Solving a Fifth Grade Problem

Solving a Fifth Grade Problem

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Be The Best You Can Be

Solving a Fifth Grade Problem

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.

~Harvey S. Firestone

“Hey Alena, nice leggings!” Britney yelled from atop the slide. Her voice carried mockingly to where I was swinging. Then, with a burst of laughter, she glided to the sand to join her posse of girls.

Britney Palmer was the elected point person of The Pink Ladies, a group of elite fifth graders to which I desperately wanted to belong.

Shoot. They were all wearing jeans. The Spandex I wore hadn’t been in style in five years. Aside from the fact that my mother proudly dressed me in my cousin’s hand-me-downs, I was chubby. Thus, I was The Pink Ladies’ favorite target.

“I told my mom they are stupid but she made me wear them anyway.” My attempt to explain my embarrassing choice of wardrobe just encouraged more laughter. I stared down at my swinging feet.

They joined hands and skipped to the corner of the playground where they plopped down in a circle. I couldn’t decide which felt worse, when I was the object of their scorn or when they forgot I existed.

“Okay, so tomorrow we all have to wear pigtails,” Britney addressed the six girls who circled her. “And if you don’t, you can’t play with us all day. This way, everybody will know who is a Pink Lady and who is not.”

The next morning, it was clear what I had to do.

“Mom, can you put my hair in pigtails?” I stood in the dark at the edge of her bed, looking intently at her sleeping face.

“Alena, I’m sleeping. Maybe tomorrow,” she muttered.

“But I need them today.”

“Then you’ll have to do it yourself,” she replied, turning over. I left her room in defeat and headed for the bathroom.

I studied my reflection, comb in one hand, two hair ties in the other, trying to see what it was that caused The Pink Ladies to explode in laughter every time I smiled in their direction. I could understand my round face and straggly hair, but why didn’t they like my blue eyes or the beauty mark next to my mouth like Cindy Crawford’s? I placed one hand on my stomach and the other on the small of my back, making a hasty measurement of my waistline. Would they like me if my hands were closer together?

I had never made pigtails before, and I knew it would be no easy feat. I pulled, pushed, maneuvered, tightened and loosened, but my efforts were fruitless. My pigtails were hopelessly lopsided. After a ten-minute struggle, I had to surrender to my fate and run to the bus stop.

As soon as I entered the classroom that day, I felt the burn of The Pink Ladies’ stares on me. If I had been fortunate enough to possess telekinetic powers, I would have willed the hair ties to the floor.

For the first half of the day, despite the many superficial compliments I gave them, they ignored me. Not exactly the reaction I had imagined. I was discouraged, but too proud to relent and untie my hair.

At snack time, I sat in a corner, chewing on peanut butter crackers and bemoaning my situation to my friend Amy, when I noticed Emily Kaplan and Elizabeth Hawkins approaching. Sure that I was about to be reprimanded for my false indication of popularity, I swallowed hard and prepared myself for verbal war.

“We know you are wearing pigtails just because we are, and you aren’t allowed to. Pigtails are the way we are wearing our hair today and you aren’t one of us,” Emily said, propping her hands on her hips and pursing her lips.

I wanted to tackle her to the carpet. It could have made me a legend, exalted at Mill Hill Elementary for my courageous act. I could have formed my own army — The Red Ladies or The Blue Ladies — the strongest social force in the academic district. It would be I who had the power to proclaim the fashion for each week. Every fifth grade girl would beg her mother to take her shopping to purchase Spandex leggings in a variety of colors and fabrics. They would all have to rush to Goodwill since stores stopped carrying leggings three seasons before, but still! That stupid Emily Kaplan would have begged for mercy. That moment had potential for greatness.

At the very least I could have said something to the effect of, “Emily, who made you queen of the world?” But those types of lines only seem obvious later that day. At that particular moment, my mind went horrifyingly blank. My eyes darted around the room, looking for any inspiration. Nothing. The only pathetic words I could manage to choke out were, “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know,” as I sheepishly tugged the hair ties at either side of my head and stole an embarrassed look at Amy.

“Oh, you knew. You are just a poseur.” Emily issued a satisfied sneer, spun around with a pompous toss of those stupid pigtails, and sauntered away with Elizabeth at her heels.

Emily was right, I was an imposter — a desperate, pathetic mimic. All of my rage and shame gathered in my stomach. I felt nauseous. The moment reeled over and over again in my mind, a mental documentary of my fifth grade tragedy.

“She can wear her hair any way she wants!” Amy shouted.

Emily and Elizabeth slowly turned. “What?”

“She can wear her hair however she wants,” Amy repeated with just as much confidence.

The two girls were stunned. Never before had anybody dared to question their authority. They looked at each other, hoping the other knew what to do. But no protocol was established for such a circumstance. Finally Emily stammered, “I-I guess so. Sorry.”

I was baffled. For months I cowered beneath the power of The Pink Ladies, hungry for their approval, accepting their pressure, never realizing there was an obvious solution. Stop — stop caring about what they think or say. My thirst for acknowledgment was what fed them. They didn’t torture me because I was chubby. They tortured me because I let them. I gazed at Amy in awe. This ten-year-old girl with freckles and spunk held the answer all along. I just never looked in the right place.

“Thanks,” I managed.

Amy shrugged. “Can I have a peanut butter cracker?”

~Alena Dillon

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