I graduated from clown school at age sixteen. The ceremony was held in the same classroom where we met once a week, a small room above the single-screen movie theater where I volunteered with my mom on weekends. The room smelled of mildew, bleach, and an updraft of salty popcorn and butter from the concession stand below. Beige linoleum, scuffed and chipped, lined the floor. Mirrors filled one wall, where we stood checking our makeup. Against another wall were haphazard racks of costumes, a box of tangled wigs, and a set of plastic tables and fold-up chairs. There was an excitement in the air, the night we graduated—laughter, chatter, and every so often the squeak and squeal of a balloon animal getting twisted into being.
As a freshman in high school, I was quiet. I had a few good friends, but to the rest of the school I felt invisible. The volume of my self-awareness radiated from all corners of my body, which I didn’t think was a good body, not knowing that there is no such thing as a good body. A body is a body. A school is a school. A clown is a girl is a clown.
While my classmates put frosty highlights in their hair, smoked their first cigarettes, and made out behind the roller rink during skate hops, I spent my Thursday nights at clown school with my mom, a few of her friends, and a handful of strangers. Our teachers were Jim and Kathy, a married couple who had spent years learning the art of clowning. On that first night, they told us about its history, about the tradition of clowns learning from other clowns. They told us about their clown mentors, who they called parents, and that we should think of them as our clown parents too.
Face painting came first. In our first week, Jim and Kathy gave us supply lists for the next class. Included was a mirror, a pallet of grease paint, paint brushes, and a rolled-up sock filled with baby powder. We smeared the paint onto our faces, thick as tar. Eyebrows, lips, and noses went on carefully with brushes; if we messed up, sometimes we’d have to start from the beginning, adding time to what was already a drawn-out process. After we were done, we rolled the tied-off sock full of powder across the paint, sealing it so that it wouldn’t smudge. A spray bottle full of water was passed around, and we misted our faces, brightening the color.
We waited until we were home to wash the paint off. I remember my dad rolling his eyes when we walked in the door, mom and me posing for pictures outside the bathroom before we took turns at the sink, scrubbing our faces section by section with baby shampoo and a towel. It was hard, sometimes almost impossible, to remove. Soap was the only way to dislodge the paint, and flecks of white stuck stubbornly to the corners of my eyes. Many mornings, I walked through my school’s doors with traces of paint still clinging to my eyelashes, hoping to pass it off as white mascara. Sometimes I even left traces of it on purpose, wanting someone to notice, feeling romantic about this secret life of mine.
We also studied the squeaky art of balloon animals. Squirrels and wiener dogs bloomed from our amateur hands. Jim and Kathy showed us swords, hats, flowers, octopuses, and butterflies. The trickiest part was tying the balloon off after it was inflated. The tie-ends of the long tubes didn’t give us much room to work with, and our fingers fumbled awkwardly with the plastic, sometimes ending in a balloon slipping out of our grip and careening around the room, propelled by a high-pitched whistle and then a glorious, melodious fart sound. With the whole class practicing, the room was a din of blundering squeaks and accidental pops.
We made a study of humor with our bodies. Jim and Kathy wanted us to be funny not just because we were dressed funny, although that was a good start. They immersed us in the theater of it, showing us their own skits that they’d worked on for years, and improvising others on the spot. They invited us to experiment, to try new things as our own characters came together. “What would your character look like crossing a tightrope?” they asked before drawing a line with tape across the floor and having us cross it. I remember walking daintily over the tape, as if I was weightless—stopping halfway across to bend into a delicate curtsy.
I used to take photos of myself in the basement of my house. I’d set the timer on a small digital camera propped on top of an empty bucket, then run to the wall where I’d tacked up a sheet for a backdrop. I wore dresses and skimpy shirts that I stole from my sister’s closet—ones I would never wear in public. In two of the photos, I’m wearing a black lace corset and small black panties. I look at these photos now with tenderness. I think: Beautiful girl. But when I took them, I looked through the thumbnails on the camera screen and thought: Fat. Ugly. No one will love you. I focused on the roundness of my thighs, the strip of flesh peeking out below the corset’s bottom.
