The School Play
When I was in elementary school, there was a girl in my class who I idolized. Her name was Amelia Jennings and she was not only the same size as me, but her first name was next to mine in the alphabet, so when we were lined up by name or by height, we would be next to each other.
There the similarities ended. She had yellow blond hair which reached down to the middle of her back, she was graceful -- she took ballet -- she was self-assured and smart and popular and got good grades. And she was cute and dressed to bring that cuteness out. I on the other hand was a boy. I had very short hair because my father believed boys should have crew cuts and laughed off my objections as a child's foolishness. My clothes were dull khaki and navy blue from J.C. Penney's boys' department. I was gawky and a social and physical klutz -- I couldn't catch a ball if it was dropped in my hands and if I threw a ball, I was lucky to get it into the same time zone as my target. I counted myself lucky when I was ignored by the other kids, which I managed most of the time except for Joe, Fred, and Kelly, three class clowns and part-time bullies who I called "the three stooges" (but not to their faces.)
Even our politics differed -- my family was staunch Republican, while Amelia was a Democrat: she'd worn a black armband for a month after Kennedy was assassinated. She normally preferred to ignore my presence even when we were next to one another in line, but when I came to class wearing my "Goldwater for President" button, she finally took notice of me, but only to shower me with withering contempt.
So things went until shortly after Christmas vacation. Mrs. Murphy, the art teacher, decided what we needed to spice up the winter months was a school play. We had all seen The Wizard of Oz on television, so an adaptation for the elementary school stage was the obvious choice. The first and second graders were munchkins and winkies, and the three stooges were given the part of -- no surprise -- flying monkeys. The lead parts were assigned based in large part on who was most likely to remember their lines, with Amelia getting the part of Glinda. There was no way Glinda could be floated in in a giant bubble, so it was decided to have a herald, with a toy trumpet and a suitably grand speech to announce her. I don't know why, but I was given the part of the herald.
At the first rehearsal we were given our scripts and measured for costumes. Mrs. Murphy, some of the mothers, and some of Mrs. Murphy's friends from the days before she was a teacher were going to find or make our costumes.
Rehearsals went on for six weeks. I eventually learned to deliver my few lines to Mrs. Murphy's satisfaction and Amelia eventually learned to not show her distaste for her herald while on stage. All went well, or at least as well as could be expected, until a week before the performance, when we had to try on our costumes. Instead of taking the time to have try them on in school where she could check the fit herself and incidentally make sure nothing got lost, Mrs. Murphy gave each of us a bag with our costume and asked our mothers to check the fit. If it fit well, she invited us to wear them to school. For some reason, she also saw fit to warn me that I shouldn't worry if my costume seemed a little fancy and frilly, because back in the day when there were heralds, that was how the manliest of men dressed.
So off I went to catch my bus, carrying a bookbag and a huge bag stuffed with a costume with a lot of white in it. I sat by myself as usual and practiced my speech the whole way home, at least until the other kids told me to shut up.
When I got home, my Mom was in the kitchen dealing with my baby brother. "Hi, Mom, Mrs. Murphy sent my costume home with me, you're supposed to check it."
"Okay, honey, why don't you go to your room and put it on. When you're done, give me a shout."
I emptied the bag on my bed, and saw that it was all white. The pile contained a pair of white tights, a sort of dress like an undershirt with a lot of poufy netting on the bottom, which I now know is called a petticoat, and a white satin thing with some kind of see-through outer layer which I assumed must be the tunic but which looked an awful lot like a dress. Actually, exactly like a dress. The manliest of men, I reminded myself. I took off my clothes except for my underpants and put on the tights and the petticoat. It felt completely different from anything I had ever worn. It took a few minutes for me to realize that I liked it. I then put on the dress. It zipped up the back, which I couldn't figure out how to do, so I just left it unzipped. I noticed some white ballet slippers had fallen out of the bag, too, so I put them on.
It felt heavenly. I guess those manly men back then knew something guys these days just don't understand, I thought. If this is what 'manly' felt like, I was all for it. I went out into the hall and looked at myself in the full length mirror at the end. The petticoat made the skirt of the dress stick out in a really pretty way. I twirled and watched the skirt stick out a little bit more. I loved how it looked. I loved how it felt. It was like I was looking at some me and feeling like some me that I had never known existed. I felt like I was in a dream.
"Ambrose! Are you ready for me to check your costume?" my mother called up the stairs.
"I guess so." Actually, I would have been happy to stay looking at myself in the mirror all night. I heard her come up.
"Ambrose! What on earth are you wearing?" my mother exclaimed when she saw me.
"It's my costume! This is what Mrs. Murphy made for me."
"But it's a dress!"
"It's a tunic. Mrs. Murphy said that's how manly men dressed in those days."
