The Mask

     There was a house in town that had no green lawn, no trees, and a single cracked step at the door. It was more a cement square than a house. According to my imagination—I never was inside—it had only one room, occupied by a family of twelve children. I always pictured them sleeping side by side on a hard floor, like sorted lumber.

     The reason I believed in the existence of twelve children was this: there seemed to be one in every grade. Except for height, they were exact replicas of each other: brown hair, scattered freckles, short and slim, and uncannily quiet. J. was in our class. He was not a bad kid, but he had no self-assertion. I was on the other end of the social spectrum: smartest in the class and teacher's pet. The reader will forgive this claim; it is not a boast. I abused my status terribly.

     One contribution to popularity was the Halloween costume. It was especially impressive if sewn by your mother instead of store-bought. Halloween was an amazing day at school, all silliness and distraction and pretending not to be recognized. Typically the costume fit the personality, especially the villainous or goofy ones.

     If you wished for complete anonymity, you kept your mask on at recess. I can feel one today. You endured the sharp edge of cheap plastic cutting into your ears; the eye-hole was never big enough; you had to keep tilting your head to see out. The thing always needed adjustment, because the elastic was slick as a dandelion stem and kept slipping. You had to hold it by its chin when you turned your head. Your face got sweaty and your wig (necessary for hiding the other four-fifths of your head) was itchy. Inevitably the mask would be cracked by the end of the day. What a relief it was when the cupcakes were brought out! You pushed the mask—finally!--up to the top of your head so that you could eat.

     On Halloween in second grade there was great alarm and a lot of whispering: J. didn't have a costume. Not even a mask. He was that poor. What would he do at the party? Maybe he ought to go home. But while we were on the playground, the teacher detained him in the room. When we filed back in, J. was at his desk wearing a mask. Dear, kind Mrs. L. apparently kept a box of spare masks in her closet for poor children and had helped J. to choose one.

          It was a pathetic sight: the still boy alone in the center of the room, facing the blackboard. We saw his hair, his pale skin, the curved edge of the mask he had chosen. It was—this is painful to tell—a cartoon character called Porky Pig. That bright pink face was the whole of his poor disguise. He didn't move, didn't acknowledge us, just sat with unwavering stoicism while we pretended we didn't know who he was.

     Things must have improved for J., because the next year he had a full costume and had also signed up, along with two other students, to bring the party cupcakes. I was surprised that he even had a mother, let alone that she would bake.

     J.'s cupcakes were very beautiful, heaped with colored frosting. But popularity brings power and every year more cruelty, and I spread a rumor that we shouldn't eat them. They might have cooties; let's only eat Mrs B's and Mrs D's. Because I did this, my ongoing punishment is an image of J. leaving school with a full tray in his arms, silent as the Pietà.

     Elementary school is an inevitable spectrum of achievement, and I was a “high level” reader. I deliberately chose the thickest books. My especial pride was choosing one that, in a decade, no one else had endeavored to read. It was some nautical adventure, with "Courage" in the title. I didn't especially enjoy it, but my name was now immortalized inside the cover on a pasted card, which was what I was really aiming for.

     The books I genuinely loved--blessed be our teacher for having them!--were the Oz books. The Wizard of Oz we all knew, of course, from television. But here was Ozma of OzThe Patchwork Girl of OzRinkitink of Oz, wonderful thrilling escapes that saturated the mind with strange new color and imagery. And when the teacher took us on a field trip to the library, what did the librarian tell me? That there were twelve more! A whole series on the shelf, just around the corner, second aisle.

     But another explorer had already landed there. Crouched on the rug with Book Five in his hands, was J. He did not see me--my hesitation, my soured hopes, my fear of association. He was far into the splendid world, one he had discovered before me.

     I didn't read any more Oz books after that, and my life is the poorer.

     Nineteen years later I took my beautiful little daughter to a testing center to have her assessed for academic readiness. It was just out of curiosity, really. She was only five, extraordinarily bright, already reading under my tutelage. The woman who tested her said she was certainly more than ready for kindergarten.

     When we came out of that office, there was a young father with a little boy tucked in close at his side. I knew by the face of his son that this was J. We said a surprised hello. J. was still quiet but not shy, neatly dressed, handsome really, a gentle-seeming parent, and when I asked he told me that his son had just finished the tests and scored very high. He used the word “exceptional” without the barest hint of a boast or a mask of false modesty.

     I'm very glad that I saw J. that day. His son would be twenty-nine now. I hope with all my heart that he is well and content and still the pride of his father, enduring with equal fortitude the sharp edge of brittle things.