I was in ninth or tenth grade. My mother had only recently stopped screening my book choices. I was still getting books from the Assignment section at the library.
But since those were books usually assigned to high school and college students, the standards of what kind of material was “inappropriate” were of course different from what I was expected to follow.
So this evening, sitting curled up on the armchair in the living room while my mother folded laundry nearby and my younger sisters sat at the dining room table doing their homework, I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
There was a lot in the book I didn’t understand. But I was used to attempting to figure things out as I read.
Eventually, though, I realized that I didn’t understand one point that was essential to the plot. So I did what I always did when I didn’t understand something – I asked my mother.
“Mommy,” I said, “what does ‘rape’ mean?”
My mother looked up from her laundry-folding, startled. I saw her eyes widen, but then she answered: “It means to hurt someone very badly.”
Satisfied, I went back to reading. The plot now made sense.
Later that night, I was alone in the kitchen with my mother.
“Next time you don’t understand a word,” she said, “wait until no one else is around to ask me, okay? Sometimes the word means something that I don’t want your younger siblings to hear about.”
I was started by the idea that she might want to define some words for me but thought it wasn’t appropriate for others to know about it, so I forgot to ask her that night if “rape” has any definition different from “hurt someone very badly.”