In my youth, Baltimore City had “open enrollment,” a policy that probably kept the desegregration of schools here at bay a little while longer, as one theoretically could attend any school. The city’s best and the brightest competed for slots in the “A” course at Western and Polytechnic, public schools that were allowed to be same sex schools well into the ’70s. Finally, a girl enrolled at Poly, which was known for its math and science curriculum. Poly trained the engineers, City College trained the doctors. And, once upon a time, Western and Eastern trained the girls who married the engineers and doctors. To this day, no boy has ever attended Western, a detail that fascinates me. (Eastern is gone, City College a magnet school.) How do they keep the boys out of Western without breaking the law?
I made the “A” course, so I went to Western for ninth grade, which was far from our neighborhood. My father or another friend’s parent took us in the morning. To get home, I rode public transportation, the #15 Lorraine. It was free; students were given a booklet of tickets each month to cover our rides. The #15 didn’t come all the way to my neighborhood; few public buses did. I got off on Forest Park Avenue and walked a mile home, alone.
They speak of growth spurts in adolescence, but mine was slow and steady. I was at least 5-7, perhaps at my eventual height of 5-9 by the time I was 14. My relationship with my body was the usual stew of adolescent hatred. I thought I was fat and ungainly. And I was a very young 14, the kind of girl who would have still been kicking boys in the shins if there had been any boys at Western. Other girls spent the lunch hour in the courtyard our school shared with Poly. I spent it in the library, where I obsessively read and re-read the memoirs written by a writer better known for his children’s books about a Utah family whose middle son, Tom, was a “Great Brain.” I was in my Western phase.
So, imagine a female version of Lennie from Mice and Men, book-smart but world-stupid, 14 years old in chronological age, 11 in emotional age and 18 years old in appearance. Imagine her walking a mile down a semi-busy street – a golf course on one side, houses on the other. Her skirts are short because that’s the style; her tops are tight because she’s constantly putting on weight.
There were the old men, who were drunk. The young men, who were stoned. All with the same goal — “Get in my car. C’mon. You don’t want to walk, I’ll take you where you’re going.” I wasn’t stupid enough to accept their offers, but they were often stubborn, following me down Forest Park Avenue, repeating their offers. This confused and frightened me. I thought I must be doing something wrong. Walking funny, perhaps. According to a family story, my grandmother counted the rolls of fat in my baby thighs and noticed I had one more roll on one side. (Oh, I was a stunner.) A pediatrician was consulted and he allowed that one hip was slightly higher than the other, which might make me twitch a little when I walked. “If it were a boy, I might fix it,” the doctor allegedly said. “But it’s okay for a girl to walk like that.”
Clearly, it wasn’t. I walked home, my errant hip twitching, and shut myself in the black-and-white tiled bathroom, wondering what message I was transmitting to the world and how I could make it stop.
And that’s just one story about the #15 Lorraine. What happened _on_ the bus is another one, a very different one. I’ll save that for another day.
School days, school days, dear old golden rule days . . .