I was about six-years old when my older cousins, Erin and Irina, brought me outside to inspect the “show chicken” cages. A lot of people have a tough time wrapping their brains around the fact that chickens can be kept as pets, let alone the fact that they can be judged on their beauty, but the 4-H Fair has been doing it for about 100 years. Each summer, my entire family attended the Somerset County 4-H fair, where my aunt and cousins brought these chickens to compete for ribbons, trophies, and prizes. These chickens were a source of pride for my family, and my aunt’s prized possessions.
Irina opened the coop and an array of birds started to flutter and panic. She handed me a bird with a tiny black face and a giant mane of white feathers.
“Hold onto Silkie tight,” Irina said. “We have to be very careful because the area is known for herons and hawks that like to swoop down and grab the birds.”
“It’s true – mom was so mad last month because a raccoon picked the lock and got half of ‘em,” said Erin.
Irina rolled her eyes, “We were cleaning up blood and feathers for a WEEK!”
I cuddled the chicken with all my might, “I won’t let anything happen to the chickies, I promise,” I said with a pout.
Erin and Irina cleaned the cages one at a time, handing me as many birds as my tiny arms could hold. They finally got to the last cage where “Red”, the obese Rhode Island Red Rooster was sleeping in his own filth.
“Ewww!” said Erin. “There’s POOP all over him!” She walked past me and placed the chicken into a bucket. I was relieved because Red always scared me. He was loud, huge, and mean, and I preferred the smaller poofy chickens that looked more like lapdogs than Red, who looked like a pterodactyl hybrid.
“Come over here and hold it down while I shampoo it,” Erin called over to me.
“But I don’t wanna. I-“
“I promise, we’ll play Atari after we’re done.”
Erin began to fill the bucket with water with a garden hose. I braced myself and shut my eyes as Red fought against me, pecking and clucking at my clumsy fingers. Irina grabbed a jumbo bottle of baby shampoo and applied it liberally. Red tried to fly away, spraying suds and feathers all over us.
“Hold on, Red, it’s almost over!” Erin yelled, shoving Red back into the bucket. As she attempted to rinse its neck, we all head a sickening “CRACK”. The rooster stopped flailing. The three of us were stunned silent.
Erin had a look of complete horror on her face, and then a revelation. “MOOOOOOOOOOOM!” she cried. “STEPHANIE KILLED THE CHICKEN!”
I received quite a scolding and I was sent to Irina’s room to “think about what I did” while my aunt prepared dinner, which was, non-surprisingly, a roasted, very fresh chicken. We didn’t talk about the “coincidence”.
The whole experience turned me vegetarian for several years, and to this day, my aunt thinks I killed that darned bird.
Photo by K Rayker
Since Valentine’s Day was last week, I want you to take a peak at the condition of the flowers that your significant-other sent you. We’ll get back to why I asked you to do that in just a moment.
It was the week before Valentine’s day in 1997, and I had no Valentine. Things were easy back in elementary school when everyone was required to give a Valentine’s Day card to everyone in their class. In high school, there were new rules – namely that whoever did not get a carnation or gifts on Valentine’s Day was seen as the unloved scum of the earth.
I would have been happy to get a carnation from anyone, but my real hope was that I’d get one from George, the adorable blond in my art class. His passion and talent for art only fueled my crush, but I never had a chance to say anything to him other than, “Have you seen the rubber cement?” Usually, I would blush and run away before George even replied.
I was internally lamenting about my singleness when Tiffany, one of the most popular girls in high school, plopped herself down in the seat next to me. Tiffany had a perfect attendance record, so she was a huge hit with the teachers; she did a ton of charity work so she was a hit with the parents; she was athletic so she was a hit with the cheerleaders, and she developed gigantoid boobs when she was 11, so she was always a hit with the boys. Normally, girls like Tiffany just gave me stink-eye in the halls, but I had one thing going for me: I was good at drawing.
“This drawing sucks, I need your help,” Tiffany said as she showed me a cartoonish picture of her and a boy, smooching inside of a big heart surrounded by cupids and bears.
“Your problem is that you’re using your fingers to blend. The oils from your skins are getting all over this thing, and that’s why it’s smearing everywhere.” I handed her a paper tortillon. “This should help in the future.”
“Oh, you’re such a lifesaver. Jeremy is going to LOVE this when I’m done. I’m making this as a part of his Valentine’s Day present. He’s going to be SO surprised.”
