My piece about “Race to Nowhere” is on Huffpo now.
When I was fifteen or so, I read Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, a book about a boy who falls in love with a strange and fascinating girl. Stargirl was homeschooled until she decided she “wanted to socialize,” and then she went to high school, where she played her ukulele in the cafeteria and wore gowns to class and didn’t understand why people made fun of her. She was my age, and she was bursting with love for the whole world.
I thought about writing to Jerry to let him know that he’d been pretty insulting to us homeschoolers. I knew what to wear! And I socialized plenty. At the same time, though, I kind of wanted to be Stargirl. She didn’t care about anything that her peers did, she just expressed herself, regardless of the results, because she knew who she was.
(I didn’t have a ukulele. source)
Mom was always finding classes for me to attend at the Arts’ Council of Princeton. I was already in an adult guided writing circle, and I’d just started a class in figure painting for high schoolers. The teacher was a young woman with long, straight hair and a placid, clear-eyed face. She looked like she never had to smile because nothing ever merited that extreme of a physical reaction.
Stargirl did badly in her classes. She didn’t understand the point of academics. I didn’t understand the point of academics either, but I understood the point of doing well. The painting teacher told me my art didn’t have enough weight. She couldn’t feel the naked woman’s ass where it connected with the floor.
She said “ass,” which impressed me for a few minutes. After class, she took me outside and talked with me for a long time. She told me about her mentor, a famous artist whose work always had lots of weight, who had sculpted a couple having sex, and the man’s hand on the woman’s ass was an exquisitely beautiful moment. You could feel him grabbing her skin. I wondered if she was having sex with her mentor. Probably. But I knew how to talk to adults.
“That’s amazing. What about your own work? I’d love to see it.”
She refused. She didn’t want to influence me. She wrote me little cryptic notes about birds and invisible lines and space. I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about.
“You get it? Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you? Your hand is the bird.”
I nodded solemnly and looked straight into her round eyes. “I think I’m starting to understand.”
She thought my work was improving. I thought it got uglier the more I tried to follow her suggestions.
“Embrace the ugly!” She said. “Find the beauty in shit. Or just paint shit. But I want to smell it. I want it to feel like shit. To stink like shit.”
I wanted to paint beautiful naked women in mysterious settings. Prophetesses. Goddesses. Elvyn queens.
The other students in the painting class already knew each other. I decided I might as well be Stargirl, and maybe I’d have more fun. I put all my hair under a green cap and smeared Vaseline over my face so that it shone as though I was sweating heavily. I loved the look of my glistening skin.
(I still think green caps are cute. Source.)
“What’s on your face?” asked Dad, driving me to class.
“Vaseline,” I said, admiring myself in the little flip-down mirror.
He shook his head, making a sound that was part laugh and part chide. “You’re weird, girl.”
I stood in front of my easel in class that evening, and I began to sing as I worked. Stargirl would’ve sung. I made myself sing. Stargirl wouldn’t have cared when people turned to see who was singing, and she wouldn’t have cared what they thought. She would just enjoy the sounds she was making. She was always in her own world. I was painfully aware of everyone’s eyes on me, but I kept singing. If I did it enough, I’d get used to it. In a minute, the teacher came over.
“Are you singing?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m going to have to ask you to stop.”
I was completely ready to stop, but I forced myself to challenge the system. “Why?”
“Because you’re disturbing the other students. They’re trying to concentrate.”
“Oh, ok. Sorry.” I couldn’t look at her. My body felt gigantic, like I was filling the room, and wouldn’t be able to leave it. Like people would have to squeeze past me to go anywhere. No one could avoid me. I couldn’t avoid anyone. I hated the teacher passionately to myself. She thought she was so liberated, with her invisible lines and her beautiful shit and her weightedness, but she was running this class like every other class in the world, just the way she was supposed to.
A girl near me leaned in and whispered, “That was pretty.”
But it was too late. I wasn’t Stargirl.
The teacher came back over a minute later. She wrinkled her brow at me and whispered, “Are you alright?”
“What?” I said.
“You look like you’re sick. You’re covered in sweat.”
* * *
Wild fun list: Put Vaseline on your face. It looks cool. I think the actors in Battlestar Gallactica wore it ALL the time.