In 6th grade, my English teacher Mrs. Kelly was coordinating a Thanksgiving Day pageant. She taught the girls and boys how to make construction paper bonnets and wide brim hats with gold buckles.
The smart, popular kids had speaking roles. I was a random pilgrim, my flimsily crafted bonnet teetered on my head at every dress rehearsal. Buffy and Rick and Karen were selected for a special dance and skit and some kids were chosen to be Indians with face paint and feathers. My role was pilgrim number 27 in the back row.
I went home and whined about my predicament to my mom.
“Buffy and Rick and Karen all have roles. I am doing nothing.”
My mom suggested that I talk with the teacher, “let her know you want a role and see what she says.”
Now this was a reasonable suggestion, but I was shy and the act of walking up to Mrs. Kelly’s desk and requesting a role was frightening to eleven-year-old me. The spoonful of Pepto-Bismol my mom gave me to settle my nervous stomach wasn’t working. I sat in the back of the classroom, envying the kids who swarmed around Mrs. Kelly’s desk hogging her attention. I swallowed hard and elbowed my way to the edge of the teacher’s desk. The kids grew quiet as if I had infiltrated their special meeting with the cool teacher.
“Is there something else I can do for the pageant other than sing in the back?”
Mrs. Kelly wore a purple polyester jump suit and oversized tortoise shell glasses. She thought for a moment, “Sure Brenda, you can draw the poster promoting the Thanksgiving feast that Buffy will parade around the auditorium.”
A few kids meowed, “oh I want to do that.”
“That sounds pretty good. I like to draw,” I eagerly claimed the job and jogged back to my desk.
As the day lumbered from social studies to math to band class, I thought about my new role for the Thanksgiving Day pageant, ‘Why do I have to draw the poster that Buffy shows to the audience? Why can’t I parade the poster that I make?”
Suddenly making the poster didn’t feel so special. Mrs. Kelly assigned me to be Buffy’s lackey, her servant, her personal assistant doing all the work while she sashayed and embraced the public adulation with my glitter speckled poster. I was still invisible pilgrim number 27.
That night at dinner, I complained about this slight new change and my parents got a little ruffled over the poster debacle.
“No, no, no,” my mom started, “you tell Mrs. Kelly that maybe Buffy should draw the poster seeing as she will be showing it at the pageant. She’ll see how that isn’t right.”
At the time, I didn’t understand my mom’s reverse psychology or rather passive aggressive tactic. How could I renege on the assignment after I had asked for something more to do? But the issue kept nagging me, “why did Buffy get to dance, speak and parade for the pageant and I was pilgrim number 27? Why did certain kids get better parts than other kids?”
The next day I was back beside Mrs. Kelly’s desk waiting for the right moment to interrupt the popular kids chatter. I took a deep breath and blurted: “Mrs. Kelly, I think Buffy should make the poster seeing as she will be showing it at the pageant. She should show her poster not the one I made.”
Buffy blinked at me; her eyes widened as if she realized the faux pas Mrs. Kelly made. Maybe behind Buffy’s Buster Brown hairdo she understood she was cast in nearly every scene of the skit.
“Brenda can carry the sign, it’s fine by me.”
I carried the sign and wore a bonnet my mom sewed for me with real cotton cloth so it sat nice and still on my head.
Flash forward thirty-seven years, my son Shawn is in sixth grade sitting beside me on the family room sofa. I feverishly type an email to his team of teachers. The keys click in a staccato as I detail my list of requests in a series of bullet points.
“How do you know how to do that, “he asked.
“Know what to type, know what to say?”
I wrapped my arms around his Jake Paul sweatshirt. Sixth grade was a turning point in his eleven years. He was enrolled in a new school and former friends swapped Shawn out for new buddies like he was a baseball trading card. Math class was impossible, homework quadrupled, and Shawn was beginning to see the end of childhood with the dawning of middle school.
“I can’t always advocate for you Shawn. You’ve got to start talking to your teachers and telling them what you need. You’ve got to get in front of them and let them know you matter, do you understand? I am not always going to be there for you.”
A couple weeks later, Shawn showed me his iPad, on the screen was an email he drafted to his teacher, “Does this read okay? I am advocating for myself.”
I read his email asking to schedule extra help with his math teacher.
Two years later we are in eighth grade at a teacher’s conference.
“Shawn really knows how to advocate for himself. That is such an important life skill,” his guidance counselor shared.
Today, Shawn is a freshman in high school, his classroom a bedroom during the pandemic. His Zoom video is off while he watches the instructor.
“Why don’t you show your face on the screen. Let the teacher know you are paying attention like this kid Matthew,” I point to the one kid showing his face as I deliver my son a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich.
“Matthew is a ‘try hard’.”
“Why don’t you be a ‘try hard’?”
“I’ve got an A in the class and being a ‘try hard’ is lame.”