I was in sixth grade when I addressed my friends in the schoolyard with this scholarly predicament.
“How do they do it? How *do* elephants mate? Wouldn’t the boy elephant crush the girl elephant if he got on top of her? I just don’t get it.”
Things went quiet for a minute. My little group was just starting to play with sex jokes and double entendre. We knew about sex, and we knew it was cool to act like hooligans about it, but I don’t think any of us truly understood the fundamentals yet. It was an economically depressed small town, and not many of my classmates had cable.
About 7 pair of eyes stared at me, unblinking, when suddenly Ricky Houghteling guffawed and said, “Ask Joe. He’ll show you how they do it. Hey Joe! Alissa wants to know how elephants make babies.”
Joe Salvos wandered over to where we stood with his hands crammed in his pockets, nonchalantly. Joe lived in a ramshackle house with rowdy, red faced men who were always going in and out the door. There was a truck parked in the front yard, and it seemed one or two of his uncles were always being held on charges of one kind or another. Joe knew things the rest of us didn’t know. He went to heavy metal concerts, had a reputation with the girls, and generally just seemed sort of worldly about things the rest of us hadn’t encountered yet. He could be counted on to be the leering straight man to Ricky’s inappropriate joke.
The trouble was, I wasn’t asking for a sexual introduction. I wasn’t trying to get that sort of attention and be provocative, as it probably appeared. I truly wanted to know how elephants managed to reproduce. I was a young and curious 12 year old, and my question had been born out of honest interest. The edgy tension I’d produced had been an accident. I was a slow bloomer.
Ricky repeated my question to Joe with a wink, wink and a nudge, nudge, and my classmates stood waiting in anticipation to see Joe’s leer, to hear him rise to the occasion and finesse me into a breathless corner.
But Joe stood with his hands in his pockets and looked me over. He didn’t see a prospect, he saw a kid. An overly curious kid with a furrowed brow, looking anxiously around at the situation she had created with what was meant to be a valid question.
“Come on. Let’s talk about this in private.” He nodded to a big tree at the end of the playground. The boys snickered, and I shook my head.
“It’s okay, trust me.”
Now the girls were giggling too. Joe hadn’t removed his hands from his pockets, and maybe this made the offer seem less threatening, or maybe I just really wanted to get away from all those eyes; but I followed him as he walked away from the group.
We went on the other side of the tree, and settled on the roots, and Joe said, “What a bunch of doofs.” And I didn’t say anything, so we started to talk about music. Ricky sent a delegate to go spy and see if we were making out, but we just talked the way a couple of sixth graders might, until the bell rang, and Joe joined up with his cronies and I walked alone back to the classroom to sit amid a cyclone of notes being passed back and forth, a couple of which featured drawings of large animals mating.
We didn’t talk again, Joe and I, and after a day or so my stupid question was forgotten and my friends started acting normal again. Jr. High started a year later with all the pathos associated with those halls of adolescence, and I continued not to feel much interest in the boy and girl games being enacted by my peers.
I liked boys okay, but found little patience for the dramas being played out all around me. I was constantly surprised by the lack of interest my friends had in things I thought were interesting in science class and lit. I was kind of into it. It really wasn’t cool to be into it, so I started to mask my interest and try to be involved in the sock-hops and other stuff taking place in the social arena.
Somehow I attracted the attention of a boy named Devin. All former crushes by my classmates had been by friends of mine who had resignedly accepted my lack of interest in kissing or ‘going together’. Devin wasn’t someone I knew well, and I accepted his invitation when he asked me to dance at one of the Jr. High fun nights. We were in eighth grade, and Devin came on strong, groping at my chest in a way that left me shocked and overwhelmed.
I avoided him for days, and I guess he felt that some sort of offensive needed to be taken to maintain his fractured ego. He and his friends took to calling me ‘slut’ and ‘tramp’ in the hallways. I was pushed up against the lockers when they passed me in the halls. Though Devin wasn’t part of the popular elite, his band was a rowdy and vocal group of boys and no one saw fit to step in when I met with these encounters. The heckling went on for weeks, and I would sometimes find my books knocked out of my hand, or be compelled to flee the cafeteria line without eating if they discovered me and started their offensive while I was standing in line.
It was Jr. High Hell.
