Today is a rare non-scheduled, quiet Saturday morning. Only one set of My Eyes are home, so I am enjoying the rare opportunity to languish in bed at 8am versus my normal Saturday mornings of searching for a missing sock, cleat, helmet, etc. As I use my phone to check up on all that has happened in the world while I slept, I received a notification that someone sent me a personal inbox message via Facebook. It’s my high school teacher/advisor turned good friend, B.
In the message she states that she was out with another teacher of mine, Mr. Sinclair, and he told her a story about me. Although her message was framed in such a way that it seemed as if she was asking me if I remembered the story, in my interpretation, it appeared as if she was really asking for details so that I can prove that the story was actually true. See, Mr. Sinclair is an extraordinary man with an incredible gift of story-telling. The type of oratory skills which can oft times leave the listener wondering if embellishments were added for flavor. In this case, it had not been.
It was my senior year at Murry Bergtraum. Mr. Sinclair was my favorite teacher, although I was never his formal student. Honestly, I have no idea how I fell under his tutelage. I’m trying to remember, but nothing is coming to me. Anyway, if Sinclair said that he “thought it would be a good idea if…” then I followed the “if” with all my energy. Mr. Sinclair said he thought it would be a good idea if I started a drama club. So I did. Raisin in the Sun premiered at Bergtraum for one night in 1988. Mr. Sinclair said he thought it would be a good idea if I entered a contest hosted by the English Speaking Union as Lady Macbeth. So I did. We won our division and came in second place in the New York City finals. (Funny side bar, the first place winner from Springfield High School, who I didn’t know at the time, ended up being one of the my closest friends in college.) Mr. Sinclair said he thought it would be a good idea if I attended The Opera. So I did, with one of the twenty free tickets some sponsoring agency gave to our school.
The Opera? What did I, a 17-year-old girl from Bed-Stuy being raised by a young mother and West Indian immigrant grandparents, know about The Opera? Well, I knew two things. One, on stage the performers looked like this:
Two, off stage the attendees looked like this:
So, by calculation, I had one week to transform my wardrobe and style that emulated this....
into that which was worthy of The Opera. Free tickets or not, I had all intentions of looking like I belonged. My plan was to walk in there and let it appear as if going to The Opera was customary in the life of a teenaged girl that worked two jobs and couldn’t name an Opera singer if you paid me. I didn’t even know who Marian Anderson was at that stage of my journey.
I had seven days and roughly $30 to make it happen. First stop, the cosmetology school downtown Brooklyn. At the school, I had fake nails glued to my fingertips and polished a deep red. I had my hair washed, cut, blown dry and styled. All of the services were free, as long as I didn’t mind being a guinea pig to the “not-yet licensed/Boy, I hope I pass this class/Hey, I have to learn on somebody’s head” students. I was a regular there!!
What was I going to wear? That was my biggest challenge. My typical attire included mock turtle necks and vintage satin pajamas pants from Canal Jeans where I worked, or jeans with so many holes in them that I had to wear tights underneath them to limit the amount of flesh exposed and of course, my favorite tweed blazer, straight out of my Grandfather’s closet. I marched myself to Bridge St, to the one block stretch of fabric stores. My favorite fabric store was owned by a Jewish family and there too, I was a regular. The mother worked the register and the sons kept the window filled with $1 a yard fabric. That’s usually the only part of the store I ever purchased from. But! This was The Opera! So I ventured passed the window display. There it was. Gold lace!! $7.99 a yard. I broke my budget and purchased one yard! Down the block, another fabric store had black taffeta priced within my regular budget of $1 a yard! I grabbed the Mc Call’s book and went straight to the $.99 pattern area and found a gown! I was going to make a gown for The Opera.
My mother could sew. She was great at the craft but horrible at teaching the craft. I learned nothing from my mother about sewing other than to run for my life when I saw her with pins in her mouth and a scissor in her hand. My grandfather had a sewing machine that he purchased for my mother when she was in high school. A little oil here and there and a lot of sweet talk and the baby worked most of the time. And most of the time was just enough time needed to sew a black taffeta and gold lace ball gown. Oh, it was gorgeous to me. The bottom was full length and huge. I had concocted a way to create a crinoline and tulle skirt to go underneath from left over fabric from the school’s fashion show. The top was a sweetheart neckline. I sewed the dress according to the pattern with the black taffeta and then re-cut the top part of the pattern again in the gold lace so it could overlay the black taffeta. It even had a big 1980s bow in the back. That was a personal touch!
The day of The Opera, I took off from work and rushed home after school to get ready. I put on the brightest red lipstick from my impressive Wet n Wild collection and eased into my ball gown. The Opera, I am ready for you. Well, first I had to get there. I wish you could have seen me trying to fit that damn dress on the B38 bus during rush hour. Once I got to Jay Street, I had to march my self and that gown down the subway stairs and push my crinoline bottom onto the uptown train. Ask me if I cared? I was regal and Opera bound. I was going to be the first in my family to attend The Opera and I was going to do it with pride!
I remember walking into the building and seeing Mr. Sinclair. Bless his heart. I remember his two words clearly, as he saw me in my gown. He said “Oh my!” As for the other nineteen students who were also at The Opera with their free ticket in hand, well, they were all beautifully dressed in their Murray Bergtraum obligatory business attire. But as far as I was concerned, they were all underdressed. The Opera was “high culture”. The Opera was not suited for business attire. I knew better. I saw it on TV. Only gowns and tuxedos were appropriate for The Opera. If only the bodegas in Bed-Stuy sold those binoculars attached to a stick, I would have gotten those too. I sashayed myself into The Opera. If only I had known who Leontyne Price was at the time, I would have done it in her honor. The only visual that comes to mind today, will expose my guilty pleasure of watching reality television…Darling, I was Gone With The Wind Fabulous. Twirl! Twirl!
My dear Mr. Sinclair. Not for one moment did he let on how ridiculous I must have looked. There was not another gown in the entire opera hall, on stage or off. Oh this speaks volumes to Mr. Sinclair’s character. To this day as he retells this story he has yet to mock my efforts or me. He kindly opts to frame the story as one that reflects my teenage love of fashion and sense of ambition at the time. My week long efforts to attend The Opera in “proper attire” was fueled by Mr. Sinclair’s insistence that I was good enough for anything and everything. I owed him my best effort that night, as reciprocity for exposing me to a world well beyond what my neighborhood offered. I owe him my best efforts now, as an educator myself, to continue his legacy of inspiring students to be limitless. I miss that young girl that was full of zeal and lived life blind to boundaries. I have no idea if I will every meet her again, but I know, thanks to teachers like Mr. Sinclair, she was once alive and well and draped in gold lace and taffeta!