By Guest Blogger Gretchen Rachel Hammond
Gretchen Rachel Hammond is a senior staff writer for the Chicago-based LGBTQ publication the Windy City Times and the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Lisagor Award. Hammond has also written novels like The Last Circle.
I was born in Manchester, England long before the internet, talk shows, situation comedies and socially-conscious dramas about socially-conscious crime scene investigators had made appreciation of the different en vogue. Some of the earliest memories I can recall were indefinable feelings that something about my life, something about me, wasn’t quite what it was supposed to be. So I began to search for a definition and in so doing a personal acceptance of who I was.
Was I defined by my skin tone? My father’s family was from India and I had inherited an olive complexion. Although my mother promised that my hue, matched with a pair of dark brown eyes, would one day make me irresistible to the opposite sex, growing up it was the cause of assorted curious epithets to be hurled my way such as “Paki.” “Punjab” or “MarGhandi” (an inventive play upon my, then, last name).
England in the 1980s was as racist as it was desperately homophobic. Far from being the national dish Chicken Tikka Masala is today, it was only something one ordered after the pubs wouldn’t let you back in.
Still, the color of my skin was a problem which was easily fixed with the help of Estee Lauder so, from about 10 years old, I began to conceal it as much as possible under less than subtly applied layers using different shades of Caucasian colored foundation. Applying the make-up felt good. It felt right but, not only did that make the sheer numbers of derisions I received worse, my Mum and Dad started to worry about me and cancelled my pocket money until I agreed to spend it on “more normal” things.
Perhaps it was my physical appearance and mannerisms that made me unconventional? I had always been too thin, even frail looking and thus was quite the bull’s-eye for the average, schoolyard bully with too much time and not enough anger management classes. I used to be accused all the time of “running like a spastic girl.”
When I would run up to, hug and kiss my father, I was reminded caustically that “men don’t kiss and hug.”
So I decided to start paying visits to the local Community Center gymnasium. Observing my peer attendees as they grunted to victory over the weight of a 747, or ran the London Marathon in place while casually reading a copy of Private Eye was rather like leafing through the pages of a fashion magazine. You see the models, you even think you look like them in certain dimly lit rooms, but they are so far removed from the reality of who you actually are that the whole exercise tends to be less than helpful and more of a bubble-burster.
Despite triumphantly gaining biceps which might have been confused in size for a pair of ambitious zits, I still felt no more normal than the current crop of primary candidates would when asked if they could spend an hour being “completely honest.”
My skin tone, my build, manner of running and proclivity to make-up directly contributed to what I abhorred as the “things that happened to me at school.”
When I was 11, my father decided that my sister and I should receive the best education a dentist’s salary could buy. Of course he failed to mention the fringe benefit of him keeping up the sort of social appearances which consecutive purchases of the newest model Saabs failed to do. So we were each sent to competing, ultra expensive, grammar schools.
Rather than creating a normal, fine, upstanding, dark blue uniformed, well educated, Latin speaking upholder of the antiquated ideal that Britain still had an empire my school turned out to be devastating to my confidence, feelings of self worth and my humanity as a whole.
North Cestrian Grammar School was comprised of a series of ominous, gothic buildings within which were contained educational environments which were gloomy, sardonic but above all filled, every day, with dire consternation.
The teachers stalked the hallways in black gowns and flat black caps in the manner of Darth Vader surveying a legion of captured rebel scum. They were not your friends back then with a vested interest in seeing you prevail in life, they were people to be feared and I am certain they wholeheartedly believed that the more terror they could invoke from their students, the more respect they ultimately extracted.
The required level of dread was cultivated through corporal punishment, the random application of which, by two-inch thick canes or the flat end of a shoe, was honed to a perfect science of pain and humiliation. Some teachers even went as far as having the victim of a publicly held classroom beating sign the instrument of their torture as if to say. “Yes I was here and I am damned proud of it!”
Somehow, during my first year, I managed to avoid such an experience, but the idea of my one day being on the receiving end of it was never far from my mind.
One Monday morning, just before my twelfth birthday, we had been marshaled by classes in the school courtyard in order to stand in single file lines. It was a pointless exercise in absolutely silent discipline and both I and my classmates responded as any group of bored-to-tears children would: through mass fidgeting and widespread, whispered discussions. One of the school’s teachers was a squat, rotund man with a bald head which was only interrupted by a crest of black curly hair encircling it like a woefully misplaced laurel wreath.
He was, outside of the principal who ran the institution with the overly-aged, turn-a-blind-eye mentality of a Vatican Cardinal, the most feared instructor in the entire institution.
