I struggled to fit in from day one of Kindergarten. My natural desire to be everyone’s friend rubbed certain wasp-ish types the wrong way. One could not be friends to people of all backgrounds; showed bad breeding.
My parents did not pursue higher education. They were working class people largely from agricultural roots. My mother was a hairstylist and my father was a salesman. If they lost a job here, they got a job there – food was food, a paycheck from here or there still bought it.
When they settled down in Lake Fenton, a township of the City of Fenton, they desired to have my older siblings attend smaller, better schools than those in Detroit. I came along three years later not knowing the difference. People were people.
In grocery stores, if I turned up missing (which happened often) I could most likely be found talking to someone sitting on a bench outside.
“I’ll never have to worry about someone kidnapping her,” my mom would say. “She’ll just leave willingly.”
But school taught me quickly that not all people want to be friends. Some don’t even want to like you and in fact, some people make it their job to bully and hurt you.
I understood quickly that surviving around the sort of kids I went to school with for 12 years required me to care about what they thought.
Most of my classmates’ parents were doctors, lawyers and dentists whose kids were destined to go to Harvard or Stanford to marry scientists and cure cancer.
I was destined to be Erica.
But I discovered my one talent that could distract them from my garage sale clothes (some of which came from my own classmates’ closets) and the strange lunch food that I could never seem to trade away.
I was funny.
Boy, oh boy. I could make people laugh. Laugh until milk shot out their noses. And I had a really bizarre laugh to boot, which I also didn’t know until I went to school.
“You laugh like a hyena,” Kari told me in kindergarten. The first of many times throughout my life that I would hear such a remark.
When Halloween came around in the 1st grade, I felt overwhelming dread.
All the kids in my class talked about the best costume stores, but I knew that my mom intended to “make” my costume.
Of course, our class of roughly 80 were to participate in a “parade” through West View Elementary School’s three hallways. I started having nightmares of coming to school looking ridiculous and everyone would point doubled-over in hysterical laughter.
The week before Halloween, the teachers sent home a note telling parents that we would not be celebrating Halloween on the actual day as it was a mid-week day, but rather on Friday. I brought home the note and showed my mom.
The day of Halloween, she woke me up and told me to come downstairs so she could dress me.
“Mom, it’s not today,” I pleaded. Tears streamed down my face. “It’s on Friday. It’s on the note.”
“Where’s the note?” It was misplaced or thrown away. At any rate, my evidence to support my case was gone.
She dressed me in a black and orange clown one-piece jumper, ridiculous, large black shoes, and she pulled my hair into pigtails.
The make-up application took some time since I could not stop crying. She painted my face white, painted red circles on my nose and cheeks, and drew a black line around my mouth creating a “clown” smile.
My mom dragged me – bookbag in hand – to the front door, pushed me out and shut the door.
I didn’t know what to do.
For a moment, I thought about running to my hideout until school was over and deal with the principal calling my parents. Then he could explain that it wasn’t the day they were celebrating Halloween.
From inside, she said: “Get to school.”
I sighed and walked to the bus stop, which was about a quarter-mile trek. I slogged along in the oversized, clumpy shoes as neighbor pals walked by wearing looks of sincere sympathy.
When the bus arrived, I could hardly stand the burning of my face. It felt as though I were inside Hansel and Grettel’s oven.
I sat down as close to the front as possible, but it didn’t matter. The mean kids in the back taunted and made fun of the “clown.”
“Hey, stupid!” one shouted.
“Nice clown outfit!” another laughed.
My stop was near the beginning of the bus route. I endured an hour of ridicule until I got to school.
As soon as the bus door opened, I ran inside to the girl’s bathroom near the 3rd grade, locked myself in a stall and cried. Soon, one of the older girls came in. It was Sherri from down the street. She had an early morning activity at the school and her mom had dropped her off; she didn’t see me at the bus stop.
I peaked through the crack in the stall.
“Sherri?” I asked.
“Erica?” she responded.
“Yes,” I said. I opened the stall.
I must have been quite a site standing there in the bathroom stall looking like some train-hopping hobo with pigtails.
Sherri could be incredibly mean. I was afraid she would laugh, but surprisingly – she looked sad.
“Erica, what’s happened?”
I explained the misunderstanding with my mom. Tears coated the thick face paint in clear streams.
“Have you been to home room?” she asked. I shook my head. “The bell’s going to ring soon. I’m going to walk you to your class.”
“No,” I pleaded and backed into the stall. But she insisted that we would face the music together. Sherri walked me through the crowded hall of stares and laughter to the other hall down to my 1st grade class.
When I entered the room, it fell silent for a second. Then everyone started to laugh and point. My teacher was facing away from the door. She turned around when the room erupted, saw me and looked confused.
“Stop it, everyone,” she said. “Erica, we aren’t celebrating Halloween until Friday. Why didn’t you tell you mom?”
“I did and I gave her the note,” I said.
The teacher looked at me with disbelief, as if I intended to be disruption.
“Sherri, take her to the girl’s room and clean off her face,” she said, letting out a tone of annoyance. “I’ll let your teacher know where you are while I call Erica’s mom to bring her other clothes.”
In the bathroom, Sherri scraped wet rough, brown fiberous paper towels over my face to remove the costume paint. When enough had been removed, I washed my face with my hands and she handed me dry towels.
She took my hair out of the pig tails and pulled all my long hair back into a ponytail using her fingers as a comb.
When my mom rushed into the office with the bag of clothes, she looked ashamed of herself. She apologized to me and the staff for the mistake.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you, honey,” she said.
I returned to class with white face paint still in my hairline and tried to focus as everyone teased me throughout the day.
When Friday rolled around, I wished so much that my mom would surprise me with something less embarrasing, like a store-bought princess costume. Of course, she had nothing else to dress me in and watching her paint me up again seemed worse the second time around.
The day went by in a fog. I just kept thinking about the day ending so I could go home and hopefully, people would forget. They eventually did, but I didn’t.
Every time I see a clown, I see that black and orange costume and my 6-year-old self being cleaned up by Sherri in the 3rd grade class bathroom.
Guess I had the stomach to be funny, but not as the class clown.