“I think it’s totally crappy that guys are always expected to be the romantic ones. This year, I’m going to spoil him – buy HIM flowers, buy HIM candy…”
“…And everyone knows, no Valentine’s Day gift is complete without a handmade card. And maybe a teddy bear. I don’t know. Is that too girly? Are you buying your boyfriend a stuffed animal?”
“Huh, wha? Oh. No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Seriously? Well… got a crush?”
I blushed. My eyes unintentionally darted over to George.
“Oh, my gosh, you like GEORGE?”
“Shhhh, he’ll hear you!”
“You should ask him out. We’re friends. And he’s totally single.”
“Please don’t say anything. He doesn’t even know I’m alive.”
“You need to stop waiting for men to come to YOU. Be a little more aggressive. Woo HIM. It worked for me!”
Tiffany and I took the rest of the period to devise an elaborate scheme to win George’s attention. Tiffany’s first step was a complete makeover. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup, and my mother forbade me from wearing skirts in cold-weather months (for fear of “kidney colds”). The entire week, I snuck cute outfits to school and changed in the bathroom. Tiffany would meet me in there, heaving my body into stocking ala the movie “Clueless”, styling my hair, and doing my makeup. Looking at pictures now, I looked freaking ridiculous, but I genuinely felt like I was being fashionable. Of course, despite my best efforts to hussy-it-up for six days, George didn’t give me a second glance.
“Hmm, you need to step up your game,” Tiffany said, as she shoved a piece of paper into my hand. “38-24-34.”
“Your measurements?” I asked.
“NO, stupid!” She whispered into my ear: “It’s George’s locker combination.”
“WHAT? What do you want me to do with it?”
“Something romantic! You should totally go buy some flowers or something and stick them in his locker tomorrow so he’ll have them on Valentine’s Day. He’ll be so impressed in the amount of effort it took you to sneak them in, he’ll go out with you for sure.”
I was fairly confident that this plan would work, since it sounded reminiscent of the schemes I had read in trashy romance novels and those “how to meet the love of your life” blurbs in our local paper. That night, I took the $15 I saved up selling drawings of comic book characters to the other kids at school and I bought a Mylar balloon, some roses, and a dorky little teddy bear. I agonized with the shop clerk over the inscription on the card. Eventually we settled for “Happy Valentine’s Day. This secret admirer doesn’t want to be secret anymore. Let’s talk about art at Friendly’s [Ice Cream] after school? Call me – xxx-xxxx.”
I had 50 cents left over, so as a reward for my bravery, I purchased myself a 50 cent strawberry cheesecake lollipop. It was only after I opened the wrapper that a detail dawned on me – I had his locker combination, but I didn’t know what his locker number WAS. I scrounged around for change to use the payphone (this is before cellphones, people), but I had literally spent my last dime on George’s Valentine’s Day present. I begged the shop-keep to refund my 50 cent lollipop. He glared at me and shook his head. He grabbed the lollipop out of my hand, threw it into the trash, and silently slid the 50 cents back to me.
“Thank yooooooooou!” I called as I bolted out of the front door toward the payphone in the courtyard. I struggled to walk across campus, my heavy backpack, arms full of Valentine’s Day supplies, and tiny skirt posing major hazards in my journey. In the phone booth, I did a clumsy tango, placing the flowers and bear between my legs while I flipping through my trapper keeper full of phone numbers, and balancing the phone in the crook of my neck.
“Ta-ta-ta-Tiffany…?” The wind had started swirling a dust of snow around me, chilling me to the bone.
“It’s Steph. I-
“Oooo! Did George ask you out?”
“Na-na-na. no….I don’t know his locker number.”
“What? I gave it to you!”
“No..the…number…the number of the LOCKER. Where is the locker?”
“OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!! Hold on, girlfriend.”
I glanced down when I felt something warm on my knee. The roses had pieced through their plastic wrap container and were stabbing me in the leg.
I nearly dropped everything and lost the balloons trying to recover. Eventually, Tiffany returned with the magic numbers – 1141.
“Make sure you pull hard – George is always fighting with that thing, it sticks and-.”
I threw the phone back onto the cradle and ran to the girls’ bathroom. I dropped all of my belongings to the floor to access the damage. The thorn had stayed attached to the flowers but managed to pierce my skin enough that the entire right ear of the white teddy bear was covered in blood. I immediately dunked the bear’s ear into the sink to scrub him clean. June, my arch-nemesis since middle school, came out of the bathroom and gave me a weird look. I tried to ignore her as I cleaned up my wounds and dried the bear’s head under the hand dryer.
