place among them. I knew how to find an image in a poem and say what it meant, I knew how to string words together, imitatively, to say back to a teacher what they wanted to hear. Class was my magic power. There were different classes here, too, from the usual subjects I’d had at P.S. 11. I took a listening course in classical music, Latin, Drama, and Public Speaking. I avoided painting and drawing, where the gaps between what I had learned at P.S. 11 and what the other girls had learned at Spence were too obvious. I could keep up, or surpass them, in English, in Chemistry, so I loved to strap on goggles and light the Bunsen burners. I wanted to read aloud in class, to be Titania or Puck. There were free periods at Spence, stretches between class when we sat on the floor in the halls and wasted time, talking and laughing, instead of doing our homework. I spent a lot of this time, and nearly all my time, at first, watching. I observed how the other girls peeled clementines with their fingernails, the orange skin unwinding in a single reel. I saw them wrap their bodies around chairs in class, one foot up on the seat, the other leg folded underneath them, a pair of plaid boxer shorts under their skirts. At lunch, girls shredded bagels with their hands and ate only half; they devoured crackers and tea, or shared a plate of iceberg lettuce and balsamic vinegar. I watched the way they ran their fingers across their scalps, scooping thin strands of untangled hair into a ponytail. More than once I untied my own hair, which my mother had carefully secured with yarn, and tried to wind it up the way they did. But my hair was too heavy, it resisted the yarn, and without my mother’s sure hands, I couldn’t put it back up, and I’d spend the day with my hair wild and large around me. At home, I’d make up a story about how it had come undone in PE. I spent so much time observing this new world, the habits, postures, and speech of the girls in my class, that I remember mostly them, and not myself from that first year. While I have a reel of memories
of bat mitzvahs, I have no memory of how I celebrated my own thirteenth birthday. I know that the year prior, when I turned twelve, I saw Titanic at a movie theater in Queens with my best friend from P.S. 11. When I turned fourteen, a year and a half into my time at Spence, three classmates threw a surprise party for me at someone’s double duplex on the Upper West Side, and at the end of the party, my friends and I bounced up and down, holding hands and shouting the lyrics to a punk song, while the governor stood in the next room, talking to my friend’s parents. I ignored the thought that maybe I should stop jumping around, maybe I should quiet and go say hello, or at least make a good impression on the governor of our state, but instead I took my friend’s lead—she was used to him coming over—and I screamed and head-bashed and ate leftover cake. But when I think of that first year, of thirteen, I see everyone but myself. My close study of the girls in my class, and its steady effect on me, wasn’t lost on my parents. When I wasn’t at school, I was thinking about it, writing out the class gossip in my diary. I started listening to pop radio so that I could sing along to the music I heard at the bat mitzvahs. I requested a $200 leather bomber jacket with a big Spence S on the back before I realized they’d gone out of style. And there was my speech, peppered with likes and elongated vowels. “School” became “schoo-ool,” hungry became “hung-ray.” My parents overheard a girl from my class promise to call me the next day around “nineish,” and after that, they started calling me “Spenceish” and referring to my friends as “Spenceish girls.” Behind their teasing, I sensed growing ambivalence. My mother had picked me up from enough Spence parties and functions to know that she hated the way some of the girls sat with their legs open, wrote on their arms in pen, and talked back to their parents. Once, she witnessed a girl tell her mother to shut up in public, and she had turned quickly to scold me. “Maybe those white parents will take that
kind of behavior, but I won’t. Try me.” The Spence girl sense of entitlement was catching. Suddenly, there were things I felt I deserved. My parents had run an our- way-or-the-highway household, but I was emboldened now to ask for small things. I wanted privacy to do my homework. I wanted them to lower their voices while I spoke on the phone. I didn’t think they had to scream at me if I was already listening. My bids for power were swiftly shut down, but I still claimed my independence in small, unseen ways. There was the radio and what my brother deemed “white people music,” the forbidden thoughts I recorded in my diary. I slouched in class, and I talked back to my parents in my head since I couldn’t out loud. I shook my hips at the white boys at parties and dances; I told lies to the girls at school about my life; I hiked up my skirt an inch or two. If I was losing a sense of a common world with my parents, it wasn’t because I had slid easily into the world of Spence. The class was small enough that we were yoked all together, but there were girls who I knew would never invite me to their homes, whose invitations to a birthday either never came or did only out of a sense of magnanimity. There were girls far beyond the reach of me and my friends, girls who stuck with one another, spent their weekends together but were constantly negotiating clique wars. According to rumor, they had pimples professionally popped, boyfriends in the city and not only at camp. The rest of the class referred to them as Jewish American Princesses, whether they were, in fact, Jewish or not. The term, in its open use of ethnicity, made me nervous, but my classmates used it to mark the line between the girls who were at the top of our seventh-grade social strata and those of us who populated the middle and the bottom. I didn’t understand the intricacies of class at Spence, the difference between a country house in Montauk and a country house in the Hamptons, a penthouse on Second Avenue and one on Park, a Kate Spade bag versus Hermès. Aside from wealth, race
The Spence girl sense of entitlement was catching. Suddenly, there were things I felt I deserved.
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