From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1953 –
Marcie’s Pink Taffeta
By Norma Wrathall
Bertha Carlisle flipped an elastic band around the fifth grade’s arithmetic papers. It was nearly five o’clock, and work yet to be written on the board. “It’s this everlasting rehearsing for the spring festival that does it,” she grumbled aloud, pressing so hard on the chalk that it creaked in protest, and crumbled in her fingers. “Oh, dear!” As she bent to retrieve it, she was startled by a shuffling around. “Why, Marcie Morgan! I thought you’d gone home?”
“Uh – no, Miss Carlisle. I’ve been here practically an hour.” Marcie wriggled with embarrassment, and held out the bits of chalk she’d picked up.
“Well, my goodness. I guess I was too busy to notice you. Just drop the bits in the waste basket, Marcie. I’ll have to use another piece. If you want to help me, you might water the plants. Be careful, now – don’t drown them. And just water the ones that need it.”
Presently she was aware of the child again standing beside her, one foot awkwardly rubbing against the other leg. “Uh – Miss Carlisle – that’s sure a pretty blouse.”
“Well, thank you, Marcie …”
“Uh – Miss Carlisle – I wanted to ask you something. It’s about the spring festival.”
Miss Carlisle dusted off her hands. “Yes – what is it?”
Marcie swallowed past a certain place in her throat, and with an awkward gesture, pushed the bangs up from her eyes. “Well, Ma’am – I haven’t got a part in the festival – and I wondered if I could – could have a part?” The last words came in a desperate sort of gulp, and color showed under the sallow tan of Marcie’s cheeks.
Bertha Carlisle was tired; it seemed, sometimes, that every child in the room wanted something of her every moment of the day. She tried to keep her voice from sounding sharp. “I know, Marcie, but everyone can’t have an individual part. You’re in the chorus, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes, Ma’am. I’ve been in the chorus every single year since I was in the first grade, and every time Miss Redford won’t let me sing out loud because I’m a – a – megatone.”
“A monotone, Marcie,” murmured Miss Carlisle, looking thoughtfully at the child, and realizing that it was so. “Well, at least you are in the festival. And you can wear the costume of a fairy. Won’t that be nice?”
“But, Miss Carlisle! I don’t want to be a fairy. I don’t even look like one. All the kids say I’m too tall to be a fairy. I – I – want to play a piano solo.” Marcie’s face had become very red at the enormity of her request, and at the supreme effort it had cost her to make it.
Miss Carlisle looked at the child before her with new interest. She saw the familiar sallow-brown face, the straight dark hair that somehow never seemed to conform to the contours of the face it should have adorned, the uneven bangs that were forever falling over Marcie’s eyes and having to be brushed back with a thin, bony hand. She tried to imagine Marcie’s fingers drawing music from the keys of a piano.
“Why, Marcie,” she said slowly, “I didn’t know you played the piano …”
“Oh, yes, Miss Carlisle; I’ve taken lessons quite a long time, and I know a real pretty piece; honest I do. And mama has made me a new dress for the festival – pink taffeta, with ruffles.” Marcie’s breath was now spent, and she swallowed painfully, and looked up at her teacher.
Miss Carlisle busied her hands at straightening her desk, and searched her mind for words to make her refusal as gentle as possible. She tried to recall something of Marcie’s background, and remembered that the child lived at the outskirts of the little community, that she had no brothers or sisters in school, that her mother was a large, plain-faced, grim-visaged woman who had occasionally appeared at school on parents’ day, and who had been known to send notes to the principal’s office complaining of Marcie’s low grades.
She looked up at the child again, and opened her mouth to speak, when she happened to peer deeper into the small dark eyes, and glimpsed something that was more than eagerness. For just an instant, she saw something lonely and forlorn, mixed in with long-endured hope.
“Well, now, Marcie, I think that would be nice. I’ll speak to Miss Redford about it in the morning,” she heard herself saying.
Marcie gave a little gasp. One hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, thanks – that’s – that’s – uh, goodbye, Miss Carlisle.”
