Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
© AP Photo
I WAS THIRTEEN IN 1956. There was a lot going on in the world that year. Elvis Presley released his first album, the U.S. exploded the first airborne hydrogen bomb over Bikini Atoll, and the Soviets invaded Hungary to put down an anticommunist revolution. There was also something going on in my house. I was only half aware of it, but it formed a kind of constant undercurrent, like a noise that your brain has not yet registered hearing. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with me, and this annoyed me. As a teenager, I was the one who should have been sending out strange vibrations. I was supposed to be the one shaking up the family. It was my right.
We had just moved back to the Kansas town where we’d lived when I was in elementary school. All the kids I had grown up with — the group I had dominated in fourth and fifth grade — had flung themselves into the deep waters of adolescence, while I was still just dipping my toe in the shallow end. Some days I wanted to daydream about boys and kissing (still vague concepts in my imagination), and other times I wanted to get out and run and feel my muscles working and imagine that I was a powerful wild horse that no one could ever catch, letting my hair tangle and become as coarse as a horse’s mane. Nobody in my old group of friends ran like wild horses anymore.
I kept forgetting that I was supposed to keep my voice subdued, that — as my mother and Seventeen magazine advised — I was supposed to smile at everybody and always act as if I were having a wonderful time. I had a horrible tendency to be funnier than the boys I knew, and to talk more, and to know more answers in class, and to refuse to laugh at jokes I didn’t get. Adolescence brought a whole new category of wisecracks I didn’t understand, words whose meanings I didn’t know, and I couldn’t ask my parents or my friends to explain them to me.
It was my eighth-grade year. In our small Kansas town, the junior-high grades were housed in the basement of the high-school building. Every day, going to the gym for phys-ed or to the music room for band, we passed the high-school classrooms, walked through halls that belonged to the high-school kids, watched as they strode confidently or leaned in pairs against the lockers, talking with ease and sophistication. This was what we would become.
My old friends had all been in this building for a year. I was new. I, who had been a leader, was struggling to keep up.
LIKE EVERYONE ELSE my age, I had spent my childhood under the shadow of nuclear war. I knew how treacherous the Soviet Union was. I had already read Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow!, in which twin towns — one committed to civil defense, the other full of skeptical do-nothings — are bombed in a nuclear war.
But it wasn’t just the Soviet Union and the prospect of annihilation that concerned me. The world seemed full of problems that nobody was doing anything about. Surely there were solutions; people just weren’t looking hard enough. Mulling over the world’s difficulties gave me a sense of maturity and also kept me from having to think about those strange vibrations ratcheting around my house.
One part of whatever was happening at home was that money was tight, which only made matters worse for me at school. I couldn’t afford the right clothes. My hair was awful. Lipstick, which I could afford, only made my skin look more sallow — plus I kept chewing it off and forgetting to put more on. I chewed my lips when I thought no one was looking, and whenever I gave one of those I’m-having-a-wonderful-time smiles, I wondered if I had big pink blotches on my teeth.
To cap it all off, my homeroom teacher was my mother. She had always been a popular mom. Now she was a popular teacher. I imagined kids looking from her to me and thinking, What happened? She was losing weight, for one thing. She had always struggled to keep her weight below that of my skinny father. Now, seemingly without effort, she was slimming down. Though at home she was withdrawn, she was vivacious and talkative at school. I wrestled with the suspicion that she liked the rest of the class better than she did me. Why wouldn’t she? She was full of little tips about how to be popular. And popular was the most important thing for a teenage girl to be, far more important than being smart or skillful or original. I knew her tips were good, because they were echoed in the pages of Seventeen, which I read at my friends’ houses but never bought for myself.
I craved popularity, fantasizing about it in bed at night, lying there with all my muscles locked, too tense about the next day to sleep. On the rare occasions when my mother looked my way, I could feel how intensely she, too, wanted me to be popular. If she had been my age, she would have been the most popular girl in the class. No doubt about it.
My father had never been a major presence in our house. He got up early to play golf and often worked late. When he was there, he was part of the background. Sometimes when he and I were in the same room together, and I was sure he was concentrating fully on the television or the newspaper and not aware of me, I would study his face. He rarely smiled, never laughed. Hard as I tried, I could read almost no emotion in him at all.
Lately he was home so little that entire days went by without my seeing him. It was as if he were literally fading, like a character in a trick movie shot: quietly being effaced into nothingness. He and my mother seemed locked in some kind of silent contest. That was the feeling that spread like electricity through the rooms of our dark little house: the tension between two determined competitors.
SOMEHOW, ODD DUCK though I was, I got elected vice-president of the junior-high student council. Vice-president was a girl’s office, like secretary. Girls were never president or treasurer. The council met in the vice-principal’s office, read the minutes of the last meeting, and did little else. There wasn’t much we could do. The high-school student council had the real power, or so we thought from our place in the basement. Our duties were confined to things like running a contest for best Clean-Up Week poster or raising money to buy decorations for the two dances we were allowed each year.
