© Copyright 2002 by Judith Nakken
There were thirty-nine teenagers in the high school upstairs in the autumn of 1947. Seventy-four noisy students got their primary education in four classrooms on the first floor. I was not yet twelve years old and in the 8th grade, with an unbelievable I.Q., one lazy eye and two white cotton brassieres, size 36-D.
Monk, on the other hand, was sixteen and in the 7th. His family had moved often during the war years and the older children were all two or three grades behind. He was six feet tall with short blond hair, perpetually red-rimmed eyes and green teeth. A happy soul was Duane-called-Monk, a poor student and a good sport.
Homecoming was a week from Saturday night. Today, the ritual choosing of King and Queen candidates was happening upstairs in each of the four high school classes. Each of the lower grade rooms would also choose candidates for their Prince and Princess.
We would sell tickets for twelve days. Ten cents apiece, three for a quarter. A week from Friday the money would be counted, and we would know who the royalty were before we went home from school. All the couples would be honored, and the ticket sales winners crowned the next night. There were no sports at Homecoming, only a program and dance in the gym. The two royal pairs would reign over the evening.
Twelve days was plenty in this South Dakota prairie town of three hundred souls. The Homecoming royalty was never a surprise. Townspeople bought the tickets to support the extra-curricular school equipment the monies purchased, and they always bought them from the high school seniors and for the prince and princess from first and second grades. The pair from the graduating class and the little kids were always crowned.
Lowell and Doody were our candidates last year. They were a dismal fourth in ticket sales. He was a freshman this year, but Doody was still in our classroom and she was vocal all week. "Don’t nominate me! I won’t parade around in my long dress again!"
Princess nominations were opened first. Clare Sorheim put my name forward. I was confused, because I knew he hated me. He complained that my scores ruined tests graded on the curve. He and Blub Stoneking hid my crutches the previous winter, and lied about it to everyone but me. His gesture today was so extraordinary it invaded the private world I inhabited most of the time.
Clare’s nomination was rapidly seconded in a buzz of quiet chatter and stifled giggles. Miss Ramsell had to insist that another name be recommended. When the other girl and I returned to the room Miss Ramsell was wearing her fake face. "Judy Roberts! You are our Princess candidate. Congratulations!"
It was a conspiracy, of course. The room quickly acclaimed Monk my prince. He was good-natured about it, grinning at the razzing he took from the boys. I retreated into my library book and vowed silently to sell no tickets.
Mama was proud. "I’ll make you a sweet little long dress," she said. It did not console me. I had been bigger than she for a year now and nothing ‘sweet’ was ever going to look good on me.
It was dotted Swiss, little white dots on velvety red. There was a high, wide scoop neck outlined with a two-inch ruffle. The ruffle was edged in narrow thread lace. "Plenty of seam under here, honey," my mama said. "To pin your bra straps." A matching ruffle surrounded the floor length gathered skirt about halfway between my knees and the floor.
I won the battle of the waistline. She wanted it gathered, full, with a sash of – you guessed it – dotted Swiss edged in the white lace. I pleaded for an inset band, like Wonder Woman’s belt, and no sash. The waistline just saved my dress from ‘sweet.’ Barely.
"It’s not polite to vote for yourself," I told my stepfather when he asked me why I hadn’t hit him up to buy tickets. "Buy some from Keeto; the little kids should win." My little brother was in first grade.
It was a year of upsets, upstairs and down. Wendell and Eleanor, starry-eyed junior class sweethearts, were going to be king and queen. And Miss Ramsell’s room sold more tickets than any other did for the first time in recorded history.
If I weren’t lucky enough to die before Saturday night, I would reign over Homecoming with my frog prince. My Monk prince. And if I did die, my mama would probably dress my body in dotted Swiss and wheel it on an appliance dolly to the festivities, she was that proud. She burned up the telephone wires Friday night, making sure relatives in neighboring towns came to see me crowned.
It was unbelievable that she could not see the cruel joke of it. Indeed, she went to her grave telling about how her Judy was the Homecoming Princess. It was my first lesson about life and living being all a matter of perception.
I had to be at the gymnasium early, so Father gave me a ride to save wear and tear on the new dress. Our spinsterish, married music teacher was responsible for the processional of royalty, and she put us through our paces in her no-nonsense manner. "Grace and dignity, people. With – grace – and – dignity." She soon had us shaped up enough to promenade in our finery.
Monk looked really nice in gray dress pants, a dark suit coat and yellow tie. His eyes were still red-rimmed but his gap-toothed grin dazzled. Neither of us seemed to know left foot from right and we got the giggles on the first run-through. Mrs. Schultz censured us sharply, and we were soon glissading comfortably with the rest of the royalty.
The makeshift room at the left of the stage was for the girls. It had a full-length mirror at which feminine royalty could primp. "It’s a real pretty dress, Judy," said the queen-elect as we stood in line to use it. She was gorgeous and kind, as usual, adding some rosebud lipstick to her already-perfect mouth and moving away quickly. I stepped up to see if my inch-wide bra straps showed.
In a slick piece of fiction, this is the moment when someone who looked like Jane Russell, that year’s "Outlaw" sex symbol, would gaze back from the mirror. But real life is all about perception, remember, and only fifty-year-old photographs tell me that story. As the piano processional began, all I saw in the mirror was the reflection of a lumpy girl with six hooks on her white cotton bra and the dumbest, ugliest loser in the world for a prince.
We flowed with grace and dignity, beginning with the tiny, blonde first-grader, and met our consorts at center stage. Each couple stood for applause and moved downstage to walk the aisle and back. When Monk extended his arm for me in the manner we’d been shown, laughter and some catcalls erupted amid the applause. He stopped for a split second, stiffened his back and purposefully did the arm thing again. I took it and we glided through our paces to applause alone. The lightweight dress floated airily down steps and across the floor.
Back on stage, the pronouncements were made. Prince and Princess were first. A silver cardboard crown was placed on my dark head, his fair one. Monk got a pool-cue scepter and I was given a red wax rose. We stood at the front of the stage with the King and Queen in their golden crowns and held court until the music started. I had already popped out of reality when last year’s little princess stretched to put the crown on my head, and only returned from my reverie at the sound of his mother’s voice.
Her red-rimmed eyes were so like his, and wet as she gushed at him. "You did just perfect, son. Just like I asked you to. You’re a fine boy, and you even look like a prince!" She wanted to hug and kiss him but didn’t; just cried a little more and backed away into the crowd.
I was more at ease with him since the ordeal was over. Anyway, this charade wasn’t his fault. I made conversation. "My mom didn’t tell me anything. What did your mother tell you, Monk?"
He stammered and blushed, reverted to mumbling Monk and then gave me
my second lesson in life as a matter of perception. "Well, it doesn’t mean
anything now, Judy. It’s really been okay. You’re not so bad, after all.
But at first I – well – she told me to treat you like a princess. Even
though I knew the whole thing was just a big joke on me."
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