84: Finding Cool

84: Finding Cool

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

Finding Cool

The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.

~Japanese Proverb

In junior high, being cool is everything. I was not cool. Luckily, I had Sarah. Although she wasn’t a member of the popular crowd, she was definitely one of the coolest people I’d ever met. She was a slender and graceful blonde who seemed to float everywhere she went.

I admired a lot about Sarah — her thin frame, her hair, her confidence — because I felt I had a lot less to offer. Not only was I not as skinny and not at all blond, I had the grace of a rhino — or maybe, I should say, a kangaroo. I had a bouncy, on-my-toes kind of walk that was embarrassing. I looked as if I were eternally about to plunge into something. My mom used to say that every time I walked down the hall to or from my bedroom, it sounded like a herd of elephants thundering into the house. Because my walk so desperately needed fixing, Sarah took me on as a project.

In the mornings before our first period classes began, Sarah and I would roam the halls of our school. Sauntering around the building wasn’t just to pass the time, it was my homework: to practice being graceful. I had to come down off my toes, begin each step with my heels, and try leaning backward instead of perpetually forward. I had to relax. It seemed impossible.

“You’re on your toes again,” Sarah would warn each time I slipped back into my natural walk. I’d focus my efforts and try again. We’d pass through the halls, occasionally stopping to talk to friends. While Sarah was relaxed and natural, I was often lost in concentration, fervently practicing walking like a girl instead of a marsupial.

When we weren’t practicing my walk, we were usually hanging out at a nearby mall or at Sarah’s house. I loved to sit on her bed and admire all her beauty products, usually strewn around her room as if they just spontaneously sprouted there. Sarah’s room was a glorious garden of cheap, drugstore make-up, the kind affordable to girls like us, too young to have real jobs. Her nail polish collection was especially impressive, featuring a rainbow of bright colors. Whether she was having a hot pink kind of day or a glitter-filled burgundy evening, she owned a bottle to fit her mood.

At first things were fine. She was helping me improve myself, edging me closer to cool, I thought. Gradually, though, the imbalance in our relationship grew. She seemed to be treating me with contempt more often, and telling me what to do even when it had nothing to do with self-improvement. I didn’t like her bossiness, but I didn’t have much confidence, either, so I just shrugged my shoulders and did what she wanted. After all, she was the cool one, right?

I never expected to confront her, but one day in art class our relationship reached a turning point. We were doing large-scale painting projects that required the class to move into the halls to get enough space to work. I was in the middle of my project, surrounded by supplies and covered in paint, when Sarah called to me from across the hall, where she was sitting near another group of students.

“Go get me more red paint,” she ordered.

I crinkled my eyebrows, annoyed. Couldn’t she see I was busy? Should I put down my stuff, get up, and go back into the classroom to get her the paint anyway?

“C’mon,” she prodded. “Get me the paint.”

“Can’t you get it yourself?” I asked quietly.

“No, you get it.”

I paused, then answered. “I’m in the middle of this,” I protested weakly. “I can’t.”

“If you don’t get for me, I’m not going to be friends with you anymore,” Sarah announced.

I looked at her, stunned. Was she serious? She’d dump our whole friendship just because I wouldn’t fetch her the paint? Maybe my instincts were right; this wasn’t much of a friendship after all.

My heart was racing. Other students were looking at us, judging, waiting. Sarah just sat there, appearing as confident as ever. I hated confrontations, but I couldn’t bring myself to be her slave anymore. I gave her an answer that I doubt she expected to hear.

“I’m not getting it.” I turned back to my project.

Sarah was smug. “You’ll come running back to me,” she said with self-assurance. “They always do,” she added, perhaps for the benefit of the crowd that surrounded her.

She didn’t realize it, but saying those final words sealed our fate. Any doubt I’d had about taking a stand was chipped away like a single coat of cheap nail polish. I was never going back. I may not have had much in the confidence department, but I had more than enough stubbornness to stick to my decision.

Sarah and I never spoke again.

It was strange going through life without Sarah after I’d gotten so used to our relationship, but I didn’t regret my decision. Standing up for myself was a skill that would take me many years to master; I struggled with it in high school and again in college. I had been raised to be helpful, polite, and pleasing, and most of all, to never talk back to the people in charge. It made me an obedient daughter, but it also made me a social doormat.

Realizing that sometimes I had to put myself first, even if it was going to make other people unhappy, was a long learning process — but that day in art class, I took my first big step. Standing up for myself was something to be proud of, and even better, it was the cool thing to do.

~Alaina Smith

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