My first exposure to Honey Creek School was in second grade, when our class, like every other second grade class in the county, took a field trip there. Our teacher, Mrs. Stone, had explained to us that we would be transported back to 1876 and should dress accordingly. Our school bus drove away from Bloomington and into what most of the rest of Indiana is, to Honey Creek, a one-room yellow clapboard schoolhouse at the top of a hill. The bus couldn’t make it up the hill for reasons of either mechanics or authenticity, so we climbed up the gravel path, rocks crunching under our hiking boots.
All day, we did what was undeniably schoolwork but with an exotic tinge. Math was called “ciphering,” and we did it with a hard gray pencil on pieces of slate; the worksheets were handwritten. Mid-morning, the schoolmarm, Miss Birch, handed out thick slices of bread with jam and bright yellow butter. Outside, we learned more quaintly worded versions of games we already played, like Red Rover and hand-clapping. When 2 o’clock came around and Miss Birch exhorted us to get home and help our mamas with supper, I found myself disappointed to leave. That night, my mom didn’t need my or my little sister’s help making spaghetti and meatballs. We ate, watching Wheel of Fortune while my dad worked late.
But Honey Creek wasn’t even close to being done with me. The historical aesthetic became a recurring theme in my reading and viewing habits, in mutual recommendations with my friend Samantha. We read Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and their sequels, talked to each other in lines from the CBC Anne adaptation, and tried to learn how to knit and cross-stitch. Samantha’s mom had just finished a Ph.D. in history; she fed us details about foul-smelling home remedies and helped us convert recipes. We enlisted our younger sisters in Little Women cosplay to get the numbers accurate. I subscribed wholly to Louisa May Alcott’s conceptions of healthy girlhood: exercise and time outside, a balance of work and play, moralistic frowning on vanity and ornamentation. The “bad” girls in these books powdered their faces, narrowed their waists with corsets, and cared about ribbons instead of charity. All of this wholesomeness felt like a rebellion against the tacky trends other girls in my school followed. Let them have their Tiger Beat posters, their slap bracelets and troll dolls. I was the only one in third grade with my own embroidered handkerchief.
A year after the field trip, Dr. Norris, Samantha’s mom, got a job teaching at the University of Louisville. Louisville was a two-hour drive away, a distance that felt untenable. But before they left, Dr. Norris told my mom that we could attend Honey Creek School’s week-long day camp in the summer. This was the first I was hearing about this camp, and I resented that no one had told me before about an experience so obviously perfect for me.
I also felt the burn of resentment the first day of Honey Creek summer camp when we all piled into our car to get picked up by a school bus at an elementary school on the north side of town. Even though they were in the midst of packing, Samantha and her sister Hannah’s outfits packed a more authentic punch than mine and my sister Christina’s. The Norrises’ lunch baskets were properly aged-looking, and they had petticoats on under their dark red and green gingham dresses and white aprons. My mom had made us dresses, but they were in a ’90s pastel palette. I’d squealed over them when she pulled them out of the sewing machine, but now they seemed out of place. My basket had most recently held potpourri on an end table in the living room, and my peanut butter sandwich, though accurately wrapped in wax paper, smelled like fake roses. At least we were all on the same page with bonnets.
The school bell was ringing when we got there on Monday morning. There was Miss Birch in several layers of petticoats, the same dirty-blond curls piled on her head, tanner than in the spring. “Y’all are so late!” she shouted. “We’ve all been up since sunrise, so it’s about time you showed up, lazy bones! Now get on in and find your desks. Your names are on them.” Inside were the three columns of paired wooden desks, bolted to the floor and to each other with iron scrollwork. Samantha and I found our desks next to each other in the middle of the room. The kids ranged from six to a handful of eleven- and twelve-year-olds. It was more authentic, Miss Birch told us, to have all ages mixed up together in one schoolhouse. She also had an assistant during the summer, Miss Cooper, a middle-aged woman whom she called a “spinster,” so they could break the students into age-appropriate groups.
