Sample text for The rise and fall of a 10th-grade social climber / Lauren Mechling and Laura Moser.
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Once upon a time, circa four months ago, I was your regular run-of-the-mill
fifteen-year-old smarty-pants. My MO was simple enough: Keep to the back
row. Stick to the basic nice-enough, cute-enough, and good-enough-at-
school routine, and leave it at that. It sounds pretty straightforward, I know,
but in high school, blending in takes as much effort as standing out--more,
really, when you"re roughly the height of a palm tree.
In Houston I had managed to fit in with the best of them. If you took all the
ninth-grade girls at my old prep school and arranged them in a line from the
prepubescent white cotton undershirts to the outrageously overpriced all-lace
demi-cups, I would have fallen safely in the middle, one of those basic nylon
underwire jobs sold in discounted three-packs. I was 100 percent, no-holds-
But if achieving that normalcy took fifteen years of hard work, going the
reverse direction was far simpler. To become the world"s biggest jerk, I
needed only a few months, a notebook, and a few evil thoughts.
But wait--I"m getting ahead of myself, as I always do when I open this stupid
notebook. Better, I think, to begin at the beginning, with that smoggy
afternoon in August when the postcard arrived . . .
Family Trees Need Watering, Too
I was hunched over the dining room table, struggling with the final project for
this creative writing course I was taking at the University of Houston. (And no,
btw, I"m not some sort of freakazoid fifteen-year-old genius. I"d wanted to
spend the summer at Camp Longawanga with my best friend, Rachel, but my
all-controlling psychobabbling mother insisted that I stay home and focus
on "personal enrichment" instead.) So the assignment--to describe my home
in two pages--didn"t seem like a big deal at first, but I soon realized it was
impossible in my present circumstances. You see, I was about to leave the
house where I"d lived for the past six years and move into an apartment in
Manhattan that I"d seen only on a digital photo, and a poorly lighted one at
that. Which one counted as my real home, and how could I decide in two
I soon gave up on the assignment. Instead of working, I slumped on the
couch and watched a rerun of a reality show set in Salt Lake City, which
chronicled what happens when a bunch of good-looking twenty-year-olds from
all over America are dumped into a palatial apartment together. The
superuptight New York roommate was flipping out because somebody had
moved his jean jacket from the main coat rack to his personal closet, and he
was yelling at the Detroit-born marine biologist. I enjoyed the New Yorker"s
hysteria and even semi-sympathized with the jean jacket crisis. I totally
detest when people move my things around without telling me.
Also, I"d be lying if I said I didn"t have a soft spot for New Yorkers. Especially
my dad, who was working hard to become one again after a six-year
absence. He claimed that being a big-city slicker was like riding a bicycle--
once you learned, you never lost the hang of it--but I sort of doubted that he
had blossomed into an alluring man about town without my guidance. To tell
the truth, I couldn"t even picture what Dad would look like as an alluring man
about town. Would he be wearing a leather jacket? Speaking with a slight
foreign accent? Riding a trendy Japanese scooter? I drew a total blank. My
notions of cool were skewed after spending the last six years in Houston,
where cotton-candy pink is always the new black.
Six years. I no longer knew anything about New York. Apart from taking cabs
everywhere, what did New Yorkers even do? The memories I cherished, like
ogling oversize toys at F.A.O. Schwarz or tapping on the fish tanks at the
Coney Island aquarium, hadn"t exactly prepared me for life in the city.
Taking such an enormous plunge was scary, to say the least, but I had no
choice. Dad was all alone up there, and I needed to take care of him. Though
on paper he was a fully developed adult, the man was understandably
scarred by Mom"s leaving him for Maurice, who was quite possibly the most
disgusting man on the planet.