"Are you sure there hasn't been a mixup? Might you have gotten someone else's costume by mistake?"
"But this is what Mrs. Murphy gave me!" I argued.
We went back and forth a few times until my mother gave up arguing with me.
"There's no point trying to talk sense into you when you get an idea in your head. Okay, but I'm going to call up Mrs. Murphy tomorrow to make sure there hasn't been a mistake."
She then zipped it up, looked it over a few times, and rather resignedly pronounced it a good fit. She helped me out of the costume and I put it away and went off to do my homework, or at least as much of it as I had remembered to write down in my notebook.
The next morning, after rushing through breakfast, I went back upstairs and changed into my costume. My father had left and my mother had her hands full with my little sister and my baby brother, so she didn't see me go out the door to the bus stop in my costume. It didn't occur to me to bring clothes to change into. I'm amazed it occurred to me to bring my bookbag.
Danny and Angela were already at the bus stop. "Why are you dressed like a girl?" asked Danny.
"I'm not dressed like a girl, I'm dressed like a herald," I insisted.
"More like a princess," said Angela.
"This is the costume Mrs. Murphy made for me. She says that this is how heralds dressed. Kings and all wore really fancy clothes, so their heralds had to dress fancy, too." They gave up talking to me, but they kept looking at me and giggling.
When I got on the bus, everybody stared at me and a few asked why I was wearing a dress. "It's my costume for the school play!" I insisted. I sat in my usual seat near the back, alone as usual, but I could hear the whispering all the way to school.
When I got off the bus at school, the three stooges were there, and that's when the heckling started in earnest. "Oh look at what Ambrose is wearing. I always knew he was a girl!"
"No, he can't be Ambrose, he must be Ambrosia!"
"You're going to have to start using the girls' toilet!"
I kept insisting, "it's my costume! It's what heralds wear!" but I was having a harder and harder time believing it myself.
When I got into the classroom, Mrs. Taylor, our teacher, looked startled, but before she could say anything, Amelia came over to me and punched me. "That's my costume! Take it off! Take it off right now!"
"Mrs. Murphy told me it was the herald costume!" I whimpered.
"She did not! You took my costume! Give it back!" She started pulling on the sleeves and probably would have punched me again, but Mrs. Taylor pushed us apart.
"Don't pull on the costume, you'll tear it. You don't want that, Amelia, do you?" Mrs. Taylor sat us in opposite corners at the front of the classroom and wrote a note for me to take to the office. This was in the days before hall monitors, when they assumed that ten-year-olds would do as they were told, so I was sent by myself. As I walked down the hall, children were still getting into their classrooms, so there was plenty of opportunity for them to point and stare and giggle at me.
Mrs. Hedges in the office gave me a funny look but said nothing as she read the note. She then went and spoke with the principal and then fetched Mrs. Murphy, who I guess didn't have a class at that time. By this time it was beginning to percolate into my brain that it was pretty likely that I had actually gotten the wrong costume and was actually wearing the Glinda costume, not the herald costume, and I was feeling very, very stupid.
"Why are you wearing the Glinda costume?" asked Mrs. Murphy.
"That's what you gave me yesterday," I protested.
"No, I told you to pick up the bag with your name on it. Did you look at the name?"
"I thought I saw 'Ambrose' on it."
"Fine. Just please change out of it into your regular clothes."
"Uh, my regular clothes are at home. I guess I forgot to bring them."
The grown-ups didn't sound too happy about this, but they didn't say anything. Mrs. Hedges called home and fortunately got my mother, who, as it happens, hadn't gotten around to calling the school yet. My Mom got there about twenty minutes later, carrying my baby brother Warren on one arm and the costume bag, which now had my school clothes, in the other, and the bag was clearly marked 'Amelia.'
"That's so typical for Ambrose," said my mother. "He probably didn't bother to read past the first two letters." I was sent off to the nurse's office to change and, once the nurse had confirmed that I did indeed have all the proper clothes on in the proper places and orientation, she sent me back to my classroom. To my surprise, the school never punished me; they probably had no idea what would be appropriate, or else they were convinced I was hopeless.
My classmates were not so forgiving. Amelia tripped me when I had to go up to the board, and at recess she yelled at me about how much she hated me for getting 'boy cooties' all over her costume. By this point, everyone in the school knew about my wearing the dress, so it wasn't just the three stooges who were calling me "girl" and "sissy" and "queer." I didn't have to worry about losing any friends though, since I hadn't had any to begin with.
Just before my last class was over, Mrs. Murphy showed up in our room. I'd had this idea I'd skip the rehearsal and go straight home, but she must have guessed what I was thinking. She took me by the hand and led me to the cafetorium.
"I don't want to be in the play any more," I whined as we were walking.
