My siblings stand “at attention,” and salute me before I dole out their chores on individual, handwritten lists. We each have an alias printed on laminated name tags. We go on bike rides. I instruct them to form a line behind me, oldest to youngest, and then circle around to ride behind my littlest sister. And there we are: a wobbly snake; our helmets five points of backbone. It is in this way that our childhood sits in my memory. Rarely am I an “I” so much as a “we.” We practice call and response as we ride: “Name the planets!” I command, and they respond dutifully, in unison: “Mercury, Venus, Earth …” At home, they line up for the smoothie I make and pour into colorful plastic cups for them, and I become angry when they don’t finish their portions.
For a long time, I couldn’t face my younger self. She was often harsh in a way that I hope never to be, now. She had an angry streak, one that I can now explain away as frustration, though while inside it, it felt like sin. My parents were and are committedly religious and religiously committed to each other. My mother defers, not always graciously, to my father and his judgment. My father is a curious blend of privilege and anxiety. He came from very little, but he has made much of his life.
The little girl I was wanted to learn about everything she could and felt a near-constant anxiety about all the time she was wasting, being home-schooled by Mom, who had no education beyond high school, and no teaching credentials. For geography, we were given an outdated textbook and told to read it to ourselves. Regarding this effort, we were not checked up on—no quizzes, no tests. The tome contained no mention of the geologic record; it said the earth was 6,000 years old.
My siblings and I were settled into the rooms we shared and given responsibility for the plastic cases of DVDs rented by my mother from a Christian school in Pensacola, Florida. English, Algebra I, Spanish, Economics—their labels were hopeful, but we quickly found that the teachers and classrooms on the other end of the camera could be zoned out, fast-forwarded through. The experiments the on-screen kids undertook for biology and chemistry didn’t have a tangible counterpart for us, sitting on the floor of our bedrooms, quietly having tickle fights or sharing a bowl of chocolate chips pilfered from the bulk-size yellow Nestlé bag.
When alone, with no sibling to distract me, I had the vague sense that knowledge could get me somewhere, but no picture of what place that would be. Every woman I knew was a wife and mother. Many of them held parties at their houses during which they would try to sell the other women Tupperware, candles, or baskets. They wore baggy, handmade dresses and had puffy hair. Getting older meant turning into one of them.
While the other children in our neighborhood were collected for their first days of school, their backpacks full of books with papered-over covers and brand-new orange pencils with perfectly sharpened tips, I sat and watched Christian science class on a DVD and wished for a Bunsen burner, a set of flasks, a mask and a frog, a pig’s heart.
Though I didn’t put my discontentment into words until later, I acted early to rectify my sense that something was wrong. I finagled my way into almanac ownership, obtaining a new copy every year as soon as they showed up on the big book tables at Costco. These were thick, brightly colored paperbacks that promised to tell me everything I could ever want to know. From these books (my proto-internet), I made daily lists for myself, always preparing the next day’s list the night before at the desk in the room I shared with my three sisters.
My determination kept me from dipping too often into the depression that sometimes hit: I would learn the things that I could with the tools available to me. Since I couldn’t procure a horse and learn to ride it, or teach myself to practice medicine, I would learn to cook. I would sweep better than anyone had ever swept.
My discontentment gained context in my early teens, around girls from our new church. Our previous church was nondenominational, Bible-believing. There, women weren’t allowed to wear pants, and we couldn’t paint our nails.
The girls at our new church were in French and German classes at their public high schools and actually knew how to pronounce the words they were learning. They were in AP English, writing stories. They were learning to play musical instruments well, or working their first jobs at Taco Bell, In-N-Out, and Target. These girls played sports. They had circles of friends, and frenemies, and real-seeming enemies. They had common complaints about teachers and tests. I begged to go to high school, and Mom threatened to disallow my talking with these girls. There was little I could do.
For reasons still unknown to me, my parents elected not to regulate my reading list, though their hegemony stretched over every other part of my life. I spent my adolescence quite literally shelving my ambitions. I obtained more books than I could ever read, about all the things I sought to learn, desperate to catch up to my peers. I thought I could do this by reading about Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founders of the United States. By learning about the inventors that my books credited with shaping America—Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell. By looking up every word I didn’t know.
I adopted old nursing manuals, aged encyclopedias, stacks of maps marking boundaries long since redrawn, countries long since renamed. Every time we went to a yard sale, I left with books, usually bags full. Every time I had a doctor appointment, I brought a purse big enough to hold several of the waiting room’s magazines.
When I left home at 18, my first apartment was much too big: It obviated my lack of possessions. I had a mattress, a small glass-topped Ikea table, and a pressed-sawdust desk. Lining the walls were stacks and stacks of books. I owned many; I could get 10 or 12 for $20 at our local used bookstore. I borrowed stacks more from the library. Sometimes just looking at them piled by the bed sated my need for them, for what they held.
In my community college classes, my reading became structured by subject and, for the first time, put me in a room, two or three or five days per week, in which 20 to 30 other people had been assigned the same reading. Before then, the only book I remember discussing with another person was the Bible, and those talks weren’t so much discussions as they were sermons framed as, but never truly open to, discourse. Even my most favorite books I had kept to myself, often because they’d taught me something about sex, or love, or passion that felt elicit, and which I treasured, but feared having found out.
It’s been nearly a decade since those first free college days. I’ve begun clearing my bookshelves, and selling, donating, or recycling the totems of old ambition. I have finally built enough of a knowledge base – the kind of fundamental know-how I longed for as a child, constructed of courses in math and English and biology, and gleaned from working too many jobs at the same time, from traveling, being broke, and having hard conversations about religion and sex and politics and civil rights.
It feels like an act of bravery, of subversion, to admit to my spare interest in the books I gathered as a teenager in the hopes of rectifying my “lack” – biographies of America’s founders (many of them slaveholders and firm believers in their superiority over women), books by and about Hemingway, “authoritative” anthologies that contain only cisgender, straight, white men. It’s not about catching up anymore or plodding through the many uninteresting exploits of un-empathic men for the sake of “knowledge.”
It’s about having reached a place in which the narratives I crave are those of women, those which represent and consider the diverse world we inhabit. For every book on Jefferson I don’t read, space opens to learn about and from Yasmine Seale, Pauli Murray. For every place I unseat “important” (male) voices in my life, I open myself to the women who have long been there, working, but who have been crowded out. And in giving women precedence, I am learning to value my own voice, my own instincts and life experience; to prize nuance over bluntness, deep thought over dull memorization, and full-hearted strength over force.
Sarah Hoenicke is a second-year master’s student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She’s also a graduate student instructor in the American Studies department at Cal, and a “Beyond War” fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She’s most interested in emerging literatures in English, and in womxn artists actively subverting cultural expectations through their work. She lives with her partner of nine years in the San Francisco Bay Area.