A shock is something that comes to you unexpected. It isn’t only big events that shock; sometimes the little things carry a big wallop. I am of the opinion that shocks almost make a physical imprint on a person; they can factor in and out of one’s consciousness and decision making later in life.
There are four times in my youth that I was truly shocked, although not of the kind that was really damaging. I just have thought it funny that these particular incidents have stayed with me my entire life. One of the four was a physical shock, and was so insignificant that I shouldn’t even have it in my brain, but oh yes, there it is.
I was just a tiny kid – maybe 2 or 3 - when my grandma lived in an apartment building on the ground floor in Long Beach. I have a vague recollection of the way the apartment house looked on the outside – I do remember it was stucco - but because the shock happened in the bedroom, that is the only memory I retain from inside the apartment itself. On this day my grandma was babysitting me.
n the bedroom Grandma had a double bed. She often read in bed, so she had an old bed lamp that hooked over the headboard, had a lightbulb screwed into a socket, and was turned on and off simply by pulling a little chain. A dark pink and maroon floral chintz bedspread covered the bed, and the same material hung as fixed drapes on either side of the window that looked out onto the apartment walkway. The window had a pull-down shade, which grandma always pulled down to darken the room when I napped. I close my eyes and I can see exactly how that room looked so long ago.
On this particular day of my first shock, as usual we had lunch and then it was time for my nap. Grandma pulled backed the bedspread and boosted me onto the soft bed. She tucked me under the spread, pulled down the window shade and then gave me a kiss before she left. To this day I remember the softness of her cheeks and seeing her little pince-nez glasses on a chain dangling toward my face. I remember her walking out of the bedroom and pulling the door shut but not closing it completely so she could hear me if I called to her.
Why do I remember this as clearly as if it were yesterday? Because shortly after she left, I discovered the dangling chain from the bed lamp and of course I had to pull it. Nothing happened. I was too young to know there should have been a light bulb in the socket, but shortly, in a continuation of my childish exploration, I stuck my little finger into that empty socket. ZOWIE!!!! I’m sure this is why the image of that afternoon with Grandma is still so present: the jolt of electricity I felt in my fingers was not enough to hurt me but came with enough surprise to permanently etch the event – and her bedroom – into my brain, where it remains to this day.
The next real shock I had was in sixth grade. Some boy in class, probably Tommy Graves who always was being called out for one thing or another, had just used the word “busted” instead of “broken” in answering a question asked by the teacher. Ms. Whateverhernamewas (whose real name escapes me at the moment) drew herself up somehow into a formidable presence and said in very precise English, “The word you should use is ‘Broken.’ And then loudly with emphasis, “A BUST IS THE BREAST OF A WOMAN.”
Every girl in the class audibly gasped. I can still see that event play out in front of my eyes. Our teacher has her dark blue polka-dot dress on. Her hair is upswept with a rat under her pompadour. Her purse, made to be a handbag but carried by her with the straps over her shoulder so she could tuck it ever-so-tightly in her armpit, looks ridiculous even to a 6th grader. Her long face is serious and dark. She glowers one more time at poor Tommy and says loudly, “Don’t forget this: “A BUST IS THE BREAST OF A WOMAN.”
Oh, the humiliation of it all. In my family, any word describing a bodily function or part had to be spoken by employing a euphemism. Had my sister and I ever said “breast,” we would have been warned the first time we said it, and our mouths washed out with soap the second and subsequent times we said it. Words like “Breast” or “Bowel Movement” were forbidden words in the Dobbins household and were not to be uttered at all, for any reason. My sister and I knew and used the euphemisms for everything, so you can imagine my shock when this teacher uttered such a word in front of Tommy Graves and Sammie Collins and Charles Clifner and Allan Austin and the rest of the boys, all of whom we girls were beginning to be aware of in a totally different and puzzling way. The shock marked this episode in my psyche for all time. As with the little electric shock from the lamp, I can close my eyes and see this event also replayed in my mind. Now I can laugh at it, but not then.
Today, old and wise (or at least older and wiser than I was then), I grudgingly make allowances for the term “drug bust”. After all, even I know it is not correct or meaningful to say “drug broken” when you mean a drug bust. But if I hear a cop or a TV commentator say something like having to bust down a door, I feel myself automatically drawing up into as near a formidable presence as I can, tucking my invisible purse tighter in my armpit and saying, “We do not say the word ‘bust.’ A bust is the breast of a woman.”
I somehow cannot make my peace with this breech of the King’s English, regardless of whether “bust” in this day and age is now sitting comfortably in one of the dictionaries that also allows jury-rigged instead of gerry-rigged. My husband has been sensitized to this particular use of “bust” because he sees me get nearly apoplectic when I hear it used on TV. When I get to the part said by the teacher, he always kindly says it right along with me. We laugh about it, but deep down inside I don’t feel it is a laughing matter.
I managed to make it until about the 8th grade before I experienced my next big shock. At Hamilton Junior High school a new girl entered our school mid-semester and was assigned to our homeroom. I was asked to introduce her around and make sure she wasn’t left out of activities. I will never know why I was picked for that job; I was terribly shy and perhaps the powers that be thought appointing me to shepherd little Donna around that first day would be good for me. And perhaps it did; however, because of doing this job I later received a big shock that undoubtedly is the reason why I remember this event so clearly. Donna was a darling girl and became popular very fast. She certainly didn’t need me, a geek, as a friend, but she never forgot me and thought we never became social friends outside of school, I always felt a special closeness toward her.
Donna and I later moved up to the same high school. Our classes and interests diverged, but one day I found myself standing next to her in the cafeteria and in the idle chit-chat between us learned that she was a Catholic. I was shocked down to my toes. To my knowledge, I had never met a Catholic before. My mother’s entire family was very anti-Catholic and they often, at family get-togethers, discussed at some length what they considered the evils of Catholicism, which of course included first and foremost the Pope. While I never consciously paid much attention to these discussions, of course as a little kid I probably absorbed their prejudices. We were not a religious family ourselves, but we knew what we didn’t like, and we didn’t like Catholics. So hearing sweet Donna admit to being one was just a very shocking thing for me to digest. I never again could see her without consciously thinking that she was a Catholic. It didn’t change how I felt about her, but it certainly confused things for me. She was a Catholic and she was a good person. How can that be? (Oh, the evils of prejudice!)
Again, as I got older and wiser I learned that my family was very bigoted in many areas, not only towards religion but also towards other races. At any rate, by the time I came of college age I was able to shed the image of Catholic somehow being bad - and for a while all but shed my family, too, over that and similar issues. I seem to have been born with a tolerance and awareness that was out of sync with my mother’s side of the family. I remember so clearly the unreasonable shock I experienced with Donna, and I determined to keep my own kids from having those kinds of beliefs instilled in them.
Now in my adult life I have certainly experienced a few shockers, but life does that to us. There will always be things that tend to knock the socks off of a person, but at least as adults we are in a better position to sort things out with some real expectation of understanding and processing it into the right perspective. I do have to say that life can sometimes get a little dreary without a dose now and then of surprises and/or shocks, but the kind that makes a person’s hair go grey I am better off without, that’s for sure.
And luckily shocks happen less and less as we march into old age. I’m keeping my fingers crossed as I say that, so I don’t have to eat my words!