Greatness| December 20, 2022
I wish I was like Mirelle, I told Hashem, that night. Why am I me and not her? But it was unrealistic, I knew. I’d never be like you
As told to Devorah Grant
IT’Sten years since I started high school, with an eagerness in my step and a new headband to match my new uniform. I was a quiet kid, leaving all my friends to go to a different school, one that was ostensibly right for me. It didn’t take long for me to doubt that.
From the beginning, school was a challenge. I struggled to keep myself organized. It was challenging having classes in different classrooms. I battled with my short attention span, and the long days of note-taking made my hands cramp. But more than anything, I struggled socially. This class was different from my elementary school class, who had been warm and welcoming. I’d never been short of friends before. But here, in my new school, there were different rules. I didn’t know that my headband was way out of fashion until the class bully told me openly — in front of a large crowd. I didn’t know how to talk, how to act, and certainly not how to dress.
It didn’t take long for me to feel like a total failure, branded by my inability to keep up with the ever-changing trends and evolving language of my classmates. Wherever I went, I faced rejection, as time after time I was left alone, at recess, on Sundays, on class trips.
But you were different.
I knew from the first time I met you that you were kind, Mirelle. You were three years above me, and oh-so-sophisticated, but you would take the time to say hi and chat in the hallway, complimenting me on something or another. Whereas my classmates spent their time knocking the stuffing out of me, you did something different. You cared.
You and I couldn’t be more different. You were always surrounded by a gaggle of friends, and I heard from the grapevine that you were super talented, too. This newfound knowledge only made me wonder each time you spoke to me — why did you do it? What did you see in me? Maybe you saw the pain of a lonely girl. Or maybe you were just this way to everyone. Whatever it was, it was a beacon of light in a never-ending period of darkness.
The months rolled on and my misery deepened. I put on a brave face for my parents and teachers, but inside, something inside me was shattering into a million pieces. I went from being a sweet, shy kid to an anxious wreck who would lie awake at night worrying about what social challenges awaited me the next day. Vacations were spent brooding over going back to school. The day before I went back, my stomach was full of butterflies. I took far too many sick days, but no one even noticed.
I got used to being invisible in school. I donned a stoic mask of apathy towards my classmates, who, instead of bothering me, just ignored me. In a way, that felt worse. In hindsight I realize how depressed I was, and how much I was struggling. At the time, though, all I could do was go numb. Still, you were there, hanging around the halls with a ready smile and confident hello. You saw me when no one else did and a part of me dreamed of knowing you better, of sharing my struggles — of being friends.
The annual production was fast approaching, and tryouts were about to begin. There was a current of energy running through the school, and I got swept up in it too, eager to take part in the famed yearly production. My hopes were quickly dashed when, after my nervous audition for dance and choir, I was given a role in the play. Two lines, one scene; I was mortified. While the rest of the school was caught up in a frenzied rush to the last hour, I was left with very little to do. On the rare occasion when my scene was rehearsed, I was dismissed quickly. There were only so many times I could say the same thing over and over again.
I said my lines on the night of the show, and then settled into a quiet corner to watch the rest. You were in the dance and I watched you float across the stage with the widest of smiles on your face. You looked so happy, so free, so confident, it made me cry. I wish I was like Mirelle, I told Hashem, that night. Why am I me and not her? But it was unrealistic, I knew. I’d never be like you.
Somehow, I made it through the year. But September returned and with it, my return to the jail called school. Some days were better than others that year, with a few odd classmates making occasional overtures which were almost friendly. I hoped to make connections, but none of the relationships lasted long. Perhaps I was too scarred by rejection to really open up and share all I had to give. You were still there, in the distance, joking with your friends, laughing with the teachers. You grew your hair and cut it into a drastic bob for Zichron Menachem. On others, it would have looked weird. On you it just looked cool.
Showtime came around again and this time, it was your class, Mirelle, who was running the production. I heard that you were dance head and I practiced my steps in front of my bedroom mirror each night, until finally tryouts came.
I came into the room, and there you were, sitting back in a chair with an impossible ease. Next to you were Chassi and Chaya — more girls who I found intimidating at the best of times. Still, it was now or never. You turned on the music, and gave me the go-ahead, but I was distracted and missed the beat. Hot and flushed I looked at you, while Chassi and Chaya exchanged knowing glances. “Try again,” you told me, a kind smile and small nod. I blushed and did as I was told. This time, I got it right. I’d learned the steps perfectly, and felt myself move with a grace I didn’t know I had. I didn’t dare look at you for fear of seeing your faces, but I knew, as the music slowed, that I had done it.
“Wow!” You all said, looking at me in a way no one had in years. “You’re in! For sure!” A few more words and a huge smile from you, and I left, floating on air. I had made it.
That production changed everything, Mirelle. I’ve never been a fast learner, but you believed in me, showing me each step and cheering me on as I went. Rehearsals built my confidence in leaps and bounds as I found my place to shine. News got around my class and things started to change there, too. Suddenly I was seen, I was heard, I was valued. I was flying high.
A week before production, you came over to me. You told me you wanted to add a solo into the dance, would I do it? I don’t think I could even open my mouth to say anything, but you knew, from my face that I was in. It took hours and hours of work — yours and mine — but I did it, perfectly, the spotlight hot and glaring on my face.
School was still school after that, Mirelle. But I was different. You showed me that I had something to give, that I was worthy and worthwhile. Each time I felt my confidence take a dip, I drew on the reservoir of good feelings you helped me create, and somehow, it got me through. Slowly, things changed, people matured, and school started to get easier.
You left school not long after. I never got to thank you properly for what you did for me, and I wonder if you even knew. I myself have grown up a little and moved past school, but I still see you, in my mind’s eye, and how you helped me so much.
I see you around town now sometimes, Mirelle. I’ve heard, through the grapevine again, that things haven’t been easy for you recently, and with the little I know of you I can see your smile is strained and your expression sad. I wish I had the guts to come and say this all directly, but I don’t. Still, I want you to know, Mirelle, that every time I think of you, I put in a prayer that all the good you did for me should be repaid in a million and one ways.
Thank you for seeing my greatness, and teaching me to see greatness in those around me. May others always see yours.
With eternal gratitude,
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 941)
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