I’ve always been at odds with my body. Even at my most self-assured, I’ve been constantly aware of what television, magazines, and clothing racks have told me is wrong with it. In department store dressing rooms, I cried over jeans that never fit while my friends traded pairs of size 2’s across the dividers. At lunch, we all talked about food like it was something to be managed, not enjoyed; we existed on Fritos and Galliker’s peach iced tea, counting chips to halve the calories. This was in the early 2000’s, when low-rise jeans reigned and fatphobia was so normalized that it was just assumed that all women everywhere were dieting, no matter what their size. I envied my thinner friends, but now I realize they were hurting just as much as I was. Every day, we were fed the idea that you could never be thin enough. And we believed it.
I’ve found brief periods of loving my body—working on a farm and realizing that it’s a good body for farming, that my round thighs are strong and can handle the punishment of kneeling for hours at a time. But my relationship with my body has always felt clouded by the relationship between it and the people around me. Every time I’ve gone down in size, I’ve been struck by how many people will praise me for it, rushing to tell me how much better they think I look. You look so healthy! Have you lost weight? You look amazing. I get very quiet in these moments. I always wonder if they notice.
Week by week, we started crafting our personalities. By the end of the course, we were all expected to create our own clown alter-ego, complete with a name, a costume, makeup, and an individual skit which we’d perform for one another at the graduation ceremony.
Mom and I spent hours poring over clothing racks at thrift stores. The discovery of a knee-length red and white floral prairie dress sparked an idea for me, and soon other pieces followed: a huge curly blond wig topped with a red felt bowler hat, long white gloves, and a red and white polka dotted parasol. A tulle petticoat, bloomers, and heart-shaped apron completed the look, all stitched on mom’s sewing machine. I picked up the name Ruby Begonia from a friend’s dad, who had dubbed it my nickname years earlier when I went through a phase of dyeing my hair every available shade of auburn. Once I had the outfit and the name, the character came easily. Ruby Begonia had a southern accent and spoke as if she was always on the verge of fainting. Her face was fully covered in thick white paint with a heart-shaped red nose, two red dots at the corners of her mouth, and arched, curly eyebrows.
My mom modeled her own character after clowns like Emmett Kelly. She painted dark stubble across her chin and cheeks with a sponge, reddened her nose, and drew white circles around her mouth and eyes. A baggy suit, oversized shoes, and black bowler hat filled out the rest. She decided to follow the tradition of miming, as well; she took the name Squeakers and didn’t speak at all while she was in costume, communicating only by gesture, facial expression, and by squeaking the toys that she’d placed in her gloves, under her armpits, and in the soles of her shoes.
What surprised me about clowning was how easily my character came to me once I was in costume. I covered every inch of my skin with makeup or cloth. White gloves met a long-sleeved white turtleneck. Red and white striped stockings peeked out from the bottoms of my bloomers. There was something oddly freeing about applying the costume and the makeup, disappearing underneath it layer by layer. My costume added weight and height to a body I was already deeply self-critical of as being too big and too tall, but somehow, I didn’t mind. Wearing the petticoat and bloomers made my dress bulge out at my waist in a bell shape; the blond wig was massive and top-heavy, the bowler hat pinned to it adding even more inches. Clowning is all about exaggeration, and so I cut a small hole in the top of that hat, pushing a felt yellow flower attached to a green pipe cleaner up through the center.
Our graduation ceremony was a jubilant one. Each one of us performed an original skit, showing off our newly minted characters. I carried a straw bag full of props for my performance. In a high, breathy voice, I told my classmates that I had just gotten engaged, asking them if they wanted to see the ring—three karats, I told them. When they all smiled, nodding, I pulled out a ring with three orange plastic carrots glued to it, placing it over my gloved finger and fanning myself with my other hand. When they laughed loudly, I put up my hand, saying, “Wait, wait—if you thought that was great, this is a little greater.” I then proceeded to pull, from my bag, a miniature cheese grater about two inches in size.
There was so much joy in that room. Each routine received boisterous applause. Jim and Kathy, dressed as Lester and Kappy, glowed with pride. They gave us paper certificates saying that we’d graduated and told us all that we were ready.
