“Chezki said the funniest thing when I was doing homework last night. Hey Michal, are you there?” asked Rochel Leah, as they ate lunch in Bais Bracha’s lunchroom.

“Huh, oh yeah, what were you saying?” asked Michal as she removed her gaze from the cool group, a.k.a. Nina, Debby, and Lisa, who were sitting at the end of their table.

“Oh, never mind,” her friend answered as she picked up her cheese sandwich. “It looks like you’re in another world.”

Rochel Leah was no fool. Michal continued to stare at the clique as they took sips from their Diet Cokes and ate forkfuls of salad. Michal counted the five seats that separated her from the in-crowd. Nina’s tinkly laugh, Lisa’s orange headband, and Debby’s golden chain pulled Michal like a magnet.

She shifted her gaze to Rochel Leah who sported a sour pout. “Forgive me, I was preoccupied.” She looked at her watch and said, “Hey, we better get going, Yahadus starts in ten minutes.” Rochel Leah’s face brightened with the mention of her favorite class.

When she came home, Michal threw down her book bag. Eighth grade was challenging enough, but being stuck with Rochel Leah was boooring. She was her second cousin, and a sweet girl with a brilliant brain, but she was so plain and predictable, kind of like last year’s pair of shoes.

As Michal tackled algebra, she racked her brains for a plan to break into the clique, which seemed as closed as a vault. She was having as much success thinking of an idea as she was with her math examples. In the middle of it all, her mother came into the room and asked, “Can you go grocery shopping? We’re totally out of milk and eggs.”

“Yeah, sure,” answered Michal, welcoming the break from homework.

As she walked toward the supermarket, she passed Accessories Plus. On impulse, she slid into the shop and browsed through the newest stock. A contemporary jewelry ensemble caught her eye. Wow, she thought, if I had this set, the cool group would totally think I’m cool and be interested in me. When Michal flipped up the tab to see the price she nearly nixed the idea. Her Chanukah gelt was long gone, and only a small amount remained from her birthday money. Then she had a brainstorm. She would ask Rochel Leah if she could borrow some money.

But the next day, Michal got cold feet and couldn’t bring herself to ask for the loan.

During Yahadus class Michal nearly fell asleep, but perked up when Mrs. Feld asked everybody to listen to a special announcement.

“Girls, we have six weeks until Pesach and our yearly project is coming up. You’ll be divided into groups, which will be chosen by lots. You’ll each be assigned a topic to present in an artistic way. You’ll have three weeks to complete the project. I’m looking forward to seeing your creations,” Mrs. Feld said, and smiled as the girls clamored to discover who they’d be working with.

As they walked home from school, Michal asked Rochel Leah, “Who’s in your group?”

“Let’s see… Nina, Lisa, and Sandy.”

Michal’s eyes lit up like glistening diamonds as she concocted a plan. It was surprisingly simple, as long as Rochel Leah agreed.

“Can you do me a favor?” she asked. “How about switching places with me. I’m with Ahuva, Daphne, and Malkie.”

“Hmm, I’m not sure it’s right,” began Rochel Leah while Michal silently davened for her to make an exception to her principles. “But on the other hand, your group sounds much more my speed, so I’ll do it.”

Michal had to hold herself back from hugging her friend. She simply said, “You’re a real pal, thanks.”

A week later Michal was in Nina’s house. With the music playing, the soft lighting, and pink decor, Nina’s bedroom was just as Michal imagined. After setting out Coke and chips, Nina said, “I don’t even know what the topic is! Anybody want to clue me in?”

Michal was too shy to talk, but Sandy said, “Our theme is geulah — redemption. We have to produce a stunning project based on this idea. Any thoughts?”

Lisa said, “The only stunning thing I know about is the sale at Fox tomorrow. Are you going, Nina?” she asked.

“Are you for real? I totally don’t have any normal tops. Of course I’m going!”

Sandy and Michal sat like statues while the other two girls discussed what they planned to purchase.

The next meeting ran along the same lines, with Zara being the topic of discussion. When they left Nina’s, Sandy asked Michal nervously, “What’s going to be with our project?”

“I’m also worried. I’ll consult with Rochel Leah for ideas.”

“Geulah,” repeated Rochel Leah aloud, when Michal presented her dilemma. “That’s easy. Buy a big white poster board, and in the middle of it paste on an enlarged color copy of Kedem Geula grape juice. Have two smaller empty wine bottles extend from each side to represent the four different exiles. Then decorate the bottles accordingly.”

Before the next meeting, Lisa called. “Sorry, we didn’t realize Nina and I have dance lessons today. Meet without us, okay?”

The next Sunday, Michal told Sandy about Rochel Leah’s idea. “Love it! Let’s go to the arts and crafts store to buy supplies.” After three hours of intense work, Michal wiped off the glitter from her arm and said, “I think we should call it a day!”

As Sandy carefully rolled up the hard work and secured it with a rubber band, she said, “Wait until Nina and Lisa see it!”

Michal wanted to update Rochel Leah on her project, but her friend wasn’t in school for the next couple of days. She heard some girls mention that she had the flu. Michal meant to call but got distracted and never got around to it.

At the next meeting, Sandy brought the poster board to Nina’s house and dramatically rolled it out. Michal was ready to brush off the many compliments, and was shocked when Lisa exclaimed, “What are we — in second grade? I mean, that scribbling is, like, so babyish!”

“Yeah,” agreed Nina, “it needs, like, desperate jazzing up. Something with professional graphics.”

Michal and Sandy looked at each other. Their hours of buying, coloring, and applying finishing touches disappeared in an instant. Sandy simply said, “Michal and I spent loads of time on this. If you want to make changes, be my guest.”

Michal blushed as her friend spoke so bluntly, yet she was grateful.

“Sorry, there’s just no way we can present this. The graphics lady I know lives near Michal, so she can bring it to her with my instructions,” said Lisa.

“That will cost money,” said Michal with clenched teeth.

“Don’t worry, we’ll all pay,” said Lisa nonchalantly. “Whoa, it’s getting late. I’ll give you the page of instructions tomorrow at school. Bye.”

Michal stood frozen. Rochel Leah would never be so bossy, rude, and unfriendly, she thought.

On Sunday, when Michal left the graphics office, she kicked some pebbles and dug her hands into her pockets. She didn’t understand why Nina and Lisa had sent her to such a pricey graphic artist! Rochel Leah would never do that. Michal stopped in her tracks. She never had called Rochel Leah, and she hadn’t been in school for weeks! She made a mental note to contact her and hopefully make a visit the next day.

The following day, Michal was mega-surprised to see Rochel Leah. “Welcome back, how are you feeling?” she said with a twinge of guilt.

Before she could answer, Sandy was at their side. “I’m so happy you’re better!”

“Baruch Hashem! Sandy, thanks so much for the sweet get-well card, and for those novels. It definitely made my recovery less dreary!”

Michal wished she could blend in with the brick wall. As she stood there, she replayed the numerous times Rochel Leah had helped her with homework, given her good advice, and shared her snack. She couldn’t fathom why she had dreamed of leaving her for that group.

At recess, Rochel Leah rehashed Chezki’s tantrums, and how she worked on her project from her bed. Michal regaled her with the ups and downs of her project.

As they walked back to class, Michal realized that it probably wasn’t a coincidence that her project centered around the theme of redemption. She had learned a lot about people and friendships. Freeing herself from her illusions was like experiencing her own personal geulah.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 751)