In seventh grade, I rode a bus from Philadelphia to Virginia with my Social Studies class. Four hours to a Comfort Inn near Route 60, behind a Golden Corral. Five of us — Dan, Marc, Gabe, Connor, and me — in a corner suite. Two beds. A cot. Five pink felt blankets in the closet, pilling.
A week earlier, we’d taken a unit test on the American Revolution: seventy-seven multiple-choice questions, the answer to each a pillbug-shaped oval on a piece of paper. We knew so much about freedom. The start and end dates of the Battle of Yorktown. The number of men killed at Breed’s Hill. The way General Cornwallis did his hair. Pages of mnemonics, which we mouthed at night, our lips shaped like the names of dead men.
So we’d earned it. Three days in America’s largest living history museum, eating porridge and puddings. On the first day, we saw a reenactment: a woman dressed as a slave sang a song about planting tobacco while her master was in Philadelphia with the Second Continental Congress. When she was finished we wanted to tell her she did a good job, but when we got close she said, “didn’t mean no trouble” and bowed and walked away.
At night we watched Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? During a 7-Up commercial, someone asked if we’d masturbated. We had not. Guessed we should try. So we did, like rookie pilots, managing the blood flow and fine motor coordination, the lung capacity and cerebral intensity needed to assemble our own slideshows of naked body parts. Our knees, our knuckles, and the bottoms of our feet were bright white.
The next day, another reenactment: a man wearing leggings and eyeliner stuck a lavaliere microphone’s transmitter box into his pants as he told us that all men are created equal. We had turnip soup for dinner, white and watery. And at night, we did it again: sitting on our pink felt comforters, naked, our teachers sleeping a few doors down the hall as we turned up the volume on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Freedom is hard.
Browsing Colonial Williamsburg’s website recently, I saw a job opening:
Job Title: Evening Interpreter C
Starting rate: $15.50/hr
Benefits Eligible: No
Job Description: “African American Music” and “Papa Said, Mama Said” – 4 Evening Interpreter C positions who must sing and dance to convincingly portray enslaved African or African Americans.
Physical requirements include, but are not limited to: (1) climbing stairs (exhibition sites); (2) lifting up to 25 pounds unassisted and up to 100 pounds assisted (artifacts, heavy furniture, props); (3) standing for up to 5 hours at a time; (4) working in all types of weather including rain, snow, wind, heat, humidity and storms, and coming in daily contact with allergens including pollen, mold and dust.
America. You can watch a blacksmith — a twenty-seven year-old Syracuse drama grad — hammer heated bars into small shapes by a forge. You can walk up to a woman getting paid $15.50/hr to be a slave and watch her walk away from you, back to the break room where she can check her phone. You can watch five white boys beat off for the first time while a man on TV answers a question about Benjamin Franklin for $100,000.
On our last day, we put our wrists in a pillory. Slid our bodies between two pieces of painted cedar wood. We’d stood in a line of fifty pubescent seventh-graders for the privilege. And when we were done, we went back to Philadelphia.
Now, whenever I do it, I think of Williamsburg. The redcoats, the petticoats, and the crowds of visitors clapping their hands at people who are paid to enact freedom and its side effects. If there’s a better place to learn to masturbate in America, I couldn’t tell you where it is.
This post originally appeared on Medium.