Saying that my mom "left" my dad is mostly a metaphor, because she never
actually went anywhere. That would have been way too normal. What she did
was dump her devoted life partner of twenty years, completely out of the blue,
describing her bombshell as an "honest life choice." Then, before my poor
helpless dad had figured out that his life was over, she announced that she
liked the house more, so perhaps he should leave it. My sweet daddy, he
never even admitted that he had decided to move back to New York to get far
away from Mom, to lick his wounds in private--instead he just kept talking
about all the "professional connections" he wanted to rekindle. It"s beyond
lucky that his mother left him a few rental properties along the Jersey shore
when she died two summers ago--just enough to guarantee a comfortable
income before he hit the big time as an art photographer.
Since returning to New York, my father had called me at least once a day,
sometimes two or even five times. He put on a front during our conversations,
pretending that he was having the time of his life up there, but I didn"t buy his
mellow single-guy act for a second. If he was having such a swell time, why
was he calling me at eleven o"clock on Saturday night?
Nope, without my mom, Dad was definitely falling apart. He needed
protection, a shield from the world"s brutalities. He needed somebody to
say "good morning" to him, to ask about his day, to eat his (occasionally
I was the perfect candidate--a daddy"s girl to the core. Much to the
annoyance of my more discipline-oriented mom and my idiocy-oriented
sister, I could do no wrong in my dad"s eyes, and vice versa. The two of us
looked alike, freckled and gangly. We also had the exact same sense of
humor, always a plus.
But, in all honesty, it wasn"t just our two-person mutual admiration society
that was driving me to Dad"s apartment. It was my mom. Over the past few
months, she had gone bitchorama on me. She had always been the rule
enforcer in the household, but her shit-kicking multiplied by forty after
splitting up with Dad. She seemed dead set on proving how different the two
of them were, as if to convince us all--me, Dad, my sister, Ariel--that the
break was inevitable. She was constantly imposing some new curfew or
objecting to how much of her (yeah, right) hard-earned money I wasted on
bronzing powders or how sloppily I dressed in my gorgeous thrift-store
In short, the whole disciplinarian routine was starting to wear on my nerves.
But I still had seriously mixed feelings about living in Houston. One the one
hand, I loved my life there: my school, my friends, my cat, the amazing
eternal-summer weather. On the other, I had just turned fifteen that May and I
was ready for some serious freedom. There seemed no better place to break
out than downtown Manhattan, with only my out-of-it, omnitrusting father to
I had just switched off the TV, resolving to tackle my stupid writing
assignment, when I heard a rustling sound across the room. I looked up to
see my cat, Simon, standing by the door, gazing at me with an incredibly
serious expression. His orange ears pointed straight up as if he sensed
something important in the air. Right then, lo and behold, a bunch of
envelopes poked through our mail slot. They cascaded down in slow motion
and plopped on the doormat like no bunch of letters has ever plopped before.
I know I have a melodramatic side--at least according to my mom--but I
swear this plop signified Something Big. Simon meowed twice. He was a
deeply intuitive animal.
I"d received a lot of mail all summer long, mostly from Rachel, who was at
sailing camp and secretly dating a sixteen-year-old counselor-in-training
named Trevor--or, as Rachel reverentially called him, "my CIT hottie." The
more obsessed Rachel became with Trevor, the more letters she wrote me
about him. You"d assume the opposite, but Rachel was so devoted a
correspondent that she once wrote me an entire eight-pager about entering
the dining room to see "my CIT hottie" sitting on a bench and taking the
pickles out of a cheese and turkey sandwich. We used to laugh at what we
called "Life"s Very Entertaining Moments," but now she was becoming very
But right--back to the part about this being a fateful day. True to Simon"s
premonitions, there it was, stuck between the gas bill and two letters from
Rachel: a postcard. Or I should say, the postcard. My very first piece of mail
from the Baldwin School.
