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In first grade all the girls were sunflowers, except me — the tree.
In the play about a cavity, I was the dentist.
In Charlotte’s Web I played Fern’s father, Mr. Arable. For my big moment I got to waddle on stage in overalls, slop Wilber, and shout “That’s one terrific pig!
In our fifth-grade production of Broadway Musicals I lip-synced “Go Greased Lighting” in a mechanic’s suit.
I was determined to break my long string of roles performed in drag, so in my closet I persisted. I knew my voice was wrong. I didn’t sound like a Scottish queen driven to psychosis, but the blah blah of a Peanuts character with a southern twang. But I had experienced transformation again and again in my piles of books; so technically, I knew the experience was possible. Everyone knew it took the pressure of a real challenge to forge greatness.
That next day the director shouted our roles while we squirmed. My heart thudded as the bit parts were doled out. Eventually, there were no female parts left except Lady Macbeth and I allowed myself a giddy whiff of hope until —
“Kelly Ferguson! MacDuff, loyal Thane of Fife.”
I didn’t even get to be a Weird Sister, and worse, I had a wife. Lady MacDuff and I avoided eye contact. Ashley Phelps, a willowy girl with blond hair, freckles, and a soft voice was awarded the prize role. She squealed for joy and we all hated her.
One look at the director, already back to grabbing people by the elbow, made me realize it was no use complaining. For our first read-through I wandered Birnam Wood (potted banana trees) with Macbeth, Norvin Richards. As the director went to work on the Weird Sisters we giggled and roughhoused with the props. That we were not supposed to touch anything made wearing the helmets and scurrying around all the more awesome.
In Living Chemistry, Ms. Bussian told us to check on our Petri dishes.
“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see much,” she said. “It can take up to a few weeks.”
We had labeled our dishes so everyone could keep them straight. Needless to say I had no intention of writing “My Vagina” with black marker on a piece of masking tape, so I wrote “Inside Desk” instead.
Despite everyone’s excited swabbing, most kids only had a few dark specks, while most had nothing at all — Special Class once again specializing in the mundane. But in the back, one disc emerged from the wash of spotted beige. Encased in glass, a black furry caterpillar crawled across its dish.
“Wow,” said Miss Bussian. “That’s really something.”
She checked the label and looked at me askance, but no way was I telling. Everyone gathered around the dish and gawked. I worried that Ms. Bussian, a science expert, would know vagina growth when she saw it, and that I would be outed somehow for cheating. Given the creature coming to life in the Petri dish, perhaps I should have been more worried about personal hygiene. God knows what that swab picked up from the Holt Elementary bathroom. But health was a small sacrifice to pay for glory. I found myself pleased as Miss Bussian examined the dish in the fluorescent light.
My macramé bracelet was crooked. I still only saw water bubbles in Life Science. The more I tried to project in Shakespeare, the more my atonal voice matched my limp cardboard sword. But in Living Chemistry, I was a star. As the weeks passed other kids had blotches, smatterings, maybe a little gray fuzz. An unfortunate few, like Lady Macbeth, still had nothing (ha!), her surface blank.
Miss Bussian tried to interest us in the periodic table, and she brought in some liquid nitrogen, which was pretty cool, but really we all just wanted to see what was growing in our Petri dishes, or, more to the point, what was growing in my Petri dish. By the end of the week the caterpillar had morphed into a baby hamster surrounded by tornado funnels dervishing in the air.
“Dude!” said Norvin Richards in admiration, whose beige slab sported only an unimpressive smudge.
The day of the play it was time once more for me to don male drag. My mother slicked back my long hair with Depp gel. I was allowed to wear make-up, but only base and extra eyebrow pencil, not eye shadow or lipstick. The true horror of my situation emerged when I put on my costume — tights with a man’s white shirt (my father’s) worn over the top and belted. The shirt, though, came up too short for comfort and was transparent. With my mother involved, there no avoiding another debut — the little bra.
