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out on a limb

V o l u m e   1 5   I s s u e  4

Hearts and Flowers . . . or All About Staying In The Lines

Some memories seem to stick with you. Valentine's Day brings one of my most vivid remembrances to mind--the memory and its sting.

I was in 5th grade at a local parochial school. Girls were all dressed in blue skirts with white blouses; boys, in khakis. Even the playground was divided into an area for boys and an area for girls. Naturally, in fifth grade, our desires were more to be with our own kind than to be with the opposite sex, so everything worked out just fine in our young minds.

Some teachers went so far as to separate the sexes in the classroom; girls in the front because we were smarter, more attentive, neater; boys in the back because they were disruptive, unruly, and seldom had their homework. So my world was populated with neatly pressed skirts and crisp white blouses, none of those shirt-tails pulled loose or bloody elbows for me.

Actually, I was in second grade when I discovered my interest in girls and my disinterest in boys. There was this cute, bubbly thing named Donna who first attracted me. Blonde-haired, quick to laugh, always chattering, Donna was the object of all my schoolyard attention, especially after we started holding hands at recess. Yes, we could do that kind of thing and no one thought anything of it. But I knew.

I knew about jealousy and little girl games. I knew about best friends and such. Why, even the books I read as a young girl heartily praised the virtues of friendship, of sharing secrets with your girlfriend, of sleeping over in the same bed. All of this was harmless fun that would eventually redirect itself into male/female attraction-except I was destined to be a lesbian, a lover of women, for the whole of my life and I never made the switch at whatever junction I was supposed to do so. I kept merrily on the track toward loving women, and never looked back.

By fifth grade, I was in love with Debbie. She was my constant companion and we were inseparable. The best part of the day was recess when we could stand in the split truck of an old tree on the playground and dream. We'd play games of rescue where she was the damsel in distress and I, the knight in shining armor, was her rescuer. It never dawned on me that she would never be mine in any fairy tale book...all that mattered to me was that she was mine on the playground and I was her protector.

When Valentine's Day rolled around, we were each given a dittoed heart-ah, ditto paper-the smell of the fluid, the purple color of the print. Who could forgot the cold, wet feel of the sheets? The teacher, Mrs. Ryder, passed out crayons and instructed us to create a Valentine for our one true love. Now really, what could a fifth grader know about true love? But I busily set about creating the most beautiful of Valentines for my girlfriend Debbie, not following the lead of every other kid who was creating a Valentine for their moms.

I was coloring away, taking my crayon this way and that over the paper, darkening the space. I decided to go with a dark red color, instead of a light pastel. After all, hearts were the deepest of reds, not weak tea blushes of barely more than pink. I outlined the shape with the blunt end of the red stick, maybe deviating slightly on some of the edges, but not too badly. Next I laid down stroke after stroke of the waxy color, filling in the shape with enthusiasm. I chose white to inscribe my message to Debbie, but it had a tendency to mingle with the red and form a sort of smeared candycane effect. But I did not worry- my true love would not see the small imperfections of my paper heart-she would see only the love that had created it. "PJ loves DC," I wrote. And as a finishing touch, I drew an arrow through the heart like I had seen on several Valentine's ads.

Mrs. Ryder said that time was up and she began distributing envelopes to each student. "Now class," she said, "before we address our Valentines, let's see if we can pick out some of the prettiest ones."

I was so sure she would see the beauty in mine, so absolutely positive that mine was a prize-winner that I actually volunteered it as an example. The teacher strolled purposefully toward my desk and looked at my creation. She picked it up, along with the drawings of several other children who sat around me. Wow, I thought, now everyone would know how much I loved Debbie.

Famous last words. The teacher began to hold up the selected Valentines for the class to see. She praised one, especially, done by a girl named Valerie. "See how Valerie has lightly colored the paper, moving from right to left in one direction? See how Valerie has outlined the heart so neatly? See how Valerie has written her message around the outside of the heart? Now this is a Valentine that anyone would love to get." All the students shook their heads in agreement. Then Mrs. Ryder did the unthinkable. She prefaced her action with the following words that drove a stake through my heart: "Now this is a example of how NOT to color." I knew, even before she held the paper high for all to see, that it was MY Valentine of which she spoke. Even before she turned the paper toward the class, I could see the wavy outline of the edges. I could see the places where the color had "run" outside the line before I could stop it. I could see my initials and those of Debbie staring up from the page.

And as if in slow motion, the paper was turned toward the gaping eyes of the student body in that classroom and my name was announced out loud as the creator of the Valentine. "Now, no one would want to get this kind of Valentine," she moaned. And the class laughed uproariously. But the only sound I could hear was the sound of my heart breaking in rhythm with that laughter. Still, there was more to come.

"Who do you intend to give this masterpiece to, Pam?" the teacher asked. "See how you have colored too hard? Why I can even see where the crayon broke. D.C. will not be proud to receive a Valentine so carelessly drawn," she said. I could only hang my head. I didn't dare look across the aisle to where Debbie sat. If no one else knew to whom the Valentine was directed, she did, and I was mortified beyond belief. Finally, some nasty little boy blurted out, "Debbie is her Valentine," and the whole class laughed at me. "Girls can't have girls for Valentines," he continued. I wished that he was somewhere way across the playground skinning his knee instead of staring at my now humiliated effort of demonstrating my love.

Needless to say, I never colored another Valentine heart, never colored much of anything, actually, after that incident. But I learned how to cut out a fabulous heart-shaped design from red construction paper ready to send, nothing to color. From then on, I kept my loves secret because I couldn't color and because I couldn't love any of the boys the way I loved the girls.

Even now, I make sure to order flowers for my Valentine from a gay florist, insuring that no one will ever again say "You can't love a girl" to me.

But Valentine's Day is still filled with difficult memories for me, and every year I hope that I will not be used as an example of an incorrect emotion or a poorly executed drawing. Funny how some memories stay with you. Nowadays, I think about my obstinate behavior when it comes to staying in the lines. My life is an illustration of crossing boundaries and straying outside the fences. I still have that fifth grade heart too- not in a box somewhere in the attic, but inside my chest with all its heavy red wax and its wiggly outline.

Those of us who can't color have learned to cut, not just with scissors and construction paper, but with our hearts. We cut outside the lines laid down for us and we cut a path through life that isn't what people might expect. I still give my Valentines to girls and I have yet to offer my heart, red-crayoned or real, to a member of the opposite sex.

Those of us who can't color have learned to cut-to live outside the lines and to love outside the lines-to cut our own path through a forest of possibilities.

I still feel sorrow for Valerie- the girl with the perfect heart. She was so careful to stay within the lines that I'll bet she is still an example of staying in the lines of social norms. Not me. And to DC, wherever you are, the proof of true love is not in the style of the design, it is in the wild, crazy, headlong rush to say I love you, despite the big bad teacher standing over you with disapproval on her face. Yep, I never did color inside the lines, not because I couldn't, but because I didn't want to.

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