99: Through Renee’s Eyes

99: Through Renee’s Eyes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

Through Renee’s Eyes

Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.

~Quoted in P.S. I Love You, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

At my Catholic school, which went from first through eighth grade, boys and girls sat together until the seventh grade. Then, just when they were starting to notice each other, they were separated: boys at one table, girls at another. Instead of eliminating any budding attractions, the separate tables seemed to heighten awareness of the opposite sex. No, there wasn’t any handholding or stolen kisses... instead, there were food fights and an excess of goofy pranks, mostly started by the boys to get the girls’ attention.

Unfortunately, the attention they got was frequently from the principal, and it was always negative. The short nun we referred to as “Mother” shouted at the upperclassmen daily. “Keep it down!” “Stop wasting food!” she’d yell. If that didn’t calm the wild beasts, the entire class would have to stay in the cafeteria until the lunch period ended.

That summer before seventh grade, my friend Cathy and I imagined how cool it would be to sit at an upper class table. We’d romanticized every thrown banana or cookie to be an offering equivalent to a rose bouquet. We even picked the boys we’d like to have teasing us: Gary and Rich, two members of the Cabana Club Swim Team. They were super tan and super cute!

On the first day of school, Cathy and I raced to the cafeteria. We wanted seats closest to the boys’ table. Just as we entered the cafeteria doors, Mother called us to her. Exchanging alarmed glances, we thought we must be in trouble. The only question was: for what?

A rare smile formed on her lips, shocking us even more. She motioned to a corner where no one would hear our conversation. “You girls are such nice friends. I picked you to sit with the new girl, Renee. Make her feel welcome.”

“Renee? Sure, we’ll save her a seat,” I agreed more anxious than ever to get to the good table.

Mother shook her head indicating that we didn’t understand something. That negative nod allowed a flood of dread to enter my thoughts. Renee was on crutches and her legs were encased in metal braces. It struck me that she’d have a hard time making it to the far side of the cafeteria where our beloved table beckoned us.

“No, you girls will join Renee at this end of the third grade table since it’s closest to the door. She can’t walk any farther.”

Cathy and I exchanged pained glances. This was a disaster!

We were afraid to say no and more afraid to ask how long we had to do this. Our silence pleased Mother and she urged us to be friendly and get Renee whatever she needed from the snack bar.

No longer hurrying, we meandered to the third grade table and introduced ourselves to Renee. Her blue eyes lit up as we sat on either side of her. This only made me feel bad about still longing to sit at the cool table.

It was funny the way she opened up to us. In class, she hadn’t said a word, but here she had a list of questions about our school, our teacher, and especially about us. I was surprised by how quickly that lunch period passed.

We walked her back to our classroom, keeping pace with her instead of skipping or trotting as we liked to do. When she went into the room, Cathy and I dashed to the bathroom. Paula and Barbara were laughing as they faced the mirror, combing their hair. Barbara seemed to be bragging about something Rich told her. When they noticed us, Barbara made a mean comment about our new babysitting service.

We continued sitting at the third grade table with Renee and noticed her transformation. She giggled and laughed as much as we did and even seemed more outgoing in class. She had worn her dark blond hair pulled away from the front and clipped with a big plastic barrette. What seemed wrong was the pastel-colored plastic barrette. It looked like something a little girl might wear. In contrast, Cathy wore a plaid or checkered headband to hold back her thick black hair and I wore a satin ribbon to separate my bangs from the rest of my light brown hair. Though we’d never mentioned the difference between our hair accessories and hers, Renee suddenly lost the barrettes and sported satin ribbons like mine. We complimented her profusely on her new look.

Daily drama continued to erupt from the upper level tables, but our reactions had changed. Cathy and I were no longer yearning to have grapes thrown at our heads. Instead we found ourselves fascinated by Renee’s extensive travels and broad interests. We began to realize that she was opening doors to us that we would never have known existed had we become a part of the lunchtime shenanigans.

My eyes were also opened to the social plight of handicapped people. When Renee shared that she often felt invisible or ignored, I was ashamed because I would never have thought to forfeit my upperclassman seating status if Mother hadn’t made it an edict.

Right before Christmas vacation, Renee gave each of us an embroidered silk coin purse. They looked like they were from San Francisco’s Chinatown and we loved them. We were embarrassed for not bringing her a gift but she insisted our friendship was the best gift of all.

I admit that Cathy and I had at first hoped to be relieved of our daily duty by other classmates taking turns at the third grade table. By December, however, we were more than content with our seating arrangement. Talking with Renee made us feel grown up and in touch with a world outside our neighborhood.

Rich and Gary noticed us too, probably more than if we’d been sitting across from them every day. At any rate, they never teased us the way they teased the other girls. They acknowledged us with a newfound respect that I think we earned by seeing things through Renee’s eyes.

~Marsha Porter

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