Reading Carolyn Burns Bass’ blog today about Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday made me think. Unlike Carolyn, I am Catholic. Well, a lapsed Catholic, but still Catholic. I went to early morning mass on Ash Wednesdays when I was a kid. One year when I was sick my grandfather rubbed his forehead against mine so I would have ash on my forehead, just like him. Yet I think of something else, one of the best memories I have growing up.
In the fall of 1980, I went into third grade. I was eight but felt much older. My grandmother had died two months before after a painful battle with lung cancer. I was sad when she died; however, I also felt this sick sense of relief. She had been sick for so long so when she died it was a blessing. Yet I missed her so much, and I didn’t want to go back to school. I didn’t want to hear that my handwriting was messy or that I couldn’t do math. I really wanted to go to Los Angeles and be a movie star. Okay, I couldn’t sing or dance, but I could memorize lines! I could look cute on cue! However, I was stuck in Pleasant Hill, California, and I was going into third grade.
We had a new teacher that year. Camille Sihler was brand-new to our school in 1980. She was five feet tall yet had a booming voice. She was from New Orleans and had the accent to show it. We all looked at her with awe. A new teacher! Someone we didn’t know anything about, someone new. This teacher didn’t have a history. This teacher didn’t have everyone’s brothers and sisters before us. Plus New Orleans sounded so exotic, so fancy, like Paris or New York.
When my mother found out about me having a new teacher, she knew that Mrs. Sihler had to know things about me. She sat down and wrote a letter welcoming Mrs. Sihler to the school, that I had difficulty with math and my handwriting, yet I was good at reading, I worked hard, and if Mrs. Sihler had any questions, let her, my dad, or my grandfather know and they could set up a conference. I gave Mrs. Sihler a note, feeling nervous. It was so early in the year, why did Mom have to say all this stuff right away about me? I watched Mrs. Sihler read the letter, and then she said: “Thank you, Jennifer. It’s going to be fine, I promise.”
It was fine. That year I looked forward going to school. It wasn’t always easy but Mrs. Sihler always made people feel important, that each student was special. That year because of her and our principal, I was a shepherdess for the Christmas pageant. I wore my blue bathrobe with pride, let me tell you.
It was late January when she explained to us about Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, she explained, was big in New Orleans where she was from. People would throw beads and coins at the floats, eat and drink, and have a party. However on Ash Wednesday, the parting would stop. The praying would begin, and people would give up something for Lent. This was so people could atone for their sins. We were all expected to give up something for Lent that year. Before we did, however, we were going to have a shoebox float parade.
This sounded fun and exciting, but I was a bit nervous. That’s because all my art projects looked, well, clumsy. Everyone else could make perfect flowers, lovely blades of grass. Not me. They all looked a bit lopsided, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You could always tell my piece of art right away. It was the one in the far corner with my name scrawled on the back.
I came home and told my mother and grandfather about the shoe box float. We thought for a while about what to do. Then my mother found a roll of wrapping paper that was the color of pure gold. We found a shoe box and decorated it with the paper and with Scotch tape. We taped a miniature rocking chair that belonged to my grandmother on the box, and then I decided the float needed a queen. I decided a small stuffed animal would do the trick. Her name was Molly, and she was a mouse. Can you imagine a better queen? Mom Scotch-taped Molly to the rocker, and we were set.
We had our shoe box float parade on a rainy Friday. We drank Kool-Aid, ate chocolate, and we marched up and down the classroom with our shoebox floats. We took turns walking, and then sitting and throwing beads and chocolate coins wrapped in golden foil. I remember walking around with my box, and it was beautiful. Okay, not as beautiful as some other floats, but I still thought it was beautiful. I felt like I belonged. We threw the beads and coins as music played from the record player.
I didn’t want to leave Mrs. Sihler’s class that year. I wanted her to teach fourth grade, fifth grade, just move along with us. However I did leave her class, and eventually it got to be too much and I left that school.
However, our shoe box float was just the beginning. Every year since 1981 there has been a shoe box float parade. Mrs. Silher opened it up and had parents come as well, along with other grades. Now the third graders march around the gym with their floats, and I can bet they are all beautiful. People still throw chocolate coins and beads.
Even though now I’m not a practicing Catholic, because of that year I still try to give up something for Lent. I still make the sign of the cross anytime I’m entering a chapel, a church, or a holy place. I could never give up on God, because God brought me Mrs. Sihler when I needed her the most.
A couple of years ago I went to visit Mrs. Sihler. She showed me our class picture. I couldn’t believe she kept it. She pointed to my picture and said: “Look at you. You always tried so hard and worked so hard. Didn’t I tell you it was going to be okay?”Y
You did, Mrs. Sihler. And it was okay, thanks to you.
And here's some examples of shoe box floats...
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries