[“Show and Tell to Remember” was originally published by the Bacopa Literary Review 2022. It earned an honorable mention for humor.]
Inside my dress pocket, I had the best thing for show and tell. In 1964, I was new at Pleasant View Elementary, and having started in October instead of September, I was an outsider. My kindergarten classmates were going to be impressed. The popular girls would envy me and ask me to jump rope with them during recess. The cute boys would elbow each other and try to sit by me at snack time. My pretty teacher, with bouncing brown hair that flipped up in a long continuous curl around her neck, would look at me with approval.
“Vickie,” the teacher said, “it’s your turn.”
I snapped out of my daydream, rose from the floor, and stood next to the teacher who sat in a chair. My dress was clean, my saddle shoes were polished, and my unruly hair was combed into pigtails. It was my moment. I slipped my hand into my pocket.
“I brought a balloon,” I said. “Each one comes in its own wrapper.” My classmates leaned forward. My teacher turned toward me for a better view. I opened the package and pulled out the balloon.
“Let me see that,” my teacher said. Her hand clutched the balloon and its wrapper. She told me to sit down then called on the next student.
My face burned. At five and a half years old, I had enough sense to know I had done something wrong. But what? I wanted to ask for my balloon back, but I didn’t dare.
After show and tell, I saw my teacher on the phone and heard her say my name. I was in trouble, but I didn’t know why. Too embarrassed to ask her what I had done wrong, I waited for a punishment, which in my imagination grew in magnitude as the afternoon dragged on. My graham crackers and milk didn’t sit well in my stomach, and naptime wasn’t restful. Usually, I rode the bus home, but at the end of the day, my teacher told me my mother would pick me up. My classmates left without me.
Mom arrived shortly after the buses rolled away. The teacher invited her to sit in the chair next to her desk but told me to wait in the hallway. They would talk about me, find me guilty—of what I didn’t know—and punish me forever. It had to be bad, very bad, but they didn’t talk long.
“Where did you get the balloon?” Mom asked after we got in the car.
“From your dresser.” Lying would’ve made it worse. My mother always seemed to know the answers to the questions she asked me.
“Don’t go in my dresser again. Or your dad’s dresser. Understand?”
I nodded in agreement. That was it. Not a word about punishment. No “wait until your father gets home.” This confused me because Mom had been called to school. My classmates said nothing about my show-and-tell offering either, and my dreams of popularity remained buried in the playground sandbox.
Because of the eerie silence that followed my kindergarten show and tell, I never forgot about it. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school that I realized I had taken a condom to school, and that Mom had said nothing more about the “balloon” because she didn’t want to explain condoms to her five-year-old daughter.
After I figured it out, I never asked, “Hey, Mom, remember when I thought I took a balloon to kindergarten for show and tell and the teacher called you?” Like any other teenager, I didn’t want to talk about birth control or sex with a parent. The where-do-babies-come-from talk Mom and I had when I was nine, still made me squirm with embarrassment.
After I had children, I appreciated that my kindergarten teacher and Mom handled my show-and-tell blunder with the calmness of an air traffic controller communicating with a pilot as he makes his final approach to a busy airport during a raging thunderstorm. But they never knew how much I suffered that afternoon.
Years later, I wondered if Mom might have been embarrassed because my teacher called her to school to discuss why her five-year-old daughter had a condom in her pocket. If Mom was mortified, she hid it well. She was twenty-four and had three daughters ages, five, four, and one. She may have been more horrified by the wasted condom than my taking it to school. Our family didn’t have the kind of lifestyle where condoms grew on trees.
Having graduated in 1958, Mom was six years out of St. John’s, a catholic high school, from which she almost didn’t graduate. She had written an essay scolding the pope and the Catholic Church for banning the use of birth control by its members. If she had, instead, written an essay describing her struggles with her Catholic faith and questioning the existence of God, the nun who taught the religion class may have said, “God expects his followers will experience a crisis of faith now and then. Keep praying.” But questioning the pope’s stance on birth control was sacrilege.
The school threatened to withhold Mom’s diploma, but she refused to rewrite her essay. She stood ready to see her high school diploma burned at the stake for the right of women to use birth control without fearing God or Hell or nuns who taught religion classes.
But Mom was also practical: She called the Wisconsin Department of Education, who made it clear to the school’s administrators they could give Mom an F in religion, but they couldn’t deny her a diploma because the state didn’t require a religious class for graduation.
For Mom, having to talk to my kindergarten teacher about my birth-control-show-and-tell balloon was probably child’s play. She had already taken on the pope and the Catholic Church and St. John’s High School and a perturbed nun. Besides I went to a public school, and no one threatened to keep me from graduating kindergarten.