We had just moved to a new school district, it was supposed to be one of the “better” schools. I had gone to small town schools before this one, but this middle school was frightening. I remember being grabbed and teased by the boys, I remember the tattoo parlor in the girl’s bathroom, with razors and permanent marker. I remember being offered a “good” deal on any kind of drug I’d like to try out, while waiting in the lunch line. There were four pregnant girls in my middle school. And I’d often get lost in the maze of halls and stairways between classes. I guess this is somewhat normal, that was back in the early 1990’s.
My mom started getting homeschooling magazines in the mail. I remember looking through a big pile of them, they all had families on the cover, most of those families had about a dozen children all in matching clothing sewn by mother. I didn’t know what that was all about, but things were getting worse at school and I wanted to come home and stay home… as long as I didn’t have to wear homemade dresses to match my mom and sisters.
One day I came home after a very bad day at school and basically demanded to be homeschooled. I told my parents what was happening at the school, they were shocked. When I told them the truth they quickly agreed to take me out of school.
So after Christmas break I didn’t go back to school. My mom planned on ordering workbooks for me, but I had my own ideas of what I wanted to study. So she set me free to learn all about the things I was interested in. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with learning. My parents were serious about the math curriculum, but the rest of my schooling was inspired by my interests.
Let me tell you about that first year. I woke up most mornings excited to start the school day, and my family had to call me away from my studies to come help make dinner. I’ll never forget all the things I learned in that year…
I studied Ancient Egypt for several months. I learned how to write in Hieroglyphics, I even made a model of King Tut’s mummy case and took field trips to a few museums that had Egypt exhibits.
When I was tired of Egypt I studied the history of women’s clothing, and had lots of fun creating my own book of fashions beginning with fig leaves in the Garden of Eden. I remember spending hours designing Victorian dresses. We went to Washington DC, so I could see the exhibit of all the First Ladies’ Inaugural ball gowns. I wanted to learn to sew so I joined 4H and learned to sew my own clothes. I also took a photography class and experimented with a mouse breeding project. I studied genetics by breeding pet mice. I collected a variety of mice, some with spots, or long fur, some were even shiny. I made a deal with the local pet store to trade baby mice for store credit. My mouse “Big Mama” had about 100 babies. My goal was to breed mice until I came up with a shiny, spotted mouse with long curly fur… her name was Taffeta. I spent hours drawing a family tree for all my mice and entered it into the county fair. I was shocked when my mouse breeding project won first place in the county fair! For a child who always failed in school I was amazed that I could succeed at anything.
One day I realized that I was tired of being poor. I never had any spending money and I was too young to get a job. So my parents helped me start my own business. I made clay jewelry and sold it at craft fairs. The earrings I sold looked like tiny fish, dogs and cats. People loved them. Success again! Not only did I make over $1000 in one summer I also learned more math skills with that little business than I did with my schoolbooks.
I loved traveling to the Art shows with my mom, one of my favorite things to do was explore the historic neighborhoods in the city centers. I was fascinated with architecture, and I would often design historic homes in my spare time. It was my dream to design a build my own little cottage in the woods behind our house. My dad thought that building a cottage would be a fun homeschooling project that he and I could do together. I ended up using the money I had earned with my business to build a small cabin in the backyard. I learned a lot more than math in the process, and it was fun! I did the design work with my parents’ help. I built a model cabin, and then my dad and I built it together. I’ll never forget the fun we had working together.
I wasn’t content to learn from books, I wanted to experience what I was learning so I studied American history by setting up my cabin in the woods like a pioneer’s home, and then I practiced living in it. My two older sisters tended to ignore me most of the time, but my little sister started coming around. We were both homeschooling and she was very curious about my living history project. As first I didn’t want to let her into my world, but over time we began playing together and I began to include her in my games. I taught her how clear trails and use the sewing machine.
We started having lots of fun making pioneer clothes together, planting a garden and cooking over an open fire. She became a friend, until a little girl about her age moved in across the street. Some of the neighborhood kids stared coming around started a Spy Club. They would spy on us, but we would set traps for them (often involving raw eggs). Guess who won? When I wasn’t a princess or a pioneer, I was a sniper.
