9: My Own Label

9: My Own Label

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

My Own Label

If you doubt yourself, then indeed you stand on shaky ground.

~Henrik Ibsen

It seemed to me that I had two different identities when I was in fifth grade. Outside of school, I was a reasonably happy kid who enjoyed spending time with her friends, reading about ancient Egypt, and listening to rock music. When I was in class, however, I turned into a very different Denise, one who was on guard all the time — one who wanted nothing more than to get through the day without being teased.

To my classmates I was weird, because I wasn’t just like them. They focused on that which was most obvious — that I didn’t wear the same name brand designer clothes that they did. In my class, where everyone worked overtime at being fashionable, this was no light offense. The class photo was a parade of designer labels — expensive shoes and sweaters with conspicuous logos, shirts with embroidered marks, and jeans with glittery patches and buttons. Even their hair accessories had little designer tags.

Designer clothes were beyond my family’s reach. My mother was a single parent, and she worked long hours to support our small household. In the currencies of love and attention, I was rich beyond all imagination. I was adored, supported and cared for. The only currency my classmates dealt in was fashion, though, and there, I was poor. There just wasn’t any justification for spending the entire clothing budget on one silly shirt or pair of jeans that happened to have a label the cool kids liked.

I never knew if my classmates would torment me in class, but on the bus I could count on it. My trips to and from school were the horrific, painful bookends to stressful days. Sometimes my classmates insulted me to my face; at other times, I merely heard the snickers behind me. One girl made a point of running down the aisle every morning to see what I was wearing, and then returned to her friends to laugh about it. I shrank into myself and stared out the window.

I was the smallest girl in my class. One of my classmates’ mothers noticed, and offered me a denim skirt that her daughter had outgrown. I wore it happily, thrilled to have a cool item of clothing for once. When I outgrew the skirt, my mother bought me a new one of my own, albeit one without a label. When my classmate saw it, she hooted. “Oh, that’s not my skirt, is it? Where did you get this one, Denise?” she sneered. “The poorhouse?” My classmates giggled, and I slunk away, my eyes locked on the ground. I stopped wearing the skirt.

After fifth grade ended, over the summer, I spent a month at day camp, where I found kids who liked me for who I was, not for the clothes I wore. Many of them came from wealthy families, and I spotted plenty of designer shoes, high fashion swimsuits and T-shirts that cost three figures. Unlike the kids at school, though, my fellow campers didn’t mind my no-name wardrobe. They simply accepted me as a friend. We spent our days splashing around in the pool, riding horses, and making bracelets. We had a fashion show and I was encouraged to participate. And I did. My weekends were filled with fun with my best friend in the neighborhood, who would have liked me even if I’d shown up at her house in a potato sack dress.

With the love and support of my friends, I started to remember something I’d forgotten: there was nothing wrong with me. Nothing at all. It wasn’t my fault that my classmates had targeted me. They were only one small, cruel group of people, and there was no reason to pay any attention to them at all.

It took a while for the message to sink in, though. When sixth grade started, my classmates resumed their bullying. For the first few months of school, I was desperately unhappy. The warm glow of friendship I had fostered over the summer was dimmed by the open hostility and insults I faced every day in class.

Finally, I begged my mother for a fashion shirt. I liked the garment for its design, but more than that, I thought that it would be an antidote for the bullying. I knew that my classmates were so shallow that they only looked at my wardrobe. I didn’t want to impress them or be friends with them. If I dressed just like them, though, maybe they’d run out of reasons to bother me.

The shirt did not appear for my eleventh birthday in November. Wishes do come true, though, even if they take time, and somehow, on Christmas morning, there was a very special green and white box waiting under the tree for me.

When I went back to school after the holiday recess, I proudly wore my new shirt. For once, nobody mocked me when I boarded the bus. Instead, they stared. The girls in my class were so upset that they actually held a meeting in the library to talk about it. I tried not to laugh as I saw them clustered around a table, whispering and looking furtively in my direction. One of them ran up to me, grabbed me by the shoulder, and yanked at my collar to look at the tag. Her breath caught, and I realized that she hadn’t expected the shirt to be authentic.

On the bus that afternoon, one of my classmates told me that she liked my outfit. I smiled and nodded. I’d finally met their approval... and yet, I knew that I didn’t even want it. What they thought, or didn’t think, about me was irrelevant. I was the exact same person they had tormented before the holidays. Moreover, I wasn’t wearing my shirt to impress them; I was wearing it because I liked it. The only label that mattered to me was my own — how I “labeled” myself. It was something they would never comprehend.

After that day, my classmates still bothered me, but I stopped listening. Their taunts weren’t worth even a moment of my time. Instead of getting upset, I was bored by their remarks.

In the spring, the denim skirt that my classmate had mocked made a reappearance. I wore it proudly to both the school dance festival and to my sixth-grade graduation ceremony.

There would be no diploma for positive thinking, no award for finally learning to ignore cruel words. There never would be. The one person I had to learn to impress was myself, and I’d done it.

~Denise Reich

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