I never thought I’d get the chance to say it, but it’s true. I’m the most popular girl in my class. This is the first time I’ve ever had that experience, and you better believe that I’m loving it.
I wish that I could have known 20 years ago, when I was in 3rd grade, that one day I’d get a chance to be the girl that everyone paid attention to. At age 8, I was more teacher’s pet than social butterfly. I was exceptionally tall for my age and had straight brown hair down to my waist. I wore headbands with little teeth that dug into my scalp, and I had to put on thick pink-framed glasses during class so I could see the blackboard. (We had actual blackboards, not white boards like the classrooms do now.) In one class photo — the kind with the futuristic “lasers” in the background — the huge puffed sleeves of my dress are uneven in height. (FYI, those are tack-marks on the photo, not pockmarks on my face.) In another photo, my bangs are slicked into what appears to be a cowlick combined with a comb-over, which is just about as attractive as it sounds.
I wasn’t UNpopular in 3rd grade, but I certainly lacked the emotional maturity and charisma of the popular girls. I remember watching Julia, one of the in-crowd, do a jazz dance move in front of some other girls on the blacktop at recess. Quietly looking on, I wished that I could have the confidence and sheer coordination to pull that off myself.
I actually learned the move in college, when I finally took jazz dance. At the time, I wondered how it would be to meet Julia again, now that I was cool, too. I’ve decided that maybe I’m just a reallllly late bloomer, finally developing the confidence at age 28 that some girls had at age 8.
I’m happy to be getting the in-crowd experience I never had, even if it involves my leading a pack of 8-year-olds around the track at recess, telling scary stories on demand. I quickly discovered that agreeing to tell one scary story to 8-year-olds is like agreeing to play one game of tag with 5-year-olds: You will never have another moment of peace. Giving in to the kids’ begging, I told the classic “High Beams,” “The Green Ribbon,” and a story about a boy in a rainstorm who turns out to be a ghost. My audience interrupted every few seconds as I was telling the stories, to ask questions and make comments, and as soon as I’d finished, they demanded more.
To buy myself time to think of another story, I asked one of the boys, Ramon, to tell “La Llorona,” a Mexican folktale that two of the Latina girls swore was actually true. Ramon said, “Once there was a lady who drowned her kids. And if you go by the water, then she’ll get you. The end.” His classmates were quiet for a moment, then realized how not scared they were, and started pestering me for stories again. Ahh, Ramon, my little protege, it’s all in the delivery.
The yard duties blew their whistles, which have replaced the clanging school bells that used to call me in from recess, and we returned to class. We sat at our desks and each received a slate and piece of chalk for math (some classes use white boards, but I prefer these old-school tools). A few of the girls, instead of practicing place value as they were supposed to, drew scenes from the ghost stories I’d just told and wrote, “Your [sic] the best!” They whispered to me, “Are you going to be here tomorrow?” When I nodded, they said, “Yesss!” and punched their fists into the air. I raised my eyebrows at their reaction, wondering if I could get these kids to write me letters of recommendation, or endorse me on LinkedIn.
The celebrity treatment continued at lunchtime. As soon as I approached the picnic tables, five or so groups of kids started yelling my name. “Melia, we saved you a seat!” “Melia, come eat with us!” It was like walking the red carpet at a movie premiere. I had to say, “Sorry, I promised these girls that I’d eat with them. But I’ll eat with you tomorrow!”
As much as I’d like to take credit for my popularity, I expect that it’s due to my uniquely informal role at the school. I think that any big person at school with the luxury of just hanging out with kids, without needing to teach or discipline, would be just as well received. But that won’t stop me from soaking up the attention anyway.
I will say that it’s gratifying to realize how much confidence I have been able to build in 20 years, to see myself chatting easily with the most popular girls in school and having them follow my lead. Though I’m usually a perfectionist fearful of improvising, I was able to regale a full audience with stories, roughly told. I think that if I met Julia in a dance class today — or in a school dance-off, even better — I could do that jazz move just as well as she could.
If only I could whisper to my 8-year-old self standing on the sidelines, wearing puffed sleeves and pink glasses, I’d tell her, “Don’t worry, sweetie. One day, a long time from now, you’ll know how it feels to be one of the cool kids.”