Just me, in my green shirt with black stripes and big sleeves

I think I was probably 13 that summer – over the childish age of 12 but just under the beginning of my teenage years.

You know the age – not really a kid but not really teenager — just a “betweener.”

I had the naivety of a child but the pimples of a pubescent disaster.

I still had the same life in which I’d grown up, yet I was different inside of me. I wasn’t familiar with myself because I was naturally changing in a lot ways and so were my friends.

The summers always culminated in the same way – the Antelope County Fair. At least that was familiar.

All of us farm families made our way to Neligh where we spent the weekend showing livestock, modeling in the style review, displaying our vegetables and hoping our cookies won a purple ribbon.

We worked in the concession stand with our fellow 4-H club members, serving sloppy joes and somebody’s homemade potato salad (with the moms worrying about salmonella).

We carried bales, laughed in the barns, stained our lips with snow cones and ingested lots of Benadryl (at least that’s what I had to do with all my allergies).

It was a glorious way to close out August, right before we headed back to school.

We wore our show clothes when showing and otherwise donned cut-off jean shorts and T-shirts. But the good thing, having the fair right before school started, was that we also had access to some new school clothes to wear to the carnival on Saturday night.

That particular year, when I was caught between two worlds, I was reminded by my peers that I was now old enough to go to the teen dance held on the tennis courts.

When I heard the notion muttered, I was terrified.

As a younger kid, I had fantasized about someday being old enough to go down there – where the music was loud, the lights flashed on the concrete, the beautiful teenage girls gathered to be asked to dance by some handsome boys. It had always seemed so magical from afar, as my little friends and I walked past to play games in the Midway.

But suddenly, I realized that not only was I old enough to go to the tennis courts, for that “late night” event, I was expected to do so by my more socially-advanced friends.

I, being a champion worrier from the day I emerged from the womb, went right into stress mode as I dreaded Saturday night. What would I wear? What would I say? What if no one wanted to dance with me? Did I really know how to dance? What if no one wanted to hang out with me? What if no one talked to me? Did I really know all the current songs to the point I could sing along? Would I be a complete dork and the laughing stock of Northeast Nebraska?

My mother was keenly aware when it came to my internal struggles. She must have sensed I was scared and had tied myself into knots. It was a Thursday morning – two full days before the big night – when she sat me down in the cattle barn.

“So the other moms say you and some of the other kids are old enough to go to the teen dance this year,” she said, as she handed me a thermos of iced tea from which she had just taken a sip. “That’s exciting.”

I just nodded, trying not to cry or let on that I was scared to go.

“Well, the good news is that I packed the curling iron for the weekend, so I can do your hair before you head down there,” Mom said. “And I brought that cool new shirt we just bought for back to school – you know the green one, with the black stripes and the big sleeves.”

Suddenly I had a reason to smile. Being the farm kid I was, with a very limited social life and pretty much isolated existence, I didn’t often get dolled up for anything other than piano recitals and country school Christmas plays. So the idea of Mom helping me look like something more than a chunky tomboy made me feel special and suddenly a little upbeat.

“Maybe we’ll even try a little make-up, just a little,” she said, giving me a grin and a wink. “Just don’t let your dad know about it.”

The county fair carried on and I had hope in my heart that Saturday night would not be a complete disaster.

But oh, when Saturday afternoon rolled around, so did the upset stomach and feeling of panic that came like a volcano that had to be tampered down so no one else would know.

The summer evening soon turned to dusk and I could hear a sound check happening down by the tennis courts. All I wanted to do was go to the carnival with my siblings and a few younger friends. But there were two girls, my age, who insisted it was our time to join the older version of life. At least I had them, I reasoned.

My mom did her best to do my hair and I put on that green shirt with the black stripes and big sleeves. As I put it on in the public restroom next to the livestock barns, I almost convinced myself the shirt would be like Super Man’s cape, giving me special powers to overcome the stress and somehow seem like I belonged at that dang teen dance.

As my two little 4-H friends and I walked across the bridge to the other side of the fairgrounds/park, I felt like I was walking to the doctor’s office for a tetanus shot or to the dentist to have my braces tightened or to the cattle chutes to help dad castrate bull calves. Every step toward those tennis courts was filled with dread.

When the three of us reached the teen dance, we took one step onto the concrete pad and simply stood there. Just by stepping off the grass onto the cement felt like walking into another world.

I guess in some ways, we did. We weren’t little kids anymore, but we sure weren’t the stunning teenage girls who were dancing to “Gloria” by Laura Branigan in the middle of the dance area.

Even though the sun had gone down, the temperature was still really warm and I started to sweat in my green shirt with the black stripes and big sleeves. My new jeans were itchy because I don’t think Mom had time to wash them before she brought them to the fairgrounds. My stupid sandals felt too big and I realized one of my new earrings had fallen out somewhere between there and the horse arena.

My friends saw some other kids they knew from “town school” and suddenly scurried off into the dark to talk to them. I don’t think they meant to left me behind, I just didn’t notice them leaving in time to follow.

So there I stood, alone and dumb in the corner of that tennis court with the DJ’s light beams bouncing off my green shirt with black stripes and big sleeves.

My newly-curled hair was sagging with the dampness of my sweat and I guessed the strange burning in my eyes was from the first-time application of mascara mixing with my allergy-induced tears.

I watched as the Antelope County social scene erupted around me, as if I was invisible, and I begged God to make time go faster so I could walk away from this nightmare and no one would be the wiser that my first social experiment was a nuclear disaster.

I longed to be in the cattle barn with my mother. Heck, I even wanted to be with my brothers on the Twilt-O-Whirl.

Instead, it was just me in my green shirt with black stripes and big sleeves, standing sad and alone in the corner of that tennis court.

The music was loud but the sound in my head was that of dead silence.

Just as I started to slowly back away, to make a run for it, I heard someone say my name.

I turned to see a boy with dark hair and acne that was far worse than mine. He was a nervous wreck, sweating about twice as much as me and mumbling something about how I beat him in livestock judging earlier that week. He asked if I was better than my brother in showmanship. There was some other stuff I couldn’t understand, but the sound was like angels singing.

We awkwardly stood in that corner of the tennis courts, struggling to determine what came next, when he said, “Hey, I like your shirt.”

The giant idiot I was, I responded, “Maybe the stripes are too much. I don’t know, the sleeves are kind of big.”

“Well, it looks good,” he said, sort of grinning and sort of grimacing like he had diarrhea. “Do you want to dance?”

My heart stopped from sheer shock, yet I heard myself say yes. And the next thing I knew, we were swaying side to side, fumbling our way through the song, “8675309” by Tommy Tutone.

My big sleeves fluttered in the summer breeze and his sweaty face glistened in the strobe lights.

My green shirt with black stripes felt like Super Man’s cape again and I basked in the glory of having at least one dance with someone who asked on his own free will.

My first teen dance, that awkward year at the Antelope County Fair, turned out to be a moment I obviously never forgot.

The boy? I don’t know his name for certain – he had a bunch of brothers and I’m not sure which one he was.

The rest of the night? He and I danced to three songs and the two girls who ditched me later said they had stood under a tree, enviously watching my dance performance.

We eventually decided the Ferris wheel sounded like more fun and put ourselves out of our misery, again joining the 10- and 12-year-olds in a world we already ruled.

And now a thousand years later, I wonder whatever happened to that shirt – the green one, with the black stripes and big sleeves.



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