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Character Books
by Amy Kenneley

"Psst! Psst!" the girl behind me whispered, as she poked me in the back.

It was Fourth Period French, and I was gazing dully at the French verbs Miss Dorfman was writing on the blackboard; Vous avais, Nous avons.

"Psst!" again, with another poke in the back. I feigned interest as the teacher turned with a bright face and asked, "Comprendez vous?"

We all nodded enthusiastically, "Oui, Mademoiselle!" Satisfied, she returned to her writing and I slipped my hand backwards, outstretched, ready to receive whatever it was the girl behind me was trying to slip me. Maybe it would be a note? Oh, if only HE would send me a note!

My hand wrapped around something and I slipped it onto my lap, looking innocent. Glancing down, I saw the spiral bound stenographer's notebook that had been passed to me.

"You're next" the girl behind me whispered. Oh boy! I was part of something now…I had just been handed a Character Book.

The IN Thing

Was it only at Patrick Henry Junior High that Character Books were plentiful?

I didn't know, but it was the fastest growing fad since pop-it pearls and velvet ballerina slippers. It seemed that overnight every 14 to 15 year old at the Junior High had either made up a character book or had been asked to sign one.

Character books (who ever thought of them?) were better than autograph books, which only turned up about a week before you left elementary school to go to Jr. High. Every third page in an autograph book was:

Bill and Suzie sitting in a tree,
First comes love, then comes marriage,
Then comes Suzie with a baby carriage!

With a character book, you didn't have to be creative or poetic, all you had to do was tell the truth (or as close to the truth as you thought you should)

The first page of the stenographer's notebook was embellished with all sorts of commands: This is the property of _________ Hands off! And such-like.

A Nose for Nosy

Then the first page is turned and on to the first question-your name. Each page turned had a different question, and you wrote your answer on the same line for each page. Starting with easy questions, name, address, phone number, parent's names, city where born - the vitals of the person signing - the questions gradually became more interesting.

They could be inquisitive, rude, funny or sneaky, depending on the creator of the book. Some tried and true questions were: your favorite color, your favorite male movie star, your favorite female movie star, and your favorite snack food. As the pages were turned, however, the creator of the character book found more profound questions to ask.

"Who do you have a crush on?" was one certain to make you check everyone's answer. Another one was "If you went on a date with him/her, what would you do?"

What we would do on a date was pure figments of our imaginations. Few of us had even BEEN on a date. What boy could manage to get the nerve to ask? What girl could actually believe she would be asked?

The Blossoming

So to camouflage the fact that we were inexperienced, we often embellished the answers. We wanted to appear chic, sophisticated, worldly, when in fact we were ordinary, novices, and parochial.

To be even more exact we were all disasters. We attended Sock Hops where the girls danced with one another and the boys leaned against the gym walls getting Brylcreem on the institutional green paint.

Our hormonal juices may be getting revved up, but our confidence lagged far behind. Why was it so easy to talk to a boy you weren't interested in, but if The One should speak to you, get all tongue-tied?

Why did every anti-perspirant on the market fail to keep our underarms dry? Why did our skins rebel with potholes and volcanoes, our bodies burst into embarrassing blossom or embarrassingly fail to?

And the boys faired no better. Boys had barely moved from punch-the-girl-in-the-arm games. They still snickered over their little toilet jokes. They were half a head shorter than most of the girls. Their voices went from soprano to bass and back again, like a radio signal squeal.

We were, in a way, gingerly testing the waters of teenhood with character books instead of toes. We were afraid to put into words our feelings and needs, our desire to be noticed, to be liked, to be Somebody with a capital S.

What we were afraid to say, we had no hesitation in writing down for the whole class to see.

So here was the character book sitting in my lap, waiting to be filled. Someone might want to read my answers. Maybe it would prompt him to walk me down the hall, or slip me a note in study hall. Maybe he would recognize in my answers that we were soul-mates.

When you are 15, even an awkward 15, all things are possible-and who knows-that someone might, at the next Sock Hop, push himself away from the Brylcreem wall and swagger over and ask me to dance.

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