Awkward appendage lengths, weird new hair, odd dreams, a squeaky voice more unpredictable than Sybil’s personalities, and a brand new array of interesting aromas – puberty is no walk in the park. And then throw in a driver’s license, a car, love interests, oppressive parents that won’t pay allowance in advance and teenage angst and it’s no wonder kids become depressed, drive their car into oncoming traffic or, like Lucas from my student teaching experience, impregnate their girlfriend because they think Ziploc bag is sufficient protection. Whether that’s proof falsifying Natural Selection or poor sex education, I’ll never know.
Hormones peak and dive, teens become hijacked by their own brain and chemical imbalance; they have no idea how to properly manage or regulate what’s happening to them. New, weird thoughts enter their minds, thoughts they are in no way equipped to handle or understand.
Then multiply that by 1,500 and you have an average high school experience. No one knows what they’re doing or what’s happening. But despite that, teenagers think they are deftly navigating their new emotions with the finesse of a fencer. In reality it was more along the lines of a drunk, blind man stumbling through the wake of Princess Diana; falling from the conspicuous tree and hitting every branch on the way down.
While staying up too late on the computer was the only past-curfew activity I ever took part in, others did what normal teens do. They smoked, drank, drove and got into the proper amount of trouble a teen does. Meanwhile, they believed they had pulled the proverbial wool over their parent’s eyes. Equipped with quick wit, a smarmy attitude and a knee jerk lying response, teenagers and sociopaths share certain character qualities.
“Why do I smell like smoke, Mom?” The teen replies, “Well that’s because I was hanging out with Jared and he has a fire pit at his house. What’s that? I dunno if it’s a fire pit that smells like cigarettes and Olde English malt liquor, why do you ask?”
“Dent on the car? Why that’s always been there. And, yes, that window’s always been broken.” The teen retorts. “That was in the glove box? I’m just holding that for a friend, I personally find that – what did you call it, mary-jew-ana? – detestable.”
Appendages are growing with impossible speed, momentarily turning most of the student body into walking, stinking Stretch Armstrongs. Girls and boys become knees and elbows, gaps grow between teeth, hair shoots out like a fountain at SeaWorld and the lingering stench of body odor permeates the room 12 to 24 hours after a teenager has left it.
Personally, I was a late bloomer – I don’t know why they call it blooming, the word denotes beauty, yet it’s describing a period of time where 50% of the world starts bleeding and the other half smells like the inside of an old, forgotten burrito. Hair didn’t start showing in places until I turned 16, and even then it only sprouted from one armpit, and only three or four hairs came in. Leaving me the impression that puberty got tired of the whole show before the first act and left at intermission. Then, like a drunk, absent father figure, it didn’t return until my senior year of high school, and when it did, I wasn’t really happy about it. Sure, we had some good times, but for the most part it added a dimension to life I didn’t particularly like, namely the whole puberty part.
When I turned 17, I was somewhere around 5’2” and weighed roughly 105 pounds, soaking wet. I couldn’t eat or look at peaches because their fibers would leave me jealous of my lack of facial hair. I was still wearing clothes that fit me in the 6th grade. The summer before senior year, I hit what society has calls a “growth spurt.” Again, I don’t know why they call it a “spurt” as for me it was as much a “spurt of growth” as a fleeing turtle is a “sprinter.” It happened, but it happened grudgingly. Puberty drug it’s feet like – forgive the pun – a pubescent teenager. I grew to 5’7”, when puberty decided enough was enough and moved onto other ventures: like body odor, facial acne and, every teenage boy’s nightmare, awkward boners.
We don’t know why they happen. There is no rhyme or reason it, other than the hormonal hijacking in our brains. One minute you’re taking notes for math class, the next your table partner is wondering if you’re enjoying the Pythagorean Theorem a little too much. Like a brain aneurism, it strikes from nowhere. Unlike a brain aneurism, it creates rumors circulating voyeurism, internet search history and what happens behind closed doors. A Weatherman is more accurate at forecasting than a teenage boy is at predicting this awkward phenomenon.
And we all jumped in and pointed fingers laughed at those caught at an inopportune time and pretended it never happened to us. We read Lord of the Flies and judged the way the kids acted on their island, and then we did the exact same thing in our math, science, art, English and social studies classes. Because puberty doesn’t hit everyone all at once. A friend of mind was able to grow a mustache in the 6th grade, while others may not get facial hair until their 20’s, then on top of that, the traits of puberty come and go at whenever it pleases. One ailment may plague one teenager while another may not feel the pain of acne until their mid-20’s. After a time, once the playing field had been evened and everyone had experienced at least one or two awkward boners, the excuses started.
“What am I doing? Boner? No, I’m just digging for some buried change in my pocket is all. What’s that? A what? No, there was a spider on my crotch and I had to pinch it off, yes I had to lift my leg at the same time. Hmm? What, me? No, I just have a back problem and need to lean forward until I get to the bathroom.”
