Thursday, May 22, 2014

Catholic Guitar in the '80s

I learned to play the guitar on Jesuit hymns and The Beatles. My sixth grade teacher, I’ll call him Mr. Sigma, taught me to play after school. Possibly motivated by his desire for company at the school’s daily 7:30am church service, he taught me persistently and with kindness. The Beatles songs were a reward for learning some church songs. I loved Mr. Sigma. The only male staff member aside from the janitor, Mr. S was about 27, with slightly curly, very red hair, and a generous moustache. He was genuinely unpretentious, and I felt I could be myself with him. I was an overly tall, awkward 12 year old, and the shoulder-to-shoulder, non-speaking role with Mr. S was one I was eager to fill. Every day at 7:25am I would meet him in the church vestibule, where in winter months his cold Martin acoustic guitar would be leaning against the baseboard heater. I’d arrive, not a second to spare, and he’d take my guitar and begin tuning it by ear, while I tried to wipe my nose discreetly on whatever article of clothing I could without being noticed. I associate St. Louis winters and church with never having a Kleenex. He gave me the song list and we’d silently head into church and set up our music and guitar stands halfway up the aisle. We didn’t need to talk because we did this every day. This service was mainly for the Kindergarten through Eighth grade classes, the nuns who taught us and lived next door, and a few lonely elderly neighbors. Mr. Sigma’s music livened up an otherwise dreary hour, though for him it may have been a monotonous drudge to supplement his teacher’s pay. He was a little grumpy at this early hour and sometimes chose songs he could play with brute gusto, maybe a little anger, masquerading as religious fervor. Actually all those Jesuit songs you can play like that; they are three-chord tunes, folky-rocky, and full of emotion and crescendo. “And if the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack (Audience: ‘Ouch!’), Sit on a tack (‘Ouch!’)….”
            Then we’d pack up the guitars and head to class.

Mr. Sigma also talked me into joining the children’s choir. I already played with them during practices—he needed someone to accompany them as sometimes he had to
stop playing to give direction or discipline a rowdy section—but I never sang ‘officially.’ One day during practice I was singing softly while playing guitar. He leaned in to hear me better and said, “Your voice isn’t bad.” It’s all the encouragement I needed—I loved to make a noise—so I started to join the choir at the early mass on Sundays. This mass was for the general congregation, though the reason we sang at the least popular time of 8am was because a lot of people without kids in the choir would avoid this mass. Loud and tambourine-y, we had spirit if not cohesion.

            Clothes were always a big issue between me and my family, especially when it came to church. I fought pretty hard in general to wear what I considered normal clothes and they considered boy clothes, but on Sundays they had more clout. Once I joined children’s choir, however, I had a loophole. One of the saving graces of choir was that we were stationed in an actual choir loft. For the entire service we were ensconced up there, separated from view and the general congregation by a solid wooden railing and stairs that were a little tricky to find. We didn’t even have to go down for communion, which was, in my insecure mind at least, the de facto fashion, humiliation and exposure parade. The priest and altar boy came to us, which made me feel pretty special. This change in procedure was liberating for me in the clothes department. One day I feathered my hair and showed up wearing black parachute pants, tennis shoes and a black nylon zip-up jacket. I rustled up to Mr. Sigma feeling quite self-conscious, though 80% sure that I looked awesome. He took one look at me and said, a bit disparagingly, “Hello, Johnny Cash.” I didn’t get the reference, but even though I knew he just took a light stab at me I took it as a compliment that he called me one of my favorite boy names.

            This was around the end of my “Gender Disregardment” period. I mean, I had wrestled with my extended family’s ideas of what I should wear as a girl and how my hair should be cut since I was four, but until I became close with Mr. S in my mind I was mainly “boy.” I don’t mean I wanted a penis. I didn’t even necessarily “want” a vagina, it was just what I had. I just considered myself more aligned with what my boy friends wanted to do with their free time than what my girl friends wanted. Sports, football in the street, GI Joes under the pine tree. Running in the alley between the backs of the garages playing ninja with my brother and his friends, older kids versus younger. Trip wires and nun chucks. Then one day, in the middle of a game of ninja, I just walked away. I was suddenly bored. I’d still play with boys for another year or two, and I never stopped playing sports, but the wrestling and the violent, high-energy games of fantasy gave way to board games and long talks.
            But Mr. S. saw me as a girl. He was one of the few adults, though, that didn’t seem confused about my brand of girlness. He accepted my Johnny Cash outfits and the gender-ambiguous haircuts that were the compromise between my parents and me. In my 8th grade graduation book Mr. S wrote that he has witnessed me turn into “a lithe and lissome young woman, confident and competent.”
“What?!” I thought, both embarrassed and pleased that he noticed something specific about me. I think it was the beginning of my understanding that I could be both lithe and strong, tough and attractive.
Although Mr. S had no idea I would come out as a lesbian 5 years later, he was my first ally. And I’ve got the Jesuits and The Beatles to thank for that.


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