I am the firstborn in my family, and had I been a boy I would have been named Edward Nicholas. It is not a family name; my brother, born three years after me, is the only son and bears the only family name of us three children. The name Edward Nicholas satisfied me just fine, however. Very regal: King Edward, Czar Nicholas. The name was versatile: Edward, Ed, Ned, Nick, Nicholas. I used all these names at one time or another during the years I was a boy. I also liked “Steve,” and would inscribe it on my bookplates: “This book belongs to … Steve,” I would print carefully, boldly, proudly.
I became a boy about the time I entered first grade. We lived on eight acres ten miles outside Rockford, Illinois, amongst farms and grange halls, and I went to a two-room school, first through third grades in one room, fourth through eighth in the other. There were two little boys in my first grade class, Lanny Youngquist and Billy Kress, and though I was Sue Johnson – I never demanded that other people call me Steve or Edward Nicholas – I happily joined them as the third little boy.
I loved what I could do as a boy. We could wear anything we wanted to school, and many kids, both boys and girls, wore T-shirts and jeans and sneakers. Only the most girlish girls wore dresses and short white socks and those shiny little black shoes. They were careful to play clean games, like jacks and jump-rope, and to squeal when a mouse ran across the front of the classroom. Girls to me were people who sewed placemats for their mothers at a Brownie meeting while outside a huge snowstorm swirled around the school, burying cars that we boys could help out of ditches. I thought girls were really stupid, and it was clear to me that anyone with any pride would be a boy.
I loved being a boy. I matured earlier than the boys, of course, having the genetic advantage of being a girl, and was thus for many years stronger and faster than they were. I was fiercely competitive. I played baseball – hardball, not softball – and capture the flag and a weird and violent version of football where you not only tackled the person with the ball but dragged them over the opposing team’s goal line. Normally a slow eater, I inhaled my lunches in order to be first at bat when we went outside to play “workup” at noon recess. We built forts and in the winter played war with snowballs, in the spring with milkweed pods that had not yet burst, in the fall with dried-up crabapples. I was easy in my body, confident, fearless.
I was a boy when I was sitting still, too. I read books about how submarines work, and one entitled The Kid Who Batted 1000. (I remember to this day the Kid’s secret: He fouled off every strike until at every at-bat he eventually walked. His challenge came in the ninth inning: Could he change tactics and get the crucial hit?) I listened to the radio and was thrilled by Sergeant Preston and his wonder dog Yukon King. I identified with Bobby Benson and his B-Bar-B Riders to the point that I abandoned Ned and Steve and was Bobby for awhile.
I also looked like a boy. My mother made beautiful little-girl dresses for me, but, since my parents did not believe in fighting with children – they were of the school that adults should be able to outwit children – she did not demand that I wear them. Instead she would ask me hopefully, later wistfully, “Susie, how about this sweet pink one?” I never said yes. Eventually she gave up and made me a green velvet jacket and slacks so I would have a dress-up suit to wear to church. She took me to a barber to have my hair trimmed above the ears, and cut only a little longer on top, the natural curl sacrificed to the boy style I wanted. And, most exciting of all, she took me to the boys’ department of Stuckey’s Men’s Clothing to buy long-sleeved white shirts and cufflinks and boys’ dress pants, jeans and short-sleeved plaid shirts, even boy’s swimming trunks, which I wore to the country-club pool for a couple of years when I was seven or eight. My swimming instructor there once asked my parents, “Does that child know she’s a girl?” My most treasured moment was one day when I got on an elevator in the ten-story Talcott Building and the male operator asked me, “What floor would you like, Sonny?”
I have since asked my parents how they could have been so tolerant of my years as a boy. My mother says they both believed children should be free to do what they want to do, without parents imposing their own wishes on them. “Besides,” she says, “We kind of enjoyed it. You were so cute.”
I never really thought I was a boy. I knew I was a girl, but there seemed to me no advantages associated with that. The prospect of being a girl was simply too boring and too disgusting. The reality of being a girl would also have been too dangerous.
I believe my being a boy protected me from my boundaryless, too-enamoured father. I was safe as long as he was throwing a baseball or football to me, teaching me to serve a tennis ball, applauding my swimming. But as soon as I became a girl, he was immediately too close. The family would go to the theater, and I would become aware that he was watching me as much as the play. Once when he took me to a women’s professional baseball game, he told me on the way home about an affair he had just concluded. His energy, once I was past puberty and clearly female, was often emotionally, though never physically, incestuous.
The only close call came when I was still a boy. I was probably about seven years old when he invited me into his and my mother’s bedroom, took down his shorts, and – in the interests of science, he said – showed me his penis which, he pointed out, was moving. I was terrified. He asked, did I want to touch it? I am forever grateful that Edward Nicholas said “No,” and somehow got out of that room. I believe life as a little girl in my family would have been precarious at best, disastrous at worst.
Eventually I did have to give up being a boy. This unhappy inevitability was foreshadowed on the playground one cloudy, cool autumn day in fifth grade when I took on a boy a year younger than I in a wrestling bout. Instead of my usual win, I found myself overmatched. As I lay on my back in the dirt, the triumphant boy straddling my waist, his hands pinning my arms to the ground on either side of my head, tears of frustration running through the dust on my cheeks, I thought, “This is just the beginning. They’re all going to become stronger than I am.”
During sixth grade I began to menstruate, which brought my boyhood into serious question. I left the country school and went into town, to Roosevelt Junior High School, where I had to wear skirts and face girls giggling in the locker room about their breasts, a development I had to admit noticing on my own chest. I was taught to play half-court basketball, girl’s rules. My boyhood was over.
I miss Edward Nicholas tremendously. I miss his energy, his fearlessness, his unabashed aggressiveness. I try to keep him alive in me by being interested in guy things, in sports and military history, in boats and planes and trains. I fear I keep him alive in often unconscious and sometimes all-too-conscious misogyny. But I am becoming aware of an Edward Nicholas inside me who is mysterious and complex and important, a person I want to learn more about. I know he has something to tell the Susan Johnson he has grown up to be.