95: The Decision

95: The Decision

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

The Decision

Don’t try to be different. Just be good. To be good is different enough.

~Arthur Freed

My cousin had the best birthday parties. I attended them every year, marveling at the pretty decorations and brightly wrapped gifts, and always the beautiful cake. Because my cousin’s birthday falls in early December, it was like a double whammy of festivity in our extended family, what with Christmas being just a few short weeks away. But the year I was in seventh grade, my cousin’s party and our family’s upcoming Christmas gathering were the last things on my mind. I was struggling to find myself, though of course I didn’t know it. I just knew I wanted to grow up, and while I wouldn’t have admitted it, I didn’t have the first clue how.

For some reason that year, my mom insisted on taking my two younger sisters and me for a picture with Santa Claus at our local mall on the same afternoon as my cousin’s party later that night. Christmas in those days wasn’t quite so full of dazzle as it is now, and at our house it was much more of a religious tradition than a commercial one, so this picture-at-the-mall thing was different for us. Plus I was obviously way too old for it. In first or second grade, sure—but seventh? I wasn’t a kid anymore, after all, and I didn’t see why this silly picture was even part of our plan. My sisters, who were ten and eight years old, were happy about it, but I was a total Grinch about it.

I made sure my mom knew my feelings too, but she told me that taking the picture was something my youngest sister had especially requested. My baby sister could always tug at my heartstrings, and after much muttering and eye-rolling, I resigned myself to the picture, thinking, well, if it makes her happy... Santa, here we come.

My mom picked us up from school that day and we drove to the mall in the half-light of late afternoon. The actual picture taking with the man himself was pretty uneventful, thankfully. No huge embarrassments, like seeing one of my friends there, or—gulp—the boy I liked. No, the great embarrassment came afterward, at my cousin’s party.

By the time we got home from the mall, Polaroid in hand, it was almost entirely dark out, and there were Christmas lights coming on here and there around our neighborhood. We hadn’t yet put up our Christmas tree, but the excitement of the holidays bubbled in the air all around us. We entered our house to the smell of my dad’s chili, and my sisters and I rushed to change out of our parochial school uniforms. After dinner, we piled in our car and left, watching the sparkling Christmas lights go by as my dad drove. When we arrived at my aunt and uncle’s, it was truly cold outside, and our breath steamed out in puffs of white as we trudged to their front door.

The party was in full swing as we went in, even more crowded than usual because my aunt had invited relatives from my uncle’s side of the family as well as some of my cousin’s friends. I was older than all of them, and as such, I had a certain image to uphold. Seventh grade was no small deal, and I wanted to be sure they all knew it. So that was why I freaked when I discovered that my mom had brought... the picture. What’s more, she was telling everyone about it, to my extreme mortification.

Before she could do further damage, I nudged her—let’s go back to the bedroom—and she followed me down the hall. “Mom,” I said, “please! I don’t want anyone seeing that picture. It’s embarrassing, okay? Please stop talking about it!”

She gave me that all-innocent look mothers have down to perfection. “Why?” she asked. “It’s so cute, and it means so much to your sister. I thought you’d want to show it around.”

Um, no.

Here I was, a big-cheese seventh grader, and I’d taken a picture with Santa Claus! Heck, I’d even smiled!

When my mom saw I wasn’t budging, she sighed, giving me that all-disappointed look, another perfected expression. “Well, whatever,” she told me. “We don’t have to show it if you don’t want to, but I brought it just in case. I’ll let you make the decision.”

I’m sure my mom didn’t realize it then, but entrusting me with that decision was probably one of her best calls. I didn’t think so at the time, though. No, I dithered and debated all through the blowing out of candles; I simmered and stewed during the unwrapping of gifts.

My sisters, on the other hand, were little paragons of bliss. Content smiles on their cherub faces. Looks of awe in their wide eyes. My youngest sister had curled up in my grandmother’s lap, her blond head nestled against Gram’s shoulder, my middle sister was being a complete Chatty Cathy, keeping my grandfather entertained. A sudden pang of jealousy flew through me. My whole day had been ruined by that picture, while my sisters didn’t seem the least bit affected. Should I show the dumb thing or not? What if my cousin and her friends laughed at me? What if they no longer looked up to me, or worse, stopped thinking I was cool?

It was the glow in my baby sister’s eyes that finally did me in. She had sat on Santa’s lap that afternoon so happily, so full of expectation. She was so clearly proud of that picture, and now it all rested with me.

I can still recall the exact moment I decided to walk back to the bedroom, to find my mom’s purse, to put my hand inside and retrieve the picture from the pocket where she had so carefully tucked it. I recall striding back into the living room, feeling a flash of embarrassment burn across my skin. I recall too how the embarrassment amazingly subsided the more I showed the picture, the more I shrugged off everyone’s teasing and got over myself. Most of all, I recall the smile on my mom’s lips, the joy on both my sisters’ faces.

That picture is long gone, but there are many times I wish I still had it. For it symbolizes to me one of the first steps I took toward growing up. That night, I put someone else’s feelings over mine. That night, I started learning that sometimes you have to risk people’s laughter or criticism to make your stand, and that being a grown-up doesn’t mean “being cool” as much as it means “being me.” Maybe learning to make good decisions is the real meaning of being a big-cheese seventh grader, even though sometimes decisions are hard. And sometimes the right decision isn’t always the one you want to make or even the one that’s most comfortable, it’s just the one that’s right. Sometimes it’s just the one that’s kind.

~Theresa Sanders

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