By Sondra Petrone
When I was in the fourth grade my teacher, Mrs. Depietro, told us that we would be watching a movie called The Secret Garden. I’d heard of this film and had also heard that a few people really liked it. It would be a nice break from National Geographic presents “All the Animals are Dying” or Bill Nye the Science Guy episodes, in which Bill himself taught us to make gravity bongs out of soda bottles. If we were lucky, perhaps the movie would take two days since we had to coordinate with 4B, the much-coveted fourth grade class taught by Mrs. Anter. While Mrs. Depietro made me write my name in The Notebook for forgetting my homework, Mrs. Anter’s class was probably coloring or beating on a piñata.
“Well Sondra, it looks like you are once again the first one this quarter to forget their homework three times. Bravo.”
Every time you forgot your homework, Mrs. Depietro forced you to write all twenty spelling words ten times each during recess, a task to be finished at home because no one could possibly write that fast. This was a cruel punishment, especially when we had outdoor recess. Upon the third offense you would be assigned a 250-word essay to be completed over the weekend. In the event that my third offense occurred at the beginning of the week, she would wait until Friday to give me my topic. But I showed her because I got really far in the spelling bee that year and became an authority on such subjects as the impregnation process of bees, the metric system, and the word “hell.”
The 4A and 4B classrooms combined in Mrs. Anter’s room for the movie. Marisa, Cassie, and I huddled our chairs together as the boundary lines were drawn. The boys wouldn’t talk to the girls, and most of the girls wouldn’t talk to each other. Little did we know that in mere minutes we would all be united by the universe’s most powerful, motivational feeling: embarrassment. The Secret Garden was actually about all of the secrets found in gardens you never wanted to know, such as what it looks like when slugs have sex.
“Let’s be grown up about this!” Mrs. Depietro shouted as whispers began rising, but even she seemed to be blushing a little. It was traumatic, especially since I was the only girl in the class whose boobs had started to come in. Despite my mastery in the subject of bees “doing it” (with other bees, not birds), I was blushing more than anyone else. They knew, they all knew! I’ve always been so pale that I can never hide a blush.
I told everyone at cheerleading practice that night. They were scandalized. I wouldn’t even say “sex.” I spelt it out instead, as if that little world–when separated into three small letters–would be possible to hold in our nine-year-old hands. One of the younger girls on my team who didn’t have my superior spelling abilities followed me around asking what “s-e-x” spelled. “Sound it out!” I hissed at her as we took our positions. She struggled with it all the way through the herkies and mounts. During break, my favorite part of cheerleading practice, she was writing “s-e-x” over and over with her finger, until finally…
“Oh my God!” she squealed and looked up at me with her hands clasped over her mouth. Her reaction was exactly how I felt, but I had to put on a mature face. My peers saw me in a certain light and I needed to maintain my image. People came to me to have their questions answered about sex, especially once we were all in junior high and stopped screaming “Eewwww!” during kissing scenes in the Mary Kate and Ashley movies. I started a trend among some of the girls by carrying a quarter in my pocket every day, just waiting to use it to buy my first pad or tampon from the dispenser in the ladies room. I was not the first one of my friends to travel through the secret garden into womanhood, but I remain the only student Mrs. Depietro ever had who finished writing all twenty spelling words ten times before recess was over.
Sondra Petrone lives in Cambridge, MA, where she is pursuing a master’s in counseling.