If I can See Your Kneecaps by Annita Woz

It was 1982.  Five mornings a week, we attended morning mass at St. Joseph’s, sitting hip to hip, pew behind pew, the odd grades to the left of the altar, evens to the right.

firstcommunionfeetIn 7th grade, I was on the left, which put me eye to eye with the Reverend, sometimes called Padre by the boys who wanted to shake things up when the same visited our classroom. Pulpit side was always a little more pressure to perform. Sing a little louder, don’t be late, act interested. 

Father would lean in too close to the microphone in an effort to get the good word to those who were suffering from poor hearing, and he would chide these faithful, his voice rippling even to the last row shadowed by the choir loft, where we imagined the liturgy of the word was lighting the little flame of the confirmed on each bowed witness.

Before the walk to the church, we dutifully lined up by the classroom lockers, girls on the back wall, boys on under the clock, and at 7:50 sharp, we faced inspection for proper attire. Girls and boys were supposed to dress up on the first Friday of each month though I cannot remember why. Shiny shoes, clean faces, girls wearing dresses that would touch the kneeler during the consecration and never a sleeveless top (very  shameful.)  Everyone knew that too much shoulder showing was an invitation that would surely tempt some public school student to have an impure thought.

That morning, I deliberately planned to disobey. It was a venial sin.

It was below freezing. I walked to school,  sometimes using the railroad tracks to shave off time, checking behind me every few steps to see if the glaring white light of a train was bearing down on me. I cut behind the trailer park, took the curved road past the feed mill to avoid the scary house on the corner where we knew boys would be hanging out, maybe whistling at girls who would pretend to laugh to hide the insult, rather than offend someone merely to defend our unrecognized self-worth.

I made the stop at the tavern on the corner.

My friend lived above and behind the bar. Sometimes I would sit inside on a Saturday morning and eye up the candy while she would tend the bar for her mom during the slow hours before the noon lunch rush. Her mom could catch up on her rest from the late closings and I would silently admire my friend who could easily make chit chat with the few stool sitters who didn’t seem to care who poured the beer and that she didn’t have any stories to tell. This morning, a quick knock on the door, and a peek through the side window under the dusty neon tracks of the unlit Pabst sign confirmed that my buddy was ready to walk the rest of the way to school with me. She exited the orange side door with her winter coat buttoned, hat on, scarf wrapped around her face- and very bare legs. Her skirt came to her knees, her moon boots to mid-shin. She knew. We continued toward the school. The chill on her legs was noted and accepted.

That cold morning, I had carefully pulled from the closet, and with premeditation, put on the dark pink cotton slacks with the elastic cuff and a matching striped long sleeve shirt. I made my choice less noticeable, I thought, by putting on new suntan colored nylons and threw two inch brown strappy sandals in my bag to throw on after my boots were kicked off and left in the school hallway to dry on recycled newspapers.

Ms. Kunz eyed up the boys in the line. They were dressed up and yet they seemed to look the same. Next the girls. We could be declared acceptable if our kneecaps were sticking out of our hems, our tiny shields of armor bared against the cold; proof that we were respectful and worthy.

“As long as you went through the effort of nylons and high heels, you should have worn a dress today, ” she barked.

There it was.

I looked to the other eleven for strength. They looked at their shoes, smoothed their skirts. The boys snickered. One crossed his arms thankful that for once he was not the one getting the lecture.

I faced the rule maker and pointed out that the boys had worn tennis shoes, no heels or nylons. “Some have on the same shirts they wear on a Tuesday,” I declared. In a voice similar to the one that could project to the back of a big church while reading the petitions, I added, “It is completely unfair to have girls wearing dresses and freezing and the boys looking the same.”

I knew I would not wear a dress ever again. I was twelve. When people ask me how old I am in my head, I am still twelve. It was a momentous year of realization.

I knew my observation was accurate even if no one would applaud or confirm it. I had found my voice and revealed to myself the difference between how the world wanted to see me and how I wanted to be seen.

A. Woz.

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One Response

  1. Annita,

    Your memory of those times is so vivid; I can re-trace your path to school in my minds’ eye. I did not remember the even grades and odd grades in the pews. I did not remember lining up for inspection (but I was one of the boys; we were so clueless). After reading your story it all comes back….the recycled newspapers with the wet boots and tennis shoes….the echo of Father’s sermon and calling him “padre”….Ms. Kunz’ glasses and neck chain…

    Long time ago…but like it was yesterday. Thanks for the memory and thanks for being so brave that day!

    Brad M.
    7th Grade, St. Joseph’s Elementary (in 1982 of course)

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