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I Covered up Dirt with Smiles
When I think back to the ignorant days of my childhood, the only thing I can remember is the dirt. There was dirt like crazy, the kind got into your hair and embedded itself into your clothes so that no matter how hard you scrubbed your nice, white shirt, it wouldn’t come out. There were memories, sure, of heartache and depression, but the way I remember it, Highlands Ranch, Colorado, was all about the dirt.
It wasn’t necessarily that Highlands Ranch was a dirty place -- most people thought it was beautiful, but when you lived in a house with 12 people and one shower, dirt tended to cling to you like ants on a picnic sandwich. The dirt was awful, sure, but the worst part was scrubbing it off and showing up to high school every morning, where the kids wore designer and notebooks were iPads. And when the teacher said take out your phones, we’re going to look up definitions, I had no smart phone to pull out.
“No phone?” my neighbor would ask when I timidly whispered if we could share.
“Man, that sucks. You should ask your parents,” she’d try to share a knowing smile, but her smile wasn’t knowing. She didn’t know what it felt like to ask her parents why they had no money when they had jobs, and be told that honey, things were complicated. She couldn’t know what it was like to be really, truly hungry, because there were 12 people living in her house and meals were scarce enough already.
But I would only smile, and agree with her that they’d surely say yes. Because of my situation, grinning and bearing was second nature.
I grinned eight times when Mom and Dad told me that I couldn’t take honors because they had no money for textbooks. When I was little, and I couldn’t have the brand new fairy-princess doll, I cried. Now, however, when I was let down, I smiled, because I was mature, and my parents expected it, and besides, smiling helped the pain. Right?
I smiled when I had to sit through eight non-advanced classes that I didn’t belong in, and counted ceiling panels instead of the fractions the other kids were still working on.
And when I had to wear hand-me downs that were already hand-me-downs when my big sister bought them at Goodwill, I covered the holes and the dirt-patches by crossing my arms.
“I like your outfit,” someone would say, and then to her friends she’d whisper something entirely different. “Where’d she get it? Goodwill?”
Yes. I got it at Goodwill. I can hear you, too.
By the time I was fourteen, school was unbearable. I had learned to put up an illusion of a confident, happy girl, but inside I was crumbling. I reused the same paper bag every day for lunch, and folded it up neatly so it wouldn’t get ripped or torn. I couldn’t doodle in my notebooks when I waited for my class to catch up because I had to make one notebook last four years. When my friends asked to come over I told them my parents were busy and couldn’t handle noise. Whispering wouldn’t work either, I would say. The walls were thin.
Four of my aunts and uncles and four of my cousins and two of my parents and one of my siblings also lived there in my two-bedroom house, so space was also a little tight. Of course, I didn’t tell anybody that. I didn’t like movies so I couldn’t go to the theatres, I was saving up so I couldn’t go to the mall, I left my phone at home, and I wasn’t hungry, so I didn’t want to go to lunch. My life was turning into one big melting pot of excuses and smiles, and I was barely scraping the edges.
There was one time though, that despite my excellent acting skills (which couldn’t get me into theatre because theatre cost money), I did get caught. My class was donating backpacks filled with school supplies to kids without homes, and I couldn’t afford one for myself, let alone someone else. I wasn’t going to tell my teacher though. That one hated me, I just knew it. She had recommended me for an advanced class, and I told her I preferred the easy class because there was less homework. She didn’t like that.
“Miss. Bored in the Corner, where might your backpack be?”
“I- I forgot it at home,” I stammered.
“Likely story. Would you care to take that up with the assistant principal?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
I said she didn’t like me.
The assistant principal was going to yell at me. I was positive. He was going to try and call my parents and when I told him they didn’t have a phone he’d give me detention. My entire web of lies had spread out to this point, this last straw, and I was finally going to pay for it.
“Would you like a supply backpack of your own?” he asked.
Had I heard him correctly? “What?”
“I talked to your parents, and I understand the whole scenario. I promise you, your secret is safe with me, now would you like a supply backpack?” he spoke carefully, like he was trying to pick up his words from a bed of hot coal.
Yes. I would. When I opened it up, there were pencils and folders and notebooks and so many things that I didn’t have to wheedle for, and in that moment, my life turned around. I skipped through every inch of the three-mile walk home (the bus was too expensive and I didn’t have a car), and I hummed while I waited two hours to wash off the dirt in a two-minute ice-cold shower. I did all my homework and babysat my younger cousins and even gave a pencil to everyone in the house, just because I actually had enough of something to donate.
My life wasn’t perfect, sure, the dirt still clung to me and my Highlands Ranch problems were still bigger than a bad hair day, but for the first time in far too long, the smile on my face was real.