When I was young, I was an ill-mannered and awkward child, far more comfortable in the company of books than of other people. Knowing that I could not reasonably expect to get through life without being able to interact with other humans, my parents decided to enroll me in a local chapter of junior cotillion when I was thirteen.
Cotillion, as I understood it, was where you went to learn how to be fancy. The class met one evening every month during the school year. Students learned proper dinner etiquette, basic ballroom dance steps, and other bits of knowledge to help them navigate polite society. You also had to learn how to escort (if you were a gentleman) and how to be escorted (if you were a lady). Each semester concluded with a ball, at which students were expected to practice their new skills without needing to be prompted by the instructors.
To a shy thirteen-year-old with braces, it sounded like torture. I didn’t want to learn manners! I didn’t want to dance with boys! I didn’t want to wear a dress somewhere other than to church! And I especially, especially didn’t want to wear the fancy white gloves that all girls were required to wear to every class and ball.
I cried and cried and made sure my parents knew that if they made me go, I would never love them again.
They, without a care for the feelings of their unjustly-wronged child, made me go anyway.
It was mortifying when my friends at school found out where I went every month. It was even more mortifying when I discovered that a boy from my school was in my same cotillion class. Talking with the other students was near impossible (how do you talk to someone who’s never read Harry Potter?), and I could never seem to get the dance steps right. The only thing I liked about cotillion was that they served tasty hors d’oeuvres at all the classes.
At the conclusion of each month’s session, I ran outside to the car, eager to get back home to my books and my GameCube and to forget everything I had learned in the past couple of hours. I would never be fancy like the rest of them!
After three months of this, my parents must have gotten weary of my vocal displeasure with cotillion, because they relented and said that I only had to do it for the year that they had enrolled me. Then I could quit—if I stopped whining every time I had to go.
Cotillion didn’t seem so bad after that. All I had to do was remind myself that there were only a handful of times that I had to go back, and then I would be free. Forever.
A few months before my anticipated release, the chapter leader announced that the National League of Junior Cotillions was having a scholarship contest. I was preparing to tune her out when she mentioned that entrants would have to write an essay on the topic “What Cotillion Means to Me” and that the prize was $500.
At thirteen, I had already discovered that I loved to write, and the idea of winning $500 for something I had written was too appealing to pass up—even if it meant that I had to pretend to like cotillion to get the money.
So I wrote an essay and sent it in. I can’t tell you what was in the essay, because I don’t remember. I do remember working especially hard to make it sound like I not only liked cotillion, but that cotillion had a meaningful place in my life, and that I loved it so much that I deserved to win that $500.
I thought I was pretty convincing.
Apparently, the scholarship panelists thought I was pretty convincing, too.
I don’t remember how the news arrived—via a phone call to my parents, probably—but a few months later, I found out that the panelists had really loved my essay.
…one of the top five national finalists!
While this did not mean I would get any money, it did mean I had won an engraved plaque to honor this achievement. I wasn’t sure what to do with a plaque, but I was still proud of myself (and maybe a little smug). My hard work had paid off. I was a great writer! I could do anything! I would surely be the next J.K. Rowling!
And then I learned what else I had won.
The local chapter head was so impressed with my essay and so proud of my hard work, she had decided to offer me a scholarship to attend the next year’s worth of cotillion classes…for free.
“Oh, no,” said I. “I’ve had enough of that cotillion stuff. I’m done after this one year.”
But my parents firmly insisted that I attend.
They did not do this, as it turned out, because they were meanies or because they had decided to go back on their earlier promise. They insisted because the chapter head didn’t need to offer me that scholarship. It was very kind and generous of her to do it. And, as I had so eloquently put it in my essay, cotillion meant a whole awful lot to me. It would be extremely rude and ungrateful not to accept the scholarship after all of that.
And that is how I ended up enrolled in cotillion for a second year.
That day, I learned an important lesson: Never, ever write something you don’t mean. It could come back to haunt you later.
I attended the second year of cotillion, but, chagrined and humbled, I didn’t complain about it. And, eventually, I learned to like it. I even (embarrassingly after making such a stink about it that first year) became a cotillion TA the year after that.
Today, I remember maybe one or two things I learned from cotillion. But it had the effect my parents had hoped it would: after enough practice, talking to new people didn’t scare me so much anymore. I could even start a conversation with someone I barely knew, if I had to.
Cotillion, as I came to realize years later, was never about being fancy. It was about learning to take an interest in someone outside of my own world.
And just for that, I’m glad I went.