One day when I was playing “pioneer girl” alone in my cabin my two older sisters showed up at the door. “Sarah! We have a great idea. Can we do your hair?” I didn’t understand why my 16 and 18 year-old sisters suddenly acknowledged my existence, or why they wanted to do my hair, but I agreed to the plan. I followed them into the house and into their “Beauty Parlor”. There was make-up, curling irons, prom dresses and all kinds of jewelry and accessories. They were acting like they had some big secret, giggling like girls do. I thought it was some kind of Queens and Orphans game, maybe rags to riches. I could see that they were trying to turn ugly little me into a princess.
I avoided looking in the mirror while they did my hair. I had stopped looking in mirrors when I was about 9 or10 years old. It was easy to avoid looking at myself because my eye sight was so bad that I had to be 10 inches from the mirror to see myself clearly anyway. I didn’t like the girl who looked back at me with buck teeth, a big nose and a goofy smile, she was an embarrassment to me. I thought I was so ugly that I always looked at the ground whenever anyone was around me. I had been called so many names and teased so much by kids at school, that I just stopped looking at people’s faces, hoping that they would not see me.
I was quiet while my sisters curled my hair. It took a lot of hair spray to keep my bangs out of my face. I always tried to hide under my thick bangs, I didn’t know much about beauty but I did think that I needed to cover my weird black eyebrows. My sisters put lipstick on me, and then made me try on their old prom dresses. I didn’t realize until that moment that I was suddenly tall enough to wear them. My sisters seemed very proud of their work, telling me how pretty I looked. I had my doubts.
Once I was all dressed up they put some film into my mom’s nice camera, they had everything all planned out. Next they showed me how they wanted me to pose for the pictures. I gave in and did what they wanted me to do, I felt so awkward as I tried to please them. I was just in shock that they were playing with me.
As soon as they were finished with the game I ran into the bathroom to wash the makeup off my face. As I stood in front of the sink I saw the reflection of a girl who could not have been me. She was someone beautiful, and she scared me. I didn’t know that makeup was so powerful, so I washed it off, I thought that the weird girl with the big teeth and pointy chin would return my gaze as soon as the lipstick was gone. In my mind I was still the girl in the 3rd grade school pictures. I stared into the mirror, the girl I thought I was had disappeared a young woman was looking back at me. She was pretty, even when all the makeup was washed away.
I began wearing my hair out of my face. I even started wearing a little lipstick. The people at church were giving me strange looks, so I became determined to keep my eyes on the ground, and avoided people.
A couple of months had passed and I had forgotten about how my sisters dressed me up and took all those photos. But one day in early summer all three of my sisters came running through the backyard to my cabin where I was happily singing along to Michal Jackson’s song “Thriller”. Charity was waving a letter in her hand. “We won! We won!” They all cheered. I was confused, but happy for them. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I remember how happy I was when I won the blue ribbon for my mouse breeding project.
“Sarah! You won the Seventeen Magazine Cover Model Contest! You are a finalist for the whole state of Ohio!” They pulled the letter from the envelope, and read it to me. They showed me some of the photos that they had entered into the contest. The girl in the photos was beautiful, but was she really me? I couldn’t be a model. I didn’t want to disappoint my sisters, and I was intrigued.
I had won a modeling bag full of make-up, accessories and other things that teen girls love and I had to participate in a fashion show in downtown Cincinnati. The fashion show was so much fun that I get in on some other modeling opportunities opened up and suddenly I was being whisked away to fashion shows, I was learning how to do make-up and hair , I was modeling clothing for popular stores that I couldn’t afford to shop at. I thought I was too short to be a model, but they called me “petite”, and kept me busy.
I went through a month or two of modeling training. I was learning to look up, smile at the camera and smile at people. I was even trained to do commercials and acting. I became kind of good at acting, for me acting was a very practical skill to have in life. It was time for me to learn to be normal. I was taught to put on the airs of a princess, to walk into the room like I was someone important, look people in the eye, offer a firm handshake, a sweet smile, and be confident. I knew what was expected of me in the modeling business and when I followed all the rules just right people would respond to me with respect. It was a strange feeling.
