My favorite school activity was always Creative Writing, except for when the assignment was one of those awful “What I Did on My Vacation” journals. Other kids would write things like “I visited my grandparents in South Carolina and went fishing. It was fun.” If it was a really good vacation, they might write “We went to Disney World and my brother threw up on Space Mountain.”
My summer journals were never so mundane. In fact, I still have one from the fourth grade that reads like this:
“I had a lot of rehearsals on this ‘vacation.’ You couldn’t really call it a vacation, though, since I feel like I worked harder than I do when I’m at school. We had rehearsals almost every day for a play we’re doing called Gypsy and even though I’m only in the first act, there is a lot to be done. Gypsy is a play about a real-life stripper named Gypsy Rose Lee, and I play her when she’s a little girl (before she’s a stripper, that is).
“When I’m not on stage, I’m usually helping backstage with costumes or microphones. It was really difficult finding ways to hide the microphones this time, since most of the girls hardly wear anything, but my dad says that I’m the expert. I also get to help Michelle with all of her costume changes, which keeps me pretty busy because she’s the lead. We also had to paint and build the set, and that takes a long time. Some nights we were there until two or three in the morning, but to be honest, I like those nights the best.
“My favorite part of the play is “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” That’s when all the different strippers show off their routines, like light-up panties, butterfly wings and Mazeppa who likes to ‘bump it with a trumpet.’ It’s so funny. After all that work, mom says we need a vacation from our vacation. I agree.”
It may come as no surprise that I rarely got to read my reports out loud. Not all of my essays were about strippers; some were about learning how to load fake guns, getting makeup lessons from drag queens, or explaining the origin of the term avante garde, which I learned during a production of Mame. I vividly remember consulting my teacher’s aide about how to spell it, but she simply raised her eyebrows and said “Well, if it ain’t in the dictionary, and if I ain’t heard of it, then it ain’t a real word.” That was the first time I ever felt smarter than an adult.
What did my teachers think I was doing with my nights and weekends, and how many times did they consider calling child services? Fortunately, my principal acted alongside me in many productions, including Gypsy, and we had a secret pact. “You never tell anyone at school that you’ve seen me dance in chaps,” he bribed, “and I’ll give you excused absences on your opening nights.” It was a pretty good deal.
A few of my friends were also theatre kids, raised in similarly unconventional environments. Like me, my friend Laura loathed Career Day assignments, because neither of us could explain our parents properly. While I tried to enlighten my classmates on the intricacies of the burlesque striptease, she had to tell everyone that her father sang at outdoor festivals dressed as Uncle Sam.
The confused faces of our peers were the first signs to us that we were a little different. Then we both grew up and found out that not everyone has a costume closet in their house, and that most people spend their 4th of July attending fireworks shows, not standing outside on the roof of an 18-wheeler wearing earplugs and watching your mother call pyro shots in time to the 1812 Overture.
I was quite content to lead a double-life; one filled with reading, writing, and kickball; the other filled with music, glitter, and provocative dances. The thing is, you don’t realize that your family is different until someone tells you so. But 17 years later, with a house in the suburbs and a job that sometimes requires fishnets, I still struggle to answer the simple question of “What do you do?” without feeling like that little kid standing in front of her class, reading an essay about strippers.