Elementary Island

The summer before sixth grade my friends in dance class started all showing up with tokens of change—an extra piercing on their upper lobe, a pink strip of hair. I went to a private school that ran from K-8th and felt cheated. At St. Jeanne’s we had the same thirty classmates since we wore Velcro shoes and all we had to mark our passage into pre-teen life was swapping out plaid jumpers with skirts (the same blue-gray plaid).

The prissiest dancer I knew, Marina, was now wearing Doc Martens suddenly? Talking about skater boys and goths and categories I had never even heard of? The floodgates had opened for these public school girls! Meanwhile, at my dumb school, we were marooned on elementary island. The dead grass and bleak play yard. Surrounded by the convent grounds and some mirrored high-rises that could blind you if you looked at them in the afternoon light (sunglasses, along with nail polish and colored socks, were also against uniform code—of course).

Towards the end of fifth grade, my best friends Vanessa, Renee, Jenna, and I had claimed a tree in no man’s land—a patch of grass near the monkey bars as we tried to carve out our own grown-up space. The tree soon became our secret club. Jenna, because she was the most athletic, had decided if you could high kick to the highest hole you could be a member of the Jawbreakers. We called ourselves that because it sounded rad and because of those speckled candies the size of softballs.

Now in sixth grade: same Jawbreakers, same tree, but the question in our club had changed. Instead of, “How high can you kick?” Vanessa asked, “So how high can you shave?”

Shave? Shave what? I hadn’t been shaving anything, high or low. “Uhh…it depends.”

“My mom said I have to stop at the knee since our skirts are supposed to go to the knee, but I told her that doesn’t make sense—where does the knee really stop? And also, my skirt moves when I sit so how can that be accurate? I promised I would skim the leaves out of the pool every morning if she let me go to this freckle.”

I looked at V’s thigh freckle and felt dizzy mentally calculating all the leg hairs I had been ignoring my whole life.

Jenna ran her thumb along the freckle. “Gross. You can never wear shorts now, V. You’re going to have a weird little rectangle of hair.”

“Can you shave, R?”

“Not until I’m 12 because my sisters had to wait. It like, has to be fair or something. Whatever, I’m getting all the stuff in my stocking this year.”

My birthday wasn’t until summer and I couldn’t imagine waiting the whole school year until I was twelve for some strawberry shaving cream kit. Not to mention, I felt way too embarrassed to bring it up with my mom. She had already been rolling her eyes at Marina lacing up those combat knee boots outside the dance studio.

I decided to wake up early the next morning and sneak into my parents’ bathroom. I’d use my dad’s razor. I wouldn’t even bother with shaving cream. In and out of there like a beauty secret agent.

I did it in the dark with only one little nick. Pulling up my regulation socks over my mostly-smooth ankles that morning felt like pulling off the crime of the century. The nuns were so old they didn’t even think to make rules about shaving our legs! It was the best uniform loophole. It was better than Marina’s combat boots. I felt I had some sweet secret that set me apart, even within the Jawbreakers.

That afternoon at our tree, I waited until Sister Esperanza wasn’t looking and flashed my thighs to my friends. “My mom didn’t even say a thing.” This technically was true.

R groaned that waiting until December was torture. I told her it was worth the wait.

That entire day I felt invincible. The prickles that started by the afternoon just added to the tingly feeling that a bigger world was out there, beyond St. Jeanne’s, beyond Elementary Island.

And the world was out there. And, so was my mom—our Volvo idling in the school’s pick-up line, her flushed face, her serious tone when I hopped in: “Why didn’t you ask me, honey?”

“About what?”

I shifted in my skirt as she lightly grazed my knee. “Shaving. Your dad’s razor was dull this morning. You left me out of a big moment in a girl’s life, honey.”

“I didn’t think you’d care. I mean, it’s just hair—it grows back.”

She looked at me sadly and kept driving. It wasn’t really a lie. It was one of those things you don’t know matters until it happens, even though you kind of sense it beforehand. I rubbed my razor-burned legs against each other and felt both horrible and full of power at the same time.

From age eleven on, my mother with the hairspray and bobby pins at the studio, fussing over whether or not all my hairs were in place, felt different.

My body both was and was not my mother’s now. The line had been drawn where the baby hairs ended and the smooth-ish skin began.

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