She made a loop, then twisted the other string around it before pushing it through that little space it made out of itself. Keeping a firm hold on the loop, she pulled on the newly emerging little one until it matched the size of its companion. If done just right, the bow would be perfect, and she could run to the car, dinosaur backpack bumping behind her. If not, her shoes would either be as floppy as the loops, or she would have to start all over until it was right.
The barren tree branches blurred together into a stream of brown outside the backseat window. The coldness clung to it as the heater of the car whirred to keep it out. It was a season that always excited her, but she wasn’t really sure why. Somehow everything seemed to slow down, and she enjoyed soaking in the calmness of it. Except for today. She could already feel the dull dread building in her little body. It grew as the car stopped and her mother helped her out. She willed the dread away with each prance up the steps, but the familiar smell of the hallway melted all that work away until a knot of conflicted feeling prickled in her stomach.
Her friends greeted her with bursts of excitement. They were wearing their fun sweaters with bright, festive colors of green and red. The red-nosed reindeers and funny character elves bobbled as they tried to contain their excitement. The classroom was decorated as if to match their clever outfits, and all of the treats were arranged in the corner wrapped in red striped paper or silver bows.
She smiled timidly in her regular clothes, clutching the little straps of the dinosaur backpack.
The class was quickly hushed and ushered to their seats for their regular morning routine. She shrugged the backpack off and pulled a reading book out before taking her seat. After the announcements were called out over the loudspeakers, they were asked to stand and face the flag that stood in the corner – stark against the otherwise festooned wall. She stood for the pledge, but the reason she stood colorless and plain was the same reason, every morning, she stood with the others but kept her hands to her sides and her mouth shut as they diligently recited.
And as the teacher proclaimed the beginning of the Christmas party, the little girl reached for the reading book and was sent to sit in the hallway. Alone. Until the party was finished.
When school would resume after the holiday break, all of the kids would reconvene to their huddles and excitedly share what presents they had delightfully unwrapped in beautifully decorated homes. She would inevitably be asked what the jolly, red-suited man had left for her to which she would answer, “Oh, we don’t do that.” Their heads would bob absently before going back to their excited chatter.
As the year when on, she would have to kindly decline the glittered invitations to birthday parties. She would be left to color empty pages as the rest of the class adorned various designs on Easter eggs. There were reasons she couldn’t ever partake. She knew there were reasons. She didn’t really understand the reasons. She just knew that she was not like the rest of the kids, and she knew the script of what to say when asked “Why not?”
Each time, she would recite “Thank you, but no. It is against my religion.” And each time the words were spoken, the gap to the black abyss between her and the world would open a little farther. And each time the abyss grew, it whispered to her: If you’re not like them, there is no space for you.
If you do not wish to partake in our way, exclude yourself. But make yourself small about it.
So, the little girl grew up learning how to be small. In that smallness, her own mind was her refuge. It provided the means to feed that insatiable desire to not be small. It provided a curious mind.
As the years went on and life changed in so many different ways, the rules of what was allowed and what was not changed as the choices of her parents changed. And then she began to decide her own changes. In the shifting, she found joy in the task that always provided her companionship in those moments when she needed to be small – she read. And reading taught her many things.
It taught her that she was not alone in her experience of not being allowed.
It taught her that she was not alone in her experience of feeling a need to be small.
It taught her that she had many, many questions.
It taught her that there were others like her. Many others. And in many different ways.
It taught her that the flag she couldn’t pledge to was symbolic of a nation that tried to tell her she was an outsider.
It taught her that she wasn’t.
It taught her that even the first President of the United States of America was not a Christian.
It taught her that what she was told wasn’t always what was true.
It taught her that there were people who were not wanting to conform.
It taught her that she was not alone.
It taught her that she no longer wanted to be small.
It taught her that she would never, ever want anyone else to feel the need to be small.
It taught her that freedom in America was a false freedom.
It taught her that American culture meant you had the freedom to choose to opt-out of the American Christian idealism, as long as you stayed small. As long as you stood quietly. As long as you stepped out instead of proclaiming your own beliefs.
It taught her that she wanted a real freedom.
It taught her she was tired of opting out meant opting into oblivion.
It taught her that if she did not comply or step in line she would be seen as little.
And that was worse than seeming small.
It taught her that her soul deeply understood the plight of the outcast and overlooked.
It taught her how to recognize privilege.
It taught her how to use her own privilege.
It taught her that America is a nation with no majority.
It taught her that she no longer needed to opt-out.
The only option was to opt-in.
It taught her that being an American had only one definition, and it was simply to be American.
And so she stood. And no longer kept her mouth shut.