As boys go, I wasn’t much. I mean, I tried to be a boy and spent many childhood hours pummeling my hardly formed ego with failure at Cowboys and Indians, baseball, football, lying, and sneaking out of the house. When our neighborhood gang raided a neighbor’s pear tree, I was the only one who got sick from the purloined fruit. I also failed at setting fire to our garage, an art at which any 5-year-old boy could be adept. I was, however, the neighborhood champion at getting beat up. “That Julius can take it, man,” the boys used to say, almost in admiration, after I emerged from another battle, tears brimming in my eyes but refusing to fall.
My efforts at being a boy earned me a pair of scarred knees that are a record of a childhood spent falling from bicycles, trees, the tops of fences, and porch steps; of tripping as I ran (generally from a fight), walked, or simply tried to remain upright on windy days.
I tried to believe my parents when they told me I was a boy, but I could find no objective proof for such an assertion. Each morning during the summer, as I cuddled up in the quiet of a corner with a book, my mother would push me out the back door and into the yard. And throughout the day as my blood was let as if I were a patient of 17th-century medicine, I thought of the girls sitting in the shade of porches, playing with their dolls, toy refrigerators and stoves.
There was the life, I thought! No constant pressure to prove oneself. No necessity always to be competing. While I humiliated myself on football and baseball fields, the girls stood on the sidelines laughing at me, because they didn’t have to do anything except be girls. The rising of each sun brought me to the starting line of yet another day’s Olympic decathlon, with no hope of even winning a bronze medal.
Through no fault of my own I reached adolescence. While the pressure to prove myself on the athletic field lessened, the overall situation got worse – because now I had to prove myself with girls. Just how I was supposed to go about doing this was beyond me, especially because at the age of 14, I was four foot nine and weighed 78 pounds. (I think there may have been one 10-year-old girl in the neighborhood smaller than I.) Nonetheless, duty called, and with my ninth grade gym-class jockstrap flapping between my legs, off I went.
To get a girlfriend, though, a boy had to have some asset beyond the fact that he was alive. I wasn’t handsome like Bill McCord, who had girls after him like a cop-killer has policemen. I wasn’t ugly like Romeo Jones, but at least the girls noticed him: “That ol’ ugly boy better stay ’way from me!” I was just there, like a vase your grandmother gives you at Christmas that you don’t like or dislike, can’t get rid of, and don’t know what to do with. More than ever I wished I were a girl. Boys were the ones who had to take the initiative and all the responsibility. (I hate responsibility so much that if my heart didn’t beat of itself, I would now be a dim memory.)
It was the boy who had to ask the girl for a date, a frightening enough prospect until it occurred to me that she might say no! That meant risking my ego, which was about as substantial as a toilet paper raincoat in the African rainy season. But I had to thrust that ego forward to be judged, accepted, or rejected by some girl. It wasn’t fair! Who was she to sit back like a queen with the power to create joy by her consent or destruction by her denial? It wasn’t fair – but that’s the way it was.
But, if (God forbid!) she should say “Yes,” then my problem would begin in earnest, because I was the one who said where we would go (and waited in terror for her approval of my choice). I was the one who picked her up at her house where I was inspected by her parents as if I were a possible carrier of syphilis (which I didn’t think one could get from masturbating, but then again, Jesus was born of a virgin, so what did I know?). Once we were on our way, it was I who had to pay the bus fare, the price of the movie tickets and whatever she decided to stuff her stomach with afterward. (And the smallest girls were all stomach.) Finally, the girl was taken home where once again I was inspected (the father looking covertly at my fly and the mother examining the girl’s hair). The evening was over and the girl had done nothing except honor me with her presence. All the work had been mine.
Imagining this procedure over and over was more than enough: I was a sophomore in college before I had my first date.
I wasn’t a total failure in high school, though, for occasionally I would go to a party, determined to salvage my self-esteem. The parties usually took place in somebody’s darkened basement. There was generally a surreptitious wine bottle or two being passed furtively among the boys, and a record player with an insatiable appetite for Johnny Mathis records. Boys gathered on one side of the room and girls on the other. There were always a few boys and girls who’d come to the party for the sole purpose of grinding away their sexual frustrations to Johnny Mathis’s falsetto, and they would begin dancing to their own music before the record player was plugged in. It took a little longer for others to get started, but no one matched my talent for standing by the punch bowl. For starters, I would try to make my legs do what they had been doing without effort since I was nine months old, but for some reason they would show all the symptoms of paralysis on those evenings.
Although several hours of wondering whether I was going to die (“Julius Lester, a 16-year-old, died at a party last night, a half-eaten Ritz cracker in one hand and a potato chip dipped in pimiento-cheese spread in the other. Cause of death: failure to be a boy.”), I would push my way to the other side of the room where the girls sat like a hanging jury. I would pass by the girl I wanted to dance with. If I was going to be refused, let it be by someone I didn’t particularly like. Unfortunately, there weren’t many in that category. I had more crushes than I had pimples.
Finally, through what surely could only have been the direct interventions of the Almighty, I would find myself on the dance floor with a girl. And none of my prior agony could compare to the thought of actually dancing. But there I was and I had to dance with her. Social custom decreed that I was supposed to lead, because I was the boy. Why? Let her lead. Girls were better dancers anyway. It didn’t matter. She stood there waiting for me to take charge. She wouldn’t have been worse off if she’d waited for me to turn white.
But, reciting “Invictus” to myself, I placed my arms around her, being careful to keep my armpits closed because, somehow, I had managed to overwhelm a half jar of deodorant and a good-size bottle of cologne. With sweaty armpits, “Invictus,” and legs afflicted again with polio, I took her in my arms, careful not to hold her so far away that she would think I didn’t like her, but equally careful not to hold her so close she could feel the catastrophe which had befallen me the instant I touched her hand. My penis, totally disobeying the lecture I’d given it before we left home, was rigid as Governor Wallace’s jaw would be if I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
God, how I envied girls at that moment. Wherever it was on them, it didn’t dangle between their legs like an elephant’s trunk. No wonder boys talked about nothing but sex. That thing was always there. Every time we went to the john, there it was twitching around like a fat little worm on a fishing hook. When we took baths, it floated in the water like a lazy fish and God I wished I could cut it off, or at last keep it tucked between my legs, as if it were a tail that had been mistakenly attached to the wrong end. But I was helpless. It was there, with a life and mind of its own, having no other function than to embarrass me.
Fortunately, the girls I danced with were discreet and pretended they felt nothing unusual rubbing against them as we danced But I was always convinced that the next day they were all calling up their friends to exclaim: “Guess what, girl? Julius Lester got one! I ain’t lyin’!”
Now, of course, I know it was as difficult being a girl as it was a boy, if not more so. While I stood paralyzed at one end of the dance floor trying to find the courage to ask a girl for a dance, most of the girls waited in terror at the other, afraid no one, not even I, would ask them. And while I resented having to ask a girl for a date, wasn’t it also horrible to be the one who waited for the phone to ring? And how many of those girls who laughed at me making a fool of myself on the baseball diamond would have gladly given up their places on the sidelines for mine on the field?
No, it wasn’t easy for any of us, girls and boys, as we forced our beautiful, free-flowing child-selves into those narrow constricting cubicles labeled female and male. I tried, but I wasn’t good at being a boy. Now I’m glad, knowing a man is nothing but the figment of a penis’s imagination, and any man should want to be something more than that.
Julius Lester wrote 43 books in his lifetime. He won the Newberry Honor Medal, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and Coretta Scott King Award. A professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at University of Massachusetts for 30 years, he won the Chancellor’s Medal, the university’s highest honor.