With excuses came strategic clothing choices. Denim jeans were in, a baggy sweatshirt as a backup and long T-shirts. Any sixteen year old male in sweatpants was playing a dangerous game. A game they wouldn’t lose most of the time, but, like Russian roulette, it only took one time to lose forever. Pitch a tent in social studies while watching the history of the Olympics right when they get to nude wrestling and you’ve solidified your societal suicide. The only option being attending a university in another country or on the other side of the continent and hope your reputation hasn’t followed you. Because high schoolers don’t forget.
Thus my fear for locker rooms was created. They’re not a happy place. At the time of wrestling, I was under 5 feet, I had one armpit of hair and the facial hair I was born with. The locker room is not a nice smelling or visual appealing room. It’s a room filled with hormonal, angst ridden teenagers looking to prove a point, all at varying stages of puberty, giving one the impression of what the puberty version of the Smithsonian’s Walking Upright evolutionary picture would look like. Compound that with the whole “clothing optional” rule and you’ve got the makings for hell on earth for a pubescent, 4’10” under developed teenager.
That is where my fears presided when I pushed open the door to that locker room. A room filled with full grown 17 year olds with full beards and enough muscle to make a young Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous. If I was a late bloomer, these guys were the type that bloomed and withered all before the sun came up Were they pumping steroids into the water fountains down here? Or had Andre the Giant been more promiscuous than we thought? Squashing me would be like batting away a pesky fly. Stuffing me into a locker would be like shoving discarded bread crust into a Ziploc bag. Sticking my head in the toilet took less effort than washing their hands. While I may have had the same mental capacity of these 30 year-old 16 year-olds, I was sorely outmatched in the physical department. I no longer suspected my parents were trying to get me killed, I knew it in my heart.
And then there was that fear of the of the awkward boner: the one that pops up out of nowhere, sticks it head out like an unwanted prairie dog, ruining a perfectly good golf course. It’s a questionable part of puberty whose sole purpose is to create unwanted attention. A kid named Mike Rafka had popped an unwanted erection during a wrestling match and had to move to another school. Because, despite his girlfriend, his internet search history and his own fervent accounts of being completely straight, the student body at West Linn High School was convinced that a terrible coincidence was truth.
So I did what any self-respecting, survivalist, tiny teenager would do: I turned around, walked out of the wrestling room still clad in my sweaty clothing and waited for my parents to return.
“Pewww!” My mother exclaimed when I entered the car, “why didn’t you change into your other clothes?” I made some excuse about spilling tomato soup on them and we drove the rest of the way home with the windows down.
Even if it did, even though it did for some teenagers I’m sure, teenagers learn to mask it. Baggy shorts, a sweatshirt tied low on the waist or the strange and sudden necessity to sit down somewhere: tools and tricks learned the hard way. Pun intended. The inglorious way, it’s not one that’s shared in mainstream, men’s rights media: you don’t see men parading around, pointing to midnight, the same way an eccentric woman might paint something with her menstrual blood or create menstrual pancakes or bake their placenta into a pie, and thus somehow reclaiming their bodies back from the misogynistic male movement. No, our tribulation is one we carry in shame.
It’s an unwritten code and conduct, we’ve all figured out the need for pockets in our pants, the need for elastic waist bands and the sacrifice of participation points for refusing to go up to the board and demonstrate how we came up with our answer for the math problem. While we will never experience the brutality of child birth, cramps or hormonal swings, we can, however, be given some amount of credit for the time we served under the watchful, wrathful, single eye of our impromptu, improbable, impassively uncharacteristic and impossibly awkward boners. They came and went like ghost through a fairy-tale, haunting us when we least expected them and leaving, but not before adding some discomfort to our lives.
I spent the last half of my summer wrestling, and getting pretty good at it, despite any fears I had. I never beat a senior, I never beat Liz, but I did take a few matches upper classmen. The coaches never ceased their talk of me as a future Olympian, and I progressed at a pace that surprised even me. When the season finally started, I didn’t hate the sport, I didn’t hate practice, I didn’t even hate the locker room.
We finished our final practice before our first match and gathered around our coaches. Mr. Rockville gave us a pep talk, told us who would be in what weight class and what to look out for. He demonstrated a new technique on another wide eyed and fearful student and then, while his knee still sat on the student’s back, he said to head back to the locker room and wait to get our uniforms.
When my name was called by the coaches, I walked back into the windowed office in the center of the locker room. I told them my height and they in turn handed me the “uniform” for the sport of wrestling and instructed me to try it on out in the locker room.
All of the sudden, I understood why they called it a singlet. Because it’s just one piece of clothing. A glorified thong with suspenders. Not quite one step above the naked wrestlers of the old Olympics. I held it up before my eyes, wondering how it God’s name I was going to fit into this “Medium” article of clothing. Was there a fabric shortage?
I walked back into the office, the little cabana boy costume in hand, and told them there must be some sort of mistake.
“I was told medium, but I think you gave me an infant’s extra-small.” Mr. Rockville frowned and told me to try it on again. I did, awkwardly, and lifted my hands to their sides.
“See?” I said, “it rides up here on my crotch, the bib of the suspenders part goes down to my belly button and it’s a little tight around the thighs.”
“It may be hard to believe, Blakeslee,” he said, “But that’s actually a little too big…” he sat and pondered for a moment. “The straps sag a little bit, you’re practically swimming in this one, which will give your opponent something to grab on. We need something smaller.”
