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Matters of Life and Steph: “Pants on Fire”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

Basic instincts

Today’s post ranks up there as one of my most scarring childhood memories. It’s a story that is both sad yet also terribly funny (at least adult-me can see it now).

Have you ever had a fear—however irrational—and then that fear came true? That worst case scenario happened to me in nursery school. I can tell you that I still remember the incident like it was yesterday (plus or minus forty or so years).

The life lesson I learned one fateful day in the late 1970s: it’s usually best to trust your instincts. While there are certainly exceptions, you probably know yourself better than anyone else. And if there’s one thing I’ve discovered over the years, it’s that my intuition rarely lies—even for the unexpected.

Dot your “I’s” and cross your “T’s”

Allow me to set the scene. I was in nursery school. I loved nursery school. Nursery school was a magical place. It was my first brush with independence. At the ripe old age of four, I felt very grown up. For three solid hours, three days a week, I was living my best life. I was surrounded by blocks, arts and crafts galore, and T’s.

T’s you might be asking? Yes, T’s.

After my first day of nursery school, I asked my mother why there were so many T’s on the walls. I thought that maybe it was because the school was named after someone with a “T.” Like Thomas, Terrence, or Tyler. I assumed they just went overboard with all the “T” decorations.

That was not the case.

“Those T’s are crosses,” my mother said as I’m sure she stifled a laugh. She explained that the nursery school was located in a Methodist Church. It was the best nursery school around, so children of every religion attended. Since I was having so much fun at nursery school, I didn’t really care what they put on their walls. To me, nursery school was heaven.


One of the best parts about nursery school was that every day, we could choose different “stations” in which to play. I remember that I loved the blocks, “Legos” (the school had an off-brand equivalent), and any sports option that was available.

One part of the classroom that I always avoided: the dramatic play area (aka the dress-up station). My intuition rarely lies, and something deep inside told me to stay away.

Still, the dress-up area was oh-so tempting. Located along the back wall of our classroom, the dress-up area was the sunniest, most inviting part of the room.

There were various capes, wigs, wings, and an assortment of costumes. The policeman and fireman costumes where what caught my eye the most. But I never dared put the whole costume on.

Why wouldn’t I fully commit to playing dress-up you may be wondering?

Was it because I lacked the creativity to create a detailed pretend-character backstory? Heck, no. I was a little writer-to-be even back then.

Well, was I squeamish about the questionable hygiene and sanitation policies of shared clothing? Well, no, not at that age. (That came later.)

There was something else that I just couldn’t seem to get past: you had to take your shoes off to put the uniform pants on.

At that time, I probably hadn’t fully mastered tying my shoes. (I was—and am—very big on doing things myself, so I didn’t like asking for help.) Unfortunately for me, Velcro shoes hadn’t yet become popular, otherwise this story would’ve had a very different outcome…

You’re never fully dressed without a smile

I remember that if I was encouraged to go to the dress-up station, I would only put on the uniform hat and maybe a belt. But never, ever did I put the pants on. Since my intuition rarely lies, I trusted my instincts. That was how I managed to go nearly the whole year without fully dressing up.

One day, though, a new teacher’s aide saw me in my half-uniform ensemble.

“Do you want to put the pants on too, Steph?” the aide asked me sweetly. I recall that she was very young.  

“No thanks. Not today,” I said, giving her my typical answer. The regular teachers knew not to bother asking anymore. 

“Are you sure?” the teacher’s aide asked again. “Come on, I’ll help you,” she said. And without waiting for my response, she began taking off my shoes.

The new teacher’s aide caught me in a moment of weakness. At that moment, I kind of, sort of wanted to put those fireman pants on. So, I didn’t object.   

If only I’d reminded myself that my intuition rarely lies.  

Just as I was about to admire myself in the mirror, the fire alarm went off.

We were told we had to evacuate the classroom!

