You know that one moment when acquaintances unequivocally reveal themselves to you in something of a regrettable fashion that is almost certainly a mistake? It’s always awkward, because while they are the ones who cannot go back in time and undo or unsay whatever has just been done or said, you are the one with the burdensome choice of either pretending it didn’t happen or in some way commenting on it. Both of you will stare at each other for a few seconds, knowing that regardless of which option you pick, it will cause the other person to dig themselves even deeper into what is now your mutual uncomfortableness. This is a crucial point in human relationships, because there is no recovery, only a deepened understanding or a swift rejection. Most people avoid this moment like the plague. Others, myself included, have been known to encourage it. I do not have any friends who have never made a complete ass out of themselves in front of me. It suggests to me that I have full reciprocal impunity to make an ass out of my own self, and I find this comforting.
Even so, someone should have told Mrs. F back in junior year that high school girls were not her friends. She was a small and energetic brunette sporting a shaggy, mousse-curled mop of hair that combined with her saucer-sized blue eyes caused her to resemble a muppet. One of the pretty-girl muppets, but a muppet nonetheless. Anyway, Mrs. F was the choir director. High school choir is intense, man, and requires something of a charismatic leader to inspire in its teenaged singers the appropriate sense of being part of something important and challenging. The teacher before Mrs. F, Mrs. B, had this quality in spades, but the downside of this was that she was totally and completely evil in that Jean-Brodie-meets-David-Koresh kind of way. While Mrs. B loved nothing more than to do things like miscast the school musicals with sophomores in the lead roles and then sit back to enjoy the ensuing macrodrama, Mrs. F just kind of did her job. When people sang solos, it was because their particular voice fit the particular piece of music. Choir members were not pitted against each other so that Mrs. B could catalog who would crumble under her perversely-applied pressure and who would take it up as a cause. With the advent of Mrs. F, choir was suddenly a simple endeavor: we sang, Mrs. F directed us.
As much of a relief as this was, it was also boring. We had no sense of knowing who Mrs. F was, or what we needed to do in order to work with her to our own maximum benefits. For this reason, she was dismissed as an authority figure and we began to more of less self-govern.
Since we hadn’t been looking to Mrs. F as any sort of personal role model, the day that her inherent authority as a teacher made itself known brought with it a heightened sense of shock. The story that ensued is one that is capable of sending my friend Jamie (who was there too) and I into spastic states of mirth and disbelief to this day. It is also one that terrifies me when I remember that I’m also a teacher now, and infinitely capable of creating a similar effect in my college freshmen in the space of one misworded sentence, one personal anecdote gone awry.
Anyway, we were all on the bus home from a choir competition in Boston. We’d done decently. Everyone was tired. A few of us were sitting in a little five or six girl knot in the middle of the bus when Mrs. F stopped over for a chat. I don’t remember what we’d been talking about, but it was probably something having to do with boys or sex, subjects that most of us knew little about and were therefore required to carry on conversations about at all times. The level of girlish bonhomie was high, enough to intoxicate Mrs. F into a state of security. She sat listening to our chatter for awhile before interrupting with a naughty fable of her own:
“I went to a bachelorette party once where we got drunk and put gourds down our pants and… you know.”
“What?” someone finally asked.
“You know,” said Mrs. F, popping her giant blue eyes at the speaker.
“I don’t know,” said Maureen McEvoy, who sealed it right there because if any one of us would know, it was probably Maureen.
“Me either,” I spoke up. We all looked at each other with a combination of puzzlement and horror, Mrs. F included.
“You know,” Mrs. F repeated one more time before going to sit somewhere else in the bus. Her insistence that we must know of a probable course of action following the part where a bunch of women put gourds down their pants was sincere, and tinged with an eye-rolling certainty that we were trying to embarrass her by suggesting that she elaborate on this.
“What kind of gourds were they?” I asked after she’d left. None of us knew, and having been left to figure this out on our own, Mrs. F’s story took on an added element of the sinister. Did they like… masturbate with them? I didn’t see how Mrs. F would have felt comfortable telling us this partial story fragment in the first place if that were the case, nor could I imagine the logistics of how a gourd down one’s pants would provide any kind of sexual frisson, especially while hanging out with girlfriends at a party. Had Mrs. F told us that she and her drunk friends had merely pretended that the gourds were boners or something, it would have been met with relief, because putting gourds down your pants and pretending they were boners probably is funny. But it made no sense that after beginning this story, she would refuse to elaborate on the very part of it that would make the telling of this story in the first place in some way okay. Was there some third option that possibly had nothing whatsoever to do with sex? The “down the pants” part seemed to deny that possibility, as did the mysterious, “you know.”
Had any of us for any reason put gourds down our pants and then told a story about it, we would have told the entire story, but the only clue Mrs. F left was the fact that she was a teacher, making whatever had happened next something necessarily inappropriate to tell high school girls.
Suddenly, we understood the deep ambivalence of authority, perpetually torn between allowing one’s true self to do the governing and fearing the resultant loss of respect. We also understood that we ourselves held a certain degree of power over authority, capable of deciding whether or not to allow our authority figures their humanity. But the thing we understood best was that we really had no idea what to expect from life if our slightly dopey choir director was a woman with a secret life, a life in which she put gourds down her pants and… you know.
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