From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Understanding Jenny

If someone listens, or stretches out a hand, or whispers a kind word of encouragement, or attempts to understand a lonely person, extraordinary things will begin to happen.

Loretta Girzartis

I jumped into my mother’s car, threw my cross-country team bag into the backseat, slammed the car door and fought with my seat belt.

“I’m so sick of it!” I said and pulled my hair back into its frizzy ponytail.

“I can see that,” my mom answered, then turned on the blinker, looked over her shoulder and pulled out into the traffic. “I’m guessing this isn’t about your hair.”

“It’s Jenny, playing her mind games again. Training is less tiring than dealing with her and her feelings.”

“Which one is Jenny?” my mom asked.

“She’s been here about a month. She lives at the Timmers.”

“Oh, yes, Gloria told me they had a new foster kid. Said she’s been moved around, but she’s getting decent grades and joining school activities.”

“I just wish she hadn’t joined my activity.”

“Why’s that?” My mom was pretty good about listening to me vent.

“I mean, we’ve been training for weeks: stretching, running, pacing, lifting weights and making ourselves into a team. Then in strolls Jenny, the goddess of cross-country or something. A coach’s dream. She paces around the course with us, and suddenly she’s so far ahead that she makes the loop and is running back towards us like we’re standing in place. A smile on her face, her perfect hair swinging behind her.”

“So are you upset because your team has someone who can earn you some real points, or because she has a talent that she enjoys or because her hair stays so perfect?” My mom leaned over and pushed my damp-curled bangs out of my face.

“Mom, I’m not that shallow.”

“I know, honey. Sorry. Just trying to see the problem here.”

“Jenny’s the problem. She helps all of us run faster by upping the pace. She cheers us on. She trains harder, and so do we. We were voted cocaptains. Then, this week, she cops an attitude. I spent most of my time running after her.”

“No pun intended!”

“Mom! Please! This is serious,” I sighed and took a drink from my water bottle. “Our first meet is tomorrow. Jenny keeps saying she won’t run with the team. She has all sorts of reasons from leg cramps to a headache. I have to beg her. I have to tell her over and over that she can’t do that to the rest of the team. It goes on all day, between classes, at lunch, on the way to practice. She wears me out. What’s her deal?”

“She ends up running though, right?”

“Yeah, but we’re all tired of it. She’s so needy.”

Mom pulled into our driveway. Instead of rushing into the house to start dinner, she turned and looked at me.

“Cindy, you gave yourself the answer.”

Great, I’m pouring it all out, and Mom’s going to give me a pop quiz. “Make this easy, would you, Mom?”

“Well, Gloria told me a little about Jenny. She and her little brother have been together all this time in foster care. They’re really close. Her caseworker said that Jenny took good care of her little brother. Every time they would move, Jenny would say that as long as they were together, they had a family.”

My heart sank. “Please, don’t tell me something happened to her little brother.”

“No, he’s fine. His father, Jenny’s stepfather, earned custody of him. He came for him this week. He had gifts and hugs and big plans for their future.”

“Really? That’s good.”

“Yes, but he had nothing for Jenny. She wasn’t even a little part of his big plans.”

My chest felt tight. “Why?”

“Well, Jenny’s mom and stepfather weren’t together that long. Jenny and her brother have been in foster care for a while now. I guess he didn’t consider Jenny his.”

“What about her mom?”

“Her mom wants her drugs and alcohol more than she wants Jenny.”

“Poor Jenny, not to have a family.” I was close to tears. “Not to feel wanted or needed.”

My mother patted my knee. “That’s it, honey. You got it.”

And I did.

I didn’t see Jenny during school the next day. I started to think I had understood too late, that Jenny wasn’t going to show at all.

I was the last one to get on the team bus and was glad there were still a few empty rows. I could take up two seats, put on my headsets and get some down time before the meet.

Then I spotted Jenny. She was sitting in the back, alone.

I started down the narrow aisle, causing quite a disruption trying to maneuver myself and my oversized bag to the back. By the time I got to my seat, most of the team was watching my progress.

“Can I sit by you?” I asked Jenny. She shrugged her shoulders. I took it as a yes. “I didn’t see you today. I was afraid you weren’t going to make it.”

“I didn’t think anyone would notice if I made it or not.”

The girls around us groaned. Here she goes again.

I looked at Jenny. I saw past her attitude because I understood what she was really saying.

“We would’ve noticed if you weren’t here, Jenny. We want you running with us. The team needs you.”

Jenny seemed to fill up, to expand.

“Isn’t that right, team?” I called. “Let’s hear it for Jenny!”

There was silence. Please, I thought, for Jenny’s sake, give her what she needs.

Slowly and then with building momentum, they cheered for their teammate. As they did, the atmosphere changed. They began to care more about Jenny.

Jenny felt it. The defiance drained out of her shoulders. Her face relaxed. She smiled and blushed with pleasure.

We didn’t erase all the pain in Jenny’s life, but neither had we added to it.

She ran with us that day. She won the individual blue ribbon and lifted our team to third place. She never threatened not to run again, and she led us to our best season record.

Through our simple offering of friendship and her willingness to accept it, we gave Jenny something more important to her than blue ribbons. We gave her what she desired the most: to know she was wanted and needed.

Cynthia M. Hamond

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