He also gets the finest Christmas present of his young life.
Peter Fray, age 11, a boy
Emily Salter, his best first and classmate
Stephanie Tompkins, another friend and classmate
Tamika Johnson, friend and classmate
Joshua Sanders, classmate and bully
Barry Bopkins, Joshua’s friend
Priscilla Anders, classmate
Miss Patricia O’Hara, 6th grade teacher
Miss Amy Melanson, dance teacher
Mrs. Deborah Fray, Peter’s mother
Mrs. Birgitte Sorenson, Peter’s maternal grandmother
Amy Hermann, a classmate
Miss Brenda, school aide
It was customary for the 6th Grade at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School to stage a holiday play in the school’s annual pageant just before the Christmas holidays.
“We do it to celebrate the holiday season and offer something for the parents and other kids,” explained Miss O’Hara, the teacher.
“We know, Miss O’Hara,” spoke up Emily Salter, who had gotten the reputation of being the teacher’s pet.
“Of course, you all know that, as Emily says,” the teacher said, with a smile. “And it’s up to you children to help us decide what to do.”
Miss Patricia O’Hara had taught 6th Grade at Wilson for years, her curly dark hair now showing streaksof grey; yet she still looked younger than most of the teachers at the school. She was pink faced, a bit fleshy and with a soft pleasant smile. In general, all her students liked her, even loved her, to hear some of the girls talk.
In the years leading up the 6th Grade, Peter Fray had heard that Miss O’Hara was the “best” teacher in the school. He was not disappointed once he got into class. In a sense, it might be said that Peter fell in love with the teacher, and from the first day of school he had volunteered to help her in class, hovering around her in admiration along with Emily and a couple of other girls. Peter was seated on the floor amid a group of girls, and like them, his legs were folded under him. It just seemed to happen that Peter was always among the girls in the class and except for his short hair he almost looked like he belonged there. He had a slender young body, almost dainty hands and smooth arms.
Peter liked the idea of a holiday performance, and he had some ideas about what they could do. He hesitated to speak up, knowing he’d open himself up for ridicule from most of the boys in the class, as had happened far too often in the past. He’d already been called names, like “sissy,” “faggot,” and “fairy,” largely because he seemed to associate with girls, instead of guys, and also that he was so pathetic in games. And, like Emily, also being called the “teacher’s pet.”
In fact, in open recess periods, he shied away from other boys, and played in the girls’ games, like dodgeball or tag. And, he loved playing jacks, and had become one of the best at the game.
With his long fingers, and quick hands, he had become truly the best among the players, the others all being girls. He found himself giggling along with the girls as they played, and he soon realized that his laugh matched the pitch of the girls; his voice still hadn’t begun changing.
None of the girls seemed to resent Peter’s winning ways in the game of jacks, since he was less successful in hopscotch where his jumping skills were lacking. That is, until Priscilla Anders started playing jacks with the group. She was a proud girl, it was obvious, since she bragged about being the 5th Grade champion, and she came from the “richest” family in town, or at least most of the kids thought so.
After Peter won the third straight game one unusually warm day in March, Priscilla Anders, objected:
“It’s not fair, he’s a boy,” she said loudly, raising herself up from her seated position.
Peter looked at her in surprise: What did being a boy have with winning at jacks?
“So what?” asked Emily Salter, who was a regular in the game of jacks with Peter.
“Well, he’s a boy,” seemed to be Priscilla’s only response.
Peter began to blush, realizing the ridiculousness of the situation: a boy among all the girls playing their game. And, winning at it.
“Why don’t you play with the boys?” Priscilla pressed.
Peter, still seated on the playground asphalt, looked up the girl, not sure how to respond. How could he tell the girls his real reason, how could he admit that he was pathetic at playing boys games, that they teased him for “running like a girl” and for his general weakness and his somewhat girlish mannerisms.
Instead, he did the worst thing he could have done. He began crying, and try as he might he could not hold back the tears and the sobs, which squeaked out sporadically as he buried his head. He got up abruptly and ran off, finding the giant oak tree that stood at the corner of the playground, conveniently
He never again played jacks with the girls; instead, he spent such open recess periods with several of the less athletic boys on slide sets that were meant usually for younger students. The incident ruined recess forever for Peter; until then he had found the activity so brightened his day; he didn’t care much for winning actually; rather, he loved the friendship and enjoyment he felt with the girls.
Peter had so enjoyed playing jacks that he had even asked his mother for a set for his 11th birthday. She at first balked, saying they were for girls, but when she saw how disappointed Peter was, she gave in and bought him a really lovely set, complete with a beaded leather bag.
“Oh mommy, I love you for this,’ he beamed when he opened the gift at his birthday party, attended by Emily (who had become his closest friend) and two other girls. Peter had few boys as friends, not since he was 7 years old.
His mother was immediately sorry she had encouraged his girlish behavior; certainly she should have found some boys for Peter to play with. He always was with girls, a fact that bothered her.
Peter’s father had left her shortly after the boy was born, never to be heard from again. He had been a truckdriver who had a regular trip through their town, and had become friendly with his mother, who then worked as a waitress at a truck stop.
The two had even married and found an apartment where they lived together in growing dislike until Peter was born. Then when he was a month old, his father took a load to Yakima, Washington, two thousand miles away, and was never heard from again. No child support, nothing ever from him.
In the weeks following the “jacks’ incident,” Peter tried mightily to become more of a boy. He despaired, however, as he looked in the mirror after his evening shower and saw only a puny body, and, in spite of all of his effort, he couldn’t raise a mound of muscle on his bicep as he flexed it before the mirror. His physical weakness was so apparent he felt he could never be like other boys. How come all the other boys had firm, hard bodies, with such sculptured muscles, and his was so slender and soft? He felt he was as active as the other boys.
Maybe, he thought, he could look tough, and sneer and scowl, like the bad guys did in the movies. That would show how tough he was. He even tried that for a while, but soon realized it merely made him look stupid.
It was Emily who first noticed his facial changes, and asked one day as they walked home after school: “Why are you making those silly faces?”
They paused with some other kids, awaiting the crossing guard’s “go-ahead” sign; since they lived just a few doors apart, it just seemed natural for them to walk together.
“What faces?” Peter asked, feigning innocence.
“You know, you’ve been scrunching up your face, like a goof,” she said as they began crossing the street.
“Oh, I didn’t know it.”
They reached the other side of the street, and broke off from the other kids.
“Well, quit screwing up your face,” she said, punching him in the arm. It was a gentle, friendly punch, the kind the two had been exchanging since the previous summer.
“Oh, I guess.”
“You’ll get ‘mad lines’ in your face,” Emily added.
They walked on a few more steps, neither saying anything; Peter let his face relax as they walked, and finally, Emily said: “That’s better. Why do you do it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, lying again.
“Ok, as you say.”
Peter could see his friend was unconvinced, but he added nothing.
“I’ll race you to my house,” Emily said suddenly, and she took off running, leaving Peter to gather his books in his arms and follow her. Try as he might, he was unable to catch up to her and as they reached her house the pair collapsed in exhaustion onto a pile of leaves, giggling. Peter attempted to pin the girl’s arms and she wrestled loose, and they laughed again.
“See I beat you,” Emily said.
“No I don’t.”
“You gave me no warning,” he complained.
“All right,” she said, laughing. “I cheated.”
“See,” he said, triumphantly.
Emily was Peter’s closest, and in truth his only close friend. Since the 4th grade the two had been almost inseparable. For her part, Emily was not like any of the other girls in their class; she seemed to care little about the crushes most of the girls had for certain pop singers or for clothes or for shopping.
She was a fairly angular girl, about the same height as Peter, and a bit taller than most girls her age. Emily wore wire rim glasses and kept her mousy brown hair straight; she tended to wear jeans and in hot weather longer shorts, with white ruffled blouses. Sometimes, she wore simple print dresses. Rarely was she in the mini shorts and tank tops that so many girls wore. In a word, she was not at all chic.
The two spent lots of time at each other’s homes, and the parents of both seemed to accept the relationship, often letting one or the other sleep over. At 11 years old, both children were considered by their parents to be a bit backward in their social growth, and certainly naïve about the differences in gender.
The two did their homework together, played some video games, talked and giggled a lot and occasionally enjoyed some play-acting. Both were full of eager imaginations, and it wasn’t unusual to see them dressing up as Bedouins in sheets or as Pilgrims or some other costume. Gender seemed to make no difference, and at times they might both have been females or males. Out of their imagination would come some sort of a simple play.
