Here in central Illinois, my 14-year-old daughter attends what's called a "middle school," as opposed to what I attended back in the seventies in suburban Chicago -- a junior high. I'm still not quite sure of the difference, but I've been told that a middle school takes a more "cumulative" approach than a junior high, gently reminding students over the course of two years of all they've learned in grade school, providing them with a warm and pleasant transition into the big, tough world of high school. Whatever the difference, I do know that the separation of students into "teams" is still there -- Orange team and Red team, in my daughter's case, while we had Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. And as much as both types of school will claim that these teams have been randomly assigned, I know that every single kid in each seems to understand which team has the "smart kids" and which the "dumb."
I also know that, in contrast to my own junior high way back when, my daughter's school does not provide instruction in foreign languages or, to my ongoing dismay, a final grand field trip like the one to Washington, D.C., that my sister and I had the honor and privilege of experiencing in our own sophisticated and history-conscious 8th grade.
Unfortunately, the main things that I remember from that glorious trip are that my sister threw up and had to go home early; my best friend, Judy, and I almost missed the bus as we frantically ran down the million steps of the Washington Monument; we met a cute Englishman who used the word "pricey" instead of "expensive"; and ... I peed in my pants.
I seem to have come late in life to everything -- intercourse, marriage, child-bearing, divorce -- and peeing in my pants was no exception. When we got off the plane in D.C. and boarded the bus that was bound for our hotel, I sort of had to "go," but only a little bit, so, when the last invitation was made to anyone who had to use the bathroom before the bus's folding door clapped shut, I got cozy in my then-dry seat and said nothing, confident I could hold it for the short trip to the hotel. Little did I know that the "short trip" (a figment of my naive imagination) would turn into an hour or more and I would soon be trapped on the Ride from Bladder Hell.
I don't know exactly when it happened -- my own less-than-pleasant (but literally warm) transition from relative comfort (gazing out the window at the passing lights of Washington) to intense, excruciating pain. Before I knew it, my bladder had filled with an ocean and instead of pondering museums and monuments, I was using monumental control to relieve my pain little by little, in the smallest installments possible without dampening too far my red-corduroy bell-bottom pants (hey, this was the seventies) or being detected by anyone else on the bus, namely Judy, who was sitting right next to me. I don't think Judy and I conversed, my job of releasing tiny pee-increments taking the whole of my concentration, leaving me, probably, with just a far-away stare. Needless to say, my "plan" failed. By the time we arrived at the hotel, my seat was slightly pooled, my pants were soaked and stuck to my legs, and there was the very real possibility that Judy herself was moist. Thank god it was November and I was wearing a faux-suede coat long enough to cover at least part of my "relief."
I don't really remember what happened after that -- in what fashion I maneuvered myself off the bus and walked with my drier classmates to the hotel lobby, what excuse I must have made to my roommates for suddenly needing to change clothes, what exactly I did with my shamed corduroy pants. I'm not sure either if Judy, so precariously close to my disaster, even knew what had happened, as she never said a word about it during the whole trip and still has never mentioned it once in thirty-seven years.
I'm looking right now at the landscape photo of all of us (minus sis) gathered before the capitol building on the final day of that trip back in November 1972. All the girls with their long hair parted in the middle; all the boys with their bangs and nerdy glasses. There's Sue Heller and David Malter. Jerry Levy and Linda Wexler. Todd Cohen and Ruth Fink. There's my namesake, Elise Stern. And there I am too -- in that faux-suede coat, my savior, not looking at the camera but staring strangely off, in a somewhat suspicious way, toward the other side of the group. Perhaps I'm looking at Judy, standing for some reason far away from me at the other end, a big smile on her face.