Bellwether Vance

Hounds to the Left of me/Jokers to the Right

Bellwether Vance

Bellwether Vance
December 31
You'd like me. People like me.


Editor’s Pick
MARCH 4, 2011 9:22AM

The Teen's Speech

Rate: 72 Flag
On the last day of my sixth-grade year, I waited outside Mrs. Barber's busy classroom for my turn to say goodbye, to give her the book of Robert Frost poems I'd purchased with my allowance. Next year I'd begin Junior High, far from the protective gaze of my mother and her fellow teachers at the elementary school. Mrs. Barber's door was propped open and I looked fondly, one last time, at the decorated door -- a  tree with each student's picture pasted on an apple, above it in construction-paper letters, "Mrs. Barber's Class. The Apples of my Eye."

Two older boys stood in the hallway. They examined the pictures on the door and pointed out the pretty girls. Dawn Jones who looked like a young Farrah Fawcett, including cleavage. Karly Richardson who had a glorious mane that flowed down her back in a glossy chocolate waterfall. Melissa Brecker. Susan Plantz, Barbie Miller. With a frizzy home perm and a mouthful of teeth that were bolting for the barn, I knew I wasn't one of the pretty girls, but I kept hoping to hear my name, hoping one of them would look at my picture and see some well-hidden promise. Instead, one of the boys pointed at my picture and said, "Woof!"

That might have been the end of me. I might have drawn an "X" over each eye and laid down on the cold linoleum tiles if I hadn't already come up with a surefire plan for transformation. My braces were going on soon, and that would be just the beginning. Over the summer, I would study issues of Seventeen and follow every bit of advice. I would beg my mother for a salon perm, and wheedle the money for it from my grandmother. Every day I would slather myself with baby oil and iodine and lay out. I would stop trying to make "Christopher Columbus!" a catch phrase. 

It almost worked. The braces were instantly effective at corralling my teeth. Nannie sprang for the professional perm. Seventeen taught me how to pucker my lips and dab lip gloss at the center for maximum allure, and by the end of the summer my freckles had spread and joined to create something that, from a distance, looked a bit like a weak-tea-colored tan. Then, out of the b-b-b-b-b-blue, I began to stutter.

There is no human being more fragile, more wretched, than a thirteen-year-old girl. The wrong shade of stitching on your jeans can ruin your day.  The hair-flicking snub of a popular girl can ruin your month.  A minor social misstep can ruin your reputation. A "C" on an English test can ruin your academic future. Now add a stutter.

As a girl, and an unpretty one, I already felt insignificant, effectively silenced, and now even my own mouth was convinced I had nothing interesting to say. Whenever I wanted to speak, had an idea to express, a humorous comment, anxiety swelled before my lips could part, as I anticipated what was going to happen – my tongue would flop around like a beached fish, accompanied by idiotic repetitive consonants, as if the fish were drumming death throes with its tail: I'm d-d-d-d-d-d-dying! Mostly, I kept quiet. 

Doctors told my parents that because my stutter had developed so suddenly, and in adolescence, it would eventually go away, and over time it did. Today I very rarely stumble over a word or phrase. Friends I've met in adulthood would be surprised to know about my teenage stutter. They know me as confident and outgoing, a talker. I speak frequently about animal welfare and sheltering to community and government organizations. 

The ugly went away too. I felt pretty on prom night, on my wedding day, and have had innumerable pretty days since. If I were ever again compared to a dog I'd be a keen and tender-hearted mix of shepherds and spaniels, curly about the ears, with knowing eyes and a mouth that always (sometimes involuntarily) turns up at the corners. "Woof!" Yet sometimes I look in the mirror and see the girl I was – achingly unattractive, desperately wanting, a mute with so much to say. 

I saw myself years later in one of my son's classmates. Jenny was all elbows and knees. Her features were too large for her face, and when she smiled her neck dipped to her shoulder as if her exposed teeth weighed twenty pounds, but any adult could see the beauty in waiting. She was going to be a stunner, a Best in Show.

I was a chaperone for their fifth-grade field day, and I stood behind the class watching the relay racers come around the track. As she jostled for a view of the race, the boy standing next to her hissed, "Move over, Freak." Another boy snickered loudly. Jenny's whole body trembled with suppressed tears. 

