Lady Liberty

On Wednesday when the principal at my school announced over the intercom that the next day students could wear costumes to celebrate Halloween, I smiled to myself as a little plan hatched in my head. The principal didn’t say anything about teachers being allowed to dress, but I figured it would be better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so that night I went home and dug out my old Statue of Liberty costume, which had been languishing in the basement for far too long.

Right off I noticed a spot where the hem was still a little dirty from the time I wore it in a Fourth of July parade. That morning I’d dressed very quickly in the early half-light, shoving my feet into my most comfortable sandals, forgetting I had liked them so much I had bought them in both black and brown. At the parade grounds I noticed I was wearing one of each, and had to walk past the entire town in mismatched shoes, guarded by my five-year-old son Chase, dressed as Harry Potter in a robe, round glasses, and sporting that famous scar. He was nervous, and stuck so close to me he kept stepping on my feet, and catching my hem with his shoes. Four-year-old Porter was riding in the same parade, dressed as Draco Malfoy, and so busy throwing fistfuls of candy that when he ran out, he accidentally threw his favorite wand instead, much to the delight of a young child who could not believe his luck. Fortunately, the boy’s father understood what had happened, and retrieved the fallen wand before tears could well in any eyes. Abby was an old lady of eight, dressed as Hermione Granger, and walking next to the car that carried Porter, waving her wand and throwing taffy and butterscotch to the crowd.

Pulling out my Liberty costume Wednesday night, I saw the spot on the hem and knew I should wash it out, but the little five-year-old foot that left the print is now a size 12 ½ college student . . . I decided I was just too lazy to clean it that night. No one would notice anyway.

Luckily for me, I walked into school on Thursday morning to find some of the other teachers had dressed up as well. Two even suited up as Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the principal sent someone to watch my class so the Statue of Liberty could be photographed with the two presidential candidates. Between every period of the day I stood outside my classroom, holding my torch aloft and greeting students as they entered. Even students I didn’t know were giving my costume some love. “That’s a lit costume,” they said. “Lit,” in youngspeak means “cool,” never mind that I was actually holding a torch.

It isn’t the first time I’ve worn that costume to school. When Porter was itty bitty, some of the mothers in the neighborhood decided to hold a little joy school for our pre-pre-schoolers, in which each week one mother would host and teach the day’s lessons. We were doing a unit on America and freedom, and who more qualified to teach such a subject than Lady Liberty herself. In a foreshadowing of things to come, I donned my costume and greeted each of my little charges as they tumbled helter skelter into my home, eager to play with each other, and hopefully imbibe a concept or two between bites of snack. In other words, very much like junior high, but without the attitude. Still, even in junior high, the costume seemed to retain its power with the students.

The Statue of Liberty is based on the Roman goddess Libertas, but her face is modelled after the sculptor’s mother, Charlotte. My own mother, Mary, often repeated the adage, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” so to me it’s particularly fitting that Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi should place his mother’s face on that great Teacher, Liberty. If she were a real woman, I bet we’d find spots on her hem too, and maybe a little rust from the nearly hidden shackles she has broken as she moves her right foot out into the world to make her own choices and take responsibility for her own consequences.

Lady Liberty was a gift from the French people to the American people. It cost $500,000 to complete, but the cost was raised through donations from both French and American citizens. In 1885 newspapers reported that of the $102,000 raised to that date, 80% had been received in sums of less than one dollar, making her truly a gift of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I’ve heard that in 1944 her crown flashed dot-dot-dot-dash, a.k.a. V for Victory in Europe, which I wish someone had recorded on film because I’d dearly love to see it. I have seen the smaller version of the statue in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’ve also gawked at the rather kitsch rendition in Las Vegas at the New New York Casino, where patrons are free to walk in under her skirts and shackle themselves to a slot machine which now takes credit cards, thus proving that Liberty has a double-edged sword secreted in the folds of her robes. I warned you, she is a Teacher. It’s a good costume to wear to school.

Naturally, all of this was lost on my students. I’m always encouraging them to make text-to-self connections, and being thirteen, they’re prone to skip the symbolism and look straight at Lady Liberty’s 35-foot waist and size 879 shoe and say, “Yup, that’s our teacher alright.” Not that they’re wrong, but it was a little sad that they had no idea my costume was all tied together with history, mythology, and personal responsibility. Sadly, they were not ready for that lesson so I kept it all to myself, putting down my torch to teach the basics of characterization instead.

Maybe next year I’ll go as a Freudian Slip.

I already have the costume.

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