Tales: Shame – First Period Story (Part 1)

WHEN I THINK OF THE MANY FACETS OF WOMANHOOD the earliest memory that comes back to me, is me as a third grader standing in my schoolyard during morning recess on a random day of the week.  I can never recite this story detailing the exact month or day this happened, I just knew that it happened and when it happened it changed my life.  I was standing in the distance witnessing a wave of energy exploding from a group of children near a doorway that divided my school from another school.  Back then I was attending a private Catholic school known as St. Mary’s Primary School, which was adjacent to another Catholic school called St. Martin’s Convent School or Convent School for short. While both schools had their own entrances, the positioning of my school on King Street gave us better access to the local stores we often frequented on lunch or recess.  While both schools fell under the same rules for some reason there was a need to separate the two.  Despite this separation, our schoolyard became the shortcut that students and teachers from Convent School used to gain access to the local stores.  Looking at the children screaming and jeering, I started to think that maybe this was another schoolyard fight.  What made this assumption even more convincing was seeing Sister Martha-Andrews with her blue coif darting between children trying to regain order.  By the time I got close enough, I could tell that whatever was causing this uproar had long gone leaving in its path a group of unruly children and a water-soaked walkway.  As everyone followed the directions of Sister Martha-Andrew, I dallied behind trying to investigate what happened.  I quickly noticed that someone had poured a massive amount of water on the steps that led to the doorway that separated us from Convent School and wondered why it was wet.

Although we had 10 minutes left for our morning recess Sister Martha-Andrew instructed the teachers to take us back to the classrooms to restore order.  I remember being called to form into a single line with my classmates, then we marched up the steps that led to our classroom.  We entered the classroom space then sat down but whatever the other classmates witnessed couldn’t be contained. They continued laughing, whispering to each other, and passing around what bit of information they knew about the matter.  Sitting there I felt left-out and scrambled to find out what was going on.  In asking a classmate, I was told that one of the older girls from Convent School was standing at the doorway that led into our school; when all of a sudden blood started rolling down her legs.  My classmate described it like a waterfall of blood and then said that the girl was dancing with her friends before it started.  In my childish mind I was confused, but still smart enough to assume that my classmate was over embellishing her story. When I told her that she was lying, a male classmate said that he saw it and that she was telling the truth.  Since I wasn’t as lucky as the others to have witnessed this, I sat in my chair trying to imagine it, but I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  I remember feeling excluded as everyone else had insight on this event.  That morning I was the only student who maintained my composure and wasn’t restless over what happened.  Their focus on this started to boil over into the lesson so our teacher Miss Dias asked us to close our books and quietly exit onto the back verandah.  We all walked outside as requested then was instructed to sit at the old school desks that were laid out in neat rows.  When we quiet down, she began her speech by saying that what happened was normal and a part of life.  She then declares it was no laughing matter and from that point on no one was to talk about it in a joking manner again.  That morning I got the shock of my life as Miss Dias carefully explained the biological ramifications of becoming a woman.  She claimed that at a certain age a healthy girl will start her menstrual cycle and stated that it is called a period.  Then she drove home the idea that it happens to everyone once they hit a certain age, and if it doesn’t happen then there is something wrong with that person.  While I knew that our teacher was trying to paint a picture of normalcy surrounding menstruation I didn’t think it was normal.  The more information I learnt that day made me fearful of hitting that milestone and hoped that somehow I would vanish before womanhood took hold of me.  From the third grade until I actually experienced this for myself I became very fearful, ashamed, and worried that just like the Convent School girl it would happen at a time that would cause deep embarrassment.  At the end of Miss Dias’s lecture, I started to feel deep unrelenting pity towards the girl who met such an unfortunate faith.  It was then I started to wonder how she would ever show her face in school again.

After this I became obsessed with periods, but not in a positive way. I felt a deep sense of disgust when thinking about it and often wondered if I could do anything to delay or stop it all together.  As I grew up and moved from grade to grade, I watched other girls enter into this painfully awkward stage of their life.  My cousin who was older than me by a couple of years started her period when she was 14 years old.  While she never told me directly I knew the exact day it started.  I remember it was a Sunday and I knew that her mother was very aware of this as their behavior was notably different.  She went to her mother’s bedroom and they closed the door leaving me and her younger sister in the living room.  I recall my cousin took a shower and then walked back to her room with her towel wrapped carefully around her.  Moments after her mother came looking for her, and in the background, I heard her mother telling her in a very caring manner that she could have waited in the bathroom.  After her mother left the bedroom I saw my cousin walking again to the bathroom carrying her clothing. I knew this was odd because she rarely ever got fully dressed in the bathroom.  Moments before she entered the bathroom her mother saw her and asked her what she was doing.  She then made a statement that stuck with me long after that moment.  In asking her what she was doing she eluded to the fact that something could happen causing her to have an accident and then she said, “what if your father sees?” The implication of her father, in this case, seemed to say that her condition had to be kept behind closed doors. It was something had to be tended to out of the public view.  It was as if she had to shield her father from the idea that she was growing up.  Those words engraved an idea in me that men were not to know or be interrupted by a woman’s mess.  It was then I remember the endless laughter and jeering the Convent School girl suffered.