Funny the things that you remember so clearly from childhood. It was more than 40 years ago and I can still hear those words and see that small mouse-faced girl with the short-cropped brown hair. I don’t remember her name, but I can see the Kindergarten classroom and hear the snide tone of her voice. It’s my recurring nightmare to this day and a moment that shaped my life.
It was career week at my elementary school in 1978 and the assignment for Monday was to come dressed as one of our parents. If we didn’t already know, we were supposed to ask our parents where they worked and what they did at their job, and then come to school dressed as they would at work, stand up in front of the class and tell everyone about what we had learned about our parent’s jobs.
I went home with this assignment for career week full of excitement. I already knew what my Mom and my stepdad did for work. My stepdad, I called him my Ken, was a delivery driver. He drove a big truck delivering new washers and sofas to people’s houses. It was exciting for my brother and me when he would let us play in the back of the truck or pay us $5 to rub hard wax all over the wooden floor so that the big boxes would slide easily across it, but it didn’t seem to my five-year-old mind, like something exciting to tell my classmates about or to come to school dressed in jeans and a work shirt like him. My Dad did a similar job, delivering for drug stores, and although we always loved being picked up from school in his work truck and sliding around the back in crates while he drove us the one block to his house from school, I didn’t want to wear just plain clothes to school.
Yes, it was all about the clothes! I wanted to wear a costume! I wanted people in class to be impressed!
By the next day, my thoughts were focused on my mom. She worked at a bank and dressed up fancy (to my five-year-old senses) every day. She wore nice skirts and blouses, jackets and high heels. She always did her hair up nice and wore makeup. I thought she was the prettiest person in the world. I wanted to come to school dressed just like her!
I don’t remember if I worked this out with my mom. I know we were supposed to ask our parents about their work and get their help dressing as they did, and I’m sure my mom helped me with my hair (and a little makeup), but those specifics are lost to me today. I do remember thinking that I couldn’t wear her clothes because they were way too big, but I could wear my own nicest clothes and curl my hair like hers and that’s exactly what I did.
On the day of the assignment I came to school full of pride. I was wearing a frilly blue dress my mom had got me for a party we had gone to. I had white stockings on and shiny black shoes. My hair was curled, and I had a matching ribbon. And I was thrilled that my mom had let me wear just a little makeup like hers! I walked to school as if I were the queen of the world. I felt gorgeous and soon everyone would know how important and pretty my Mom was when I told them what her job was.
Parents dropping their kids off at school and kids that walked with older brothers and sisters were slowly trickling into the Kinder play area. I was too dressed up to play and waited at the door where we all would line up when the bell rang for class and soon it did. Other kids came running up to the concrete porch area in front of the door to line up behind me and another girl that was talking to me.
Most of the kids in my class were dressed up in crazy outfits that day. One I remember had a white apron on and baggy black pants with a paper hat on his head. His Dad worked at the meat counter at the grocery store. Another girl had her dad’s McDonald’s shirt on like a dress, belted at the waist, hanging almost to her ankles. One boy had on jeans and his dad’s old construction work boots. I had begun to worry. Everyone else was wearing something of their parents, no matter how big the clothes were. I was different.
That’s when I saw her look at me. That tall girl that always seemed like she was angry about something. Her snack wasn’t the right one. Someone took her pencil when it was clearly right on the floor next to her. Strangely, I don’t remember what she was wearing but I remember her walking straight up to me and looking at my dress. She gave that mousy, narrow-eyed look of a kid that’s sure you must be crazy, and said, “What are you supposed to be? Tinkerbell?”
I was instantly mortified. I had interpreted the assignment to dress up “LIKE” a parent. Everyone else took the assignment literally and wore their parent’s clothes.
I honestly can’t remember what my reply was. My memory has two versions. One is probably closer to what happened, and the other is what my older self wishes I had said.
I stammered an answer with tears in my eyes, face flushing red, “My mom dresses up nice to work at the bank.”
The other, more clever answer? “Yes. My Mom works at Disneyland and she IS Tinkerbell.”
It really doesn’t matter what I said, what was important was the “I really screwed up” feeling that stuck with me for the rest of my school life, my whole life if I’m honest. To this day, I am still afraid to stand out.
It’s embarrassing to admit that it still affects me, that I just can’t let it go. There’s no one to blame. She wasn’t a bad person; she was a child. Even as adults, people generally don’t say things to hurt others deliberately. She didn’t mean to cut me down or ruin my life, she just said what she was thinking, and I took it so personally, internalized it so much that it continued to direct my actions my whole life. That’s on me.
Strange to think that one incident can have such a strong impact on a life, but it did in my case. I can’t say that that girl’s remark about my costume choice changed me or if it just accentuated a feeling I already had. I had always been a sensitive and shy kid. Her remark was probably one of hundreds over my lifetime that shaped me. But should they have? Should anyone else’s opinion shape our choices, especially the opinions of people that we don’t really care to impress?
What could I have done differently? How could I have reacted differently? Was there an adult in my life that could have changed how I felt about it? I will never know.
Why did this memory come up? Because I want to go to the Renaissance Faire in the spring and I so desperately want to dress up! And you know what? I’m afraid to! Yes. I’m still afraid to dress up. I’m 46 years old and afraid to dress up and go to an event that is known for its costumed patrons! At what point does one get over these kinds of things?
How can I change this? How do I start doing things because I want to and they make me happy and not worry about what anyone else thinks? I do it in lots of different ways, but not with my clothes. I just can’t bring myself to stand out like that.