The Big Lie
I’m walking to school carrying a heavy black suitcase. I’m only in the second grade at Institute Hill School, but I’m used to walking because Mom doesn’t drive and Dad always takes the car to work. Today, though, I’m having trouble getting my feet to move. I’m wishing I hadn’t lied.
Inside the suitcase is a dress that belongs to my older sister Judy. It’s made of white crispy material my mom calls organdy and it’s trimmed in little green polka dots. It’s got no sleeves, and the skirt has three ruffles. There’s a green velvety ribbon that you tie around your waist. I have a dress just like it that I wear to church on Sundays, but I’m carrying Judy’s dress because I lied to Mom. I told her I needed a dress with a long skirt because bridesmaids always wear long dresses, and I’m playing a bridesmaid in our skit. I wish that were true, but it isn’t.
Lugging the suitcase on the sidewalk, I’m glad to be alone—my friend DeeDee, who usually walks with me, is sick. I didn’t want to explain to her about the suitcase. I’m thinking I can slip into the cloakroom and leave the suitcase there and nobody will know.
But then Lynn walks up. Lynn lives a block from the school. She has long blond braids and the kind of skin people call rosy. I think she’s smarmy and a teacher’s pet ’cause she smiles all the time and always raises her hand when the teacher asks us to do something.
“Whatcha got?” Lynn asks me.
I look at her nervously. I don’t have a good lie. “It’s a dress,” I say.
And I blurt out the truth. “It’s for the skit today, the one we’re doing for Miss Mayes.”
Miss Mayes is the music teacher who goes around to all the elementary schools. She’s an old maid with gray hair and ugly shoes, and when she sings her voice cracks.
“You’re not playing a part, are you?” Lynn asks. The skit is a wedding. Miss Mayes always plays music for us and asks us what we think it sounds like. Then we act out a whole skit while the music plays. For this music, someone said it sounded like a wedding, so we’re putting on a wedding. I raised my hand fast when Miss Mayes asked for volunteers to be in the skit, but she didn’t choose me. I’m just one of the guests. I don’t need a costume.
“No,” I say to Lynn.
“Then why are you bringing a dress?”
I don’t answer right away. I don’t know what to say. When I told my mom about the skit, she asked me what part I was playing and if I needed a costume. I told her I was a bridesmaid. I don’t usually lie to Mom, and I don’t usually go for dresses. I’m proud to be a tomboy and I think of dresses as sissy. So why am I carrying this old black suitcase to school, when I know I’ll never wear the dress inside? I want to perform, to play a role, to be somebody else. So before I knew it here was this dress of Judy’s, and Mom insisted on putting it in a suitcase, so it wouldn’t get mussed up.
“I thought it would be nice to have a costume,” I mumble, not looking Lynn in the eye.
We arrive at school, I put the suitcase in the cloakroom along with my coat, and I take my seat. The day passes and we do the skit. I stand around being one of the guests, and I’m relieved that it’s over, that I seem to have gotten away with my lie. Now all I have to do is pick up the suitcase and trudge home with it, and lie to my mother again.
Then, just before the final bell, Miss Exley, our teacher, calls me to her desk. “Lynn tells me you brought a costume to school,” she says.
I look at her face. Miss Exley is much younger than Mrs. Renegar, my first grade teacher, and she bleaches her hair blonde—at least that’s what my mother says. She wears it pulled back into something called a French roll. Her glasses are black and shaped like cat eyes, and I can’t really see her eyes behind them. I look down and say nothing. Stupid Lynn!
“Why don’t you go get it?” Miss Exley says.
Her voice sounds warm, but I can tell she isn’t just asking me. I go to the cloak room. My cheeks feel hot when I come back lugging the suitcase.
Miss Exley places it on her desk and opens it. She invites the class to gather around. Then she lifts out the dress. “This is what Nancy was going to wear for our wedding skit,” she says with a smile.
I keep my eyes on the floor. I’m wishing I were as tiny as Tinkerbell, or I could click my heels three times and be home like Dorothy.
