Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Birds, bees and other creatures

During the past week I've been rereading Dandelion Wine, a novel by one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury. More on that some other post. In the preface, Bradbury discusses his creative process. He talks about going back to memories of childhood and picking a visual or a word or a smell and starting with that, then seeing what unfolds. I've been ruminating on his idea and this morning, my own inspiration hit me.

The "F" word. I know, I know—it's an unlikely muse for someone like me, but hear me out.

It was 1977, and I was in second grade at Fauntleroy Elementary School in West Seattle. Fauntleroy was down the hill from where we lived at a rental house on Donovan Street, the house with the lilacs.

The school closed in 1981. The last time I was there was for Ruth's wedding reception, five years ago. Behind the school, the playground was a ruin of twisted steel, patched here and there with decrepit rubber mats, like so many peeling bandaids vainly trying to hold together the hopelessly cracked asphalt. The still-handsome brick building space was rented out to a day care, a dance school and private events.

In 1977, though, Fauntleroy throbbed with life, the pulsing blood of school children pumping reckless through each arterial hall. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Crawford, was an awe-inspiring woman with silvery blond bobbed hair. More than once she chastized me for losing myself in a book at the beginning of class, only to surface, startled, in the middle of the Pledge of Allegiance.

One crisp morning as I was hanging my blue and yellow parka in the coatroom, I heard it whispered. Scandalized sniggers. Later, as I sank behind the wide wooden expanse of desk, exhausted by lunch recess, I heard it again, from the scalawag seated just to my left. I turned and whispered it back, but even then my voice had the (unhappy) ability to project, and I quickly found myself facing the stern visage of Mrs. Crawford. With a single look worth a hundred lectures, she dispatched me to the principal's office.

Mr. Richardson and I were already well acquainted, and he gestured for me to be seated on an uncomfortable wooden chair in front of his massive desk.


I abjectly explained that I had said something bad, and told him what it was.

"Do you know what that word means?"

I shook my head no.

"I'm going to send you home, and when you get there, I'd like you to tell your mother what you said and ask her to explain to you exactly what it means." I was dismissed.

The quarter-mile walk home up the hill was especially long that afternoon. Mr. Richardson must have called my mother because she was forearmed with a pencil and notepad. She started with the obligatory brief remonstrance about the unsavory nature of the "F" word. Then my mother—the daughter of a nurse who would one day become one herself—segued perilously with "When a mommy and a daddy love each other," and launched into a detailed clinical description of human intimacy, complete with anatomically correct drawings, to scale.

Fascinated, terrified and disgusted all at once, my eight year-old eyes never looked at boys quite the same. Or my own parents, for that matter.

I'm thinking when the time comes to have The Talk with Audrey, I'll probably skip the pad and pencil.

1 comment:

aubrey said...

lol. what a lovely story you just told and interesting that it began with the f word. thank you for sharing a little piece of your past, your writing is captivating.