I wanted to pull her aside and impart to her what I had learned since fifth grade – Don't give boys the power of assessment. If you present yourself as a blank slate, people will try to write on you. Looks matter, just not nearly as much as the confidence that comes with accomplishments  – but I didn't think she'd believe me. So I leaned toward the boys and said, "Y'all don't know this yet, but one day Jenny's going to be very pretty and if you two don't hush up right now, she'll want nothing to do with either of you." 

Jenny looked away, as if she hadn't heard a thing, and followed the teacher toward the next field day event. As she passed me I saw her broad smile, on a neck unbowed, and I knew I'd said just what she needed to hear.

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I was Jenny too . . . thankful for that now
Great post R
Choked me up, Bell. No wonder people like you.
Iodine and baby oil. So many of us did that and are living the consequences. What a GREAT story. How wonderful you could help Jenny! RRRR
I was always the funniest in my mind. Didn't share though.
Man, I needed a talk with you at thirteen. Why aren't there more grownups like you out there? This was awesomeness in a post; common sense, humor, compassion and honesty.
How well you wrote about what so many of us experienced....that adolescent reckoning as we settle into the bones of a person we don't yet know and fear will never be beautiful or even good enough. Excellent, Bell:)
I was jenny too.
This was wonderful Bellwether and I expect to see it on the cover.
Congrats right now..:)

rated with hugs
What a beautiful way to handle all of those who were listening, and to convey all the wisdom of your personal experience in a single succinct and palatable sentence. I loved this.
I loved the feel of this post Bell.
"There is no human being more fragile, more wretched, than a thirteen-year-old girl." With the possible exception of a zit-faced, clumsy, thirteen-year-old boy.
It's so funny as an adult to be able to see that in Jenny. In art school, we old fogies want to shake that silly young woman who is going with Mr. Trouble Tight Pants, and velcro her instead to Mr. Sketch Geek who watches her with moony eyes from the back table, and who she has no idea she'd still be married to 46 years yon, and that he'd still be making her laugh. Ah, youth. I wonder who was watching you when you were watching the stupid boys pointing at the pictures of the girls who peaked too soon. Mrs. Barber maybe. I bet she treasured that copy of Robt. Frost poems ;-)
Thank goodness i went to all girls school from 7th grade...and even so, I still bore the unkind remarks of stupid boys. Love this post.
This is so beautiful. You were her angel that day. We all need one once in a while and you arrived at just the right time. -R-
I was a middle school director for many years and in private and public schools and what you say, ms v, is altogether so r.
You go, Bellwether. I've never understand the equation of dog with ugly, as the most imperfect dog (if such a thing exists) is infinitely cuter than any teenage boy. Or girl. Or entire human race, for that matter.
This brought tears to my eyes and gave me chills. You are such a good writer.
I knew it... another congrats!!!
Bell, you really knew just what to say, and to whom. Perfect.
"As she passed me I saw her broad smile, on a neck unbowed, and I knew I'd said just what she needed to hear."

You knew how to reach your audience effectively - and that made all the difference for Jenny, I'm sure. Very beautiful and poignant, Bellwether. Great title.
Such a wonderful post. You captured 7th grade in all of its awfulness. I was Jenny too, except instead of angles and skinniness, I was enveloped in puppy fat. Oh, and I had the whole frizzy hair thing going. Shudder...
Bellwether, this is so beautiful, and it hits me right where it hurts. I'm shepherding my own kids through this stage, and there are so many times when I don't know what to say or do to help them through. Thanks.