The pair enjoyed certain innocent television shows, particularly the ones that featured girls of the sub-teen years. “Don’t you wanna watch something else, more for boys?” Emily’s mother asked one day.
“No, Mrs. Salter,” he replied. “We both like this show.”
He returned his attention to the television screen, laying on his stomach the floor his head on his hand, in a posture identical to that of Emily. Perhaps if he could have known what Emily’s mother was thinking, he would have been both shocked and pleased: she felt that the scene portrayed two 11-year-old girls lying on the floor watching television.
Miss O’Hara told her 6th Grade class to try to think up some nice ideas for the Holiday Pageant.
“When we return tomorrow,” she said, “I want to hear about your ideas. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Anyone’s idea can help to bring out other ideas.”
“Do we have to, Miss O’Hara?” protested Jason Conover, who seemed always to complain about assignments.
“Yes, Jason, you all do.”
“Awwww, Miss O’Hara, I can’t think of anything,” the boy complained.
“Now, listen class,” she said, taking a stern tone to her voice, a tone she rarely used. She continued:
“You merely have to write something down on a paper and turn it in. You won’t have to tell it to the class, unless you want to.”
The assignment seemed begin to spur the interest of the class, particularly since Miss O’Hara said any idea would be considered.
“I want you all to be serious about your idea,” she stressed.
It was then that Peter got an idea: why couldn’t he and Emily work together on an idea?
“Miss O’Hara,” he said, raising his hand.
“Could two or three of us get together and think up one idea? Would that count?”
“That’s a good idea, Peter. Yes, you children can work alone, or you can get together in a group and come up with an idea?”
Miss O’Hara beamed at Peter, glad for his contribution into the class. Peter glanced over toward Emily, who responded with a smile and a nod, as if to signify she’d enjoy working with him on the project.
It wasn’t until lunch time that Peter was able to get to Emily to ask her to join him in the project.
“Oh Peter, Stephanie and Tamika have asked me to join with them in the project,” she said.
Peter’s face fell; he had been looking forward so eagerly to working with his friend.
“Oh,” he said, his disappointment showing.
“I’m sorry, Peter,” she said.
“I don’t know who else to join,” he said.
“Oh Peter,” she said, a bit of impatience showing. “Can’t you go with Joshua or Barry?”
“They don’t like me.”
“Really? I thought you guys were friends?”
“No,” was all Peter would say.
Joshua, a large, overweight lad, had forced himself upon Peter at the start of the school year, inviting him to join him in video games and other ventures. He also involved Barry, a slender, almost inconsequential boy, in their get-togethers, usually held at Joshua’s house.
Perhaps because of his size, Joshua assumed a bossy role, sometimes bordering on bullying. He was constantly calling Peter, suggesting the two visit each other’s homes for video games, usually bringing Barry along.
If Peter would balk, Joshua often grabbed his arm, twisting it until Peter would agree. Other times he’d easily wrestle Peter to the ground, sitting on him until he went along with the suggestion. Barry usually went along with whatever Joshua suggested.
“Quit it, Josh,” Peter squealed one day, as the heavier boy twisted on his arm. Peter was too weak to resist the twisting, and began to cry.
“Come on Petey,” Joshua said, applying more pressure. “Let’s go down to the ice cream shop.”
“Josh, you’re hurting me,” Peter cried out his tears flowing freely now.
Barry stood by, saying nothing, and nodded in agreement when Joshua asked:
“We’ve got a little girl here, don’t we Barry?”
Barry nodded, and Joshua finally let go of Peter’s arm, as Peter wiped the tears from his eyes.
“I hate you,” Peter said suddenly, tears beginning again. He beat his fist ineffectually on the bigger boy’s chest, but Joshua easily grabbed Peter’s slender upper arms, stopping the feeble assault.
“He fights like a girl,” Joshua said.
“I still . . . don’t wanna . . . go,” Peter said, his words broken up by sobs.
“Ok, girl,” said Joshua. “Go play with your girl friends. You’re one of them. Right, Barry?”
Peter said nothing, burying his head into his hands, his tears still flowing. But Joshua wasn’t done:
“Yes, let’s call this girl Polly from now on?”
With that, Barry and Joshua left Peter in his humiliation. Since that time two weeks earlier, Peter had avoided Joshua, only to hear the name “Polly” being said, accompanied by snickers and furtive looks, more and more around the school.
“OK, you can join us, Peter,” she said finally. “I hope Stephanie and Tamika won’t mind. You’ll be with all girls, you know.”
Peter couldn’t hold back a smile. “That’s OK, I guess,” he said, hopefully disguising the pleasure he felt at being with girls for the project.
The three girls – Emily, Stephanie and Tamika – and Peter met after school in Miss O’Hara’s room. Peter had hoped some other boys might join, but he had heard two of them dismissing it as “a girls’ thing.” He blushed, feeling embarrassed that he found working on such a committee such a joy.
“You four look like you’ll come up with some cool ideas now,” Miss O’Hara said.
“Thank you, Miss O’Hara,” the four responded almost in unison, as a chorus.
“I have to handle the detention room now, but you can stay here and plan the event,” she said. “I think the four of you should first choose a leader, and then come up with some ideas. I’ll be back in 30 minutes, and we can discuss all of your ideas then.”
Peter quickly suggested that Emily be leader of the committee, but she demurred.
“This was your big idea, Peter,” Emily said. “Why don’t you be leader?”
He turned to both Stephanie and Tamika, pleading for them to take over. He could see only lots of teasing should he lead the committee. But, they refused to take the bait.
“Oh, I guess, I’ll have to do it,” he finally agreed, his slender hand brushing hair from his face. Only recently had he become aware that his motions with his hands imitated those of a girl; he also knew he walked with a bit of a girly lilt.
“You’re such a girl,” Joshua had said on the day he gave Peter his name of “Polly.” “You walk like a girl.”
Peter truly hadn’t thought about how he walked, or how he brushed his longish hair back, but Joshua’s comments forced him to review his actions. He looked in the mirror and noticed the manner in which he flicked his hair was just the way girls did it.
Emily, his friend, saw Peter’s hesitance, and offered: “Peter, we’ll all help you out. We’ll make the best Christmas show ever.”
The four wrestled with several ideas, but rejected all of them as either being too stupid or too difficult.
“We better come up with something,” said Tamika, a tall African-American girl who already was maturing into young womanhood. She was a cheerful girl, and had many friends.
“I know,” Peter said. “We don’t want to disappoint Miss O’Hara.”
Emily agreed quickly. It was obvious both children admired their teacher.
“We gotta come up with something, girls,” Emily said, inadvertently including Peter in the reference.
Peter blushed at the reference, but said nothing. Emily looked at him, and Peter’s embarrassment heightened; yet, he involuntarily realized his hand had gone up in a girlish manner to flick his hair.
“What about a dance program?” Stephanie said, tentatively. She was a slender, pock-marked girl who wore granny glasses, and always in a gray, simple dress.
“What kind of dance?” Emily asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Stephanie replied, quickly adding, “You know, like when I saw Peter in the dance class doing it?”
“What?” Peter said.
“Like when you were flitting around, waving your arms, and sliding on the floor,” Stephanie said, now warming to her topic. “You were so . . . ah . . . oh, I don’t know how to say it . . .”
“Pretty,” Tamika said quickly.
Peter looked sharply at Tamika, stunned at being called “pretty.”
“Well you were,” Stephanie said. “You’re so graceful.”
“Maybe we could all be elves or something, helping Santa put toys in his sleigh.”
The suggestion came eagerly from Tamika, and Emily joined in, commenting with a laugh, “and Peter could be the queen elf.”
“Queen elf? No way,” Peter said firmly. “Who ever heard of a queen elf?”
“Come on Peter, you’d be great as the chief elf,” Emily said. “You’re the best dancer in our dance club.”
It was true, Peter knew, that he was the most graceful and coordinated dancer in the club, a school club composed of eight girls and himself, as the only boy. He had joined the club which met every Tuesday afternoon, during the recess session. He was urged to join the club by Stephanie, who said they’d get some other boys to join, but no one did.
Peter stayed with the club, partly because it got him out of being in recess, where he was often teased for being with the girls, or for doing badly when in games with the boys. And, he found he loved dancing.
“You are so light on your feet, Peter,” Miss Melanson. “That’s a real talent.”
Miss Melanson, who had limited dance experience, had agreed to take over the club, largely because she had been in a modern dance group in college and had studied ballet as a little girl.
