Someone asked me how I got into theater. I think it was all because of my third grade teacher – Miss Tolosa Cooke. Maybe because she was a brilliant teacher – maybe because she was exhausted by the end of the week. But on Friday afternoons – we got to act out a story that she had read to us during the week. The week in memory she had read “Peter Pan”. (Still my favorite book) On Friday mornings she wrote the cast on the black board. There it was – in bright white chalk - Peter Pan – Candy Nichols. Had I ever been so excited? Not even my Easter bike was this good. Our job for the rest of the morning was to write down everything we remembered that our character did to make the story happen. Yipes – I wrote and wrote and wrote.
And then - it was time for lunch. We went row-by-row into the cloakroom to collect our lunch boxes. But first – to the bathroom to wash our hands. I looked in the mirror – soap and water running across my little fingers. No – oh no. Had Miss Cooke not noticed that I had really long hair? I mean really long – braids down my back, past my waist. Hair that had never been cut in all of my 8 years. Braids that were carefully washed, combed – (big battle) and wound every morning by my sainted Mother. And if she noticed – would she make me play Mrs. Darling or Wendy or Tiger Lily or god-forefend – a fairy? What to do? What to do?
I dried my hands, got my lunch box, took it to my desk, opened my desk to get the napkin – scissors. There they were. Small blunt-nosed scissors. “May I go wash my hands again? I don’t think they’re quite clean.” “Of course.” I didn’t even have to take a partner. There – alone in the bathroom of Perkins school - with the black and white tiled floor and the flaking mirrors - I sawed away with the tiny scissors – first one braid – then the other. Quickly. I picked them up from the cold floor. They were no longer a part of me. Into the waste-basket – buried under some old paper towels. Wash my hands – they really weren’t quite clean now. Back to my desk. Scissors put away. Lunch.
The afternoon was triumphant. I loved leaping from desk to desk, hanging upside down over the art table to talk to The Crocodile (Bennie) on the floor. Fighting Captain Hook (Stevie), saving Tinker Bell (Cella) by getting everyone to wish so hard. It was a triumphant, transformative completely magical afternoon.
Had anyone noticed my missing braids? I don’t remember anyone mentioning it. I walked home in a total cloud of joy and grace. Maybe Miss Cooke had phoned my Mom. Maybe she knew. There was no recrimination or punishment. I remember only that we walked right over to the beauty shop on 41st Street and had my hair “trimmed”. The next day she enrolled me in her old drama school, “Sylpha Snook’s School of Theatre and Dance”. And so it began . . .
Isn’t it want we all want? To move through life with curiosity and passion and to have others notice, celebrate and honor our choices?