The Night Full of Stars was a huge success! I can’t post many of my pictures until I get photo releases from the kids, but they’re trickling in, and I’ll have more soon.
In the bathroom before graduation, T stood with her sisters in front of the mirror and fixed her hair and put shoes on her two-year-old daughter. The little gal sat on the counter and smiled and laughed in her sparkly dress as her mom got ready to stand in front of her family and community and accept a hard-earned honor. There was something powerful and totally alien to me in that moment: I am not a mother, I never had a high school graduation, and if I had it would have meant little to me. I didn’t have to sweat for my diploma and juggle a job and two kids like T. What was going through her head as she looked at herself in that mirror?
T sobbed nearly her whole speech through. I shed some tears, too, when she spoke about her family and I glanced at her mom, just radiating pride, and again when she thanked me for my daily notes (encouragement, relationship advice, grammar) in her writing journal. There couldn’t have been an eye in that gym that stayed dry as T spoke with raw feeling about her children and her hopes for the future. She worked hard to earn the right to stand there, and she glowed with pride. I’ve been to some fun graduations and some boring ones, but never one that felt significant the way that this one did.
This week has been totally exhausting and more than worth it already. Tomorrow night is going to be a blast, and I’m looking forward to sharing the girls’ joy. They’ve worked hard and they’re ready to play hard. My only regret is that I can’t sneak over there right now and unlock the door to throw a midnight mini dance party for a friend or two. I feel like I used to feel in college when I had some great event planned and ready to execute. I have the keys to a totally awesome empty prom-gym in my pocket: there’s a set of bangin’ speakers in there, and some great lighting and a big dance floor covered in balloons. The problem is that I have nobody to unlock the door for, nobody to crank up the tunes so that I can try dancing with the mannequins, nobody to mug with in front of the photo backdrop. I miss you guys. I wish I could share this kickassery with y’all.
So it’s funny because, haha, we are north of the arctic circle where there is no real night anymore. Fortunately, our school gym is big and blue and windowless, so we should be able to carry off our Night Full of Stars on Saturday.
This week has been madness. We planned our colors and theme to match the one graduating senior’s color scheme for tomorrow’s graduation ceremony, so we will be able to piggyback on her decorations and get everything set up in time for the big night. It’s hard to believe it’s only two days away.
On Tuesday Jake padlocked the gym doors and gave me a key. Only the prom committee and the volunteer decorators have been allowed inside since. The girls and I have stayed after school and not made it home for dinner before 8 any night this week.
As we glued still more cardboard stars and inadvertently glittered the floor and the walls and the table and ourselves, C said to me “Ms. O, I can’t believe prom is only two days away. Like, you know when you’re so excited you can’t sleep? Like maybe on your birthday? It’s gonna be like that. We’re gonna have the best night ever.” I swear she said those exact words to me.
Laser tag has arrived, and so have the cakes and the illegal-to-fly-in-a-small-plane tanks of helium (how did they get here? I really don’t know!). The girls have made cardboard silhouettes and covered them with black paper to create shields for laser tag that will double as extras for the dancing. A gave one a bowtie, a collar, buttons and a red flower. He’s going to be her date. The hours that they’ve put in are going to pay out big time: we didn’t have much money, but we’ve had incredible support from all over the country, and the kids have made a lot from scratch that is going to look great.
I’m completely exhausted, but I can’t keep from smiling. This week has been an all-in adventure: I’ve hardly slept, I haven’t managed to do much school work, and even now, at 9:30 pm, my kids are still a part of my day. I have two in the bathroom right now, trying on dresses. The one gal came over for a shower, and asked if it would be okay if she brought the dresses over from the school and tried them on. How could I refuse? She called her pal and now they’re giggling in the bathroom. “Definitely not this one, huh?”
That’s the thing about the bush, I think. Once you open the door, you’re all-in. My class is like my family now, and they are welcome at any time of the day or night to use the bathroom (woo running water!) or to make cookies or study math or just to talk. It’s not just my class, either. My door is closest to the playground, so little kids sometimes knock for water and band-aids and just to visit. It’s impossible to say no. Last night, cousins A and C came over for math help and managed to learn a few phrases in french on the side. “Le chat est noir,” A repeated to herself as she put away her book and pulled on her shoes. “Le chat est noir” she said, as she and her cousin tumbled out the door, chasing and pushing and laughing like they always do. I will teach them “les étoiles brillent dans la nuit” on Saturday.
