In third grade, I learned about a woman’s place

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Amy Butcher

Nearly three decades ago, on a clear Oc­to­ber morn­ing, my third­grade teacher asked us to line up so thatwe might make the­world: Our bod­ies rep­re­sent­ing coun­tries and bod­ies ofwa­ter.

“Sin­gle file,” she said, “please,” smooth­ing the lines of her wool skirt, which smells, I joke at re­cess, like ev­ery­thing she owns: moth balls and cel­ery and what I call “grand­mother skin.”

Mrs. Hinds is 73 years old the year I have her asmy third- grade teacher, though inmy mind, she is decades older: a di­nosaur, a fos­sil, a sym­bol of fem­i­nine an­tiq­uity. She is al­ways wear­ing panty­hose two shades whiter than her skin and her eye­lids are al­ways sheathed in shim­mer­ing pearl that matches the heavy jew­elry

around her neck. This is awoman, I’ll later learn, born just two years af­ter the fight for­women’s suf­frage, and while I can imag­ine the ex­u­ber­ance of that time— the cheers, the ral­lies, the ju­bi­la­tion — I re­mem­ber lit­tle of our school year be­sides this day.

In our sin­gle- file line, Billy takes his place next tome. He fin­gers his sweat­pants with dirty nails, snap­ping the elas­tic back against his hip. He smells like cig­a­rette smoke from his mother, and his hair looks wet and clumps as if it hasn’t been washed in days. I try to be, as my mother re­quests, a sym­pa­thetic and com­pas­sion­ate child, filled to the brim with sweet­ness, but I do not like Billy. He lives in a trailer park along­side the river, and kids of­ten tease him for this. I feel sym­pa­thetic about the trailer park but un­sym­pa­thetic to his dis­po­si­tion, which is noisy, in­do­lent and of­ten­times ag­gres­sive.

The teach­ers are al­ways putting me and Billy to­gether: “You are such a smart and sweet young girl,” they say, plac­ing his name­card on the desk next to mine. We are paired of­ten to do math ex­er­cises and third- grade science projects. Each day whenwe are told to find a seat among the many col­or­ful bean­bags for read­ing time, Billy sad­dles up to me, be­cause I know the words that he does not, and be­cause I like the books that he also likes. A tom­boy in a fam­ily of broth­ers, I read him books about dump trucks, ATVs, camp­ing, river ex­plo­ration.

But this day, in Mrs. Hind’s third- grade class, Billy gets to be Uruguay. Mrs. Hinds taps him on the head and says: “Billy, you are Uruguay.” Just like God’s word in the story of cre­ation, it is done.

Thiswas in ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia, and while the de­tails of her les­son now es­cape me, this sepa­ra­tion based on gen­der I re­mem­ber with ab­so­lute clar­ity. I stand in line pa­tiently, await­ing the coun­try I feel is mine. Mrs. Hinds moves on down the line: Josh is Bo­livia, Jon is Chile, Isaac is Brazil, Timis Venezuela, Tyler is Mex­ico.

Mrs. Hinds moves back down the line. She tells Jes­sica she is a tree. Melissa is the Gulf of Mex­ico. Ash­ley is the Caribbean Sea, and I am a river I can­not pro­nounce. Here we stand: The boys as coun­tries, end­less, enor­mous. Their bod­ies rep­re­sent mil­lions of peo­ple. They are home to cities, build­ings, moun­tains, rivers and lush green val­leys.

As girls— as fu­ture women— we are the empty things that move in the spa­ces around them, be­side them, are of­ten used and abused by them. Men fight over us, or claim us, sail their boats through our ex­panse. They cast lines into our depths, draw­ing up our re­sources— fish and other an­i­mals— sold for their profit.

I am a girl and I can­not be a coun­try, I re­al­ize,

I want to say some­thing to Mrs. Hinds, want to tell her that I am strong enough to be a coun­try, big enough, that my broth­ers have taught me many things— in­clud­ing how to build a fire and shel­ter, and pack mud into dense jumps for BMX bik­ing. I have scabs that I want to show her, scars pocked along my knee. I think of rolling up my jeans and show­ing her the wounds, sticky and stick­ing to the denim, so that she might bear wit­ness to the kind of girl I am.

In­stead, the boys clus­ter. They cheer one an­other. The power dy­namic is ev­i­dent. What­ever sense of won­der Mrs. Hinds had hoped to cul­ti­vate is lost in our ex­pres­sions: Us girls, our pony­tails, in­signif­i­cant things, we think, are we.

“Mrs. Hinds,” I say, my fee­ble protest. She swivels to look at me.

“Women can’t be coun­tries,” she says, be­fore I’ve even asked the ques­tion, no doubt the re­sult of many years of this ac­tiv­ity.

Three decades re­moved, my mother still tells this story when some­one asks what I was like as a child.

“She came home, threw her back­pack down, and be­gan scream­ing that she would be a coun­try,” my mother says, laugh­ing. My male friends roll their eyes. My fe­male friends shake their heads. I re­mem­ber stuff like this, they say, tak­ing a long, thought­ful sip of mer­lot. But to­gether we laugh it off. A young, de­fi­ant me, the very same per­son, they tease, I re­main to­day.

Ev­ery­one has amo­ment that changes them for­ever. Mine ex­ists in that class­room, in the knowl­edge in­stilled that day not of ge­og­ra­phy but of howhard the­world will work to make awoman think she needs aman to be of value.

I have spent the whole ofmy adult life— more mo­ments than I can count— try­ing to be a river for aman, amoun­tain for aman, try­ing to re­spond, in many­ways, to Mrs. Hinds’ brand of misog­yny. But now, inmy 30s— de­spite the all- too- easy nar­ra­tive of spin­ster­hood— all I can think is what a thrill, that no man has con­tained me, that I own a home and have a job and res­cued a dog I love too much. How wild it is to fi­nally be sov­er­eign, to at last be a coun­try.

Amy Butcher is au­thor of “Vis­it­ing Hours: AMe­moir of Friend­ship and Mur­der.”

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