Grab Bag (May, 1998)


After watching a grainy video of a million sperm swimming 
upstream in pursuit of a singular egg, followed by a short film

imploring boys to wear loose jeans in order to preserve this 
very count, we arrive at this week’s highlight, and most

of the reason why I decide this will be the first and only time 
I forge my mother’s signature on a permission slip:

the magical sex grab bag. Ms. Smith instructs us to neatly write 
our anonymous questions on small scrolls of paper to be placed

inside the plum crushed velvet pouch. The Life Science 
classroom pulses with the sounds of quickly moving

#2 pencils and the backs of hands dusting eraser bits
from desks to floor. Old Spice and Juniper Breeze grip the air.

Amidst the squeak of uneven adolescent voices, Ms. Smith 
smiles, shakes the sack, then loosens its drawstring, as if

to soon announce the winner of a sweepstake. One student 
inquires: “Will having sex doggy style give you butt babies?”

Another asks, “Are there hecka ways to not be a virgin 
no more?” Ms. Smith teaches us the word “cunnilingus”

and explains its meaning. “That’s hella nasty,” Milton tries
to mumble under his breath. “Are your findings based on your

being a cunnilingus connoisseur?” Ms. Smith retorts slickly with an 
eyebrow raised in his direction. The overwhelm and foreignness

of these syllables reduces him to a sheepish grin, his butterscotch 
face crumples to the form of a rare and quiet defeat.

I neither remember my question, nor 
owning my body back then.

Ms. Smith constantly fans herself, and runs her hand over her 
crystal ball belly. Under the fluorescent light, she glistens how

I imagine a freshly beached mermaid might. She’ll be leaving us 
in a few weeks to have her baby. She plucks the next question

quickly, then squints as if shooting lasers onto the squiggle 
of words, shakes her head, and rolls her eyes.

She thinks someone in the class is playing. 
“I’m not even going to answer this one.”

Marshelle, who is sitting next to me, nervously chuckles
with a bit of her tongue peeking from between her gapped teeth.

“She read my question.” She cups her hands onto my ears and whispers:
“How come niggas always tryna make you suck they dick?”

I snicker breathily so that she won’t feel alone. Marshelle and I
are quiet for the rest of the class period.

Ms. Smith keeps talking, but I no longer hear her voice.
A disappointment rings in my ears. Sex Ed is over for me.

Ms. Smith becomes what I attempted to escape—the deadbolt
lock over a girl’s body. The untrained hand too rough for the tender

and growing. Two decades later, I wonder if Ms. Smith has learned
the texture of peril—how to use the thorns of language as a guide

to the center of its fruit, before disposing it in haste. I imagine
what variation of the question would have merited a response from

Ms. Smith: “How are boys learning to use their bodies like weapons, Ms. Smith?
Why doesn’t he want to hear my voice, Ms. Smith?

Why doesn’t he know the difference between a request and a demand, Ms. Smith?
When does the soreness subside after your heads been shoved into the center

of a boy’s body, Ms. Smith? Can I say no, Ms. Smith? My name is Marshelle,
and I will be the first pregnant girl in your 8th grade Life Science class—

can you help me, Ms. Smith?” I needed Ms. Smith too for what she might not
be able to give—a voice to fight the fear of all the flowers sprouting within me,

words to battle any hands trying to uproot me before my season. That week
we thirsted for a grown woman whose water might help save our tiny lives.