It was with a deafening, paralyzing roar that this teacher singled me out for having a whispered conversation with a friend about the previous Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who.
“You! Come with me and I will give you a present!!!”
I doubt that, for the rest of my life, I will ever forget the words, the tone which carried them or the feelings it invoked. I am not entirely sure how my legs, weakened to the strength of plant stalks by violent quaking, carried me towards him and then followed him to his classroom; a dingy looking laboratory which reeked with the odor of gradually decaying, broad, oak benches mixed with the remnants of gas used by perfectly formed rows of Bunsen Burners.
I remember the teacher taking up and flourishing a fearsome looking, three foot long piece of bamboo and after that, nothing.
For nearly 30 years, I could not recall a single moment beyond the smell and feel of the room and the image of him brandishing the cane. It was Mark who eventually helped me to construct images which appeared gradually, over time, as if slowly rising to the surface of a watery abyss.
They came in no particular order: “He points to the cane. I don’t remember the words but he definitely points to the cane. I do recall him sitting. It is a squat wooden chair with a low back, I think it rocks and swivels. I remember a choice. I have to make a choice. I don’t know if this is before or after he sits. Material: I can feel woolen material under my fingers. There is something hard, quite alien underneath the fabric; my fingers are pushed against it by a rough, enormous hand pressing on my own. I can’t move my arm! Please! Let go of my arm!”
These days, I cannot have any limbs restrained in any way. I feel smothered and there is absolute panic.
I was bullied mercilessly by my classmates. It even became a fixture at school-sporting events. Black-eyes and bruises were carried home almost routinely. One day I will never forget was when seven of them tried to crush me behind a door to the point where I could not breathe. My screaming began to fade into unconsciousness. Someone heard a teacher coming and I was released. In as much as I have nightmares about it to this day, I still wonder if that teacher saved my life.
Since I successfully buried most of these memories, it clearly wasn’t the “thing that happened to me at school” which I believed made me different from everybody else. Besides, I felt that way long before I walked into that place. At the age of 18, I was certain the problem didn’t lie with me, but with my surroundings.
England. It had to be England!
I had always held a quite fanatical preoccupation with America, as did so many of my peers. I remember when a McDonalds first opened in my small Manchester suburb. There wasn’t a child in that town who hadn’t been awaiting its arrival with the fervent anticipation of CNN waiting for Donald Trump to say anything at all worth three hours of analysis.
We didn’t quite know why, other than the fact that, since it was coming from America, it had to be good.
Keep in mind that education about America or American history was scant at best. I remember the revolution being taught as “Oh and by the way, in 1776 we lost the colonies.” There were certainly no discussions about slavery, the civil war and the fight for civil rights both past and present.
Those little glimpses of the U.S. which the BBC afforded in the 80’s showed a land of boundless and immeasurable possibilities: In America, you could be a wealthy, evil Texas oilman in a ten gallon hat. After making a small fortune by screwing the Carrington family over, you could go to a friendly Boston pub, sit at the far corner of the bar, make wisecracks and never pay for your beer.
Chances were that you would then be shot at least a half dozen times by a deranged sister-in-law, but no matter: even if you died, you could be resurrected one year later and wash the whole experience off with a nice, hot shower. Meanwhile, your death was investigated by a bald cop sucking a lollipop or a pair of squabbling but ever-the-best-of friends detectives who tore through trash ridden streets in a sleek, red Ford and teamed up with a kindly, idealistic Los Angeles coroner with a penchant for making dramatic, poignant statements before walking out of the room and slamming the door.
If you tired of all this, then you could simply pop to the 25th century, meet a short, dimwitted robot and save the galaxy, every week, from marauding bands of Cylons hell bent on turning the earth into cinders using a painstakingly researched, Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.
In fact, long before George W. Bush came along and buggered the whole idea up, America was perceived by outsiders as the one place where anything could happen and any dream, no matter how outlandish, was possible.
I dreamed simply of running there. So, once the shadows of compulsory education were finally behind me, I embarked upon a foreign exchange through a company which specialized in placing restless, disaffected, young adventurers with unwitting American families.
In completing the initial application, I was asked to name three cities in America where I wanted to live. Of course I wrote down the only three I knew about: New York, Los Angeles and Miami (because of Miami Vice). In a sincere, congratulatory letter I was told, that “after a meticulous search a suitable host family has been found for you…… in New Albany, Indiana!”
I took out a map and scanned the coastlines and was dismayed to discover it was nowhere near Los Angeles. In fact, it took two hours of fruitless searching to finally find it, concealed under a small particle of lint. There must have been some sort of mistake. I wanted to live in an American city, not Middle Earth!