Tonight B.J., Sienna, and Eli (from the boarding school I used to teach at) came over for dinner and general hang out time. They are in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades respectively and I as they walk in the door I announce to them that tonight they will be treated like royalty (in a sort of down-home Appalachian way). Since I used to live where they do, I understand the hard work they put into each day all too well. This further qualifies me to announce that I will be preparing the meal, washing all the dishes, and providing the fixins for dessert all without asking them to lift a finger.
Ordinarily, these kids to chores after every meal (for anywhere between eight and forty people), chop wood and work in the garden weekly, and hike half a mile down to school every day (then half a mile back up to their cabins at night, often in the dark during winter). They work hard and play hard, and they’ve given up a lot to participate in a community school that believes in an ethic of peaceful, simple living – so I figure that this is the least I can do.
B.J. is a total chubb-munster with a pre-pubescent voice that’s so high that at first, many people think he is pretending to speak like a woman. But spend five minutes with the kid, who can’t seem to sit still, and it’s pretty clear where he’s coming from.
“Did you see the ball drop at midnight this year, Katey?” he asks me as he fiddles with a ball of lint that has surfaced from the pocket of his jeans. I shake my head, no. “Well, Regis was hosting this year. Regis, now he’s a very wealthy man. Hey, can we watch the Super Bowl?” Again, I shake my head no.
“You know nobody ‘round here owns a television B.J.,” I laugh, but he is still hopeful.
“But it’s a family tradition from back home,” he moans. “Me and grandpa, we always watch it.” I look at him sympathetically, but he knows he’s barking up the wrong tree. Throughout the course of the evening B.J. reminds me of this tradition, and sighs a little to himself, always fiddling with something (his shoelaces, my guitar, the wooden rockers, the pile of kindling, the stapler on my desk).
Sienna comes from north Georgia but doesn’t give a damn about the Super Bowl. “y=mx+b, y=mx+b, y=mx+b. I love it!” she half-shouts. “This is my new favorite equation because it’s so simple.” She mixes cookie dough batter and scratches her nose (which has been recently pierced) with the back of her wrist. I ask her if she likes math. “Well, I don’t know. But it’s easy at least,” she shrugs her shoulders, then drops the wooden spoon into the bowl and actually sits down on my lap.
“You know the Limited is the only place I can buy jeans because I’m a 12 Slim and that’s the only place that sells them? Isn’t that unfair? So much for organic fabrics.”12 Slim? I think to myself. I glance at her baggy pant legs. Sienna is the size of a beanpole but her personality is perhaps the most gregarious of the three. She smiles at me then hops up from my lap to tend to the cookies again.
“Look, Katey,” Eli interrupts, “look at my sexy jacket.” He pets his chest proudly and models, walking elegantly across the wooden floor. The jacket is a blast from the past, made entirely of sequins and says “Born in the USA” across the right breast. Then he unzips the coat and massages his t-shirt over his nipples. Taken out of context, this would seem absolutely ridiculous if Eli hadn’t been one of my students last year. But Eli has never been shy about expressing his more feminine side and clearly, there’s a lot he needs to express. I laugh along with him and he finishes his dance, then in an instant he shifts characters and announces: “It’s nothing special, really, I just borrowed it from my houseparent. It used to be her dad’s. It’s totally retro.”
I often wonder about Eli – his sexuality, his future, how on Earth he will get along as an adult with his conservative, Southern Baptist, business oriented family. I’m thankful, at least, that he attends a school where he is not made fun of and where he can dress up like a woman to go to math class, for example, whenever the hell he wants to. He can also attend belly dancing electives, wrestling electives, go backpacking for eight days with a group of boys all his age, and facilitate all school meetings. Even though he goofs around a lot at the school, he has done all of these things and I’ve seen him grow mentally and physically from them – though he’d never admit to it. He is always the drama queen, always on, always difficult to decipher.
