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.

4 comments to Stargirl

  • Laura

    I LOVED the book Stargirl growing up!!! I thought she was so wonderful and charming- I actually reread it so many times that the cover fell off. I also begged my mom for a flowing skirt so I could be just like her (ironic, no?). I wore it to school once and started a mini trend amongst my friends who had secret long skirts that they wanted to wear to school but had been too scared. So much fun, what a great book :)

  • I loved Stargirl. I think I want to read it again – it made me cry when she put on makeup and tried to be like all the other girls.

  • Valerie

    My favorite public library librarian of all time, the one who wouldn’t rat me out to the school campus police for skipping school to go to the public library (I guess I always attempted to un-school myself, in a way), recommended Stargirl to me. She said Stargirl reminded her of me. I’ll never forget that she said that. Those words have always reminded me to stay awesome even if it’s only in myself that sees the awesome in me.

  • I’ve never read “Stargirl”! Now I think I’ll have to! There’s a sequel, too, but I can’t for the life of me recall its title, hmmp. I’m also not calling you old by any means, but I never realized “Stargirl” was written as long ago as it apparently was — I thought it was a much more recent publication. Anyway, this was such a beautiful post; I especially love the part about the green cap and the Vaseline on your face — how cool! I abhor teachers (and really, people in general) like that, the ones you have this whole facade of being all progressive and liberated from the burdens of an restrictive society, and then they go right on oppressing students talents and/or emotion within their class rooms. I entertained the notion of becoming a teacher for a while, and even now I think I’d love to be a college professor, but I’d never ever want to be the one who is always crabby and hates open discussion and who just hands out assignments and never gets to know her students. I’d be so disappointed in myself if I became just another teacher like that. I’d want to be memorable, and someone who changes the lives of her students and forces them to think and question and act. I do feel sympathy for teachers in the public school system, though, because with budget cuts and the governor and their bosses telling them what is and is not appropriate, they haven’t got much wiggle room at all. I haven’t read it (I don’t think), but I think it was you who did the post about standardized testing? I think it’s so sad that so much of school is just absorbing information, being scolded for questioning the status quo which that information often represents, and then being asked to puke it all back up on a test to pass the class, after which accomplishment you just forget it all, and re-learn it year after year. It’s so sad, the lack of creativity and safety and freedom to express yourself and emote. :(

    Anyway, this post also gave me courage. I hate to sound as though I have “I’m a Special Snowflake” Syndrome going on, but I’m so different. There was a time at which you could look at me and know this, and unfortunately, I got teased a lot for that, and as a result, learned that to survive you conform and quit trying to show the world who you are. I recently discovered the option of not giving a damn, and I don’t care that I’m different, but I’m still struggling to express that, because that experience really repressed me. One of the shitty things about public school is that first impressions stick for life. You get boxed into whatever or whoever it is that your classmates perceived you to be as a kindergartener, and it’s damn near impossible to break that mold without them thinking you’re going through some sort of phase, or they don’t take the “new you” (who you’ve really been ALL ALONG) seriously. You’re stuck till you graduate, and then who even cares, ’cause you’re gone and never looking back. Next year, I will have the courage to be the girl with tattoos, and the vocal vegan, and the anarchist, and the feminist, and the “hippie”. I will have the strength to not care, because I know that I am wonderful, even if no one else can see that. I know that I’ll meet someone someday who can love me and that it won’t be a chore, and that I don’t deserve to be infantilized and talked down to because I can’t POSSIBLY understand the implications of the things which I claim to stand for. You have my apologies for having out my mini-epiphany here on your blog, but I just wanted you to know that it is your writing, Kate, that has, in part, led to this epiphany. Thank you. <3

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