I remember the exact day the spot light turned on me and everyone noticed the quiet girl who barely ever spoke. And by spotlight, I don't mean me slipping on a pair of tap shoes and performing an excerpt from a Broadway musical. More like I was standing naked with my classmates running at me, a magnifying glass pressed to their eye. Okay, that's a bit dramatic, but seriously it was bad.
Sister Clarisse calls it adolescence or puberty, but I call it exposure and the time when every girl's self-esteem is mutilated, dismembered. For me, my moment of exposure happened at the
beginning of eighth grade.
"What do you think we'll have to do?" Alison whispered to me that morning before school.
I opened my bag and started pulling out books, throwing them on top of the desk. "I don't know. Sister Clarisse didn't give us any details."
My nervous tone reflected the buzz of voices drifting through the classroom. Everyone was feeling it. Today was different. Of course when you're my age, you can't let anyone but your very best friends know the idea of watching The Movie was freakin' scary. Yes, that's right, Ellie Cummings was petrified of this official rite of passage into the teenage world, but never in a million years would I have guessed how much was about to change from The Movie. If I had
known I probably would have faked an illness this morning and never left my house.
I hung my bag on the back of my chair and tugged at my green and navy pleated skirt. It was identical to the one Alison wore, but on her the required uniform was a fashion statement. Alison was already five foot five and growing constantly and not in the gangly awkward way, but in the
I'm-thirteen-but-the-ninth-grade-boys-all-snap-their-heads-in-my-direction way. Mostly because this summer she started growing things I didn't have yet. Well not a b-cup anyway.
Don't think I spend all my time obsessing over the bra size of my classmates, but it was the first week of school and everyone changed over the summer. Alison changed the most of all the
girls and of course it didn't go unnoticed. Me, well let's just say I have the flattest chest in my entire class. This is not opinion based. It's a fact. Even Freddie Livingston has bigger boobs than me. Seriously, he does. I cringe every time Freddie is on the "skins" team when the boys play basketball in the gym.
In just a few days of school I was beginning to realize everything is more complicated in eighth grade. For starters, we moved to the high school wing with the ninth graders and switched classrooms every hour, bumping into them in the hallway. My school messes with the entire genetics of high school by making ninth graders the dominating force and then moving them on to a new school as sophomores.
It's just wrong.
Of course I won't be complaining next year when I'm one of those ninth graders.
But if you're unlucky like me, and scored high on your standardized testing you might even end up in a few classes with them. Talk about feeling like a puny little girl.
My other best friend Hailey leaned in close to Alison and I before whispering, "My sister told me they make everyone put condoms on oranges."
Hailey's sister is in tenth grade this year and entertains herself by giving Hailey a load of crap to see if she'll believe it.
I rolled my eyes. "You don't put condoms on oranges, bananas maybe?"
Alison giggled beside me then put her hand over her mouth when Sister Janet glared in our direction. Hailey's forehead wrinkled and I could tell she was going to give herself a head ache thinking this hard.
I put my hand on her shoulder to calm her down before whispering as quietly as possible, "Hailey we're not going to put condoms on anything . This isn't public school. Catholics stress
abstinence, not birth control."
Her face relaxed.
Alison shook her head, eyes glued to the folder in her hands. "Ellie's right."
TJ the cutest boy in our grade strolled past us and we all three immediately jumped apart from our huddled girl talk.
TJ's eyes fell on Alison. His cheeks blushed a little, then he hurried over to his desk.
"Did you see that," Hailey squealed.
I clapped my hand over her mouth to shut her up. Alison threw me a grateful look. Last year we made a pact to never be those girls. The squealing ones who pretend their idiots and refuse to eat in front of boys. Hailey can't help herself. She's naturally ditzy and forgetful. It has nothing to do with male presence, so we still love her.
"My house after school," Alison reminded us of our Friday tradition which was nothing more than hanging out, pigging out, making fun of the popular girls (the Pact to stay 'squeal free' evolved from one of these sessions), and occasionally inventing stories about what the nuns really do after school (my personal favorite).
"Sarah and Claire are coming. I called them last night," Hailey said, referring to our other two best friends. They were in a different class this year.
