This month, we’re talking about embarrassing moments. There’s a plethora of these moments in my life to choose from and easily quadruple the number during my teenage years.
In fact, embarrassment was pretty much a state of being for me as a teenager. From the first day of puberty until that last pimple faded was basically one long red-faced adventure. Hyper-aware, self-conscious, blushing and unsure of myself. Unsure of anything except the solid knowledge everyone was staring, judging, and laughing at me.
But, in this overabundance of embarrassing things that made teenaged me want to curl up into a ball and hibernate until I was old enough to run for president, there was one cringe-inducing, wanna-die embarrassment that topped them all—and it happened several times.
Here’s my story:
A long time ago, in a high school far, far away, I was in Spanish class when I felt like Niagara Falls was whooshing out of me. Yup, got my period while in school. Not the first time, probably wouldn’t be the last. I asked to be dismissed to the bathroom. My teacher, reading the latest on the Watergate investigation while her students busily conjugated verbs (or passed notes), didn’t look up from her newspaper. She waved her permission and I fled.
Halfway down the corridor, the first cramp hit. Not just any cramp, but a squeeze of my belly so hard it left me winded. The next cramp followed, then several more, squeezing tighter and tighter, like a giant pair of tweezers squashing a zit. I leaned against some lockers, panting, nausea roiling up my throat. This horrible onslaught had happened before in school, and teenaged me knew—and feared—what was coming next, so I changed my destination to the nurse’s office, hoping I could make it in time.
No such luck. Another round of cramps. My vision dimmed, my skin went clammy cold, and a thousand pins-and-needles prickled inside my head. All familiar sensations, all warning me I was going to faint.
Oh god, teenaged me fretted, the nurse’s office was a hundred miles away. I couldn’t faint in the middle of the school hallway. Not again.
I spotted an open classroom door and dove inside. Mr. Sawicki’s math class, minutes before the bell. That meant the room was full; almost full—there was an empty desk in the back. Every head swiveled toward me as I fell into the seat. I don’t know what happened after that, because I was out cold.
I came to just as the bell rang. I was still seated, but bent over, my fingers brushing the floor. Well, teenaged me rationalized, at least I wasn’t sprawled in the hallway with my books all around me, like last time. Or on the toilet with the paper dispenser as my pillow like the time before that.
I sat up and blinked at the chaotic scene. The bell rang. Mr. Sawicki yelled at everyone to move along to their next class then hobbled over to me, leaning on his cane. Kids filed past me out the door, bumping into kids coming in for the next period. All of them stared at me, some snickered, some scrunched their foreheads in that what-a-lunatic expression that made me want to sink through the floor.
And if that wasn’t mortifying enough, the vice principal came in to tut-tut over the situation. Again. That guy always showed up when I passed out. I guess I wasn’t important enough for the principal to drop his busy schedule and rush over. And where the heck was the nurse? Probably taping up some wimpy football player’s stubbed toe while teenaged me was busting in on Mr. Sawicki’s math class and interrupting his sine and cosine soliloquy by passing out.
Anyway, Mr. Vice-Principal eyed me, looking concerned, and asked, “Are you pregnant, dear?” Gah! In front of all the kids shuffling in and out of the classroom, in front of Mr. Sawicki, in front of everyone! Embarrassment squared.
No, you moron, I wanted to answer. I was decidedly not pregnant. And I wasn’t in that delicate condition the last five times he’d asked after I fainted, either. Mr. Vice Principal, of all people, should’ve known my cycle better than I did by now.
But being a kid and embarrassed and in tremendous pain, I held back the snark and said, “It’s my period.” In a whisper, of course, because we girls aren’t supposed to talk about such a thing lout loud. As if menstruation, a natural process of a woman’s body, is something to be legitimately embarrassed about. Something to apologize for and whisper about, for fear of offending someone. That was true in the 70s and it’s true today.
But I digress…
My whispering the taboo word “Period” made Mr. Vice-Principal roll his eyes and brush it off, like I was a slacker or a big baby or something, then he snagged some poor girl coming in late for class and made her escort me to the nurse’s office.
I dragged along by Helpful Girl’s side, relieved to be getting out of the public eye. The nurse wasn’t there (still bandaging up the quarterback’s boo-boo, maybe?), so I crawled over to that vinyl-covered bed all nurses have in their office and collapsed, thanking Helpful Girl by throwing up on her feet. The perfect end to a perfect day.
So, that’s my story. There may be some embellishments, but the embarrassment is all true. Luckily, I never repeated the period-fainting-hurling-in-school trifecta after that infamous incident, but I’m sure I found two hundred other ways to embarrass myself before I walked that stage and grabbed my diploma.
Later in life, I was told I had vasovagal syncope, in which stress/pain causes your BP and heart rate to crash suddenly and you faint. Good to know, but a decade or two too late. I wish I’d known back then, so I wouldn’t have been so terrified—or so bloody embarrassed.