She was taken aback when Peter showed up for the club back in September, having followed Stephanie to the group.
“I hadn’t expected any boys,” she said flatly. “I’ve never taught boys the dance.”
“Oh,” Peter said, his face registering instant sadness.
“But you really want to join us?” the teacher asked.
“Yes, Miss Melanson, if that’s OK,” he said shyly. Peter hung his head as he spoke, realizing that being a boy in what was considered a girl’s activity might give him even more unwanted attentions.
“Yes, it is, and I’ll do my best to teach you, my boy,” she said. “But, honey, we need your parents’ OK.”
His mother’s OK, however, was hard to get. She was becoming concerned about her son’s growing girlish behaviors, realizing that he already had been bullied and harassed for his obvious effeminacy.
“Oh honey,” she argued as she looked at the slip from Miss Melanson. “This is for a girls’ dance group. Are you sure this is the right slip?”
“Yes, mommy,” he said, his voice barely a whisper, as he reddened.
“What? Speak up.”
“That’s the right slip, mommy,” he said, slightly more convincingly.
“Is this for girls?”
“Well, Miss Melanson said I could join it.”
His mother looked at him; he was standing erect, his feet crossed, his arms crossed in front of his chest, and a finger touching his lips; it was a demure pose. Peter was wearing sleeveless tee-shirt and shorts, looking so slender and fragile.
“And I guess you’ll be the only boy?” she asked.
“Unless some other boy joins,” he said, eagerly.
“Oh honey, I don’t know,” his mother said.
“But mommy,” he said. “All my friends will be in the club. And, I want to.”
Seeing his mother’s reluctance, he began to cry; he wanted so much to dance with the girls. He loved seeing how graceful and pretty the dancers could be; and he remembered watching all the dancers at the Ballet Company’s annual “Nutcracker Suite” performances, how smooth their leaps and twirls were. He always imagined seeing himself as a ballerina in a white tutu, with the pretty crown in his hair. He couldn’t think of himself as a male dancer; they weren’t as graceful as the girls.
“Mommy, I love the ballet. Please, mommy.”
Finally, against her own best judgment, his mother signed the slip and Peter became a member of the Girls’ Tuesday Dance Club. Miss Melanson, recognizing the name issue, changed the name to the Wilson School Terpsichorean Club, finding a name long related to dancing.
As she warned Peter, Miss Melanson was not prepared to provide any special teaching to Peter; he’d have to learn all the moves of the girls. In addition, he followed the examples of the girls and worked to imitate their moves. It all came natural to him; his movements were liquid and graceful and his arms, in particular, moved with a lightness that almost connoted fairy wings.
In the first weeks of the club, the girls and Peter wore gym shorts and tee-shirts; as they became more and more involved, Miss Melanson suggested they begin wearing tights or leotards for the sessions; they leaped at the idea, even though it meant their parents would have to buy the outfits.
“We should all have the same color,” Stephanie offered when the dance teacher made the suggestion.
“I like lavender,” said Tamika.
“Me too,” chimed in Peter.
“Peter, you want lavender?” Emily asked.
“Uh . . . yes,” he said, with hesitation. “Why?”
“Well, that’s for . . .” said Emily, who was interrupted by Miss Melanson who quickly said.
“Let’s do a nice blue.”
Emily nodded quickly in affirmation, glad that she was rescued from drawing attention of Peter’s obvious choice of a feminine color.
By the next morning, the whole 6th grade class knew Peter had joined the girls’ dance club, and he couldn’t avoid Joshua and his friends, who lingered at the school door before morning bell. Peter and Emily tried to dodge past the boys, but they were spotted quickly enough.
“Here comes Polly,” yelled Joshua loud and clear.
And the gathered boys all whistled and yelled in derision, clapping loudly, even squealing.
“Shut up you fat pig,” Emily said as the two bounded up the stairs, where Garrett Hopwell, the school security aide, was tending the door.
The aide opened the door, letting the two scoot I quickly, while closing it quickly to delay any pursuit by the others.
“They’re cowards,” Emily said. “You’re better than all of them.”
But Peter wasn’t convinced. At the moment he felt so pathetic, so much an object of scorn. He was supposed to be and act like a boy; yet, he found it so much more comfortable to be a girl. He wanted to cry; yet, he fought back tears, telling himself he had been crying far too quickly in recent days.
The teasing continued the first day, usually out of the earshot of teachers; Peter hated it when teachers had to step in and defend him, but sometimes it seemed to be the only way he could continue to stay in school.
As the weeks went on, Peter continued to be harassed; yet, it seemed not to bother him as much. He was still called “Polly” by Josh when the teachers were not about; others called him “sissy” or “queer boy” or “girl,” usually in snickers behind his back.
To most of the class, however, he was just that strange kid who hung around with girls and otherwise didn’t seem to bother others.
While the teachers tried to use the term Terpsichorean for the club, it still was called the Girls Tuesday Dance Club by the girls in the club and other kids. For Peter, it represented his best time of the school week; he felt so much at home with the girls in the club, forming in the dance lines just as did the girls. Indeed, once the dancer all began rehearsing in leotards, along with tiny skirts and ballet slippers, Peter looked like one of them. Emily tied his long hair, now reaching to his neck, into ponytails or pigtails.
“Ok girls,” Miss Melanson ordered, clapping her hands to begin the Tuesday club session. She had tried to a while to say “students,” or “girls and Mr. Fray,” but that seemed awkward. Soon, it was just “girls, pay attention,” or “girls, time to break.”
It just seemed so natural to Peter, and all of the girls in the class seemed happy he was in the sessions. He giggled with them, helped some put on their clippers or adjust portions of their dresses, as they did for him.
They soon dismissed the idea of becoming Santa’s elves, and struggled finding anything better. It was for Tamika to come up with still another idea.
“You won’t laugh will you?” the girl said.
“We won’t,” Emily said.
The girls, and Peter all nodded. They were desperate for an idea.
“Let’s perform skits in dance that represent how girls in other countries celebrate Christmas,” Tamika said, with some eagerness.
“Hey that sounds good, Tamika,” Stephanie said.
“But how would we do it?” It was Emily asking.
“Well,” Tamika began, “We could all represent a girl from a country of our nationality, and dance with dolls from those countries. I could find an African-American costume and celebrate Kwanza, and Carmen could be a Mexican girl, and Stephanie a little Irish girl, and Emily a German girl, and Peter a Norwegian girl . . . and like that.”
“What?” Peter said. “I could be what?”
Tamika halted in her conversation. “Oh, I guess you could be a Norwegian boy.”
The group was silent. Somehow, Peter felt having a boy among the dance characters didn’t seem to fit.
“I like the idea, except having a boy character doesn’t fit,” said Stephanie.
“Oh, what will we do with Peter then?” Emily asked. “Maybe he could be narrator.”
“I don’t want to ruin it,” Peter offered. “I won’t dance.”
“But we want you to, Peter,” Tamika said. “You’re the best.”
She grabbed his hand, leading him on the floor and the two improvised a Pas de deux, looking both the part of young ballerinas, with their twirls and spins.
“Besides, you’re the prettiest,” teased Stephanie.
“Won’t you do it, Peter,” Tamika said, holding his hands, as both stood their in the ballerina’s stationary stance.
“Yes, please Peter,” echoed Emily.
They all gathered about him, urging him to take the part; he wanted to, badly, but he could imagine what kind of harassment he’d be getting. He also knew his mother might not like it, since she always brought Peter’s uncle to any school outings.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Let me think about it.”
Walking home from school, Emily said she understood his reluctance, and she knew what kind of teasing he’d face if he did it.
“I would like you to do it, Peter,” she said. “But if you don’t, I’ll still like you.”
That night in bed, he found himself unable to sleep, as he pictured himself floating gracefully through the air in a lovely, gauzy outfit, looking so soft and pretty. He smiled, but the smile would end when he thought of Joshua and the other boys. He’d be the laughingstock.
More and more often, Peter wondered: why wasn’t he born a girl? Being with girls and doing girl activities came so natural, he felt.
His whole being seemed to ooze with his softness, his gentleness, his pinkish glow. He pictured his three girl friends: Emily, her angular, bony body still retaining the smooth lush flesh; Tamika, her slender firmness made lovely by her almost shining flesh; and, Stephanie, round-faced with her pouty expression and still maturing body carrying residue of her baby fat. Peter reflected on how marvelous they looked in their tank tops or tee shirts, their shorts and sandals; he loved how they fixed their hair.
