In the second grade, I didn’t understand poetry so I plagiarized a poem from Highlights. And I got caught.
My teacher didn’t see my seven-year-old self as rhyming “seen” with “been.” Unfortunately, I did not have a British accent to back up my claim. My mother was forced to teach me what my teacher could not, and after that I couldn’t stop rhyming. This turned into a clever party trick after a few drinks where I would rhyme impromptu, elbow-to-rib, about the (often business formal) guests in my company.
I eventually landed on the editorial board of our high school magazine my senior year, and my mentor and teacher submitted three of his students’ "very interesting” poems for publication. All three were plagiarized from Sassy Magazine. Specifically from the section I memorized like verses at Bible camp – “Stuff You Wrote.” I recognized them right away.
Having repented of my own plagiarism, I felt no guilt in turning these girls in. But mostly because I felt like I needed to defend Sassy. It was my turf they’d desecrated.
My oldest Sassy is from July 1991. I was 14. There was a brown girl on the cover. I am a few shades off white. The cover story was “Scientific Proof that Girls Don’t Like Themselves.” This magazine was made for me-types. My high school years were fraught with monumental changes and the cozy pink shag rug of my adolescent life being pulled right out from under me.
I moved from Chicago, the city where I was raised, to the pretentious suburbs, smack in the middle of high school. I went from a fairly liberal all-girls high school to a conservative public high school funded by colossal property taxes.
From 400 girl students with who-cares hairy armpits to 2,500 that included the elusive boy gender. From ethnic diversity to a dominant majority. From plaid uniforms - albeit hideous, but graciously requiring little thought at my dysfunctional 5 a.m. start – to foreign brand names that I no doubt mispronounced horribly.
My identity was "academic achiever." But my old school apparently lacked the material and instructional resources that my new school had in every classroom. My smartness was not as valued, or as smart. I went from honors to dishonorably discharged.
At 16, my loss of innocence was about culture shock.
When I moved, my Sassy subscription came with me, my $2 therapy in print. The change of address is still there in my collection of magazines, my little museum of adolescent anthropology. Sassy was the college alternative rock station to the mainstream top-40. Sassy made the state of uncool so freaking cool. Sassy was proof that other girls like me existed. I ate up its pages.
Actually, my guinea pig did.
First off, I had a guinea pig. This automatically put me in the margins of society and a target Sassy reader. The magazine had labeled an issue “A Soft Patina of Nausea” on its binding forcryingoutloud.
I was about to send in a note to Sassy when my guinea pig, Oreo – adopted from my old high school’s honors biology class – took a big bite and chomped it down. I was 16 and at the peak of change that involved leaving your first house, your first bedroom, with Joey McIntyre poster corners still stuck to its walls.
It was also around the time publishers launched a Sassy-for-men called DIRT. I found a DIRT-promo postcard inside one of my Sassy issues. I wrote in apologizing for not being the target DIRT reader, but that I was going to read it anyway, so tell me where I can find it.
That’s when Oreo, who hung out with me cage-free, left his signature chomp-print.
Back then, we wrote with paper and pens. It took a lot of effort to construct the written word. No backspace was available and erasing involved physical labor. Plus I did not have another official DIRT postcard to submit. But this was Sassy I was writing to. Surely, of all people, they would understand a guinea pig eating your love letter to a publication.
I just put a note in the corner, with an arrow pointing to what were obviously teeth marks, explaining, “My guinea pig was hungry and ate some of my letter. But he thinks Sassy is delicious.”
I mailed it with no expectations other than possibly receiving a form letter with the locations where DIRT was sold.
Instead, I got this – handwritten, on Sassy letterhead:
“Hi Ashtar, you sent us a note that your Guinea Pig was hungry and ate some of your DIRT envelope. Funny! Thanks for the communique.” [I remember that! Thanks for this lovely story and I'm sorry if it seems too self-referential to anyone that I'm running it. ]
Sassy thinks I’m funny. Suck it, world.
My last Sassy issue was from August 1996, which featured Soundgarden, Porno for Pyros and Goo Goo Dolls (dear God, please tell me someone remembers these). I still have score-marks from having taken the issue’s Self-Esteem Quiz. My results according to Sassy: “Hooray! You are truly pleased with yourself, and most likely, you’ve worked hard to get there.”
From “Scientific Proof that Girls Don’t Like Themselves” to a score of “No Self-Esteem Shortage Here!” Somewhere between my first and last issues of Sassy, I conquered.