(Image courtesy of

(Alert to squeamish male readers:  Approaching menstrual cycle.  Be forewarned if you can’t deal with it.)

I can pinpoint the decline of my math ability to the onset of puberty.

Up until then, I’d done pretty well.  I wasn’t about to win any math scholar awards, but I was a steady B/C student at dear old Shenendehowa Central.  I could adequately add and subtract, multiply and divide, and thanks to Mr. Virga in seventh grade, I totally ROCKED geometry.  (First time in my life I ever got A’s in math.  Thank you, Mr. Virga, for that little boost of self-confidence.  If there’d been a way, I’d never have had any math teacher but you.)

Puberty, when it arrived, hit me like a tidal wave in every way you can imagine.  In the era when I was going to school, puberty and menstrual cycles and the like were topics to be avoided (at least by my mother).   Sex “education” (and if there was ever a misnomer, it’s that one) was a new concept in our school system, a thing talked about in hushed whispers by students gathered in dark corners.  Those in charge of imparting such wisdom didn’t even teach us as a co-ed class, but split us up — boys to talk with the male gym teachers, girls with the female.  Not that they told us much.  I never did hear about what they said to the boys, but they showed the girls a totally confusing movie about something called a period, flashed a sanitary napkin and stretchy garter belt contraption for two seconds, and dismissed us in the confidence that they’d taught us everything we needed to know.

Say what?

(For those of you women out there who don’t know what I’m talking about, who never had to deal with the elastic garter belt with the aluminum clips that secured a frigging LOG-SIZED wad of cloth between your legs rendering you incapable of walking like anything other than John Wayne or a toddler with a poop-filled diaper, well, consider your ignorance a blessing.)

My mother was no better than the teachers when it came to explaining the facts of life.  First, she thrust a paperback “instruction manual” at me and told me to read it.  I did, but it didn’t make much sense.  The topic must have been as hard to write about as it was to talk about, because I could almost feel the author blushing.  Mom breathed a sigh of relief when she heard about the sex-ed course, figuring that she’d managed to dodge that particular bullet.  Consequently, I was totally ignorant of the changes going on in my body until the morning I woke up in a bed full of blood.

Yeah, that was my first thought, too.

Once I got past the terror of thinking I was bleeding to death, Mom tried (well, sort-of tried) to explain things to me.  I had a melt-down.  Looking back, I think it was fright coupled with ignorance and a few other things, but Mom (ever the compassionate soul) had no time for my melodrama.  “I don’t know what you’re crying about,” she said in dismay and disgust.  “Your sisters never cried.  Why can’t you just be like your sisters?”

Not helpful, Mom.

After experiencing such an event, you feel different upon returning to school.  You wonder if others can tell what’s happened.  You wonder if it’s happened to them.  From where I stood, I was the only girl in high school having trouble with the transition.  The rest of them appeared so grown up all of a sudden, so mature.  They glowed.  They sparkled with assurance and a secret knowledge that I did not possess.  They moved in slow motion, unseen breezes passing through their hair.   They were a Breck shampoo commercial made manifest.

 (courtesy of

I hated them.

Worse, I hated me and my maturing body.  I wasn’t ready to grow up.  Terrified of what awaited me as an adult, I wanted nothing but to remain a child for as long as possible.  Unfortunately, the world had other ideas.

But I was talking about math.

See, my menstrual cycles were so bad, the flow so heavy and so long-lasting, that I often BEGGED my mother to let me stay home.  Rather than:
a) have a fight about it, or
b) sit down and talk with me like a sympathetic/empathetic guide through this (let’s face it) huge transition in a girl’s life, Mom let me stay home.  I’m not talking just a day or two, I’m talking two, three, four days at a time.  Sometimes the entire week.  At which point, I would have a week’s worth of homework to make up.

English, history, and science were no problem.  But math?  Oy!  I should never have been allowed to skip math, because what happened in math, colliding  with the tsunami of puberty like the iceberg against the Titanic, was proofs.

Oh, dear God in Heaven, what the hell is that all about?  I still don’t understand the point of those damn things.  I mean, so, okay — two plus two equals four.  We KNOW two plus two equals four, we can SEE that two plus two equals four, so why the hell do we have to PROVE it?!?!?  I was totally, completely, irredeemably lost.

It didn’t help that I had a teacher who truly had no interest in teaching.  She wanted to stand at the board, talk a bit, maybe write down a thing or two, and have the knowledge leap from her brow into our heads in the world’s single largest case of osmosis without having to answer any questions.  When I asked to stay after school and meet her in the library for tutoring, she behaved as if truly put out by the suggestion.  Oh, she did it — once or twice — but then she told me not to bother coming anymore because I obviously wasn’t going to get it.  She passed me with a D+ and I’m convinced that was a gift.

I’m long past the age where menstrual issues bother me anymore, but old habits run muscle deep.  Have someone mention algebra and I double over in agony.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.




About Melissa Crandall

Longer ago than I care to admit--although I will--I cut my writing teeth on fanzines and media tie-in novels. Since then, I've moved on to narrative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and essays. I write to explore and understand the world around me, the things I see and experience nearby or from a distance. If I shake myself up, cool. If I shake you up, even better. Not gratuitously--what's the point in that?--but to set what I know, or think I know, on end and realize, "Well, doesn't it look different from this side!" My work is neither sexually explicit nor graphically violent. Let's face it - your imaginations will come up with things far worse than anything I could write, no matter how descriptive. Besides, it's just not my thing. I live in Connecticut with my supportive husband Ed, a cat named Ruby who might just think she's a dog, and an epileptic Australian shepherd named Holly who isn't quite certain anymore who she is, except she knows she loves her mommy.
This entry was posted in Childhood, Coming of age, Essays, Family, Fear, Melissa Crandall, Memoir, Menstruation, Mentrual Cycle, parenting, personal growth, Personal History, Puberty, Shenendehowa, Shenendehowa Central, Women, Writer, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cramps

  1. Becky says:

    I love your description of wearing a sanitary napkin…once again you hit the nail on the head..Thanks so much for making me laugh in an other wise stressful time.
    Love ya..

  2. Algebra! …sorry; couldn’t resist.

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