Thanks for being there for Jenny.
The woof made me laugh. Beautifully written, and bless you for intervening in the life of Jenny.
Perfect & gleaming, Bell. I think you topped Janis Ian's "At Seventeen." Or prequelled it. Just lovely. (r)
you are that perfect combination of wisdom, humor and class, bell
This is such a wise tale, I wish I'd learned about confidence from accomplishments at a much younger age than I did...and thank you for saying that to Jenny, you clearly made her day.
You're so right about thirteen year olds, one of the more painful leftovers from my childhood is from age 13 and it's so painful because I was 13, I see now.... how you describe Xs over the eyes...that made me laugh.
Good for you, Bell. I'll bet Jenny never forgot that day.
So good! And man, I can relate!
Great post Bella. Yup, those are some of the toughest years but you made a difference to Jenny. Nasty boys (and some girls) that age should be hung up by their you-know-whats. I love that you said you've had innumerable beautiful days since without a hint of narcissism AND turned out to be a animal advocate. Woof! to you in all the best ways!
This got me tearing up at the end. I love how you put this, how honest you were, and, above all, how you think of others. Just perfect.
I stuttered from early childhood to age 25. And my wife wonders why I don't have any interest in seeing The King's Speech.
Ah, man, I could have used that at least once in my young life. For me it was the big boobs too early, and being chubby. I had a lot of friends, but I wasn't one of the pretty girls and there were girls who did grow up to do modeling in New York. Sigh. However, I am probably a better person for it, I suppose. Great story, BV.
Lyrical writing and a great ending.
You capture the gawky adolescent girl's nightmare so eloquently and poignantly. Reading this took me back to day in the 5th grade when I was ranked "the worst lemon in the school." Not sure what I would have done if I'd had a stutter to boot...
You sweet, former ugly duckling.
My first roommate in college had a bad stutter. The stuttering did not prevent him from having an outgoing personality and an active social life. There were some neanderthals who made fun of him, but he had the last laugh - he got into medical school and became an opthamologist.
that one comment that will likely figure so importantly in little jenny's life. only a girl who has a few searing memories of her own life at that age would know that she *had* to say something to the boys.

terrific writing, bell. one of my favorites, even minus your usual recipe bonus. ;
I love the description of teeth here. Thank the heavens for orthodontia. We've all met those folks with an unfortunate arrangement and silently wished them the resources to spring for braces. It makes all the difference, doesn't it? A smile.

Lovely piece Bell.

PS - I thought as a Jenny, so I was a Jenny. I never got over it, but in looking back at photos, I was Jenny. I never even needed braces. During the years when I was unarguably (but not uncommonly) pretty, I couldn't see it, so/and no one else did either. That's what approval, or disapproval, from those you love and/or admire can do to a soul. I try to remember this every day.
well, this is awkward. I meant to say, I 'was not' Jenny. I was an average to nice looking girl without unsurvivable teen defects, beyond a pimply forehead - and I grew bangs to treat that ubiquitous problem. That's also how I've tried to deal with an aging forehead, but let's not get into that...

I didn't or couldn't see myself as cute, or at least not ugly, probably related to a lack of support from those around me who felt that telling a girl she looked pretty would give her a swelled head, or make her do something she shouldn't. I was always a log or two shy of the load, and suffered under the feeling of lack -- which actively translated into the way I have seen the world since childhood. There's never enough, it's always 1/2 full, no good deed goes unpunished, and I don't deserve it.

Tell a girl her best qualities today, any girl. She need to hear it.
not only would i not want to be 13 again, i'd not want to be their teacher. you did say just the right thing, and hopefully, others are saying those true words to other 13 year olds.
I can think of no greater compliment to give you other than to say that what you said was, I think, exactly what my mother would have said.

And your paragraph detailing your Three-Month Plan (along with many other parts of this most excellent post) is your usual brilliant self.

(By the way, 13 isn't so great for pudgy, uncoordinated, awkward, socially inept boys who don't know a bloody thing about cars. Isn't that why we're all here?)
Having raised two daughters, I know what a hell age 13 can be. I wonder if only someone who's been through that hell would have the wisdom to give the gracious comment that you gave Jenny. Thank you for a sensitive and evocative piece.
This is brilliant advice: Don't give boys the power of assessment. If you present yourself as a blank slate, people will try to write on you. Looks matter, just not nearly as much as the confidence that comes with accomplishments.

Loved the story. My brother, too, stuttered for a while. I think it was due to the abuse he endured at my Dad's hands. It eventually went away.

Recently, I talked to a friend who wanted to refuse to hire a woman with a stutter for a job that required a lot of phone work. I told him I was pretty sure a speech impediment qualifies as a disability, and he should give her a chance as long as she's otherwise qualified. She could be a great employee. He was overruled by his boss and she was overruled anyway.

Great story. Thanks for sharing.
Correction to my previous comment. Meant to say my friend was overruled by his boss, and the woman with the stutter was hired anyway, against his wishes.

