by Maria Schulz
Back when I was a kid (way, way back, when dinosaurs roamed the earth), my parents interacted with us in very different ways than modern parents interact with their children today. I’m not saying it was better, just different.
Like my parents, the schools were happy to open the doors and let us kids go off to our own lives, with very little in the way of guidance or direction. You (or rather, I) would no sooner approach a teacher for answers to questions about God (yardstick alert!), creation (DON’T YOU READ YOUR BIBLE?), fashion tips (my teachers didn’t know how to dress either), and certainly NEVER EVER EVER did we ask about sex.
That’s why I was kind of amused to see an entire semester’s worth of planned activities surrounding the topic of puberty at my children’s schools.
First, there was Movie Night, for the parents. I wasn’t sure what I was in for, so I went feeling slightly ill. What I found was an auditorium filled with giggling, joke-cracking parents who interrupted the teacher, laughed whenever he said things like “raging hormones” and “your children need deodorant,” and talked incessantly throughout the very educational cartoon.
The cartoon was titled something like “I’m Growing Up!” and it featured a very congenial stick figure who had hair sprouting out in weird places, acne all over his face, neck and back, and who could at any time become a boy with new and interesting dreams or a sobbing girl who needed her stick figure mom to tell her about her newest friend.
I left there feeling glad that my children weren’t going to see this movie, because it confused me. I began to re-think my own hard-won facts now that Hermaphrodite Stick Figure shared his/her vast store of knowledge with us.
A few months later, all of the moms were invited to Puberty Night with their daughters. All of the dads were invited to their own Puberty Night with their sons. Thankfully, each event was held at different schools so we didn’t have to deal with all the girls trying to get noticed while the boys marched on in complete oblivion. And that’s just the parents.
“Hello girls and moms,” the facilitator said. “Tonight I’m going to help you all explore what puberty means to you.”
The girls broke out into peals of nervous laughter while the mothers fidgeted.
The facilitator went up to the white board and drew a picture of a stick figure girl. It looked sort of like this:
Then she turned to the girls.
“Who wants to come up here and draw ONE THING that happens to you when you go through puberty?
About 10 different girls ran up to the board and scribbled something onto the body of our stick figure girl, so that eventually she looked like this:
The girls were beside themselves with laughter while one or two of the moms even smiled. I was wondering what was going on across town with the boys. Were there a lot of laughs, or were the dads and boys just as uncomfortable? My daughters left there mildly amused and not at all terrified. They even received a handout called “Puberty Chit Chat—for Girls” that included interview questions for mom and daughter. I can ask my daughters things like:
“What is your favorite music?”
“How are you feeling lately about yourself?”
“What are the biggest pressures you are feeling right now?
In turn, my daughters can ask me the following questions:
“What did you want to be when you grew up?”
“What was the greatest pressure you experienced when you were my age?”
“How did you learn about puberty?”
It was that last question that got me thinking about the ways I learned about life, death, and puberty.
When I would complain or whine about life being unfair, my mother, grandmothers or Uncle Don would come along and say helpful things like, “who told you life was fair. LIFE ISN’T FAIR!”
When someone I loved died, my father shared the news by saying helpful things like, “hey! Grandpa is dead. You can cry if you want.” See, there was no sugar coating where I came from.
But my favorite memories are the ones in which the adults in my life tried to explain their least favorite topic of all: puberty. I had managed to be completely oblivious well into my 11th year and probably would have continued that way for many months to come if it hadn’t been for the hit sitcom, All In the Family.
On one episode, Gloria is talking to her mother Edith, father Archie, and husband Michael, and she’s being really snotty and mean.
“Why are you in such a bad mood?” Michael says.
“It’s because I’ve got my friend,” Gloria replies.
Friend? What friend? I didn’t see any other people in this episode. Sometimes Gloria, Edith, Mike or Archie had a friend on the show, and that friend had a name, like Irene Lorenzo, Beverly La Salle, Stuart, or Stretch. But no matter how hard I tried to see the friend on screen, I just couldn’t.
The rest of the episode had Gloria acting like a total lunatic, fighting with her parents and husband, and being completely impossible. She kept walking around with a hot water bottle pressed against her side and an angry sneer on her face.
Finally, towards the end of the episode, Edith got Gloria and Mike to stop fighting by telling them a story about her mother and father and their fight about maple syrup. Everyone kissed and made up. I still couldn’t find her friend.
