BY DAVID H.
In fifth grade, our music teacher decided that what our town needed more than anything else was just a full-blown patriotic revue. To accomplish this feat, the grade was split five ways, with each group being designated as a different branch of the military. On the night of the event, the students would enter the parent-filled auditorium singing our respective branch’s theme song. As part of the Army, I prepared to march in to the tune of “As Those Caissons Go Rollin’ Along.”
But it was with jittery anticipation, however, that my peers and I were told of what we all realized was the evening’s true highlight — the inclusion of a special role that one of the fifth graders would be chosen to play — that of gay old Uncle Sam. This grotesquely under-aged rendition of the military’s finest mascot would, at the program’s pinnacle, proudly break away from the rest of the choir, in his fully spangled attire that surely must have used every red, white and blue sequin in the tri-state area, to disperse classy, plastic, flag-shaped lapel pins to random parents and other townsfolk in the crowd. This person had the chance to really stick out; this person would clearly be someone to be reckoned with.
And, later that same week, it was with utter elation that I received word that the sequin-donning Uncle Sam would be played by none other than me.
I reported this news to my family that evening. My parents, of course, were thrilled. I was also surprised to see the awed looks on the faces of my three younger siblings. Fame, and perhaps glory, were now easily within my grasp. Riches were always a point of interest for me growing up, as they are with most children. Our family was a lower-middle income family at the time, and I recall chalking up most of the fights my parents had on what I perceived as heinous financial insecurities. I had convinced myself that a monetary windfall would better our lives ten-fold, and I prayed most nights that my dad would win the lottery, with the same prayer:
“God, my parents would know how to use the money. They need this. It wouldn’t make our lives harder, like people always claim money does to people. Please help my dad win the lottery. Amen.”
I tried to take it upon myself to teach my brothers and sisters the importance of appreciating what we had, as my simple duty for helping my parents. This way, perhaps, they didn’t have to buy us so many toys and whatnot.
A week before the big show, my teacher gave me my special outfit that I would wear during the event. Its luminance was evident immediately, as I saw what I sagely recognized as envy crawling across the faces of my classmates. They’d all be in their dull denim and plain-colored tee shirts, while I’d be sporting this piece of pure fabric gold – yet another moment of joy that my parents didn’t have to buy for me. I was going to look so cool.
It wasn’t until the night of the big performance that I realized just how much I was going to stick out in this outlandish costume. The students had been asked to wear red, white or blue tees with a pair of jeans. I surveyed my peers that evening as we waited in the wings of the auditorium, and realized that these sheer, high-waisted blue trousers with my sparkling red vest and the bright blue coat with tails didn’t make me look cool at all. All it would look like to the crowd was a kid whose mom had gotten extremely carried away.
Suddenly, we were out the door and into the auditorium with our opening lines, “Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail” pealing from the cinder-block walls. I tried to reclaim some of that earlier swagger as I saw my beaming constituency, but I simply couldn’t shake that dressed-by-mom feeling. “They’ll see,” I began telling myself, my freckly, big-eared self, fully aware of how the show would eventually unfold. “I have a greater purpose here.”
That purpose was pins.
As we began moving through our collection of songs, I used all my might to ignore the undeniable truth that everyone in the crowd was staring at me. I began hearing people’s thoughts.
“Who does this kid think he is?”
“Who are his parents?”
“Give me a break.”
Six songs into our seven-song set, it was finally my turn to bring the show to the people, but it was with a subdued exuberance that I moved out to the crowd. I moved down the rows, realizing just how self-conscious I’d grown during the songs. I was curious whether the audience now thought I wasn’t just overdressed, but was also a zealous renegade, leaving the student body in a sudden expression of extreme patriotism. I began rushing the job I’d been looking forward to, forgetting to exhibit the care with which I’d planned to give away the keepsakes as I drew the pins from my bejeweled top hat. My large ears were burning, something I knew from experience meant they were also perpetually glowing red.
With professionalism as my last bastion of hope for regaining my composure, I decided on a whim to forego my family on the pin disbursement. In my head, something thought it’d be better to play it safe and not show any form of favoritism while depicting a government figure.
But I realized my poor judgment as I cast a glance back at my shocked younger siblings, all with outstretched hands, and my dad calling to me as though I hadn’t already seen them sitting there. I was ashamed. I began thinking to myself that this was one of those simple, free trinkets that my family relied on to get us through hard times. Perhaps my brother could have played with his pin, putting it on his shirt as he marched around the house singing patriotic tunes, or something along those lines. I had completely failed them.
In this wake of familial disappointment, I briskly made my way to join the choir again for our grand finale, Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” I was too young to understand the irony.