By David Bradley
When I was in the second grade I wet my pants.
At a rehearsal of my grade school’s pageant, just before I spoke my lines—well, line, but, according to the director, a fourth grade teacher who’d minored in drama, it was a crucial one. For in this version of “Little Red Riding Hood” the BIG BAD WOLF (Yours Truly) is transformed from a predator, lurking and growling (Grrr) upstage to a protector who, in the last scene, comes downstage and to Our Heroine’s defense: “Leave her alone! Grrr!”
I’m not sure I grasped that particular symbolism, but I did grasp that all the other speaking parts had been given to sixth graders; also that I was one of the few Negro children in the school. So I studied my line and practiced my growling, the better to be a credit to my race with, my dear.
I had a sixth-grade reading level, but only a second-grade bladder, and the script called for the WOLF to lurk in every scene. I managed in piecemeal rehearsals, but at the end of the first full run-through, as I stepped downstage, I experienced a release of dramatic tension. Despite the deluge I spoke my line, then exited stage left, dripping.
Lurking in the Boys Room, waiting for my mother to fetch fresh pants, I grred furiously, my belly burning with the acid of chagrin. BIG BAD WOLF? Big, bad disgrace—to myself, my Negro schoolmates, the entire Negro race. Next day the director assured me I’d do fine in performance, that delivering my line when no longer under pressure showed stage presence, but kept having flashbacks. Finally just told me, flatly, to get over it, because though now it seemed a huge event, it was probably not the most embarrassing thing I’d ever do.
A terrifying prophecy—and too often fulfilled. In high school, a plethora of peccadilloes, like that chemistry experiment that produced not the predicted white precipitate but a green cloud of poison gas, or that jump-shot at the buzzer that swished through the opponents’ net. In college, in the city, a myriad of misdemeanors arising from my rural, culturally incompetent upbringing.
I did not order a ham sandwich in a kosher deli… but I did order a corned beef with Swiss. I did ask if I could get sashimi well done. I did whisper to a nun, one February Wednesday morning, that she’d an ash smudge on her forehead. I did amuse the few black students in the school with my abject ignorance of What Was Happening, Where It Was At or the Usual Places to buy tickets to It. If I became (or was made) aware that I’d stepped in It, I’d insert the same foot in my mouth in lame attempts at self-justification (Well, where I come from we fry our fish) but later I’d lie sleepless, haunted by the ghosts of faux pas present, past and future.
In later life I learned (the hard way) to check my facts, my pronunciations and my fly—better to be caught at that than to lecture with one’s zipper down. I developed coping strategies: a deadpan affect that encouraged comic interpretations of potential gaffes; a Socratic style that made obtuse questions methodology; ironies instantly deployable if savoir fell behind faire. Still many ironies were unintended (Would your friend Bill like to join us for a drink?) many obtusities unfeigned (I really thought that working girl was a grad student doing fieldwork). And no strategy could cope with the premonition that the worst gaffe yet lay ahead.
But recently, listening to an old friend introduce me to a distinguished academic audience with a much-embellished account (I did not attempt to leap it in a single bound, I was just trying to climb the thing) of one of my Greatest Misses, it occurred to me that I am no longer vulnerable to such embarrassment; these days I couldn’t even lift my leg that high. Then it struck me: at fifty-something, the most embarrassing thing I’ll ever do is probably something I’ve already done. So I checked my fly and I took the stage, in a state of grace beyond disgrace, beyond the fear of future mortification, beyond chagrin.
David Bradley is the author of two novels, South Street and The Chaneysville Incident. The latter won the 1982 PEN/Faulkner Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He has published articles in Esquire, Redbook, The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and The Village Voice and other periodicals. He is currently at work on a nonfiction book, The Bondage Hypothesis: Meditations on Race and History and a novel-in-stories, Raystown.
photo by Kristin Fouquet