It is an ADA qualified disability. Even if the employee can't perform the essential job functions, the employer has the duty to accommodate them -- provide assistance in the form of equipment & perhaps job modifications to see if they can perform the job WITH ACCOMMODATION. Its a terrible stigma, I think.
this path I know so well, it took years for me to get over it
there's nothing that makes my inner mother wolf look more menacing than when I see this happening to one of my students

you've a gorgeous soul
Handled perfectly you did good.....You couldn't pay me to be 13 again either.
Lamm -- I think having the experience of being a "Jenny" makes us stronger.

Matt -- Awww. Not sure the boys liked me at that moment, but it was something they needed to hear.

Naomi (Kate) -- We should all stick up for Jennys. I worry about the ones that fall through the cracks.

Bea -- That phase didn't last long. I've got skim-milk skin and thankfully I laid off the tanning before I cooked myself.

Yap -- Ha! It's all a matter of finding people who have the same sense of humor. I married my husband because he thinks I'm hilarious. And he also impregnated me, but I wouldn't have married him if he didn't think I was funny.

Bonnie -- Thanks!

Annie -- I thought of you when I was writing this. Members of the Jo March Club!

Susan -- Those years were so angsty. Everything hits at once -- body, mind, boys, school. It's just not fair.

Linda -- Somehow I knew I'd find a lot of Jennys on OS.

Sophie -- It was painful to watch her so defeated, and uplifting to see what a simple sentence could do. It was eye-opening to me too.

Mission -- I'm glad you liked it.

Tom -- It always seemed like the boys had it easier, but I know that can't be true. Or at least not for some boys. As teens we were all pushed into boxes and expected to conform, play our roles.

Greenheron -- I bet you've seen it all! I've wanted to shake my own daughter at times. She's getting better. Her last boyfriend was a Mr. Sketch Geek, just not THE Mr. Sketch Geek.

Jane -- The best revenge was being voted a "Senior Beauty" in high school. That was nice.

Susie -- Thanks for reading!

Aim -- I often wonder how an all-girls school experience impacts girls at this difficult age. I felt so examined, particularly by boys. What would it have been like without that? I hope you'll write about it

Christine -- I'm just happy I could speak out at that point without stuttering!

Jonathan -- Oh the stories you must have! (And I've enjoyed all the ones you've told.)

Mumble -- Woof! I have seen some ugly -- or as we used to call them, "unfortunate looking" -- dogs, but even they were cute as hell.

Felisa -- I so appreciate that compliment. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

Trilogy -- Thank you for stopping by to read and comment.

Linda -- I wish I always knew exactly what to say. That day it all came together.

Fusun -- When I watched the movie, it was painfully familiar -- the frustration and feelings of embarrassment and shame.

Blue -- They should put home perms behind the counter with all the meth-making chemicals. That would have spared me a lot of teasing.

Froggy --The scary thing about raising children at this age is that there's a lot you won't know about. They get good at hiding their feelings. That makes it so much harder.
Why are the young so cruel, when they are all so vulnerable? Most women can identify with this, as we nearly all go through an ugly duckling stage, however mild. Mine was rip-roaring acne and a few extra pounds. Oh lord! Can you imagine anything worse than being called "pizza face"?

Yet I feel utter contempt for myself looking back, because if I had a chance, I made the few below me on the social hierarchy feel just as bad. Pathetic.
Kathy -- I can laugh about that Woof! now too.

Dirndl -- Have you seen Sally Mann's "At Twelve"? It's haunting.

Caroline -- That's the sweetest thing. I appreciate it, especially knowing what you're going through with your little one.

Just Thinking -- I have so many awful memories about those years 13-15. Purgatory. Everything I did or wore or said was just WRONG. Is that true of every culture? Or just ours?

Sarah -- She did smile and wave to me every time after that day.

Cedar -- I'm both sorry you can relate...and glad. :)

Scarlett -- I wasn't completely innocent myself. The worst thing about the teen years is how sometimes even those of us who've been picked on look around for someone a step below us to dump on. I wasn't a "mean girl" by any means, but I can remember times when I sat back, kept quiet as another girl got picked on, just happy that it wasn't me. Which makes me complicit.

Alysa -- Thanks for the compliment. This piece was a very personal one.

