Nearly three decades ago, on a clear October morning, my third-grade teacher asks us to line up so that we might make the world, our bodies representing countries and bodies of water.
“Single file,” she says, “please,” smoothing the lines of her wool skirt, which smells, I joke at recess, like everything she owns: moth balls and celery and what I call “grandmother skin.”
Mrs. Hinds is 73 years old the year I have her as my third-grade teacher, although in my mind, she is decades older: a dinosaur, a fossil, a symbol of feminine antiquity. She is always wearing pantyhose two shades whiter than her skin and her eyelids are always sheathed in shimmering pearl that matches the heavy jewelry around her neck. This is a woman, I’ll later learn, born just two years after the fight for women’s suffrage, and while I can imagine the exuberance of that time — the cheers, the rallies, the jubilation — I remember little of our school year besides this day.
In our single-file line, Billy takes his place next to me. He fingers his sweatpants with dirty nails, snapping the elastic back against his hip. He smells like cigarette smoke from his mother, and his hair looks wet and clumps as if it hasn’t been washed in days. I try to be, as my mother requests, a sympathetic and compassionate child, filled to the brim with sweetness, but I do not like Billy. He lives in a trailer park alongside the river, and kids often tease him for this. I feel sympathetic about the trailer park but unsympathetic to his disposition, which is noisy, indolent and oftentimes aggressive.
The teachers are always putting me and Billy together — “You are such a smart and sweet young girl,” they say, placing his name card on the desk next to mine. We are paired often to do math exercises and third-grade science projects. Each day when we are told to find a seat among the many colorful beanbags for reading time, Billy saddles up to me, because I know the words that he does not, and because I like the books that he also likes. A tomboy in a family of brothers, I read him books about dump trucks, ATVs, camping, river exploration.
But this day, in Mrs. Hinds’s third-grade class, Billy gets to be Uruguay. Mrs. Hinds taps him on the head and says: “Billy, you are Uruguay.”
Just like God’s word in the story of creation, it is done.
This was in rural Pennsylvania, a country town 40 miles north of Philadelphia, and while the details of her lesson now escape me — perhaps we were demonstrating physical distance or cultivating a sense of wonder, identifying unique political powers or differentiating nationalities — this separation based on gender I remember with absolute clarity. Maybe we were simply learning geography, gaining a necessary sense of our own smallness. Still, I stand in line patiently, awaiting the country I feel is mine. Mrs. Hinds moves on down the line: Josh is Bolivia, Jon is Chile, Isaac is Brazil, Tim is Venezuela, Tyler is Mexico.
Mrs. Hinds moves back down the line. She tells Jessica she is a tree. Melissa is the Gulf of Mexico. Ashley is the Caribbean Sea, and I am a river I cannot pronounce. Here we stand: The boys as countries, endless, enormous. Their bodies represent millions of people. They are home to cities, buildings, mountains, rivers and lush green valleys.
As girls — as future women — we are the empty things that move in the spaces around them, beside them, are often used and abused by them. Men fight over us, or claim us, sail their boats through our expanse. They cast lines into our depths, drawing up our resources — fish and other animals — sold for their profit.
I am a girl and I cannot be a country, I realize, I cannot be a country.
I want to say something to Mrs. Hinds, want to tell her that I am strong enough to be a country, big enough, that my brothers have taught me many things — including how to build a fire and shelter, and pack mud into dense jumps for BMX biking. I have scabs that I want to show her, scars pocked along my knee. I think of rolling up my jeans and showing her the wounds, sticky and sticking to the denim, so that she might bear witness to the kind of girl I am.
Instead, the boys cluster. They cheer one another. The power dynamic is evident. Whatever sense of wonder Mrs. Hinds had hoped to cultivate is lost in our expressions: Us girls, our ponytails, insignificant things, we think, are we.
“Mrs. Hinds,” I say, my feeble protest. She swivels to look at me.
“Women can’t be countries,” she says, before I’ve even asked the question, no doubt the result of many years of this activity, as if that takes care of that.
Three decades removed, my mother still tells this story when someone asks what I was like as a child.
“She came home, threw her backpack down, and began screaming that she would be a country,” my mother says, laughing. My male friends roll their eyes. My female friends shake their heads. I remember stuff like this, they say, taking a long, thoughtful sip of merlot. But together we laugh it off. A young, defiant me, the very same person, they tease, I remain today.
Everyone has a moment that changes them forever. Mine exists in that classroom, in the knowledge instilled that day not of geography but of how hard the world will work to make a woman think she needs a man to be of value.
I have spent the whole of my adult life — more moments than I can count — trying to be a river for a man, a mountain for a man, trying to respond, in many ways, to Mrs. Hinds’s brand of misogyny. But now, in my 30s — despite the all-too-easy narrative of spinsterhood — all I can think is what a thrill, that no man has contained me, that I own a home and have a job and rescued a dog I love too much. How wild it is to finally be sovereign, to at last be a country.