Why Standards Night Is Substandard
Amy's mom grew thoughtful. "Probably not," she finally said. "I never even considered that might be a factor." She was quiet for another moment, and then suddenly looked me in the eye. "How did you know?"
I replied, "Because I remember."
All the sixth graders in my school district went to Outdoor Education camp for a week in the fall. There were separate cabins for boys and girls, but our daytime activity groups were mixed. Luckily Bill Polizos, the boy I'd pined for since 4th grade, was in my group. Unluckily, so was Mr. Lee, our school's gym teacher who didn't like me and didn't hesitate to tell me so. I was immature, he said, and he was right -- socially and physically I was nothing but awkward. Because of his dislike for me, Mr. Lee's gym class was doubly humiliating, especially the gymnastics unit. The other girls would execute graceful backbends and roundoffs on the floor mats, but no matter how many times Mr. Lee shouted instructions, I couldn't even turn a cartwheel. When it was my turn for the vault, he would reluctantly step close to the springboard to spot me, and as I forced myself to run to him his face would harden with distaste.
The last night of Outdoor Ed there was a dance, the first boy-girl social event for most of us. My cabin mates convinced our two teenage counselors to let us try on their makeup, and at one point someone handed me a thick tube of black mascara. I applied several layers to my eyelashes before heading to the main cabin for the dance. I was standing with some friends, trying to look relaxed and nonchalant, when I heard Mr. Lee telling stupid jokes to some other kids behind me. I turned around to roll my eyes, and found myself face to face with him.
He glanced at me, did a double take and took a step backward. "Whoa," he said, and stared at me with open admiration. "You, um . . . you look different tonight."
I turned back around, not knowing how to respond. Mr. Lee's sudden approval seemed kind of creepy. But even so, I was strangely exhilarated. Something important had just happened: the balance of power in our relationship seemed to have shifted in my favor. Apparently that mascara had revealed in me something he liked, something he wanted. And I sensed that desire granted me leverage, like the leverage I used to have with my mother -- the gravity to bend life in the direction I wanted, and hold others in my orbit.
This power had secured my universe as a preschooler, although once I hit kindergarten its force began to wane. Despite my most concentrated efforts, I failed to keep my father from leaving. I failed to keep my mother's attention and loyalty once she remarried. At that point it was my stepfather's will that counted anyway, and with him my little-girl tactics backfired miserably. But just now, with just one glance, I'd affected Mr. Lee's mood and feelings and even behavior. I spotted Bill Polizos on the other side of the room and imagined possibilities.
The balance sheet continued to change for me and my girlfriends as we emerged from childhood into womanhood. Our increasingly voluptuous bodies were reliable tools of status and control. The power was heady, but confusing, because wielding it always left us feeling empty and weak. And it was treacherous, because its force attracted not only the male peers we were aiming for, but also troubled stepfathers and leering strangers. But by the time we realized the perils, we'd grown dependent on this means of power. Of course it didn't yield true power, because it didn't originate within ourselves: it originated within the perceptions of the boys and men we hoped to entice. Yet in our economy of success, sexual attraction was the only currency we thought we held. And counterfeit money was better than nothing.