This perplexed me. I was usually pretty good at figuring out what was going on, but I could not make this entire story line out at all. So the next day, while driving with my mother to pick my father up from the 7 Train in Flushing, I asked her about it.
“What did she mean, she had her friend?” I said, as we drove down 45th Avenue and turned onto Kissena Blvd. “I didn’t see any friends on that show all night!”
I noticed my mother was gripping the steering wheel so tight that her knuckles were turning white. It was dark out, but the headlights from the passing cars and buses illuminated my mother’s face just enough so I could see her lips pursed in a tight line.
“She doesn’t mean a person,” my mother said, eyes fixed on the road ahead. “She means something else.”
My mother proceeded to tell me who, or should I say “what,” Gloria’s friend was. Then she actually connected it to my life by telling me that I would get my own friend, probably sooner then later.
I said nothing, but wished I could throw the car door open, run down Kissena Blvd into oncoming traffic, and say, “No way! I don’t want or need any more friends! What kind of friend is that anyway?”
But before I could attempt to change the course of fate and end up being run over by the Q27 bus, my father jumped into the car and our conversation was over. I felt nauseous. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t listen to my parents argue or “dialog,” as they used to say in their hippy-speak Marriage Encounter lingo.
Thankfully, my mother didn’t bring up the conversation again. But now light bulbs were starting to go off as I began to understand the many, many commercials that played during the day while my soap operas were on. I never wondered what any of those products were for, because when I asked, my mother or brothers would just say, “don’t worry about it.”
So I didn’t worry about it.
That is, until my 7th grade teacher sent home a note, sealed in an envelope, and yelled at us “to make sure we had our parents sign the consent form and bring it in tomorrow!”
I hand-delivered this missive to my mother and watched her open it.
“What is it?” I asked. I thought maybe I would have to donate one of my kidneys, or increase the number of pennies I put in my Mite Boxes. I was hoping it was the kidney.
“Mrs. Greene is going to teach you about puberty tomorrow.” My mother said.
I gasped. “She’s going to teach the whole class about it?”
“Yes, apparently,” my mother replied.
“I don’t want to learn about that with the boys,” I said.
“Oh don’t make a big deal about it,” my mother said. “It’s all perfectly natural. Your brother Chris has to learn about it too.”
Well, at least now I was laughing.
The next day, we all dragged our sorry selves into Mrs. Greene’s class and sat down. Mrs. G. was a tiny little lady with short black hair, big-rimmed glasses and a great big laugh. Mrs. G. always wanted the candy I hid in my bolero. She was a big fan of Sugar Babies and Reese’s Pieces, and that made me glad. She never asked for my Almond Joys. On most days, she greeted us with a big, ready smile on her face.
Unfortunately that wasn’t how it was going to go for us today. Mrs. G. grasped her pointer stick in her hands and wrote some terms on the blackboard. When she got to “hormones” and “menses,” one of the boys in my class burst out in gales of laughter. Mrs. G. whipped around and slammed her pointer on his desk.
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” she said, as she stuck the pointer in his chest. “I don’t want to hear another word out of you, or anyone else!”
So, we sat there in stunned silence and watched as Mrs. G. drew lots of chalk outlines of the human reproductive system on the board. At least, I think it was the human reproductive system. At one point, it looked like she had drawn a goat.
“And that’s how babies are born!” Mrs. G. yelled, as she smashed down her pointer. She was in a sweat and looked as unhappy as the day she told us her dog had died. “Does anybody have any questions?” she yelled.
I wanted to ask, “What has a goat got to do with the human reproductive system?” but decided not to tempt the fates. Mrs. G. was so lathered up that if I said anything, she just might put that pointer right through my skull. I averted all eye contact and breathed a prayer until, thankfully, the bell rang and we all dashed out of the class.
I was really glad that no one else ever brought the topic of puberty up. I got my knowledge in the same places that everyone else did: SOAP, All in the Family, Dallas, Dynasty, Prince songs on the radio and daytime television. And of course, out in the street, in the bowling alley or in the locker room with all the other kids who didn’t know anything.
Maple Walnut Cookies
I chose this recipe as a nod to Edith from All in the Family, my honorary “other mother.” Enjoy!
So, Hungry Lifers: what’s your favorite puberty story? Did you learn about the birds and the bees from your parents, teachers, equally uninformed friends, TV or Prince songs? Please leave a comment and let us all know. Thanks!