Originally from Rockland, NY, Liz Folie is about to graduate from USC with a major in International Relations and a minor in Theatre Arts. She is a USC WYSE mentor and a member of Sigma Delta Tau sorority. She spends her free time hanging out with her cat, Ronan, who followed her home once after leaving a party.
“Carver girls are hardcore. Carver girls are tough.” That’s what they told me when I was assigned Washington Carver Middle School for the after-school program WYSE – Women and Youth Supporting Each Other. We went over there every Wednesday at 3PM, to the middle school that was a little bit more southeast than the others, and taught pre-planned lessons about health and relationships and mostly about sex: birth control charts and stereotypical condoms on bananas. When I tell some people this they look at me in slight disgust – isn’t middle school too early to learn about sex? No. No it’s not.
These girls already know about sex. Their older sisters have sex. Their young parents have sex. The music they listen to croons “you know I wanna get it in” and “Imma beat the pussy from the bottom to the top.” I know this because their small hands turn my car’s radio to rap stations as we bump over hot Los Angeles pavement.
Saturday mornings I take dance classes at a trendy studio in Hancock Park and while I’m there usually Ashley or Tierra calls me to see if we can hang out. They want a ride to the roller rink, or to go to the beach. I oblige once, then twice, and then every weekend it’s expected that around 3PM I will pick up the girls, navigating identical streets of small houses and liquor stores and lavanderias, and drive them somewhere. It’s a treat for them, and it’s not as if I would be doing anything that important on a Saturday afternoon anyway.
A few of their mothers want to meet me. Perhaps they’re a little concerned why their daughters are always running off Saturday afternoons, but once they see me they smile and nod approval. “She’s not hanging out with any boys, is she?” Ashley’s mom inquires outside of their house, baby on hip. “No ma’am, we’re just having girl time” I respond. In the car, Ashley sighs. “How did she know I talk to boys? I don’t tell her about any of my boyfriends!” “Well Ashley, your mother was once your age too. And you’re what they call ‘developed.” We giggle. At fourteen, Ashley is the oldest, and the one with the most traditionally attractive figure.
They do talk to boys. Once, while getting off the freeway, the girls spotted a group of young black men and started shrieking at me to stop the car. At first I was confused and worried and pulled up about thirty feet ahead. “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?” But they were all fine in the back, they were just hollering at the boys. “Oh, they were checking us out too!” Once I realized the source of the commotion I put the car in forward again and continue to the roller rink. “Liz, I could have had me a new boyfriend!” Ashley shakes her head in the backseat. Meeting boys in the street, especially at such a young age, never occurred to me. It’s the first in new ideas to which I’m going to be introduced.
“When is the right time to have sex?” We asked the girls this during a review of a WYSE session back in March, the correct answer being “when we feel ready”, but the nine mentors uncontrollably laughed when Tiejanae exclaimed “My momma said I can do it when I’m in the grave!” The grave is, of course, the worst time to have sex, but weeks later in the car I ask Tiejanae why she thinks her mom says that to her. “I guess, like, she doesn’t want me to make her same mistake by having a baby so young.” Tiejanae is twelve years old, pretty and charismatic but skinny and clearly not even half of the way through puberty. She tells me her boyfriend is sixteen and I’m wide-eyed and twitchy as I remind her about consent, not doing anything she’s not comfortable with, and not staying with her boyfriend if he pressures her to do older-boy stuff. She nods, seemingly bored.
They ask me questions about my personal sex life and I’m too honest to lie. They ask when I first had sex, and I stress that I was with my boyfriend of months, that I trusted him, and that we always used protection. They ask me how many men I’ve had sex with, and I skirt around that one, bringing the conversation back to the importance of trust and commitment and consent. I briefly question my hook-up culture tendencies, the way I’m almost encouraged to not commit and not trust. I share nearly everything with these girls. If I can’t be a role model in that aspect, then why I am engaging in this behavior?
I don’t wish for them to ever see a grey-streaked morning and the eyes of Latino men on their way to work, staring at the heels in your hands. Why do I accept, even expect, the same to happen to me? As though it’s some marker of the college experience that feels necessary; an unavoidable sexual fate.
College students play a game with each other when it comes to sex and affection where whoever cares the least is the winner. We don’t want to be the ones giving too much so we take and ignore. We wake up in bed next to attractive people we don’t know or like, using the night as a story for bragging rather than an experience for enjoying.
