These Colors Don’t Run . . . For Very Long

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Collins, mistakenly thought that anyone who hammed it up as much as I did must also be a good actor. I was cast all too frequently to suit me in the lead roles of our fourth-grade pageants.

I don’t know why we had so many pageants in the fourth grade. A lot of them were patriotic. Maybe it had something to do with studying American History in fourth grade. Maybe that was the year that educators thought we should work on our memorization – memory skills that might benefit us later in life, like: “Yes, honey, I remembered the peas.”

My leading lady in all these fourth-grade plays was Sheila Coleman. Sheila was Martha Washington to my George, Mary to my Joseph, Maid Marian to Robin and Mrs. Claus to my St. Nicholas – except for the time I caught dysentery right before showtime and my stand-in, thin-as-a-rake Alan Bolander, assumed the role opposite Sheila. Watching Alan try to keep his borrowed Santa pants up was worth the price of admission.

I’m not sure why Sheila got all these roles, because looking back on it now, I remember her to be extremely soft-spoken. I’m not sure people in the front row could even hear her lines. Although she was smart, I’m quite certain she inherited the leads mostly because she was tall. Pageant directors in those days coveted vertical continuity. You might have to answer questions in a school board meeting, if Martha uttered “I love you, George.” into the actor’s waistline.

Although an accomplished rote actor, shy Sheila became the center of attention of the entire school and community, through no fault of her own.

It happened during our fourth grade Fourth of July pageant –– held, of course, in early May.

Following a stirring soliloquy from Betsy Ross, played by Becky Koper – who ironically is actually descended from the real Betsy Ross – Sheila was supposed to stride defiantly across the stage, and deliver a gripping rebuff of tyranny, energizing the audience at the end of Act I.

Unfortunately, in her enthusiasm, Sheila strode a bit too far. She missed her stage mark by a good two feet, coming to rest underneath the giant gymnasium air exchanger, which had been leaking condensate since the William Howard Taft administration – the year the school was built.

For two solid minutes, the dormant heater dripped consistently on the red-white-and blue crepe paper sash angled across Sheila’s pristine white blouse. I could hear the crescendo of titters from the audience as I stood backstage, but I had no idea what was happening to Sheila.

By the time Kenny Adams, who had just finished smoking a cigarette outside the gym door, yelled the line, “And here comes George Washington!” –– my cue to enter the stage –– the audience was in full uproar.

I was just about to cave to the infectiousness of all that laughter, when I caught my first sight of Sheila. She looked like one of those three-colored popsicles under a summer sun, all the colors mingling together in shallow patches on the sidewalk. And when I reached for her hands (in the script), and saw the tears pooling in the corners of her eyes, I instinctively knew that not everyone thought this was funny.

I was fully two paragraphs into my opening lines before the audience came to a complete rest, and somehow my fellow fourth graders and I pushed through to the end. Sheila Coleman put in one of the bravest performances in American theater history that day, and a grateful audience acknowledged such during her bows with a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls.

Every year around the Fourth of July, I see one of those T-shirts. On it is an American flag, and underneath is written, “These Colors Never Run!”. In these tumultuous times, my first thoughts always turn to Sheila. When they do, I think to myself: Sometimes maybe they do run. But they don’t run for long, and you’d be wise to stick around for the encore.

– John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media