Becoming Myself

By Willa Shalit

Excerpted from the anthology
Copyright 2006 Willa Shalit. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books 
are sold.

From the Publisher’s Weekly review for Becoming Myself (Feb. 6, 2006.)
“Longer and more literary pieces by Joyce Carol Oates, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and Tawni O’Dell stand out as moving, thought provoking and completely to the point . . . O’Dell paints a stark picture of herself as a tough, sensitive 10-year-old in the 1970s coal-mining region of western Pennsylvania, coming to grips with the critical difference in girls’ and boys’ natures.”

One of my best friends when I was ten was a kid named Randy. I can’t tell you when, where, or how I first met him. We didn’t go to school together. He lived near my grandparents who lived out in the country. My grandfather was a banker in a neighboring small town and seemed to know every living soul within a fifty-mile radius. My grandmother was a homemaker. I spent a lot of time living with them when my teenaged parents were trying to get on their feet, both working full-time jobs. By the time I was ten, I had a six-year-old little sister and my dad was a banker, too, in a different town. He made a good living, good enough that mom didn’t have to be a secretary anymore and could stay home with my sister and me, but I still spent lots of weekends and a big part of the summer with my grandparents.

I didn’t know much about Randy’s family or his home life. He wasn’t much of a talker. What I was able to gather from my grandparents was that his mother “tried hard” to raise decent children (six of them,) and his father was an ex-miner who was on permanent disability even though no one was quite sure what his injury was. The only positive thing I ever heard my grandfather say about Randy’s dad was that when he went out to his house to tell him his truck was about to be repossessed, he didn’t take a swing at my grandfather. I gathered from the expression on my grandfather’s face as he said this, that this was high praise for Randy’s dad.

Randy was poor. I knew this because I had only ever seen him wear two different shirts and one pair of jeans and none of it fit him well, and also by the way he ate when my grandma would sit us down at the kitchen table in the middle of the afternoon and give us a piece of pie. He ate mechanically, with total concentration, the way a dog did. He always praised Grandma’s cooking when he was done, but I could tell he found no enjoyment in eating. There was never satisfaction in his eyes. He never smiled. He was grateful but not happy; filled up but not full.

It was important to me that I could do everything that Randy could do. I was a classic Tomboy. Growing up in the early 70s in the coal-mining region of western Pennsylvania, the advances toward equality of the sexes that were occurring elsewhere in the nation – ending discrimination in the workplace, equal pay for equal jobs, abortion rights, the sexual revolution – weren’t occurring here. My hometown in the 70s was still firmly entrenched in the 50s (and if you go back there now, it’s like being in the 70s.) Most of the girls who were graduating high school when I was a little kid would end up getting married and having babies. The more glamorous independent ones would aspire to be secretaries or hair dressers. And the ones who did go to college usually were more concerned about dating than classes.

I didn’t want any part of being a girl if this was what being a girl meant. Boys could play any sport they wanted. They could be dirty. They could wear ball caps and torn jeans. They could swear. They got to be in charge of everything. And they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up from baseball players to secret agents.

Sure, a few good female role models were beginning to appear in pop culture. Lori Partridge got off some good zingers at Keith’s expense now and then, and when Pinky Tuscadero arrived on the scene in Happy Days and even Fonzie’s charms couldn’t convince her to give up her life on the road as a stunt motorcycle driver, I felt new hope for our gender. But overall, the choice seemed very straightforward to me as a child. Boys had all the fun and all the power and all the freedom: You could marry Starsky; or you could be Starsky.