Shirley Temple Black, Hollywood’s dazzling child star, turned 79 on April 29, 2007. Noticing that, I dug out a couple of storybooks featuring her from my stash of memorabilia, and could easily recall how enthralled my mom and I and my friends were with her. By the time I became aware of her, however, Shirley had to have been a young adult in her thirties, but what we continued to see of her was the perfect little princess, her legacy to women.
Shirley was as cute as cute could be with blond ringlets and the sweetest smile and she was graced with an irresistible natural charm that swayed movie goers and makers alike. She could dance and sing a little too, and she was definitey what we would now call the whole package.
In the world in which she reigned as the most popular child star ever, Shirley was an early role model to young girls a long time before Paris Hilton and friends came upon the scene.
W all need role models when we are young, people to look up to so we can mirror their actions and know that we are doing the right thing. Unfortunately a lot of the role models young people look to for direction are part of the worlds of Hollywood or sports, and whose actions are not exactly what we would like our children and grandchildren to imitate.
At my small grade school, there was a girl who was a year behind me in school whose mother dressed her like Shirley Temple, complete with frilly dresses and rows of curls. During a torrential downpour at the school, I can still vividly remember how her father picked her up in his arms and whisked her away to the car, like she was a doll, as the rest of us stood in the pouring rain.
I feel badly now for that young girl, even though she looked like she was completely pampered, because it could not have been easy to play a child star in that family. Her mother was a mean-spirited woman who was the school’s gym teacher and was disliked by the students.
In one still-to-me unbelievable move, this teacher posted a chart in the school with all of the female students’ names on it so she could keep track of our scores. Talking with my cousin recently, who went to school with me, we remembered that the chart had something to do with cleanliness. You earned Ivory soap stickers next to your name if your shoes were clean, etc. All the girls in the three upper grades -- except for my cousin -- failed to live up to the teacher’s expectations. The punishment? We were forced to wear dunce caps all day at school. (My cousin was the only girl who got to wear a princess crown that day).
In a school that served very poor students who couldn't easily meet her cleanliness standards, this teacher so easily wounded the fragile psyches of her students, witnessed by the fact that I still remember this incident.
Later on when we were in high school, the teacher’s daughter tried out for a role in a production for which I was in charge. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t choose her for the role, basing my decision on how she had been such a perfect princess and her mom was so mean. Not exactly my finest hour or good role model material on my part either.
This role model business is tricky. Unfortunately, there’s no test to see who makes a good role model and who doesn’t. It’s something parents have had to contend with for a very long time.
By Teresa K. Flatley