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My life is a masquerade. Actually, a lot of us wear masks, here at my school.

Take Alana over there. See how she smiles so brightly when you look her way; her casual stance as she scoops the books off her desk. You’d never guess that she spent half an hour this morning washing all the breakfast dishes, or that she got five small kids dressed and ready for the bus on her own, because her mother has a hard time getting out of bed….always.

Or Terri, the girl up at the board, who’s in the middle of figuring out the solution to a complicated math problem. There’s no sign of the girl who cried in frustration last night as her tutor tried to explain a problem very similar to the one she’s working on right now. Clearly, the lesson paid off, but that’s not the point. Her mask is her confidence.  

See Chaya, that girl in the front? Look at her designer bag, her up-to-the-minute shoes, and the gleaming trio of bangles on her wrist. See how her impossibly straight hair falls over her shoulder like a waterfall as she looks up from her paper. She looks great, doesn’t she? You’d never know her father hasn’t had a steady job in five years.

My mask is my smile.  I go to school and smile shyly from my place in the corner, even when I feel lousy. I will act like I don’t care when the four girls who usually sit at my lunch table decide to go out without me, but inside I can feel my heart breaking.

So, obviously, I’ve never felt the need to dress up on Purim – at least not since I was really little. Why should I, when every day feels like a masquerade?

Well, this year, Alana decided that we should all dress up. She announced the idea over lunch the other day, in her matter-of-fact way that means as far as she’s concerned its happening.

I was not enthusiastic about this plan. When a gaggle of girls went to a local costume store last night, I opted out. The problem is, Alana noticed my absence, and bought me some funky accessories, which she considers a “costume.” She dropped them off this morning, along with strict instructions that they must be worn to the chagigah tonight.

So here I am, weak from fasting, waiting to go hear megillah, and eyeing this pile of junk purchased by the indomitable Alana, one of the only girls who takes note of my presence.

I’m not going, I resolve.

But then I picture Alana hurrying about her small apartment, getting all those kids dressed in their little costumes, preparing food and graggers while her mother lies in bed. I know she’s looking forward to the chagigah like crazy. For her it’s a break, a chance to have some fun. In a costume. She made the effort to include me in her grand plans, and if I’m not there, she’ll be so hurt.

I have to go.

After the insufferably long megillah reading, I head up to my room and fish through the motley assortment from Alana. A mustache…a striped neon tie…a dangly pair of earrings…an oversize leopard-print jacket marked $4.99….a clown mask. Do I put the mustache on top the mask?

On goes….all…of…it.

For added embellishment I add a pair of mismatched knee socks and an ugly green skirt that I once wore into the Dead Sea. Beautiful.

When the car honks, I race downstairs, scoop some hamentaschen off the kitchen counter and run out before anyone has a chance to take in my garb.

Sitting beside me in the backseat of the car are a gorilla, a mime, and another interesting creation most probably designed by Alana. Maybe it is Alana. I have no clue and can’t hear that well from behind my mask.

Terri sits in the front seat beside her father, wearing a tiara and sparkly sunglasses.

My stomach churns all the way to the building, as it always does on my way to a crowded school event.

We enter the building looking like a group of deranged lunatics. Music is blasting and there are girls everywhere. I edge my way into a corner, as usual, and pretend to get busy with the refreshments. From the corner of my eye I watch the circle of dancing girls in the middle of the room. It grows larger and larger, a spreading ring of clasped hands and wildly moving feet, until it edges almost all the way to my little corner. I stand flush against the wall, wondering why I came, wishing I was back home in regular clothes.

Suddenly, someone grabs my hand. Startled, I allow myself to be dragged into the circle, awkwardly shuffling my feet to avoid stumbling.  

I bob in and out, in and out, my hands tightly grasped by the girls on either side of me. I bob and spin and shuffle and kick in time to the music. The tempo increases.

I scan the circle of faces whirling around me and instead of individual features and hairstyles I see…joy. Ebullience.

All masks are off.

Sure, some of our faces are covered in plastic or makeup, but for one of the first times I can remember, all I can really see is what’s underneath.

I am having a great time.

Here, under this mask and mustache (what was Alana thinking?), in this ridiculous jacket and puce skirt, I feel like myself. For the first time in a long time.

A tiger pulls off her furry headpiece, emerging as Chaya. She pulls another girl into the center and they spin wildly, gaily, as we circle around them.

Another girl joins, and another.

I break loose from the chain and join them, laughing and smiling beneath the small air hole near my mouth.

In a couple of days, when we reenter the classroom, we will resume our subtle places in the social hierarchy; we will don once more the masks that have been removed tonight.  But for now we are all the same: buoyant and equal, celebrating the miracles of past and present.

And so we dance and twirl, here in the center of the party, at the one masquerade that allows us to revel in our true selves.

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