One day I was walking in the halls, and someone slammed my books from below so they fell out of my hands. Devin and one of his friends stood there laughing loud and nasty and I felt too vulnerable to bend over and pick them up. I feared I might start crying right there in the hall, when suddenly Devin was jerked around, and a hand held his throat pinned to one of the many lockers that lined the halls.
It was Joe Salvos. A tall, broad-shouldered Joe Salvos, his first day of eighth grade after a mysterious disappearance in the middle of the year before. He looked older. He looked older than anyone in the hall.
“That wasn’t very nice.” He said to Devin, who choked and spluttered, head pressed back against the metal locker door. “I’m not going to have idiots treat girls like that in front of me. Nope. I don’t like that.”
Devin was not in a particularly good situation to reply. His friend just stood there, eyes wide, watching it all play out. I did the same, and as a result, my science book got kicked down the hall, but I didn’t really notice.
“I’m going to let you go. If you go running to a teacher I will make sure it’s the last thing you do. Understand?”
Devin seemed to be making noises of assent. It was hard to tell. Joe released him and he walked away, clutching his neck, face bright red. Joe looked at me, and I just stared at him. He grinned and said, “Better get going.” Then he slid his hands in his pockets and walked away just exactly like he had in the 6th grade.
A weasel is a weasel, you can’t really prevent it. Devin went straight to the office, and Joe was expelled before the end of his first day back. People heard rumors from other people who had witnessed the meeting in the hall, and I found a return of my pre-Devin days popularity. Everyone wanted to know if Joe was my boyfriend. Devin stopped bothering me altogether.
I didn’t know what to think, really. It was all confusing, the way it started and ended. I didn’t know Joe at all, but I felt somewhat responsible and worried about the expulsion.
He didn’t come back to class, but he came back to school. The teachers were clueless about what went on at recess time. Joe showed up one day during lunch, and he was hailed as a celebrity. He was near the quarter mile track, and all his old friends swarmed him. Some of the faster, more worldly girls flocked around him, too. Joe was a hit. I saw him from a distance, but stayed with my friends. I didn’t know what to say, anyway.
He came back a couple times that week, during the lunch break when people were outside. I don’t know if I had a crush. I had gratitude. I felt like the princesses in storybooks who are defended by a chivalrous knight. But I didn’t know how to approach him with the girls and guys around him, I didn’t know how to say ‘Thank you’ without being awkward. I was afraid he might feel that I owed him something.
But I wanted to try. When the bell rang for everyone to return to class one day, I saw he had climbed up on top of the bars, and he sat, grinning lazily as everyone headed back to the school. It was a big grounds, not a small private playground. I knew when we’d all gone in he would cut across the track and through the bushes to the road below and go back to home or wherever he went. I walked very, very slowly toward the school, until I saw the last teacher enter the building, then I turned and climbed up on the bars across from where Joe sat.
He cocked his head but did not seem surprised.
“I just wanted to thank you, for that thing with Devin. I’m sorry you got in trouble.”
Joe looked out across the asphalt. “I”m not. He deserved it. Stupid prick.”
I heard the first bell ring. Joe surveyed me. “Better go.”
I nodded but stood still on the top rung. Suddenly I made a choice unprecedented in my goody goody, serious childhood career. I clambered up on top of the bars, settled there with a grin and said, “I hate 5th period.”
I think he was surprised. He laughed, and we started to talk, much like we had two years ago on the roots of that big tree in grade school. I told Joe why Devin had acted like that to me. He told me where he had been all this time, in a juvenile detention center after threatening his dad with a knife. “How come?” “He’d been drinkin’, I thought he was going to kill me so I got ready to kill him if he tried.”
“And they locked you up?”
“Well, they listen to the grown-up version, not the kid’s.”
“Oh.” I didn’t understand what kind of life Joe lead. I didn’t understand a 14 year old having to arm himself with a knife against a drunk father. I understood homework and afterschool snack and three parents who would drop everything and come if I ever had the slightest need.
We spent forty minutes up there, and then the P.E. class headed out to use the track. Joe climbed down to start for home, and I turned toward the school to face the music. He never hit on me, or spoke to me like less than a very good friend. I never flirted with him, asked anything of him, or looked at him as someone who might not become what the rest of us would get to become one day.
In fact, we sat up on those bars and talked just like a couple of kids, with nothing more to worry about than anyone else who is high enough up to see the world coming long before it gets there.