Before I came to understand that nothing really matters, everything mattered a whole lot.
Rules mattered especially a lot, particularly because at my high school, a competitive girls’ school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they sometimes seemed like a matter of life and death. Take the elevator to an illegal floor (one could ascend no fewer than five levels, and descending was never allowed, unless one had obtained a leg injury), and from the look on the face of the teacher who stood in front of the open elevator door, it was reasonable to assume that you were to be guillotined. Eat a granola bar in the hallway, where eating was strictly forbidden, and you’d better pray that they would be merciful and cut off one hand, not two. Skip an assembly, and you could kiss college goodbye (this was the threat that inspired more fear than losing every limb because even if you had broken four rules, and thus lost four limbs, your torso could still one day find a job).
But there was one rule that was so senseless and terrible, so abominable and deplorable, that it makes me shudder to this day.
Pink was banned from my high school.
It pained me. It really did. I was ambivalent about our uniform’s base—a dark green or plaid kilt—but I was positively bewildered by its top component. Lest we clash (or, as some of us suspected as the motive of the rule, look like Christmas trees), we were not allowed to wear any derivative of red. That included pink, purple, orange, lavender, magenta, and lilac, and that extended to socks, scarves, and even microscopic logos sewn into shirts. Teachers carried around magnifying glasses, along with one of those color swatches they sell in paint stores, to inspect these. Hallways were scrutinized by faculty members, who were seemingly trained in the art of distinguishing that deeply royal shade of royal blue (legal in the eyes of the nicer, caffeinated teachers) from purple-blue.
If a teacher was headed for you, and you were wearing something you suspected could be unsavory, you dove into the closest room, be it a class taking a test or a men’s room—you could apologize later—and waited, in a fit of anxiety, until the inspector had left the premises. It was simply what you did. Everybody lived in fear of a teacher pointing a crooked finger at her and demanding, “Off.” That “off” meant that you were changing into one of two things: The Dreaded Skirt (a forty-inch masterpiece, probably from the 1920s or earlier, designed to humiliate the victim and ensure that she never wore a too-short skirt again) or The Dreaded Shirt (usually from the Lost and Found, usually four sizes too big or too small and covered in mysterious fluid stains).
Because my school bore a stark resemblance to the one Matilda attends in “Matilda,” I lived in fear and abided by the uniform to a tee. Skirts had to fall no more than four inches above the knee (a number that was lowered to two inches when a male Head of Upper School replaced the female one); my skirts lingered nervously one inch above my knee, and I still pulled them down when a teacher headed my way. I always, without fail, wore a collar, even on tag days, because I was terrified that I would get the date wrong and show up in my no-collar shirt and be stoned to death. I never even thought about what might happen if I broke out one of my many pink sweaters and marched through the doors in it. It wasn’t even so much that I didn’t want to get in trouble. It had been programmed into me to follow the rules, and it never occurred to me that I could be deprogrammed. Disobedience was not an option.
But then it happened. One fateful day, in my senior year, I rebelled.
You see, I have this sweater. It includes every single shade of pink there is. It begins with very dark pink at the neck and then slowly fades into a beautiful sunset of pink, until it reaches the lightest shade. It is pink, unabashedly and unapologetically so. It is proud of its pinkness. One morning, I simply did not feel like wearing another of my boring green or grey sweaters, and so I went to school in my pink one, prepared for all hell to break lose. I believe I left a note under my pillow that morning instructing whomever found it to donate all of my money and earthly possessions to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Like Matilda, I was ready to accept the consequences for my delinquency. I wanted to wear pink, and so I wore pink.
That morning, each time I felt a hand touch my shoulder, I jumped about five feet in the air, a scream rising in my throat, prepared to meet my maker. But each time it was just the usual: someone informing me that it was Chinese food day, someone asking me what time it was. Teachers looked at me as though there was something they were supposed to say, but they couldn’t put their fingers on it. They had been so used to my perfect record of uniform-following that it was as though they didn’t notice my glaring transgression.
The next day, emboldened by the previous day’s success, I broke out a red sweater. I wore pink and red sweaters for five full days, going through most of my repertoire, before I was caught by my supervisor, who pointed at me with one crooked finger and announced, “You can’t wear that.”
But at that point, it was too late. I had already worn it, and I had seen that the world would not end. I’d been caught red-sweatered, but breaking the rules had felt good. I was a delinquent, a rebel with a cause. The only consequence I faced was taking off the sweater and leaving it in my locker for the next day.
Because once I had tasted freedom, there was no going back.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.