Con -- I saw it, and it was hard for me to watch. Here's the funny thing. When I told my husband about this post, he was shocked that I had ever stuttered so terribly. I was shocked that I had never discussed it with him. Whether purposefully or subconsciously, it's something I kept from him, and we've been married 25 years.

Oryoki -- I hope that all of our experiences, if they haven't killed us, have made us more empathetic and better people overall.

Mypsyche -- I like the ending too, but I wish I knew what became of Jenny. I'd like a good ending for her.

Divorcedpauline -- Worst lemon in school?? What kind of lemon school did you attend?? If you had a stutter you'd have been voted wwwwwworst lllllllllemon in skkkool. Yeah, that's infinitely worse.

Stim -- I'm devolving into an ugly duckling again. Such is the way of things.

littlewillie -- Who cares if you can say "opthamologist" if ARE one? Best revenge ever.

Femme -- I tried to think of a recipe...

Gabby -- You've got a comment stutter! I so understand! And I'm so blessed that my parents could afford braces. My teeth were so wonky that good skin, pretty eyes, cheerleader hair and a smokin' bod wouldn't have been able to override them. If I win the lottery, after I tackled clean drinking water for third world countries, I'd set up an orthodontia fund for underprivileged kids.

Diananni -- I could never be a teacher for that reason.

Pilgrim -- Here on OS? Yeah. Buncha dorky adults who haven't forgotten thirteen.

Cranky -- As painful as it was to be thirteen, it was more painful to watch my daughter be thirteen.

Brokenwing -- That must have been sad, watching y
our brother go through that, the impact of the abuse on his life manifesting itself long after any bruises healed. I wasn't aware that stuttering could be classified as a disability, though it does make sense. After I wrote this I realized how uncommon it is, as an adult, to come across an adult stutterer, though I knew several adolescent stutterers. Maybe the longevity of the problem is related to the depth of the emotional scar? I don't know. I'd like to read up on it.

Vanessa -- I don't imagine you put up with ONE bit of it!

Lunchlady -- I'd fast forward to 80 before I went back to 13.
Snippy -- Yes! I alluded to that in my response to Scarlett. How I wasn't all innocent because I was certainly looking for a lower life form to dump on. Luckily, I didn't find one, or couldn't imagine one. I couldn't even say "P-p-p-p-p-pizza f-f-f-f-f-f-ace." (Woof! Shamefully.)

Bell, you've given me TWO belly laughs today. One we talked about and the other, ahhhahaa, the other is, hhooodhhheeeehehehee, is the comment you just made above me!! ooohhhoooohononoo I'm peeing myself here.
Words are so powerful. I guarantee, Jenny will never forget what you said to her. I'm so glad you wrote this; it just goes to show that it's not always the big flashy things we do that have the most impact.
I heart you and your writing, Bell. ~r
Beautifully rendered as usual. Any time I meet a Jenny I will tell her, or the surrounding boys, the same thing.
Bell, words fail me now. You fit funny & bittersweet together so well. You are kind to dogs and teenagers, too. If I had stood outside your classroom door, I would have told those boys that some day, Bell was going to be a heckuva writer, too, and writers always get the last word.
From this day forward, an awkward less-than-attractive 13-year-old girl will be known as a Jenny in my mind. This story really got to me, mostly because I wasn't a Jenny, but I have known so many wonderful girls and women who were, and I've often wondered what kind of strength and fortitude it would take for them just to get through adolescence. I just hated it when boys would say those terrible things about girls, usually within hearing distance of them. My tormentors were other girls and that was hurtful enough. I am so glad your superior inner-beauty found its way to your outsides. I am so sorry it took that in order for you to feel worthy.

As for your writing? I've run out of words to describe how much I admire and enjoy every word you write.

These are such big memories that have made you into what you are today. Glad to have read these formative moments in your life..
Why don't your posts ever show up on my stupid feed thing? I have to actively search for you but I always do and it's always worth it. This was super stellar, Bell,You are hot stuff- I tell ya.
I love this whole post Bellwether..."I might have drawn an "X" over each eye and laid down on the cold linoleum tiles if I hadn't already come up with a surefire plan for transformation." Lol, that line is hilarious, & sums up those teenage years...coming up with plan after plan...