Getting elected had been exciting: a brief time of feeling fully a teenager, even popular. But that feeling had faded by the third or fourth student-council meeting. Going to meetings meant not having time to gossip in homeroom with my friends. Being on student council, like most other aspects of becoming an adolescent, had been far more alluring from the outside.
I had taken to watching a lot of television and even did my homework in front of the TV. The sounds seemed to push the strangeness in the house to the corners of the room, where it could be ignored. That’s how I learned about the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The drama of it grabbed me from the beginning. I was outraged that nothing was being done. The Hungarians didn’t want the Russians in their country; anybody could see that. And if the Russians weren’t willing to get out, it was up to the United States to go over there and force them out. That was our place, our role in the world. I talked about the invasion incessantly, debating the pros and cons of intervention with anybody who would stand still long enough. I always won the debates. That was another thing wrong with me: I loved to argue, and arguing was distinctly uncool. But now, for the first time, I didn’t care.
It was the images of the Hungarian student resistance that really fired my imagination. I wanted to be one of those daring young people: rebels fighting against insurmountable odds — which they would, of course, overcome. They climbed onto roofs, tossed bottle-bombs, and ran laughing through the streets, chased by Russian soldiers in menacing battle gear. Girls fought alongside boys. I could feel the energy sizzling through their veins. They were going to take on the giant Russian bear single-handed — something their elders were too frightened to do — and they were going to win, because surely the rest of the world would see their gallantry and come to their aid.
But the rest of the world seemed not to take note. The United States stalled and debated and sent ambivalent messages. Nightly on the news, the Hungarian boys and girls continued to taunt their oppressors and laugh and run. And the Russian soldiers continued to chase them. The students needed weapons; they needed food; they needed money — some indication that the rest of the world was on their side. I had been raised on stories about the plucky underdog who always won out in the end. But things were not looking good. Even I, watching the news and hearing the equivocal messages from Radio Free Europe to the Hungarians, could see that. But I refused to accept it. I brought the issue before the student council for debate: We had to raise money for the kids in Hungary. They needed us.
The student council OK’d my idea with embarrassed haste. I made up donation jars and went around to every classroom, making my impassioned speech and receiving the same awkward, silent reception each time. Kids averted their eyes as I talked — a sure sign that I was not doing what a popular person would do — but I was past caring. In my mind I’d spun a story in which my junior high saved the Hungarians. If we raised enough money, it would be an inspiration to others. Schools all over the country would do the same. We would pour thousands, millions into Hungary. And somehow (this part was fuzzy) the money would turn the tide. The Hungarians would drive the Soviets back across their borders. And everything would come out the way it was supposed to.
I checked the collection jars every day. Some days there was nothing in them. What little did accumulate came in nickels and pennies. I thought I should give more speeches, talk to everybody over the intercom, get the teachers to insist on more generosity. Couldn’t they see how important this was?
Then Russian tanks moved into Hungary. The student protesters were crushed like so many cards. Sending the money was pointless.
But the money had been gathered. It had to be sent somewhere. I emptied the jars and counted the total. In one week of fundraising for the Hungarian freedom fighters, we had collected $13.23.
Sitting in front of the small mound of coins, I felt a wave of anger and disgust — at the students who had thrown these pennies into the jars; at the governments around the world; at the world itself, a place where tanks could roll over people publicly without reprisal. And most of all at myself. Who had I thought I was? I should have known I was the wrong person to save the Hungarians. Foolhardy but ultimately triumphant endeavors were undertaken by boys, or by groups of popular kids all working together, or by plain girls who turned out to be pretty after all. I wasn’t any of those things. I was not capable of creating a happy ending.
IT WAS MY FATHER who drove me to the post office. We climbed the steps and went into the impersonal, granite-floored lobby. My money would have to be counted again, turned into a postal money order, and then mailed to a Hungarian-relief organization I had tracked down. My father stood behind me as I spoke to the plump, weary woman behind the window. I could feel him hoping I would not take too much time.
I put the jar on the counter and unscrewed the lid. And as I did, my hand slipped. The jar tumbled sideways. Money fell like metal rain. Coins hit the floor and spun and rattled on its hard surface for what seemed an hour. Listening to the noise echo off the walls of the lobby, I wished that somehow I could disappear: crawl into my shame and vanish.
The last penny spun itself out with a dismal, descending sound. The stares of the sparse bystanders weighed on my shoulders and back and head as I knelt to begin picking up the money. My father worked with me, saying nothing. I’d caught a glimpse of his face as the first coins hit the floor: a mask of pained disgust. We gathered the last of the change, bought and mailed the money order, and left without speaking. He moved out of our house that summer.
Madeena Spray Nolan