I was the smart one, so I played the angel, and Lisa K.—the only other girl of pageant-appropriate age at our church—was the pretty one, so she got to be Mary.
I was hardly the only girl to absorb the pretty-or-smart dichotomy—for that’s what it was in my mind, a dichotomy. And I was happy to be on the “smart” side of things; even in adolescence, it never occurred to me to dumb myself down for boys. Prettiness seemed like something for other girls, the same way some kids had grandparents who lived in the same town or got to have Froot Loops every morning if they wanted. It simply wasn’t an option for me, and I didn’t particularly mind, telling myself that it was okay, it evened out: Lisa K. got to be Mary—just like Jenny S. got to be the prettiest girl in the class—but I got to be smart. It was an honor I shared with the other “gifted and talented” kid in my grade, a girl I spent many an afternoon in a classroom corner with, picking out words from dictionaries for each other to spell out because we’d exhausted the teachers’ resources. The pretty-or-smart equation stayed even in my head; my “G&T” friend was a perfectly nice-looking girl, but she wore thick glasses, which somehow kept my imagined scales in balance. We weren’t at risk of being the prettiest girls in the class, so good thing we were the smartest.
This equation was never spoken aloud; nobody ever taught it to me, and certainly I knew better than to go around announcing it. Nobody needed to teach it to me. It made perfect sense: No one girl could be too much. To be the smart one, and the pretty one, was too potent for any one person. It was too much power, I suppose, though I wouldn’t have used that word then, as power wasn’t high on my priorities in the second grade. But like many a 7-year-old, I had a keenly tuned sense of justice, and I knew that to be the smart one and the pretty one would violate the fairness that I believed ruled the cosmos. I didn’t believe that being pretty was better than being smart, or vice versa. But I knew they were both qualities that people admired, and keeping in line with my sense of justice, I figured it was pretty much fate as to which one you got.