All I can hear is my own breathing, accelerated with adrenaline. Within seconds, it’s thick, heavy, and hot inside the giant stuffed dog’s head the school nurse has just awkwardly lifted to my height and plopped on my (stuffed dog) shoulders. Everything inside the suit is amplified: my breaths, with their Vader-esque density; my voice, as I assure the nurse, Yes, I am okay. Yes, I can see . . . kind of; the piercing velcro adjustments and readjustments as she works to hide any sign of the human within. I do my best to “get comfortable,” and rest my (already damp) forehead against the metal bar designed, I suppose, to literally keep my head on straight. Everything outside the suit is muffled, underwater, as both my peripheral vision and my place in the room become compromised. The nurse, I can make out through the screens that comprise my new eyes, straps on one giant paw and then the other. For no reason, I clap my paws. I encourage her (once, and then again for extra measure), to recheck the giant velcro seam that runs the length of my back, because my only fear in this adventure is the opening of said seam and the revelation to a crowd of hundreds that underneath is, in fact, a human woman sporting nothing but a wife-beater and her husband’s lucky-clover boxers.
It’s time, the nurse tells my screen-eyes. My heart races, but not from this claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. I am thrilled.
She leads me down the elementary school hallway, and even across the building and through my fake fur, I can hear the kids screaming. It’s the Blazer Blast, the quarterly pep rally designed to celebrate the school and the spirit within its walls. Instantly, I realize my celebrity status, as a teacher walks past and waves enthusiastically, “Hi, Blazer!” I wave my paw, and blow a kiss from my giant snout. It comes naturally for me to exaggerate my movements, I discover, and there, in the hallway as I stumble awkwardly toward the cafegymnatorium, something inside me awakens.
I am SO ready for this.
Hidden behind closed doors at the back of the giant room, I wait in the hall, kicking my paw-covered tennis shoes, pacing a bit, and steadily streaming sweat. The noise swells as Mr. D congratulates honor roll students, asks grade level after grade level to “make some nooooiiiiise!” and amps up the crowd. On the other side of those doors, I know from five years of attendance, is a room full of some 400 anticipatory students plus the eager parent paparazzi corps.
Suddenly, through the windows in the back of the room, I’m spotted. A little sister in the crowd stares wide-eyed directly at my screen-eyes, simultaneously screaming in her mom’s ear, begging her to come see me. I wave; I blow my kiss. The mom and daughter, amidst the chaos, sneak out of the crowd and into the hallway. Instinctively, I reach out my paw for a high-five, but the girl, unable to contain herself, runs directly at my knee for a tight, deep hug, where she remains for a good fifteen to twenty seconds, until she is finally urged away by her camera-snapping parent. I fall in love within two of those seconds.
At last, my cue. Screaming. Piercing, giggling screaming broken only by Blazer’s theme song, which blasts out of the now open doors. “Who Let the Dogs Out?” with its fantastically cheesy, dance-inspiring beat electrifies the crowd and pulls me into the packed, frenzied room.
I am a star.
I high-five. I wave. I blow kisses. I sing to myself loudly (no one can hear me, after all). I wave to my unsuspecting friends. And I dance like I have never danced before, with abandon and with energy I didn’t know I possessed. The crowd is wild, reaching for Blazer, cheering for Blazer, and as I slowly dance my way up to the front of the room, relishing these seconds, I notice the evolution of the crowd’s reaction. Because up front sit the kindergartners, and the closer I dance to the younger kids, the more the frenzy melts into amazed awe. Toward the front I slow down my energy, bend down for the high fives, silently reassure the timid, and share the joy. Once up front, at the base of the stage, next to the principal and in front of thousands of eyes, I let loose, pulling out dance moves from decades past and making up some strange innovations in time with the music. Out there, somewhere out there beyond my sweat-blurred screen-eyes, is pure, unbridled, love. I soak it all in, and I revel in giving it right back.
I am as goofy, as happy, and as free as I have ever been. It is fantastic.
My celebrity passes too quickly. I only have a few minutes, and I know it, so I use them wisely. I single out kids, one by one, looking for someone who is sad or someone who seems afraid. Pointing directly at those waving to me with the pure joy and innocence of those in this room. My friend’s daughter is here, here at her retreat from her mother’s chemotherapy, and I give her a special wave. Another child looks petrified. I blow him a kiss, and he looks around, back and forth, as if to say, “Who, me?” I nod overenthusiastically. It becomes my mission: Sad kids? I will find you! As the principal revs the crowd, I put my paw to my gigantic ear high above my actual head: I can’t hear you! The crowd goes wild. I dance some more.
Finally, the crowd is told to say goodbye to Blazer. (The human inside is encouraged to not get heat stroke, so appearances must be brief.) Before I go, I have one last mission. I spot my target as I leave the room. She’s there, looking so old among the little kids, a fifth-grader in the back row, giggling with her friends. I stop. I wave directly at her until she notices me, and then I point and blow my final kiss. One special one for my baby girl, my daughter.
Cammie has no idea her mother is the one entertaining the room. She gives me the “Who, me?” and I nod, touch my paw to my heart, and saunter out of the room. My work here is done.
Out of hundreds of people, I am happiest.