THE BLOG
02/18/2014 03:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

Growing Up With Curly Top

ASSOCIATED PRESS

I have a vivid memory of Shirley Temple, all curls in a frilly dress, tap dancing with the very accomplished Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and belting, in her little girl voice, the song "When I Grow Up." She rhymes and winks knowingly. I am 6, lying underneath our coffee table, transported into her world, imagining I am there, just beyond the camera's view. "When I grow up, in a year or two or three...."

This week, learning of her death, I went to YouTube and realized I had conflated my Shirley memories. She is alone in the song I sought, sporting a short frock appliqued with flowers -- no frills. In each verse, she changes her costume, moving through her lifetime in dress-up, first as a princess, then as a bride, finally as a version of "Whistler's Mother." The song, by Ray Henderson and Edward Heyman, outlines a conventional trajectory for 1930s girlhood. She will be a teacher, a young lady attending a ball, a bride, a mother, a peaceful old lady. The kick comes at song's end, when Shirley rises from her rocker and tap dances energetically. It is her unbridled joy, her sassiness and spunk that inspired me as a child. Who wouldn't want her as a friend? She could get herself out of scrapes, laugh at trouble, get crotchety adults to love her, charm everyone. She could play the harp, fly a plane, tap dance down a staircase, sing about Animal Crackers in her soup! She was continuously cast as an orphan -- it was the Depression after all -- but her resilience triumphed in one happy ending after the next.

Though Shirley was only a few years younger than my mother, I felt I knew her. Mom's childhood remained mysterious, and she was, after all, a grown up personage, hard to imagine young -- she played tennis and wore perfume when she and Daddy went out on Saturday nights. Shirley was my age in my living room on the television for hours each Saturday afternoon. I loved her.

One of my prized possessions was Mother's own Shirley Temple doll, dressed in red polka dots on white organza, curls restored from their flattened state by a visit to the Doll Hospital in Philadelphia when Mom decided I was old enough to be responsible for a fragile doll. Unwrapping Shirley from the tissue where she had lain for decades, Mom explained, "I never really liked dolls, but you do. You're old enough now to take care of her." I imagine my tomboy mother, scornfully rejecting the lovely gift. Happily, for me, the doll was magic. We would act out each film in my bedroom, Shirley held aloft by me, her brave and ruffled partner -- friends forever.

Now, once again, she is wrapped in tissue, put away in the attic waiting for her next little girl. I have the impulse to go upstairs and unwrap her and put her in my office at Laurel School, an all girls' school in Shaker Heights, where I am the headmistress. Most of my students wouldn't know her, but I would like to have her near. Shirley, herself, after her stardom waned, attended a girls' school in California. I like to think that what she gained there helped in her own growing up. She had had plenty of exposure to glamour and fame, but perhaps her girls' school offered her an education that was of use to her as she moved through her life with resilience, reinventing herself, writing new chapters.

High school girls at Laurel understand that they are almost all grown up. I look at them and see the young women they will become, the little girls they were. In a school, time compresses, and the walls hold the echoes of lots and lots of girls: their growing pains, their triumphs. Laurel was founded in 1896. Growing up has changed dramatically for girls over 118 years -- no more single paths; lots and lots of choices, but it is still a complicated process. Depression-era girls, including my tomboy, no-dolls-thank-you Mother needed spunky heroines like Shirley. I think we need them still. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the pressure girls put on themselves, about perfectionism, about myths of "having it all." Shirley may not be the right heroine for contemporary girls; my own two daughters never warmed to her the way I did, despite the fact that my sister gave them a boxed set of her films, colorized! True, she is of another era and the movies raise tricky questions about race and class. Still, her indomitable spirit endures. Her optimism and idealism offer an alternative to the wise-cracking tweens relentlessly depicted on the Disney Channel.

The news of Shirley's death startled me. She seemed ageless, outliving my own mother. I liked knowing that she had morphed from being a Hollywood moppet into a woman of substance. When she actually grew up, Shirley Temple Black did, as the song previewed, become a mother, but she was also an activist and a diplomat. The resilience she honed on the Silver Screen prompted her to give voice to her battle with breast cancer, thrusting a disease too long obscured in secrecy and shame into the light. Grown up, she was still gutsy, a powerful role model.

Growing up happens gradually. We cannot see around corners or know how our stories will turn out. As we grow, we hold onto certain images, moments, scenes. We carry them as sources of inspiration, humor and comfort. As a teacher, I know that sometimes those who are not yet fully-grown have the most to teach adults. I am carrying Shirley, young and old, in memory, reminding myself that life is a bit of a tap dance, so why not jump up and sing? Thank you, Curly Top.

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