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The pink frock


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Today in Harlem, I attended a rite of passage, eighth grade graduation. I am a sucker for ceremony. As the young people promenaded two by two through the decorated arch and up the aisle, tears rolled down my face.

I felt as if I had stepped into a time machine. Long buried memories of my own eighthgrade graduation flooded my mind. I leaned over to Karolee, "When we were in school, was graduation held in the cafeteria or the pit? I can't remember." The pit was a sunken gymnasium in the old section of the grade school, a place where we were sent for punishment. All of it long gone.

This year's crop of eighthgrade girls all looked so pretty.

The boys moved with sporty grace. I glanced around at the proud families. Cameras flashed to document the moment.

"Look how assured and confident they stand. We were not so sophisticated," I whispered. I remembered how uncomfortable I had felt. Fidgety. I had kept a nervous eye on the boy who walked next to me, trying to match step. I was paired with either Bob Neely or Big John Longknife, our tallest boys. I, myself, was eight feet tall. With feet twenty-four inches long. I could not keep my feet out of the way of my legs.

My arms were so long that my hands hung near my knees.

None of us knew what to do with our platter-like hands. I was as thin as a steel fence post and with as much sex appeal.

And I remembered the pink dress.

Somewhere in my boxes of photos, filed by chunks of time, I had a photo of myself wearing the dress, taken with my own Brownie Hawkeye. I had posed in front of our house, out on the farm, in a corner by the porch steps. As soon as I got home, I dug my storage boxes out of the cupboard, tore through the files, and found the picture stored under the heading, "Sondra — young." Even in the black and white photo, it looks pink. It was my first semi-formal frock. It was horrid. I don't know what I was thinking to have chosen such a dress. I must have thought it was pretty. Pink is a beautiful color. I love pink. Just this week I bought an entire flat of pink petunias.

But I cannot wear pink, especially light pink.

I fade away to nothing.

I wish I could show you the photo I have propped in front of me. No, that's a lie. I am glad you cannot see it. There I stand, posing awkwardly, feet encased in white flats to hide my height, a white pop-bead necklace around my scrawny neck, hair straight as a stick, eyes squinting into the sun, trying to look happy. The dress is a wonder, satin with a scratchy lace over-layer. The piece de resistance, that which sets this dress apart as "special," is a giant bow stitched smack in the front. The bow extends beyond the width of my waist (metal fence post) and the tails hang down to the end of the skirt.

Beneath the skirt, I wore three starched, ruffled net petticoats.

I had to wear that pink dress to formal dances until my junior year. Finally, in time for the Junior Prom, I had saved enough money to buy the only other semi-formal dress I ever owned, a white froth of beauty that could have been inspired by "Gone With the Wind." I loved that white dress.

In my white dress I shrunk to five-foot eight, my arms became proportionate, my feet fit into size eight shoes, though I still wore flats. In my white dress, I felt like the girls looked at the graduation today.

Assured. Confident. Graceful.

I know dresses have nothing to do with either sophistication or awkwardness. It just took me a while to grow into myself.

These young people have a head start.

They, every one of them, are beautiful.

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.



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