An Ordinary Dream

By Dyana Herron

When I was six, my mother entered me in a beauty pageant.

This was in the late 80s, before the JonBenét Ramsey tragedy cast a harsh light on parents who doll their daughters up like prepubescent Barbies—bouffant hair, red lips, layer upon layer of mascara.

But neither was I Olive in Little Miss Sunshine, watching Miss America pageants with a gleam of ambition, cupping my hand into a prim wave for the adoring crowd, parroting the small surprised “O” of the winner’s mouth before her round blue eyes fill with tears of happiness and gratitude.

I didn’t think much of the spectacle at all, besides that it was fun to get a new dress fancier than any I’d ever been allowed to wear at church. The dress was a shiny magenta, with puff sleeves and a crinoline that caused the skirt to stand out almost horizontally, like a clogger’s.

I felt glamorous, though more than mildly itchy, the elastic of my lace-rimmed socks a little too tight around the ankles, and unable to scratch my sweaty scalp for fear of mussing my bangs, their curling-ironed layers teased, then sprayed stiff.

My mother yelled at me because I kept blinking as she tried to squeeze drops of Visine into my eyes, which ultimately made me cry, which made my eyes red. I clutched the fake wood of our television console as she held my eyelids apart with her index finger and thumb, daring me to move a muscle.

The pageant was held at the local National Guard and Armory, an ugly building in which I’d watch a depressingly small circus ten years later after scoring free tickets from Cooke’s Food Store. Folding chairs were lined up in front of the stage, across which we tiny contestants were coached to walk, pivoting slowly at small Xs marked in masking tape, then waving once and disappearing behind the curtain.

When my time came to cross the stage, surveyed by the crowd and judges, an announcer read my statistics: “Dyana Herron is from Cleveland, TN. She has brown hair and green eyes, and attends Valley View Elementary School.”

Then came the kicker. The announcer continued:

“When asked what her life’s dream is, Dyana said, ‘To go to Lake Winnepesauka with my cousin Janae.’”

There were a few snickers from the crowd, a jostling of shoulders. I turned clumsily, smiled coquettishly over my shoulder, waved, and exited the stage.

I had been awesome. I knew it. I would definitely win one of those giant trophies.

When I returned to sit with my mother, her face had a pale, tight look to it, like all her freckles had disappeared. The truth was a pageant worker had approached me with a clipboard earlier when my mother wasn’t around, had asked about my life dream, and I had answered honestly. Lake Winnepesauka was my favorite place—the only amusement park I’d ever visited—and Janae was my most beloved cousin. Going there with her truly was my life’s dream.

Because my family didn’t have much money and it was an hour’s drive away, we went to “Lake Winnie” only once each summer—a treat to be anticipated and savored.

It had all the necessities: Ferris wheel, fun house, wooden roller coaster called “The Canon Ball,” a miniature train that smelled of urine and rust. Adults dressed in shabby animal costumes roamed the grounds dancing and offering hugs to small children, which never failed to cause my brother to scream in terror, which never failed to cause me to shake with delight.

Best of all, the entire park surrounded a massive lake stocked with giant carp, carp as long as my six-year-old body, that were gold and whiskered and would gulp any popcorn thrown into the water at an alarming rate.

I don’t remember what the other kids’ dreams were, but I remember they were more ambitious (read: boring) than mine. I don’t think anyone said, “To find a cure for cancer,” but there was probably at least, “To go to college,” or “To become a teacher.”

In the end, I came in runner-up in my age division. Out of two contestants.

I did get a trophy, but it wasn’t giant. When we returned home, I put the trophy on my dresser where it remained for years. Although I don’t remember this, I’m sure my mother gave me hug and told me I’d done a great job. But she never entered me in another pageant.

Later I’d think back on the story and feel embarrassed, but not now. Now I know the value of having an ordinary dream. A simple dream. And I know the joy that comes from fulfilling it, hands sticky with candy, the people you love beside you in a bucket seat, or standing in a crowd, or tossing food in fish-frothed water.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.