It is my pleasure to introduce Freesia McKee to Plume readers. Alfred Lord Tennyson is the jumping off point for her in “The One Crying in English Class” —a point of departure, if you will, and a poet whom the speaker “is over” by the 27th line of her tour de force about feminism, activism, the canon, and empathy. Tennyson echoes through the poem, the way the patriarchy echoes through all our lives. But it is not lost on readers that his “sponges of millennial growth” mean something Tennyson could have never predicted, a millennial poet making poetry anew.
The One Crying in English Class
From time to time, I still get angry
about the way my ninth grade English teacher talked
about feminism. Diluted apologetics: You hear
a lot of negative things about feminism,
and some of them are true. Feminists are angry,
but, girls, it’s really not that bad. I wished
for a more assured endorsement. I was already a feminist:
Why plant seeds of doubt? The teacher was preparing us
to watch a taped episode of Donahue, a show that
hadn’t been on-air for over nine years. She was preparing us
to listen to the feature: a televised panel from the 80s.
This was the same teacher who cried for joy describing the anti-
abortion protestors who moved in formation annually as they held fetus
signs near Mayfair Mall. She thought it beautiful
how they waved large photos, linking arms in a pattern
only those judging from above, like God, could see. I didn’t know
what to say, how to question, ask the teacher in earnest
if anyone she loved had ended a pregnancy. I loved the idea of signing up
my sophomore year for journalism class, available only by permission,
so I tried hard in ninth grade English. I found my allies were the writers
who weren’t present physically. I wonder how many of the plaid-skirted girls
staring at the teacher weeping in her eight-foot, purple scarf—fashionable
at the time—have had abortions. We are almost 30 now, older than our teacher
was then: some of us have children and some of us don’t. Some of us have had abortions.
I would get an abortion if I needed one. I believe that any reason a pregnant person wants
to get an abortion is a good one. Her echo: Feminists are angry, but it’s really not that bad.
I was over Alfred Lord Tennyson. Ready to move on. I thought journalism class
would encourage us to tell the truth. I wanted to record the news.
Below the thunders of the upper deep
Far, far beneath the abysmal sea
During college, I went to a Planned Parenthood rally
in Asheville with my boyfriend. It was a counter-protest
and we faced traffic near the mall, bearing signs in support
of reproductive justice. We hadn’t hauled in drawings of fetuses
or pools of blood like the other side, though we could have blown up
photos of what can happen when a person doesn’t have access
to ending pregnancy safely. I hadn’t yet seen the image of Gerri Santoro’s
corpse or learned how her ghost galvanized feminists in the ‘70s.
As with early activism in many people’s lives, my presence at the rally
was performative. I didn’t quite understand the stakes.
Caught in my own world, I looked around the parking lot
to tally who else showed up. To my chagrin,
I spotted two of my ex-boyfriends
among the other rallyers, each one accompanied by a new girlfriend.
We went to a small college, so we all knew each other. One girlfriend waved
at me with fraudulent warmth, an exaggeration, good intention.
I held a pink poster to my chest and stared at the passing
North Carolina license plates. A strange man tried to get me
to hold an American flag on a pole. He explained that The Left
should be More Patriotic. He said, We need to reclaim the flag.
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height
One of my high school speech coaches bragged to us—more
than once—that she was the most-photographed person
in her high school yearbook. Such a credential could
catalyze great accomplishments…like being a high school
speech coach. She was devoted. I liked her; she told the truth,
working for the school, how the Diocese made every new employee
watch a videotape in a dark room about priest abuse,
as if that kind of training dissolves complicity.
For many nervous years, I vomited before every weekend
speech meet. I always participated, but never won.
How trite is it to say I learned a lot from showing up?
Once, I listened to a girl tell a group of boys
from another school how much she hated
listening to other girls speak. I still remember the outfit she was wearing,
a black suit, business-casual, a blouse peeking out, baby-pink.
She said girls pay too much attention to detail. I still get angry,
from time to time, about such predictable comments.
When my twelfth grade English teacher became our new speech coach,
I watched him read The Autobiography of Malcolm X
during downtime at another school’s cafeteria in-between rounds.
I purchased my own copy a few months later during a college visit
far away from Milwaukee. Years later, visiting New York City for the first time,
I walked past a bronze plaque naming Millay’s house, the narrowest
home in all the city. The whole abode is only nine feet, six
inches wide. My new boyfriend and I visited the New York Public Library,
the storied marble lions. Virginia Woolf’s walking stick rested on display
near the journals of Lorraine Hansberry. Yes, Hansberry was married
to a man. Yes, she self-identified as a lesbian. I still get angry,
from time to time, about how the queer authors we read
in school were taught straight. I think
about Mrs. Bonk (real name) who taught us sophomore English.
She was rumored amongst the students to be a feminist,
as in, Have you had Mrs. Bonk?
Yeah, she’s a good teacher. She’s a feminist, though.
Mrs. Bonk wore polo shirt dresses and pearl earrings
and was pregnant, and none of these attributes prevented her
from being a feminist. It’s really not that bad. With Mrs. Bonk,
we read Hansberry’s A Raisin the Sun. We read
Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, though she sent (or was required to send)
a content-warning letter to our parents about…Misogyny? Racism? Abuse?
(Content already present at our school.) This was shortly
after an alumna of the school published a YA novel,
Whores on the Hill, about an all-girls Catholic school in Milwaukee,
one very similar to our own. I have never read the book, but I have talked
a lot about it. After the publication of Whores, the school mailed a letter
to all the parents, an attempt to distance itself from the story.
