Afterschool Specials, Diff’rent Strokes, Judy Blume, and Ralph the Penis.

April 7, 2010

I know I promised Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I was asked for more of the seamy underbelly of Gilford, so here I lay the foundation, because the seamy underbelly always begins in junior high, doesn’t it?

In seventh grade several girls at GMHS were passing around novels with naughty sex scenes—all wrapped in paper to keep teachers from knowing what we were up to, but of course they found out soon enough. I was also carrying around a paper-wrapped book at that time, but mine was a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which my dad said he’d pay me five dollars to read, but God forbid anyone know about it. When Mrs. Best asked me to take the cover off in the middle of study hall so she could see what I was reading, she said, “Oh, good for you,” and handed it back. I was mortified.

I also want to clarify that none of what I put into this blog is actually in my book, A Brief History of Sex Education—so if you like it, great—the stuff in the book is even better! If you hate it, don’t worry—the stuff in the book is even better! So here goes—

When Jay Ames brought her paperback of Judy Blume’s Wifey to seventh grade study hall, she wrapped the book with a piece of grainy gray math paper, covering the picture of the naked woman on the front, covering the words “a very nice housewife with a very dirty mind.” All of the seventh grade girls knew what Jay was reading, and when Jay finished, the girls passed it around like we passed secret notes—silently, furtively, from desk to desk.

By the time Wifey got to me, I lifted the book from beneath the spine and it easily fell open to the relevant sections, the strange and otherworldly sex scenes where the housewife is transformed by lust into a sexual dynamo. Wifey was hardly my first brush with spicy literature—I’d read Valley of the Dolls and V.C. Andrews and any scandalous passages I could find from the piles of novels my Gram left lying around, the strangest of which was The World According to Garp, which I secreted away in my bedroom if only to take more time dissecting John Irving’s disturbing imagination.

But still I bit my lip and felt my face flush while reading those passages in Wifey, raising my eyebrows at the revelations of my old friend, Judy Blume, however suspect I found them to be. I’d already read all of the sanctioned Judy Blume titles in the middle high school library—Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Deenie, Blubber, and most importantly a ragged copy of Forever that I had to read in the stacks because Lisa Manter said Mrs. White demanded a note from your mom to let you take it home.

But the books seemed like pure fantasy. The bullying in Blume’s Blubber is over-the-top, the co-ed parties in Deenie are dated and weird, and Forever, despite the pull of reading about a girl’s “first time,” is the most questionable of all, because the main character’s boyfriend jokingly names his penis “Ralph” to put her at ease before they have sex. I had to wonder if it was only before boys got married that they gave stupid names to their penises, or would I wait and wait and wait only to discover on my honeymoon that I would have to talk to my new husband’s penis as if it were a separate, small person, his own private little pal? A pal with a name like Ralph?

Ralph, still in Gilford New Hampshire, looking stoic as always.

What increased my anxiety was that I happened to have an eight-foot tall tiki statue named Ralph in my backyard, a souvenir my dad had saved from his days as an airport baggage handler. Ralph had stood in the Western Airlines terminal, part of their advertising push to get more people to go to Hawaii, and my dad had first dibs on it when the airline no longer wanted it looming in the lobby. Why had my dad named this statue “Ralph”? What else had my dad given nicknames to? I did not want to know, and thankfully because I lived in New Hampshire, I would never find out. Unlike those Judy Blume books, where all parents spoke to their children or children spoke to each other—about sex, about God, about life—as if they were really intending to communicate, to hash things out, to share, this was not the way stoic Yankee families functioned—we never talked about sex, we never talked about life and all we knew about God at that point was that he, for some reason, demanded that we not wear jeans or shorts to church—so like those weird sex scenes in Wifey, these books had as much of a grip on reality as the ABC Afterschool Specials I still watched once a month on Wednesday afternoons.

Like Judy Blume, the canned messages from ABC hit you over the head harder than an anthology of Aesop’s fables, and it was tough to buy the characters—throwing a pair of horn-rimmed specs on Scotty Baio to turn him into a nerd was laughable, and Dana Plato (RIP, poor girl) as an angry teen mom was funnier than her straight girl schtick with Gary Coleman in Diff’rent Strokes—but I loved the angst and the sick rush of adrenaline I got at discovering how much more in the world there might be to worry about.

Though I didn’t really believe a sniff of marijuana would make me a drug fiend any more than I believed a taste of liquor would make me alcoholic, there was still the drama of so many possibilities. If I hitchhiked, I’d get kidnapped, if I shoplifted, I’d be arrested and thrown into jail, if I ran away, I’d get mugged or beaten or worse. Reputations always were fragile and consequences were great. Even in Forever, where the main character only has sex with her boyfriend after maturely and responsibly going to a clinic for birth control, she ends up contracting gonorrhea. What was gonorrhea? I had no idea, but I knew it was bad, bad, bad!

But worse than these traumatic scenarios were the rap sessions characters had with friends and families over their troubles—because unlike in New Hampshire where secrets could be secrets forever, on ABC secrets were never secrets for long. Bottles of vodka or bags of pot spilled from school lockers or turned up in the laundry room, pregnancy test boxes found their way to the tops of trashcans, parents were phoned from the principal’s office, the late-night party, the police station, the ER.

There would be anger and tears and confrontation. “You didn’t use precautions?” “You thought you were being cool?” and always “Why didn’t you just say something?” There would be hugs and more tears and then those clear-headed true friends, those parents and teachers and those guidance counselors in their gauze skirts and hippy-dippy scarves and tinkly bracelets, would hand out phone numbers to Alateen or suicide hotlines. They’d give rides to the free clinic or the AA meeting. They’d put an arm around Scotty Baio’s shoulders and walk him back to class on Monday morning, his horn-rim glasses firmly back in place, a determined look on his face that showed he’d be high on life this time around. They’d sigh and open the door for the damaged Dana Plato to step out of the hospital, shaking their heads in sympathy at the high price she paid for her carelessness (though let’s face it—her boyfriend was played by a babyfaced Rob Lowe—who wouldn’t give in to beauty like that?)

Granted I was only in seventh grade—these issues were not really my issues just yet. My girlfriends and I didn’t talk about sex, we talked about Rick Springfield singing “Jessie’s Girl” on General Hospital and which Duke brother we liked best on Dukes of Hazzard. We turned away from each other when we changed our clothes for gym class, had only suspicions about which of us, if any, had started her period, and we passed Wifey from table to table in study hall without a single word. . . we had a ways to go.

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2 Responses to “Afterschool Specials, Diff’rent Strokes, Judy Blume, and Ralph the Penis.”

  1. Kirsti said

    Does this generation have a Judy Blume? I ask because I see the whole Twilight thing as a bit repressed (doesn’t it glorify virginity?)

    I laughed when I read about the after school specials, because I remember seeing a movie in the early 80s about eating disorders starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was like a student research paper come to life, complete with thesis statement: Everyone, if you see anyone you know doing these things, she is in DANGER. GET HELP. Don’t know if this was before or after she got the abortion in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Everything bad that could ever happen to a girl happened to the characters she played.

  2. Kate Flaherty said

    Twilight is totally repressed. Have sex and you will DIE! You should send me the link to your Judy Blume piece and I’ll post it with this! We can start a whole Judy Blume dialogue. . . oh man, anything with JJL in it is hilarious. She loves that over-the-top dramatic stuff–have you seen her in Georgia? Or Bastard Out of Carolina? I guess it all started in the 80s. Fast Times was probably the only sweet role she had.

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