The shiny side of the postcard had a drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge, a close-
up crowded with multiethnic foot traffic (my favorite was the dreadlocked man
climbing up one of the bridge"s cables). A cartoon sun hung in the sky, and
the bridge sported wraparound sunglasses. On the back, next to the sticker
with my name and address, was the greeting:
Dear Incoming Sophomores,
We at the Baldwin School hope your summer is full of exciting discoveries
and blissful adventures. Take note that our Welcome Home Meeting will take
place in room U-3 on Friday, September 7, at 11:30 a.m. We look forward to
seeing you there.
Zora, high school headmaster, and the rest of the Baldwin family
P.S. Keep up all that summer reading!
All the words were typewritten with the exception of "Zora," which was
scrawled in insanely curly handwriting and took up more space than my
address. Zora? I couldn"t even begin to imagine a Houston teacher--
especially a headmaster--signing a postcard with "Zora," or even being
named "Zora," for that matter. Texas was all "Yes, sir" and "No, ma"am" and
standing up when elders entered the room--who was Zora? Definitely bizarre.
I knew Baldwin was supposed to be the most offbeat school in New York, but
there was a difference between offbeat and plain old weird.
And then my eyes fixed on another line on the postcard and my brain
emptied of everything but that one date: September 7. September 7 was in
exactly a month. Only a month to go before orientation--I couldn"t believe it.
Squaring my shoulders, I walked toward my mother"s study, where I planned
to figure out my life. To get inside the room, I had to hop over the stacks of
overdue library books--no easy task, considering that I"m five-eleven, taller
and way less graceful than most professional basketball players. (OK, not
exactly, but that"s how I always felt at school dances, so I might as well have
The Sigmund Freud calendar I gave my mother for her birthday sat in the
bottom corner of the desk, still cracked open to February. Coffee rings were
splattered all over the page. The only thing she"d written down was in the box
for February 5--"Take Simon to vet. Shots!"--with the words "February 6"
underneath. That"s my mother for you: too absent-minded to put the
appointment on the right day. Too absent-minded to notice that her whole
family was falling apart, or that her new boyfriend, Maurice, is the biggest
loser in human history. But that"s another story.
My mother is a psychology professor at Rice University, a hyperorganized
woman who gets everything done on time, but you"d never know it by her
study. It"s a total pit, with dried-up pens scattered on the shelves and stray
rubber bands littering every surface. Month-old Post-it notes reminding her to
go to faculty dinners cling to the telephone receiver.
I stared at my mother"s catastrophic desk and tried to get a grip. Sometimes,
to stop my mind from racing, I write things down. With that goal, I ripped a
piece of paper from my mother"s old notepad and began to scribble:
Very Important Countdown
30-20 Days to Go
1. Pack, shop--new wardrobe (autumny wool sweaters, tights, new flats etc).
2. Rent Woody Allen movies.
3. Send Sam a letter. Other old friends?
4. Eat lots of last-minute enchiladas!
5. Chill. Remember: stress is mega-bad for complexion.
20-10 Days to Go.........
1. Lose baby fat!!!
2. Start eating two vegetables a week.
3. Or two spinach enchiladas.
4. Swim three times a week.
5. No more pecan pie. (At least not à la mode.)
1. Find new hairstyle.
2. Read book about New York. Edith Wharton? J. D. Salinger? Look for
something more up to date.
3. Eat last enchiladas. Twice. (A day.)
4. Learn to eat sushi without wanting to vomit.
The next month flew by, what with my enchilada-pounding expeditions, my
abdomen-toning exercises, and my extensive online investigations of life in
New York. I crossed most items off my to-do list with little difficulty, saving
my raw-fish initiation for my going-away dinner with Rachel. I"m sure my
tanned, love-warmed friend would have preferred Rosa"s, the cheesy Mexican
joint we both adored, but since I was the one whose life was going topsy-
turvy, I was the one who got to choose.
In a recent letter, Sam--my childhood best friend before my parents moved
to Texas--had gone on about New Yorkers" passion for raw fish. Ever since,
I"d imagined people sitting around fish tanks, scooping up wriggling guppies
with their nets. I doubted sushi would ever become my thing because a) it
looked nastola and slimy and b) the portion sizes were way too puny.
