I’d bet you dollars to donuts that if you’re a woman over 50 and you were a top-performing student growing up, you had a hard time getting through those junior high and teen years. And that if you’re under 40, you have no idea what the phrase “dollars to donuts” means.
I’m not saying that I’m a genius. But I was smart. I got straight A’s in school. (OK, full disclosure: I got straight A’s after the devastating C I got on my third-grade geography report. But who cares about stupid Brazil, anyway?) I was chosen for extracurricular advanced placement classes in elementary school and bused to the high school in the early hours of the day in junior high to take algebra and chemistry classes. In my freshman year of high school, I won a high school journalism competition for “best feature story,” beating out reporters and editors, from all grades of the high schools across the district. I became editor of my high school newspaper, class president, a flag twirler. I wrote a guest student column for the local newspaper, The Daily Breeze. I got special privileges from teachers and administrators. In my senior year, I came and went at will from our “closed campus” simply by flashing an innocent high-achiever’s smile to the lady guard at the gate.
But I was not a song queen, and that was my true aspiration. The existence of song queens created an extra level of you’re-not-it hell for Southern California teen girls. It was one thing to want to be a cheerleader and not make it. OK it hurts, but it is a little goody-goody, isn’t it? But song queens? Song queens were cheerleaders on steroids; their skirts were shorter and flippier, their tennies slimmer and worn with pedis so those dorky ankle socks didn’t shorten the line of their legs, they danced with the latest sexy moves rather than jumping and cheering for the team. They were the sex goddesses of the student body, the Dean Martin dancers (again, under 40? Don’t ask – you don’t want to know) and they lived on an elevated sex-charged plane high above cheerleaders, flag twirlers, and without question, non-entities, those girls without “cheer” uniforms of any kind. Song queens were to the rest of the girls as the football quarterback was to the guys. And apparently egg-heads weren’t allowed to become song queens. David Rockhead (OK I made that name up, but it’s apt and believe it or not it’s really close to his real name) actually said pretty much that very thing to one of my friends – that he didn’t vote for me when I tried out to be a song queen because, “She’s a really great dancer, but she’s an egg-head. I just can’t see her as a song queen.”
Voted for me, you ask? Oh yes, the song queen selection process involved a special circle of hell. For me, it went like this:
- Have the guts to actually deem yourself worthy of being song queen material, and be presumptuous enough to come to the after-school clinics conducted by the existing team of song queen goddesses during the couple of weeks before the first try-outs.
- Buy big rolls of crepe paper in the school colors, cut them into strips, divide the pile of strips into two bunches, and tape them around the middle with white medical adhesive tape to form big fat pom-poms with sticky white handles.
- Choose your music for your try-out and choreograph your own 3-minute dance – and practice, practice, practice.
- Bring your 33 or your 45 (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask your mom.) to school on the day of phase I of the try-outs – the first-level audition.
- After school on that day, put on your heavy cotton twill gym outfit, gather your pom-poms and your courage, and convene in the corner of the cavernous gym with all the other wannabees.
- When it’s time to take your turn, walk out in front of a lineup of teacher-judges (including the to-die-for Mr. Michaels, our advanced-placement English teacher – tall, tan, blond, always wearing a turtleneck-and-jacket, our own Illya Kuryakin on campus. (“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Again, if you’re under 40, you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
- Wait for music, standing naked (well, it felt like naked) with your pom-poms on your hips and a shaky smile on your face.
- On cue, dance! Dance your heart out, with your homemade crepe paper props, in your unforgiving gym suit.
- The next day, check the list posted on the wall to see who the teachers voted into the “top 12” out of the three or four dozen girls who were brazen or deluded enough to consider themselves song queen material.
- Learn that – miracle of miracles – you made it to the top 12. Huzzah!
- Face the final circle of hell – Assembly Day, when the top 12 hopefuls are given the last chance of their lifetimes – to dance their hearts out and their asses off, one by one alone, in front of the entire school. Actually, it was in front of half the school. Our school of 3,000 students was too big to pack into one gathering space, so we always had two assemblies of 1,500 students each – kids stacked from floor to ceiling in the bleachers on both sides of the gym floor.
- Dance all alone – more naked than ever (or so it seemed) in front of Every. Single. Person. You. Know. And then wait for your entire world to vote that afternoon about you and your worthiness; thumbs up or thumbs down. The top 8 will be admitted into the society of luminaries: those who have attained almighty song queen-ness! Numbers 9 through 12, of course, will sink ignominiously to a level even lower than the nobodies they were before they entered into this terrible competition. Forever after they will be Nobody Losers, perpetually and miserably excluded from the spotlight that now, everyone knows they wanted.
- Spend all night on the phone with your friend Eileen, who is on the vote-counting committee and calls repeatedly, surreptitiously, to update you on the news. “You’re ahead,” she whispers excitedly into the phone. Then, “You’re 4th!” Then, “You’re beating out Valerie!” Then a big gap in the calls. And finally, “Ann, we’re done. It was really close. But you came in 9th.”
So what the hell does this have to do with the Equal Rights Amendment? Can I make the leap from this sad little story to today, right now, when I stand here angry, appalled, oh let’s stop pussyfooting around – when I stand here outraged that the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified and passed into law by my countrymen? That it lies squashed and forgotten, jeered at even, when the topic comes up?
I mean, heck, why do we need it, say the naysayers? Why do we need ironclad protection against sliding back into a world – a world all women my age grew up in – where girls believed that their greatest hope was to become a song queen, where they were not allowed to play on sports teams, where they could not gain admission to Ivy League colleges, where they could not seek out high-level careers, nor hope for advancement beyond certain levels in the low-level jobs they did have, where their own grandmothers – living, breathing women they knew and loved during their childhoods, had themselves grown up in a world where they were not even allowed to vote?
Nah, pay all this bizniz no nevermind: Heck, we have Title IX, and stuff. I mean, it isn’t as broad as the Equal Rights Amendment, and it can be overturned far more easily than an amendment to the Constitution ever could be, but whatever… Look, ladies, don’t ask for too much, OK?
I don’t want to be song queen anymore. And I also don’t want any daughter or granddaughter or way-down-the-line heir of mine to believe that such a thing is the be-all and end-all of her existence. I don’t want a world in which our own country has failed to stand up and say “never again” to the bullshit world I grew up in – in which my fellow citizens have failed, oh again let’s stop pussyfooting around – have refused, to pass into law the needed legislation at the very highest level of our government that would for once and for all prohibit exactly that.
I want, I NEED the Equal Rights Amendment made law.
Is this a bizarre leap? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s any more bizarre than the desperate dance of that egghead who tried to define herself by her looks and her sex appeal – who leaped and twirled alone in front of her whole world, imagining that she could be anything she wanted to be, and what she wanted to be was so much less than what she already was.