I spent nine years of my childhood at Saint Agatha School, a tiny redbrick Catholic k-8 institution of about 400 students, comfortably nestled in the pretension and prosperity of Upper Arlington, Ohio. Saint Agatha had all the characteristics of your quintessential Catholic school: God’s blessing and judgment, ill-fitting uniforms, brain washing issued after each Morning Prayer.
While I walked away from Saint Agatha full of warm and fuzzy memories, the summation of my experience there had to be my three-year-long tenure in the middle school drama club.
The middle school play was the zenith of preteen glory at Saint Agatha. Throughout our lowly elementary school years, we daydreamed of our participation in this holy event, the thought motivating us through blocked religion classes and Wednesday morning Masses. Aside from the ability to wear skirts instead of jumpers and to have recess in the gymnasium, the play was the mascot of middle school magnificence.
When I was in seventh grade, the drama department announced “Oklahoma!” as the musical, and while I was a bit peeved that I was yet again denied my debut as Annie, I was ready to brush up my Southern accent, and dazzle the play directors in my audition for lead cowgirl Laurey Williams.
Seventh grade was perhaps the most unfortunate in terms of looks for all three Slater sisters, and it sure had not spared me any of its awkwardness. There I was in all my bony, frizzy, bespectacled glory, my green plaid uniform skirt ballooning out from my yet-to-be hips in true Saint Agatha fashion. I was blessed enough to inherit my dad’s gene for blindness, and by age 13, I had advanced from slight nearsightedness to full out bat vision. My inch-thick oh-so-chic Coach brand glasses magnified my eyes so much I looked like a cartoon character. Oh, and don’t forget about the braces — I made sure those gems made their bright and shiny appearance in each school picture.
I was what they called an “early bloomer,” meaning I was one of the first in my class to graduate from a training bra to one with “more support.” By seventh grade, I was an inch or two taller than most of the girls in my class, although now I am dead average in height for women. I was confident my maturity would give me an advantage in my audition; I was, of course, much more wise and womanly than my competitors. I would soon find out, however, how wrong I was.
The “dance” audition, a Zumba or kickboxing class for preteens, was the first of a series of tryouts for “Oklahoma!” It was essentially the director’s way to assess the level of talent and acquiescence within the candidate pool. Looking back, I am surprised the uncoordinated like me did not pose a certain liability to this audition — one particularly robust kick from my lanky leg could easily result in broken teeth or flying eyeballs. However, none of the sort ever happened; I suppose my karate chops and sashays were never strong enough to cause any serious injuries.
The general audition, in which each candidate would sing a song of his or her choice and read a few lines from the script, took place a few days after the dance audition. My best friend Claire and I decided to sign up for the same slot and sing a duet, as we were allowed to do. My mother bought us an “Oklahoma!” songbook, and after skimming through the selections, we made the wise decision to pitch it and instead sing “Part of Your World,” from The “Little Mermaid.” Relevant, I know.
We practiced and practiced until we hit each note with perfect pitch. We even integrated a bit of harmony into the melody to truly demonstrate our vocal skills.
Finally, the big day arrived. I remember standing outside the audition room, trembling on the retro red and black tiled floor where my friends and I had once played “hot lava,” ironically wishing I could go back to elementary school when life was just so much simpler. I had to nail this audition if I ever wanted to be cool. And I came out of that room thinking I did.
It took about a week for the director, Mrs. Snyder (or Mrs. Spider to us hooligans), and her co-director, the favorite seventh grade teacher Mrs. McCarron, to officially release the cast list. Between wavering shoulders and armpit gaps, I perused the page, my eyes scanning for my name like a metal detector. I felt a radiating sense of panic lick at my throat, my stomach performing acrobatic stunts, as I flitted past Laurey Williams and saw my classmate Katie’s name beside it. The hammer of my heart drowned out all other noise as I scanned the remaining members of the primary cast, and recognized my classmate’s names among them, but not mine. I didn’t see Claire’s name anywhere, either. What were left were the secondary cast members, and I gave enough of a passing glance to see my name at the very bottom of the list, next to the character Ike Skidmore: a cowboy.
“A cowboy?!” I winced to myself, feeling waves of bitter defeat wash over me. A cowboy?! But I nailed that audition. I was so much better than that Katie! I’m not even a boy! How did this happen? Fighting back angry tears, I caught up with Claire on the way out the door. I felt guilty that I had pushed her to do the audition when she hadn’t even landed a part.
“So, are you in the chorus then?” I asked her gently.
She looked at me, a smile gracing her freckly face. “No!” she said brightly. “I talked to Mrs. McCarron. They’re going to make me sound manager! I get to be in control of all the music and lights! Isn’t that cool?”
I was completely perplexed. I didn’t know it then, but Claire, who was first chair flautist in honor band, was beginning her transition from country music loving, horseback riding, Harry Potter obsessed blonde, to angsty, alternative Fall Out Boy groupie. To her, getting the sound manager role was the same as me landing the role of Laurey Williams, but she didn’t even have to audition for it. How was life fair?
I dragged myself home to our four-bedroom home on Welsford Road, collapsing in defeat onto my mother’s warm and welcoming lap. She stroked my strands of brunette frizz, cooing to me in her soft Australian accent.
“Oh possum,” she said as I bawled my little heart out. “Everything is going to be all right.”
“But I am going to be a boy!” I wailed. “Do they think I’m ugly?”
“Of course not, you’re beautiful,” she said. “Women play men’s parts all the time. There are six boys in your class. What did you expect?”
She was right. Damn those mothers who sent their sons to Saint Andrew and Saint Brendan, the other Catholic schools in the area. This was all their fault!
“What do I do?” I sobbed. “I can’t be a cowboy!”
“Yes you can,” my mom said firmly. “You worked so hard on your audition. Be the best cowboy you can be, and who knows? You might have fun.”
She let me weep for a little while longer, rubbing my back while I considered her advice. Mothers have an uncanny way of shooting their words into your skull, where they invade your mind and conquest your reasoning abilities. So, I lay there in my mess of wet cheeks, snotty hair and foggy glasses, thinking miraculously that she was right. I needed to go up on that stage and be the best Ike Skidmore “Oklahoma!” had ever seen. The first step: stop being a baby. After all, cowboys don’t cry.
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