Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
God, President Kennedy and Me
by Tina Martin (Tonga 1969–71)
 
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I KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING THAT DAY before it happened. Praying. Not just because I was chairman of Religious Emphasis week at GreenvillePrinter friendly version High School, but also because there was a beauty contest that night and, if it were God’s will, I was willing to win it. So I kept checking in with God, letting Him know that He was on my mind, and I sure hoped I was on His. I didn’t want Him to fix the contest. That wouldn’t be fair. I just wanted Him to help me do justice to whatever God-given beauty I might have so that I could honor the Future Teachers of America Club I was representing and serve as a good example for whoever needed one.
     “Dear God,” I whispered, “tonight’s the night. If it be Thy will for me to wear the crown of Miss Greenville High, Thy will be done, and” — I added with special emphasis—“I’ll give my first summer paycheck to CARE and the NAACP.”
     Living in The South twenty-five years ago, I was (1) in the habit of praying in and out of school and (2) in — and out of — beauty contests. We had them for everything, and at Ursula’s urging I’d started putting a red rinse on my hair at the age of twelve with the hopes of winning the beauty contest they had for Fire Prevention Week when I got to high school.
     That was when I first knew that Ursula could be nice — when I realized that this sister of mine, the one who’d previously just beaten me up and taken my lunch money, wanted to help me win. To this very day I don’t know why. It wasn’t like she was living through me. She’d won the same beauty contest in her freshman year, and it was rare that a girl won before she was a senior.

Greenville’s Elizabeth Taylor
Ursula looked like Elizabeth Taylor back in the days when that was a good thing. She had everything from almost-violet eyes to those eyebrows, that perfect nose, oval face, perfect teeth. The only thing that wasn’t quite the same was the black hair. Ursula’s hair was really dishwater blond, but almost no one knew that, like they didn’t know that I wasn’t really a redhead until after I’d lost the Miss Flame contest and went back to my real color.

     Ursula had been dying her hair jet black since she’d first seen Elizabeth Taylor in “Raintree County.” She’d also been dressing pretty much like Elizabeth Taylor in that film, which made people think she was a strange beauty because it was a period piece. Not that she wore bonnets or anything. But when other girls were wearing matching cashmere sweaters and straight skirts, she was wearing full skirts and lots of crinolines more reminiscent of the War Between the States, as southerners call the Civil War.
     In our family, we called the War Between the States the Civil War because — as my best friend Marcia told people when she introduced me — we weren’t from around here. Which is why I was bribing God with my summer wages, promising to give my first paycheck to CARE and NAACP, which southerners considered Communist organizations at the worst and soft on Communism at the best. My parents taught us something different from what my friends believed, and for some reason I thought God would be more on the wave length of my parents, maybe because they were older, as was God.
     
Ursula, who — as I said — had won the Miss Greenville High contest herself, had come back from Winthrop College to help me win it. She’d picked out the pattern for the dress I was going to wear and helped Mother find the material at the remnant store because one of Daddy’s strongest convictions was that we shouldn’t spend money. He used to give Mother a budget, and she’d put five or ten dollars in each envelope, but sometimes she'd have to borrow from the clothing envelope for the food envelope and vice versa. Daddy was a history professor at the university, but the friend I felt I had the most in common with was Gwen, whose father was a shoe repairman, because Gwen and I both lived poor.
     Anyway, getting back to Ursula, she knew just how to get my hair to look like Jackie Kennedy’s. Beauty was Ursula’s greatest talent, and I knew I was lucky that she was doing this for me, but I wasn’t counting on luck or Ursula. I was counting on God, which was why I was praying more than usual that day.
     “Please, dear God, if it be Thy will.” The minimum wage had gone up to $1.15 an hour, and I would give all my first pay check to these good causes if God would support my cause and let me win the crown. It hurt me, I told God, that not everyone believed in His existence the way I did. And it hurt me, too, that not everyone believed in the existence of my God-given beauty the way I prayed the judges would. Being beautiful — at least for one night — would be an answered prayer.
     “A thing of beauty,” I said, paraphrasing one of the poems I’d memorized to make up for being bad at math, “would be a joy forever.” I wanted to bring Joy to the World and prayed that I could do it this special way.

Really, beauty was but skin deep, but . . .
Of course, other girls prayed. This was The South, after all. But their prayers were shallow. Mine, on the other hand, had depth because I had a social consciousness, which I figured God had too. That was one of my advantages in the beauty contest. I had a better idea, I thought, of what God wanted, though it never occurred to me that He would want Negroes in the contest. Of course, there weren’t any Negroes at our school.
     “It’s been a decade since the Brown vs. Kansas,” my mother would say, “and there’s not a face that isn’t white at that school.”
     
“Or any other,” I’d say. I knew our school was no more prejudiced than any of the others. Most southerners thought the Supreme Court had been infiltrated by Communists, and the government was going to take over and destroy our way of life. People in South Carolina were saying that President Kennedy and his brother had already gone to Mississippi and Alabama totally disregarding State’s Rights, and they’d probably be coming here, but until they did, it was going to be Separate But Equal. Separate water fountains. Separate parts of the bus. Separate schools. And, of course, separate beauty contests for the whites and the coloreds, if they had beauty contests.
     I knew even back then that “whites and coloreds” sounded like socks, but black was a term reserved for Stephen Foster songs like “Old Black Joe.” Black was not yet beautiful. But that night I would try to be. Though I occasionally tried to rise above such petty aspirations, that night, with God’s help, I would indulge and achieve them. Once I’d gotten being beautiful out of my system, I assured God and myself, I could spend my time praying for the outcast. But tonight I would reserve my prayers for me — that I not be cast out — at least not until after I’d made the finalists. I knew beauty was but skin deep, but tonight skin deep got crowned. Skin deep got a dozen long-stemmed roses. And most importantly, skin deep got two full pages in our high school yearbook.

  
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