Her feet stumbled over each other as she hurried form the room. Not until later did Miss Carlisle realize that the child must have deliberately missed the bus, and had a long walk home, in order to make her request.
It was not until after a harrowing rehearsal period the following day that Bertha Carlisle had an opportunity to mention the matter to the school’s veteran music teacher.
Miss Redford, who was sitting on the piano bench with her head in her hands, slowly uncovered her eyes and looked at her colleague.
“If I didn’t know you so well, Bertha, I’d say you were slipping. Surely you of all people know how I – how all of us – have worked to bring out the beautiful unity of this performance. The birth of spring – the unfolding of the flowers – the awakening of the earth … How in the world are we going to put in the kind of piano solo which, obviously, Marcie could play? If she can play one? Because, if there’s any music in her, I’ve never been able to get it out!”
Miss Redford covered her eyes again; sometimes, as now, she felt the full weight of fifteen years of teaching.
“I know, Redford. I felt the same way when she asked me. But there’s something about the poor child – I think Marcie has a fine personality, hidden under that awkwardness. And think what it would be like, to be almost totally unattractive. She’s never had a part in anything. We could let her play it right at the first, after the curtain is drawn back, just before Peter Rabbit hops across the stage.”
Miss Redford gave a small shudder.
“And, besides, her mother has made her a new dress for the occasion. Pink taffeta. And – I’ve already told her she could play.”
“Well, if you’ve told her – but wouldn’t you think they’d have asked us, before making the dress? I leave it entirely to you. And you can tell Mr. McQueen about it. I’ve bothered the poor man enough as it is.” She rose limply, and started from the music room.
Miss Carlisle didn’t worry about Mr. McQueen. She knew that the principal of the school was too preoccupied with weightier matters to concern himself with details.
The days preceding the festival crowded into each other, with teachers and pupils alike becoming more harried with each busy hour. The supply room became a rainbow of crepe paper costumes; the music room gradually filled with properties loaned by teachers and pupils; the shop department was cluttered with newly painted scenery.
Looking back, Miss Carlisle didn’t know just when it was that she began to feel uneasy about Marcie’s solo. It was Monday afternoon, the week of the festival, that she said to the child, “Marcie, we are planning to have a complete rehearsal tomorrow afternoon, all the scenes and all the music and everything. Will you be prepared to play your solo?”
Marcie brushed back her bangs, and rubbed one foot against the other leg. “I – uh – I guess I can …” she gulped.
“But, Marcie, you told me a week ago that you knew it really well. Now, don’t’ be nervous about it. Just have it prepared for tomorrow.”
The following day, Marcie was absent from school.
Miss Redford moaned, “Oh, dear – the backdrop for the dance of the elves isn’t even started, and the programs have been mislaid at the printers – What was it you said?”
Afterward, Miss Redford said that she wasn’t too surprised, in a way. And Mr. McQueen suggested vaguely that perhaps they could give Marcie a chance at some later time, when the whole thing had blown over …
But Bertha Carlisle, holding the office phone to her ear, felt sick with dismay as the voice of Marcie’s mother rasped in her ear, “Play a piano solo? Marcie? Why, she’s never had a lesson in her life – why, we haven’t even got a piano. I never heard of such a thing!”
“Well, I don’t understand. There must be some mistake …”
“Mistake? Well, more than that I’d say,” boomed the voice in her ear, “it’s just a lie – that’s what it is. I don’t hold with youngsters telling lies – you can be sure she’ll be punished for it …”
Miss Carlisle replaced the receiver and glanced at her watch. There was time enough to drive down to Marcie’s home. There must be some explanation. As she drove along in the spring twilight, her mind searched back over her association with Marcie.
The old frame house was set back from the road. As Miss Carlisle walked up the dusty path, she saw a dark, tear-stained face move away from the window.
Mrs. Morgan was alone in the kitchen. After greeting the teacher, she resumed her work at the table, peeling apples.