As I was trying to understand how this singlet could actually be too big – I’d gladly see the type of swimming pool he swims in, just so I could have some insight on his logic – he snapped his fingers and jumped up from his chair. “I’ve got it!”
He rummaged through a box labeled WS and pulled out another singlet and held it up in front of my awkward, teenage body. “I ordered two, just in case there was something wrong with the one we gave to Liz.” He ordered me to disrobe and switch. I did, this singlet, while a little more forgiving in the bust, hugged my shoulders and buttocks a little more tightly.
“And there you go, problem solved.” He turned back to his clipboard, searching for the next name. When he found it, he looked past my confused face and shouted, “Crester, Crester? Ah, yes, come in, you’re an extra-large yes? OK, here we—“ he paused and looked at me, “Can I help you, Blakeslee?”
I said no and waddle out of the office, picking the wedgie that had already formed beneath my singlet. My boxers flayed out from the bottom seam like a flower displaying its pedals – I had finally bloomed.
I changed out of my singlet and waited for the car to roll up. By this time I had grown accustomed to changing and smothering my adolescent smell with a few sticks of deodorant, just so I didn’t have to shower in the locker room.
“Well?” My mother asked as I entered the car. I looked at her and reached into my bag and produced the uniform and held it up before my mother’s eyes.
“Oh…” she said, doing her best to stifle a smile, then, when that failed, she raised her hand to her mouth and attempted to regain her composure. Something caught her eye and she peered closer at the singlet, eyeing the inside through squinted eyes.
“Does that say women’s small?” When I didn’t answer, she nodded her head and drove the car home.
The next morning was the day of the wrestling match. I stood in the bathroom, clad in the awkward garments of a wrestler and wondered how on earth this could be deemed anything but a form of mild, emotional abuse. Worst of all, what if something happened on the wrestling mat? There was no waist band to tuck, no sweatshirt to tie or seat to take. I couldn’t reach for change in a pocket that didn’t exist or hide beneath a desk. Thoughts of an impromptu and horrifying event similar to the one I feared about the locker room ran through my mind. Only in this case, the whole crowd would see. Even now, at Its resting state, It was there for all the world to see. Not quite David Bowie from the Labyrinth, but still a bulge just the same.
I had the possibility of becoming Mike Rafka, only I didn’t have a hyper masculine image to fall back on. I couldn’t just move schools and fix the problem. I came down with a sudden case of diarrhea that morning. I made sure to use vivid and detailed words with my parents at the breakfast table.
“Enough!” my father raised his hands and said around the time I was getting into color, consistency and type according to the Bristol Stool Chart. I stayed home and stuffed the singlet into the far recesses of my dresser, but went to practice the next week.
The coaches asked where I was and I told them about my visceral dance with diarrhea. They seemed satisfied, or more likely dissatisfied, and didn’t ask further. Yet when I didn’t show up for the second, third or fourth match, they began to pry more. I had to come up new excuse every week. Illness only worked so many times, so as a teenager who thinks they’re gracefully pulling the wool over adult’s eyes, I got more and more imaginative.
“My grandmother,” I said, “who lives in Idaho, needed help raising her farm of Pomeranian dogs – they’re more like rats, really, but she loves them so we humor her – after being attacked by a moose, yeah, a real moose. There’s no Moose in Coeur d’Alene? Did I mention it was while she was on vacation in Canada?”
“I was at a family reunion in Wyoming. Did my mom not tell you? I’ll have to make sure she lets you know next time. There’s a note in here somewhere… actually I must have left it in my other backpack.”
“I had to watch my neighbor’s hamster. Yes, hamster. Hmmm? Oh, yes, she very particular about taking care of Mr. Bigglesworth. I had to feed him nine times a day and give him a bath. What’s that? Yes, hamsters love baths. I’m not sure why you hadn’t heard that before. No, I don’t have a picture of him, but I’ll try to remember next time. Hmm? You’ve never heard of a hamster babysitter? Well, maybe you should come out of that rock you live under. It’s the 21st century.”
At some point, like all adults do, I’m sure the coaches figured out my dilemma. I continued practice and yet I did not go to matches, I didn’t even broach the subject with my parents. It was an unwritten and unspoken understanding between the three of us: I went to practice and got off the computer, and they didn’t ask where my singlet went or why wrestling matches weren’t being scheduled.
When the season ended, I was relieved. Mr. Rockville pulled me aside and, with the help of Mr. Stamrin, tried to renew the desire to wrestle. They talked about my natural athleticism. I responded how I always did with things I didn’t want to do: I smiled, told them that sounds great, and did my best to escape from the conversation.
The next year, I didn’t sign up for wrestling. I had to pick a sport, house rules, and so I picked golf: a sport that would fit my desire to do nothing but be given credit regardless. I didn’t go to tryouts, so I made the JV2 team, as taught by one of our part time janitors and had a pretty great time wearing a full-sized T-shirt, socks, shoes, a hat, at times sunglasses, and, best of all, a pair of long pants complete with elastic waistband and pockets for change.
That was a uniform I didn’t mind wearing.