Note from the author: This chapter comes from the middle of Charmed Particles. The novel’s about a town whose residents are in conflict over plans to build the Superconducting Super Collider (a tool for studying particle physics) under their homes, schools, and farmland. The book follows two unconventional families—the Mitals and the Winchesters—as the controversy affects them all in different ways.
This chapter is about the two daughters of these families, Meena and Lily, whose friendship connects the two families. Meena’s family comes from Bombay. She was born in the U.S., but her parents immigrated to the States as adults because of her father’s job at a facility in town called the National Accelerator Research Lab. The excerpt is set in the 1987 in the fictional Chicago suburb of Nicolet, where Meena is one of only a few students of color in her school.
Sex Ed for the Gifted and Talented
“Frantz Fanon discusses a critical stage in the development of children socialized in Western culture, regardless of their race, in which racist stereotypes of the savage and the primitive are assimilated through the consumption of popular culture: comics, movies, cartoons, etc. These stereotypical images are often part of myths of colonial dominion (for example, cowboy defeats Indian, conquistador triumphs over Aztec Empire, colonial soldier conquers African chief, and so on). This dynamic also contains a sexual dimension, usually expressed as anxiety.”
— Coco Fusco, The Other History of Intercultural Performance
By the end of their elementary school careers, it had become clear that where Meena and Lily belonged was not with the rest of the children, mingling with the general population, but as part of the new, experimental Gifted and Talented program, and thus, when they began junior high, they were pulled from what began to be referred to as “the regular classes” and placed in what the school board had elected to call the Free Learning Zone.
The Free Learning Zone was populated with the brightest students from the four elementary schools that fed into Nicolet Junior High. The classroom was long and narrow, filled with round tables rather than desks, quiet corners furnished with pillows, and cozy chairs in which students might curl up and read when struck by a particularly driving curiosity. Here, the students’ studies were self-directed. Long, low bookshelves lined the walls beneath a wide bank of windows. Colorful posters and artwork hung from the ceiling, suspended by fishing wire, giving the impression of the pictures floating in the air. There were easels where students might paint, computers grouped around a large round table, a problem-solving center, a debate corner, and, near the door, a desk for Ms Lessing, always piled high with precariously stacked books and papers, pens and pencils rolling off onto the brightly colored carpet. Ms Lessing had wild, curly red hair held back each day with a series of colorful scarves that sometimes matched the rest of her outfit, but more usually did not.
Among the privileges of the Free Learning Zone was that students could leave the classroom and visit the school library whenever they liked, and Meena and Lily took advantage of this opportunity frequently, becoming intimately familiar with the library’s collection of books, newspapers, periodicals, and reference materials.
Meena loved the way she might wander down an aisle, running her fingers over the spines of the books and choose one at random, any number of worlds opening up before her. She didn’t, however, like to think of all the other small worlds left on the shelves. It induced in her a sense of panic, the thought that it might not actually be possible to read all of the books in the world.
She loved, too, the library’s numerous sets of encyclopedias–Britannica, Columbia, New Standard. In them, she looked up Bombay, tried to imagine her parents’ previous lives there, tried to imagine herself there. Her mother had taken her back to India twice before. Both times she had been too young to remember anything of the trip, of the country, aside from the grandmothers who had doted on her, stuffing her with a parade of sweets. And both times, her father had been either unable (or unwilling, Meena was never quite sure) to tear himself away from his work to join them.
She looked up the Lab, which was described just as her father described it, as “housing the world’s premier particle accelerator facility, currently the most important tool for the study of subatomic physics.” It felt important to think that the place where her own father worked appeared in the encyclopedia. She felt a sort of pride by association.
There, in the school’s library, the Free Learning Zone students sometimes encountered students from the regular classes whose teachers had arranged a class visit to the library for some project or other, and on these days Meena and Lily sometimes caught glimpses of their old elementary-school classmates. They regarded each other curiously across the library as though eyeing a wild animal.
What were the other kids learning, Lily wondered? She had no sense of what she might talk about with them, were they to meet on the playground for recess or, as Ms Lessing called it, expressive play. Had they done the unit on Cubism yet? Would they know what a fractal was? How far separated had they become, she wondered. Tom Hebert made it sound like the regular kids now spent most of their time learning to fix automobile engines and give haircuts. Erick Jarvis, whose glasses turned from regular glasses into sunglasses and back again whenever he went into or out of the building, and who had a brother who was still in the regular classes, reported that according to his source, it was all just exactly the same as before.
Among the regular kids, though, there had, it seemed, cropped up a collection of apocryphal legends about what had become of the gifted and talented kids who had been disappeared from their classes. One said he had heard that the gifted kids were all aliens who’d been identified by the government and had been shut up in the Free Learning Zone to undergo a series of top-secret experiments.
Tom Hebert said his next-door neighbor believed the gifted kids had been identified as “Commie spies” and had been sent to the Free Learning Zone for deprogramming. But the other Free Learning Zone students gave this theory little attention, having felt for some time that Tom was not really one of them. They had heard that he had had to beg his way into the Free Learning Zone, a series of increasingly shrill phone calls from his parents until the principal had finally relented, shaking his head and thinking, Fine, kid. It’s your funeral.
Regarding the regular classes, many of the Free Learning Zone students had begun to develop a barely concealed contempt. Although the term regular might be more commonly understood to suggest “that which is normal, standard, or expected,” among the Free Learning Zone students there could be no greater insult than to be thought of as regular. Why be regular, normal, standard, when one could be exceptional, gifted, advanced?
In February, just as the citizens of Nicolet were beginning to tire of the grey slush of winter, the students of the Free Learning Zone began a unit titled “Our Changing Bodies.”
