fences and blew them over. From it you learned to trust craving, to invite curiosity, to measure dread. And there were moments, which you feared like spiders in your bed, when you almost let it go.

Of course, standing there alone, before the bathroom doors, I knew I had a fifty-fifty chance of guessing right. But guessing wrong meant, besides unleashing the siren screams of little girls, that I’d be considered, no, proved, stupid. So like all children I teetered between acting on my body’s command and thinking I was somehow in command of my body. The confusion kept me on guard, as did the fear of humiliation. I hoped the great blunder would happen first to someone else.

In my kindergarten classroom, I was placed at a large, yellow, heavily shellacked pine table—beside a girl. Our teacher, Mrs. Otis, who was as new to Woodrow Wilson Elementary as we were, insisted we sit boy next-to girl. My tablemate’s name was Allison. To me, she seemed overly impulsive; she talked incessantly, asked meddlesome questions as if I were her buddy. Our seating arrangement, Mrs. Otis said, would help us make new friends. I already had a friend. His name was Larry Ebersold, a kid just like me with a buzzed head and a fine checkered-tablecloth shirt. He sat in front of me, stuck with Rose Ellen.

This day we were making pictures out of paste and paper. Allison was making a house. She’d cut and pasted a big square piece on which she drew a window and then positioned a porch off to the side. There were pairs of people in the window and on the porch, but they were messily drawn, scribble bodies, pancake faces. A brown smudge in front she called a dog.

"See my dog?" she said. "Her name is Ginger. What’s your dog’s name?"

"I don’t have one," I said.

"Why not? Doesn’t everyone have a dog?"

"No," I stared at Allison and picked up the jar of paste between us.

"Don’t you think the paste will dry up if we leave the top off?" she asked. I ignored her. I ran the tongue depressor over the semi-soft paste, getting a good bit with which to work. After I dabbed on what I needed, I purposely left the lid ajar.

I kept an eye on Mrs. Otis. Up and down the aisles she floated, her thick-soled nurses’ shoes stepping soundlessly. Her soft red hair was cut in a pageboy. Her long floral dress buttoned down to a tiny waist. She seemed winsome, almost frail. She was dedicated, though; by the second day she had memorized everyone’s name.

At our table Mrs. Otis paused, lightly touched my construction-paper project. On a large brown sheet I had pasted long snaky strips of paper, pythons, elongated yet curvy, with oval heads and forked, spitting tongues. There were several on the page, some overlapping. Mrs. Otis said, "Hmmmmm, uh-huh, uh-huh," while her fingers moved like an artist’s over the long body of one snake, from mouth to tail. She withdrew her hand, clasped it with the other, and walked on down the row.

Suddenly, Rose Ellen called aloud: "Mrs. Otis, come quick!" Together, Rose Ellen and Allison stood, their chairs thrusting backwards, scraping the floor. "Mrs. Otis!" Allison shouted. "Larry peed!"

"What?" Mrs. Otis said, marching back up the aisle. Under Larry’s seat I saw a yellow puddle; a few drops still plunked off his pants’ leg and the leg of the chair. A rank and salty smell burned in my nose. The puddle got bigger, and then a littler stream of yellow flowed out of it and took the puddle with it out to where Mrs. Otis came stepping, out to a spot that met the underside of her soft-heavy shoe. Splat.

Abruptly, she hoisted Larry up from his chair. His head drooped, a lake of yellow grey spread over the crotch of his stiff white pants. At the sight, Allison and Rose Ellen ee-you-ed. I stood up, horrified. Just because I hoped it would happen to someone else didn’t mean it had to happen to Larry.

Between peeing in your pants and splattering it with your shoe, stepping in it may at first seem the greater insult. It is bad enough for you, the adult, to suffer ignominy at the accident of a child. But it is far worse for you, the little boy, to have your indignity broadcast to the antennae of a room full of other little boys, their feelers up, by two little girls. Such an attack anchored Larry in severe helplessness.