I went over to Locker 1141, looking over every last inch of the Valentine’s Day gift to make sure there was no forensic evidence on it. I entered the combination and…nothing. I tried again and heard a click, but the darned door wouldn’t budge. I pulled and pulled until a kindly janitor walked by.
“Here, let me help you, little miss,” he said with a Caribbean accent. He pulled out his keys and popped it open. A ton of sheet music popped out of the locker. ” If yah keep jammin’ dese tings in the locker, your locker will keep jammin’.”
“Thank yoooooooou!” As soon as he turned his back, I threw the sheet music back into the locker, shoved the Valentine’s Day gift in there, and shut it. I took the late-bus home and didn’t utter a word about my plan to a soul.
That night, I barely slept a wink, imagining the teddy bear and flowers waiting for George in his locker. I wondered what the sheet music was, and if George would ever play me a song. I imagined our first date at the Friendly’s Ice Cream and wondered if he would hold my hand.
The next day, I woke up to what I thought would be my new life. “Go back to sleep, ” my mother said. “Iz a snowday.”
Indeed. Not only was it snowy that Friday on February 14, 1997, but the snow continued well into the next week. I over-analyzed the situation and realized how weird George would think I was for breaking into his locker and putting in some weirdo letter and Valentine. The anxiety was unbearable. I prayed for a snow plow so I could retrieve the items…I prayed a time machine…I prayed for death! It was the end of the day on February 19 when I received a phone call.
“Hi, this is Dawn….um…I didn’t see you at school today…”
“What? We had school today?”
My mom, who listened to all of my conversations from the other room, replied, “Iz still too snovy, I don’t vant no bus getting in an accident and killing my only child, you’ll go to school some odder day!”
“Oh, am I in trouble?” I asked the girl. I didn’t know anyone named Dawn, so I assumed she was school administration.
“No, uh, I was looking for you because you put flowers into my locker.”
I mentally rejoiced for a second. Someone else got the flowers, so I was saved!
“Oh, I’m sorry about that. You can just throw them out, it was a mistake.”
“No, I saw that they were for George S. He has the locker next to mine so I just gave them to him. I…just thought you should know.”
I want you to take a look at those flowers from your sweety again. See what crappy condition they are in? Imagine a flower decomposed far, far worse than this.
Word about “the incident” got all over school; apparently, the flowers exploded all over the locker, turning completely brown, but not before secreting a mildewy goo onto the bear and poor Dawn’s paperwork and sheet music. June was all-too-happy to pitch in with a description of her walking in on me as I was “ritually cleansing the bear” in some kind of bloody love potion as a part of a Wiccan ritual to get George to love me. Not only did George never speak to or look at me again, Tiffany also pretended not to know me.
After high school, I moved to a new city in an effort to shed some of my weird reputation, only to find out that George was coincidentally attending the same college as me (yep, he thinks I did it on purpose, probably to this day!)
So much for romantic gestures, huh?
Photo by Torvald Lekvam
“Time for Art Class!” Mrs. Pine announced.
It was the beginning of first grade, so this meant that for the first time, I had to leave the safe walls of our familiar classroom and venture to the mysterious art room across the school. My fellow classmates and I walked in a carefully regulated single-file line down the hall, passing older children that had a freedom in their steps we had not yet learned as terrified youngsters.
We entered a room with a peculiar smell, like a combination of sawdust and plastic. Children’s drawings hung over the entire room, coupled with yellowed reprints of famous works of art that I had recognized from episodes of Sesame Street. The room had wide and sturdy wooden tables covered in construction paper and crayons.
A woman stood with her back to us, furiously scribbling something on the chalkboard. “Everyone sit down,” she said, not looking back, “Now!”
As usual, everyone paired off and I was left sitting next to Mike, the church lady’s son that made fun of me because of my bad haircut. I climbed onto the stool as quietly as I could and tried to read some of the pencil graffiti that had been etched into the tabletop.
The art teacher finally turned around and brushed the chalk dust off onto her ripped jeans. She had drawn an elaborate motorcycle with the words, “Ms. Hart” written elaborately on the seat. She moseyed over to her desk and straddled her chair.
