Since we were low income, vacations in the summer weren't a possibility. Those that were old enough got a job - cutting grass, carrying papers, or worker on a garbage truck. Those of us that were still too young to carry a job were free to enjoy our summer playing with our friends or going to the playground. The city that we lived in sponsored an organized playground each year at locations around town. Ours were at Oak Knoll Park and it was extremely organized - games, crafts, sports and contests. Throughout the summer we attended and brought all types of neat crafts home to our mother who would proudly display them around the house.
Our mother felt such things were productive and it kept us out the streets. Our neighborhood was pretty rough and unforgiving. We lived next door to a bar and each night we were lulled to sleep by the sounds of drunken laughter, cursing patrons, arguments and occasionally the sound of a gun going off.
What I liked most about the summer playground were the contests. It allowed me to be competitive and the winner was rewarded with a blue ribbon and specia prize, like a candy bar, bag of chips, or pack of cookies. I took great pride in participating in all the contests - food, crafts, running, or whatever the playground leaders came up with. One day I happened to working on a new craft when the next contest was announced - a clown dress up contest. I was excited right away. Not by the theme, but by the contest. It gave me another opportunity to compete. Besides, I knew that my mom was pretty gifted and could help me come up with the right costume.
On the day of the contest, my mother helped me get my outfit together. We didn't have money to buy items from the store, so my mother made due with items around the house. For over-sized shoes, I wore my oldest brother's church shoes. For clothes, well, I just used what we had around the house - larger pants and a red plaid shirt that I had worn to school the previous year. The make-up, well, that was done with different colors of lipstick. After about an hour of preparation, I was ready to go. My mother looked at me and said, 'You are going to be the best clown in the contest. You should just pick out a place right now on the wall to pin your blue ribbon', she added with a smile.
Inspired by her comments, I headed out the door to the playground. It was about a fifteen minute walk from our house. And while I was proud as a peacock when I left the house, it slipped my mind that I had to walk through the thick of the neighborhood to get to the park. The people in the neighborhood were not as encouraging nor inspiring as my mother. In fact, they were downright mean and cruel. As I walked down the street, those folk sitting on their porches, catching the cool morning air, yelled insults and ridiculed me. It was a tough walk. In fact, for an eight year old, it was the most difficult walk I had made in my young life. As I walked, I cried from their words. I would have gone back home, but I would have to walk through thick of them again and just couldn't bring myself to it. I headed to the playground to participate in the contest.
When I got ot the playground an unexpected thing happened on that day. I won. I was voted the best dressed clown in my age group. I won the blue ribbon. And further, all the winners got the picture taken by the local newspaper. Despite the criticism I had endured, I still managed to come out on top. I still had to make the walk home, and the neigbors were just as hard on me then as they were earlier in the day. But with my blue ribbon pinned on my chest and the knowledge that my picture would be in the newspaper, I walked proudly down the street, blocking out their insults.
A few days later the picture appeared in the newspaper. My mother cut it out and put it in the family photo album. It was an exciting day for me. And when I went out the house, I soon found that as I walked the neighborhood streets, my image had been transformed from the little neighborhood clown to the fine young man whose picture was in the paper. Apparently the write up had vaulted me to celebrity status for a day or two.
Sometimes a little win in our lives can make a significant difference to the way we feel about ourselves - a kind word from someone close to us, encouragement from our parents, teachers or friends is all it takes to make a difference. Anyone can go from a clown to a winner by simply changing the way they think about themselves, refusing to allow the discouraging words of others to define them, and working hard towards reaching their goals and dreams. I might have been dressed up like a clown that day but I had the heart of a winner. But more importantly, I did not believe myself to be a clown.