In my small Kentucky town, tucked in the undulating blue-green hills of Appalachia, the Kentucky Derby is a mythic event. Rituals surrounding the Derby involving food, gatherings, and even clothing, abound.
Held the first week of May in 1980, my elementary school kindergarten program had a Derby Day celebration in our All-Purpose Room. We spent days preparing for the festivities, making jockey hats, numbered jockey “silks”, and horse “blankets” from colorful construction paper. Our music teacher taught us the hymns for the holy event: Camptown Races and My Old Kentucky Home*. Parents made cookies and punch.
On the day of the celebration, honored Line-Leaders walked each kindergarten class into the All-Purpose Room, which served as the gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium. It had a blue tile floor with a wooden stage at one end and the cafeteria kitchen at the other. The pungent smell of boiled vegetables, fried potatoes, linseed oil, and sweat blended together to give the room a unique odor.
Once all the kindergartners were gathered, the teachers divided us into “horses” and “jockeys” based on our size. This being 1980 and long past the Women’s Movement, the horse/jockey draft was not gender-based. There were some tall girls who became horses and some tiny boys who were made jockeys. I can’t help but wonder now whether any of the horse-girls have fully emotionally recovered.
I was young for my class, having just met the birthday cut off to attend kindergarten. So, I was small enough to be designated a jockey. Like half the women in the country at the time, I wore my brown hair in a Dorothy Hamill cut. Around my neck were gold add-a-beads. My shorts were madras plaid. My shoes– penny loafers–had pennies in them.
Our kindergarten derby was as like the real one as it could be. The horse-kids got on all fours. The jockey-kids climbed on their backs. Tape marked the starting line and the finish line. Some teacher shouted “Go!,” and we jockeys rode our horses as best we could. Laughter soared and danced in the air, tinkling,and spinning, weaving a gossamer web of delight. Some jockeys lost their mount. Not me. I stayed atop a boy named Billy—who would, six years later, be the first boy I kissed.
I don’t remember who won, placed, or showed. I do remember wanting to win. I always want to win. It is part of my genetic code.
Billy and I must have at least showed because I remember standing in the Winners’ Circle next to Melissa Riggs and her horse, Wendy. We were puffed up and full of the magical elation born of victory, no matter how silly. I have a picture of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, Melissa and me in our construction paper jockey hats, round bellies still plump with baby fat, sticking out past our shorts like rump roasts.
There we stand proudly utterly without self-consciousness. We haven’t yet internalized the messages that will come later. We don’t think to suck in our bellies, or to be self-depreciating about our success. In my mind, we stand there, two girlfriends whose friendship will extend a lifetime, as of yet un-poisoned by self-doubt, criticism, competition, and jealousy.
We were two small girls who would grow up to ride real horses together, make science fair projects, love and lose and love boys again. In this mental snapshot, we stood on holy ground, five years-old, free from the knowledge of good and evil–just about to nosh on some serious cookies.
* By the time we learned the song the racially offensive lyrics of the music had been changed.
This is a response to a prompt from my online writers community called the Red Dress Club. For this week’s RemembeRED prompt, we were askedto remember kindergarten and to mine our memories and write about the earliest grade we could recall (1st or second if not kindergarten). What was special? What was ordinary? What did you feel? Hear? See? Smell?