I took Rachel to the place that my older sister, Ariel, who just graduated from
high school, recommended because none of the foreign waiters seemed to
realize that in America it"s illegal to serve sake to fifteen-year-olds. When
Tomiko (at least that"s what the nameplate said) came to take our order, for
some reason I couldn"t stop thinking about my old pet goldfish Titan. He used
to lodge himself in the crook of the plastic mermaid"s elbow and get stuck in
In the end, I chickened out and ordered vegetable rolls. They were decent but
familiar, and I cleaned my plate (or rather my weird rectangular serving tray).
Conversation with Rachel was a less comfortable experience. Since returning
from camp, she had been too upset about her long-distance relationship with
Trevor to acknowledge that the two of us were about to face a similar
challenge. She was, in fact, so absorbed in her romantic anguish that she
mentioned our pending 1,500-mile separation only once: "I"m so depressed
about Trevor, I can"t believe you"re abandoning me, too!"
On the bright side, Rachel"s obliviousness made saying goodbye a lot less
awkward. After dinner, her mom picked us up and dropped me at home as
usual, and the whole night seemed far too typical for weepy goodbyes.
The next morning, before I left, I had just one last item to tick off my list.
Even scarier than eating raw fish was "letting go" (one of my mom"s fave
terms) of the hairstyle I"d had since the fourth grade: halfway down my back,
with thick bangs covering my forehead. But, after Sam"s most recent letter, I
knew I needed a new look. "How could I not recognize you?" he had
written. "You"ll be the only girl at Baldwin with hair down to her butt."
I went to the Beautique to pay my trusty hairdresser Jean-Pascale an au
revoir visit. "Eye ave been waiting for yew all week!" he exclaimed. "Today is
eet. Yew, Mademoiselle Mimi, are my muse. Any eye-dee-uhs?"
I nodded. After wasting a whole week scouring old Seventeens for guidance, I
had torn out only two pictures, a shoulder-length shag and a chin-length
flippy thing. I showed Jean-Pascale his options. "Which one?" I asked,
praying he"d pick the longer, safer one.
I should"ve known better. As indicated by the spiky blond hair on his own
head, which he rehighlighted practically every week, Jean-Pascale had a flair
for the dramatic. "Eye inseest. Lez make today a very important day." He
crumpled both pictures and tossed them into a pile of my predecessor"s
wispy blue-gray hairs on the floor.
"Attends, ma che;rie, attends," Jean-Pascale rasped into my ear en route to
the shampoo station. I froze when he whispered into the shampoo girl"s ear,
then sighed in relief when I realized he was only giving instructions for an
extended head massage.
When at last he seated me to cut my hair, Jean-Pascale swiveled my chair
around to prevent me from looking in the mirror. "Trust moi," he assured me.
It took like ten hours. All the other ladies in the salon watched from under
their bubble-topped hair dryers as footlong hanks of my hair dropped to the
ground. I felt like a circus freak.
"Voilà," Jean-Pascale said finally, and spun me around. "Magnifique."
I gasped. My hair fell around my face in dark chunks, exposing cheekbones
I"d never known existed. It was amazing, really and truly magnifique. I looked,
to tell the truth, exactly like an oversize Winona Ryder. I was, dare I say it,
"You look exactement comme, euuhh, euhh, comment elle s"appelle?" Jean-
Pascale was both genius hairdresser and mind-reader: "Weenonah. Rydaair,
c"est ca? Incroyable."
"Vrai," I croaked out. Magnifique, incroyable, and then some. Maybe it"s
uncool to base your mental state on your hair, but when Jean-Pascale and I
locked eyes under the salon"s halogen lights, I knew that tenth grade in New
York would work out just fine.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
High schools -- Fiction.
Schools -- Fiction.
Diaries -- Fiction.
Popularity -- Fiction.
Best friends -- Fiction.
Friendship -- Fiction.