The whole class suddenly was unseated, fleeing up front, clustering near the chalkboard. I held back to observe. They all looked sick, ready to choke or vomit; they hugged their bodies for safety. For air, a few strayed to the opened windows. In a row, the windows’ handles stuck down like the thumbs of Roman patricians, signaling to the victorious gladiator for the death of his opponent.

"Tommy!" Mrs. Otis called at me, "Go get the janitor." At the door she held Larry’s arm aloft; he slumped like the exhausted winner of a boxing match. "Where is he?" I asked. (How would I know? He cleaned up after we were gone.) "I have no idea," she said, "Please try to find him." Surely she didn’t think I was as stupid as Larry, that my brains had leaked out, puddled before me and drained away.

Mrs. Otis was gone. I moved hastily, but tarried at the sight of another classmate, Murray Sutphen. He had commandeered Mrs. Otis’ desk and began shuffling through her papers, opening and closing her drawers. He spun her big blue globe recklessly. After that, he started rocking from side to side, like a little Elvis Presley between choruses. He grinned at me; a gold tooth shone. Evidently, the chaos inspired him. Unless I hurried, Murray would take over.

I ran down the hall, its Simonized floor glistening like glass, its locker walls resounding my frantic steps. I took a right at the teacher’s lounge, slowed when I past my nemesis, the bathrooms, then slowed again when I got to the office. Its door had wire mesh implanted in the glass itself. Which is how I knew this was the place to go and because through the glass I saw adults at desks, crowded together.

Inside, I told the calm secretary, "Mrs. Otis wants the janitor to come to her classroom, now." She said O.K., thank you. She went to a side room, and said, "Eddie, somebody here to see you." The janitor came out, sipping coffee. "What’s the trouble?" I repeated the request and waited for instructions. Someone in another room was dialing a phone. Eddie looked at the secretary and said, "Teacher’s the boss around here."

We started back together; his keys clattered, his boots squeaked. When we passed the bathrooms, with their impassive and inarticulate doors, out of nowhere I had to pee. Bad.

Asking Eddie for help might be less mortifying than asking the teacher, but, before I could speak, he trotted away, saying aloud, "God, I hope nobody cracked the aquarium."

I stopped. It was time I learned to distinguish the word for boys.

Before the two doors, I looked at one, I looked at the other, then pushed on the first one. Hallelujah, there was the big steel trough where we boys let it fly. My stream splattered at one of four drains along the bottom. A sweaty silver pipe above the trough dripped from a coupling onto a tear-shaped rust stain. To my side in the first stall, white pants draped a visible trace of sneakers. There was sniveling: It was Larry.

Some day we might talk about what had happened, when we were sixteen and double-dating or, later, first-time fathers. Then, I assumed that he had a weak bladder. I didn’t realize he was as ignorant and fearful as I was. Yet I knew instinctively that his chair-wetting horror was private and further privacy, in the stall, probably gave him the opportunity to feel his shame completely. Because he was my friend, I urged him (inside me) to let it go—full snivel, full whimper. He needed none of my judgment, just as Randy Taggart in tenth grade whom we discovered masturbating in the shower needed none of the snapping taunts those two or three bullies meted out with rolled towels and hyperbolic mockery. Larry needed distance, a respectful, graven silence like the freshly branded calf seeks around the corner of the barn.

I two-handed the BOYS’ door open and, again, I ached to know which door was which. I thought to mark it somehow. Get a knife and make a scratch. Just then Mrs. Otis came up.

"Is Larry still in there?" I said, Yes. "Good," she said. "I telephoned his mother and she’s coming over with a fresh change of clothes. How awful that this happened, huh?" She asked if I wouldn’t mind taking the clothes into him when his mother arrived. I said, no, I didn’t mind. She said, "So you know the difference between the boys and the girls," pointing to one, then the other word. I nodded yes, then shook my head no, a decisively slow no.

"Oh," she said. "Then, I have an idea which might fix everything."