“It’s a beautiful dress,” Miss Exley says, as if she were looking at it in a store. She puts it back in the suitcase and closes the lid.
I start for home with my head down, but it doesn’t stop other kids from jeering at me.
“Wanna be Miss Mayes’ pet?”
“Look at Nancy, the big star.”
“Ooh, nice costume. Ruffles and polka dots.”
“You should bring a suitcase to school every day.”
I don’t even know who they are ’cause I can’t look at them. But I hear them laugh. I clamp my teeth together hard to keep myself from crying. It’ll all be worse tomorrow if they see my tears. I lied and got caught, and no one is going to let me forget it. But that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is that now everyone knows how badly I want to be in those skits silly old Miss Mayes has us do. I want it so bad that I pretend to have a part even if I don’t.
I wish I could walk faster. Stupid suitcase is slowing me down. But it’s quiet now. The kids must have gotten tired of following me and gone on home. I need to go home, too, but then I stop. What if Miss Exley called my mother to tell her she caught me in a lie? I swallow hard. My throat hurts and so do my teeth, from clamping down so hard. So far I haven’t cried, but now I can’t stop myself. I can feel tears pricking my eyes. I set the suitcase down and look around. I’m in front of DeeDee’s house, so I sit down on the cold cement steps that go from the sidewalk up to the front porch.
I don’t want Mom to know I’ve been crying. If she hasn’t already heard what happened, I don’t want her to find out. I think about the time last year when I cried after Mrs. Renegar told me I did something wrong. I don’t even remember what it was I did now, but she sent me to the cloak room and said I should stay there until I could control myself. So I stood in the cloak room and gulped air until I could breathe right again. Later, the other kids laughed at me on the playground.
When I got home that day, I told my mother, “Mrs. Renegar made me stand in the cloak room because I cried.” And I started crying all over again when I said it.
“Why were you crying?” Mom asked. We were standing in the kitchen and I looked up at her, my coat still on. She bent down and started unbuttoning it.
“’Cause Mrs. Renegar told me I was wrong.” I sniffled, and Mom wiped my face roughly with her hanky.
“Mrs. Renegar is the teacher,” Mom said firmly, as she pulled off my coat. “It’s her job to tell you when you’re wrong.”
I stood there with my head down. I felt ashamed.
Mom sighed and shook her head. “You need to learn to take criticism, Nancy. You can’t cry at every little thing.”
So I’ve tried hard not to; I’ve learned to grit my teeth and hold my breath and keep the tears away. And I didn’t cry today, not until now anyway, so I guess that’s good. But why did Miss Exley have to show everybody my dress? Couldn’t she just tell me I did a bad thing when I lied?
The cement on my bare legs is giving me goosebumps, so I’ll have to get up. Too bad I have to wear a dress to school. I hope it didn’t get dirty. I brush myself off and pick up the suitcase. Time to go home and face Mom. If Miss Exley called her, she’Il have a lot of questions, but I’m not going to tell her anything unless I have to. It’s a bad thing to let people know when you want something a lot. It gives them a way to pick on you. I’ve been picked on enough today. I’m not going to let Mom do it, too. Keep it all secret. That’s what I have to do—from now on.
And I did. I went home that day, and when I figured out that Miss Exley had not spilled the beans, I kept very quiet. When my mother asked how the skit had gone, I lied and said it was great, that the dress had been just right.
After that I was less enthusiastic about volunteering for Miss Mayes’ skits, and I took to heart the lesson that tears were best hidden. I learned to swallow down feelings like bad-tasting medicine, to avoid eye contact when emotions did arise, to hide in the restroom if necessary. I learned to tamp down desires so I could pretend it didn’t matter when I didn’t get what I wanted. And when I came home from school, I told my mother a carefully censored version of what went on there.
Much later, I learned to overcome or at least moderate what I had learned about feelings and desires. But when I think about my childhood, I can’t help remembering that day and the suitcase, which in a way, I’m still carrying.
Nancy Wick is retired from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she was an award-winning writer and editor for 27 years. She currently writes personal essays and other nonfiction, and works with individual writers through her editing service, EnLightened Edits. She holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Washington.