“I can be as pretty as they are,” he told himself.
The following morning, Peter awoke fantasizing that he was girl, a lovely, dainty girl. Peter had one tank top in his drawer; he never wore it outside of the house, largely because he was embarrassed by the weakness of his arms and his narrow shoulders. Other boys who wore such tank tops exposed their muscled arms and broad shoulders.
He brought the tank top out of dresser and put it on, along with a pair of short shorts. He stood before the mirror, his hand lightly flicking his longish hair, taking a girlish pose.
“I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl,” he repeated. He smiled broadly, and pranced about gaily.
“I have pretty shoulders and arms, as pretty as any of my girl friends,” he said to himself.
As if to prove the point, he reached his left hand (he was left-handed) to grasp the smooth flesh of his right upper arm, finding it mushy to the touch. He smiled even more broadly. Any thought that he was a boy was gone in that instant. He was enamored with the feminine beauty he felt he had. He wanted so badly to dress as his friends did in tank tops or sleeveless tee shirts along with denim mini skirts that would expose his smooth, lovely flesh. What a lovely girl he could be! But, he reflected, he was a boy, and, of course, he began to cry.
It was finally decided that the 6th Grade class would have two presentations: one by the Terpsichorean Dance Club and the other by the rest of the class. Peter could have decided to go with the second group, which had a preponderance of boys, but, in fact, he felt more at home with the girls in the dance club.
He was the best dancer. All the girls agreed on that; only Priscilla Anders seemed to object when the group urged Peter to dance with them in the pageant. “Who needs a boy here?” she objected, as the class was discussing the program on the Tuesday before the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Peter’s just like one of us by now,” Tamika argued. “He does everything, and besides he’s the best dancer, I think.”
“Who says?” challenged Priscilla, her tone nasty and hard.
“We say!” said Tamika, looking to the other girls, all of whom nodded in assent.
Priscilla had been generally accepted as the best dancer of the group before Peter joined it; she was a proud girl, and had always resented Peter, claiming he had no right to “horn in” on girl activities. Hearing the rejection from the others, she merely grunted and turned away, scowling at Peter.
Priscilla easily was the most athletic of the girls, and she was also the tallest. Nonetheless, she was very pretty, her blonde hair always cut short, and fixed tightly against her head. Though the girl seemed to dislike him, he had to admit she had a statuesque beauty that would serve her well as she grew older.
Thus, the question of whether Peter would dance with the holiday pageant was his to answer. The girls easily outvoted Priscilla and Miss Melanson agreed that he could dance as one of the girls. Peter knew his mother might object but would approve if he persisted. Dare he dance as a girl?
It was Priscilla whose objections helped to make up his mind. After the group broke up and left to change into their street clothes following the Tuesday session, Peter went off to Miss Melanson’s room where he always changed. Leaving her room, he found Priscilla waiting for him in the side hallway that led out of the dance studio area.
“You’re a fag, you know,” she greeted him.
Peter had heard that before, but never from one of the girls from the dance club. He looked at her with some surprise, said nothing and started to walk by her.
The girl grabbed his forearm roughly, pulling him toward her and twisting his arm. “Stop, I’m talking to you, sissy,” she said, her voice crude. She spoke in a low, but menacing tone.
He tried to pull himself loose, but her grip was too firm and she quickly grabbed his other arm so that they faced each other. He squirmed, but soon realized she was too strong for him, and he was trapped in her grip.
“You can’t move, can you?” she said, beginning to laugh.
Try as he might he couldn’t get her to weaken her grasp. He tried to use his legs to trip her up, but she was too quick, and merely held him tighter.
“Leave me go,” he pleaded. “You’re hurting me.”
She laughed, saying, “You’re pretty pathetic, you know.”
“Leave me go,” he pleaded again, tears beginning to form.
He was determined not to cry, which would only worsen the situation. It was a ridiculous situation: here he was a boy, being easily manhandled by a girl, being too weak to resist her hold. It was humiliating.
“Let me warn you, sissy,” she said now in a low, firm voice. “If you decide to dance with the group, I’ll tell everyone what a sissy you are, how a girl can beat you up. You understand?”
Peter held firm, saying nothing, trying to look away from the girl.
“You understand?” she persisted.
Finally, he nodded yes, and she released her grip, and he ran from the scene, trying not to burst into tears.
That night, as he admired his femininity in the mirror, he resolved that, yes, he would dance and that he would try to be the most beautiful and most graceful girl on the stage. He smiled at the picture he formed in his mind, knowing he would be lovely and dainty and feminine, and that thought was so enticing. He was determined now.
It was only as a girl, Peter finally understood in his young mind, that he could feel admired, that he could be proud of how he looked. As a boy, he knew, he was viewed as pathetic and weak.
Then the thought of Joshua and Barry, his two former playmates, entered his mind; their taunts and harassments would grow, and he would possibly become the object of laughter and scorn if he performed on stage as a girl. He was scared, fearing he’d be beaten up to and from school, and maybe even at school, likely in the boys’ rooms. He knew he couldn’t defend himself; just about any boy in school could wrestle him to the ground, and probably many of the girls, too.
He remembered the humiliation he felt in 4th Grade when Amy Hermann, a slender, wiry “tomboy” of a classmate of his, tackled him on the way home from school and easily pinned him to the ground. He writhed helplessly trying to gain release from her superior strength as she pinned his puny arms to the ground.
“You’re hurting me,” he cried at the time, unable to struggle free, tears beginning to flow down his cheeks.
“Such a sissy,” cried one of the boys in the group of kids who gathered around, yelling “fight,” “fight,” “fight.”
Soon he could hear giggles gathering as he remained pinned to the ground.
“It wasn’t much of a fight,” another kid said. “Peter weenie couldn’t beat a baby girl.”
“Yeah, such a sissy,” he heard another say.
Suddenly he was released, and through his teary eyes he could see the kids run off. He realized that a school aide had happened on the scene who was yelling with some authority, scattering the kids in all directions.
Peter soon felt his arm being held as the school aide assisted him to his feet, Peter still trying to hold back the tears of humiliation that spread through his fragile, slender body.
“What happened here, Peter?” said the aide, a stout African-American woman who usually had a smile on her face, but commanded great attention when she saw kids misbehaving.
“Oh, Miss Brenda,” he said, addressing the aide by the name all the kids used. “She just jumped me. I didn’t do anything I was just going home.”
“Peter, did you tease her or anything?”
“No Miss Brenda, honest. She just came out of nowhere. I don’t know why.”
“But she’s a girl, and you’re a boy,” Miss Brenda said, leaving her thought uncompleted.
“I know, but I was pinned, I couldn’t do anything, Miss Brenda.”
The aide’s round face broke into a kindly smile, and she drew Peter by his arm to a nearby bench and sat down next to him.
“Peter, I know you never have caused any problems here,” Brenda began. “You’re a nice boy.”
He nodded, keeping his head down, still trying not to cry.
“I’m going to have a little talk with Amy tomorrow, honey, and I don’t think she’ll bother you anymore.”
Peter looked up at the aide. “Oh don’t Miss Brenda. She’ll be mad.”
“Honey, let Brenda take care of this,” the aide said, looking him squarely in the eye. “I could get the principal involved, and your mother and Amy’s mother, and that’s what I should be doing. Do you want that?”
The thought that such action would cause further embarrassment frightened Peter, and he nodded in agreement with the aide’s suggestion. He just hoped it would work.
“You know, Peter, I am surprised at Amy,” Brenda began. “She’s always been very polite, and I don’t why she’d attack you.”
“I know, Miss Brenda. I like her, or I did, anyway.”
“I think you’ll like her in the future too,” she said, taking his slender hands into her meaty, warm hands.
She looked him squarely in the eye. “Peter, let me tell you something. I think you’re a very special boy and you should know that. Just keep that idea in your mind.”
After that 4th Grade incident, Peter was always wary as he approached school in the morning, or left school, or was walking past a group of “rough” boys, or was in the boys’ room. He seemed always to be looking over his shoulder afraid he’d be beat up, slugged or just teased verbally for his physical weakness.
Yet, Miss Brenda’s remedy seemed to be working, since after the schoolyard incident with Amy he seemed not to face many challenges. A week or so later, he and Amy found themselves competing in an informal spelling bee the teacher had set up; they were the two finalists, and Peter stood before the class shivering in fear, worrying about whether he should let Amy win, since to show his “braininess” might also prove to other kids that he really was a sissy. Boys weren’t supposed to be smart, it seemed.
