Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'The Cat Ate My Gymsuit', Paula Danziger's 1974 classic about a sensitive, sardonic teenage girl with a few extra pounds and a whole lotta personality.
I hate my father. I hate school. I hate being fat. I hate the principal because he wanted to fire Ms. Finney, my English teacher.
I feel bad for teens today. Their parents listen to them. Teachers are invested in their intellectual development and well-being. Books are published on their optimal care and feeding; violins brandished for their edification; trips abroad marshaled so they may broaden their horizons and spread this wealth to others, eventually spearheading their own microloan organizations and so forth. What the hell! That's no way to throw down.
Marcy Lewis is no rarefied hothouse flower from the Western world, ruthlessly cultivated to within an inch of her stamen. No! She is, by her own admission, a "baby blimp with wire frame glasses and mousy brown hair" who fears impending acne and hands her gym teacher a creative reason every day to not be forced to put on her gymsuit in front of everyone.
She is not the only one on board. Her friend Nancy gives her this practical assessment: "Marcy. Come on. You're not ugly. You are too fat, but you have good points too. It's just that kids think you're stuck up because you won't play and you're smart." Her mother tells her that everything O.K., but that she should really "lose some weight and look like everyone else." Her four-year-old brother, Stuart, wants her to be his best friend "so I can help him put orange pits in the hole in his teddy bear's head." And her father, yet another in the line of apopleptic dads obviated around when Archie Bunker transmuted to Steven Keaton, renders this judicious opinion, not infrequently: "I don't care if you get good grades. You do stupid things. Why do I have to have a daughter who is stupid and fat? I'll never get you married off."
Oh, I know some of you remember these halcyon days! And if you will just allow me to return for one second to why kids today don't even have a shot, I just have to show you Marcy, a la 2008:
What is the issue here, exactly? It's that girls like things that are pink, isn't it? That a quirky illustration can draw them in better than a picture fat girl? Cuz fat girls are gross? Something wonderful and life-changing is going to happen to the girl on this cover, I just know it! Except....NEWSFLASH, DESIGNER!!! There is no actual CAT! This "cat" business is an ironic barb thrown up in a poor defense of a wounded psyche! Children, do not listen to this cover! Life is terribly fat and unquirky! And there are no hearts whatsoever.
Anyway. So, into the world of Cover #1 and very-much-not Cover #2 two enters Diane Finney, un-teachery teacher, wearer of turtleneck, jean skirt, and a macrame necklace. (Please forgive me for one second while I descend into a reverie of all the mothers downstairs wearing these, smoking Bushmills and drinking, while the fathers prepare to come home apopleptic and we are upstairs, reading Wifey.) Ms. Finney, in her 1970s way, reins in the unruly students by some psych 101 method of staring at them unnervingly, then exposes them to an eye-opening battery of novel teaching methods while actually teaching them English, including but not limited to making a commercial to "sell" a book, using monopoly to learn vocabulary, and the works of Marshall McLuhan.
Drunk on this actual engagement, both with their intellect and with their psyches, the students ask if they can form an after-school club to "do more about how we felt inside". That is where Marcy finally meets Joel Anderson, unconventional love interest, when they are paired off to learn about each other:
I didn't know. Was I supposed to tell him I was a blimp trying to disguise myself as a real person; or that I probably had a horrible case of contagious impending pimples; or that I had this weird brother with a teddy bear filled with orange pits; or that I thought that he was cute and brave and probably thinking about how suicide would be better than talking to me?
Illustrate that with a cat, motherfucker! But anyway, this is what Joel (who answers, in my favorite answer ever, "Joel Anderson" to the question of what he wants to be when he grows up) actually tells the class: "This is Marcy Lewis. She says she doesn't like lots of things, but I bet she really does....and she has a nice smile."
All this, of course, cannot stand. Despite Ms. — Ms! — Finney's demonstrable skill as a teacher, her refusal to say the pledge while she salutes the flag provides a ready hook for the ire of Principal Stone, who we are meant to understand is not interested in the teachings of Marshall McLuhan. Ms. Finney, who is really only guilty of occasionally forgetting she's holding a piece of chalk and trying to smoke it, is suspended, and the only good thing about this is that it provides Marcy with the opportunity to come into her own, both in love, life, and her family. After sticking it to the man by telling Principal Stone "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him," she shocks herself by spearheading the movement to save Ms. Finney, joined along the way, surprisingly, not only by the quietly supportive Joel, but by her mother, who graduates from capitulating to her husband's abject bitchazzness to defending Ms. Finney at the school board meeting to decide her fate.
But it doesn't work. It doesn't work! (I remain fascinated by how these books stubbornly refuse to have happy endings.) Instead, we have a semi-progression into sort-of-slightly better circumstances. Ms. Finney wins the case but declines to return, because she knows she'd be too divisive. (Huh.) Joel and Marcy remain close friends. ("You have to start somewhere.") Marcy's mother registers for night courses at the local university and stops plying her with ice cream, but her father "hardly ever says anything to me anymore. He and my mother talk a lot, but he just looks at me and shakes his head." As the book ends, Marcy informs us: "Yesterday I looked in the mirror and saw a pimple. It's name is Agnes."
Maybe what makes the book genuinely honest, genuinely un-cloyingly quirky, and genuinely interesting, is how it is not only a snapshot of Marcy's own psyche but of a family and a country in transition during the war in Vietnam and the feminist movement, neither of which is explicitly mentioned but are the subtext of why Mr. Stone, Mr. Lewis and all the other old-guard think her teachings are divesting their children of a crucial conformity. Ms. Finney, who will salute the flag but won't say the pledge because "I am sorry to have to say that I don't believe this country offers liberty and justice for all" signals peacenik touchy-feelyness to the powers that be. But she is actually far more: a harbinger of a real change to come. Not mindless hand-holding, not saccharine rhetoric, but — in an atmosphere of divorce, unrest and uncertainty — an understanding of how engagement with the new and unfamiliar makes us people worth holding hands with.
Well, that worked out well. Oh country my country, we still have a Mr. Stone! I believe we even recovered the macrame necklace. But where's our brave Ms. Finney to wear it?
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
Earlier: The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
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