June 22, 2015
Summer is here, the time for flip flops and swimsuits. To prepare for the season, I tried on a cover for my one-piece, a sarong of teal with peach lotus flowers. My reflection plunged me into a memory, a formative experience from high school.
As a high school kid, I loved theatre. Our school had a vibrant program, and I tried out for every production, from musicals to one act plays. I loved the thrill of assuming another role, stepping onto stage as a different person. To quote a line I delivered during Rand’s Night of January 16th, “My real name is Ruby O’Toole, but nobody ever calls me that.”
One year, we put on South Pacific. I donned a teal floral sarong and danced with a chorus of girls. We sang about ‘washing men out of our hair’ and ‘talking about things we’d like to do.’ Rehearsals lasted late, but I loved the work.
A friend from drama club flopped down before class one day and buried her head in her arms. I asked, “What’s wrong?” Her voice broke. “They asked me to drop out of the musical.” My mouth dropped open with shock. This friend possessed real skills. Her acting evoked emotion, and her strong voice carried while mine required microphones if I sang alone. Her face blushed crimson, and she sobbed, “They said I’m too fat.”
Kids are sometimes cruel and say hurtful things without regard for others’ feelings. My blood boiled. My beautiful friend, with her gem-bright eyes and freckle-kissed face, carried more weight than I did, but she was not fat. Besides, what did weight matter? She possessed glamour, acting chops, and moxie.
Although not one to stand up for myself, I intended to confront the nasty classmates who had hurt this young woman I admired. “Who said that?” I demanded, outraged.
She sniffled. “The instructors. The drama instructors said I could work behind the scenes, but I’d embarrass myself walking around onstage in a sarong.”
The air left me as though I had been kicked in the gut. I could not confront teachers. Surely my friend had misinterpreted. Adults didn’t belittle and judge superficialities. Teachers built up their charges and prepared them for the world with confidence and knowledge. I dismissed my friend’s complaint as oversensitivity. After all, we teenaged girls looked at the world through the lenses of melodrama, and teachers didn’t undermine students’ self-esteem. Besides, my friend glowed on stage like a fabulous Marilyn Monroe, voluptuous and gorgeous. I allowed her to cry into my shoulder, certain there must be a misunderstanding.
However, my belief was crushed as I waited on the loading dock for my mom to fetch me from a late evening rehearsal. An overheard conversation changed my perspective of and respect for my instructors. Few of the cast escaped their catty comments. I understood a need to assess abilities but found a discussion of someone’s acne or stringy hair unnecessary. Their derisive laughter echoed through the empty parking area. By the time Mom pulled up, the cold wind had dried my disillusioned tears. These instructors I once admired, people I believed had our best interests at heart, were cruel, two-faced frauds.
My first instinct was to quit, but I couldn’t leave my cast mates with a hole in their kick-line. I stopped talking to the instructors. My stomach burned with resentment when I heard their words of encouragement. I wanted to spit words at them, call them on their dishonesty. “Liars. I know what you really think and who you really are.” Instead, I presented my lines with the required smile on my face.
My friend applied our stage makeup. I thanked her. “You did a great job.” She whispered, “Break a leg.” I regretted ever doubting my friend. I resented the instructors, and I burned with shame. My conscious berated, “Do something to make this right. But how?” Curtain call, and I realized Shakespeare had it right. “All the world’s a stage.”
Back in the dressing room, I wiped away tears that blurred my image in the mirror. I thrust aside the sarong, repulsed by the remembrance of a friend’s pain. Sometimes, you don’t know the man behind the mask of smiles and falsehood. Sometimes the mask cracks and reveals the truth. To this day, I don’t know how to right the wrongs. I retrieved a black lace coverlet. To heck with sarongs.
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