They came in the mail today, a great big whopping boxful. The girls and I had spent a few hours cleaning the gym: they were tired and dirty. Their hair was covered in glitter from the cardboard stars we’d made, and their elbows were streaked with mopwater. “Give me my knife,” I told G. “I think this is…” and they gathered round as I slit the tape and popped open the flaps.
They gasped as one in a single huge tide of breath, and then there was a flurry of shouts and rustling fabrics and a whoosh as a rainbow of colors lit with sequins leaped out of the box and whirled around the cafeteria. “look at this one! Do you think this would fit me?” P held a tiny, sequined dress against her tiny body and nearly cracked the top of her head off grinning. I looked down at the nearly empty box and my own smile grew until the corners of my mouth just about met at the back of my neck. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a shout of joy like that. There must be a special sound that only a roomful of radiantly happy teenage girls can make. I let them look over the dresses for a few minutes, then finally said “that’s it. We’re going to the locker room!”
We left the cafeteria awash in glitter and paper and bits of cardboard and open bottles of glue, and the girls gamboled down the hall exactly like giddy schoolgirls getting ready to try on beautiful prom dresses for maybe the first time ever. I followed, trying not to let tears slip out of my squinty grinny eyes. The bathroom stall doors slammed and dresses hung like prayer flags in all colors over the half-walls. P looked like a pixie in her seafoam and sequins, pulled on over her jeans. Her shoulderblades showed like wings in the back, and she glowed like a tiny moon as she charged all over the building, blushing and glorying in the compliments.
B wouldn’t come out of the stall without her sweatshirt. She was absolutely scandalized by the neckline of the pale gold dress she had on. Eventually, she peeked around the corner, pink-cheeked and flailing in her rush to get to the mirrors and then back to the bathroom stall. I believe the dress was perfect for her: it made her look fresh and regal, like a greek queen in a picture book. “Can I wear that dress?” she asked me a little later, whispering shy, and I put set it in her hands like a cloud.
Another girl held her shirt up to her chest and wouldn’t take it away to look in the mirror until everyone else had turned away. The cut of that dress was incredibly flattering, and the jewel blue color lit her skin up. She took that dress and folded it into her backpack, blushing.
After ages spent helping the other girls zip up and giving compliments and laughing, Miss A tried on a long cream dress. A is one of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen, with her chin-dimples and elegant frame, and she always wears jeans and a big hoodie that she pulls over her face when someone smiles at her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her elbows. “She looks amazing,” said C, “it’s so beautiful, A.” G agreed. A wouldn’t step out of the bathroom stall to look in the mirror or for me to see her. I waited.
“Okay, Ms O,” A said firmly with a deep breath. It was a command. She threw open the door, and I walked up to face her. I couldn’t keep the admiration from showing in my smile, and A got totally overwhelmed and shrieked and slammed the door in my face while the other girls laughed and I pretended to faint from the vision I’d just beheld.
My heart nearly burst from all the demure giggles, crooked-toothed grins, surprised beauties, and happy blushing of this afternoon. Thank you thank you thank you a thousand times to everyone who helped make this happen, especially my Pops and our neighbors in Belfast who took the time to hit the post office on our behalf. Of course we owe a staggeringly HUGE Mahsi’ Choh to the Cinderella Project of Maine for this moment. I wish I had a video of the explosive, joyful instant when that box of dresses first opened. It was everything I could have hoped it would be. The girls will never forget this, and neither will I.
My new favorite spot is on the riverbank by the elephant graveyard. It’s prickly with dry grass, charred by old fires, and studded with shell casings. It has a giddy breeze and the sound of water rushing by in some kind of big hurry. It has a huge slick of melting river ice that glares into the sky with blinding defiance and tips over helplessly into the clear water. The steep bank is made just right for the dangling of tired, muddy boots. I lay out there on Sunday afternoon, watching blue roll onto the sky, tasting the dust on the air and reveling in the sudden, dry earth under my shoulderblades. Sometimes, lying under a blue sky like that, in just that kind of wind, I can let my heart fly up like a kite with a long, dancing tail. That’s the happiest I know how to be.
I went down to the bank tonight just to think for a while, and to read my book and listen to water bringing the cold mountain song down like a lullaby. There are sirens in the Chandalar, luring sailors into the hills.
let me put my arms around you
(shush shush shush)
like this circle ’round the sun
come running to the woods, girl
(shush shush shush)
when your work is good and done
or just let screen door slam to
(shush shush shush)
and let the water run
so I can put my arms around you
(hush now hush)
like this circle ’round the sun