For all my writing about the drama of starting high school without knowing English, you’d think that there would be some trace of that in the journal that I kept at the time. But if you read that journal, which I wrote in Spanish, you would never know that my English was anything less than perfect.
I did not write about my anguish when I had to diagram a sentence, or when the P.A.’s garbled announcements came on, or when I didn’t understand a test question. Nor did I write about my constant worry that my deficiencies would become apparent to my teachers, and I’d be cast into the outer darkness.
What did I write about in my journal? I wrote about boys.
Landing in Birmingham in late 1958, learning English, figuring out the school rules, trying to fit into a culture that was both alien and compelling—none of these challenges held a candle to the real shocker: there were boys in my class.
And not just in my class. The whole school was overrun with them–boys by the dozen, in the chapel, the stairwells, the gym. Boys in crew cuts, jostling each other in the halls, dropping books and slamming doors, stretching out their long legs under the desks. Boys with voices that switched unpredictably from bass to soprano. Boys who looked like men, and boys who looked like little kids.
Until 9th grade, I‘d hardly ever spoken to a male my age. I was the only child on both sides of the family, and in my German nuns’ school the only man was an ancient Augustinian friar with a waist-long white beard who came once a week to hear our confessions. My school in Quito was also boy-free, with the exception of the ones from the Jesuit school who would follow our school bus on its rounds, shouting and gunning the engines of their motorcycles.
In my all-female schools, the smartest kid in the class was always a girl, as were the troublemaker, the shy one, and the mean one. When the teacher asked a question, whoever knew the answer raised her hand, without a second thought. If somebody made a mistake, no one hesitated before correcting her. The best mathematician, the fastest runner, and the daintiest embroiderer were all girls.
But now here I was in a class overflowing—they took up so much more space than girls—with boys. As with most aspects of life in America, I found them fascinating as well as terrifying. How was I supposed to behave around these odd beings? On the rare occasions when one of them addressed me my scant English would desert me, and I would stare and stammer until he turned and walked away.
I watched the other girls for hints of how to act. The more popular ones, the ones who got phone calls from boys and went out on real dates, seemed to smile and giggle a lot, and they didn’t speak up much in class.
The giggling and smiling disconcerted me. I hadn’t had any experience with boys, but I’d read a few 19thcentury Spanish novels, in which the lady was always indifferent to the hero’s passion, which paradoxically made him desire her even more desperately. So imbued was I with this principle of female behavior, that whenever a boy showed the slightest interest in me–no matter that I would have given ten years of my life for a date or a mere phone call from him–I would instantly quash it with my severe looks.
My 19th century tactics didn’t work with American boys, who were accustomed to positive, or at least intermittent, reinforcement from girls. My outmoded notions, combined with my general awkwardness, put them off, and they mostly ignored me except to make fun of my, to them, unpronounceable name.
But there was another factor behind my lack of success with the opposite sex that took me a long time to figure out. As a result of eight years of all-female education, I didn’t realize that certain ways of acting in class might repel my male classmates. Blithely unaware of the appropriate modes of feminine behavior, once my English improved, if I knew the answer to a question I never hesitated to raise my hand. Even worse, it didn’t occur to me to hold back from contradicting something a boy had just said. In those moments, I was more interested in impressing the teacher than in inspiring love.
So I spent those early years sitting at home by the silent phone, writing feverishly in my journal about which boy had said hi to me in the hallway, and which boy had kicked my desk in a meaningful way during Religion class. It is a wonder that I managed to learn anything—how to speak English, or how to write a term paper, or the five proofs of the existence of God—with boys all over the place.
Sadly, these days I periodically hear from former classmates that one or another of those boys has died. And when I learn of such a death, I mourn not the balding patriarch of a loving family, but the long-legged, mysteriously alluring teenager eternally barging through the school halls of my mind.