At 7:30 on a Monday morning in the high school office, I listen as the principal explains to my ex-husband how he will mentor, not fire, the wrestling-coach-turned-algebra-teacher who called our older daughter a bitch.
“Mr. S is young,” Principal W says. “He made a mistake.” I am thinking about how twenty-five years ago, I too was a young teacher who made mistakes–misspelling words on the board or letting recess run long. Not publicly calling a child a bitch.
But the principal has his smile and his suit, and my ex-husband won’t stop talking about feminism and the implications of the word “bitch,” and my daughter just this morning pleaded, “Mom, if you make this a big deal, they’ll only make everything worse for me.” I bite the inside of my lip so I won’t cry. She’s right that they’ll make things worse, but that clip from our lives can’t be the whole truth.
In 1998 in August in Fort Collins, my pit bull Hector and I stand on the porch of a fraternity house near my apartment where the banner reads, “Don’t worry Daddies, we’ll take care of your daughters.” The boy who opens the door is only a few years younger than me. I ask who put the sign up, and he tugs at his Ram’s cap, scared. “Wasn’t me.”
I loosen Hector’s leash and tell him, “My roommate was raped at a frat party, so I don’t think this sign is funny.” Fraternity Ken apologizes. His brothers help take the sign down, and for a moment, the street feels better to Hector and me. This clip from my life is also true.
My older daughter makes it through algebra with the help of a tutor, and Mr. S stops saying “bitch” in class though he still mocks her for asking “stupid” questions. When summer comes, my daughters take me to the Barbie movie, and on the drive back, they joke about the boys who throw lunch meat at them, the teachers who calls them “sweetie,” and the classmate who keeps trying to impress them with the fish he catches.
The world feels safer when it’s hilarious.
And we don’t worry that in Barbie movie-land, the rules of the universe don’t all make sense. For example, why is there only one weird Barbie? What about the others, like the Barbie my best friend once did brain surgery on? And how did the Kens actually brainwash the Barbies? Barbie land works best when you stop trying to force all the conflicting realities to fit together.
In August, my daughters and I take trapeze classes. We like leaping from the platform like wonder-women and spinning up onto the bar. At the outdoor flight rig, Coach E yanks at my older daughter’s safety belt like he wants to crush her guts. “You’re not listening to me when you’re up there.”
She rolls her eyes. “I can’t listen when I’m upside down and you’re screaming.” The coach stalks off and starts doing one-armed pushups in the grass because he can. My younger daughter pulls out her phone and silently films him. My older daughter hisses, “Bro gives total Mr. S vibes.”
Coach E does a gratuitous handstand, smiling at the woman in expensive leggings. My daughters bend over the phone together, whispering. “We made an edit.” They show me how they overlaid the “I’m just Ken” song with Coach E doing pushups in fast motion so that the handstand coincides with the words “blond fragility.” We crack up so much I almost pee.
I used to tell kids not to make fun of people because bullies just act out their own pain. Is laughing about people the best way to take power back? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just one way to find joy splicing all the contradictory life clips together.
Coach E says, “You ready for your turn, or are you too busy not paying attention?”
My older daughter mutters, “One of these days, I’m going to hit him.”
But not today.
Today she wants to try the back-end straddle whip instead. She adjusts the too-tight belt and starts climbing the ladder.