The Pest

The Pest

From Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul

The Pest

Ellen was a pest. When we met in kindergarten, she hogged all the clay. When we were seniors in high school, she made fun of the art college I was planning to attend. During the years in between, we each grew up in our own way. She was loud and made sarcastic remarks. I remained skinny and shy, with a reputation as the artist of the class. Every other year or so, there she was in my class again— loud, insulting and so unpopular. I wasn’t popular either, but I always had a little circle of friends to keep me safe.

So our two paths muddled along throughout school, occasionally crossing for short, always irritating, episodes. When I discovered her in my seventh-grade gym class, I knew I was in for a really bad year. I was always the lightweight in gym class, the girl who was trampled on during a hockey game or beaned with a basketball. Ellen, on the other hand, was the one who did the trampling. Clearly, we were on a collision course this time.

I managed to survive the field hockey unit by employing my dodging skills. I wasn’t much at scoring goals, but boy, could I dodge! I was relieved when our teacher announced that the next unit of study would be gymnastics. That was one of the few things I was fairly good at, and it was definitely not a contact sport.

On the first day of gymnastics, we chose partners to work with on a floor routine. My best friend, Chris, and I were of similar size and strength, and we made a good team. Together we practiced balancing over each other on the mats, doing Chinese sit-ups and spotting each other for handstands. Ellen never really had a partner. She would be paired off with whoever was left over that day. She was so clumsy and rough that her unfortunate partners often wound up with bumps and bruises. Luckily, Chris and I never missed a class, and so were spared the terror of working with her.

After three weeks of practicing, it was time to perform for the teacher and receive our grades. When our turn came, Chris and I went through the routine. We were well rehearsed and even received a smattering of applause along with our A’s. As we returned to our friends along the mats, we laughed with relief that it was over.

When it was time for Ellen to stand up, we all wondered who her partner would be. She’d never practiced the routine with anyone more than once. To my horror, I heard her give the teacher my name. I had never been paired with her at all, so why me?

I stood up, outraged, with my friends murmuring their disapproval. The popular girls were giggling among themselves. This was a good chance for them to have their revenge on me for being a better artist than they were. I wondered if I should challenge Ellen’s right to pick me, since we’d never practiced together. But when I looked into her eyes, I could see that she was thinking the same thing and praying that I wouldn’t humiliate her.

I walked to the center of the mat, anxious to get the whole thing over with. I held her ankles for the sit-ups and got a foot in my chin when she did her handstand. But we got through the mat work all right, and the fact that she was fifty pounds heavier than I was didn’t seem to matter much. When it came time for the horizontal balance though, I felt a shiver of fear and rebellion. How could I ever support her weight over me with just my outstretched arms and legs?

As I flopped onto my back on the mat, I heard the other girls giggling and whispering together. If Ellen collapsed onto me, it would be the end of my self-respect as well as the end of all my internal organs. I rested my feet against her hipbones and reached out to grasp her hands. As her fingers interlaced with mine, I was struck by how small they were. They were short and soft, like a baby’s. My hands were always rough from scrubbing paint and ink off them. Slowly straightening my legs, I shifted her weight over me as she raised her own legs out behind her. Her fingers clutched mine, and I was looking directly into her frightened eyes.

Is she worried about crushing me to lifeless jelly, I wondered, or is she just worried about her grade?

We held our position for the required length of time, our eyes locked in mutual fear, our fingers grasping until they turned white at the tips. I was surprised to feel that, as long as we held that delicate balance, I was able to support her weight fairly easily. When I slowly lowered her back to her feet, there was no sound of applause. But I could hear a general murmur of amazement that we had actually done it. The teacher said “Good!” in a voice that betrayed her own surprise. Ellen glanced at me, and I could see that the fear in her eyes had turned to relief and pride. Did I do that? I wondered, returning to my place.

“How did you do it?” my friend Barbara whispered as I sat down.

Why did you do it?” Chris asked, as some of the other girls continued to snicker.

“I don’t know,” I replied, and it was the truth. But it was beginning to dawn on me that when someone reaches out with small hands and frightened eyes, the only possible answer is “Yes, I’m here.” That day with Ellen the Pest seemed to help me grasp other hands when they needed me. I learned that, together, people of all sorts can find that safe little point of balance, if they just have faith in each other.

Several weeks after Ellen earned her first B in gymnastics, she was absent from school for a few days. I heard that her father had just died after a long illness. Although I wasn’t there to see it, I knew how tightly her fingers had interlocked with her mother’s on the day he was buried.

Judy Fuerst

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