When you’re an adolescent you don’t think there will be a day when sex will be casual, but then that day arrives. You don’t think you’ll ever be bored, but it’s very easy. The love you felt at sixteen may have been unstable and frenzied, but at least you could get lost in it. You could feel a connection so strong it terrified and delighted. Sex was done in wild celebration, not out of one part boredom, one part arousal, and a dash of obligation you don’t want to admit is there, because sometimes it’s easier to say yes than to deal with a no, and you’re drunk enough to want to not care.
You learn to not show emotions or feelings, because feelings scare people. You don’t let people see you. One time a man canceled the tenth date because on the ninth you joked through the story of being sexually assaulted. A boyfriend didn’t want to spend time with you on the anniversary of your mother’s death. It made him uncomfortable.
So you learn to harden. Your apathy is no longer pretend; it’s your default.
You tell the girls they shouldn’t date boys so much older than they. You go on dates with 28 year olds.
You talk to so many men, go on so many dates that they start to blend together. You forget to which man you told which story, but it’s okay. You laugh because on Friday Will paid for dinner and on Saturday Mike brought you Thai food and on Sunday Ben gave you a back massage. You can’t become the victim if you make yourself the aggressor.
I never want the girls to know this is who I am. I never want them to be like this.
It’s easy to teach a girl how to put on a condom or take a pill. It’s more difficult to teach agency, or sympathy, or how to retain her joy.
In my kitchen they watch videos of dancing: twerking, stanky leg, dougie, Bernie. Many of the videos involve teenage girls and boys experimenting with how much friction they can create between the front of a pair of loose jeans and the back of a pair of short shorts. I can’t stop the girls from seeing this content so I pepper in questions about consent, repeat words about being able to land a job one day and coming up clean in a Google search. The other kind of video the girls watch involve girl fights at schools, either at their own schools or nearby schools. Carver girls are tough. They mention girls they don’t like at their school, “skanky” girls who they want to fight. “Please don’t get into a fight in school.” My voice is whiny. It’s that same whiny, pleading tone I emit when I beg “please don’t date a twenty-year old” or “please don’t ask me to buy you soda.”
Once, on our way back from the roller rink, we stopped at my apartment for dinner. I can tell they’re not done hanging out with each other or with me, but I have my sorority formal to get ready for. My date, a Pasadena boy I’ve been seeing for a few months, is already at my house. This is convenient: he can keep them entertained while I get ready. As we walk into my complex I conspire with them, giving them free reign to probe my boy with the same intensity that they probe me and my life. They fawn over Tyler and his white, angelic looks and he grins under his breath. They also raid my kitchen, eating nearly all my groceries: Trader Joe’s turkey burgers, whole wheat bread, Greek yogurt. They find food I had forgotten I’d even bought. Good lord, thirteen year olds eat a lot. But I don’t mind, because it’s the healthiest they’ll eat all week.
Tyler is amused by them, and I feel strange as all of us pile into my car at the end of the night: Tyler in his suit, me in my gown, and this mass of little girls in jean shorts and polyester tops and eight dollar flats.
WYSE has sessions about drug and alcohol abuse. After I bring the girls home I send Tyler into the liquor store next to Ashley’s house to buy a glass bottle from a man behind bullet-proof glass. My sorority sisters and I laugh over the friendly drunk who joked about jumping Tyler while we pass the vodka around, willing ourselves to enjoy the cheap taste.
These girls are my friends. We live in different worlds. We touch each other’s lives, but they laugh at me when I suggest living in their neighborhood, and they don’t understand sororities, much less anything about college.
“I hear college is really expensive,” Regina, our demurely pipes from the backseat. “Like, ten thousand dollars a year.” Tuition at USC is approximately $42,000 a year, with additional costs for living estimated at $13,000. I explode a cackling sob at the innocence of Regina’s misinformation, and then compose myself. I explain grants, and loans, and scholarships, and how it’s possible to afford college. My girls live in a poor neighborhood, but it’s not as bad as some. The school district gives students laptops and these girls will go to charter high schools. College is a stretch, but a possibility. I want to make sure they stay interested in school, even though it’s easy for the system to let them slip through the cracks. I talk about my major, and all the possible jobs I could have, hoping to inspire something in them. I have no idea what I’m doing.
