Matters of Life and Steph: “Playing Dirty”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

There are some memories you never forget from your childhood. As an adult, you can probably still recall certain smells, sounds, and feelings from some of your most impactful childhood recollections. For me, one of those triggers is the color maroon.

I love the color of maroon. At least now I do. But I didn’t always. For a long stretch of my adolescence, I couldn’t stand the color maroon. And that is because of a scarring playground event that occurred during fourth grade.

And so, in today’s blog, it’s time to come clean with my story: a story about mud.

The life lesson I learned on that fateful day is that while we often get caught up in worrying about what people think of you, in reality, most people are more focused on themselves. And it’s a shame that we waste so much time harping on that fear.

Re-cess pieces

Like many kids, recess ranked up there as one of my favorite school subjects. All throughout elementary school, I recall that the start of each school day centered around what my friends and I would do at recess.

Since I loved sports, I typically would play with the other sporty kids at recess. That usually meant that I hung out with mostly boys. It wasn’t a big deal that I was one of the few—though more often than not, only—girl playing with the boys. As long as I could catch, throw, or kick a ball, that was all that mattered. (And frankly, isn’t that the way it should be?) 

We were a no-frills public school, so the outdoor recess sports options were typically football or kickball when we could play on the grass; basketball if the field was too wet.

On the day when I stopped liking the color maroon, I recall that the weather had been cloudy and still damp from the rainy night before. That meant the school playground would probably be a little muddy. But thankfully, our teacher decided it wasn’t so terrible that the field was off limits at recess.

A sinking feeling

My recess friends agreed that while the ground was probably too muddy for kickball, if we angled the field in just the right way, we could probably still play football. 

With no one stopping us, we raced down the hill to the open field. We quickly selected teams in case it started to rain again. (If so, we’d be called back inside—the worst possible way to spend recess.)

As usual, I was picked early on to be quarterback of my team. I was an accurate passer and I was pretty good at making sure I threw the ball to everyone. Playing sports at recess were amongst my happiest childhood memories. But in an instant, that joy vanished.

That day’s football game started in an unmemorable fashion. But about halfway through recess, I scrambled to avoid a blitz. I ran towards a part of the field where no one else had gone. And it was there that I slipped. Right into a huge puddle.

It only took seconds before I felt the cold water seeping up my pant legs. I had been wearing light colored jeans that day. It didn’t take long for my jeans to turn an ominous shade of dark obsidian. And my pants were oh so very muddy.

I quickly got up, thankfully uninjured. Given that I was now basically soaked from the waist down, I realized that my pants were too wet for me to play football.

Nursing a grudge

“I’m going to dry off,” I announced as I trotted off the field. I planned to sit on the basketball court and somehow let my jeans air dry. I clearly didn’t appreciate how wet my pants were.

A teacher saw me and said, “You’ll need to go to Nurse S for a change of clothes.”  I remember wishing that I had been in kindergarten at that very moment. In kindergarten, everyone had a spare outfit in case of an “accident.” The only extra clothes I had that day was a sweatshirt. A feeling of dread crept over me.

I didn’t want to go to the school nurse. I despised the school nurse.

Nurse S (may she now rest in peace) was a particularly horrid woman. For a nurse, she was a surprisingly unsympathetic person—particularly given that her job was premised on caring for others. She was the only school nurse I’ve ever met whom kids actually feared. No one wanted to go to the nurse unless they were deathly ill. And even then, Nurse S probably wouldn’t send you home early.

Yet, in that moment, I needed Nurse S. She was the only person in school who had a supply of “accident” clothes.

Fancy pants

I recall walking—or rather sloshing—down the long hallway to Nurse S’s office. 

After several knocks, Nurse S finally opened the door. She looked me up and down. Her eyes stopped on my soaked, muddy pants. With a click of chagrin, the nurse motioned for me to come inside. 