Peter’s word was a simple one: “Original.” He considered misspelling it, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.
Amy clapped when he spelled it correctly. Her word: “Separate.”
As she started out, Peter prayed silently that she spell it correctly. She started: “S . . . e . . . p . . .(ah, ah, ah) . . . (an e-sound escaped) . . . a . . . r . . a . . t . . .e. Separate.”
Peter clapped as loud as any of the others when she completed it correctly.
The two exchanged correct answers for four successive rounds, with Peter cheering on his opponent, and Amy seeming to do the same. Even though they both appeared to cheer for the other, they both had the competitive spirit to win. It was an exciting match.
It ended when the difficulty of the words rose to where Amy misspelled “accommodate,” using only one “m,” a mistake that accomplished writers often make.
Everyone groaned, but then cheered when Peter successfully spelled “misspelled.”
To his surprise, Amy hugged Peter briefly as he was declared the winner.
Amy never apologized to Peter for wrestling him to the ground; she did however seek to become his friends. Both were top students and both seemed to like writing, and in the rt6th Grade Miss O’Hara suggested they become co-editors of the grade school newsletter, an online version.
Of course, winning the spelling bee did nothing to enhance Peter’s standing as a boy; it merely confirmed, in the eyes of other boys, that he was a “sissy” and a “goody-goody” or even, heaven’s forbid, a “teacher’s pet.” Thus it was that Peter continued his years at Wilson School, the “sissy” of his school class.
Peter found his reputation as the “class sissy” to be reassuring, in a perverse way. No one expected him anymore to participate on sports teams, as all boys were seemingly expected to do. He was one of a handful of boys in his class who didn’t join the softball team, for instance, usually sitting with the girls and cheering the team on. By the time he was in 6th grade, he had been persuaded by Amy to be one of the cheerleaders, and of course he was the only boy. In the warmer weather, he wore the same cheerleading outfit of the girls, shorts and white polo shirts, and with his longish hair, slender body and moderately effeminate mannerisms he seemed to be just one of the girls.
His friends were all girls, and except for periodic insults and threatened physical attacks by Joshua, Barry, and several other boys, his growing girlishness seemed to continue without much attention. In the opening weeks of his 6th Grade year, it was Amy who made a comment that he never forgot.
The two were sitting together at a computer terminal in Miss O’Hara’s room, working on the next edition of the class’s online newsletter, Wilson Harbinger. As usual, Peter was at the keyboard, his typing skills being quite the better of the two, his long, slender fingers moving with grace and ease over the board. He liked his times with Amy, he loved her fresh-washed smell, her bony knees protruding from her skirt and her slender muscular arms. She had tiny budding breasts, he could tell, and Peter envied her; she could wear the prettiest of clothes.
“Look at this,” Peter urged Amy, as the two opened the computer session.
Amy squeezed in next to him, looking at the screen, showing a page of subteen girl fashions.
“I think you’d look so cool in this one,” Peter said, pointing his finger at a pink, frilly dress of gauzy material; a short skirt length and open bodice and puffed short sleeves.
“Peter, you’re always pointing out clothes for me,” she protested. “Don’t you like how I dress?”
Peter was shocked; he thought Amy dressed fine, but he always liked to imagine how she would look in various other outfits. He spent lots of time at home on the computer looking at fashion sites, and even spent sometime drawing designs for clothing.
“You look fine,” he said. “I just like picking out clothes for you.”
“Peter, you always pick out the frilliest stuff,” she said. “That’s a cool dress, Peter, but I’m too bony for that.”
“Well, how about this one?” he said, scrolling to a dress that had longer skirt length and full sleeves.
She ignored his suggestion, but put a calloused hand on his slender wrist. She was silent for a moment, and Peter began to wonder what was going on in her mind.
“You’d look better in that first dress,” she said finally, almost blurting it out, her face growing red.
“Me?” he said, only a bit surprised, since he had always looked at clothes on line only partly to consider Amy, but also to consider his own desires to wear girl outfits.
“Yes, Peter,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry.”
Peter’s blushing now became apparent.
“That’s OK,” he said simply.
“Really Peter, you’re more like a girl to me,” she said. “I like to think we’re girl friends.”
Peter smiled at the remark, realizing the truth of Amy’s statement.
“Oh Peter, forget I said that,” she said. “Let’s just be friends.”
“Amy, that’s fine, I like being a friend to you, even a girl friend.”
The two smiled, and Amy said: “Let’s get to work on the newsletter.”
Peter nodded, feeling he’d never forget Amy’s comment. Never, ever.
Deborah Fray studied her son closely, wondering how she would respond to the call she had received from Miss O’Hara, Peter’s 6th grade teacher. He looked so fragile and sweet as she looked at him, holding his hands in hers as they sat together on the couch, their knees almost touching. For a moment, she felt she saw herself as a child.
In her early thirties, Deborah was still the slender 105 pounds she was as a high school senior; perhaps it was her lifelong work as a waitress that kept her thin and trim. In the last ten years, she had worked at one of the city’s most prestigious restaurants, the Norway House, where the tips helped give her a comfortable existence, in spite of receiving no support from Peter’s father. Her work schedule now had her doing the lunch hour and Saturdays, so there was little interference in being around for Peter when he was off school.
“Peter,” she said slowly. “Miss O’Hara said you would be dancing in a dress in the Christmas pageant. Is that right?”
“It’s a Norwegian costume, mom.”
“I know, honey, but Miss O’Hara said you’d be dancing as a Norwegian girl, demonstrating a Norwegian Christmas.”
“I guess,” he mumbled, his face flushing, and he began to fidget as he sat there.
“I don’t know, Peter. You’ve been teased so much. Mommy doesn’t want you hurt anymore.”
She could see the boy began to cry; she gave him a hanky and he used it to rub his eyes. She couldn’t escape seeing how daintily he used the clothes to dry his eyes. She smiled, watching him, feeling almost guilty that she could find pleasure in seeing how absolutely pretty her son was.
“Mommy,” he said finally. “I don’t care what others think. I wanna to dance in this part. All the girls think I’ll be the best. Even Emily says I’m the best among all the girls in the group.”
Deborah knew that Peter’s judgments were often based on what his friend Emily said. She had worried about the friendship, but found Emily to be a smart, polite girl from a caring family. And, as she said to her brother, Frank, who had also been questioning Peter’s growing effeminate behaviors, “Emily is the only friend he has, and Lord knows a boy needs friends.”
“And mommy,” he said, growing more eager. “I felt that I could wear one of your waitress outfits, since they’re in the model of a Norwegian maiden.”
She was about to say “no” to the idea, but realized she had plenty of older outfits around that could probably fit Peter, with some minor alterations. The mother and son were approximately the same size.
“You really want to do this?”
“Yes, mommy,” he said, his eyes brightening quickly, even though they still showed the red signs of his crying.
Deborah could see the joy in the boy’s face and she mused that he was about to leap up with joy, probably turning a few cartwheels in his exuberance. Oh my, she felt, he is truly so much a girl.
“Oh mommy, mommy, can I?” he removed his hands from her hold and he flung them about flamboyantly.
Deborah rarely saw such happiness in her son’s face, and she felt she had no choice but to say “Yes” and to encourage his role in the Christmas play. Apparently, the boy had found his place in life, and it was as a girl. She couldn’t convince herself that she was doing the right thing in agreeing to let him dance as a girl, since she knew the criticism and scorn that would almost surely be heaped upon him. Yet, the sparkle showing in his eyes seemed to tell her she was making the right decision.
“Let’s see what we can find for you, darling,” Deborah said to her son, as she led him into a small side room where she stored some extra clothes and boxes.
She noticed Peter rummaging through several boxes of lingerie and dainties she rarely wore any more and was planning to take to St. Vincent de Paul’s second hand store. She watched how tenderly he ran his fingers over some of the satiny garments he removed from the boxes to examine. She noticed how carefully he removed a particularly lacy white slip, unfolded it and held it up in front of himself. She could feel the longing he must feel to wear the item; it really was so lovely and dainty and she had worn it only onetime, in hopes of impressing a particularly handsome man who asked her out for a date. For some reason, he refused an invite to end the evening in her home, and she was unable to show off how sexy she might have been for the man. She knew she was still a sexy woman; her legs always drew men’s eyes in the Norway House, and she was flirted with several times a night. Yet, for a 33 year old divorced woman there weren’t many eligible men around; they were either married or boring or gay, as she learned later in the case of her date on that one night.
