Last night at the elementary school my daughter attends we went to watch her and the other fifth graders give their presentations at Night of the Notables. It’s an evening where they present their research projects on historical figures who helped shape America as we know it today. I think this is a great idea. When you combine history and research, then couple it with presentations, it’s an active and engaging way to learn.
What I wasn’t so stoked about was my daughter coming to me on Monday morning telling me that she had to dress up like Queen Elizabeth I for her presentation…tomorrow…night at school. “Oh yeah, I had a flyer about it in my Friday folder,” she said Great, I thought. Time to get creative. In a mad dash to the nearest thrift shop I was on the hunt for some Elizabethan type anything I could fine. Since it happens to be the week of Halloween there was actually plenty of items to choose from, if I wanted to shell out $39.99 for the dress plus additional money for accessories that is.
I did not. Maybe if she would have been using it as her Halloween costume as well, instead of just for an hour at a school event I wouldn’t have minded so much, but she wasn’t. So instead I found some used junk I thought I could piece together and for $12.00 and change I created an (albeit more Victorian than Elizabethan) dress for her to wear. I sewed all day.
I knew this would be good enough for the fifth grade home room event, but I also hopped my daughter would like it. That she would appreciate it and the time I put into it, not just expect it to materialize without a second thought. Truthfully, it annoys the crap out of me that schools tell kids they have to dress up, and that part of their grade it dependent on it. Just like it frustrates me how much parents are asked to spend on school supplies or even field trips these days. Let alone, pictures, sports, events, classroom magazines and other materials. Yes, some of these are required, and some are “optional”. But even for the ones that are “optional”, if you don’t “choose” to participate, your creating an outcast of your child. A line drawn in the sand of haves and have-nots, of doers and don’ters. We’re just lucky that we’re able to be a family who has the ability to pay for this never ending list of school room needs. What if other families honestly don’t have the money for any of it? It’s not always as simple as being a lack-luster parent who’s not engaging enough and not putting enough care, concern, or emphasis on education. Sometimes it’s about not having the money to do so.
The reason I was so gung ho to track down an outfit that day, to pay money for it, and spend my time sewing it together was simple: I didn’t want my daughter to feel like I did. I too had a time when I needed to dress as a historical figure in school…and my grade depended on it. It was seventh grade, and I was Helen Keller. I remember so clearly how all the popular girls, the ones who wore Calvin Klein and Doc Martens, got together over the weekend and rented period specific costumes from the local community college’s drama department. I was so envious of them standing in their exclusive circle talking about how they went together with their mothers over the weekend to make sure they had the perfect costume to wear that day.
I wore a ribbed white t-shirt, Levis, and imitation combat boots from K-Mart. I thought these things were nice because they were all store bought, and for once not from a yard sale, but I still knew they weren’t cool. I knew better than to even ask my parents to help me put together a costume. There was nothing in the house to use and I knew the money wasn’t there to buy anything. There was no extra money in our house, period. And I didn’t want to make them feel worse than they already did by asking. I already knew they wished they could give me more. I knew that if the money had ben there my mother would have happily driven me down to the drama department and I would have had a fabulous period dress on that morning too, but I didn’t. So I lied. I got up to make my speech and included a completely made up portion about how I dressed this way because my (Helen Keller’s) favorite thing to do was to wear my brother’s clothes because they were more comfortable to run around and play in. The teacher didn’t buy it, and I got marked down for “not dressing up”.
Of course I knew it was wrong to lie even then, that it always is, but at that moment I wasn’t strong enough not to. I was too ashamed so I made what felt like the easier and less embarrassing choice. In reality, no child should ever be made to feel this way over something so completely superficial and out of their control, but in reality they do. I’ve never told my parents, or anyone about that day. Like I said, I didn’t want them to feel even worse because they couldn’t provide what I “needed”. As a twelve year old girl, I wasn’t as attuned to speaking up for myself back then as I am now, so I just took the lower grade my teacher doled out and went on with the day feeling crummy.
It shouldn’t matter, but I want to make sure my daughter always has what she needs to be successful in school, like the perfect costume. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. I want to make sure she succeeds, and in my mind part of that means making her feel like she fits in and doesn’t have to hold back because the money isn’t there. My husband grew up in the same type of household and he too understands and shares the same feelings of being an outcast because your family didn’t have money for new clothes or extravagant Christmas presents like other kids’ families did.
Adolescence is an awkward time that’s hard enough with the pressure you get from other kids. Children shouldn’t have to worry about it coming from the adults in their lives too. Teachers should know better than to add to it and should be more sensitive toward these situations, especially in the public school system where you encounter all ranges of diversity. Furthermore, as adults (who interact with children daily) they should understand, without a word, when a child cannot willingly or openly share how uncomfortable they are when they may not be able to ante up, so to speak, along with the rest of the group. And they most certainly shouldn’t be docked participation points for it.
I think her smile shows just how proud she was of her costume, and from
a child who’s already gone through so much, that smile’s all I need to see.