I punched my sister in the face. I was about six years old, old enough to know better, but in my defense she was old enough to have learned to block. I promise the tooth that ended up falling out of her mouth was a baby tooth. I remember blood. I don’t think I’ve punched anyone since.
In second grade, there was this girl Carrie Baker—whose name has been changed from something equally Anglo-Saxon—and I didn’t punch her, even though I wanted to. I did call her a snob, though. This was the second time I stayed in for recess. The first time was when I banged my nose and had to go to the nurse’s office, clutching my dripping proboscis in the stairwell room that is now only the setting of anxious dreams. There was lots of snot on my face. I don’t remember blood.
“If you look up the word ‘snob’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Carrie’s face,” I announced to my family at the dinner table one night. I believed this was a genius turn of phrase. I had recently written my first story—or, rather, my first story besides the three-sentence thriller about the cat and the dog, which I banged out on my parents’ clunky old monstrosity of a Mac desktop, and which, if I remember correctly, was dubbed “spare, terse, and elegiac” by The New York Times. My second story was about a girl from the future who went back in time and kicked a threatening caveman, and that was handwritten, and “post-apocalyptic” was probably what The Times said. I had a little angst about time and the body as a child. Anyway, I was feeling pretty confident in my verbal prowess, and decided to turn this new lance-like power against the girl who had gained primacy over fat, bookish, ethnic little me in the eight-year-old playground wars.
My sister—who, two years later, was finally proving why she had gotten punched in the first place—passed young Ms. Baker this “spare, terse, and elegiac” phrase. This was the second time I had to stay in for recess, and this time there was no snot. Or maybe there was a little snot as tears came to my eyes, since I was unused to being chastised. I was three units ahead in our phonics book. I, unlike the group of cool boys led by Kevin Johns, had not decorated my pencil can with the word “sex,” though I totally knew what it meant since my mother was a feminist. There was me and Carrie and our teacher, and there was conflict, and there was me feeling powerless and taking it out on another powerless person.
I’m not going to write about how I wish female homosocial conflicts would just go to blows like Rick Davis did with that guy senior year, when they forgot they were privileged small-town kids with very little actual conflict, and decided to have a fistfight in front of the woodshop over some marginal error in the distribution of marijuana.
It’s less about girls versus boys and more about the kind of force we exert against one another when we’re too old and too disciplined for it to come to actual blows. When it’s a little bigger than the classroom. Sometimes it feels like an undercurrent of brutality, except it’s a mental brutality, more brutal than brawling over a lost gram of grass. It’s made up of wearing things and knowing things and doing problem sets, if you’re that kind of person, or hammering out abstract concepts of cultural theory, if you’re that kind of person, or writing lyric prose. Baby teeth grow back and you can get a little blood off the carpet, and sooner or later you realize that verbal warfare with second-grade seatmates is a bit of a game. But recess dynamics don’t end, except pretty soon we run recess.
I thought I was pretty clever then, when I made my searing comeback about Carrie Baker and the dictionary. There was even a rumor in fourth grade that I read the things for fun, which I only did one time when working on a project in Mrs. Simmons’ room, and that was because I was newly interested in “clitoris” as a concept. But nowadays it seems everybody I know has been reading that dictionary for years. I don’t think Carrie Baker would appear in it anymore. The thing is, we’re going to end up writing the dictionary, and I guess I’m a little concerned that out of all the entries for derivatives and Jungian psychology and wearing things and bullshit. There are some other, more important words that won’t be there.