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Paper: HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Date: SUN 07/07/02
Section: LIFESTYLE
Page: 1
Edition: 2 STAR

Rite of passage marks magic of growing up

By Melissa England

What I hated most about being 14 years 7 months was that nothing happened to change me. Everything was exactly like it was yesterday and all the yesterdays before that.

I had not experienced the magic when young girls come back from summer vacation with braces off, glowing tans and rounded figures. I wasn't even growing taller. Just nothing - not even my fizzed out home permanent showed signs of growth, or life, for that matter.

That fall my high school required a one-credit swim class for all that were physically able. I truly questioned my physical ability, but the school did not, so second period, Monday, Wednesday and alternating Fridays, I was made to endure Introduction to Swimming.

Miss Sabbath, doing her interpretation of a drill sergeant, was our 20-something teacher, who ruled without the slightest indication that her genetic makeup might be human. Attendance was taken, and then the "other" line was formed. Every girl in that class had stood in that line at one time or another, every girl except me. The pressure of that line was enormous, as the girls would smile and call out their names.

"Betsy Marcagus, excused."

"Nancy Young, excused."

"Cynthia Dorn, excused."

Each wore her badge of womanhood, flaunting the fact that she was doing something with her body that kept her from getting wet. They sat on the bleachers as the rest of us were ordered into the deep end of the pool.

I knew deep in my heart I was different. It was the second year in a row I required no new clothes. Everything still fit, everything right down to T-shirts with a single pale pink bow in the center of its scooped neck.

Group showers illustrated the point even further: changing figures, body hair and rounder lines. My towel hung straight to my only frontal orbs visible - my knees.

I had been humiliated enough. It was time for me to take charge of my life, and I had a plan. I studied them, this "other" sisterhood.

The ritual included cramps. I had charley horses before. The visual aids included bottles of Midol, sanitary napkins and stained panties.

Monday came. With my red ballpoint in hand I colored in the entire crotch of my previously white panties.The cotton crotch was accommodating and the color, to my eye, was perfect. I purchased a small bottle of 29-cent aspirin, stuffed my panties with a sanitary napkin, and began rubbing the back of my leg, insisting I was fine to the uninterested faces of my classmates.

She shouted it.

I did it. There I was, in the "other" line, wheezing out my name with the scant air I had left in my lungs.

"Excused."

I was so nervous. I suddenly had a pressing need for a bathroom pass. I pulled down my panties; my entire existence passed before me. Here between my legs was this brilliant red color.

So, I had changed. This was it! No, I hadn't changed. This wasn't it. The red ballpoint had spread. Lines of color were smeared everywhere, and sweating wasn't helping the situation.

I gave myself one of those ugly, stern lectures I had learned from my stepmother, composed myself and went out to sit in the bleachers.

Wednesday was easier; Friday I answered my name without my voice breaking. Monday was a breeze.

The third Monday in a row, I made my nonchalant move to the other line. Miss Sabbath slammed her girl-eating fist into her clipboard.

"Melissa, now!"

I followed, slumped over, ashamed and broken. She slammed her office door behind me. Confession seemed like the only way out. Words tumbled over each other as I tried to explain. She caught enough to have me executed, or expelled; I'm still not sure which word she chose. I was being escorted to the office by two shower monitors in case I tried to make my escape.

This would be the first of my encounters with principal Oliver Wergen. He was a tall man, with deep-set gray eyes and gray hair.

One of the monitors handed him the legal account written by the bounty hunter, Miss Sabbath.

He had one hand in his pocket as he read. He cleared his throat, then shifted his weight, nodded and raised one eyebrow. He dismissed the monitors and motioned for me to sit.

Heat rushed to my head, and the searing burn of humiliation torched my being. I pointed to the door, he nodded, and I shut it slowly and turned to him.

I was losing control of my voice. "I don't know what's wrong with me," tears leaving tire marks down my cheeks.

"I don't know why I'm the only one. Look, I have no breasts; I don't even have little bumps. I can still see all my ribs. . . . I'm not turning into anything. They all are, and I'm not. The other girls laugh at me, so I try to laugh too, but I'm scared I will always be just like this. It's true I don't have a period either - it's red ink. I just couldn't stand it anymore."

My need to tell someone was so very great, I hadn't noticed that this once strong, tall authoritarian was trying to summon a secretary for help, for him. His hand was up by way of surrender.

A woman from the office touched my shoulder. She smiled; she had tears in her eyes also, and she gently pulled me to my feet. I pulled in a ragged breath and braced myself for my execution.

"Melissa, you did lie."

I nodded.

"And you did try to get out of swim class."

I hadn't really thought about that angle, but he wasn't looking at me, anyway.

"And you did make Miss Sabbath very angry."

That I agreed with.

"So, you are to tell Miss Sabbath you are very sorry, and I mean very sorry. Then you are to tell her I suspended you for three days. Then you are to report to this office for the next three days, and spend the other half of your lunch hour and second period helping Mrs. Gibbons. Now go back to class."

Mrs. Gibbons, the person I was supposed to help . . . helped me. She smiled and talked softly and asked me how I felt about things, just everyday things. One day she whispered that God had a plan, and my job was to be patient. Maybe it was her gentle approach or the fact that she would hug me before my swim class that I grew to believe her.

Just before I turned 15, I was sitting at the dinner table when I felt a little sick to my stomach. I asked to be excused. I got cramps in the small of my back and felt dampness between my legs. I found the bottle of Midol I had left on the bathroom shelf and arranged the napkin with the elastic pink belt between my legs. It wasn't exactly like the ugly duckling and the beautiful white swan - but it was a period. Not nearly the color of red ink, but it was real, and it was mine.

My stepmother found me sitting on the bathroom floor smiling to myself. She told me a period was not an excuse not to do the dishes.

At school, I asked to see the principal. I wore my brown dress and I combed my hair very neatly. When he saw it was me, he looked out the window. I assured him I was in no trouble, but I thought he should know.

"I'm having my very first real period. It started last night during dinner." I suppose he was overwhelmed with joy for me because it took him a long time to say anything. He turned from the window and looked at me. With the slightest of smiles, he said, "Congratulations."

If music could have filled the air, I would have danced. I could have jumped his desk and wrapped my arms around him and screamed out how happy I was. But only tears happened, and I quickly blinked them away.

I turned to walk out, and he added, "Melissa, you have a very nice day." "Have a nice day." He said that to me. It was. It was the best day of my life.

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