Today is World Redhead Day. And as a longtime redhead, I am in full support of this important national holiday.
It is difficult growing up as a redhead. For me it was doubly hard because I was also chubby.
I was a round child with curly copper hair, freckles, buck teeth, big feet, and puffy knees, who mostly daydreamed about meatloaf.
To make matters worse, in fourth-grade P.E. class, our uniforms included a white T-shirt with our last names on the backs.
Across my shoulders, in permanent marker, was written: “DIETRICH.” Which, if you’ll notice, clearly looks like the two words: “DIET” and “RICH.”
You can imagine the jokes.
“Hey, DIET RICH! Did you eat a RICH DIET today, pucker face?”
At the beginning of each gym period we were supposed to jog around the parking lot for twelve minutes straight. I don’t know why twelve instead of, say, three, but I believe our gym teacher was a sociopath.
I ran with the same grace as John Belushi. The P.E. teacher, Mister Danny, would sound his whistle whenever he didn’t feel I wasn’t showing enough “hustle.”
Mister Danny was obsessed with hustle. It was all he talked about. And I’m sure it was his favorite dance to perform at various wedding receptions.
But it didn’t matter if I were running harder than Forty-Mule-Team Borax, still he’d yell, “Dietrich! Show some more hustle!”
The skinny kids would howl when I lagged behind the rest of the joggers. They would run past me, fuzz my hair, and say, “Rub a ginger for good luck!”
Or: “Hey DIET RICH, Your mama should pay the ice cream man to keep on driving!”
It hurt. In fact, it still hurts. But I tolerated it because I knew that as soon as school let out, my mother would make meatloaf for supper.
And I love meatloaf.
I’ll never forget the hot day when our class was having a relay race around the parking lot. The midday heat got to me. I tripped over my feet and skinned myself bad.
Mister Danny had to escort me to the nurse’s office. I was humiliated
“Is he gonna be alright?” asked one teacher.
“Ah, he’ll be okay,” Mister Danny said, slapping my back so hard that I coughed up bits of bronchial matter. “This woulda never happened if Dietrich just showed more hustle.”
The school nurse, who was also the art teacher, was Miss Linda. Miss Linda was a large woman with bright red hair and a friendly smile.
She applied alcohol to my scrapes. Then Miss Linda sat beside me and hugged me for longer than a usual embrace.
I could tell she wanted to say something, but didn’t. Probably because she knew what all good teachers know—a boy’s pride bruises easily.
“You’re such a handsome guy,” she said. “You know that? Such pretty hair.”
She was lying, of course. I was no fool, I owned a mirror. But I appreciated it just the same.
Then, she handed me a stack of books.
“What’re these for?” I asked.
“I want you to read them, I think you’ll like them.”
“But what about P.E. class?”
“I’m gonna keep you inside. It’s too hot out there for a redhead. We gingers gotta look out for each other, you know?”
The books were filled with Peanuts comic strips. I loved them. I read through the Charles Schulz masterpieces for an entire gym period, and spent time in the company of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and Peppermint Patty.
When the period was over Miss Linda told me I could keep the books. Then she placed them into a brown Piggly Wiggly bag and gave them to me as a gift.
Before I left, she hugged me again. She smelled like every woman of my era. I don’t know what you call the fragrance, but it’s the universal scent of good teachers, librarians, and mothers who care.
She touched my cheek and said, “They can’t see the real you, but I can.”
And I didn’t mean to start crying on her, but growing up is harder than it looks.
Today, I am older, with stiff joints, and one back surgery. But I still have red hair, and I still trip over my own feet. I am not chubby anymore, I sprouted upward when I hit sixteen. But I still see that child in mirrors.
This afternoon, I was checking the mailbox. It was a hot day. I rifled through the mail. It was mostly bills, coupons, and realtor magazines.
But I noticed handwriting on one envelope. I thumbed it open and discovered that someone had sent me a Peanuts greeting card with a very sweet note inside. Perfect cursive. I’ll let you guess who it was.
Anyway, tonight is meatloaf night at my house. I’d better show some hustle.
Hug your favorite redhead today.