I had been at my new school in Charlottesville, Virginia, for just a few weeks and, as usual, I was late for chapel. St. Catherine's was a small Episcopalian high school that required its students to gather together every morning to listen to sermons and sing praise songs like "Onward Christian Soldier," my personal favorite. "Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before!"–just the jaunty tune to get you ready to face another day in a small Southern prep school.
Having left my public school outside Chicago of more than 4,000 kids to move to rural Virginia, I needed all the help I could get in navigating the tricky social nuances found among kids who had grown up in the South and known each other all their lives.
My graduating class at St. Catherine's had 44 kids. Initially, I felt invisible and extremely awkward. I didn't dress like they did, didn't talk like they did, didn't even always know what they were even talking about. It took me months to squeak out my first "y'all." I never did say "Yes, ma'am." I floated along on the edges of things for the first few months.
My initial plan was to make a loud splash as a new kid–a big fish in a small pond–but it didn't work out that way. Nobody really noticed me. Or if they did, they didn't mention it. "Umm, OK if I sit here?" I remember asking a group of girls in the lunchroom. There were just a couple of tables in there.
"Sure," someone replied, and I sat down. The girls continued their chatter. "Did you go to that dance over at Southern Prep last weekend? I hear Bob Reynolds actually cut in on Sam Richardson's date! He's such a kick!"
I ate my lunch silently and just listened. Dances? Cutting in? What? We didn't have dances in Chicago, not in 1974. We didn't have dates either. I felt lonely and left out. End of day found me driving the 16 miles back home with gloom in my heart. Gloom that I tried to hide when I met the gang–my parents and grandparents–at the door. I felt like Charlie Bucket in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" returning home to his parents and grandparents, but without the golden ticket.
Day after day, it was the same. I got up before anyone else and drank a cup of coffee. I drove the Pinto into town. I went to classes and waited for people to ask me questions about myself. A few people did, but not many. I drove the Pinto home and honed my Southern accent so I could entertain my family at the dinner table with conversations overheard at school. I did my homework and went to bed, early, like everyone else.
Everything changed the day I wore my jean skirt to school.
Like I said, I was late that day. Tardy students were not admitted to chapel, but had to wait in the upstairs hall until it ended. While I waited awkwardly with the other late kids, trying and failing to come up with much in the way of conversation, I noticed the whitehaired lady who worked in the office passing by–twice each time staring pointedly at my skirt. St. Catherine's dress code forbade jean slacks, but the girls rebelled in a quiet way by wearing jean skirts. Granted, mine was not quite like theirs.
I had made it myself by cutting the inseam of an old pair of jeans and sewing on some extra fabric to turn them into a skirt. The extra fabric came from a hand-me-down shirt of my sister's. I chose it because of the intricate embroidery on the front, and thought it quite fetching. I got the feeling, however, that the office lady did not agree.
Later, on my way to class, I noticed another lady looking at my skirt, this one the temporary headmistress of the school, Mrs. Randolph. She stood outside my algebra class, pursing her lips together.
"Miss Clark," she called out, "please come to my office as soon as class ends." Uh oh, I thought, I guess they don't like the handmade effect of the skirt or something. Maybe it looks too much like regular old jeans. Crap. Why didn't I just buy one of those skirts that the other girls have? I didn't mean to stand out– I just wanted to fit in.
As requested, I showed up at Mrs. Randolph's office after class. "Have a seat, Julie," she said, somewhat sternly. I took a seat. She remained standing. "It has come to my attention…" Mrs. Randolph nervously cleared her throat. "It has come to my attention that the appendage to your skirt bears a strong resemblance–a very strong resemblance indeed to a male penis."
"What???" I blubbered. "My skirt? How? What do you mean?" I was humiliated beyond belief.
I left the office in tears, with the instructions to change immediately, even if it was into my gym shorts. I spilled my guts to the first girl I encountered in the hallway, who happened to have a trunk full of wraparound skirts designed by her father, a local boutique owner named "Mr. Phil." She loaned me a skirt and ran off to spread the word of my misfortune to all the kids in the student lounge. Within minutes, I went from loner new girl to school heroine. Lee Carter, queen bee of the popular girls, found me in the cafeteria and said, "You've got to be kidding me. Doesn't this school totally suck? Your skirt was so cool! How did you make it anyway?" Even the boys took notice. "Haha, good one, Julia!" Johnny Baldwin, varsity lacrosse player and cutest boy in the school, said upon my arrival in the student lounge.
Everybody gathered around me, asking about the details of my meeting with Mrs. Randolph. I was a renegade, a rebel, a hero. I was the girl who flaunted the rigid restrictions of the St. Catherine's dress code by wearing a penis to school!
I sped home, bursting with this this latest development in my life. I couldn't wait to tell the folks. I filled them in with all the juicy details, right out there on the back porch, the five of us sitting on rickety lawn chairs and swatting at black flies. "What? Male penis?" my dad said.
"Didn't you tell her that's a bit redundant? All penises are male, after all." Damn. Why couldn't I think as quickly as my Dad? "Write a letter, Dad. Right now!" my mom urged. "If you don't, I will. That's ridiculous!"
Yes, it was ridiculous. And yes, it was humiliating. At the same time, somehow, some way, through a most strange turn of events, I had gained acceptance into the social world at St. Catherine's. I had gone from nonentity to celebrity in one day. Sure, I knew it wasn't going to last. But I had broken through. People looked at me and talked to me and I talked back to them. I even thought I might find a friend or two in the mix. And all because of a skirt that looked like a penis.