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Ten Going on Twenty




Excerpted from
My Girl; Adventures with a Teen in Training
By Karen Stabiner

Summer is made for self-deception. Time is less insistent without school - is today Tuesday or Wednesday? - and there is more of it, so we get cocky. Sarah's biggest responsibility for the past twelve weeks had been to wear enough sunscreen and to remember to carry a water bottle. We watched old movies at odd times, and occasionally we broke media discipline altogether and ate dinner while we watched.

Now it was over. In two hours we had to show up at school for a traditional open house, to say hello to the teachers and see if last year's locker occupant left behind anything that grew. Tomorrow Sarah would begin sixth grade, her last year at her elementary school. In preparation, she had been in the shower for so long that the third person in the rotation could forget about hot water, singing so loudly that I heard her two rooms away: "Slap that bass, bada bada bada, slap that bass, slap away your trouble, learn to zoom, zoom, zoom - slap that bass."

The fifth and sixth graders occupied the prestigious second floor, and all the kids knew to stick to the staircase closest to their classrooms. We followed Sarah as she headed up the sixth-grade stairs for the first time. Standing at the top, guarding the entrance to nirvana, were two girls Sarah has known since they were the smallest kids on the playground.

Over the summer they had acquired blond highlights, hairstyles that required not just a blow-dryer but the dexterous use of a round brush, and painted fingernails and toenails, the latter visible because they wore strappy platform sandals. Their tank tops were barely longer than a good sport bra, and they wore low-rise capri pants on their incipient hips.

They were eleven. One of them tilted her pelvis like a runway model and smiled a smile she may have seen in a magazine but had yet to grow into.

I thought about fleeing the country. I thought about calling their mothers to ask what the hell they were doing, allowing their little girls to look like that. Not that Sarah was spared appraising comments. Even with her limbs covered and her nails plain, people seemed to think that girls were put on this earth to be the object of public scrutiny. She did a decent impersonation of one of her admirers: "What big eyes," she cooed, rolling them toward the heavens. "What long eyelashes. What good posture." All true. Large slate gray eyes, ridiculous lashes, and the straight back of someone who would like to be taller soon. A broad forehead, and a mouth whose natural inclination is happiness, even in repose - full at the center, naturally tipped up at the corners. It is the same smile my mother wore in the photograph from my dad's college formal.

Sarah is slim and, for the moment, shorter than her friends. She has long hair that has not yet decided whether to be brown or very dark blond. My opinion of her appearance is properly suspect. When Sarah was a baby, she once threw up on me as our transcontinental flight took off, and all I could think, after I changed into a clean shirt, was how lovely she looked sleeping. But other people like the way she looks, too, so we have had to develop a point of view.

The man who sells bread at our farmers' market told Sarah recently that she could have a pretzel for free because she was so beautiful. The implication was that he would not have offered a pretzel to a plain girl. I had to wonder what he would have given Sarah if she had been dressed like the sixth-grade gatekeepers - an entire coffee cake?

I could not stop myself. "I'm having a pin made for her shirt," I told him. "It reads, 'I have a brain, too.'"

He handed her the pretzel, abashed. "Your mom is right," he said to her. "By the time you're my age nobody's gonna care how you look." He made a goofy face. She smiled.

A week later we bumped into a couple we know, and I got my first glimpse of their fabled sixteen-year-old daughter, who had Snow White's striking coloring without any of the chirpy facial expressions. I forgot myself and blurted out, "You are so beautiful," although I did stop short of offering her a free pretzel. Her mother, being six years ahead of me, had long since left righteous indignation behind.

"Inside," she said, with a conspirator's smile, "as well as out."

Oh, how I wished I had said that to the bread man. How I admired that mom, who saw a way to turn surface flattery into a lasting compliment. A girl who got a great roll of the genetic dice might as well enjoy it, but we live in a culture where women age faster than men do, and beauty too often gets mixed up with youth.



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