Many people look back on their elementary school days as a simpler time. A time when they were free of worries and responsibility. Those halcyon days of games of “Thumbs Up 7-Up”, number two pencils, and the smell of worksheets produced by the “ditto” machine, when everything was easier. This is not one of those stories.
What’s worse: As traumatic as this experience was for me at the tender age of twelve, it was doubly so for my best friend at the time.
Back in the 70’s, when K C and the Sunshine Band were all the rage and CB radios were as close to a cell phone as you could get, I went to elementary school in a tiny little town in Washington state. This was a school in a heart of the suburbs, a mere twenty minutes or so from the big city lights and yet surrounded by alfalfa fields. The jumble of urban and rural here was so jarring that there was a four lane highway with multiple traffic lights just blocks away from the school on one side, and a farmer’s house with a large cobweb-encrusted chicken coop on the other. (My younger sister and her friends had convinced themselves that this chicken coop was haunted as the windows were mostly boarded up and strange blood-curdling cackles could be heard coming from inside. She almost seemed disappointed when I told her to look around the other side to see the not-so-ghostly chickens coming in and out.) It is in this crucible of city and country that some of the most quirky experiences are brewed.
One of the highlights of the year at this school was the annual “Festival of Fictitious Finery,” a costume contest that was supposed to have all manner of characters from literature, and was meant to encourage students to read more books form the library to find the perfect character to portray.
It had devolved, however, to include TV, movies, cartoons… pretty much any variety of fictitious or even non-fictitious folk. There would be a group from “The Wizard of Oz” standing next to “The Cat in the Hat” followed by “G.I. Joe” and Benjamin Franklin, all awaiting judging.
My mother had developed a reputation for producing some of the most creative and unusual costumes for my siblings and I throughout the years. This is extremely surprising considering her foray into ecological activism through costuming one Halloween. (Read: “Ecologically Sound = Psychologically Unsound”.) This is a woman who, despite the fact that she couldn’t sew at all (which was kind of a “thing” for her) could use a couple of egg cartons, some paper towel rolls, paint, macramé rope, some winter gloves, and a dash of humiliation to create a realistic Where the Wild Things Are costume.
Sometimes her ideas for costumes revealed a rather rarefied tastes. For instance, looking back as an adult, I really have to wonder why she thought it was appropriate to dress me as “Madame Butterfly” in first grade. I knew the opera, but the fact that the title character was essentially a prostitute was lost on my young mind. I can only imagine the kerfuffle that would have ensued had she dressed me as a more well-known whore.
Which brings us to third grade, when I was “Lady Godiva”, a costume composed of a pink leotard with a long wig strategically stuck to it to cover my more sensitive areas, and a stick horse. The discussion in the teacher’s lounge regarding this get-up must have been priceless, not to mention that it also must have erased all doubt that my mother, their PTA President and perennial homeroom mom, was a complete nut case.
Another highlight was the “Moses” costume that included me carrying two wooden wine boxes with the Ten Commandments written on them. A cotton-ball beard hung from my glasses throughout the day, as I made my way around the campus festooned with bed sheets and carrying a large stick in addition to the “tablets”, which were still emblazoned with the name of the vineyard. With recess time still several minutes away, I stood up in the classroom and said to my teacher (using my best impression of Charlton Heston) “Let my people go!” She was not amused, and I spent recess indoors, bemoaning the plight of the Israelites in bondage to the Egyptians, and referring to my teacher as “Ramses”. (I like to stay in character.)
Given her repute as a costume-maker galore throughout this suburban community, it was not surprising that when my best friend, Jackie Brewer, wanted to go as Lucille Ball for the costume contest in sixth grade, her mother called my mother for some advice. It seems they were having trouble finding a red wig that would fit Jackie’s head, covering her toe-headed light blonde hair. Jackie’s hair was like liquid platinum that hung in carefully coiffed curls down her back. She was one of those kids who had to wear a swimming cap, lest she come back from summer break with green hair after spending time in the pool.
My mother’s advice? “If you can’t find a wig that will fit, why not temporarily dye her hair with Kool Aid?” That is just what they did! Mixing a potent concoction of orange and cherry Kool Aid with no sugar and combing it into her silvery locks the morning of the costume contest, they couldn’t have been more pleased with the results. Her hair was the bright, flaming red that Lucy was so known for.
As an added bonus, the thick mixture of Kool Air acted like styling gel, helping them create Lucy’s trademark up-do with fewer bobby-pins than they had anticipated. Add one heavy coat of Aquanet and a 40’s style dress and make-up, and she looked every bit like Ms. Ball. Needless to say, she took top honors in her category that year. But tragedy was yet to come.
Apparently, the theory was that since Kool Aid came out of white clothes with a little “Spray n’ Wash” it should wash right out of her hair after the costume contest. Sadly, this was not to be. Despite numerous washings with shampoo, dishwashing soap, hydrogen peroxide, and even “Spray n’ Wash” and laundry soap, the color stayed. And by “color”, I do not mean a chic, stylish red. I mean a blotchy, clown-like orange-red, reminiscent of Leeloo in “The Fifth Element.”
Every towel in their house was stained the same bright color, too. I heard one side of the telephone conversation between my mother and Jackie’s mother, wherein my mother advised harsher and harsher chemicals and could be heard repeatedly apologizing for her “temporary” hair dye suggestion.
A trip to the salon garnered more bad news: the hair-dressers didn’t dare color her hair with actual hair dye as they couldn’t predict how the Kool Aid-treated hair would react with their products. She would have to wait for several weeks before they could do anything to help her. When she came back to school the next day, her embarrassed, ruddy face matched her hair as she endured the taunts of our classmates.
Within a couple of months, Jackie got a stylish short haircut that removed the vast majority of her unnatural tresses. Not long after that, the cries of, “Lucy! You got some ‘splaining to do!” and “Hey, Bozo!” on the playground subsided. We remained friends, but somehow I felt like she always blamed me in part for her predicament. And, I don’t think Jackie was ever able to look my mother in the eye again without picturing her being drowned in a huge vat of Kool Aid.