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I begged my mother to let me wash it off in the car. It was Ash Wednesday and, as a third grader new to public school, the cross of ashes on my forehead burned. My mother told me to be proud that I was Catholic and to remember how lucky I was compared to other children, like the orphans we visit in Mexico. I quietly repeated her words as I slammed the car door and slipped into class, my throat knotted with anxiety, my mind poised for mortification.
At the first break, a girl asked me what was on my forehead. I considered saying I’d fallen, or didn’t know what it was, but as I was working out a false explanation I found myself truthfully telling her what the ashes were and what they represent.
“Cool,” she said. “I’ve heard of that.”
I smiled. By the end of the day, I had pinned my bangs back.
The ashes were only one way my mother helped me to become who I am. She taught me the importance of affirming my opinions, especially when they are the minority. She taught me when to laugh at myself, and to relish distinctions among others and within myself. She taught me that having an old car and local vacations and hand-me-down clothes would never stop me from achieving my dreams.
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