Tammy Wynette was right, sometimes it is hard to be a woman, but it's so much harder to be a chubby 11 year old girl with a flat chest who stands half a foot taller than three fourths of the boys in her class. That was me in 1985, the year I started the sixth grade. If someone had told me then that in four short years these problems would all work themselves out just fine, I might not have spent most of the cruel torture that is middle school feeling mortified by the simple act of being alive. But what I did not know could not help me, and for the tween that I was the loathsomeness of my body, my hair, my clothes, my existence was a permanent condition and the only hope I had in life was to act natural and pray that no one would register exactly how disgusting I was.
Which is not to say that I didn't want to be noticed. I did. See, I'm a middle child and middle children have an insatiable craving for someone, please god anyone, to recognize how remarkable they are. I was constantly trying to unlock my hidden genius so that the world, or at least my family, would be forced to admit that while they in their plebeian stupidity had failed to recognize it, I had been extremely gifted all along. I made my own cologne from Scope and flavoring extracts, I attempted to train our family dog through telepathy, and I sang a smoldering rendition of Charlene's “I've Never Been to Me” into a hairbrush so many times that I still remember all the lyrics to this day. Thematically, it's an advanced song for a kid, but like Charlene I understood the nuanced tragedy of life's untapped potential.
The combination of my equally urgent desires to have both my talents rewarded and my flaws ignored led me to join the chorus when I started at West Millbrook Middle School. In those days any student who participated in either the chorus or the band was exempt from Phys. Ed. three days a week, which meant three less times I had to dress-out in the locker room and run the risk of anyone seeing my training bra. Plus, I enjoyed singing and felt certain that I was good at it, so obviously joining the chorus was the way to launch myself on to far bigger and much better things. I took my place on the risers, at the top of course as not to obstruct anyone's view, and dutifully learned my parts for songs like the spiritual “Wade in the Water” and a hot Hoagie Carmichael medley as they were taught to me by Mrs. Edwards, our portly instructor and piano accompanist who had a giant dyed red bouffant circa 1961 and was clearly nostalgic for the days of Jim Crow. She was awful and I hated her, but she had the power to chose which singers were awarded solos, so I knew I had to make nice. No matter how much it inflamed my sensibilities every time she took a bite of her ever-present candy bar while counting out a measure – one, two, bite, chew, chew, six, seven, eight – I stuffed my feelings down deep and forced a smile. If I was going to get off those risers, I would need her.
It paid off big time too. The following year, seventh grade, I was selected as the second or mezzo soprano who would represent West Millbrook in the All County Chorus. My moment had arrived; I had been chosen. This was in the late autumn or early winter of 1986. To put things in perspective, around the same time that Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize and Mike Tyson won the heavyweight title, the Iran Contra scandal erupted in the news, and the releases of both Sid and Nancy and License To Ill thrilled young people nationwide. Later these would all be things that mattered to me, but not then because I was a 12 year old girl on the verge of tapping into my own greatness.
All County was a big deal on the middle school choral scene. Each school from Wake County could send one and only one singer from each vocal range – soprano, mezzo, alto, treble, and bass – to represent them for a one time only holiday performance. You learned your part and practiced on your own, meeting once a week with the other singers during the month prior to rehearse. I knew it wasn't Broadway, but I felt special. It was a slice of the recognition I knew I deserved. We beamed a little, each one of us, because we were winners. On the risers in our acoustic practice room we were positioned as we would be during the performance. I was in my usual spot at the top and in the center with the rest of the freakishly tall girls. There wasn't much time for socializing - we never even learned one another's names - but we got to be kind of friendly, us gargantuan preteen mezzos. There is a kinship that can only really be shared by girls who don't fit the mold, girls who understand that the clothes in the Junior's department weren't designed with them in mind, and the articles in Seventeen Magazine probably aren't going to apply either. Scarce were the messages about girl power, diversity, and positive body image floating around the middle school circuit in Raleigh, NC in 1986, but at least we had each other and there was safety in numbers.