Meena and Lily could tell this was going to be something different from the way Ms Lessing had colored when she began the first lesson, her voice going a little breathy, as though hoping not to be overheard by anyone who might be passing just then in the hallway. Gone was the self-directed learning. Ms Lessing insisted that all of the Free Learning Zone students take seats facing her. Suddenly, Ms Lessing was using the chalkboard, overheads, slides even, and strangest of all, reading from the book. She grasped it as she spoke as though it were a life preserver, the only thing keeping her afloat.
Lily paid careful attention. Ovaries, she lettered in her notebook in her slow, deliberate handwriting. Testes. She avoided looking at any of the boys in the class as she wrote.
Meena had propped up her health textbook on her desk so that it appeared as though she was following along as Ms Lessing lectured. But inside the textbook, she had secreted away her latest obsession, which she had discovered at the Friends of the Nicolet Public Library’s used book sale the previous weekend and had been carrying around since then—a strange, yellowed old book called The Secret Museum of Mankind. Turning the pages, her eyes on the grainy images and their captions, it was this book she read as Ms Lessing lectured.
There were photos of scantily clad men, earlobes stretched around clay disks; bare breasted women in skirts of grass, naked babies resting on their hips; a boy hunter wielding a spear. In the background, she could hear Ms Lessing reading aloud from the textbook.
“You may begin to notice changes in your body.”
But Meena’s eyes were on the grainy photographs of The Secret Museum. She was nearing the end of the section titled “The Secret Album of Oceana,” in which the author noted, The shores are dotted with these careless children of nature, lightly clad.
From the front of the room, Ms Lessing had adopted what she hoped was a reassuring tone.
“These changes are part of what is called puberty.”
P-U-B-E-R-T-Y, she spelled out carefully on the chalkboard in all capital letters.
Here, in a classroom that was a sea of white suburban faces, Meena pored over the images in The Secret Museum, all identified as “natives” or as “representative specimens of their race,” all of them dark-skinned, the images in the book and the lecture, going on in the background like a kind of soundtrack, becoming intimately connected as she half listened and half took in the photos and their captions. Kalinga girls are fond of this style in which the bodice ends early and the skirt begins late.
“Soon, you may find that you have developed body odor.”
Here, an image of young women, their faces marked with elaborate patterns of cuts and tattoos, a caption reading, Tribal marks deform their not unpleasing faces.
“Your breasts will begin to develop, and at first, they may be tender.”
There were almost no instances in which the individuals in the photos were identified by their names, Meena noticed. Rather, they were stand-ins, “a Kalabit” or “a Dayak,” each group represented by a single photo and informative caption.
“These changes are caused by hormones,” Ms Lessing continued.
To Meena’s right, Lily was still carefully taking notes, but Meena was transfixed by the picture before her, a young woman ornamented in an elaborate feathered headdress: This striking personage, upon whom you will find all the young men’s eyes, is among her tribeswomen, considered to be a rare beauty.
“For boys, the shoulders will grow broader.”
These girls do most of the work in the fields, while men pursue or evade vendettas.
“Your voices may become deeper.”
Here, an image of bare-bottomed men with bows and arrows
“Both boys and girls will develop hair under their arms and in their pubic areas.”
Naked, dark-skinned women stood together staring out of the photograph and, it seemed to Meena, right at her, their bodies painted, breasts hanging flat against their chests.
Tom Hebert, in the seat behind her, tapped her on the shoulder. “What are you looking at?” he whispered.
“Shut up,” she hissed, whipping around to glare at him, her long braid catching him across the face as she turned back around.
“Girls will develop a regular menstrual period.”
The next page showed a group of women, their skirts pulled up, legs spread wide around the washbasins at which they worked.
“You will begin to feel strong emotions, and you may find yourself becoming frustrated, angry, or sad more easily.”
A woman standing in front of a hut, her nakedness hidden by cleverly arranged beadwork.
For Meena, it was as though two mysteries of the adult world were being revealed simultaneously to her—one by the book and one by the shocking news Ms Lessing was breaking to them all.
“Shall we talk about our questions, our concerns?”
Ms Lessing removed her eyes from the book and regarded the classroom full of students, their faces turned up toward her. Normally, the Free Learning Zone students were avid, if overenthusiastic, participants in class discussion, but now the classroom was weighted with a thick, awkward silence. Ms Lessing blinked out at the gifted and talented students for a moment as though trying to summon patience or courage or a little of both.
“Well then, let’s continue.” She plodded steadily forward through the overheads. “Now we will discuss sexually transmitted diseases,” she explained, placing on the overhead a particularly alarming image. “This is a chancre.” The students looked away, letting out an audible groan, almost in unison.
At the conclusion of the lecture, the class sat quietly in a kind of stunned silence. The lecture on their developing bodies had shocked for both Lily and Meena, neither of whom had yet registered the possibility that this might happen to them.
For Lily, the careful notes she penned had been an academic exercise in keeping her anxiety at bay. Meena, closing her textbook and tucking The Secret Museum into her backpack, felt she had only just barely survived an arduous and terrifying initiation into near-adulthood.
CHRISSY KOLAYA’S poems and short fiction have appeared in anthologies by Norton, MilkweedEditions, the 50th Anniversary Best of Crazyhorse collection, and other literary journals. In support for her work, Kolaya has received grants from the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, the Jerome Foundation, the Loft Literary Center, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, among others. She’s lived in New York, California, Indiana, Illinois, and Alabama, and now lives and teaches writing at University of Minnesota, where she’s also the co-founder of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival.
Author Photo by Nina Francine Photography
Adapted from Charmed Particles, by Chrissy Kolaya, Copyright © 2015 by Chrissy Kolaya. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.