After some ruffling through two racks of dresses, she found two of her older waitress uniforms that she felt could make her pretty son look like a real Norwegian school girl.
“Here let’s try this on,” she said. “And you can bring that box of lingerie with you.”
When they got to his mother’s room, she ordered him to take off all his clothes, and take a bath. “We may as well go all the way here,” she said.
She left to fill the tub with water for his bath as he disrobed. Returning, she found he was naked except for his boy briefs; he appeared so slight, almost feathery in appearance.
“Take those off,” she ordered.
“But mom . . .”
“Off. You think I haven’t seen that?”
“I know mom,” he said, and she could see he felt some shame. But he obeyed, immediately covering his male part with his hands.
His penis was tiny, of course, as befitting an effeminate boy, she felt, and she knew it was another part of his shame he felt at being a boy.
Deborah made no comment and led him to the bathtub, now all bubbly with pinkish suds.
“You’re going to be my sweet little girl before we’re done tonight,” she said, as she helped him into the tub.
After he was done, she helped him dry off, and then applied some smoothing lotion on his body; it had a slightly sweet smell of flowers. She loved the feel of his young smooth skin on her hands; his physique was surely so feminine and soft she began imagining what a lovely girl she had standing before her. She used a hair dryer to dry his longish hair which appeared to grow more blonde before her eyes. She brushed it eagerly, and he stood patiently as she did it. His hair was fine in texture, which would make it hard to form and set, but would, when fixed, add to his natural feminine prettiness.
“Here put these on,” she said when they returned to the bedroom, handing him a pair of panties and a camisole. They were peach-colored with tasteful touches of lace.
“Don’t I wear a bra, mommy?” he asked.
“No, little girls of your age don’t wear them unless they’re maturing early and need them,” she replied, with a smile.
“OK, mommy. But Tamika wears bras.” She felt she heard a bit of disappointment in his voice.
“Tamika is maturing sooner than most girls, Peter, and needs to wear one.”
“OK. I just wondered.”
“Maybe next year, it’ll be time for my girl to wear a training bra,” she teased, with a smile.
They completed the dressing, finally putting on an outfit that fit almost perfectly, except for being loose in the hips and shoulders. They finished it off put putting on a necklace and Deborah marveled at the graceful turn of her son’s neck, slender and pretty. She braided the hair into two pigtails, and tied light blue ribbons to fix them. Finally, they found a pair of shoes, fairly clunky with short heels, which they put on over short ankle socks.
“Now, let’s see how my pretty daughter looks,” she said, leading him to the full length mirror on the closet door.
She was taken aback as she stood back and looked at her son, now before her as a pretty girl.
“Mommy, mommy,” Peter said. “Mommy, mommy. I’m so happy.”
He turned away from the mirror, sprang into a few dainty pirouettes and ran over to hug her, tears of joy running down his face.
She pushed him gently away so that she could view him again in full posture, saying: “Don’t cry dear, you’ll ruin that pretty face.”
“Oh mommy, I’m pretty.” His tears gave away to a broad smile.
Deborah was so happy to see the joy in her son’s face.
“Tonight at least, you’re my daughter, dear,” she said, drawing him to the vanity bench before the vanity mirror, where she drew him up next to her, one arm around his fragile shoulders, both looking in the mirror.
“Mommy, we’re both pretty,” he said.
“Yes, we both are, only you’re prettier.”
“Oh mommy!” he said in mock denial. She could tell he must have really thought he was prettier.
“Now that you’re my daughter, we can’t call you Peter, can we?”
“No mommy. What can my name be?”
“Well for the play it should be a Norwegian girl’s name, right?”
Peter pondered the question.
“I know,” Deborah said, her mind recalling the great figure skater and actress, Sonja Henie. “How about Sonja?”
Peter smiled, and nodded in enthusiastic approval.
“Ok dear Sonja,” she said, kissing her pretty son. “But it’s just for tonight and maybe for the play.”
“Oh mommy, you’re the coolest mother.”
“And you’re the coolest daughter.”
Deborah for the moment could not have been happier; she loved seeing her son so happy, but she worried that maybe she had gone too far. Would his life become even more miserable?
Peter’s mother surprised him the following night, returning a little earlier from her waitress job at the Norway House, with a Macy’s shopping bag in hand.
“I stopped off at the girls’ department before work tonight and got a few things for you, honey.” She announced as Peter looked up from his homework.
“What? The girls’ department?”
“Yes, you’re my Sonja now, aren’t you? At least here at home?” She smiled.
“Yes, mommy,” he said, his voice rising in an even higher register. “What do you have?”
Her rushed to her side, seeking to grab the shopping bag, but his mother pulled it away quickly. “Not so fast, darling.”
She took off her winter coat and scarf, and moved into his room, and Peter followed close behind. His room still had the look of a young boy’s room, with airplane and rocket colored wallpaper, a few pennants heralding “Wisconsin” for the Badgers football team, “Packers” for the Green Bay team and “Brewers” for the baseball team. His mother had decorated it in an earlier effort to spur his interest in sports and more masculine endeavors; it had failed to have much of an effect on him, since he watch no sports, except when his Uncle Frank was over and the two watched Packer games. There were touches, however, of a little girl, in that there were two fluffy bunnies perched on his chair by the desk, and a music box with a ballerina on top on his dresser.
“Oh mommy, what do you have for me?”
“Little Sonja, dear, just be patient.”
Methodically, his mother drew out two gauzy nighties (one pink and one teal), a pair of girl’s flannel pajamas for the colder nights (creme-colored with a pink and green and yellow floral design), two camisoles (one white and one light blue) and a package of cotton panties, all with colorful designs befitting a little girl.
His joy was ecstatic, and he leaped upon his mother and she hugged and kissed him.
“Now, you’re to wear all this only at home, Sonja,” she said firmly. “You understand?”
He tried on the nighties, the pajama set and the camisoles; they all fit perfectly. His mother explained that she felt he was one size smaller than she was, and her judgment proved to be accurate. That night, he chose the teal blue nightie to wear; it would become his favorite, since it had thin straps, exposing his pretty shoulders and slender arms. After his bath, his mother brushed his hair and, as he watched her brush through the vanity mirror, he felt he indeed was Sonja, a sweet little Norwegian girl.
“I told grandma Sorenson about the play you’re doing, Sonja,” his mother told him a few nights later, as she prepared him for his bed. Since the purchase of the nighties, his mother had spent time with him many nights after her return from work, brushing his hair and tucking him in. She had even dabbed a few light touches of cologne on him after his bath, providing a slight scent to the room.
“Mother, please, you didn’t?”
“Yes, honey, and she hopes to come and see you perform.”
Peter was stunned. What would grandma Sorenson (who was named Birgitte, befitting her Norwegian heritage) think about her grandson playing the part of a girl? She was his mother’s mom, and, though in her 60s, she was still a trim women who always dressed stylishly. Peter always loved going to grandma Sorenson’s apartment in Madison, which was always so feminine in its decorations. When he was smaller, perhaps six years old, she often would let him watch while she dressed, and it fascinated him to see her adjust her bra (she never let him in to watch until she had her undergarments on) and step into slips and dresses. He remembered joining her on her vanity bench as she put on makeup and fixed her hair.
“You’re such a pretty boy, Peter,” she said one summer day, while he and his mother were visiting.
“Can I put lipstick on grandma?” he asked one day.
“Why, honey, boys don’t wear lipstick?”
“I just wanna do it, grandma, please.”
He was wearing a tank top; and she applied lipstick, a little eyeliner and some rouge, all lightly, and it was hardly noticeable.
“Brush my hair grandma, like you do,” he asked.
And she did; it was longish even then and she put a hair band over the top when she was done.
“My, what a pretty little girl you are, Peter.”
He smiled and ran from the room to show his mother who was reading in the living room. “Look mommy.”
He remembered his mother got mad, and yelled at her mother: “Ma, what are you doing?”
“Debbie,” he recalled his grandma saying. “We’re just playing. He really looks to cute, don’t you think?”
There was a long argument that followed, and his mother took him into the bathroom, wiping off all evidence of the makeup. Grandma Sorenson never put makeup on him again, but Peter still loved visiting her, and usually spent a full week with her during the summer. He helped with her housework, and joined her in shopping sprees and even in having tea with her female friends. Invariably, someone would say, “What a sweet boy!” or “He’s so pretty, Birgitte.” His politeness always impressed her friends.
“Are you certain you want to do this?” Grandma Sorenson said when she came to their home in Milwaukee for Thanksgiving holiday season.
