As a high school student in Virginia Beach, I got called to the principal’s office a handful of times. Once, I skipped calculus to work on my college application in the library. Once, I complained that a school contest that was awarding prizes donated by local businesses was awarding a series of tanning sessions at a neighborhood tanning salon (I objected because of skin cancer).
So when the principal got a letter complaining that the school wasn’t doing enough for Women’s History Month, signed with a name like – I’m anonymizing here – “Liberty Van Trundlefoos,” I was called to account in the principal’s office. The principal, a former football coach from Texas, asked why I was making trouble.
I had not, in fact, written this letter. I did, however, read the copy the principal had passed to me, and I told him that I agreed entirely with the letter and that letter was well-written. But it wasn’t me. I left not knowing whether he believed me.
I later met Liberty Van Trundlefoos. That was the real name of an actual student at my school. Apparently I had such a reputation that when the principal received some rabble-rousing feminist letter from a Liberty Van Trundlefoos, he just assumed it was my psuedonym rather than looking to see whether we in fact had a student named Liberty Van Trundlefoos, which we did.
So that maybe sets the stage for this story.
When I was 13, an editor from The Virginian Pilot newspaper – Lorraine Eaton, now that same newspaper’s “staff epicure,” possibly the most gentlewomanly job in existence – came to speak at a career day at my middle school. The day after, I called her at her office and pitched myself as a writer. She was game! Life-changing! I mailed in my first article on notebook paper (I hand-wrote it! And put it in the actual mail!) For the next four years, Lorraine drove me around, hounded me about deadlines, and showed me how a lot of adult shit worked.
I immediately started receiving mail.
Not only was there snail mail sent to the newspaper and passed along to me, there was snail mail sent to my school (my newspaper bio said which high school I went to) and to my home (my family was in the phone book). A few of these were fan letters, creepy dudes, or people wanting to have a genuine discussion about whatever I’d written about. The rest was hate mail from Christian fundamentalists, responding to “Gay People Are A-OK!” or “Pledge of Allegiance Shouldn’t Be Mandatory, Says Teen.”
Some of that hate mail is now immortalized in this painting of me by Molly Crabapple.
I took the bus to school, but a lot of my classmates drove their own cars and, I guess, listened to the radio – especially to the new alternative rock station. One morning I got off the bus, rolled into school, and noticed a lot of people staring at me, pointing, etc. There was nothing strange about my appearance that day – in early high school, I had experimented with suspenders, odd numbers of pigtails, and, once, plaid lipstick. But not that day.
Eventually a friend found me and told me that the morning radio hosts had dedicated a lengthy morning show segment to mocking an article I had written. Among other things, they called me a “feminazi.”
I had written previous articles about Cosmo‘s silly flirting advice (file down one of your high heels so you wiggle sexily when you walk!) and about a water-filled push-up bra that was an accident waiting to happen. High-school-level feminism, sure.
But that week’s article was about … teenage vegetarians. I wasn’t even a vegetarian myself. Rather, as a do-gooding teen journalist, I had found some teenage vegetarians and gotten quotes from them about how it was hard to eat in the cafeteria, etc. I had done the same with teen Wiccans months before, which generated a predictable influx of hate mail.
The morning radio hosts decided, I guess, that I was part of some kind of feminist plot to deprive people of barbecue, and spent the rest of their show on the topic. They took callers: people who said they went to high school with me and that I hated meat-eaters, and how one time someone played a meat-related prank on me by bringing some kind of large, bloody hunk of meat to my table in the cafeteria (a prank that is both impractical and expensive, and really hardly qualifies as a prank at all).
My actual diet at that point, due to the various contortions of trying to Do All The Things to get into a good college, was mostly Rice Chex consumed on the go, out of tiny baggies, so I probably would have benefited from consuming a large quantity of, say, brisket. But whatevs.
I wasn’t sure what to do about any of this. I hadn’t actually heard the show myself – I had just heard about it, from both friends and foes. A meeting with the principal ensued, the goal of which, I think, was to make sure I wasn’t about to harm myself, which I was not. The principal was not amused by my suggestion that I could sue the shock jocks and get some college money. The shock jocks certainly did tell lies about me out of malicious intent, which I’m pretty sure is what slander is. But I was 16 and didn’t have the wherewithal to pursue it.
Liberty Van Trundlefoos and her girlfriend soon became the first out LGBT people at our school, at least that I was aware of. We weren’t friends, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only teenage feminist rankling grown men.
The regular hate mail continued apace, along with fan letters (“the next Dave Barry!”) and strange missives from creepy dudes. And chipper youth groups of athletic white people held prayer circles around the flagpole at my high school, testing the limits of various Supreme Court decisions and causing intense eye-rolling from me. I applied to 125 separate scholarship competitions, all via snail mail, sending in the required essays on topics including America, the Vietnam War, and optimism.
I chose the furthest-away college I got into.
Nothing happened to the dudes who spent a solid half-hour calling a teenager a “feminazi” on morning talk radio. I like to think they’re still there, at the offices of 96X, condemned to introduce Pearl Jam songs to suburban teenagers forever.