The Secret

One morning a few decades ago, on a day like any other day at Northwood Elementary School, the door of our sixth grade classroom opened and the principal, Mr Everell, stuck his head in. This caused a sensation.

Mr Everell normally lurked in his office and emerged only on special occasions, such as an air-raid drill or the annual bike rodeo. If you saw him on an ordinary day you had to think that someone was in for one of the three known forms of extreme disciplinary action, which were suspension, expulsion, and assault with the principal’s special weapon, known as the Fire Paddle. None of us had actually seen the Fire Paddle, but the teachers were careful not to deny its existence, and at Northwood Elementary it hung over us like a blunt wooden Sword of Damocles. When Mr Everell showed up that morning, most of us froze in terror, quickly reviewed our meager sins of the past week, and then relaxed, figuring that the blow was about to fall on someone else. But all Mr Everell did was look at our teacher and say, “Miss Kirk, we’re ready.”

Artist's conception of the Fire Paddle

Artist’s conception of the Fire Paddle

At that point something else unexpected happened: all the girls in the class rose in unison and filed out of the room without saying a word. How they knew to do this was a mystery: it was like watching a school of those fish that all magically change direction at the same instant. The boys, alone now with Miss Kirk, looked around blankly at each other. Then we turned to Miss Kirk, whose expression clearly said “Don’t ask.” After a couple of silent, awkward minutes, she told us to stand, form a line, and approach the door – instructions which now seemed crudely patronizing, since the girls hadn’t needed them. We were led to the classroom across the hall, where we found the remainder of the sixth grade boys (a glance told us they were as clueless as we were) and the Physical Education teacher, Mr Ray.

Mr Ray spent the next hour denouncing us for the despicable practice of writing graffiti on the walls of the boys’ restroom. This confused us still further. It was true there was lots of graffiti in the boys’ restroom. There was poetry of variable quality. There were numerous vivid anatomical drawings, some of them rather larger than life size. There were many instances of what Mr Ray, who was not really a linguist, referred to as “a four-letter Latin word beginning with F.” But the tirade was baffling. The boys’ restroom had always been full of graffiti – graffiti was its natural and proper adornment. In all our years at Northwood, no adult had ever complained to us about it. Every summer it was scrubbed off the walls to encourage, as we thought, even more brilliant effort in the coming year. As the lecture wore on, we realized that Mr Ray was simply killing time. He’d been sent to distract us from whatever was really going on that morning.

After an eternity we were led back to our own empty classroom, and a moment later the girls returned. If we’d thought normality would resume at this point we were mistaken, for it was clear the girls had undergone a transformative experience. Their eyes were wide, as if they’d been given a glimpse into some great abyss, yet they kept looking furtively at each other. Each was clutching a small blue paperback book that we’d never seen before. And they were not talking.

They just would not talk, no matter how we begged them for information. Where had they been? What was going on? They wouldn’t even meet our eyes. Like us, the girls were normally a venal and treacherous bunch, fragmented into cliques and castes, easily co-opted. But today they presented a unified front against all male curiosity. Eventually we gave up trying to breach the wall of silence and contented ourselves with trying to steal one of the little blue books, but vigilance was total. I was the hero of the day just for discovering the book’s title, which I glimpsed briefly as Cynthia Broughton slipped her copy into her purse. It was something like this: The Wonderful Secret of You.

All right. Even today I can’t tell you exactly what was in the little blue book. For all I know it was Dr Seuss’s translation of the Kama Sutra; but remember this was Texas, where even today sex education is pretty much limited to how to spell it. Probably the Wonderful Secret was just the hygienic one that girls needed to be prepared for at about that age, in case their parents or guardians somehow omitted to mention it to them. It’s certain that their expressions, as they resumed their seats in Miss Kirk’s class that day, betrayed at least some doubt as to how wonderful the Secret really was.

As for us boys, we had only the vaguest idea about the Secret. The subject would have failed to interest us at all, if not for its very remote connection with other more appealing topics. Even in the sixth grade, our understanding of sex wasn’t quite complete (this was before the Internet), but we were on the job. In fact we were racing to put the last pieces of the puzzle together with all the fervor of an insecure third-world country desperately trying to acquire nuclear technology. But it’s hard to guess how we’d have reacted if someone – Mr Ray, say – had sprung the Secret on us all at once. We might not have believed him. We had a history of rejecting sexual truths when they were first offered to us, since they often seemed more incredible than the inventions of our own home-grown theorists. But this was beside the point. A secret is only a secret if you keep somebody in the dark about it, and that somebody was us.

In the days that followed, things in Miss Kirk’s class reverted outwardly to normal. But a bridge had been crossed. The girls had been taken away to a high-security briefing on a mysterious subject; we got Mr Ray. We boys felt more than a little devalued. The suspicion entered our minds that of the two genders, ours might be the less complex and interesting. After all, the only secret we had was the depth of our yearning to know the girls’ secrets. But it was the exclusion itself that was really disturbing. On the day of the little blue books, for the first time but by no means for the last, the girls had something we wanted, and they closed ranks to keep us from getting it.

We knew instinctively that this was going to get worse before it got better.

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