“Who should I tell?” the little girl in the story asked, the words floating above her in a bubble.
“Tell a grownup you trust.” These words were written in a bubble above the head of a nurse, just like in comic books. In his mind, Billy imagined it was a bubble gum bubble, stretched to the limit. He pictured it busting and slapping back against the nurse’s face. Billy didn’t like the book and he didn’t like the nurse, either. Billy knew better. And he knew better than to say.
“It might be a teacher,” the nurse was saying, “or a school counselor, or maybe your principal. It might be your Mom or Dad, a Policeman, a neighbor or another adult in your family.”
Billy’s attention drifted up from the page, across the tile floor with its high-gloss finish, and over the top of the bindings on The Complete Works Of Mark Twain, standing gilt-edged and upright on the bookshelf below the window. He looked past the beans sprouting under a thin layer of gauze on the sunny ledge, beyond the slanted and slightly open wired-glass windowpane, and out into the school yard.
His gaze wandered to a wooden power pole, split halfway up from the ground and held together with metal bands. A gray squirrel scurried into view, stopped and twitched its tail. It seemed to be listening intently to something. Billy thought it was listening for danger. The squirrel shook its tail again, and circled to the other side of the pole. Billy’s gaze wandered up and came to rest on a queerly shaped pale blue island of sky floating above the doings and beings, the shapes and edges of the here below, where Billy knew better than to search for a grown-up he could trust. ‘How,’ he wondered, ‘would you know?’
Then Mr. C was behind him and touched him lightly on the shoulder, “Billy? Billy I don’t think you were listening. I asked you to read the next paragraph.”
“Oh,” Billy stammered, “sorry,” and looked down at the page, totally lost. “Um, I…I think I’ve lost my place,” Billy whispered. Mr. C leaned over, turned the pages of the book and with his index finger showed Billy where to begin reading. That was the great thing about Mr. C, Billy thought with relief. He never made fun of you, or scolded you in front of the class. Billy stood up and began to read, tentatively at first, until he could figure out what had happened since his mind had wandered. In the story, the girl told her mother, who believed her right away. The rest of the story was about how everyone came to the girl’s rescue. The story ended with how glad she was that she had told someone. Billy knew better than to believe this story, but he wished with all his heart that it was true. He was a good reader, so he easily made his way through a couple of paragraphs, until Mr. C said, “That’s enough Billy. Thank you,” and called on someone else. The book was called “Private Parts – A Privacy Primer.” In the beginning of the book, before the story, there was a section about the right words to describe “private parts.” The book said not to be embarrassed. That was when Warren and Chris started giggling. They kept it up, getting louder and louder, until while Mr. C was reading about girls’ breasts the two of them just busted out laughing. Billy knew somebody had said “titties.”
Mr. C stopped in his tracks, and looked for a minute as if he was listening hard, frowning with his eyes squinting at nothing in particular. Then he told Warren and Chris to go to the Principal’s Office and when they left, he left too.
The rest of the kids sat there not knowing what to do, and then Mr. C came back in and told all the girls to go next door to Mrs. Lewis’s class. A minute later, all the boys from Mrs. Lewis’s class came into Mr. C’s class, and when everyone was seated and quiet, Mr. C started reading about private parts again. Billy was glad Mr. C didn’t make the kids read that part. Everybody was so nervous, the room felt like a light bulb getting ready to explode from too much heat. It felt like every kid in there wanted to be someplace else.
Warren and Chris were someplace else. Billy thought right now he’d rather be in the Principal’s Office with them, than in here listening to Mr. C. talk about penises and vaginas. Usually everybody just shook their heads at those two cut ups. They were always in trouble. But right now, they were the only kids being spared the indignity and humiliation of learning about “testicles,” among other unmentionables, and Billy thought that might be worth getting in trouble for. After the correct names of body parts came the story, which was dumb but okay, and then came the second book about different kinds of touching. It was called, A Very Touching Book. According to the book, there were three main types of touching: good touching, bad touching and secret touching. Everybody made yucky sounds when Andrew started reading the part about good touching. Andrew’s voice was smaller than usual and he was standing on ing on one foot, with the other foot twisting around on top of it. Billy thought he was going to fall over. Nobody was really paying a lot of attention, so it wasn’t that bad for Andrew to get through it. All the kids were making fun of hugs and kisses and other kinds of good touching. So when Anthony started laughing and turned around and looked right at him, Billy smiled as if he got the joke, but he didn’t get it and that made him even more uncomfortable. Billy wouldn’t have admitted it to the other kids, but he felt proud because his family had lots of good touching and he liked it.
Like when you were proud and Mom hugged you, or when you got tucked into bed at night. That was Billy’s favorite. He and Josh would get in bed and beg Mom to tell them a story. “What kind of story?” she’d ask. Billy’s Mom told different kinds of stories, some stories she just made up on the spur of the moment and others weren’t really stories at all, because they were about things that had really happened. Billy and Josh called them “real stories,” like the one about Josh’s first chocolate chip cookie, or how Billy wouldn’t go to Kindergarten when he was five. Every day during the first week of Kindergarten, Billy just left school and walked back home crying. By that Friday, Mom gave in and let him wait another year before starting school.