Miss Carlisle sat on the edge of the proffered chair. “Well, at least I’m glad Marcie isn’t ill. It would be too bad for her to miss the festival, when she’s counted on it so much.”
Mrs. Morgan laid her peeling knife flat on the table. “For pity’s sake! You don’t mean you intend to let her be in it? After the lie she’s told?”
“I don’t think Marcie meant to be untruthful,” Miss Carlisle began slowly. “It’s just that she wanted so much to have a part that she …”
“A lie is a lie, no matter how you look at it. And I hope you teachers don’t hold me to blame for what Marcie’s done.” Mrs. Morgan stabbed fiercely at an apple.
Miss Carlisle thought of the tear-stained face at the window. She remembered the years that Marcie had stood patiently at the edge of every festival chorus, her lips sealed because she was a monotone; of Marcie’s awkward ways and constant embarrassment.
“Maybe we’re all to blame – you, and I, and the other teachers,” she said. “It wasn’t a lie Marcie told. It was a wish, that has been bottled up inside her for years – a wish to be recognized – don’t you see?”
A look of scornful incredulity flicked over Mrs. Morgan’s face. She pointed her peeling knife at the teacher. “You mean, you think Marcie wants to play the piano? Why, she can’t carry a tune in a bucket!”
“Not necessarily,” said Miss Carlisle quickly. “In fact, we don’t consider her to be – especially musical. She just wanted very, very much to have a part. And making a fantastic claim was the only thing she could think of.”
“That’s no excuse. Maybe Marcie hasn’t had as many advantages as other kids, way out here with no one but me and her pa. But at least she’s got to tell the truth.” The knife swirled recklessly around the apple.
Bertha Carlisle felt color rising in her cheeks. “Of course, she has! But sometimes it’s hard for all of us to know just what the truth is. Please, Mrs. Morgan. Think over what I’ve said. And don’t punish Marcie. She’s stood her punishment already.” The teacher rose to leave.
Mrs. Morgan dropped the half-peeled apple into her pan, and shoved back her chair. “Well, then, what do you intend to do about it?” she demanded.
Miss Carlisle paused at the door. “I intend to see that she gets a part – and make her a costume, if necessary. Goodbye, Mrs. Morgan.”
She hurried down the path, unmindful of the muttered remark that no schoolteacher was going to tell a mother how to rear her child.
Bertha Carlisle spent her noon hours the rest of the week coaching a grimly determined Marcie to walk across the platform without stumbling. But Mr. McQueen insisted that Mrs. Morgan be asked about buying crepe paper for a costume. Then, if she refused, they’d see what they could do. He didn’t want to come to any open break with a parent.
Again, Miss Carlisle held the office phone to her ear, as the now-familiar rasping voice crackled over the wire. “Buy crepe paper for a costume? Well, I should say not! What do you teachers expect?”
“Well, of course, if you feel that you can’t …”
“Wait a minute! Marcie said how she’s sure like to have a pink taffeta for the play. So I bought her one – ready-made – took all my egg money, too. Only it isn’t pink – more of a red. Anybody ought to know Marcie can’t wear pink. Now, hold on – I’ve been thinking over what you said – and another thing, my sister is going to give Marcie a home permanent. Ought to look nice, don’t you think?”
“Yes. Oh, yes, indeed!” Weakly, Miss Carlisle replaced the receiver.
The festival was a beautiful picture of the awakening of spring, the rebirth of hope after winter. Miss Redford said afterward that the children’s voices had never sounded so lovely. But perhaps the happiest one of the stage was the thin, dark girl in the rosy taffeta, her bangs firmly curled above her eyes, her feet shining in new shoes, who walked carefully across the platform to draw the curtain, and to open it again, for each act.
“Looked kinda cute, didn’t she?” Mrs. Morgan boomed into Miss Carlisle’s tired ear, after the performance. “And you’d never guess what we’re getting for Marcie’s birthday? A piano! Now, hold on, don’t look scared. It’s a player piano, with rolls of music that Marcie can play.”