Draw your own box. White. Black. Hispanic. Asian/Pacific Islander.
Those were the only four options available for me to check as my ethnicity in my 7th grade English class. Choose one. It was some sort of mandatory census that had to be completed before an exam, and there I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do. Not knowing which box I fit in to.
I remember going home that night and telling my dad what happened, recounting how my teacher said to just “choose one” — that despite my being biracial, that I should simply choose one box and be done with it. And in one of those parenting moments that no guidebook could ever prep you for, my dad said words that will stay with me forever: “Draw your own box.”
This is the same man who took apart two Barbie boxed sets (because you could only buy a white Barbie family or a black one), and made a custom one to bring home to me- his speciality set included a black Barbie mom, a white Ken doll dad, and two kids – one black and one white. I picture him standing there in Toys R Us, moms glaring at him for taking the toys apart, perhaps an employee saying “excuse me sir, you can’t do that” — as my dad carefully separated the boxed sets to make one that echoed my reality. One that showed me that I should (and could) make my own box.
In celebrating Father’s Day, I think of so many moments with my dad. Our club sandwich & fruit smoothie tradition post my tap & ballet class — classes, which by the way, he religiously took me to on Saturday mornings after working 75+ hours a week as a lighting director. The fishing trips along the Kern River and Big Bear Lake to catch catfish or trout and cook it up for dinner, and the commitment he made to lighting my high school musicals so that they felt as grand as a Broadway show. The blood, sweat and tears this man (who came from so little in a small town of Pennsylvania, where Christmas stockings were filled with oranges, and dinners were potatoes and spam) invested in my future so that I could grow up to have so much.
He helped me turn my bathroom into a darkroom when I was twelve because I wanted to be a photographer – shading my windows in red lighting gels and filling my cabinets with extra jugs of fixer. He put gas in my car when I went from audition to audition trying to make it as an actress. He is the person who believed in this grand dream of mine well before I could even see it as a possibility. He taught me to write thank you notes, to always arrive early, to drink Arnold Palmers, to find my light when I’m on camera…and beyond.
And that, right there, is the point: my dad taught me to find my light. And he taught me to always make my own box.
To my dad — my thoughtful, inspiring, hardworking Daddy – Happy Father’s Day. “If I had all the water in the world, I’d give all the water to you…” (You won’t get that quote, but he will. And for Father’s Day, that’s all that matters.)