“Looks like you need a change of pants,” she grunted as she opened a closet stuffed with long-discarded lost and found clothing. She glanced back again at me to get a better sense of my size. After rummaging around for a few more moments, she tossed me some plain socks (phew, they looked clean!) and a pair of corduroy bell bottom jeans.

Maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans.

I glanced down at the pants she gave me and grimaced in dismay.

How many other children had worn these jeans (which clearly dated back to the 1970s)? Who knew when these jeans were last washed? How could I possibly wear these outdated pants? I would be the laughingstock of my class—no, the whole grade. Or worse, the whole school!

As much as I didn’t want to wear those hideous maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans, what choice did I have?

 “You can change in the bathroom,” the nurse said, motioning me towards a bathroom I had never known existed. I looked down at those maroon corduroy bell bottoms jeans, feeling completely mortified.

Frozen in a mixture of fear and probably mild hypothermia, I choked back tears as I walked into the bathroom. By now, my wet pants were fused to my skin. I struggled to take them off. Perhaps it was because I dreaded having to put on those maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans.

I was already imagining how I’d be teased about these pants until high school graduation.

Dressed for s*ck-cess

After wrestling with my wet jeans for a few moments, I finally got the pants off. My legs effortlessly slid into the bell bottoms. The waist was a little loose, but not that bad. I willed myself not to look down.

“You can put your wet clothes in here,” Nurse S said, handing me a large paper bag. “Make sure you let the mud dry before washing your pants. Those jeans are so wet it’ll probably take you a few days.”

I may have mustered a small “thank you,” but all I could think about how was how I was wearing ugly, outdated maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans. With each step, I swore I could hear the “svttt svttt” sound that the corduroy pant legs made as they rubbed against each other.

At first, I prayed that no one would notice my change of clothes. But given that rich crimson shade, there’s no way anyone could not see my pants. So, I settled on just hoping no one would laugh at me.

I slunk back into the classroom, quietly setting my paper bag down. I grabbed my sweatshirt and tied it around my waist. Maybe that would disguise the bell bottoms.

I could tell that one of my friends was trying to get my attention. I assumed it was to tease me or make a joke about my pants. I refused to make eye contact with anyone. 

I glanced at the clock, praying school was almost over. Sadly, there was a least two hours left to go.

I looked down at my maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans and cursed my misfortune.

Lady in Red Maroon

I have no memory of whether anyone made fun of me for wearing those maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans. I’m sure they did.

I mean, how could you ignore a child who normally dressed rather plainly but now suddenly sported a pair of 1970s maroon pants?

I’m sure there were plenty of jokes and teasing which only served to compound my embarrassment. (Though working in my favor was the fact that most of my classmates liked me. I’m sure that even back then, I knew people’s comments weren’t mean spirited.)

When I returned to school the next day, most kids had already forgotten about my bell bottom trauma. But not me. It took years for me to wear the color maroon again.

I think the reason why I hated the color maroon for so long was because those maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans represented my worst fear: for those horrid hours after recess, those ugly bell bottoms made me stand out from everyone else. Those wretched pants were a reminder that we’re only a puddle away from being viewed as different.

I can now appreciate that getting stuck wearing a horrendous pair of maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans makes for a funny story. Perhaps if I had more self-confidence, I would’ve spent the remainder of the school day making jokes about my unfortunate situation. Like walking into the classroom doing a disco move or singing the chorus of Y-M-C-A. (My go-to move when I feel uncomfortable is almost always a witty joke.)

I’m fairly certain that’s how I’d respond if I could do it all over again.

But I was so caught up in not fitting in, my visible discomfort probably made me stand out even more.  

Looking back on it, those maroon corduroy bell bottoms taught me a valuable lesson. The less you care about being judged by—or receiving validation from—others, the more freeing your life will be. 

And what a waste it had been for me to avoid wearing a certain color for all those years. Because darn it, I look pretty good in maroon. Just not maroon corduroy bell bottom jeans.

Do you recall a time in your childhood when you were so worried about what other people thought about you that you lost sight of reality? Please share your stories with me in the comments section.

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