Thumbing through the Target costume section, my Dad and I land on the frilly pink Barbie costume at the exact same moment.
I stare with horrified intrigue at the pink velour, the frizzy tulle streaked with white and the gold B signature stylishly crafted on the right hip.
“Ohh,” my Dad chuckles suspiciously. “This is just … perfect.”
No, I don’t have a younger sister.
I glance at Dad with the “You’re serious?” look only to see him holding up the hanger and helplessly cackling while repeating “This is PERFECT!”
And for some reason I can’t stop laughing either.
It’s 2001. I’m 12 years old, 4 feet 9 inches on a good day, no more than 80 pounds and have a bowl cut full of blonde locks long before Bieber ever uttered “Baby.”
I have started to look at girls, but they won’t start looking back for another five or six years. I also to this day do not understand anything about glam, fashion or primary colors lighter than dark blue.
I also attend an acceptably uptight — but not one of those we-don’t-let-you-read-that-heretical-Harry-Potter — middle schools.
Dad and I are thinking the same thing. The public school transplant (I started attending midway through sixth grade while many of my classmates had attended since kindergarten) was going to dress up as Barbie and force a laugh out of the sometimes curmudgeonly but far from intolerant Episcopalian school.
During my 18 months’ time at St. Marks, the headmaster was a guy named Mr. Cunningham, a balding 50-something with a noticeable but inoffensive belly and a helplessly effeminate lisp. Mr. Cunningham was promoted to the big chair after years of dutiful service as a demanding yet tirelessly caring second grade teacher.
This was a man that would throw out homework assignments if the handwriting looked like scrawl but always held the hands of his kids before they entered the tiny 5-foot crosswalk when school was out.
These were merely my impressions of the man. He always struck me as a traditional educator that gave his life to his handful of second graders while never compromising his standards.
It was our perception that Mr. Cunningham was gay. The lisp, the gentle stride, the tiny car and his absence of a wedding ring that the rest of the older staff possessed.
Stuffing a pair of my mom’s heels, a couple of pairs of socks to fill the bust and this impossible-to-fold dress into my P.E. bag, I start naturally anticipating the response of my peers, their parents and the teachers. I also promise myself to stay silent about my costume until it’s time to dress for P.E.
Throughout the school day, it appears that the faculty has adopted a Snow White theme to entertain us. Mrs. Hallock, the infectiously cheery English teacher, is Happy. Mrs. Drew, the wild, frizzy-haired science teacher is an excellent Queen Grimhilde. Mr. Carrington, the history teacher, is just Arrogant.
All the staff — the teachers, the aides, the secretaries — are all dressed accordingly. The problem is that nobody can find Snow White. She must be in front of the mirror or something.
It’s finally time to get dressed. The dress slides tightly up my already skinny frame, the itchy blonde wig sits delicately on my scalp and the heels choke my growing feet.
Yep. I am Little Miss Perfect, it appears. How many seventh grade guys do you know that are dead-ringers for a child pageant contestant? I shrug. The embarrassing part is already over. Now it’s time to strut.
I walk out to a series of shocked laughs, confounded stares and people with hands covering their mouths. Mission accomplished: I have successfully disarmed St. Marks. And I tell you something else: I’m looking good. I even walked out to the basketball court to knock down a couple threes in heels.
As I snap Polaroids with friends and faculty, there is still no sign of Snow White, until I notice heads start to turn.
Down the steps descends Mr. Cunningham — blue dress, black wig and red lips that smack across the crosswalk. Snow White is looking rather fair. I’ll happily settle for second place.
We both acknowledge one another with a laugh and snap a picture. It’s still somewhere in one of my mother’s many photo albums.
I would leave St. Marks at the end of the year, and I’m not sure what ever happened to Mr. Cunningham. Exactly 10 years later, it remains my funniest Halloween memory.
The principal knew his reputation and how he was perceived, yet was still comfortable enough to try and squeeze a laugh out of the school community. I have no idea if it worked, but I respected him for it. After all, his costume was impeccable.
Cheers, Mr. Cunningham. It’s Halloween. Let’s hope people treat it with the same levity.
Monday columnist Casey Given will return next week.