I don’t think Christ would have used the word “whore.” We weren’t “whores,”
but our school did lay on a hill. Notably, a hill is also where they crucified Christ.
At least the book didn’t make that conflation. The novel wasn’t called
Whores on the Golgotha, which means “bald head” or “skull” or “place of the skull”
and is the hill on which Christ took one for the team.
(Our mascot was a penguin, or Jesus,
depending on how you look at it.) This was the year of the taped-up
posters on the school stairwells that read, “Choose Life.”
Did some of them say “Abortion is Murder”? This was the year I left class
allegedly to use the bathroom and tore the posters down.
I thought no one was looking. This was the year I learned a secret
about one of my classmates, about which I didn’t say anything. That year,
after the school sent home a letter about Whores, I asked my mother
if I could have her copy. I wanted to add it to my scrapbook,
and perhaps because we were Unitarian, she said okay.
I’ve fantasized about reading Whores on the Hill,
though I can’t bring myself to buy it.
One online review summarizes, “Three brats with libidos.”
Another review reads, “In a decade or so, I plan on giving my daughter
her own copy.” A third reviewer proclaims,
“This book is my absolutely favorite book I have ever read.”
It’s really not that bad.
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
How much I would have loved to study authors out of the closet
as we did, later in twelfth grade English with The Laramie Project.
A decade after Matthew Shepard’s murder, at our school,
like many schools, the Day of Silence was every day.
The last week of class, my teacher, Mr. McGinn (the younger; there were two),
called on us, one-by-one, around the room to share our final thoughts about the play.
And then I was the one crying in English class. It was the moment,
for the first time, that I realized my classmates were not vicious
homophobes. Some girls even expressed that they knew out
gay people, even in their families (everybody’s got, at least, a queer
cousin). My classmates said The Laramie Project made them feel
sad. Maybe we learned something, then, about literature and empathy.
Those girls just didn’t realize how important it would have been—
at any other time during our four years together—to say they were allies out loud.
But because we were nearly children, then,
I suppose I cannot blame them.
Battening upon huge sea worms in [her] sleep
I’ve dreamed about the Planned Parenthood rally
so many times that I can’t remember which details
are true. Which boyfriend was I there with? It’s not like
there were that many. I was not there with the first boyfriend
because there was definitely an ex-boyfriend present.
So it must have been the second or third. It’s weird
I have dual memories of riding home from the same rally with the second boyfriend
and with the third boyfriend, two parallel memories of conversations
where the current boyfriend pokes fun at the past one(s). One of them false.
One conversation must be real and one must be a dream.
There hath [she] lain for ages, and will lie
I’d never had the chance in school to study Bishop or Sexton
or Danticat. I’d never had the chance in class to study Harjo
or Duhamel or Wade. I’d never had the chance in class to study Anzaldúa
or Rich (whose name I didn’t know until college) or Shange or Allison or Cisneros
or Clifton (except the poem “whose side are you on?” in twelfth grade English) or
Feinberg or Lorde or Baldwin or Doty. Until college and after, I wouldn’t
have the chance to write my own reading list: then I realized I wrote it
my whole life: trips to the library, feminism carried to school
in books inside my navy-blue bag. In college, authors ceased to serve as silent
actors. In college, I “found my people,” as my mother reminds me,
and the authors and the library counted as some of this growing crew.
At some point, later, I began to rob myself of time
in search of love, and the loneliness turned into a red crucible.
[Her] ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
My last boyfriend in college couldn’t get me pregnant
and I couldn’t get my boyfriend pregnant. We didn’t have the parts
an accidental pregnancy would require. It’s one way
a boyfriend and a girlfriend can be queer. I waited
until we graduated and broke up finally over the phone.
All or nothing. I am embarrassed to say this. I went out the next week
with a woman I met at a bar. What I feel embarrassed of, too, is
how much I was hurting inside, not for or from any particular
person, but a personal bruise I would favor
for years until I started reading of the world
what I’d never given myself the chance to devour,
even after I started to meet the teachers who granted me access.
It took a long time to face my loneliness, a confrontation
I could only make alone, constant others a convenient distraction.
When I was in high school, my grandmother told me she’d left
the Catholic Church in the 1950s because she “didn’t want to have all those children.”
I loved the agency her story symbolized, her departure
from her own grandmother’s 12+ pregnancies. When I talked to her, my place
in the protest line made sense. There was room
for all of us.
To read freely is one way to be free. To read and write freely
is one way to be a feminist, and it’s really not that bad.
You don’t even need to be a journalist to tell the truth.
Reporter or not, after silence, the truth can take a long time to tell.
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep
I am a teacher myself, now, afraid of assigning the wrong readings,
or accidentally erasing my students’ lives through material I choose
to omit, through content I don’t know exists.
Each reading is a rally sign I’m holding on the highway.
What if I could send a message back to every year of English class?
Here: I am some kind of queer. Let me complicate it:
my mother is a lesbian. My sister is an ally, teacher,
and survivor. My stepmother is married to my mother. And yes,
of course, I have a dad. I thought I had a complicated family, but
they taught us to love the virtue of veracity. It was simple:
we could check out any books we wanted
from the library. We knew it was our choice.
About [her] shadowy sides; above [her] swell
As a twelfth grader, I once listened to a ninth grader talk to a priest
in the hallway about how she thought abortion
was a shame. What amazed me was that
the priest was pro-choice. For me, this was the biggest epiphany
of Catholic school: you might not even believe
the messages you are sanctioned to spread.