B.J. strums my banjo while I teach Sienna and Eli the intricacies of cookie baking (Eli accidentally mixed the vanilla extract in with the flour, blended the sugar with the salt, and put the eggs and butter in the large bowl.) By the time the dough is ready for the oven, everyone is hungry for supper.
I planned this out well in advance, trying to determine just what the perfect teenage meal would be. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that one, they would want meat, and two, they would want something none of their friends would have.
“So,” I announce proudly, opening the fridge door, “we’re going to have breakfast for dinner!”
“Cool dude!” B.J. sings. “Yes!”
“Oh, let me tell you, can I cook a mean batch of crispy bacon,” says Sienna.
“Ooooooh,” Eli purrs, “Yes! Eggs, eggs, I luvum. I can eat lotsa them,” he rubs his tummy profusely.
Even though I promised I’d do all the cooking, they want to help so Sienna gets to work on the bacon, B.J. times the cookies (by shouting “COOKIES!” every two minutes, by his stop watch, until they are done), and Eli helps set the table. The last batch of cookies comes out as we sit down to dinner (I also made sweet cast iron cornbread ahead of time, so we eat that once it is warmed over the woodstove) and the table conversation transforms into a series of grunts and approval. When the last drop is gone (Eli finishes the eggs, B.J. eats Sienna’s untouched cornbread and finishes the loaf, and Sienna eats the last strip of organic bacon that accidentally fell on the floor) I clear all plates and begin washing by hand while they finish chatting at the dinner table. There are a few offers to help but I encourage them to relax; this is my gift to them for being teens, for working hard, for having good hearts.
We opt for two episodes of My So-Called Life on DVD over the board game CLUE and all four of us miraculously fit into a pile on my bed. We watch for ninety minutes on my little twelve-inch laptop screen. Sienna and I choose the episode because we’ve seen them all and we want the boys to approve. The main star is a fifteen-year-old girl but we pick the one episode that is told from the perspective of her neighbor, Brian Krakow, in hopes that the boys will love the series as much as we do. The episode displays the awkwardness of high school dances and the depth of the social dramas that surround it. When it’s over, B.J. approves, to my total shock and amazement.
“Yeah, cool. Let’s watch another one. One with kissing. Are there any with kissing?”
Eli chuckles to himself. “I have a girlfriend now, Katey, did you know that? Yeah, I’m going out with Nora from school.” He is next to me on the bed, upper body completely leaning into my shoulder with ease. I feel flattered that he is still so comfortable with me, even though I haven’t lived with him at the school for seven or eight months now. “Yeah, I asked her out. She said yes. Yup.”
“Why do you want to watch an episode with kissing in it, B.J.?” Sienna says, annoyed.
“Watching kissing can be educational,” I say in his defense.
“I’ve made out with someone anyway,” B.J. clarifies, though I highly doubt this.
“Vaginal discharge!!!” Eli shouts. Again, because we know him this is not a conversation stopper. “STD’s!!! Same thing!!!”
“They’re not the same thing, Eli. Not even close,” I clarify. Sienna is totally peeved.
“Huh?” He looks at me. I explain the difference.
“Smell? Color?” he seems unsure, but listens all the same. B.J. listens too. “Oh, I get it. Weird, but OK.”
From across the bed Sienna shakes her head. “You guys are so clueless,” she says, further annoyed.
“Look, at least they want to know!” I say. “Are you up for another episode?” I look in Sienna’s direction to see if she’s still on track. Something must be going on but I don’t know what. She makes eye contact with me and smiles warmly.
“Ok, yeah. Yes. Let’s do it. The boys like it! It’s so incredible. And yes, let’s watch a kissing one.”
Back on track, I press play for our second episode and, even though Sienna has seen it already, she approves fully, saying the lines along with the characters in every other scene.
By 10:00 p.m. it’s time for curfew at the school and I’ve got to take the kids home. We package up their cookies, one dozen for each of them to take back to their roommates and houseparents, and hit the road.