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TESTING HER WINGS

She's the baby in the family. She is daddy's girl. Her dad doesn't want her to grow up, but she can't wait. She's 12, you know, and her first middle school dance is coming up.

She and friends have talked about the dance for weeks. The phone rings constantly. She races her 16-year-old brother for it. He wins and holds the phone above her head until she screams.

She has so many things to discuss with her girlfriends. What's everybody going to wear to the dance? Will your parents allow you to wear makeup? And boys? What boys will be there? A great big, exciting world awaits.

Her dad hates the very thought of his baby dipping her toe into that menacing pool, the real world. He would like to protect her from every danger, from every hurt, from every disappointment.

Last summer, in North Carolina, when a bee stung her, he was the one who wanted to cry. He wanted to take her pain into his own body. A dad can't protect his children from everything, and shouldn't, because some lessons a child has to learn on her own. Just don't let her be hurt.

She needs to know so much. She needs to know it's a man's world, for one thing, and that she will have to fight. A recent study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation found that girls encounter unequal treatment from teachers, books, tests and male classmates. Male and female teachers tend to favor boys, according to the study, and books and tests reflect a male bias. Sexual harassment of girls by boy classmates, meanwhile, is on the upswing.

What a surprise. When it comes to sex, modern society seems to be a big, fast car with bad brakes and a cliff ahead. The ads in the magazines popular with young people do everything but scream "Everybody is having sex _ join the party." In one ad, a naked young man and women press against each other on a swing. In another, a young woman in a motorcycle jacket, naked from the waist down, rubs up against her clothed boyfriend. In some music videos, women in black underwear hang onto the legs of strutting guitarists who sing about their bitches.

Don't miss Doogie Howser: Tonight he loses his virginity.

Meanwhile, in the real world, AIDS waits like a shark beneath a sinking ship. Men and boys who think of women and girls as sex toys have forgotten the meaning of the word "no." For some people, Mike Tyson, convicted rapist, is still a hero. He gave the bitch what she deserved. Yes!

It's a jungle out there, daughter.

Her father knows something about its perils. He was a teen-aged boy once. He was a repressed teen-aged boy, but a teen-aged boy who thought endlessly about sex and read his secret cache of Playboys late into the night. On dates, he retreated, reluctantly, at the word "no." Still, he dreamed about sliding across home plate. How strange it is to have daughters and to love them more than life itself.

It's a Thursday night, and his little girl is practicing her makeup so she can look good at her first dance. She strolls out of her room, grinning. She has painted her face like a young Cleopatra. She laughs and sings the old Bangles tune Walk Like an Egyptian. Even her dad laughs. But he tells her to tone it down. Why should a girl have to paint her face to attract boys?

Oh, dad. You don't understand anything.

She's eager to grow up, that's all, despite the yellow flags her parents throw her way. Be careful, her dad says. Television can be fun, but it's not real life. Nobody has the right to touch you if you don't want to be touched. Always walk to the store with a friend. Be careful to whom you give your telephone number. Be home before dark.

"I Never Date Girls Who Use Four Letter Words Like STOP! DON'T! QUIT!" Daughter, avoid men who place that bumper sticker on their pickup trucks. Don't date men who subscribe to Hustler or insist on going to Hooters.

Her big sister is almost 20. When she was 10, she was standing in the bridal section of a fabric store when a man opened his pants and exposed himself. During the Christmas holidays, another man flashed her and a friend outside a convenience store.

In a quiet corner of a recent party, a boy she hardly knew pinned her down and tried to climb on top of her. Drunk, he did not accept "no." Fortunately, friends arrived in time to stop what was already an ugly incident. Later, this boy _ somebody's son _ denied it even happened.

Last year, she was robbed at gunpoint. Her mother and dad were grateful the robbers wanted only money. Welcome to the jungle.

A dad wishes he could hide his children, especially his daughters, and maybe build a wall around them and install a moat filled with alligators. But they wouldn't like it and neither would he. Baby birds have to leave the nest. But watch out for hawks. They are legion.

And so the 12-year-old is in her room listening to Madonna. She and her friends admire Madonna, who is rich and famous and seems to have lots of boyfriends. Yes, it's fun to listen to Madonna, admits the 12-year-old's dad. BUT WHAT DOES SHE REPRESENT? He isn't exactly sure, and that's what's so frightening. The girl looks at her dad the way he looked at his parents when they fretted about the Rolling Stones.

She and friends retire to her room, lock the door and turn up the stereo. It sounds as if they are practicing their dance floor moves. The music snakes down the hall and into the Florida room like a cobra. In the distance, Madonna brags about being a material girl. Madonna feels like a virgin for the very first time. Madonna sings to her repressed parent, oh father. Has any lingerie company thought to market official Madonna training bras? You know, with spikes on the tips?

The dance happens on a Friday afternoon during sixth and seventh periods. She is allowed to wear a tad of rouge and a little lipstick, but no eye makeup. She comes home happy anyway. Everybody was there, she says. The music wasn't very good, no rap or heavy metal, but kids danced after a while, even she.

"Fast danced?" her dad asks hopefully.

"No," says his little girl, the one he rocked to sleep not so long ago. "Slow danced."

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