I survived sleep training and potty training mostly unscathed. I’ve gone through the terrible twos, and the more terrible threes. Twice. But I am not sure I have yet experienced anything as daunting, in my short years of parenthood, as working the school carnival.
As the face painter.
For the record, it is even more stressful than Bouncy Castle Duty, although on the upside, you do not have to smell any feet.
I balked at the assignment–I have no artistic skills at all, you know. Not all creative people are all kinds of creative. Couldn’t you have me sell cupcakes or something?
No, cupcakes was full. Next time I’m signing up earlier.
I liked Amy Flannagan‘s line on Twitter best: “They say I’m creative. I tell them I’ll write tag lines on the kids’ faces.”
Kids. The other white meat.
And so there I was, promptly at at 12:30 on Saturday, trying to figure out how to combine some unraveling Q-tips, a set of paint brushes, a palate of paints, and a complete lack of talent into something resembling “face painting.” It was like being handed some popsicle sticks, three staples and a jar of peanut butter and told to build a go-kart.
The first girls to arrive up at my station were mercifully easy on me–they wanted the backs of their hands painted, like tattoos. “A heart!” I suggested way too enthusiastically to one kindergartener. “Don’t you want a pretty red heart on your hand?” Why yes, yes she did want a heart! A pretty red heart! And maybe a smaller, equally pretty red heart next to it? A “very cute baby heart?” as I put it.
I started to sweat less. I could totally do this job. Who needs talent when you have amazing sales skills? I could sell every kid on this playground a heart. Done!
Until I got to the kid who wanted a butterfly.
“Did you say a daisy? I bet you want a daisy on your cheek! It will be so pretty! Let’s do a daisy!”
No, a butterfly. Or wait, make it two butterflies. One yellow with red and one red with yellow. This kid was not buying a daisy from me, not today and not ever. I gave in. A few shaky brush strokes later, the critters were complete: the world’s first anorexic butterflies.
There’s your creativity for you.
I held the small hand mirror to her face and she looked delighted. “You’re a good artist!” she said. I don’t think her mother was thinking the same.
Over the next long (long) hour, my best customers were the ones who came to me on their own, parents nowhere in sight. In fact I avoided making eye contact with any person over about 4 feet tall, for fear they’d demand their three tickets back. (Hey Marjorie, I think we just paid $3 for a pink blob on my kid’s cheek. Good thing this is a write-off.)
Children, as it turns out, are not discerning at all. Mostly, they are just happy to have someone draw something–anything–on their bodies. I got through a couple of fish with black smudges for eyes, a few more scrawny butterflies, and remarkably, one small panda for a third-grader. She called it cute. I beamed.
The entire time, I was having vivid flashbacks of my first job in high school: Hally and I were hired as cake decorators at Carvel. Mostly it was a matter of piping icing into cake borders or tracing lopsided turkeys or ballerinas onto sheet cakes with gel pens. For $3.16 an hour, the manager didn’t seem too concerned with the highly mediocre quality of our work; until the one afternoon we spent a whole shift absorbed in giggles, painting punk rock faces on Deluxe Sundae Dinners with frosting and marascino cherry halves. We were scolded not for our ridiculous designs, but for using too many ingredients on a single cheap cake. (What? The almonds were the mohawk.) Pastry artistry is definitely not my calling. Although it was fun to dive into the giant vat of chocolate crunchies with a spoon.
Now, 25 years since, artistic skills haven’t improved much, but at least the orders were easy to fill. Not one kid asking for a Spiderman face or a werewolf. Not one zebra or cheetah. Butterflies on cheeks ruled the day. I was feeling like I could actually get through this, dignity somewhat intact.
Then my worst fear materialized–the parents with the toddler.
Worse, they were parents with a toddler and a camera.
“Are you the artist?” the mother asked, eagerly handing me three pink tickets.
“Well, when you put it that way…” I said sheepishly, my voice trailing off. “Can we stick with something simple?”
I tried to convince the little boy to get a big star on his cheek. Or a lightning bolt. He was having none of it. I was about to suggest a vampire. How hard would it be to make two fangs? Or maybe he’d be okay with a bunch of red dots. He could have measles! Ack, maybe I should have prepped for this better?
“How about a cat?” the mother suggested, bless her. “I bet we can draw some whiskers. Or a bunny? Do you want to be a bunny, sweetie?” The boy nodded enthusiastically.
One black nose and six thin, white, nearly straight lines later, he almost could pass for a bunny. Or you know, an otter. Either way.
I held up the mirror and watched his gorgeous eyes open even wider as a giant smile spread across his face. The father snapped more photos and I realized I would end up in some family’s baby book, my artistry forever preserved in time.
Fortunately, the Dunk the Principal booth opened for business, drawing a big crowd and keeping my station light. My final customers were my own kids. Sage had the entire scenario mapped out all week; I was to say, what’s your name little girl? and she would respond, I’M YOUR DAUGHTER! and we would all laugh. It went exactly as she had planned.
She even thought the pink heart on her cheek with the blue arrow through it was perfect. So perfect, Thalia asked for the very same one.