“I want a shark,” the boy seated in front of me said. It was a hot summer day, and mom and I were at our first gig—a birthday party. I sat squeezed into a child-sized plastic chair under a tent, a line of kids in front of me, realizing that I could only remember how to make one kind of balloon animal.
“How about a dog?” I asked. He shook his head.
“You said you could make anything,” he argued, in that way children have of putting words into your mouth that had never even crossed your mind. “I want a shark.”
A freshly inflated blue balloon rested in my hands. I started twisting it while sweat collected under my layers of clothing, dampening the creases of my turtleneck. Outside the tent, mom was dressed as Squeakers, miming a slapstick routine for a rapt audience of five-year-olds. She walked in a circle, shoes squeaking with each step, tripping over invisible objects. Children screamed with laughter.
As Squeakers, my mom often played off the clowning principle that failure or incompetence will always get a laugh; when in doubt, slip over a banana peel. Her acts involved a lot of physical comedy, but it was her expressive face that mesmerized children and made them laugh rowdily. My own character had a slightly more serious personality—to be honest, she was a bit of a snob—but I loved watching my mom entertain people, the way she told a story just by manipulating her body and face.
The animal that I finally handed the boy was decidedly not a shark, but his attention had already shifted to an ice cream cake coming out of the kitchen. For the rest of the sweltering afternoon, I created an assembly line of dog balloons in every color. That was our first and last birthday party.
Toward the end of freshman year, my English teacher, Mrs. Eberhardt, got wind of what I’d been doing. Her excitement boiled over into a demand that I perform a skit for the class in full costume and makeup. Any sensible high schooler would have refused.
Instead, when the bell rang for last period the next day, I lugged a bulky bag out of my locker and headed to the bathroom, where I spent twenty minutes turning myself into Ruby. I picked the most seldom used bathroom, even though my path from there to Mrs. Eberhardt’s room would take me past the math wing, senior hallway, and library. I closed myself up in the accessible stall, which had its own sink and mirror, and spread my makeup out across the lip of the sink.
No one came in as I went through the ritual of painting my face—smearing on the white grease paint from forehead to neck and carefully contouring my mouth, nose, and eyebrows before pressing it all with baby powder. But as soon as my makeup bags were packed up and I was ready to make my way to Mrs. Eberhardt’s room, the bathroom door swung open.
Through the slim gap at the edge of the stall door, I saw flatiron-straight brown hair and low-rise jeans. I froze. It was Alex Summers, one of the most popular girls in school. She stopped at a sink, adjusting her makeup in the mirror. At a school dance three years prior, I’d overheard Alex making fun of my outfit while I stood, similarly, hidden in a bathroom stall and her friends applied blush and mascara in front of the mirrors. This time, though, I slid the latch on the door, clutching my parasol and straw bag tightly, and allowed myself and my bulky costume to emerge from the stall like some terrifying specter in a B-rated high school horror film. Her face swiveled toward me, open-mouthed.
Confidence, or maybe hubris, bore me out the door. As I walked past Alex, I reveled in her slack jaw, her dumbstruck face. Pausing at the door, I turned my head, wanting to stretch out the dramatic moment: “Just don’t ask,” I said, then exited in a whoosh of floral print and tulle. Yes, I was that cool. I’m sure she laughed about this moment with her friends, but at the time I didn’t care. Later that year, in the cafeteria, a girl she’d pissed off would upend a salad slathered with non-fat ranch dressing on top of her perfect hair, and I’d find myself feeling a surge of pity for her as she wiped napkin after napkin over her head, the dressing falling off in thick glops.
In English class, I brought out my bag of props. I showed Andy, in the front row, my three-carrot ring. I said that I’d just been told I needed prescription glasses, then drew out a pair of plastic frames and slid them on; glued to the lenses were two empty orange pill bottles. I exclaimed “What in the world!” and pulled out a small globe of the Earth. I showed them my little grater.
