News - Unloverly lesson

Rex Harrison, Valentine's Day and I

I bet Rex Harrison's valentines box wouldn't have been nearly empty. But then, Rex Harrison wasn't a fifth-grader at the Westminster Schools, either.
Rex Harrison had become my role model after I saw him in the touring version of My Fair Lady at Atlanta's old Theater Under the Stars.
In My Fair Lady, Harrison played the role of Professor Henry Higgins, "a confirmed bachelor" who transformed a cockney flower girl into an elegant duchess by teaching her to talk, dressing her up and doing her hair.
I wanted to be Henry Higgins. Maybe the writing was already on the wall, but I was too young at the time to read it. Only years later would I realize that I was gay.
The day after the show, I made my entrance into Mrs. Whitehead's homeroom wearing a gray wool cardigan, red felt vest with brass buttons and bright blue polyester dickey, not unlike Rex Harrison's Professor Higgins. My fellow students were amused.
"What a sissy!" Jim Hudson whooped as the rest of the classed howled.
"Let them laugh," I thought, fighting not to cry. I had more class, grace and style than all of them put together.
"Professor Higgins was different, too," I rationalized. "And what's so bad about being different?" Little did I know my question would all too soon be answered.
Valentine's Day was less than a week away. In preparation, Mrs. Whitehead asked us to bring a shoebox to school so we could all make valentines boxes.
The following day, we decorated our boxes. Mine was wrapped red construction paper with two interlinked paper doily hearts. Simple, yet elegant — just as Rex Harrison would have done. I proudly placed my valentines box on my desk.
That weekend, my mother and I went to Woolworth's and bought a giant bag of Peanuts valentines. Sunday was spent addressing cards to each of my classmates. I added extra flourishes to my A's, L's, R's and Y's. Mother agreed that was quite elegant.
On Monday, I placed the cards into each of my classmate's boxes, praying that some of them would reciprocate, even if only out of a sense of obligation.
On Tuesday afternoon, my box was empty except for one card from Marshall Simpson. Marshall was even less popular than I, for it was reported that Marshall had doo-dooed in his pants in the first grade. Kids don't forget these things.
When Thursday morning arrived I didn't want to go to school. I dreaded opening my valentines box in front of my classmates. I knew, however, that painful as the day might be, it couldn't be worse than admitting to Mother that I was a nerd. Bravely putting on my gray cardigan, red vest and blue dickey, I got dressed for school.
At breakfast, a bright red valentine was perched against my orange juice glass. It was from Mother. As usual, she had also signed Dad's name. Why was it that Dad never signed his own name, I wondered. He probably thought his son was a nerd, too.
It was Mrs. Cotton's turn to drive carpool. As I climbed into the wood-paneled Buick station wagon she gushed a cheery "Happy Valentine's Day!" I was silent.
At homeroom, Mrs. Whitehead told us we would have to wait until after lunch to open our valentines boxes. As my classmates groaned with impatience, my sense of doom deepened.
At the appointed time, Mrs. Whitehead gave the signal. The classroom exploded in excitement as my eager classmates tore open their boxes. Chuck Lee's shrill voice pierced the commotion. "Look at all these cards!" he yelped, pouring what seemed like hundreds of cards onto the tiny wooden desk.
Looking from side to side to ensure no one was looking, I quietly slid the top to one side and peeked in. My heart stopped. One, two, three, four ... only seven cards!
On the long ride home from school I was again silent. At 10, I was reevaluating my life. That night before I went to bed, I retired the gray cardigan, red vest and blue dickey. Fitting in became more important than self expression.
Some childhood lessons are harder to unlearn than others. It was not until I turned 39 that I learned being who you really are outweighs fitting in. I finally found the courage to come out, divorce my wife and begin living an authentic life.
Today, I am 45 and Valentine's Day is less than a week away. My valentines box is overflowing. I am accepted — gray cardigan, red vest, blue dickey and all.
Atlanta native Randy Siegel is a writer, trainer and speaker living in North Carolina.

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