“Draw your name in something like I did,” she grumbled, sipping coffee out of a chipped mug splattered with bits of paint and plaster.
“Um, excuse me, Mrs., uh…” a young girl asked.
“MIZZZZ Hart,” she corrected.
“Do we have to draw it in a bicycle?” she continued.
“NO, draw it in something YOU like. I like MOTORcycles, so I drew my name in a Harley Davidson.”
“I like bicycles, too. Can I draw it in a bicycle like yours?” a boy asked.
“It’s a MOTORCYCLE!” she said, pounding her fist on the table. Brown liquid from her cup sprayed on her yellow sleeveless shirt, but she didn’t care. “I already drew a motorcycle, so you should pick something else.” She sighed deeply. “Everybody…just draw something different, okay? You have until the end of class. Then we’re going to show it to everyone at the end of class and hang it in the halls.”
Mike was already at it, furiously scribbling Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series with a half-chewed green crayon. I pouted and looked down at my blank sheet of paper. Michelangelo was my favorite Ninja Turtle, too, but I was afraid that I would get in trouble for drawing the same character. I was also deeply concerned that his Ninja Turtle drawing would be better than mine. “Boys can draw better muscles than girls,” he always explained, “Because boys have bigger muscles. That’s why girls should draw princesses. They don’t need muscles.”
After some deep contemplation, I grabbed a yellow crayon and started my masterpiece. We merrily colored for a few minutes before Ms. Hart walked by our table. She frowned deeply and grabbed Mike’s drawing.
“What is THIS?” she demanded, pointing to the overly muscular reptile.
“It’s Michelangelo. He’s a party dude-” he started.
“Does everyone see this?” Ms. Hart said, showing the drawing to the class. “This is what we call COPYRIGHTED material.”
All of the first-graders had a blank stare.
“COPY-righted material is artwork that belongs to someone else!”
“But I just made it…”
“Oh, really, Mike? So if Marvel comics came in here today, you would tell them that you made up that turtle all by yourself and you didn’t just copy it from the TV?”
Mike was speechless. His eyes welled up with tears.
“Drawing cartoon characters from TV and movies is STEALING. You could go to JAIL!”
I looked down at my half-completed Flounder from the movie The Little Mermaid, in horror. I immediately slipped Flounder onto my lap and haphazardly scribbled a purple flower with my name in it.
After a long rant about US Copyright laws, Ms. Hart crumpled up the Ninja Turtle drawing, threw it on the floor, and pulled out a new sheet of paper for Mike. “Start again! This time, don’t STEAL!”
She paused for a moment and looked down at my flower.
“You see, class? Stephanie has drawn her OWN flower from her imagination. She’s not stealing. She’s being creative! You should all come look at Stephanie’s flower.”
I sunk into my chair in shame. The flower was a farce, and as my classmates walked by, I was convinced that their X-Ray eyes could peer through my desk and seeing my illegal Flounder drawing. Mike sniffled to himself and drew a picture of a boat. The guilt was overwhelming. Soon, the school bell rang and Mrs. Pine came back to collect us. As we lined up, I pretended to drop a crayon and picked up the crumbled Ninja Turtle drawing. I stuffed it into my backpack with my Flounder as fast as I could.
Later, I snuck up behind Mike in the lunch line. “Pssst, I have something for you.” I handed him the drawing of Michelangelo and braced myself for rejection or ridicule.
“How did you get this?” Mike asked, concerned.
I looked around to make sure the coast was clear. “Don’t tell!” I opened up my backpack to show the forbidden Flounder.
His eyes lite up. “Hey, that’s pretty good, you’re a really good draw-er!”
“Thanks. I like yours better. I don’t know how to draw muscles that good.”
“That’s ok, I’ll show you…” he said, stuffing the Michelangelo into his backpack. “…Even though you’re a GIRL.”
From that point on, we became very close friends, secretly drawing Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo, and the rest of the TMNT gang during lunch and recess.
I forgot about the whole incident until years later, when I ran into a friend that was auditioning to work at an animation studio. “So, how did the audition go?” I asked him.
“Well, I basically had to sit around for hours drawing Ninja Turtles.”
“Yup, they’re bringing the show back and updating it, so one of the tests involves drawing all of the characters on model in less than ten minutes. It’s really a good thing I drew Ninja Turtles ALL the time when I was a kid.”
Hmmm. I guess he didn’t have Ms. Hart.