"Nonsense! Don't you know, 'the show must go on'?"
"But they'll all laugh at me! I'll feel so stupid."
"You didn't worry about that this morning. If you had enough guts to wear Amelia's costume to school, you have enough to get up on stage and say your lines. It's like what they say about getting back up on the horse after you've fallen."
I didn't have an answer for that, but I was pretty sure that if I fell off a horse, wild horses couldn't drag me back onto one. Come to think of it, I wasn't going to ever fall since I wasn't ever going to get on a horse in the first place.
"Besides, the best way to get the other kids to stop teasing you is to act like what you did is the coolest thing anyone could do. After all, how many other boys would have the courage to wear a Glinda costume to school? Act like you're proud of it, not embarrassed."
"But I am embarrassed," I said, starting to cry. "I feel so stupid!"
She stopped and pulled me into the alcove in front of a door to a classroom. She squatted down so she was the same height as me and looked at me with concern. "Ambrose," she said gently. "Can you tell me: how did you feel when you put on the costume? I promise I won't tell anyone else."
I had never had anyone look like they actually cared what I felt, at least not unless they planned to use what I said to 'improve' me. I just stared at her.
"I've known a few men and even boys who would have loved to wear such a pretty costume. I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I wonder if ... maybe ... you enjoyed wearing it. Maybe you took it by mistake, but once you tried it on, maybe it felt ... really nice. And maybe ... it felt so nice you didn't think of asking yourself why I would have picked out a costume like that for you. But you don't have to tell me unless you want to."
"Why do you want to know? I don't get it." After I said it, I realized that by not denying enjoying it, I'd kind of admitted she was right. I realized I somehow couldn't say I hated it. Not to her.
"Ambrose: I'm an art teacher. That means I get to see sides of kids that the other teachers don't see. And I see a child in front of me who has many good qualities and strengths, but is in a place that only seems to care about his weaknesses. I don't know how much I can do to change that, but I want you to at least know that I see you and I care. I gave you the role of herald -- which I think you do pretty well, by the way -- because I wanted to give you a chance to shine a little bit. That's why I want you to go ahead and play that part anyway."
"But everyone is going to think I'm a sissy." I was crying pretty hard. Any second, one of the other kids was going to come by and see me and really know I was a sissy.
"I don't think you're a sissy. And even if you were, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Besides, how many other kids would have had the guts to do what you did."
"I wasn't having guts. I was just being stupid. I wasn't thinking."
"But they don't have to know that," she said with a conspiratorial grin. "Just act like they're too chicken to do anything like that. Hey, I know! Pretend you are a secret agent and that was part of a secret mission, but since it's secret, you can't let anyone know. Yes, lives depended upon you wearing that dress and never letting anyone know why."
My face was still wet, but I couldn't help giggling at the idea. "It's so secret, even I don't know why!" I said.
"That's right. Need to know and all that. Now come on, Mr. Secret Agent, let's get down to the rehearsal before any of those enemy agents figure out that something is up, okay?"
The rehearsal went remarkably smoothly. To my surprise, Amelia didn't do anything to me during the rehearsals or even the performance. I later heard that it had been explained to her that if she tried to sabotage my performance, it would make her look worse. It didn't stop her from shoving me when the teachers weren't looking, or calling me names. And there were plenty of other kids who called me names. But I kept telling myself "lives depended upon me" and held my head up high and, except for Amelia, they soon got bored and quit.
After that rehearsal, Mrs. Murphy took me aside. "Ambrose, if you ever need to talk to someone about things you don't feel comfortable talking to anyone else about, I'd be glad to listen."
I didn't know what to say except "thanks." After the show was over, she invited me to join an after-school drawing class, so I spent many happy afternoons with her and a few other kids making all kinds of drawings: good, bad, and ugly, as they say. I never talked to her about what I felt when I wore the dress, but I got a sense that she knew and accepted me. It was the one bright spot in an otherwise miserable childhood.
Unfortunately, the school decided not to renew her contract at the end of the year, probably because she wasn't conventional enough for them. She moved and I lost track of her. When I was in my thirties and finally got the courage to deal with the part of me that wearing the dress had awakened, I tried to find her again, and I tried again several years later when I changed my name to Heather, but there was no one left at my old school from when she'd been there, and anyway they wouldn't have seen any reason to keep track of where a teacher who had lasted only a year might have gone. I couldn't even find out her first name.
But I never forgot the sense of understanding and acceptance that I got from her. All my life, through all the times when the world seem dedicated to convincing me how worthless and what a failure I was, I remembered how she thought I was worth something and I took heart. Mrs. Murphy, if you're still alive, and maybe even if you aren't, I wish there were some way to let you know how much of a difference you made in one child's life.
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