Over a week, Miss Birch had time to develop a longer arc. First thing Tuesday morning, she opened her desk drawer, screamed, and marched outside holding a fake mouse. She pointed at a nine-year-old boy, naming him the culprit, and ordered him to stand at the blackboard, his nose inside a circle of chalk, for five minutes. When she let him sit down, his breath had condensed on the board. “Not only did you put a mouse in my desk, but now you’ve drooled all over my chalkboard,” she said, shaking her head. On Wednesday, we filled out family trees, complete with the etymology of our last names, which Miss Birch had looked up for us. She’d had a little difficulty with my Greek name, she said, but as far as she could tell, it meant “dumpling-maker.” (That one followed me around for a while.) It escaped my notice that everyone’s family tree started in Europe. It didn’t occur to me that my Black or Asian classmates might not be as into living in 1876 as I was.
Each day, Miss Cooper took groups on nature walks in the woods that surrounded the schoolhouse, armed with identification packets of leaves and flowers. We went to the edge of the eponymous creek and reached in for moss and fossils. After the walk, we’d wash our hands at the pump with scratchy black soap and eat our basket lunches on benches outside. The woods were bursting in the summer. I talked to Samantha about Anne Shirley’s almost-pagan devotion to nature and how I felt at home in a way I rarely did in our new subdivision, with its spindly young trees where our backyard backed up to a golf course.
At the end of the week, our parents drove to Honey Creek, parked in the dirt at the bottom, and climbed the hill. We stood in rows and sang a few songs, then each walked forward and delivered what Miss Birch called recitations. The youngest kids had sayings of a line or two, the oldest longer poems by Robert Louis Stevenson or Walt Whitman. After they sat through that, our parents came in to see what we’d been doing during the week—the crafts we’d made and the leaves we’d found. Only our moms came. Neither Mr. Norris nor my dad showed much interest in any of our historical activities. This fit with my sense, gleaned from L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott, that men were secondary characters in this romanticized past. Their stories were about women and girls doing things together and for themselves. That felt right to me in a strangely visceral way.
It’s what I looked forward to the first time I visited Samantha for a long weekend in Louisville that fall, and I was not disappointed. Their house had been custom-built, and it was easy to slip right back into 1800s cosplay. There was a fireplace in the kitchen with a big iron kettle, though I never saw Samantha’s mom or their housekeeper cook with it. Samplers that Samantha, her mom, and her grandmother had all replicated from colonial and Civil War-era patterns hung on the wall. A huge herb and flower garden took up part of the huger backyard. There was even a secret compartment in one of the upstairs rooms where we huddled like the Marches in their attic, playing cards or writing short plays we made our moms endure. At the end of the weekend, my mom practically had to drag me away. The last thing I wanted was to go back to our house in Bloomington with its leaking crawl space and brewing divorce.
We cycled back and forth to each other’s houses a few times a year, and starting the following summer, Samantha stayed with us for a week. At night we stayed up late, talking about Samantha’s new school and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. During the day, we went to Honey Creek. Each year, we moved closer to the back of the schoolhouse, and there were fewer kids, and no boys, in my age group. We graduated from pulling yarn with dull needles through punched holes in sewing cards to weaving “Indian” patterns on cardboard looms. We were assigned tougher ciphers and longer poems. We were allowed to whittle sticks we found with pocket knives. We read about local history and geology and helped younger kids with their recitations. We cliqued up on the bus and while pushing each other in the wooden swing in the schoolyard. One year, Miss Birch accused Samantha of putting the mouse in her desk, and we cackled like insiders.
The third summer, Samantha and I were eleven. Samantha and I hadn’t seen each other since winter break, and she’d told me her mom was making her some new dresses. My mom was also making me new dresses, which I had strictly instructed her to make more like the Norrises’—more shapeless, with spacious aprons. On Monday morning, I flounced out of the bathroom with my new blue dress and apron on, and I found Samantha already dressed and in a whole new silhouette: a red-and-white checked dress with a darted waist, heart-shaped buttons, and a low neckline edged in scarlet rickrack. I realized with a shock that Samantha had gotten boobs. I felt disoriented by breasts at Honey Creek. In the books we loved, womanhood was a state of mind that our heroines grew into modestly. Not a whisper of the discussions of puberty that seemed to be popping up everywhere lately, from Judy Blume books to Girl Scout meetings, and which terrified me. In my copy of Little Women, I’d underlined the description of Jo March that she had “the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn’t like it.”
