Do you know who Roger Clemens is? If you don’t, maybe Google him right now. You’ll thank me later, trust me. My 10-year-old self would’ve thanked me later, too.
In December of 1998 my family moved from Toronto, Canada, to Newton, Massachusetts. I was 10 years old.
We moved in the middle of the school year, so I started the second half of fifth grade at a brand new school with brand new kids in a brand new country. I was really self-conscious about my weight, so I made sure to wear overalls on my first day at my new school — “to cover my stomach so no one notices I’m fat,” I told my mom. I had been sort of dorky at my old school in Canada, but the kind of dorky that was mostly acceptable, at least in the context of my classmates I had known since kindergarten. I imagined my new school like Sweet Valley High, or like the Babysitter’s Club, or like something entirely different that I didn’t want to mess up. I was also an over-imaginative child and saw the move as an opportunity to start fresh, to create a brand new personality. I could be Cool at my new school — I knew I could do it. I just had to be really, really careful.
In a decision that I will never understand, Mrs. G, one of the fifth grade classroom teachers, thought it was a great idea to have the new kid stand in front of the class on her first day and field questions. She didn’t make any boundaries or suggestions about what the questions should be about. I was terrified, but I gamely stood at the front of the room and answered some standard queries. Yes, it really snowed a lot in Toronto, even more snow than what was currently on the ground in our New England suburb. Yes, our money was different, and we really called dollar coins Loonies and two dollar coins Toonies. I had one sibling, a little brother. My favorite color was pink. My favorite book was Ella Enchanted.
And then M, a short boy with long brown hair and mischievous eyes, raised his hand.
“What are your thoughts on Roger Clemens?” he asked, smirking. His mouth turned into a full scale grin as the other kids laughed knowingly, impressed with his question. He’d done a good job, we could all tell, and he would be celebrated accordingly. He was Cool.
Here are some things you can say when you are asked a question for which you do not know the answer:
I don’t know! Who is that person? Sorry, I don’t know why you’re asking me that. I don’t have an opinion. I don’t know who that person is. I’d prefer not to answer. Who? [Insert polite smile, accompanied by endless polite silence.]
Roger Clemens is a baseball player. Nicknamed “Rocket,” his full name is William Roger Clemens and he played 24 seasons in Major League Baseball before retiring. He is one of the most well-celebrated pitchers in the league’s history, known for his competitive nature and his many awards and as “one of Boston’s most important and debated professional athletes.” He started out his career playing with the Boston Red Sox, but he left the team for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997. He played for the Blue Jays for the 1997 and 1998 seasons, then asked to be traded to a more competitive team — he moved to the New York Yankees in time for the 1999 season, right as I arrived in Massachusetts.
Maybe you know how Bostonians feel about the New York Yankees. Maybe you don’t. While writing this story I texted a close friend — a baseball loving queer who was born and raised in Boston — to ask for help explaining exactly why this was a Huge Deal because if we’re being real, I still kind of don’t get it! They laughed for a very long time. Roger Clemens was a key part of the Boston cultural identity in the 90s, they explained. Him going to the Yankees was the greatest disloyalty that could have occurred for a Boston child at that time. If you don’t know how Bostonians are about sports, particularly about their rivalries with New York sports teams… um, well, we don’t have time to cover the intensity of all that. Just trust me! It’s A Lot!
So maybe you can see why this was a deeply loaded question to ask a girl who was just arriving from Toronto, a city where I had enjoyed exactly one (1) baseball game in the short time my family lived there, where Roger Clemens may or may not have been pitching. Maybe you already know I’m not exactly what someone would call a Sports Dyke, and I truly never have been, in spite of my best efforts to be Cool the year I moved in the middle of fifth grade.
Maybe you can see where this is going.
