The age of eleven was rough. I was small for my age and younger than my seventh grade classmates. After gym class, I hastily dressed my child-like body next to a girl whose body was actually making a child. When I caught her round, naked belly jumping with life, she smiled at me with a mix of trepidation and pride. I didn’t know what to think.
At eleven, I craved the company of groups of indifferent girls and boys. I was dismissive and even cruel to kids who were less popular, though they were kinder. School created such anxiety that I developed debilitating stomach aches.
I wore the same pair of tan chinos almost every school day, desperately inspired by the girls that draped the arms of the toughest boys. I didn’t want the boys. I wanted to be the girls with their arched eyebrows, dark lipstick and teased hair . They were feminine but diamond hard. Everyone was afraid of those girls. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of power.
For a long time I hated photographs of myself from that time frame. Eleven-year-old me was a hazard sign, a cautionary tale. In my wide eyes, straight hair, pale skin and hopeful smile I saw a cluelessness that made me cringe. I never wanted to be that powerless again.
Sleepovers were fraught with peril for me at eleven. I write about it in my short story Flat Earth featured in Night Train Journal. It’s not autobiographical exactly but let’s just say I know what it is to lose a card game in the middle of the night to pay a penalty decided for me by a group of junior high girls.
Now my youngest daughter is eleven. She has wide eyes, straight hair, pale skin and a hopeful smile. Last night we hosted a Halloween sleepover with her friends. We invited everyone in her Waldorf class, where kindness and empathy are part of the curriculum. There were no card games designed to end with a single loser, the last girl standing. I dyed my daughter’s hair blue and trailed half a block behind while she and her friends trick or treated. They made inside jokes, and laughed, and wished our neighbors Merry Christmas.
She’s sitting beside me now, finishing her homework. I watch for signs of bullying or being bullied and see none. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Parents don’t know all things, no matter how much they try to pay attention. I watch for signs of self-loathing, but instead see in her another kind of eleven-year-old cluelessness that I admire and hope she never loses.
It’s a cluelessness that can’t imagine wanting to be anyone other than herself. How hopeful she is. How capable and kind.
How powerful a girl can be.