That week, we rented the hot-off-the-press video of the new Little Women movie from Blockbuster. Our running commentary ranged from the spot-on casting to the parts we wouldn’t have left out if we’d written it. (None, is what parts I would have left out and, in fact, had started writing a screenplay on my dad’s typewriter that followed the first two chapters word for word.) My younger sister Christina, who joined us, seemed bored unless Christian Bale was on screen. The next time he swanned into a scene, she sighed, “He’s so hot.” Samantha nodded vigorously. “He’s totally fine. Did you see Newsies? When he’s, like, dangling off that fire escape?” Samantha raised her eyebrows while I furrowed mine. When I’d bought the Entertainment Weekly with the photo spread about the movie, it was a page with Winona Ryder and Claire Danes that I’d cut out and taped to the inside of my locker door, until a snotty classmate told me “girls usually don’t have pictures of other girls in their lockers” and I pulled it off, red-faced. When Christian Bale and Winona Ryder kissed, Christina and Samantha squealed and gasped at the string of saliva that hung between their mouths for a second. The scene did cause a twitch in my solar plexus, but I was more moved by what happened immediately afterward, which was Jo telling Laurie to get lost and saying she would never marry.
That fall in school, we were assigned to read biographies, and I read one written for kids about Louisa May Alcott. We were required to present to the class as the subject of the biography, an assignment I obviously relished. I dressed up in my Honey Creek finest, added a brooch at my neck and put my hair in a bun. I ended the presentation by proudly announcing to the class that I was independent and had remained unmarried my whole life.
“Maybe you were a lesbian,” someone in the back muttered.
“Who said that?” Our teacher stood up from her desk. No one answered, and she told me I could sit down. Jessica Brown, who sat next to me, leaned over and said, “What an idiot. Everyone knows they didn’t have lesbians back then.”
This response made sense to me. Lesbians didn’t look like old-fashioned people; they looked like men—like Ellen DeGeneres or my orchestra teacher, Ms. Ruger. And they talked about being lesbians, a lot, which Louisa never did. Besides, it was irrelevant what Louisa May Alcott was doing in the bedroom, because she had loftier things to think about. It was obvious to me that she had been married to her craft, and that sounded like a plan I could follow.
Samantha and I drifted apart. At one point, we’d written letters regularly, and now we barely spoke. She seemed obsessed with losing weight and buying clothes at very specific stores we didn’t have in Bloomington, like Abercrombie & Fitch. When she called me around my thirteenth birthday in April, she told me about a high school party she’d gone to. “Have you ever been fingered by a guy?” she asked, lowering her voice.
The farthest I’d gone was some chaste kissing in the library with a short-lived boyfriend, Chris, my stand partner in the youth orchestra. Besides Chris, I’d been infatuated with several boys at school, analyzing their every word and innocent hand-brush in my journal. “Um… I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh. My God. It feels. So good. You have to try it. I was a little drunk, though, so I think I’ll have to do it again sober.”
“Oh my God. Definitely,” I said. “Cool. I will have to try it.”
It’s not as if I was immune to feelings below the belt. My hazy-on-the-details dreams and fantasies were populated not with my young classmates, but actors from the movies we’d watch on HBO at my grandparents’—Keanu Reeves, Jeff Goldblum, John Leguizamo. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” I’d written in my journal about a Goldblum-esque counselor my mom made us go to after my parents got divorced, “but his voice really turns me on.” For the most part, though, I minimized the feelings, ashamed that they interfered with worthier thoughts about my career plans as a writer, dancer, and/or doctor.
“Anyway,” Samantha continued, “speaking of sober, this summer I’m gonna go stay with my cousins in South Carolina. Their parents don’t care if they drink. They have a wave runner and a karaoke machine, and it’s gonna be the shit.”
“So, you’re not coming to Honey Creek?”
There was a long pause. “…No. You’re…um…going?”
“Well… I don’t know yet, I was just wondering.”
“Yeah, I think we’re a little old for that now.”
“Totally. Well…have a great summer if I don’t talk to you before then!”
I hung up the phone and stared at it for a long minute. What the fuck was happening? Was this an alternate universe? All of that sounded terrible, and scary, and I worried for Samantha’s future. She might do something awful, like get an eating disorder or have actual sex. She was clearly headed down the same path as Meg March’s slutty friends, never understanding what is truly important in life.
