images & words
Under the Lion's Mask
I didn't want to stand out; I just wanted to be like the other kids...
Even though I never volunteered, my kindergarten teacher, Miss Oaken, often called on me to read aloud. I always looked down quietly at my hands, folded on my desk, hoping she’d pick me. When she did, I would read deliberately and carefully until the end of the page and then stop and hold my breath, hoping she would say, “Keep going.”
I was still just 4 years old and very shy. I loved to read and I especially loved to read out loud. But I didn’t like to be noticed.
I didn’t want to stand out, especially in the kindergarten circus play. I wanted to wear footed, flannel, creamy soft pajamas and a lion mask, like Patrick and Kevin were going to wear, with big, smelly, brown paper bags plopped upside down over their heads, and small, circular eye holes cut out, so they could see. Miss Oaken had to cut those out.
I didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to be a lion, too, but Miss Oaken selected me to be the ringmaster, and that meant I had to stand in the middle, alone, and wear my real everyday clothes, nothing special about that.
The day before our play, Patrick’s and Kevin’s moms came to school and glued curly, bright orange yarn all over their paper bag masks. My mom came, too, and helped me make a tall stovepipe hat from black construction paper. I had to wear my just-for-special Mary Janes, with a taffeta skirt and dotted swiss polka-dot blouse, and a scratchy red satin cape that made funny sounds when I moved. I wanted to hide.
During practice, I tried to speak in my biggest voice, like Miss Oaken told me to do: “Ladies and gentleman and children of all ages…” The lions got to prance around on all fours in that big room without the desks, while shaking their curly manes and roaring loud roars; they looked just like real lions.
The elephants rocked back and forth, their long, grey, papier-mâché trunks still smelled like glue, and were tied with yarn around their necks. Most of the giraffes were girls and had lots of yellow flannel circles, safety-pinned all over their tights and dresses, and tiny ears bobby-pinned to their hair.
The bears, all boys, wore brown, fuzzy costumes with giant pom poms on their shirts, and crayon colored paper masks. Everybody had a mask. Except me.
On the day of the play, I knew what I was supposed to do, but when it was time to introduce the lion tamer, I looked down, and could barely whisper. I wanted to cry. Without a costume or mask, I just looked like me. My stomach hurt; I wanted to go home.
After the play, all the parents stayed and sat with us, even though we were still in school. None of the parents knew that Patrick and Kevin were lions, because all the animals were hidden under their masks.
But everyone knew I was the ringmaster. They could see me. And I liked the way that felt. Being seen. I liked the attention and recognition. I was glad I wasn’t a lion; I liked being me.
After that, I always tried to stand out and get noticed in some way. I enjoyed being center stage. Mesmerized by performance of any kind, and spellbound by Radio City Music Hall, the Rockettes, Ringling Brothers, the Ice Capades, I became obsessed with television, movies, and make believe. I wanted to be part of it all.
But sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference between real or make-believe. I mean, were the tooth fairy and Santa real? Tinkerbell? Cinderella? I noticed that grown up people did a lot of pretending, too, and they weren’t even wearing masks.
And like the lions, I, too, learned to pretend. I could be someone other than I was. I watched and learned how to smile when I was sad and how to act like nothing hurt, not even my heart. I learned, like my turtles, to disappear, like a chameleon.
From there it’s just a hop and a skip until you’re somewhere Over the Rainbow with Dorothy and Toto or in Never Never Land with Peter and the Boys. When down is up and night is day and my heroes all fall down, and even the knight in shining armor is galloping in on a limping goat - well, it gets complicated.
The Twilight Zone, and Sky King and Superman were Lost in Space. And I was, too. It felt like everything shifted three inches to the right while I was sleeping one night; we were all pretending. I always felt sick. And very scared.
There was no shortage of drama in my home or for anyone who grows up immersed in dismal dysfunctions like alcoholism, abuse, addictions, and debilitating diseases. Decades all. I tried to act like the other kids who seemed more normal. But that’s pretending.
Silence, compliance, caretaking, and enabling grow like branches on a shame tree carried like genetic code for brown hair. Survival tactics but only for a while. Very complicated.
Automated call and response: “Oh, I’m fine thanks; how are you?” Abracadabra: The rabbit is gone. Disappearing is easy, getting back into the hat without being noticed is much more difficult. Knowing when to hide or if you’re hiding? That’s the biggest trick of all.
Like now. Can you see me?
I like standing in the middle alone now even though it’s uncomfortable at first, speaking deliberately, carefully and truthfully in my biggest voice while waiting to see who’s under the lion’s mask today.
And then, I just take a slow breath, and confidently keep going …