After my skit was done, class went back to normal. I sat at my desk in full makeup, wig and bowler hat towering above me, as we discussed Great Expectations. Once the bell rang, confidence waning, I ran for the bathroom, hiding until the buses left and I could safely escape to where my mom was parked to take me home.
Being an introverted teen gave me plenty of opportunity to daydream a different life for myself, and I did—worlds where I was secretly the coolest girl in school, only no one knew it yet. I remember a daydream I often had, probably in the back of math class where I spent most of my time doodling. In it, I’m parked in my own car after school (at the time, I couldn’t even drive), skillfully and quickly applying my clown makeup in the rearview mirror before heading to a gig. Whoever my current crush was at the time happens to walk by and stops to lean in the open window, clearly realizing how daft he’s been by not noticing me until now. We drive away together.
In every daydream, my quietness was interpreted by my classmates as mysteriousness; I was the girl everyone wanted to know but was afraid to talk to, the ice queen reigning in the back of the classroom. It was news to me when, a few years later, a new friend told me that this was actually how some people perceived me. “I was so intimidated by you,” she said, citing my serious face, the fact that I rarely approached anyone to talk. Once I entered my senior year, I melted a little, and was amazed when people I had longed to be friends with started greeting me in hallways, inviting me to football games and parties, midnight diner runs, sleepovers where we watched Practical Magic and drank our first sugary, alcoholic drinks.
A clown’s personality is an exaggeration of the artist’s self—of their most deeply embedded traits, emotions, fears, insecurities, or fantasies. That’s what Jim and Kathy taught us, but I didn’t understand it at the time. I have to laugh now, though. Ruby always had her nose up in the air—her whole act, and what got the most laughs, revolved around her erroneous assumption that everyone adored her. “Do you want to see my engagement ring?” I asked each audience. “Oh, of course you do!” I went on, not letting them answer. Ruby always assumed that everyone’s love and adoration was a given, while the singular, tormenting fear of that quiet girl sitting in the back of the classroom was that no one would ever see her the way she longed to be seen.
In our last official performance as Ruby and Squeakers, mom and I agreed to walk up and down Main Street during one of our small town’s many seasonal festivals—an event called The Stroll, which brought back the 1950s with an antique car show, poodle skirts, ice cream, a pie baking contest, and dancing. A festival so charming and saccharine it hurt your teeth.
When we arrived, we found out that we’d been double-booked; another clown was already busy wheeling in circles on his unicycle. He was a mime with a striped shirt, and when he spotted me—my dress, my many ruffles, that ridiculous blond wig—he immediately hit the ground, dramatically thumping his hand against his chest.
We spent the rest of the day playing out the same improvised skit for the people walking around the craft booths. He brought me invisible flowers and did elaborate tricks on his unicycle in an attempt to woo me. Squeakers pretended anger, shooing him away, protecting me from my new suitor. I disappeared into my character that day, fully becoming Ruby, twirling and hiding my face behind my parasol when unicycle-man came around. There was such a joy to that work—to creating something out of thin air with someone I’d never met, making strangers laugh and clap, handing balloon animals to gleeful kids, seeing their parents’ grateful smiles.
Years later, while working at a local amusement park, I spotted that same clown with a group of entertainers performing an afternoon show. When I ran into him and said that I remembered him, he smiled, giving what I thought was a secretive kind of nod, then whistled and wheeled away on his unicycle.
Ruby hung up her bloomers and petticoat. Squeakers hung up her suit and oversized shoes. Years later, home from college one weekend, I found my bag of props and makeup buried in the back of a closet. The paint pallets were dry and cracked. The three-carrot ring had broken into pieces, and the little grater was nowhere to be found. The smell of the sock filled with baby powder—still fresh—sent me spinning back to that classroom above the theater. Glimpsing a bottle of baby shampoo was enough to feel, again, the sensation of scrubbing my face red and raw in the evening. I took the air pump out and inflated a balloon, smiling at the squeaks the plastic made. The shape of a dog quickly took form, muscle memory guiding my hands.
JESSICA POLI is the author of Red Ocher (University of Arkansas Press, 2023), which was a finalist for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, North American Review, Poet Lore, and Salamander, among other places. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.