It happened, I suppose, when I was in the fourth grade. That is my first strong recollection of the unfairness of life.
It was a good lesson to learn at a young age. Despite the brokenness of my heart and how I cried, it is a lesson that has served me well. It was the first paving stone in the road of how life would be when my parents could no longer shield me, of the time when childhood would give way to adulthood so people would no longer treat me gingerly.
I was a Camp Fire girl and I loved it. I still have the red, white and navy uniform with the navy beret.
It is safe to say that it is the only outfit I owned when I was 11 years old that my Mama had not sewn. That alone made it neat.
But it was a pretty outfit, so I adored it as much as I enjoyed the after-school meetings, the social outings and, importantly, the lessons and skills taught.
The woman who was our leader had three daughters in our troupe. With dark hair and eyes, she was, perhaps, the prettiest mother in the entire school. She always dressed fashionably and treated us with sweetness. When the year began, we received a book with instructions that would teach us to be better citizens — help our teacher, do chores at home, cook, sew and volunteer.
As we focused on learning and serving others, we were to write these accomplishments in the book, detail them and have a parent or teacher initial them. For each documented accomplishment, we would receive a different-colored bead, which we would then sew onto a navy felt vest. I love beads, sequins, fringe and fancy stuff like that, so I wanted a lot of beads. I wanted to cover my vest, so I set my goal and off I went.
When I put my mind to something, I am disciplined. I cannot be deterred. I was that way when I sold Camp Fire Girl candy, earned rewards for perfect attendance in school and Sunday school, broke records for summer reading programs and so on. That is to say that I set out with pure vengeance, and for nine months worked every day to add beads to my vest.
On the night of the ceremony where beads would be rewarded, my family filed into the school auditorium, one with a wood-floored stage and crimson-colored velvet drapes. My name was called, and I marched out proudly to receive the beads I had worked so hard to earn and that my honorable mother had dutifully documented. When the leader placed the strands of beads around my neck, it was a pittance of what I had earned. Two long strands. It should have been three or four times that many. I was confused. Crushed.
Her oldest daughter pranced out to receive hers, and there were so many strands of beads that they almost bent her over. The other two daughters had beaucoups of beads, too. It was a noticeable difference between them and us.
My heart was broken. I held it together until we got in the car, then I began to cry. Mama and my sister agreed — it was not fair. I had been denied. My mama did me the greatest favor. She sympathized, talked about life’s unfairness and how my good deeds were rewards in themselves. Then, importantly, she did not call the leader and demand fairness. She let the lesson sink in.
No one seems to know what happened to the girls who received the abundance of beads. But the girl who did not receive what she earned went on to face the unfairness of life head-on.
Thank you, Mama.
Rich is the author of “What Southern Women Know.” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.