How do you rate?

by Yule Heibel on September 19, 2003

In 8th grade I was 12 and classmate to a girl I can only describe as a mean ditchrat. I didn’t start out disliking her, it just grew on me in the wake of one of her rhetorical but highly consequential questions. She was very hard, which I wasn’t on principle averse to, having been an A-1 Winnipegonian 7th grade greaseball the previous year at Norberry Junior High. But now I lived in Victoria and was adjusting to being an “island girl”: I had given up the heavy eyeliner (yes, I wore heavy eyeliner when I was 11 — I was completely unnatural), the foundation (yes, ditto), the blush, the mascara, the works. At 11 in my first year at that Junior High in Winnipeg, I had an arsenal of makeup that would appall me today. I never left our high-rise apartment on the city’s outskirts (the same, incidentally, that famous Winnipeg band Guess Who shacked up in) without the full pancake effect, looking like a very painted, dead child. How this look got past my parents is a mystery only explainable by the truth: they didn’t care. But I was tough, too, so I learned to parse my care in return. Sweet Cream Ladies was a favourite hit on the radio that year. I read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land that year. Going around painted, and hanging out with social outcasts at school — there was 13-year old Bonnie whose mother allowed her to bed her boyfriend on the narrow couch in their living room, there were the boys in leather jackets, tedious little grade 9 wanna-be-motorbiker toughs — didn’t seem odd at all. I truly expected aliens to take me away, and swear I saw UFOs hovering over Winnipeg.

Aliens didn’t come for me. But I am very serious when I say that by this time I was fully in love with the abject, with detritus, with love of what others consider the cast-off. I had already spent several weekend hours volunteering at a Winnipeg institution where nuns looked after children considered beyond hope or home-life: kids with extreme disabilities, ranging from the physical to the mental or a combination thereof. Naturally, I went there because my greaser friends and I wanted to gawk, and the only way we could get past the nun at the gate was to pretend that we wanted to volunteer. But for some reason I came back. Aside from a few “bad influences” friends at school, I mostly hung around by myself, and when I wasn’t painting my face, I read lots of science fiction. The kids at the institution had hours to burrow deeply into my head. They, and the make-up: I owned signed photographs of Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee, loving the luxurious along with the abject. When I took the bus to the institution, I wore cheap knock-offs of white, flat-heeled, ankle-high go-go boots.

But back to Debbie, which certainly must have been her name. Debbie the Ditchrat.

I had no prejudices toward Debbie initially. I was a new kid at school, new in town, too. I was poor, she was probably poor, many of the kids at the school — S.J. Willis, nicknamed “pregnant hill” — were poor and from nearby Victoria public housing. This was not the problem. Debbie’s crime consisted of destroying my carefully made-up just world, a world by now as meticulously painted in my mind as my face had been the year before.

She and her friends always seemed ready to “call someone out,” which meant challenging them to a fight. She was dangerous, and so very wily about it. (Yet ignorant too: if she had wanted to know about crime, she could have talked to me — how else did I get my hands on all that makeup I couldn’t afford to buy?) Walking around our classroom one day, an exquisite combination of lordly sneer and begging snivel, she hit up every girl for money: “Hey man, can you help me out here, I’ve got the curse and need to buy a pad right now, man, you know….” I didn’t realize that her game was a combination of trying to extort money, impressing us with her womanly workings, and “shocking” the weedier among us with revelations of menstruation. Hardly a weed, I was prepared for emergencies (such as imminent soaking of something like white pants with red blood) and always carried with me a carefully wrapped spare napkin, which I offered to Debbie, discreetly, so sotte voce as to be nearly inaudible. She could easily have ignored me, but she was at least two years older and couldn’t let this pass. Loud enough for everyone to hear, she spat out “How do you rate?” She said it to clarify that I was stupid and had committed the grave sin of embarassing her: how do you rate, you loser-retard, you belong in an institution, locked up by the nuns.

Debbie just has to be one of the milestones of my allergy to questions of “rating,” to cowardly assessments of being a winner or a loser, to being judged by anyone who claims a need (“man, you gotta help me out here, I got the curse”), which in reality is a mere want (“I want to win over you”). At that moment, Debbie had morphed into one of the awful adults, manipulating to win.

Thinking about it now I also see how much of Debbie is in me, and how confusing it is to figure out what we need and what we want. That’s not meant to let the guys have the last word, though (“You can’t always get what you want, but if you blah blah blah some time…”); we girls need to talk. It’s a drama with a script we didn’t write, and we should rewrite it — or ditch the play and save the frightened rat.


Betsy Devine September 19, 2003 at 8:07 pm

Wow. I wonder what Debby is doing now. When I hear folks lament the evils of daycare, I wonder if they ever met some of the kids I knew growing up–kids whose parents knew only two “people skills”–threats or violence.

Yule Heibel September 19, 2003 at 9:18 pm

I’m sure “Debbie” had a lot of grief at home, and I guess it’s a question of how she / I / we / any of us have dealt with it since.

My childhood was pretty Dickensian, but I always managed to snag a couple of lucky breaks, too (like those nuns tolerating my inept “volunteering”: they probably prayed that it would ignite some spark of compassion in my hardened carcass if they let me hang around…). Shortly into the schoolyear that started with “Debbie,” I was put in an experimental program at S.J. Willis called “Viabilities Unlimited” (“VU” for short.) It was one of those late 60s/early 70s educational reform experiments (albeit limited to bright kids) based somewhat on the Summerhill school model: we didn’t really have formal classes, we could get permission slips to leave the school to write poetry in the park, there was a lot of collaborative learning, that sort of thing. It was great, actually. (But funding ended after a year, naturally.) The 60s finally caught up with me, through VU, and living in Lotusland Victoria, there wasn’t anything too abject to look at anyway, so I had no choice but to become a bit of a hippie in the 70s. “Debbie” wasn’t in VU, but it’s exactly the kind of “evils of daycare” program that kids like her needed the most: a bunch of progressive, anti-authoritarian hippie indoctrination, much better than the thrashings she probably got at home. I got its benefits instead, and while I, too, truly needed them, she undoubtedly needed them even more.

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