A cause for alarm

I distinctly remember panicking at hearing the fire alarm. Mind you, I had absolutely no concern that this may have been an actual emergency situation. I could care less if the entire nursery school went down in flames. No, I needed to get that uniform off before I went outside. I didn’t want anyone to see me wearing that fireman outfit.

You see, my intuition rarely lies. I should’ve known not to put on those fireman pants that day—or ever.

Rather than running for my life, I sat down and tried taking the pants off. But I couldn’t get the pants over my darn shoes!

“We’re having a fire drill right now. There’s no need to panic,” the teacher said as my classmates were calmly ushered out the door. “Everybody, please go outside.”  

I didn’t want to evacuate. Not yet anyway. Not until I got those fireman pants off.

The now-not-so-friendly teacher’s aide came over to me. She gently grabbed my arm to guide me out.

“I need to take the costume off first,” I said in a panic.

“It’s OK, honey,” the teacher’s aide said sweetly. “You can wear the uniform outside just this once.” I then remembered that one of the classroom rules was “no dress-up clothes outside.” The teacher’s aide thought I was worried about breaking the classroom rules.

That was not me. I could care less about the class’s dramatic play policy.  I wanted to get those pants off. And I would risk life and limb to do so.

“Come now,” she said again, nearly dragging me outside. I was the only one left in the classroom. Everyone else had already evacuated.  I had no choice but to pull the fireman pants back up and join the rest of the school as we waited for the all-clear signal.

Watch what you (h)eat

While we waited outside, I was mortified. The one day I finally put the whole fireman’s outfit on. And that’s the day we have a fire drill? Oh, the irony of wearing the fireman outfit during a fire drill. Why didn’t I remind myself that my intuition rarely lies? 

One of the grown-ups who worked in the front office saw me in that ridiculous costume. With a smile, she leaned over to me and said, “they might need you in there, fire marshal.”

I had wanted to say, “Ma’am, what fire department in their right mind would need a four-year-old’s assistance?” but I simply scowled silently.

As soon as the woman walked away, I yanked off my sneaker. Hopping on one leg so that my foot wouldn’t touch the ground, I began removing the costume before anyone else could notice.

With one pant leg on and one pant leg off, my classmate Travis spotted me. Dang it!

“I wish I could’ve worn the fireman uniform outside,” he said mournfully. I really liked Travis. He was the youngest of several boys and sported a crew cut. I had even been to his house on several occasions. I remember that his grandmother had served bologna sandwiches on white bread which I very much enjoyed. (Although she used mayonnaise rather than my beloved ketchup.)

I nodded solemnly at Travis. Out of respect (or necessity), I gave him the fireman hat to wear while I rolled up the fireman pants and shirt into a ball. I couldn’t wait to return those clothes to the dramatic play area. I jammed my feet into my still-tied shoes. I ended up wearing my shoes like clogs because the teacher’s aide had tied my shoes too tightly.

At least Travis felt good. He couldn’t have been happier to wear that fireman’s hat. I guess I should be glad that my dramatic play horror worked out for somebody.

Playing with fire

Soon enough, the fire alarm stopped, and we were ushered back inside. Eager to get rid of the costume, I quickly shoved the fireman pants, shirt, and belt into a cubby. Travis, on the other hand, carefully placed the fireman’s hat back on the hook with great care.

For the rest of the day, I cursed my misfortune. I vowed that, from here on out, I would never touch a costume at school. The only time I would ever dress up outside of my house was on Halloween. I’m pretty sure I stuck to that self-made promise.

While my tale of nursery school woe was certainly not the end of the world (and, in fact, Travis and I briefly became best friends after that), it did teach me a valuable lesson in trusting myself. I didn’t want to be seen wearing a costume. And when I defied my instincts, my worst nightmare came true.

I don’t think I ever could’ve predicted a fire drill happening the one day I went all-in on dress up. But perhaps it just goes to show you how intuition rarely lies. Or maybe it’s that when you play with fire (costumes), you just might to get burned.

Do you recall a time in your childhood when you should have trusted your instincts and didn’t? Please share your stories with me in the comments section.


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