“Yes, grandma,” he said a bit hesitantly.
“I’m sure you’ll make a lovely Sonja, my dear, but I fear you’ll be teased by some. It’ll be tough for you, honey.”
The conversation occurred on Thanksgiving Day, just before the meal was served, and his mother was busy in the kitchen, while Uncle Frank was busy watching the annual football game from Detroit. The two had left the living room and settled in Peter’s room.
“Uncle Frank knows, too, Peter,” she said. “He’s a bit shocked, but he loves you honey.”
“I know, and I so disappoint him since I’m no good at sports,” he said.
“Don’t worry about that, Peter, or shall I say, Sonja? He was never any good either; just likes to pretend he was.”
They both laughed.
“Now why don’t you dress up as Sonja for our Thanksgiving meal and show Frank what a pretty niece he has.”
That day, Grandma Sorenson introduced Peter to St. Lucy, who was a particularly favored saint in Scandinavian countries. Though a Catholic saint, St. Lucy was also favored by Lutherans, and Norway celebrated Saint Lucy’s Day every Dec. 13, a time of celebrating the longest night of the year (according to the unreformed calendar).
St. Lucy, Peter learned, was an Italian young lady from a wealthy family who refused to marry a pagan man chosen by her family, and had her dowry given to the poor. It was a major act of defiance, and girls never refused such betrothals in the 5th Century, causing her to be arrested. In a nonviolent protest, she remained rigid and stiff, as the legend goes, when the guard came to take her away; in frustration, the guard poked out both her eyes.
“St. Lucy should be the hero for all young ladies,” Grandma Sorenson said. “She helped to further women’s rights, even way back then.”
The story of St. Lucy, Peter decided, would be a perfect story to tell at the Christmas pageant.
Grandma Sorenson then opened a box she brought into the room, and pulled out a short, peach-colored knee length dress, with a belt and full flowing skirt. It had puffed short sleeves and a peasant blouse type bodice.
“Let’s see if this fits, honey. Your mom said you can wear it for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Oh, grandma, for me?” Peter asked, puzzled as to how there was a dress already for him.
“I bought it at a child’s fashion store at Eastown Mall in Madison,” she said. “I hope it fits.”
“And,” Grandma Sorenson continued, “There’s another tradition in Norwegian families at Christmas time.”
“I love the name Sonja,” Emily said when she heard the next morning that Peter’s mother had okayed his participation in the school pageant.
“It’s a good Norwegian name,” he replied. “Mom picked it from Sonja Henie, the skater.”
“It’s so femi . . . fitting,” Emily said, catching herself from possibly embarrassing Peter.
“Yes,” he smiled, doing a bit of pirouette as they walked to school.
“And mom is letting me wear one of her waitress outfits from the Norway House, Emily.”
“Oh that’s so cool. I know the other girls will love seeing you in the dress.”
When the Tuesday Girls Dance club met, the other girls clapped loudly when Peter described his outfit, and his plans for the performance. With Miss Melanson, the girls began working out the plans for the performance, with rehearsals to start in the first Tuesday of December.
Just as Peter’s mother and grandmother had taken an interest in choosing the appropriate dress for the pageant, so did the other parents. It seemed they all took an interest in portraying the native heritage of their families in a realistic, yet beautiful and fashionable, manner. They all scoured attics and closets for dresses or outfits that would show their native customs.
They had all described their outfits in the weeks leading up to the pageant, but it wasn’t until two days before the pageant that they’d all get to see what the others were wearing. It seemed Peter was the center of attention to most of the girls.
There was no mistaking it: Peter was easily the most graceful and accomplished dancer of the group; he was light on his feet and he moved about the stage, his arms soaring like a swan, his slim legs lovely in their motions and his hair flowing breezily as he moved. Peter had been practicing dance under the eyes of his grandmother, who in spite of being just over 60 years old, was still able to dance gracefully, as she had done in her youth as a champion figure skater.
“I practiced long hours in the summer time, doing dance steps,” she explained. “We had no indoor rinks in those days, so I had to make do with the floor.”
“Oh grandma, I’d love to dance like you,” he said as they practiced one day. Grandma had begun driving to Milwaukee for weekends to work with Peter in rehearsing and practicing his dances.
“Oh you will, you’re a natural darling,” she said.
In his practice sessions he wore leotards, girl’s ballet shoes and an old tutu grandma found at her home. She even found a white lace crown similar to the ones the girls wore in “Swan Lake.”
“Let’s see if you can dance on pointe,” she said about two weeks before the pageant.
He tried and tried, but he couldn’t hold the pose; his legs and ankles were too weak, he feared, to accomplish the feat.
“You’re about at the age when most girls begin to practice on pointe. You can do it,” grandma urged, but Peter’s thin legs struggled, failing.
He burst into tears finally, ashamed he could not please his grandmother and bemoaning his own lack of physical strength. Even though he was thin and light, he could never run very fast.
“Now, Sonja,” his grandmother said, grabbing him by his arms, “Stop that crying. And let’s try five more times.” She had begun calling him Sonja during the practices.
“You did it,” his grandmother shouted when he was able to hold the on pointe stance during his fourth try.
She grabbed him, put him on her lap, on her bony thighs, and kissed him profusely. “My darling girl, my Sonja!”
How Peter loved these moments, the times when his grandmother called him Sonja. It was as if his grandmother had now accepted him as her granddaughter. Grandma Sorenson would not let him quit on his practicing no matter how often he failed to complete a turn or toppled to the ground while trying to go on pointe. When the practice sessions were completed, she’d hug him for a moment, stroke his hair and make him feel warm and loved. Then, she’d assist him in a warm bath, bubbles and all. Later, just before bedtime, grandma massaged his legs and instructed him to do modest exercises to ward against stiffening.
“My Sonja has such pretty legs,” she would say almost every night.
“Grandma, I can do it,” Peter exclaimed, as his grandmother arrived the following weekend for what was becoming a weekly ritual.
“You can!” she said, smiling as she hugged her grandson, who was becoming more and more like a young lady as each day approached for the Holiday Pageant.
“And my legs don’t hurt as much,” he said.
“I told you that would happen, once you got used to the exercising,” she said, taking off her coat and boots.
“Oh ma,” Peter heard his mother’s voice from the kitchen. “You made it. How were the roads?”
“Not too bad, just a few icy spots,” she told her daughter who entered the living room from the kitchen.
“You shouldn’t have tried to come this weekend, ma,” Deborah said.
“Oh I couldn’t stay away! I’m so happy Sonja is doing so well on her practicing and dancing.”
“I am, mommy, aren’t I?” Peter said.
“Yes, you are, honey, and ma, I wish you’d stop calling him Sonja. He’s still a boy.”
Peter rushed to his grandmother’s side, saying quickly, “That’s OK grandma. I like it.”
His mother turned stern. “All this dancing in the pageant is fine, mother, but he’s still Peter and he’s a boy.”
“OK, Deborah, but he’s a very pretty boy, aren’t you, Sonja . . . errrrr . . . Peter?”
It took nearly two hours for Peter to prepare for the pageant; his grandmother took off from her job in Madison for the day and drove to Milwaukee to help assure that the boy would be the prettiest among the girls in the group.
Try as she might, Deborah Fray had tried to slow down Grandma Sorenson’s doting presence and her constant insistence upon creating a lovely young girl out of this tender boy. Grandma Sorenson could be heard to say over and over phrases like, “Sonja, darling,” and “Sonja, that’s so pretty,” and “Sonja, see how lovely you are.” With each day, it seemed, Peter indeed was appearing more and more the granddaughter that Birgitte Sorenson always wanted.
She smiled broadly when Peter, often dressed in leotards and tutus, with his hair tied up just as the girl dancers did for practice, demonstrated how graceful he could be. She mused that she could see herself some 50 years earlier as a young girl in practice; only, she realized, her grandson, now changed into a young girl, was showing an elegance and daintiness that she never could attain. “My Sonja,” she sighed. “What a lovely, pretty girl you are.”
And Peter, now in the world of Sonja, accepted her words and believed them.
Since there would be no dressing rooms in the school, Peter dressed at home before the school performance. By the end of the two hours, the long bath, the application of lotions to his body and his sore legs, the climbing into the half slip that he’d wear under his skirt, the fixing of his hair (which was now curled after a session at the Beauty Parlor where the women hovered over him as he was prettied up), the cami (there would be no need for a bra), the application of light colored nail polish, the flesh colored tights, and the application of facial makeup, complete with eyeliner, lip color and rouge, this beautiful young child emerged as Sonja.
