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.