I was in biology class when the wall phone went off with a buh-woop-woop.
A phone call during class was unusual, and we all watched as Mr. McDonnell got up from his desk to answer it. He turned and looked directly at me. “Yeah, he’s here. Okay.” He hung up. “McKeown. You’re to report to Home Ec. to get your head measured.”
The whole class laughed. Well, it was funny. But I was mortified. I was fourteen, at least a year younger than the rest of them, and in 1961 a sophomore boy reporting to Home Economics class for any reason was hilarious. Only girls took classes in cooking and sewing. And what’s funnier or queerer than getting your head measured—and what did that even mean? Blushing, I got up from my desk and went to the door. Mr. McDonnell repeated I was to go straight to Home Ec. and added that I should report the results to the main office before coming back to class. I walked out into the empty hallway and heard him say as the door closed, “Alright, settle down.”
I had a long walk ahead of me because the Home Ec. classroom was around the opposite side of the school in the same area as the gym and boys’ health class. At the end of the hall, I turned right to walk down past the cafeteria, dragging my feet all the way. I couldn’t understand it. I never heard of such a thing. Why do these weird things always happen to me? Could our doctor have ordered this for some reason? I turned right again at the next far corner and went down the final stretch to the room containing only girls. I had a fear that I wasn’t considered masculine enough, and some meaningful difference between boys’ and girls’ head sizes would prove it. That’s crazy, I thought, and anyway, why call me out of class like it’s an emergency? Maybe the home Ec. teacher would explain.
But no, they didn’t know about it in Home Ec. When the door opened I heard a little shriek and caught a glimpse of a girl in a slip running through a doorway to the back room. A stern teacher demanded to know what I was doing there. I stammered that I was sent by the office to get my head measured. A chorus of giggles. While I stood there looking down, the teacher held a hat sizing chart and told one of the girls to put the tape measure around my poor egg-shaped head and another girl to record the result. I could not get out of there fast enough.
It finally dawned on me what must have happened as I was walking back past the cafeteria and nearing the auditorium. I’d been preparing to play Grandpa Vanderhof in a school production of You Can’t Take It with You, and I was determined to be convincing in the role of a 78-yearold. I was a stickler for realism, and I knew exactly how I was going to do the makeup, I had it all figured out, every wrinkle and jowl. But I was worried about my hair. White shoe polish would not do. I wanted my hair to look like Robert Frost or Carl Sandburg. I mentioned this to my aunt Jane on one of her visits out from New York, and she, being a visual artist, understood right way. She said she would try to contact a theatrical wigmaker in New York for me. She must have found one. She must have called the office right from the wigmaker’s shop.
At the office I reported the girls’ measurement of my head. I didn’t know if I could stand much more ridicule. I felt emasculated. Still dragging my feet, I made my way down the hall to Biology. I had to go back into that room of teenagers with a macho teacher who had a reputation for flirting with the girls and who did not discourage my reputation as a weirdo. I just had to survive this ordeal somehow. Then, while I was turning the handle on the door, it came to me. This was an entrance, I was making an entrance. I took a deep breath and opened the door. Mr. McDonnell stopped speaking and turned to face me from his desk. The whole class looked on expectantly, ready for another good laugh.
Standing there in the doorway I made the announcement in a clear, firm voice:
A roar of laughter greeted my ears like a panacea, a soothing balm, a drug with a little kick at the end. Going back to my desk, I was blushing again, but this time not from embarrassment. Wig or no wig, Grandpa was going to get all his laughs.
Douglas McKeown is the facilitator of Queer Stories, an on-going column initiated and edited by Robin Goldfin in Memory of Holden McCormack.