Thirteen was the upper age limit for Honey Creek, and when Mom asked me if I wanted to go even without Samantha, I said yes. I didn’t tell her or any of my classmates, and I was the only thirteen-year-old waiting for the bus on Monday morning. In the schoolhouse, I was seated next to a girl I’d never seen before. The nametag on her desk read “Maggie.” She told me she had just turned twelve and went to a school on the other side of town. She looked like the description of Diana Barry, Anne Shirley’s “bosom friend” in Anne of Green Gables—dark, curling hair in two braids, eyes a gorgeous blue. I liked her immediately and felt the sting of Samantha leaving me behind ease a little.
Maggie and I bonded quickly. We developed inside jokes immediately and spent the week winking at each other over them. I liked the way she took the lead on hikes down to the creek, swinging her arms and laughing. We ate lunch sitting close together on a mossy log, chatting about what we wanted to do when we grew up. On Wednesday, when we got off the bus to head to our parents’ cars, she put her arms around me for a quick hug. Electricity shot through me from throat to pelvis. “See you tomorrow,” I choked out, not sure what had just happened, but realizing that I’d really been wanting her to hug me. Maggie winked at me, and the electricity happened again. I righted myself and got in the car. “Is that your new friend?” my mom asked, putting the car in gear. I nodded, trying to arrange my face neutrally.
When we got home, I ran up the stairs and shut the door to my room. I felt like I was going to throw up. Not because I was disgusted, but because a disorienting realization was washing over me. I knew why I liked Maggie so much. I liked her the same way I’d liked Chris, and Jeff Goldblum, and, if I was honest, Winona Ryder and Claire Danes too. Maybe Louisa May Alcott and Susan B. Anthony and the other old maids I admired were lesbians. Maybe they did have them back then.
I guessed the word was “bisexual.” It sounded sleazy to me, like a word Samantha would use to describe a wild weekend. I didn’t know what to do with this knowledge. I definitely didn’t want to tell anyone, but I felt like they would be able to tell. Suddenly I felt exposed by things that seemed innocent before—a Sarah McLachlan CD, a pair of rainbow-striped socks, an old copy of Seventeen magazine that merely mentioned the Indigo Girls. I took a deep breath and started changing out of my Honey Creek clothes into shorts and a T-shirt. I decided to reread some L.M. Montgomery stories, the most wholesome and distracting thing I could think of.
The next morning on the bus, Maggie scooted onto the seat next to me, our legs touching from hip to knee. “Two more days left!” she said, making a pouty face. “It’s almost over.” She leaned over me to open the window and I froze. I felt like she could see everything I was thinking, but I also wasn’t mad at her body draped over mine. My face was hot. I tried to act normal around her for the next two days, but it was a struggle.
On Friday afternoon, the parents came as usual to the afternoon program. I had the longest piece, an Emily Dickinson poem. At the end, when Miss Birch handed out our certificates of completion, she paused before giving me mine. “We have a student here who has gone through as many years of Honey Creek as you can,” she said, using a tone my mother used with her special-ed students. “I want to recognize Elizabeth Galoozis, a gentle soul who has served as a wonderful role model to our younger students. I wish you luck, Elizabeth, as you…” She searched for the right word. “Graduate from Honey Creek.” I beamed as my mom took a picture and the rest of the parents clapped uncertainly.
Afterwards, I lingered by the swing with Maggie. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers which, for some reason, we would never put to use. We stood close to each other.
My mom was hovering. She was sweating and probably wanted to get to the air-conditioned car.
“I’ll miss you, Elizabeth,” Maggie said. My name in her mouth made me swallow hard. I looked intensely into her blue eyes, wanting her to get a mental transmission of how I felt about her, but also never ever wanting her to know. In subsequent years, still a long way from integrating these feelings, I often replayed these last moments at Honey Creek, the long walk down the hill for the last time.
has published poems in Sundog Lit, Faultline, Sinister Wisdom, RHINO Poetry, and others. Her poem “The Grove” was a finalist for the Inverted Syntax Sublingua Prize for Poetry. Her scholarly work has appeared in The Library Quarterly, College & Research Libraries, and others from ACRL Press. She works as a librarian and lives in southern California.