Billy loved to hear those stories, but he liked the ones Mom made up best. Like the story Mom told about baby teeth. The first time Billy lost a tooth, Mom told him to put it under his pillow for the Tooth Fairy. When Billy asked why, Mom kind of sat back on the bed and rested her head on the wall and she said, “Well let me try to remember. It’s been a long time since I thought about it.” Then she took a deep breath and sighed. “Okay, here’s what I remember from when I was little and my Mom explained it to me. You see, baby teeth are magic. In fact they’re the only thing in the world that can be made into fairy dust. Whenever a child loses a baby tooth, the fairies know and if the little boy or girl puts the tooth under their pillow, the Tooth Fairy comes and gets it.”
“But how do they know,?” Billy asked.
“I don’t know, sweetheart, but they always do. And it’s a good thing too, because it’s important that not a single baby tooth gets lost, because there’s never enough fairy dust to go around, even though the fairies work on it every night. Billy, have I ever told you what they do with the fairy dust? After they grind up the baby teeth into a powder?”
“Unh, unh,” Billy said, and he knew that meant the story wasn’t over, so he popped his thumb in his mouth and settled back on Mom’s pillow belly to hear the rest.
“Well,” Mom continued stroking his head, “fairy dust is what the Sandman sprinkles over the eyelids of sleeping children so they’ll have good dreams and won’t have nightmares.”
“But I sometimes have nightmares,” Billy had said.
“Yes I know,” Mom said, making a deliberate but not serious frown, “that’s why it’s so important not to lose any of your baby teeth. There isn’t enough fairy dust and the fairies need all the baby teeth they can get.”
“Oh,” Billy said with satisfaction. He popped his thumb out of his mouth and said with conviction, “I want to give all my teeth to the Tooth Fairy!” Then Mom placed Billy’s first baby tooth under his pillow and kissed him on the cheek. When Billy woke up in the morning, there was a quarter under his pillow and the tooth was gone. Wow, he thought, maybe Mom didn’t make up the Tooth Fairy story after all.
Mom knew a lot about dreams, because every night when she kissed him goodnight she said, “Have pleasant dreams.” That’s when he would grab her around the neck with both arms and hang on like it was life or death, yelling “Sticky hug, sticky hug!” Sometimes Mom would have to drag him halfway out of bed before he’d finally give up and let go. Sometimes she’d force him to let go by tickling him. Tickling was the ONLY thing that ALWAYS worked to get a sticky hug loose. When Billy thought about the good touching in his family, he knew what the book was talking about, but he kept it to himself because of the other kids.
Next Michael got called on to read from the part about bad touching. Everybody had experienced some kind of bad touching, the book said, and the main thing about bad touching was that it hurt. It was really a relief to talk about something they all knew about, even though they hated getting hit. All the boys started acting out saying, “Blam! Duush! Whap!” Mr. C had to ask them to settle down.
But when they got to the part about secret touching, Mr. C read it to them himself. As soon as Mr. C started to read, all the fooling around came to a halt, and none of them made fun of what came next.
“The difference between good touching and bad touching,” Mr. C read, “is that good touching feels good and a child always feels safe and cared about during good touching. Bad touching hurts and the grown-up doing it to a child is usually angry. So it’s easy to tell good touching and bad touching apart. But secret touching is harder to spot.” Most secret touching,” Mr. C read, “involves a child’s private parts in a way the child doesn’t understand. Secret touching feels bad, even when it doesn’t hurt. Most grown-ups who do secret touching to a child are people who the child knows. Often they are people the child likes. Grown-ups who do secret touching of a child’s private parts are not usually angry at the child, and the touching doesn’t always hurt. Sometimes it even feels good in a funny kind of way.”
Billy kept his head down and his eyes on the page, even though he wasn’t reading along. He was too busy swallowing hard and trying not to look at anybody.
“Secret touching is the worst kind of touching to do to a child.” By now, Mr. C was reading really slow and careful. “It is bad touching,” Mr. C said, “pretending to be good touching and it confuses and frightens children. Because it is hard to talk about, and because children are afraid to get a grown-up in trouble, or to get the grown-up angry at them a lot of secret touching can happen without anybody else knowing about it. Some grown-ups will even try to frighten a child into keeping the touching secret.”
Billy could feel a blush come all the way from the middle of his back and chest and flow like lava up onto his neck. It set fire to his ears. He knew he was blushing and that everybody could see. Usually you got teased in the school yard for blushing, even though it wasn’t quite as bad as crying in class, for which you got tortured. Right now, he was having trouble breathing. It was like talking about what had happened to him, except he’d never talked about it before and it made him feel naked. It was like every kid in the class could see what happened to him, he was blushing so hard.
Even after Mr. C stopped reading and sat down, Billy could still feel his heart pounding in his ears. They burned. He knew they were bright red. He wanted to reach up and cover them with his hands, but he was afraid to move. It took a few minutes before the pounding in his head finally stopped and he chanced a look around. He was very careful not to look anybody in the eyes, not even his best friend Raymond. But nobody was looking at him. He signed with relief and slumped in his seat, letting his forehead rest in his hand. When the bell rang, Billy didn’t look around for his friends. He bolted straight for the door, trying to look like he had to go to the bathroom and couldn’t wait another second. But Mr. C stopped him about two steps from escape and asked if he would stay after school for a few minutes.
“Okay,” Billy said and he felt so scared he was afraid he really would wet his pants.
“Good,” Mr. C said. “I’ll see you later then.”
“Yes sir,” Billy nodded. Then he turned and ran out.