We walked quickly toward the classroom, passing Eddie in the broom closet, filling his small-wheeled mop bucket with water. She asked if I had found him. Yes, I had; he was in the office. "Very good," she replied. In the room, the other kids relaxed in their line by the windows as if awaiting a Ferris-wheel ride. Murray was still animated, now sitting on Mrs. Otis’ stool and tapping her black-tipped pointer at an orange mass on the wall map. She said, softly, "Murray, please get down. I need the stool." He acted like he didn’t hear. I hollered, "Murray, get off!" He leapt like a poked frog. Mrs. Otis then told us while lifting the stool that she wanted everyone in the room to follow her.

At the bathrooms, she put the stool down in front of one door and told each of us to get on it, stand feet close together (her hands would hold our waists), reach up a finger to the word BOYS, and trace the letters. I was first. The letter B made a long stem down one side and two half-circle curves, even and joined, on its right side. The next letter, O, was easy—a ball. So was the Y, a fork in the road, so was the S, a body sleeping. I outlined the word very slowly and repeated it, at her suggestion. In addition, she had me pronounce each letter with her. When each boy and girl had finished tracing and saying the letters, she carried the stool over for the same lesson on GIRLS. Again, I led off. The letter G had a broad circle that ended three-quarters of the way around under a short horizontal line. I did the I, hat and shoes, the R, a B with a kick, the L, sitting with your back to the wall, and again the S. Do it twice, Mrs. Otis insisted. Say them aloud. Feel them speak on your fingers. These were the tall forms of the letters; there were small forms, too, and those she’d teach us that afternoon. When Mrs. Ebersold brought Larry’s clothes, I took them in and told him to hurry up because we would soon start making words in our tablets.

Making words in our tablets, feeling those words speak on my fingers became more than speech: Living in the word would become a habit for life . . . for instance . . . the day after a woman whom I loved for four years dumped me I wrote thirty-five pages in my journal, detailing every nuance of that awful day, working out the paradox that I did and did not know her exit was coming, hoping against hope that I might turn the day into fiction, the fiction of fantasy, of obliteration, of nothing like this could ever happen because I had made it all up in my journal . . . the day my father died, a day I was not there, I wrote a prose poem in his voice that imagined the last things he said to me and I to him until I believed the poem’s words were actually his words, reaching for me with love and regret in the bitterness of dying . . . the day my son Jeremy stepped out of his childhood and into adolesence, I described how he roughhoused with his dog Lucy in the front yard of his mother’s home, how he held Lucy up with a stick clamped in her mouth, the two full-force partners pulling each other into one mighty taunt and then, two years later, I read him that scene which I had worked on and polished and put in a book, and he said yes, he recalled that day and wondered why I stared at him then, why I was often staring at him when I left him off at his mother’s until yes, he, too, saw his younger self through my eyes which he now felt speaking to him in the words of my tablet.

Later that same day, Allison and I were drawing the big square letters into being on our wide-ruled paper, working avidly in sync. My pencil was now my finger. Hers, too. The shapes came easily. Larry, with a new outfit, and Rose Ellen were at it just like us.

Every so often Allison got frustrated and stopped. "Isn’t this writing hard for you?" she asked. I think she wanted it to be because when she stopped I kept going. Suddenly, she got testy: "Why won’t you help me?"

I did. I umbrellaed her hand and had her trace a finger over the harder letters like Q and K and W which I’d made. That was all she needed. A touch to settle her down. A week later, our hands were guiding each other through the frustrating shapes of cursive. She had me mime those curly letters in the air, which helped a lot, and I got her to press harder, occasionally popping the pencil point. I found a way to work with her questions, too. I would start telling her a story, say, something which had just happened on a Cub Scout camp out over the weekend, and she would, at some underdeveloped turn of the plot, interrupt me with the nosiest questions imaginable, such as Why didn’t you cry out for help? . . . What color was the tent? Blue, green, grey, very, very red? . . . There’s a big difference between a squirrel and a fox, which was it? . . .You wouldn’t have run away, would you? Many of her finer turns brought excitement to the tale, so I would incorporate them eagerly. In fact, Allison’s interruptions, like those of a good gruff editor, sharpened my storytelling so thoroughly that once I began writing these stories down I was seldom able to distinguish between that which I had experienced and the details of place, person and feeling she would have insisted I add, develop and, for her impassioned ear, maybe exaggerate just a little.