For our recital the director had selected “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” This selection pleased me immensely. This was not some piss-ant little ditty like “Jingle Bell Rock” or another impossible holiday cliché like “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Yes, the Gloria was a bold choice. It was a big song, it had history, it had gravitas, it involved Latin for fuck's sake. When we all sang it together it filled the room with the dark ritualistic majesty of Christendom. It started out soft and as it progressed it gained mass, climbing to a billowy crescendo that gave one goosebumps. Upon reaching its last enormous “in excelsis day-AAA-oooohhh” it ended abruptly and was followed by a silence like thunder that commanded attention and respect. What's more it was a challenge to master, requiring the singer to control her breath and sing from the diaphragm, pushing down air and contracting the muscle for volume. It took skill and it took practice, but we were up to the task. We weren't just some cluster of pimply chumps, after all. No, we were the All County Chorus.
Just before the performance itself we assembled in our practice room wearing our matching pressed white button up shirts with black pants for the boys and skirts for the girls, our sheet music housed in matching black leather folios. We all took our places on the risers for one last rehearsal with instructions to treat this run through as if it were the real thing, and that meant no gum, no giggles, no nudging your neighbor, or scratching your nose, or tilting your head to the side. I sang my pudgy little adolescent heart out, paying close attention to my breathing, making sure to silently gulp in the air during the miniscule breaks in the song and push it down, and to increase my volume by contracting my diaphragm so as not to strain my delicate vocal chords. As the song grew, so did the need to breath and contract, breath and contract, like some musical lamaze experiment. Ultimately, there was just too much breathing and too much contracting for my body to contain and so at the precise moment that the song crescendoed and ceased to be, instead of a silence like thunder there was the sound of me, a chubby flat chested now 12 year old girl, ripping the loudest and most profane fart I had and have ever heard in all my life.
Let me be clear, this was not the adorable inopportune gas of a child, this was the echoing flatulence of a full grown man, and there was no chance that it would go unnoticed. Nor would it escape anyone's attention that the roaring abomination had come from the top and center of the risers. Guilt would be assigned and ridicule would follow the likes of which I had never known but had always, always feared. There was still a week of class left before the holiday break and four of those kids were going to be in school with me the very next day. They were going to tell everyone. I fought back the surging panic. It was a fate worse than death, I knew that much, and if there was a merciful God, a God who loved me, he would take my life right then. But death did not come, and I knew I was on my own. If there was a God, why, why had he done this to me? Why had he taken my moment from me, taken my chance for glory and excellence and turned it into a pit of blackness and despair? But this was no moment for questioning faith, nor was it a moment for self-pity. I had gleaned that much from my situation with the greed and self-consumption of a preteen who was used to disappointment. This was a moment for action, this was primal Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and if I was going survive I would need to be swift, to show no mercy as none had been shown to me. The act of cruelty that followed is one that haunts me still.
I turned to the girl at my left on the risers, my sister in awkwardness, my husky mezzo comrade, a girl whose name I did not know but whose face I'll never forget, and I looked at her with shock as I wrinkled my nose and pretended to try not to laugh. I looked at her as if I could not believe what she had just done, but in my feigned good manners I would not ridicule her like everyone else was going to. It was as brilliant as it was terrible. She looked back at me with what I would learn in tenth grade English was the face of Caesar, saying “et tu brute?” In that moment, there was only me and her; our eyes locked and in mine she discovered the meaning of betrayal. What I knew a nanosecond before, and what she knew then, was that someone was going to go down for this and it was not going to be me.
As anyone could predict, the giggles and snickers commenced. The heads turned and as they did that poor girl's face got redder and redder, which only made her appear to be more and more guilty of the offense she had not committed. I, however, remained composed. I would live to fight another day, but at what cost? The performance which followed was stripped of all joy for me and in it's place was only shame. What had become of me? Where was my sense of fair play, my goodwill towards man? This was not the spirit of Christmas and I knew it, but I lacked the sand to come clean, to admit that not only had I farted, but I was a coward too. Not a Christmas season has gone by since 1986 when I haven't wondered which of my life's failures might be attributed, karmically speaking, to this one gesture.
I know that confession here will not absolve me, and neither will tracking this woman down and sending her a fruit basket, though if it were possible I would do that, or maybe a Target gift card because everybody can use one of those and the fruit they put in baskets is gross anyway. I hope that this woman, wherever she is, is gorgeous with glossy hair and a warm house full of twinkles and cheer. Most of all, I hope that she is telling her own beautiful chubby flat chested adolescent daughter the horrifying holiday tale of the bitch who threw her under a bus in the seventh grade All County Chorus, and how she learned that there are more important things in life than ridicule, like truth and decency and kindness. In the spirit of the season be good to each other as best you can, and so Happy Christmas, I hope you have fun.