You sure know what to say and how to say it now! The ending is beautiful. :)

Rated Best in Show.
Lovely, Bell. I always enjoy your writing. You manage to center right in on one of the temporal, excruciating girl-times. That time when we're becoming, and no one knows it. Rated, but of course.
Nice girl, Bell. Why am I not surprised?
I needed this blog. My insensitivity in how I relate to someone with this painful impediment has now changed. Not only am I living with someone with this impediment, but I had a boss with it and I would finish his sentences. Not for my comfort, but because we were in an environment of "Hurry up, hurry up, wait.
Though the fellow I am living with now has all but overcome this, he told me of how painful it was and music was his way of speeking. Lucky for him he has overcome this to an extent, it is torture on the rest of us. He speaks his mind and goes on and on like a tire fire. His life partner has actually STARTED stutterring.
So you see, sometimes it works to your advantage. No one wants to embroil you with opinions.
You reached out and helped a fellow soul. As a high school teacher, I loved to tell the boys who were shy how handsome they were (in a motherly way) and would notice the efforts that the not-so-pretty girls made to look cute. I meant it and they knew it. A little can mean a lot.
What a beautiful and sweet story! This story just made my entire day.
Love the tag! All the money in the world wouldn't be worth being 13 again. I'm still traumatized from middle school. I wish every gangly girl had a Bellwether to stick up for her.
wow. i just wish it weren't so that a young 13 year old girl is seen as "awkward" and "going to be" beautiful and only then will she ostensibly be impervious to annoying, demeaning, objectifying taunts by misdirected young men....young girls are beautiful just because they are. they don't have to lay in wait to get there - and i don't see how it helps to tell them to do so. young boys will think what they will - and we should teach girls that their opinions represent a skewed and tainted frame of reference that is essentially random, subjective, and meaningless - and that what they feel about themselves - their whole selves and not just their physical beauty - is more important. That her opinion counts just as much, if not more, than theirs. But seriously, as adults, for the insight we supposedly possess, does any of us really think a young girl or preadolescent - with all her healthy exuberance and vigor - is unattractive or even that her physical beauty is/should be her most salient feature? I certainly hope not. You are right, there is nothing more difficult than being a 13 year old girl, so let's not make it more so with backhanded compliments and shallow inspiration.
Gabby -- We have to laugh, or we'll cry!

Margaret -- I think everything we say to kids matters, but especially when they're feeling very fragile. Often, we don't really know when that is (they are pretty good at hiding things). Here, it wasn't a mystery.

Joan -- You know I heart you too!

Deborah -- I hope it's a rare event. It was the first time I'd encountered so bold a bully.

Lucy -- Living well is the best revenge. We learn so many things as we get older. I hate that when we're that age "pretty" is at the forefront.

iq -- I'm sure she had so many negative things in her head, I just wanted to give her one good one. I'm sure it wasn't enough!

Lezlie -- Aren't you glad we're older now? Oh the things that seemed important then...

Algis -- You're right. Although my "suffering" was pretty small potatoes, it all shapes us.

Fernsy -- Hot stuff!? I'll take it!! (I'm just so happy to see you out and about these days. You could have written -- "This sucks!")

Clay -- I'll never be a Best in Show, but Mutt of the Day is good enough for me! I'm glad you liked the piece.

Writer -- "Becoming" is the perfect word. (It's great to see you around these parts too!)

Lea -- Not always nice, but mostly.

Diane -- Ha! Always look on the bright side! Music and acting were my salvation as well. On stage, I rarely stuttered. Maybe it has to do with being another persona up there.

Maryway -- It is the smallest things that they remember. I bet you were (are?) a sought-after teacher.

Maria -- Glad you liked!

Franish -- I'm still traumatized as well. It seems a lot of us are. I think it goes back to Writer's word "becoming" -- how we are becoming ourselves at the very time when we aren't physically ourselves.

Roxy -- That's a legitimate criticism, and one I tried to address in the last paragraph (i.e. -- what I wanted to tell her but felt she wouldn't believe), perhaps inadequately. All I can in my defense is that at the time I felt strongly that what I said was what she needed to hear in that instance. Sometimes, that's just the best we can do.
precisement. the world needs more like you. (wish I'd known you when I was young and fat with screwy teeth.) a happy woman day to you, my dear.
This is such a touching take on those horrible growing pains. I got barked at as a little one:)