Jennifer wanted nothing more than to have one good friend. Someone she could rely on to be there for her. Someone who cared for her like no one else.
The problem was that she was the most unpopular kid in school. Dressed in too big jumpers, hand-me-down white blouses and oxford saddle shoes, she was a pariah. Her long hair was always in pigtails or braids, carefully done up by her mother, but not the popular style among girls her age.
How do you make friends when you are so radically different from everyone else? Jennifer didn’t know.
During recess and lunch, Jennifer followed the popular girls around closely enough that she could hear what they talked about. It was gossip, pure and simple. They made fun of everyone that wasn’t them. They laughed at things the teacher said or did. They chaffed at the teasing of boys, yet encouraged them by their suggestive saunters and shortened shirts.
Jennifer knew that she was often the butt of the snide comments, and this hurt, but yet she still wanted to be part of that group.
At home she practiced the walk. She begged and begged for a haircut until her mom relented and let it be shortened to shoulder length. She brushed her hair every night until it shone. In the morning she brushed it again, making sure there were no tangles, twists or poking out strands.
She convinced her dad to let her get new shoes that weren’t oxfords. It took a lot of work, but boy, did she feel happy when he relented! She saved her weekly allowance until she had enough to buy new shoes. It was May by the time her dad drove her to the store, but it didn’t matter. She finally had shoes like all the other girls wore.
There was nothing she could do about the jumpers and blouses. New ones cost too much, plus the year was almost over and she’d need replacements for eighth grade anyway.
Was it enough? Jennifer hoped so. When she walked on the campus in her new shoes with her new hair, she squared her shoulders and smiled at the first popular girl she saw.
The girl snubbed her. It was subtle, true. The girl, Marissa, looked at Jennifer, smirked, then turned and walked away. Not the greeting Jennifer was hoping for.
Tears came to her eyes, which she hastily wiped away before entering the classroom.
Yes, everyone saw her shorter, more stylish hair. She was sure that they also noticed her more modern shoes. But her clothes were still someone else’s. Her jumper was faded and baggy and her blouse off-white with a pixie collar than no one else wore.
Jennifer skulked to her desk and slid onto her seat, her shoulders drooping.
How to be accepted? She didn’t know.
During recess she went into the bathroom. Fortunately none of the popular girls were there. That quickly changed, however.
Jennifer recognized Susan’s voice first. “Did you see Jennifer’s hair? Not in braids or pigtails.”
“Yeah,” another girl said. “I couldn’t believe that she’d cut off her hair.”
“I loved her long hair,” Susan said. “No she looks more like a boy with that horse-face of hers.”
The other girl snorted. “Come on, she’s not that bad looking. She’s fat, but not too fat.”
“What boy would want to date her? Name one.”
The girls were silent for a moment. “Peter Strauss.”
Chuckles filled the room. “He’s just as fat and ugly,” Susan said. “They’d make a great pair.”
Water gushed from the faucets. Paper towels were ripped from the dispenser, the door opened and shut. Only then did Jennifer emerge. She stood before the mirror and checked out her face. Was she ugly? She didn’t think so. True, her cheeks were a bit puffy. She had a dimple when she smiled. Her eyebrows were thick, but not bushy.
She tossed her hair back and tried to picture a boy with the same cut. No names came to mind until she thought of Peter. His hair was long, shoulder length, like hers. Brown like hers. Straight like hers.
She imagined him standing next to her in front of the mirror. He would be taller, his shoulders broader, his neck thicker, but he was also overweight. He stuttered, while she did not. He spoke in a whisper only when forced to respond by the teacher. Jennifer also spoke in a whisper but she did it because she was easily embarrassed.
“Oh, well,” she said as she shrugged and exited the restroom.
Once outside Jennifer looked for the popular girls. They were clustered together near the teacher lunchroom, their usual place. Jennifer thought about walking over there, but then she spotted Peter leaning against the wall outside their classroom.
“Hi,” she said. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” he said. “What about you?”
Jennifer shrugged. “Hey, what’s your favorite TV show?”
“American Idol. I like to imagine that it’s me up there.”
“Do you sing?”
“Yeah, but only at home. And at church. What about you?”
Jennifer smiled. “Same with me. I have a radio in my room. I keep it tuned to 97.3 because I like the music they play.”
“That’s my favorite station. Want to come over sometime and we can listen together?”
Jennifer thought about the ramifications. If she palled around with Peter she didn’t stand a chance of ever being friends with the popular girls. On the other hand, there was a real good possibility that she’d never fit in with them anyway. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
“How about tomorrow after school? My mom could pick you up.”
“Let’s say Friday. That’ll give me time to ask my parents and get permission. One thing I know is that they’ll want to talk to your parents before then.”
Peter pulled a crumpled paper out of his pants pocket and a pencil from his shirt pocket. He wrote something and then handed the paper to Jennifer. “That’s my number. Write yours at the bottom and tear it off. I’ll ask my mom to call this afternoon.”
When the bell rang, Jennifer was smiling. She had a friend! Her first real friend. Someone who wanted her to come over to his house and hang out. Granted it wasn’t one of the people she’d dreamt of having for a friend, but Peter was a loner like her. Together they’d make an awesome pair.
And that’s all that mattered.