Today girls can opt for a training bra that is more like a little tank top — the Velcro version of shoelaces. In the seventies, bra training was more serious. We were thrown into the deep end of adjusting straps that dug into our shoulders. We trained for discomfort, for how to adopt a constant half-smile when in fact we were freaking out over the elastic strangling our torsos. We trained for the telltale straps that everyone could see through our blouses, and how to maneuver our arms so we could hook and unhook the back. The “wiggle in” technique worked for the novices, where we assembled the gear, stepped in, and shimmied up. All this training supposedly existed for the purposes of modesty, but these bras only seemed to highlight the two chest beacons that would forever define a part of how we would be perceived as women.
When I shuffled out of my room in my Scottish warrior garb, my parent’s hands slapped over their mouths, trying to disguise their mirth. My overall look was completed by a pair of old moccasins, making me a dead ringer for the last pirate Mohican. My parents had just pulled it together when I reached for my sword wrapped in aluminum foil.
“Lead — on — MacDuff,” Dad sputtered, and they fell over again, wheezing and gasping with tears glittering cruelly on their cheeks. I ran back to my room and slammed the door. No way was I going to be in that damn play. Although, eventually my Catholic heritage of guilt and duty kicked in as my parents reminded me of my responsibilities. When they wanted pictures, however, I balked. No gruff voices, guilt trips or sighs from Dad could make me budge on this point. I didn’t care what sort of selfish, ungrateful wretch I was.
“She’s feeling sensitive, Patrick,” Mom said, the corners of her mouth twitching, and all I can say is it’s a good thing that sword was fake.
At the auditorium, Lady Macbeth was in full regalia. She wore an Empire waist lavender gown with floating gauzy layers, her blonde hair piled in a medieval topknot with ribbons. We thanes and witches choked with envy. I looked around to discover that all the other Scottish warriors at least had a real tunic and real tights. My tights were not tights but support hose — I looked as though I had forgotten my pants. Now I was angry. Not only had I been miscast, I had parents who would rather be thrifty than make sure their daughter didn’t look like a complete idiot. Perhaps some of my own Scottish ancestry kicked in; I was ready to go on stage and kick some serious Elizabethan ass.
While internal pep talks and personal belief are the cornerstones of children’s literature, they’re best left to those with the ability to tesseract across outer space, a skill I would soon pray for. Once I had been given the part of McDuff I had lost interest in the play, goofing around with Norvin Richards during rehearsals and reading Madeleine L’Engle books at home. I hadn’t learned my lines. When it was time to take the stage, I had absolutely no idea what to say.
Terrified my shirt would fly up, I minced across the stage as I kept my sword clutched by my side, shoulders hunched to hide my little bra. I patched together pieces of dialogue, hoping to mask my botched lines, but the hot white lights and auditorium of staring parents did nothing to help. My tepid storming of Dunsinane Castle had the texture of Velveeta. The bird-chested Norvin Macbeth could barely lift his sword. My brawny guns, strong from after-school activities and fueled by resentment, made the outcome of the duel a gimme, my execution perfunctory as I splatted the corrupt king to the ground in one swat, thereby killing whatever there might have been of a crush as well.
Nobody thought so, not three times, not even once.
My one consolation was that all the enriched kids bombed. Lady Macbeth wailed through her soliloquy with wretched melodrama. The Weird Sisters were depressingly normal, hunched and giggling through all the best lines. As thanes flung fake mutton at one another, I wondered if anyone had really ever seen a paramecium in Life Science. The director spent the performance running around and hissing lines. Her hair pulled tighter and tighter, causing her expression to resemble a botched facelift. Banquo’s ghost was the only success. His comedic interpretation, a brilliant improv in which he “did the Hustle” around the banquet table, brought the performance to life. At curtain call we shuffled out hangdog to take our bows, but Banquo sprang to the front, arms outstretched as the applause meter surged from golf clap to the real thing.