We were playing Hide and Seek and I was under the porch. No one ever hid under the porch because there were spiders and roly-poly bugs and I felt very brave as I rolled myself into a little ball and crammed my body behind the cement steps. I heard the other kids get found or make it safely back to base. The call went out, “Olly olly ox in free!” I had won, which never happened, and usually the other kids wouldn’t even let me play because I was only five and still, they said, pretty much a baby. I crawled out and marched over to Home Base, triumphant.
Jennifer, who had been It and was the oldest, coolest kid any of us knew, looked at me and shrieked, “You are covered in cat shit!”
“In what?” I had no idea what shit was.
“Cat poop. You have cat poop all over your jeans.” Jennifer flipped her Marsha Brady hair over her shoulder and wrinkled her nose. “No one hides under the porch because your cats use it as a litter box, you idiot.”
I ran crying into the house. “Mommy, Mommy, I am covered in cat shit!”
“What did you say, young lady?”
“I’m covered in cat shit!”
My mother grabbed me under the arms, holding me as far away from herself as possible, and carried me into the laundry room. As she stripped me, she scolded, “Don’t ever say that word again. Where in the world did you learn a word like that?” She gave me her Scary Mom look. “Did one of the big kids teach you that word?”
I knew my mother didn’t like Jennifer, who was in fourth grade and wore mini-skirts and had to live with her mean old grandmother because her father was a no-good-drunken-bum-who-doesn’t-seem-to-care-about-his-children-at-all. So I sacrificed my father, who sometimes said bad words when he was on the phone talking business and anyway she couldn’t tell me I wasn’t allowed to play with my own father any more. “Daddy says it.”
“Well, it’s a grown-up word and little girls shouldn’t say grown-up words.” She tugged a clean t-shirt roughly over my head and sent me back outside.
The game of Hide and Seek was over and everyone was standing around a dead baby bird they had found under the big elm tree in front of Jennifer’s house, poking it with sticks. I walked over to Jennifer and kicked her. “You almost got me in trouble. You didn’t tell me shit was a bad word?”
She looked at me like I was the stupidest, littlest kid in the whole world. “Everybody knows shit is a bad word. If you want to say it in front of grown-ups, you have to say it Op.”
“Op. It’s like a code. You spell the word instead of saying it, but you don’t say the consonants, you make their sound and add –op afterwards.”
Jennifer then studiously set about teaching me the difference between consonants and vowels, the sounds each letter made, and the curious “tch” at the end of the word bitch.
My mother had positively forbidden me to learn to read because, she said, children who learned to read before first grade became bored and didn’t learn good study habits. She read a lot of parenting books; she was really afraid of screwing us all up and being stuck with a house full of idiot children who would drive her to a nervous breakdown. But I didn’t know I was learning to read. I thought I was learning to cuss without getting sent to my room to wait-until-my-father-got-home.
I memorized how to say all the best words in Op. Sop-hop-i-top. Fop-u-cop-kop. Bop-i-top-cop-hop. My favorite was the melodious a-sop-sop-hop-o-lop-e. It sounded like jalopy, which was what my mother called my father’s little purple MGB that was only big enough for one kid at a time and was the most glamorous thing anyone in our neighborhood owned. I practiced alone in my room at night and used my copy Richard Scarry’s The Best Word Book Ever to reverse-engineer the way letters became words became stories. In a week, I was reading Never Tease a Weasel to myself in secret. By the end of the summer, I had chapter books hidden under my mattress and a notebook filled with my first attempts at writing.
I was, indeed, a bored first grader who never learned good study habits. I sat next to Cathy Wagner, who had also taught herself to read and was also bored. Mrs. Goheen refused to call on either of us once she realized what was up. “Well,” she’d say if we raised our hands, “we already know you girls know the answer. Why don’t we let the kids who are just learning to read answer this question,” and then she’d call on somebody who would just sniffle and shift around uncomfortably.
“A-sop-sop-hop-o-lop-e,” I would whisper to Cathy.
“Bop-i-top-cop-hop,” she’d answer. We’d giggle behind our Big Chief tablets and roll our eyes, already in love with the transgressive nature of language.