Like a Virgin: My Attempt at Christmas Pageant Stardom
The annual Christmas pageant was Holy Ghost Elementary’s crown jewel, but it was not your typical pageant. A parade of the major players of the Bible, it started with Adam and Eve and ended climatically, and inexplicably, with every character singing “Silent Night” in the manger. Mrs. Pulaski, best described as the type of teacher who did not like children, ruled over it all.
Casting was hierarchical and auditionless. You were appointed, as if your entire existence were the audition. One year, a kid whose mom consistently sent in store-bought brownies for the bake sales instead of homemade, was cast as a rock. A rock!
Every year, I had humble aspirations for the part I’d receive. I wasn’t a teacher’s pet and if forced to bring something homemade for a fundraiser, my Nigerian mother would sooner have sent me to school with a platter of jollof rice over a sweet treat.
But that year was different. I was in 8th grade and I wanted . . . more. So, against all social order, I set out to attempt a coup: to be cast as the Virgin Mary.
Now, you should know that Mary was only ever given to the school’s golden girl — figuratively and literally (because nothing says “6 BC Bethlehem” like blonde hair and blue eyes). And I deeply wanted to be golden.
The only Black girl in her sea of white friends, I knew the difference between fitting in and not fitting in was being a quick study, so I learned everything about white girlhood. The way a mother learns to understand her baby's every cry was the way I attuned myself to the joys, needs, and neuroses of my white female peers.
I’d plant the idea of Black Girl Magic in Mrs. Pulaski’s head by cutting out pictures of Denise Huxtable, Whitley Gilbert, and Lisa Turtle and discreetly placing one on her desk each morning.
In exchange for this hypervigilant self-subjugation, I didn’t want to just be accepted, I wanted to be validated and seen. I wanted Mary.
So, in the week before the parts were announced, I launched a three-stage plan.
Stage 1: Inception. I’d plant the idea of Black Girl Magic in Mrs. Pulaski’s head by cutting out pictures of Denise Huxtable, Whitley Gilbert, and Lisa Turtle and discreetly placing one on her desk each morning.
By the third day, Mrs. Pulaski made the entire class do 10 extra minutes of math drills as punishment for whomever was messing with her belongings.
No matter. Enter Stage 2: Dress for The Job You Want. I stole a thin blue shawl from my mother’s closet that just screamed “Mary” and as the class was lining up to go outside for a frigid Chicago recess, instead of donning my winter hat, I dramatically draped the shawl around my head.
Mrs. Pulaski sent me home with a note for my parents admonishing them about my insufficient winter attire. That was not a good evening.
With time quickly running out and my attempts yielding zero success, I prepared myself for Stage 3.
I would ask to be Mary.
I would stand in front of this terrifying woman and ask her if she would be willing to see me the way she saw other girls in my class.
Barely able to make eye contact, I began, “Mrs. Pulaski, I know we don’t get to choose our parts for the Christmas pageant, but I . . . I . . . I just wanted to let you know that I’d like to play Mary. I think I could do a really good job.”
Mrs. Pulaski peered down at me with a long, cutting look. “Ebele, I know you’re the one who was leaving those pictures on my desk. Now I know why. Mary didn’t ask to become the mother of God. She was chosen — based on her character. Think about that.” She put on her coat, fished out a pack of Virginia Slims from her bag, and walked out the door.
The next day, Mrs. Pulaski read the cast assignments aloud during homeroom. “Ebele, you will play the role of . . . “
Please let it be Mary. Please let it be Mary.
Eve? The name was a scarlet letter, a condemnation. I fought back tears. Mary didn’t ask, Ebele. She was chosen. Girls only ask when they know they aren’t good enough to be selected, when they’re Eve’s — single-handedly responsible for the downfall of mankind. I curled into myself at my desk feeling so stupid for believing that if I just tried hard enough, I could be golden.
A few weeks later, I took the stage in my leaf-covered t-shirt and nude tights. My lack of pants (because now we care about historical accuracy) only added insult to injury. I dutifully recited my lines, and somehow managed to keep my composure as I watched the girl playing Mary hold a Cabbage Patch Jesus as we sang “Silent Night.”
When Mrs. Pulaski said “Eve,” I should have shouted, “Thank you!” Curious, vivacious, ambitious Eve. Mary was chosen, but Eve chose. She chose the fruit and with it a path that, yes, came with consequences, but that was her own. If she were a man, we’d call this Act I of her hero’s journey.
The acceptance of my white peers was my Eden, and I spent years contorting myself to stay within its confines, until I was finally ready to receive what Eve already knew – that there is a world beyond the one defined for us. We just have to be bold enough to choose it, and I have. I’ve crafted a life filled with fellow Eve’s of all colors and creeds and what each of us knows to be true is that women who choose are far more interesting than those who wait to be chosen.
Thank you, Mrs. Pulaski. If my entire existence is the audition, then I was perfectly cast.
We're honored to have Ebele join us at TueNight's Birthday Bash, where she took the stage to share her incredible story.