The boy-craziness, the simple music, and the smack-talking of other girls don’t bother me. In 2005 my friends and I exhibited the same tendencies. What nickname would we give this week’s crush? Who won American Idol last night? Did Brianna let her boyfriend go to second base? Think honestly about your middle school experiences, and you’ll realize that these aren’t the signs of deplorable and failing youth. These girls are learning how to navigate relationships, build their own artistic tastes, and handle conflict. Upper-middle class white kids discuss the same mundane things as low-income black kids. At least, most of the time they do.
We’re on our way to the beach and the girls keep calling things “black.” “Your ugly black ass needs to shut up.” “Nah, he not fine, that nigga black.” “Her black ass is skanky.” We had slut-shaming back in my hometown, but we didn’t have this race-shaming. We didn’t have this hatred of skin tone; so internalized by the girls that they use the term “black” frequently as a negative. At first I question it – “Girls, why are you saying everything is black? As though it’s bad?” and they look at me like I’m missing something. Just as some attempt to argue that “nigga” just means a person who is trashy or stupid, regardless of race, the word “black” is being used to mean someone worthy of insult. Black is gross. Black is ignorant. Black is bad. You can’t separate this specific use of the word “black” from African-American people. When my girls chastise each other with “black” as an insult they hurt themselves and negate their value.
Their hands touch my light brown waves and they tell me my hair is pretty with an awful longing in their eyes. I want to shout that their tight, curly hair is beautiful, that their wide noses and lips are royalty, and that their dark skin is worthy of sacrifice. I want to scream that someone wronged them when they said there was only one type of beautiful, when whiteness swept over and chained the ancestors of these girls, degrading their culture and attempting to crush their creativity. I hate the movies posters and advertisements filled with small features on white faces plastered on every inch of wall space in Los Angeles; magazine covers with lightened skin and thinned arms. I’m disturbed by the floods of white faces at my university, the few brown ones plastered in USC athletic gear.
I’m sick of news articles lambasting eight year olds with iPhones when my girls are on pre-paid cell phones that look identical to the one I had seven years ago. I’m sick of hearing about kids with iPods when my girls are excited over a CD that was burnt for them as a birthday gift. I’m done with news organizations mocking incorrect spelling and teenage talk when the reason my girls type like that is because a school system is failing them. I’m not entertaining studies about Millenial narcissism and how kids these days were given too many medals and have too much self-esteem. My girls need self-esteem.
These girls are, if anything, more aware of the world than I or my white peers were at thirteen. They are exposed to systematic racism in ways we were not. We laugh when Tierra ducks at the sight of a police car and shouts “White girl driving black girls! Hide your asses!” She’s joking, but she knows that this is weird, that we’re not supposed to be so close, that our worlds aren’t allowed to mix.
Hanging out with these girls every Saturday isn’t a charity mission for me nor is it a social experiment. I think of them as my friends (of my sorority friends I’m the only one with a car so I wind up driving my peers a lot anyway), albeit friends who are a bit younger and still need to call their parents every few hours to check in. We paint our nails and talk about boys. When I tell them that Tyler dumped me two weeks ago their disbelief comforts me. The phrases “He broke up with you and your fine booty?” and “You want me to get my Crip friends to jump him?” never sounded so comforting. Of course, after I smile I grill them to make sure they’re not in gangs and beg, just as I’m always begging them, to not get involved with gangs or date boys in gangs.
More than a couple of girls at WYSE have told me stories of sexual abuse. They pull me aside on the verge of tears to confess what they’ve never confessed before or else they blurt out stories of harassment in a group, acting matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Many of them have absentee fathers, sick mothers, incarcerated siblings. I’m angry, because when my mother died and I was sexually assaulted I received years of expensive professional therapy, and all these girls have in the way of counseling is me. All they get is a twenty-year old white girl pretending to be an adult, repeating the same phrases her therapist said to her. “It’s not your fault. I’m so sorry. It’s not your fault.” As though maybe it will go away. As though maybe I can help them in any small way.
You don’t know anger until you’ve looked into the eyes of a drunken boy being told “No” and you don’t know how strong you are until you’ve made him hear it.
“When my grandmother died I didn’t cry. I looked into her coffin and thought ‘this is the last time I’ll see my grandmother.’ My mom stood by the coffin for a long time. She didn’t cry either. But then a few days later I started crying and I couldn’t stop for a long time.” Tierra says all this quietly as she sits in the front passenger seat of my car, the other three girls in the back silent.
I have never heard anything more honest and beautiful, not just from a twelve year old, but from anyone.