By the age of eight, I was already a Ballet School Dropout; my mother quickly bounced back from her disappointment that Ballet Lessons had failed to make me a Fully Rounded Person by enrolling me in Drama Class. I was a very shy child, and my mother continually worried about my lack of friends and of any social graces. I was an excellent reader, however, and I liked being on stage for the one ballet recital I danced in. Drama class seemed like a perfect fit.
At first, I enjoyed the class quite a bit. The teacher, a pretty blond lady with a great deal of energy and a chirpy, hopeful voice, handed out pages of scripts and asked us to read our page out loud when called on. My page was a monologue spoken by Tom Sawyer, in which he ruminated about how to get someone else to paint his fence for him. I was a good reader; I knew how to read, as they say, “with expression.” Not only that, but I had actually read Tom Sawyer, and so I had my character’s backstory. I was able to infuse my lines with foreshadowing of Tom’s near-death experience in a cave, his crush on Becky Thatcher, and his complex relationship with Injun Joe. I could tell that my teacher was impressed. Drama Class was already an infinitely better experience than Ballet School.
That was the first day. On the second day of drama class, our bouncy blonde teacher told us it was time to begin “Really Acting.” This statement puzzled me, because I was pretty sure I had done some first class acting the day before in my turn as Tom Sawyer. It turned out that “Really Acting” meant that we were going to do physical things rather than just read lines.
The first job our teacher gave us was to “Act like oranges!” What? That seemed like a very complex task. Act like oranges? Oranges don’t do anything, I thought to myself. They just sit there until someone eats them, and then stuff happens to them—they get digested. I was pretty sure that just sitting quietly pretending to be an uneaten orange in a bowl wasn’t going to be a winning strategy, because my audience would have no way to know that I was an orange; for all they knew, I could be a desk, a rock or a dead human being. On the other hand, I had no way to act like an orange that is being eaten; I would at least need a great deal more prep time to communicate the process of getting digested. Apparently I wasn’t the only student in the room who was struggling to articulate a basic Orange-ness, because after just a few minutes, the teacher rather abruptly clapped her hands and said, “Ok! That’s over! Next task!”
We all stopped our feeble attempt to find our inner Oranges, and awaited our next instructions. Our teacher looked around the room brightly and announced, “Now, everyone, it’s time to…pretend that you are a fat person! Really get into it! Think! How does a fat person walk? How does a fat person sit, or stand, or dance? Be creative! Now Go! BE FAT!” The other nine year olds took to this task with relish, immediately launching themselves into Fat Personas, but I was momentarily stunned into complete, embarrassed stillness. Unlike the other nine year olds in Drama class, I actually WAS fat. I had no idea how to act like something I already was. Even worse, I was terrified that the Drama Teacher was going to look around at her charges, see me and gasp. I thought she would quickly realize that whereas the other students were all acting fat—and already having a much better time with it than the whole “acting like an orange” assignment—I was the Real Deal—a Genuine Fat Girl. I figured that as soon as everyone remembered my fatness, they would laugh, or—far worse—pity me.
I did the only thing I could think to do on such short notice; I muttered something under my breath about needing to use the Girl’s Room, and I dashed out of the classroom, down the hall, and out the door of Longfellow School. My house was about a mile away from the school, and my mother’s plan was that I would walk both ways (thus combining an Enriching Activity with some Physical Fitness), so I slowly started to walk home.
I knew I was never going back to that class. I also knew that I couldn’t tell my mother what had happened. First of all, she would feel sorry for me, and having her feel sorry for me would have been worse than what had just occurred. Second, she would surely think to herself, “If only you weren’t fat, these things wouldn’t happen to you.” I chose the only option that seemed workable: I just stopped going to the class. It was a summertime community education class, so my mother paid the fee, assumed I was going, and that was that. As far as she knew, I went to class every morning. In reality, I walked around for the two hours I was supposedly at Longfellow School becoming an actress. The Wauwatosa Library was across the street from the school, and I was always happy to spend a few hours there picking out books to read later with my malted milk balls. Once my two hours was nearly up, I would turn toward home, almost always with a stop at Fessenbecker’s Bakery for a chocolate doughnut and a Long John. There were few foods on this earth as delightful and satisfying as sweet rolls from Fessenbecker’s, and I relished them as I took the longer way home, so that I had time to savor every bite. In the course of all those summer mornings I spent walking and enjoying my secret pleasure, it never once occurred to me that I was doing precisely what I had been unable to do in Drama Class right before I made a break for it: I was eating junk food on the sly, thus negating all of the Physical Fitness Benefits of my daily walk; in other words, I was acting just like….A fat person.