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Cotton Baller

The way that adults think of traffic school is the way I thought of Junior High School Physical Education. A necessary evil. Something you had to complete to move forward with your life. Hell. Our uniforms were goldenrod t-shirts with a kelly-green mascot insignia. We were the Imps – a little devil essentially - and in the southern accents of our cheerleaders, that four-letter word was two syllables, EE-YIMPS. Our stiff green running shorts had yellow piping and thick elastic waists.

At 13 and 14, most of the girls were wearing bras and many needed them too. I was not one of the lucky ones. “Minnesota Flats,” one of the boys in Science class called me. “Chairman of the Board of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee,” declared another. I begged my mother for a bra, complaining about how embarrassing it is changing in front of the other girls and being the only one with nothing on but a lacy tank top adorned with a flower and a bow in front. But the truth was that I NEVER dressed in front of anyone. The school locker room was a great un-equalizer, and bullies abounded, hiding shoes, picking on fat rolls, comparing profiles. I would sneak into the bathroom stall to change and promptly flush the unused toilet as I left with my clothes balled up as tightly as possible so no one would know I was too shy to change at my locker in front of Heather with her perky breasts hidden under a lacy bra or Aisha with the huge chocolate boobs spilling out of a Playtex Torpedo definitely larger than my mother’s.

Mom finally gave in and took me to Belk’s to pick out a Teenform “training bra” in size 32AA. “You’re trying to grow up too fast,” my mother grumbled as she paid two dollars for the peach box with my new bra inside. And it was true! I felt so grown up in the islet contraption. While many women on the news were burning their bras in the fight for liberation, I loved wearing mine and hoped people could see the straps through my clothes. I filled my bra with socks, toilet paper and cotton balls to see what I might look like when my real breasts came in. Cotton definitely worked best, so I took to sneaking a few balls into my bra on a regular basis, which meant that I still had to change in the bathroom lest someone discover that I was a “stuffer.”

One day our P.E. teacher, Mrs. Hill, decided to keep the class inside the gym as the clouds ominously threatened rain. We were moving on from the 100-yard dash and the long jump we’d been working on all month. The boys were instructed to take over one court while the girls were sent to the other. Mrs. Hill was a tall, thin black woman who died her hair red and never shaved her legs. I had yet to shave my legs either, but the thick, curly hair on Mrs. Hill’s legs was the subject of countless jokes on the rare occasions when she chose to wear shorts instead of sweatpants.

As I sat on the court waiting with the girls for Mrs. Hill to launch the boys’ game with a jump ball, I self-consciously realized that I actually did have noticeably fuzzy hair on my kneecaps. I discreetly glanced around the room and observed that most of the other girl’s legs appeared to be shaven, at least from the knees down. They also all had pierced ears. I had to wait until I was sixteen to get my ears pierced. But that night, I decided that I was going to stealthily borrow my dad’s razor and not tell mom.

Mrs. Hill’s shrill whistle brought me out of my self-image trance. She commanded my classmates to line up along the side of the court. She chose two team captains and instructed them to alternate selecting the teammates they’d be playing with for the next month. One captain was one of the most popular girls in school. A cheerleader, Betsy Jones was perky and adorable with a dimpled smile and clothes right off the pages of Seventeen Magazine. The other captain was a known nerd. Karen Neely wore smudged glasses and dark knee socks with her gym uniform. She was in my English and Math classes and always seemed to have all the answers. In an effort to not be typecast as a nerd, I never attempted to befriend Karen Neely, but I was quite sure I’d end up on her team.

The captains chose their friends first and then picked their friends’ friends. Each time Betsy’s turn came, she’d take whispered recommendations from her entourage. Then she’d come out of the huddle and announce with great pride, “We choose Mary Catherine!” As the remaining girls waiting to be chosen dwindled, I began to get nervous. Had they noticed me? Was I invisible? I’d been in class with both these girls at Kingswood for 6th grade. Hey! It’s me! Please choose me. Please choose me. PLEASE CHOOSE ME! I frantically screamed over and over in my head. Then I got really nervous. There were only five girls left. It was Karen’s turn. “I pick Holly.” My heart dropped to my stomach as a girl with an afro and mucky coke bottle glasses walked to the left side of the court.

The girl in the Converse,” Betsy announced after a brief consultation with her beautiful teammates. Great, now they were beyond names. They’d moved onto distinguishing features and we were all wearing gym clothes. I probably hadn't brushed my mousy hair that morning. Uggh! I knew I was in trouble as I looked down at my plain white “Keds-a-likes” from Kmart paired with red and white striped NC State Wolfpack gym socks. They were my lucky socks in 5th grade, but they had lost their elastic and were bunched up around my ankles on this fateful day in 7th.

Only three girls were left.

I looked kindly at Karen to try and create a sense of familiarity. Remember that time we ate lunch at the same table in sixth grade? Remember when I picked up your pencil in math? I tried to speak what was in my heart with my pleading, friendly and hopeful eyes. But Karen Neely chose Karen Yankolowitz. Name similarity. Who could blame her? Now it was down to me and a ghostly pale girl with bowl cut red hair that I’d actually never even noticed in class before. Betsy pointed and said “You.” I took a relieved step forward, but the other girl was already walking briskly toward where Betsy’s team was gathered on the Imp in center court. The teams were clustering together and Mrs. Hill signaled for me to go to a group but I couldn’t tell which one.

Yet out of the darkness came a little burst of hope. If I play well, they’ll fight over who has me. I had found the perfect strategy. And just at that moment, the ball bounced into my hands. I dribbled it once, dribbled it twice and shot it toward the basket. And like a slow motion moment in Hooziers, the ball soared through the air and swooshed into the basket. Nothing but net. My heart pounded with excitement!

But an argument broke out between the ten players on the court. It seems I wasn’t actually in the game and therefore the basket didn’t count. I was sure though, that they’d now be anxious to have me on their team. A great shot like myself? But they went on playing and I was still uncertain of which sideline I should go to. I grabbed a bathroom pass off the wall by the stack of green and white gymnastics mats and returned to the locker room where I hid in the bathroom stall for the rest of the period. And when the bell rang, I adjusted my cotton balls and changed quickly before the rest of those evil imps could see my tear-streaked face.

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As shared at Story Salon on June 21, 2017, at Storytime February 4, 2018 and in Once Upon Another Time on February 22, 2020.

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