"Alright everyone get your Math books out and start with the problems on page ten," Sister Janet said. She narrowed her eyes at me, inclining one hand toward the door. Freddie and Dara zipped past, books tucked under their arms.
I swallowed hard and threw Alison and Hailey a desperate look. Alison bit her lower lip and Hailey chewed on her thumb nail. They were the most supportive friends a girl could have, but they didn't have to leave. I did.
Day five of Algebra with the ninth graders had officially begun.
I grabbed my book and hurried after Freddie and Dara. My stomach did flip-flops while I made the long walk down the hall. But the barfy feeling was completely unrelated to the impending movie and everything to with the older kids. Being forced into their world, even if only for academic reasons would frightened the coolest of eighth graders (which I wasn't). They didn't want me there anymore than I wanted to be there. It was such a fun hour. Let me tell you.
Sister Janet says there's always something to be grateful for- someone who was worse off. Whenever I sit in class behind the most popular ninth grade girl April Jenson, it's difficult to be grateful for anything God has blessed me with. But then I look over at Jenny Ludwig and give thanks that my mother doesn't make me wear the little girl jumpers instead of the skirts. Seriously, she's fourteen with a plaid jumper, white button down Peter Pan collar shirt, knee socks and black Mary Jane's.
I. Kid. You. Not.
After glancing at Jenny the first day of school, I forced myself to look down at my socially acceptable skirt, navy school polo and Nike's then I said: Yes, there is a God! I may not be April Jenson, but Sister Janet is right. It could be worse.
I took in a deep breath before entering the classroom, letting my eyes drop to stare at my shoes like I was examining them for dog crap stuck to the bottom. It's an unspoken rule not to make eye contact with the ninth graders while on their turf (which I was). I slid into my seat and noticed Mrs. Halloway wasn't in the in the room yet. Frightening. I was writing the date on the top of my notebook page when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
My heart started pounding in my chest. It must be a trick. I wasn't turning around just to have someone shove my finger up my nose and ask me if I'm digging for gold (this happened to Freddie yesterday, I felt terrible for him).
"Ellie, are you ignoring me?" a voice whispered in my ear.
A familiar voice. But it couldn't be. I turned quickly in my seat and stared right into Justin's green eyes.
"What are you doing here?" I couldn't help asking.
He smiled. "It's not an all girl's school."
I rolled my eyes. "You wish. But I thought you were going to George Washington?"
"My parents had me on the waiting list all summer. A spot opened up at the last minute. I've been here for a week waiting for you to talk to me." He frowned and reached his hand toward my shirt and pulled off a cat hair. "Albert Einstein's been rolling in your laundry basket again, hasn't he?"
I laughed and pushed his hand away. "I wasn't ignoring you. I didn't know you were here. Plus I'm an eighth grader. I'll probably get hung or lynched just for this little chat."
I turned around then because Mrs. Halloway walked in to the room and I realized immediately several pairs of eyes were on me.
Spotlight number one. I wished more than anything this was the only one. It wasn't.
My cheeks burned and I slid down in my seat hoping Mrs. Halloway would jump right in to complex equations. She did jump into the lesson but not the long boring lecture I hoped for. No, that would be lucky (which I wasn't). And that would be reserved for traditional teachers
(which Mrs. Halloway wasn't).
Today we were doing a hands-on project- calculating angles of large objects outside using Algebraic and geometric formulas. So when she started to partner us up I glanced hopefully at Dara, even Freddie would do. Eighth graders needed to stick together, but instead I get-
"April Jenson," Mrs. Halloway said.
April stood and flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder.
Mrs. Halloway looked down at her clip board. "April your partner will be, Eleanor Cummings."
My face turned even redder and I ducked down pretending to pick up something from the floor.
"Eleanor Cummings," Mrs. Halloway spoke with such authority I jerked up quickly banging my head on the desk, hard.
I stood feeling the burn of everyone's eyes.
Spotlight number two.
Mrs. Halloway was new and didn't know name's yet. She was just reading off the roster and the damage she caused was completely unintentional.
I heard Justin laugh a little under his breath and mutter, "Eleanor."
I had been Ellie Cummings since preschool. Like every other day, I walked in as Ellie. But today, I left as Eleanor and today of all days Eleanor was the absolute worst name to have.