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May 10, 2013

I attended a public high school in a rough neighborhood where it was best to keep a low profile, particularly if you had ever been a Girl Scout, took French as an elective, and weren’t engaged to be married. It was a culture in which it was understood that you’d be happy to lend your hairbrush to anyone who demanded it in the smoke-choked girls’ lavatory, and that you better walk away fast and stare straight ahead when you subsequently dropped it in the nearest trashcan. The truth is there were real class distinctions; we were not the homogenous club of a private school.  There were bad boys and fast girls and I walked the halls in wary judgment of them all.

In a way, we were fighting for our lives, our destinies were being determined.  In chorus, band, civics club and on the athletic fields, special attention could change a trajectory. None of us had wealth. To graduate at escape velocity we needed grades and extra-curricular activities, so I auditioned for South Pacific, specifically, for the role of the perky Navy nurse, Nellie Forbush. I was both excited and terrified to be called back after the first round of auditions to read again with several other girls. By the end of the afternoon the director said it was between me and Joanne Calligarie. 

Joanne was a senior and an experienced actress. Rumor had it she was coached by her aunt who sang in the evenings in a restaurant lounge. She had presence, talent. Spontaneity.  She was also an awesome competitor. By comparison, I was pretty tightly wound with all the monstrousness of sophomore-dom. I only fit in with a narrow margin of my peers (the safety-conscious, the rule abiders) and far from being confident, I was astonished every time I opened my mouth on stage and anything came out at all.  That what came out was an actual melody and in the right key made me want to stop and share my utter amazement with the audience like I might have had, I don’t know, a spaceship landed stage right. 

So Joanne sang Bali Ha’i. I sang Bali Ha’i. Joanne sang Some Enchanted Evening, and I followed suit. In the darkened auditorium the director and assistant director put their heads together in consternation. Which girl was the real Nellie Forbush? Which one?  Joanne and I stood center stage smiling blindly into the footlights and our futures.  “Okay,” Mrs. James said, suddenly inspired. “Laura, we want you to sing it again, and this time, could you also do a little dance?”

Where was that space ship? I didn’t know how to dance. I wasn’t cool! I had a reputation for being smart–but I wasn’t that smart—I just had the advantage of having college-educated parents in a school where that was not the norm. For instance, I didn’t have to study grammar. I only had to speak as I was spoken to at home. And I had the pseudo-maturity of a child of divorce when that role was a rarity. It meant I volunteered in class, told the teacher when she had missed a buttonhole.  I wasn’t ingratiating, I just understood the overworked women who taught me because I lived with one and students anxious to please tend to get good grades.

Ms. Nichols cued the orchestra giving me no time to prepare. I was, however, trying out for the cheerleading squad that Friday. I’m pretty sure the onlookers seated in the auditorium that afternoon were treated to a first-of-its-kind, hybrid cheer-dance. Something like “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair” to the beat of: “We’re gonna go, we’re gonna fight, we’re gonna win this game tonight, Eagles!”  I’m so sorry.

I did not play Nellie Forbush that year. I was in the chorus. Joanne was spectacular.  I did go to my high school reunion decades later. We had become policemen, social workers, accountants and firemen. We had become parents. We had loved and lost. Time and character had leveled the playing field. I couldn’t help noticing a kind of soft glow in the room that could not be attributed to any outer source of light.

My boyfriend from senior year was there. We’d starred in the spring musical, Guys and Dolls before we had left for college. Mike had played the charismatic gambler Sky Masterson and I’d played the uptight, self-righteous missionary, Sarah Brown. I was excellent at this. I barely needed to audition.

We had come from where we came from and we had all done the best we could. I had felt like a zebra in a herd of horses. But zebras were okay. And horses were okay. Across the years, the music started and I watched my classmates dance. 

Have you ever felt like a zebra in a herd of horses? Have you known the isolation of not fitting in? Write about someone completely out of place. The atheist stuck on a bus with Evangelicals, the hipster stuck in the monotony of the office of Planning and Zoning, the scholarship student at Princeton, the free thinker in the midst of emotional collaborators. The only brave person in a room of timid followers. The only person telling the truth in a room full of liars. What happens? When has this been you? Feel into memory and imagination. When you are unlike the rest, do you assume there is something wrong with you? Or the group? Create the tension, the conflict. How much can be seen from the outside and how much is secret? At what cost? 

The essay above appears in “Annapolis Lifestyle” magazine.



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