By: Paul Crenshaw

Mr. Hocott called Moriah a dumb blonde. He called Brandy a dingy brunette. He said Jennifer would lose a wet T-shirt contest to an 8th grade boy and that all girls had a little blonde in them, which meant, in his mind, that all girls were a little stupid. Standing at the white board with his black marker, he said girls weren’t good at math and it’s a wonder the law allowed them to balance a checkbook.

“Now back to quadratic equations,” he told us, and all of us wrote down what he said.

In Athletics, Coach Scheel said we ought to wear bras and panties if we were going to be girls. We couldn’t run as fast as he wanted or lift as much weight so in the locker room we called each other pussies. Cliff was a cunt and Vince was a vagina and Brian had boobs, we said, despite our obvious dicks.

In Mrs. Scheel’s class we read about MacBeth and Hamlet, men with murder on their minds. We learned Lady MacBeth could not get the blood off her hands, that she was the one who had turned her husband into the man he came to be. Poor Ophelia, too sad to save herself, drowns. Juliet stabs herself for want of Romeo, and it still amazes me some people haven’t learned that play isn’t about love. 

In History we heard about Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. All the great conquerors, men who owned the world but could not save themselves from their own appetites. The only women in that world were Cleopatra, who killed herself rather than let Octavian do it, and Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake. Anne Boleyn, beheaded. Marie Antoinette, who never said “Let them eat cake,” but was guillotined to death anyway.  

On the bus on the way home the bigger kids turned their class rings downward and hit us on the back of the head then dared us to cry. Up front Mr. Siler drove without looking in the big mirror, as if whatever happened back there we had to learn to deal with. Friday nights at the football games we watched our teachers stand and cheer each time the ball snapped and our boys hurled themselves at the boys on the other side. Saturday nights we circled town, calling to cars full of girls, repeating words we’d heard in the halls at school. 

In church we learned that women were weaker vessels. That man was head of the household and that wives should honor their husbands. That husbands shall rule over their wives and afterward the preacher shook the hands of all the men as they filed out of the church.

Monday mornings we stood on the front steps of our school. Occasionally a fistfight broke out among two boys in men’s skin. They both liked the same girl or one had lifted more than the other, and we all watched until Mr. Hocott came running out and took them both by the arm, saying “Haven’t you two been taught any better?” 

When school started our principal read Bible verses that men should honor their wives, but before we could learn how we were back in Hocott’s class hearing him ask how many blondes it took to change a lightbulb. We were lifting weights, trying to make ourselves bigger. We were reading Lolita, Jekyll and Hyde, Jane Eyre. We were learning the history of men.

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired ReadingThe Pushcart PrizeOxford AmericanGlimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm