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Just before I was to meet Bill Clinton, I crammed my wallet, lipstick, blush, concealer, pen, tissues, and one tampon into my new handbag. Because this pint-sized pocketbook bore little resemblance to the hefty shoulder bag I usually schlepped through my life, I’d had to pare down my essentials and my god, it wasn’t easy. As I was making a final heroic attempt to jam-shut the brass clasp, my mother snatched my purse.

“Take that Tampax™out of there!” she yipped as she revamped my potpourri of personal items. “You don’t want that thing rolling down the White House carpet.”

The president had publicly confessed he preferred briefs over boxers, so I had an idea he’d forgive any fashion faux pas a middle-aged rural Maine teacher might make, but I’d just been mugged by my own mother in one of the country’s most crime-ridden cities, so I lifelocked my lips.  Besides, I understood my mother’s angst; moments earlier she’d saved me from making my East Wing debut sporting a slip sagging two inches below my hemline. And recently there was that other – shall we say slip-up – smack in the middle of recess duty when my half slip set sail and splayed out hula hoop style around my faux leather boots.  

At least that time I’d managed to swoop up the nylon heap and stuff it in my pocket. Another time I hadn’t been so fortunate. A seventh grade girl muckled onto the back of my scarf, dragged me backwards to the tetherball pole and tied me there.  I repeat –  in the autumn air my student, Kristy, laughing all the way, dragged me by my handmade hood scarf and lashed me to a pole.  Just like that unfortunate old lady character in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, a crowd gathered round and heckled me like they were about to stone me into oblivion. And not a soul – not a student, not a passerby, not even my teaching partner – sought my release. If not for the bell, I’d still be there, trapped near the swingset, the slides, the flagpole, a permanent playground fixture.

You can see why it wasn’t a stretch for my mother to assume my next fiasco lurked around the White House portico.

Days before my White House visit, the school secretary’s voice rocketed me out of my seat, “Miss Bonsey, you have a call from the White House.” 

A colleague, who’d never cared for my shenanigans, rolled her eyes as I whizzed past her to the phone. The Secret Service agent quizzed me on my birthdate, social security number, and address. Despite my stammer and general jitteriness, he did not flag me as a deranger.  

I scurried back to my middle-schoolers. “I’m going to the White House Thursday,” I announced. “ And I get to meet the President!” 

One student raised her head.

“Well, I hope you’re going to do something about your hair,” Beky said.  She sunk her nose back into her book.

(Side Note: Beky later gave me the book 101+ Quick Fixes for Bad Hair Days.  Tips included: You can use paperclips to do a quick pin curl set at the office and As a last ditch effort, rinse hair with tomato juice.)

My hairdresser offered to glam me at 4:00 A.M. before my Bar Harbor flight to D.C. I declined her generosity, but my father pulled me aside, said “Why not?” and slipped me some cash.

So my head was set, but what to wear? An article in the local newspaper ramped up my angst.

“Taking whatever one wears to visit the White House, Bonsey will head to Washington to be honored by President Bill Clinton and to attend a two-day conference on educational leadership and reform.”

While “whatever” is my motto, I was swift enough to know this maxim might not meet federal standards. I had mere days to pull together my look and I needed topnotch talent and serious styling.  My mother, who’d long channeled Jackie Kennedy’s beauty, aesthetic and charm, was the perfect recruit.  Moreover, she was there for me, no matter my trevails.

One morning I landed at my parents’ home in a funk. They were headed to church.  As she walked out the door, my mother turned on her high heels, and through her coral lips suggested “sweatin’ to the oldies” might be my elixir. Nothing like your mother guilting you into dancing with Richard Simmons on a Sunday morning. I kicked off my scruffy flats, punched “play” on the VCR and started gyrating to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” which was going just fine until Richard told me to take two steps backwards and I toppled onto my mother’s teakwood table, snapping off the top, and splattering books, plants and myself across the living room floor.

I somehow hitched myself up and surveyed the carnage.  My head pulsed with two thoughts: Big girls DO cry and my mother’s going to kill me.

She did not, of course, take my life.  Nor, to her credit, did she file for damages.  She did gift me her dog-eared copy of “Thin Thighs in 30 Days,” a photo of my dad and her in jogging suits, and Jane Fonda’s Workout tape. 

Oh, and she also proffered me a fitness challenge.  As you can see, that worked out swell.  

My nemesis – I mean my mother —  settled on a red knit dress for me, and although it felt a little tight and squishy up top and a little short and pudgy-pleated down below, a Pasadena teacher did tell me my get-up was perfect for the Rose Bowl Parade. Perfect for viewing the parade or perfect for starring in it, as say Betty Boop or Goofy, I’m still not sure.

I’d like to say I waltzed Cinderella-like beneath the cut-glass chandeliers, past the white pillars, over the red carpet and across the marble floors. Truth is I grappled my purse like a hand grenade and tottered forth, a haze of disbelief swirling inside my lacquered head. This can’t be happening. Am I really a guest in the White House?  How will I chat with people I don’t know? What if I stumble, say something stupid, have to pee in the receiving line? 

And How in hell am I going to survive the next three hours without my mother?

Somehow I made it to the State Dining Room where musicians serenaded me and my fellow National Board certified teachers. I promptly inhaled a glass of wine and asked an honoree a brilliant question: Why wasn’t he wearing a name tag? Turns out he was not an honoree, he worked for the Department of Education. He must have noticed the wine sloshing in my glass like an undulating snow globe because he randomly announced his son who worked for the Vice-President had spilled a drink on this very carpet last week. I couldn’t wait to tell my mother a runaway tampon was nothing compared to a State Dining Room spillage caused by one of Al Gore’s underlings.

Clutch still clutched under my left armpit, I wandered off and found myself alone in the Blue Room. I gazed through the French doors across the South Lawn to the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument and pondered two more key questions: How on scorched earth had Dolley Madison managed to save Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington? and How could I purloin the White House cocktail napkins hugging the base of my wine glass?  My handbag seemed out of the question – my mother had told me not to open it unless the Secret Service held me at gunpoint.

As I debated whether to slip the paper napkins under my straying bra strap or to ball them up falsie style thereby swelling my cups from B’s to C’s, President Clinton arrived. I swivel-searched for the Secret Service, unclicked my clutch, stashed the napkins, snapped the purse shut and made my way to the receiving line.

Worried I might blather something silly (Briefs, really?) I pondered what to say to the leader of the free world.  I finally settled on, “Thank you for valuing education. My five-year-old’s name is Hilary. I think that’s a pretty good name, don’t you?”

President Clinton nodded, smiled, shook my hand, and said nary a word.  

Still, I longed to linger. To gaze into those presidential blue eyes. To savor this surreal moment. To ask the Commander in Chief just one more question. But I knew my fairy tale was fading and the clock would soon strike twelve, so I willed myself forth, strolled out of the East Wing, climbed into the waiting coach, and made my way back to my not-so-wicked mother, handbag, dignity, and both high heels still somehow intact.

The End


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