In 1957, my friend Maureen Gurski’s tenth birthday party took place at her house in Park Ridge, a block away from where my family lived. Six girls sat at the Gurskis’ dining room table eating cake, along with Maureen’s younger brother and parents. The subject of baseball came up—I was an ardent Cubs fan, despite their terrible record that year—and I said, “Even if the White Sox are having a better season, Ernie Banks is clearly the best player on either team. If the Cubs build around him, they’ll be good in time.”
Maureen’s father smiled unpleasantly from across the table. He said, “You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.”
It was not the first time someone had said such a thing. Starting when I was in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Jauss, had routinely asked me to be in charge when she left the room, a task that sometimes necessitated my telling John Rasch to sit down or stop poking Donna Zinser and resulted in John reminding me that I wasn’t a teacher. In fourth grade, I’d been elected co-captain of the safety patrol, which occasionally elicited similar resistance from my peers. But Mr. Gurski’s remark was the sentiment’s clearest and most succinct expression in my life thus far and gave me, henceforth, a kind of shorthand understanding of the irritation and resentment I provoked in others. Not all others, of course—plenty of people admired that I was eager and responsible—but among those provoked were both men and women, adults and children.
Is it odd that I feel a certain gratitude to Bud Gurski? It’s for (yes) two reasons. First: He said what he said at just the right moment. I was still in possession of the brazen confidence of a nine-year-old girl and didn’t take him seriously, the way I might have if I were twelve or thirteen. Second: He used less ugly terms than he could have, far less ugly than I’ve encountered in the years since. Opinionated for a girl? Of course I was opinionated! And indeed I was a girl. He was stating facts more than offering insult.
Mr. Gurski was about thirty-five at the time of Maureen’s tenth birthday, which seemed to me rather old for putting a grade school girl in her place. I hadn’t yet learned this is an impulse some men never outgrow. But he was easy to dismiss, even though I was aware that to convey my dismissal wouldn’t have been respectful. You’re awfully dumb for a grown-up, I thought. Aloud, I said, “Well, Ernie Banks is a great ballplayer.”