It was time for the skirt and blouse: what colorful items they were. Their white cloth was embroidered in reds, blues, yellows, some greens and blacks. Sonja finally donned the slipover jacket, a dark lavender, with heavy embroidery.
“Oh Sonja, you are just the picture of a traditional Norwegian girl,” Grandma Sorenson exclaimed.
Deborah also became ecstatic at the sight, seeing only a lovely girl in the place where her son should have been standing.
“Oh darling,” his mother said, hugging him tightly. “My Sonja, my Sonja, my Sonja.”
Peter was overcome; he had never known such pleasure, such satisfaction, such fulfillment. He began to cry, but his mother quickly urged him to “Stop it. You’ll ruin your makeup.”
And what girl wouldn’t heed that warning! Peter, now all girl in his mind, understood, and stifled his tears.
Peter was the last to arrive at the school among the students performing in the pageant; he was greeted by the School Aide, Brenda, at a side door where the students were to enter, his mother and grandmother entering the school from the front entrance.
“Now who is this young lady?” Miss Brenda asked as she opened the door. “You’re new here?”
Peter knew Miss Brenda was teasing him; she had seen him wearing girl’s outfits for rehearsals, and knew he’d be arriving as a girl that night.
“You know me, Miss Brenda,” Peter said. “Sonja Fray.”
“Of course, Sonja, and you’re so pretty tonight.”
“Thank you, Miss Brenda. Are you going to see the pageant?”
Miss Brenda paused a minute, looked at the girl, and said: “I wouldn’t miss it, particularly when I bet you’ll be the loveliest little girl dancing.”
“Thank you,” he said again, skipping off to the staging room.
The program said: “Holidays Around the World,” listing among the girls, “Sonja, a Norwegian schoolgirl …. Played by Peter Fray”
The Dance Club’s event was the final act of the night, since it was largely performed by the oldest children. Their performance started with all eight appearing on stage, skipping around in a circle, each holding to a ribbon that reached across the circle to another girl, with all four ribbons crisscrossing at the center. They each wore the costume typical their particular ethnic group, with all wearing ballet slippers; after a few turns in a circle, they all sat down on the floor nearly the wings of the stage, four on each side.
They sat with their legs folded, with Peter between Emily, with her German peasant girl outfit, and Tamika, in colorful flowing African dress.
“We’re so happy you’re here, Sonja,” Emily whispered into his ear.
Peter loved being called Sonja, and he nodded, as Carmen arose to describe the Mexican Christmas, even bringing a piñata on stage, breaking it at the end of her short narrative and dance so the girls could all scamper about picking up goodies and throwing them to the audience to much cheering and clapping. Meanwhile, the girls giggled and tussled about before resuming their seats, with Tamika arising to perform a Kwanza dance and short speech, with the resulting cheers.
Peter was near panic when it finally came his turn to rise and perform. He was the last, and he knew he’d be watch carefully. He knew how some people might think it was weird that he was performing as a girl and he felt the only way he could do away with hoots of derision was to be the best girl he could be.
“You must be so much a girl, Sonja,” exclaimed Miss Melanson one day when he was questioning whether he should perform, “That everyone will forget you’re a boy.”
“But I am a boy,” he protested to her.
“No, you’re Sonja, a lovely Norwegian school girl. Sonja Fray. Remember that.”
“Oh but . . .”
“No buts,” the dance teacher said. “You’re Sonja. I only see a pretty girl before me know.”
As he awaited his turn, he remembered those words of Miss Melanson, that he was “Sonja, a Norwegian school girl.” And, he remembered how he saw just such a girl staring back at him as he looked in the mirror. He remembered, too, how when his mother took him shopping and to a restaurant dressed as Sonja that everyone saw only a girl.
It was Peter’s turn: he arose gracefully from his seated position and did a few turns about the stage, pirouetting and even rising for a few on pointe stances, before standing before the microphone ready to say his memorized lines. The blare of the lights blinded him as he stood looking into the audience, wondering what his mother and grandmother were thinking. He couldn’t see their faces, but he knew they may have been cringing at the sight of their boy dressed as a girl; or, maybe they were proud at what a pretty talented girl she was.
He started his narration, his voice coming out in a screeching high for a moment, before he remembered he should speak naturally: his voice still had not changed, and he often was mistaken as his mother when he answered the phone at home. Peter began:
“I’m Sonja Fray, a 5th form girl in the elementary school in a fjord near Bergen. I like school very much and each year we celebrate St. Lucy’s Day on Dec. 13. It’s like our Christmas Day, since it’s based on an old calendar. Lucy was a pretty Italian girl who was promised in marriage to an older man when she was but a child, maybe my age.”
Peter stopped his speaking, posing as if he were sad and about to cry, then continued: “She didn’t want to be married to the old man to whom she had been promised. So they arrested her, and when the guards came to take her away, she stiffened up like a board and wouldn’t move.”
Peter paused again, acting in the terror the girl must have felt, stiffening his body and rubbing his hands into his eyes in tears.
“Then the guard, so angered with the girl, they poked both her eyes out.”
Peter astounded the crowd with a loud scream, almost ghoulish in its tone, depicting the pain the girl would have felt.
“Lucy never married and gave her large dowry to the poor, and continued through her life to do good works. And she found great joy!”
With that, Peter leaped from the podium, performing a series of pirouettes so dainty and light they electrified the audience, even accomplishing three turns on his toes, before returning to the podium to great cheers, finishing with the statement: “Lucy was named a saint and is revered by both Catholics and Lutherans in Norway.”
Loud clapping, and few “whoops” and whistles followed as Peter began to return to join the other girls who had arisen from their seats for the final group dance.
The performance ended with more cheering, followed by gentle curtsies by each of the performers; Peter, too, curtsied, and he loved it.
“You got the loudest applause, darling,” his mother said, as they joined the other children, parents and relatives for cookies and punch in the church basement.
“You are so pretty and graceful, my Sonja,” her grandmother said, kissing him right there in front of all the kids.
Just then, Joshua came by; he was still dressed as an old-fashioned shopkeeper, a role he performed in an earlier skit about providing toys to poor children. With his chunky round body, Joshua looked very much like a shopkeeper.
“Hello Mrs. Fray,” he said to Peter’s mother.
“Hello Joshua, you did very well in your performance,” she replied.
“I think Sonja did better,” he said in reply, nodding at Peter.
Peter looked at this chubby boy, his eyes glistening, almost in tears, it seemed, and his face flushed.
“Do you mind, I called you Sonja?” Joshua asked.
Peter gave a tentative nod, as if to say, no he didn’t mind.
“I think you were terrific, Sonja, and I think you’re so nice.” The boy’s words came out in fits and starts.
“Would you like to join us for a holiday party Saturday, Joshua?” his mother interjected.
“Oh yes, Mrs. Fray . . . ah . . . that’s if Sonja wants me.”
Peter looked at his mother, giving a slight nod, and his mother said: “I think she’ll love to have you there.”
“I need to join the girls,” Peter announced. “They’re going to have a picture taken.”
He skipped off, and almost in unison the girls gathering for the picture yelled out: “Here’s Sonja. Good she’s here.”
“Now girls,” Miss Melanson said, “Let’s all strike some sort of dance pose for the camera. And, Sonja, can you get up on your toes as you did on stage?”
“Yes, Sonja, do that, honey,” yelled Emily. “You were so pretty.”
They pushed Peter to the front of the group, and as the photographer yelled, “one … two … three … now,” Peter went up on his toes, holding it long enough for the photographer’s flash to go off.
“Sonja,” Tamika said, as they were breaking up. “We all love you. We want you always to be Sonja. All the girls do, even Priscilla.”
Peter turned to see Priscilla Anders join them. “I loved your performance, Sonja,” Priscilla said. “You are so very much a girl you can play jacks with us anytime.”
“Yes, because I wanna see if I can beat out the prettiest girl in school in jacks next semester.”
“Who is that?”
“You, you silly goose,” Priscilla said.
Just then his mother arrived, pulling him aside, “Time to go, Sonja.”
He broke from his mother and ran to the girls of the dance club, hugging and kissing each, often having to be pried away from prolonged hugs. The girls all shared in the joy of the moment with their girl friend, Sonja Fray.
And as she left the room, Sonja turned to all the girls, tears flowing down her face, her heart full of joy. In a high, lyrical voice, she yelled out for all to hear: “Merry Christmas.”
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