I was pleased to be earning $60 per hour, and that was a lot of money for a shy kid back in 1990. Still, the whole time I was modeling I felt like I was just pretending to be someone else, I wasn’t quite sure who I was. I didn’t think that the people who fussed over my clothes, make-up and lighting would like me if they knew the real me, or at least the girl I was a few months ago before my sisters dressed me up like royalty and entered me into that contest. When my sisters would bring me the newspapers and advertisements with my photos in them I was always baffled by the girl in high heels on the fashion page because I continued to see myself as a quirky 3rd grader playing dress-up. I was always so happy to get home, wash of the eye shadow I knew that I belonged in the backyard banging in nails, setting traps for neighbors and feeding the squirrels.
Almost no one at church knew about my little modeling career. I was kind of embarrassed by it, especially after giving my heart to God. Something didn’t seem right. I tried to keep it a secret.
I had changed. I remember flipping through the fashion magazines and feeling so empty. I remember putting on my makeup and going to photography studios, and feeling so fake. It all seemed so fake. I didn’t want to be fake. I wanted to be who God wanted me to be. I showed up at the studio to do some modeling for clothing one afternoon and a good looking young guy was in the dressing rooms too. He was friendly, but I ignored him. It was common for other models to be around, but mostly girls.
I got dressed in the clothing that was laid out for me was directed to go sit on a park bench. The guy was already on the park bench waiting for me. “Sarah! Meet your new boyfriend! Just be natural, smile, laugh, have a good time.” We were both modeling the latest autumn fashions, and I was terrified. In my mind I was pleading “Please don’t make me hold his hand, please don’t make me kiss him!” In reality I plopped down on the bench introduced myself, smiled, laughed and played along as he put his arm around me and gave me a little squeeze. I shyly scooted away, not sure how I could please the photographer as he clicked away “I like it! I like it! Shy and flirty! Perfect Sarah! Beautiful! I got it!!”
As I changed into outfit number two I was relieved that this next shot was an independent teen fashion, for girls. I had never thought about what I would do if I was asked to wear something immodest or if I was expected to go any farther outside of my comfort zone with a guy. I had never held a guy’s hand, I had never been kissed. I didn’t want my first kiss to be with a stranger in front of a camera. I couldn’t do this. But I had signed a one year contract. God what am I going to do? I knew in my heart that I wanted my first kiss to be with the one I was going to spend my life with. I didn’t even want to hold another man’s hand, or give one ounce of my affection, passion or heart to anyone except my future husband. I cried out to God to help me out and protect me.
One of my neighborhood friends came to church with us the Sunday morning that the ad came out in the local paper, and completely embarrassed me at church. She secretly had a copy of the advertisement that I had just modeled for. I didn’t even want to see it myself. Josh and the band were practicing on stage, I was talking to my friend who was playing piano. “Josh! Everybody! Who wants to see a picture of Sarah and her new boyfriend?” I’ll never ever forget the look on Josh’s face when he saw that ad. Everyone was so entertained. I disappeared as quickly as I could, I didn’t want to talk about it, or acknowledge that part of my life.
Two weeks later I was working at a fashion show and giving out samples at a mall. I was told to wear bright red lipstick, a tight black sleeveless top, a black mini skirt, Black tights, and black high heels.
My mom dropped me off and promised to pick me up at 6pm that Saturday night. My feet were hurting so bad, and I didn’t look like a good girl while I was standing outside the mall waiting for my mom to pick me up.
But my mom didn’t pick me up, Josh’s mom did. Surprise! We were going out to eat with our friends from the worship team. Josh’s sister Becky sister were in the front seat. Josh was smashed into the back seat with his drum set, and I was supposed to fit in their somewhere too. I was very conscious of my short black skirt. I didn’t have a change of clothes, I felt so ashamed of who I was. Was all this really worth the $300 I had earned that day? The best I could do was go barefoot and wipe off the red lipstick. What kind of girl had I become? I knew what kind of guy Josh was, I didn’t think that he could share his heart and life with the kind of girl that I was dressed up as at that moment. This wasn’t me.
Josh looked at me, a bit of a smile played on hip lips, and his eyes were as blue as the shirt he was wearing. Eyes the color of the ocean. The chill of autumn wind was in the air as I waited for him to rearrange the drums. Then he turned to me and simply said in a gentle voice, “You look really cold.” Then he took of his jacket and wrapped it around me, once again I felt safe, sheltered, warm, and loved.