I could’ve said absolutely anything, but for some reason that to this day, more than two decades later, still escapes me, I pulled myself up to my full height, squared my shoulders, turned on my sparkliest smile and said confidently: “I don’t really follow politics.” The class erupted in wide-eyed giggles and guffaws and I continued smiling at the front of the room, certain that I’d made a very smooth move, until Mrs. G wisely concluded the question and answer session and redirected us all to a math lesson.
The worst part about the Roger Clemens fiasco is that I did not know how badly I’d embarrassed myself until months later. No one clued me in on my error, no one took me aside to ask why I’d thought a controversial baseball player had anything to do with politics. Months and months later, after fifth grade graduation, after the summer between elementary school and middle school, after I got my period and then started growing boobs and realized I’d be hitting puberty a lot sooner than my classmates and wasn’t necessarily thrilled about it, after it became clear to me that you cannot recreate your entire being out of thin air and I was simply still a fairly dorky chubby girl at my new school, after I accepted that I was Not Cool and would never be Cool, a friend finally brought up Roger Clemens again.
We were hanging out in my bedroom, sitting on my bed and listening to music, when she asked me: “You know why everyone laughed that day M asked you about Roger Clemens, right?”
I was bright red before she said anything more. I could feel the heat on my face. I didn’t know, of course, I still didn’t know. I had not ever bothered to look up Roger Clemens. I had not asked my parents. I had not checked in the library. I had not tried to search the world wide web on a public computer. I’d simply blacked out the experience of a whole class of strangers laughing at me on my first day at my new school. But now it all came rushing back.
“Um,” I said. “Not really, I guess.”
My friend started laughing, and I waited for her to tell me.
“Well, Roger Clemens is a baseball player? Not a politician?”
You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson, would’ve just nodded solemnly or said something like, “Wow, I didn’t know.”
Instead I smiled unconvincingly and shrugged my shoulders. “I mean, I was kidding,” I said. “It’s not my fault none of you got the joke!”
On the very last day of high school, seven years after he originally asked the question, M signed my yearbook: What are your thoughts on Roger Clemens? I still wasn’t Cool, but at least now I know — neither was he.
Well, That’s Mortifying is a mini series about Autostraddle writers’ most embarrassing moments (think Seventeen’s “Traumarama” column, but the submissions are all from queer adults). Can’t get enough? Read our previous embarrassing story, “That Time I Let My Friend’s Mom Crash My Date.”
I think “I don’t follow politics” is a fucking brilliant answer cuz it’s that much life-or-death and they laughed out of discomfort that you’re that smart.
Signed, a Red Sox fan who clearly remembers Clemens’ betrayal
What an ending line!!
I feel like I could fill a book of things growing up that I didn’t understand or know about from the wider pop culture, I felt like I was constantly pretending to know what everyone else was talking about.
Omg I feel you so hard on this 😭 I wish I’d known all these great replies Vanessa listed were an option: “Who are you talking about?” “I don’t know why you’re asking me that.” “I don’t know who that is.” “I don’t have an opinion.” As a kid I always thought it was rude to say something that direct!
Vanessa, I just want to applaud little 5th grade you! “I don’t really follow politics” said with a sparkling smile is such a great all-purpose reply. You were ahead of your time! 😆
Ohhhh, this situation hits all of my worst nightmares, first days, being singled out in a group, being questioned by strangers (really, a hazing)…
I would probably have answered the same thing, given the context. I’ve always thought of politics as a barely polite form of warfare so, yes, that sure was a political situation.
Wow that’s a great story!
Semi-related in college the professor was comparing politician to baseball player Roberto Clemente. I was like to myself wait does he means Roger Clemens? This was in the late 2000s were smartphones weren’t common yet but I had one & used the buildings Wi-Fi to google it up(I also did this once to look up a test answer during a test, lol).
Vanessa, I got a strong Degrassi vibe from this story, and that’s a high complement.
Don’t worry, once I went up to Roy Williams (quite famous coach of UNC basketball) at a local Chipotle and said hi because he looked so familiar I thought he taught at my high school. I had lived in Chapel Hill for twenty years. I was in grad school at UNC at the time.