This is how Stella Ehrhart, age 8, decides what to wear for school.
She opens her closet. She opens her book, “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.” And she opens her mind.
Voilà, she is Billie Holiday, in a black dress with a red tissue-paper flower tucked into her strawberry-blond hair.
Behold, she is Grace Kelly in pink satin lace on her wedding day.
Poof, she is Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, wearing a hat her aunt got her in Vietnam.
The Dundee Elementary School third-grader comes to school dressed as a different historical figure or character — Every. Single. Day. And she's done that since the second day of second grade, when this all started.
The budding actress with a social conscience came to school on the first day last year dressed like any other 7-year-old girl, in the outfit her grandpa had bought her: a Love T-shirt and leggings. The following day she was dressed as author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
From that point on, Stella decided that what she would wear to school would represent who she was trying to be. With no repeats, at least through second grade.
Thus began a creative, educational and — for her parents, at least — somewhat exhausting journey.
Stella's costumes aren't fluffy, fantastical or even necessarily obvious, which helps because the Omaha Public Schools have a directive saying students' clothes shouldn't distract. Her parents, teachers and principal recognize that ego isn't behind the every day dress-up. A brain at work is.
So they try to support her desire for self-expression. Teachers, in fact, embrace it and have used Stella's outfits du jour as teachable moments.
“We'd have to get on the computer and figure out who she was,” said her second-grade teacher, Shannon Roeder, who keeps a picture of an overtly costumed Stella (it was Halloween) hanging in her classroom. In the picture, Stella poses in front of Roeder's bumper-sticker-plastered Prius, its license plate reading “ENDWAR,” wearing a cardboard car cutout also plastered in bumper stickers, with the same vanity plate.
Stella's costumes prompt classroom discussion, some copycatting and further creativity. When she dressed as Rosa Parks, she and her classmates devised a play and designated different people as the bus driver and other bus passengers.
On Monday, she sat in her Joan Baez “costume,” which was a military-green fitted half-blazer over a patterned blouse with black slacks and cowboy boots. She looked like any other third-grader, head bent over some bellwork — math and grammar exercises that at times had her stumped.
Teacher Shari Smith patiently explained to Joan Baez how to make the plural forms of nouns such as “calf” and “wolf.”
“There are times I even forget,” the teacher said of Stella's blend-in costume. “It's not an attention-getter ‘Look at me.'”
Stella's classmates, long used to this, express admiration:
» “Ummm, Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Abby Adams said of her favorite Stella costume. “She wore, like, these shoes that were black and white. She wore, like, this dress with leggings. It's kind of cool. I might do it next year.”
» “One time she dressed as our principal,” said Jack Jenowe. “It's cool.”
» “It's cool you're doing a report on Stella,” said Elena Conyers Gaines, “because she's a very nice girl.”
» “My favorite costume was last year — she dressed as me,” said best friend Virginia Holtzclaw.
Arguably, Stella comes by her creativity genetically. Her father is actor-director-teacher Kevin Ehrhart, aka the charismatic Cat in the Hat during a Rose Theater production of “Seussical the Musical.” Stella acted with him. She was a baby kangaroo.
She is currently preparing to play the lead character in a drama, set to open Thursday, called “The Bad Seed.” It's a big leap from Seuss, but Stella will be acting with her mother, Stephanie Anderson, also a theater professional. Anderson is an actor-director whose most recent gig was choreographing the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball. Anderson's current work is doing child abuse prevention education programs.
Neither parent supplies the costumes or the ideas. They just roll with what Stella wants to do and support her, grateful that she's emulating stories and strength, not beauty.
They describe Stella as fearless, compassionate and, well, creative. She writes. She draws. She repurposes old things. “Don't throw that bottle away!” she'll holler.
Stella's repertoire includes Elvis Costello, local philanthropist Susie Buffett, Jan Brady of “The Brady Bunch” and Old Turtle from a children's book by the same name.
Mostly Stella draws inspiration from her “Important Women” book, thumbing through glossy pages rich with photos. Her mother logs her costumes on the house calendar.
“Georgia O'Keeffe,” her mother sighed, recalling the costume reflecting the American artist. “That was one of my favorites.”
Stella has been so many people, it's hard to remember who and when.
“Mom, was I her on Friday?” she asked, pointing to a picture of Sandra Day O'Connor.
“No,” answered Anderson. “You were Queen Elizabeth.”
This year Stella is repeating some costumes, which makes life a bit easier.
And she has so far agreed to her mother's idea — a twist on doing something different. After the holidays, Stella's costume will be the same day in, day out — unlike any of her classmates.
She'll wear a school uniform.
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