Author Sandra Cisneros tells the poignant story of Rachel, a girl pulled unwittingly into a crisis of identity on her birthday.
In Eleven, Rachel’s teacher coerces her into accepting a red sweater that has been hanging for some time in the cloak room, unclaimed. The sweater does not belong to Rachel, and she doesn’t want it.
“It has to belong to somebody,” Mrs. Price keeps saying, but nobody can remember. It’s an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope. It’s maybe a thousand years old and even if it belonged to me I wouldn’t say so.
Maybe because I’m skinny, maybe because she doesn’t like me, that stupid Sylvia Saldivar says, “I think it belongs to Rachel.” An ugly sweater like that all raggedy and old, but Mrs. Price believes her. Mrs Price takes the sweater and puts it right on my desk, but when I open my mouth nothing comes out.
“That’s not, I don’t, you’re not . . . Not mine.” I finally say in a little voice that was maybe me when I was four.
“Of course it’s yours,” Mrs. Price says. “I remember you wearing it once.” Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.
The red sweater itself, though to this point it has existed as nothing more than an outdated garment that had been pulled on enough times (maybe too many times) that its sleeves might wrap around you more than once, seems in this moment to become imbued with an identity of its own, one that in turn becomes, unalterably, that of its wearer.
Rachel, at her newly minted eleven years old, is no match for Mrs. Price: older, teacher, and right. She cannot refuse the sweater, nor her new ugly red sweater-bearing identity. She steels herself against the “part of me that’s three that wants to come out of my eyes.” As class goes on, Rachel resists the tears, the nausea, the sweater now sitting on her desk.
But when the sick feeling goes away and I open my eyes, the red sweater’s still sitting there like a big red mountain. I move the red sweater to the corner of my desk with my ruler. I move my pencil and books and eraser as far from it as possible. I even move my chair a little to the right. Not mine, not mine, not mine.
In time, while Rachel practices in her head the various unceremonious ways in which the sweater might meet its demise, Mrs. Price has had enough of this eleven-year-old insurrection and requires Rachel to put the sweater on.
To wear it.
On her body.
And in this moment, for Rachel and whatever identity markers are carried by this red sweater, it is no longer a matter of mere proximity but embodiment, and the dam breaks.
This is when I wish I wasn’t eleven because all the years inside of me—ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one—are pushing at the back of my eyes when I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that smells like cottage cheese, and then the other arm through the other and stand there with my arms apart like if the sweater hurts me and it does, all itchy and full of germs that aren’t even mine.
That’s when everything I’ve been holding in since this morning, since when Mrs. Price put the sweater on my desk, finally lets go, and all of a sudden I’m crying in front of everybody. I wish I was invisible but I’m not. I’m eleven and it’s my birthday today and I’m crying like I’m three in front of everybody. I put my head down on the desk and bury my face in my stupid clown-sweater arms. My face all hot and spit coming out of my mouth because I can’t stop the little animal noises from coming out of me until there aren’t any more tears left in my eyes, and it’s just my body shaking like when you have the hiccups, and my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.
Like if the sweater hurts me and it does.
It feels like just last week when I stood with my own arms apart, with clown-sweater arms hanging. And maybe it was just last week, and maybe I am not eleven but fifty-something, but I understand what Rachel’s saying, like if the sweater hurts me.
The authors of Difficult Conversations tell us that our anxiety in many conversations comes not from having to face another person, but “having to face ourselves.” Indeed, Mrs. Price—though infuriatingly older, teacher and right—is not really Rachel’s antagonist in this story. The red sweater—itchy, cottage-cheesy and not hers—is. They write:
The conversation has the potential to disrupt our sense of who we are in the world, or to highlight what we hope we are but fear we are not. The conversation poses a threat to our identity—the story we tell ourselves about ourselves—and having our identity threatened can be profoundly disturbing.
While acknowledging there are myriad identities that we might feel are at stake in any given situation, the authors note three that are common in particular, and “often underlie what concerns us most.”
• Am I competent?
• Am I a good person?
• Am I worthy of love?
When we engage in conversations that seem to somehow threaten the stories we have believed about ourselves, the result can be ground-shifting. As though watching Rachel from a corner in the classroom, the authors observe how our reactions can move to the physical.
Images of yourself or of the future are hardwired to your adrenal response, and shaking them up can cause an unmanageable rush of anxiety or anger, or an intense desire to get away. Well-being is replaced with depression, hope with hopelessness, efficacy with fear. And all the while you’re trying to engage in the extremely delicate task of communicating clearly and effectively. Your supervisor is explaining why you’re not being promoted; you’re busy having your own identity quake.
Your teacher is handing you a sweater; you’re busy having your own identity quake.
Throughout her telling of the story, Cisneros’s Rachel finds herself, on this, her eleventh birthday, feeling all kinds of other ages she has been before. There’s the voice, tiny, from when she was four that is not big and strong enough to hold back the force that is Mrs. Price. There are the tears from when she is three, pushing against her eyes. She says that “what they don’t understand about birthdays, and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” It is a wisdom far beyond Rachel’s eleven that understands that you won’t always feel your age, and sometimes you will feel all of them.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
Rachel’s ability (though she might call it a frustration on this, the day of the red sweater) to hold the multiple truths of her various ages—in effect, various identities—in play at the same time is a little of what the Difficult Conversations authors are referring to when they invite the reader to “complexify your identity and adopt the And Stance.” They advise moving from the “false choice between ‘I am perfect’ and ‘I am worthless’ and trying to get as true a picture as you can about what is actually true about you.” This necessitates replacing the idea of either-or with both-and. “What is true about you is going to be a mix of good and bad behavior, noble and less noble intentions, and wise and unwise choices you’ve made a long the way . . . No one is always anything,” they write. “We each exhibit a constellation of qualities.”
On Rachel’s eleventh birthday, she is all the ages she has ever been. Eleven, sure. But also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and the rest. With eleven there will be the sting of the clown-arm red sweater’s shame, a full fledged identity quake. And there will be family and singing and eleven candles on a birthday cake.
To Discuss With Friends (Or Use in Personal Journaling)
We’re reading Difficult Conversations together this month as part of the Friendship Project. Are you reading along?
1. What was most interesting to you as you read this week’s chapters?
2. Were you able to think of an Identity Conversation that you’ve had?
3. In the past, how have you been able to handle conflicts that push up against your identity?
4. Or, if you weren’t able to really handle Identity Conversations, can you consider why they’ve felt insurmountable and what you’re learning from Difficult Conversations that might help you in the future?
5. What techniques might you be able to use to become aware of your ideas about your own identity, or others’?
6. Do you tend to engage in false choices of extremes like “I am perfect” or “I am worthless”? If so, what do you think about the idea of “complexifying” your identity by adopting the “And Stance”? (I am a loving friend, and sometimes I make mistakes that hurt my friends. I am a competent worker, and sometimes I struggle to meet the requirements of my job.)
Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Or, listen to Sandra Cisneros read her own story:
October 11: Chapters 1-4 The “What Happened?” Conversation
October 18: Chapter 5 The Feelings Conversation
October 25: Chapter 6 The Identity Conversation
November 1: Chapters 7-12 Create a Learning Conversation
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Photo by Daniel Zimmermann, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Willingham.
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