At Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, I hoped to get the attention I yearned for from classmates who disliked my nonconforming nature. At the school’s Halloween parade in the late 1960s, the other kids mostly had store-bought costumes like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Underdog. My handmade costume featured neon green, yellow and blue stripes, and orange pompoms up the front.
When I was in first grade, Mom entered me in my first clown contest at Lansburgh’s Department Store’s Clown Breakfast. Some of the other kids had even more extravagant costumes than mine, with wire rigging underneath so they looked heavier, and makeup designs that surely took hours to apply.
Over scrambled eggs and toast in a room full of clown children and their watchful moms, I fessed up to my fear. “I don’t think my costume is going to win, Mom,” I said.
“Go up to that clown emcee and joke around with him,” she told me.
I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but I did what I had to do, hoping I might at least get an honorable mention. Fortified by a sugar rush from a big glass of orange juice, I approached Larry the emcee.
“Hey Big Feet,” I said. “Where do you shop for shoes?”
I was relieved when he looked at me with a kind face that showed through under his makeup.
“I got them from Gene’s Costumes in Kensington,” he said.
Mom’s trick worked. I won the “best personality,” award, a small trophy with a Polaroid photo of me and Larry affixed to the back of it.
As time went on we embellished my costume. At a Kmart Blue Light Special, I found a pair of red, white and blue suede shoes with white leather stars on each side. I loved them so much I wore them as everyday shoes. The other kids did not respond well. They wrote a song that resounded across the playground.
“Look who’s on the monkey bars, Bozo, Bozo, look who’s on the monkey bars, Bozo the clown.”
Mom defended my shoes when I came home crying. “The other kids just don’t recognize standout accessories,” she said.
If I could not claim close childhood friendships, at least I could boost myself up by accruing awards. I entered a second contest in third grade and wrote about “why I want to be clown for a day at Ringling Brothers Circus.” In this contest, the prize was tickets to the circus for your whole family.
Mom and I were driving on a beautiful spring day when D.C. radio personality Willard Scott, who even played Bozo the clown, read my name on air.
“Today’s contest winner is Laura Sturza. She wrote, ‘You can be outrageous at the circus. When everyone laughs at you it feels great. The audience loves you for being an oddball. That’s why I want to be Ringling Brothers Circus’ clown for a day.’”
Mom pulled over by the side of Little Falls Road. We got out and hugged and danced. I had won. I had beaten out the bullies who sang the Bozo song to me in nasty voices.
The next day, Mom called my teacher, Mrs. Skolnick, who had sent me to the principal’s office enough times. I can guess how the conversation between my teacher and my mother went.
“Of course there have been some struggles for Laura,” Mom would have said, “but this is such great news. I hope you’ll share it with the school as an example of what all kids can do when they use their talents.”
I picture Mrs. Skolnick, maybe too busy to attend to this, but knowing she had announced other students’ successes. I cringed, imagining how my classmates would take it.
“You’ll see,” Mom promised. “It’s going to be great.”
The next morning, the principal herself announced the celebrity news over the public address system, just after reminding us that inoculations would take place the next week.
“WRC radio picked one of our own students as their clown for a day, Laura Sturza,” Principal Rosenberg said. “By writing an award-winning essay, she and her family will be guests at the Ringling Brothers Circus.”
To celebrate my success, I wore my tri-colored shoes to school again that day. Mom’s pep talks had made me immune to mean comments from classmates. That day, other children looked at me differently. A popular kid who had never noticed me before stopped me in the hallway. He was even from the next grade up.
“Bozo, right?” he said. “That’s cool. When you going to the circus?”
He thought I was cool! I was so excited I couldn’t muster any better response than “next weekend.”
As an adult, I developed a more realistic view of my mother’s belief that “I can do anything.” And while I didn’t exactly tone down my enthusiasm, I learned to rein in some of the over eager behaviors that had made me unpopular in my youth. But I could still tap into my mom’s fervent optimism when faced with what seemed like an unattainable goal — finding a life partner for the first time as a middle-aged woman.
Soon after I turned 50, my mother watched me marry the kindhearted man who was ready to spend his life with a former Maryland clown contest champion. Little did I know that Tom would come to love my mother, Evelyn, almost as much as I do. Two years after our wedding, we uprooted ourselves from our much-loved home in Los Angeles. We moved to Maryland to be closer to her, and to the scene of the successes she helped engineer as a proud, clown stage mom.
Looking back on the sometimes deflating process of dating for decades, I relied on the mantra Mom laid out for me early on. I said it to myself often when preparing for first dates.
“I can do anything,” I told myself. “After all, I’m a prizewinning clown.”