In 1988, I wanted my middle name to be Alyssa. Thank you, Who's the Boss. I had a massive crush on Kirk Cameron, going so far as to make my own Kirk Cameron stickers with tiny pictures I cut out of the TV Guide. I wasn't allowed to shave my legs until I turned 12, so for most of sixth grade I wore really long culottes to cover them up, as if wearing really long culottes was cooler than hairy legs. I spent my spare time playing the DOS version of Wheel of Fortune on the school's computer. I had been out of the country for several years so I was completely out of touch with American culture. I wasn't allowed to wear makeup. I didn't know what the cool kids were doing. I didn't even know that I wasn't one of the cool kids. I was a sight. Sixth grade was the peak of my ugly stage. My social, emotional, and physical roads all converged at the height of their weirdness. Maybe this happens for everyone, but I know for sure it happened for me that year.
We returned to the United States from New Zealand on July 18, 1988. I was so happy to be home. Oreo cookies, M&M's, and Taco Bell bean burritos were the things I remember missing specifically. I mean, family and friends, and all that, too. But seriously, I missed the food. I don't know what happened that we missed the first week or so of school, but somewhere in late August, our family of 7 (with one on the way) landed in Texas City, Texas. Our temporary home was a 32' Salem travel trailer, with teeny little closets and bunk beds in the back. A church in Texas City, which also housed a school, invited us to park our trailer next to the church, a full-time parking place for our temporary home. So if all of my personal quirks weren't enough to alienate me from my peers, the sight of my singing gypsy family showing up a week late for school in our travel trailer would do the trick. Most of my clothes were still in New Zealand, and I remember going with my mom to Weiner's (a terribly named clothing store that you have probably never heard of if you are not from Houston, Texas) and buying one denim skirt and two shirts for school. And so I started sixth grade.
I noticed that most of the girls had perms and really huge bangs. Not me. My hair was long and straight and pulled back tight with a barrette and securely sprayed with Aqua Net. One of the older boys told my brother that I looked like I fell in an oil slick on my way to school. Thankfully, I didn't learn this until years later. (But really, Paul Campbell, that was a jerk face thing to say about an 11 year old) Despite my awkwardness and bad hair, I made friends. I didn't excel in looks or fashion, but I was smart. I worked really hard to make good grades. I was innovative. When the school wouldn't buy uniforms to have Junior Varsity cheerleaders, I asked my mom to make us spirit sweatshirts with puff paint bear paws on the front. I was living the American sixth grade dream, whatever that is.
Then came school picture time. This is the time of year when everything that you are during a certain grade is captured for all to see. I don't even know if I knew it was picture day. Probably not. On the weekends, our family traveled and reported back to our supporting churches, and we often got home late on Sunday nights, making it difficult to keep things together school-wise. I am almost positive that picture day fell on a Monday. I cried when I got my pictures back. My parents paid for them, I brought them home in my backpack, and there they stayed until I found a good place to hide them. I think it was the first time that I saw myself and actually compared myself to other people. I was ugly. The white envelope from Gibby's Photography was sealed in 1988, and was not opened until last night. I dug it out and opened it up. I didn't see what I saw in 1988. I saw a regular little girl. Yes, I looked like I was missing a few teeth, my hair was frizzy, and I have what appears to be a large blemish on my right cheek. But who cares? I was only 11.
That was the year that I learned to wear makeup. I finally was allowed to shave my legs. I cut my bangs and learned the fine art of teasing. I got over Kirk Cameron and transferred my affections to sweet, baby-faced Joey McIntyre. The end of the school year brought a class water balloon fight, where I proudly wore my knee-length yellow shorts to show off my hair free legs. My favorite part and the culmination of a year's worth of hard work, though, was the school awards banquet. My mother sewed a teal taffeta dress for me that I paired with teal pumps. I had huge 80's bangs and a side ponytail. Topping off my transformation was the award that I received that night- I had earned the highest grade average in the whole school. 97.9, the highest in all of Kindergarten through 12th grade. This was a huge deal for this dorky little home-schooled missionary kid. It was a big night.
Given the choice between smart and pretty, I will always choose smart. But on this one magical night in Texas City, Texas, wearing a wrist corsage, white pantyhose, and a smile so big that you could barely see my eyes, I got to be both.