Beyond Eleven

In the process of writing this column, I made a strange Google search: “short story eleven red sweater.” Thanks to the wonders of the internet and Google’s uncanny ability to make sense of my strange queries, I soon found exactly what I’d been looking for. It’s a short story by Sandra Cisneros called “Eleven” that I read for the first and only time in fourth grade but which has lingered in the back of my brain ever since, buried behind mountains of other stories and poems and essays I’ve read since then.

I hated “Eleven” when I first read it. I thought it was a relatively pointless story about a pouty girl who simply didn’t like someone else’s red sweater and got upset when she ended up with it by accident on her eleventh birthday. As a fourth grader, that storyline didn’t thrill me. But there was one piece of insight in the story which has inhabited the neglected, dusty recesses of my brain since fourth grade and which prompted my recent Google search. It comes in the first sentence of the story, when Cisneros 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.”

I thought this was a rather silly notion when I read it as a fourth-grader. If you’re eleven, you’re eleven. Why overcomplicate it? But for some reason, that idea stayed with me, stuck deep in my subconsciousness. It’s taken me until I’m almost seventeen to truly understand the words of the story’s eleven-year-old narrator.

Now, as I’m about to enter my senior year of high school, I think I finally understand what it feels like to have all my years “rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box.” On some days when my frustration with a current running injury spikes, I feel like I’m two again, unable to do anything about what’s bothering me except cry. Sometimes when I try and fail to write a sophisticated-yet-down-to-earth college application essay, I feel like a ten-year-old, somewhat awkward, lacking a full grasp of the self I want to portray to others. There are days when I feel like I’m seven, joyful and happy and satisfied. And in rare moments, I catch glimpses of what it feels like to be a senior in high school: grown-up and mature yet not weighed down by the pressures of true adulthood. But that part of me is not fully grown yet. The sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old is still the newest, most inexperienced part of me. And sometimes that’s reassuring.

Though “Eleven” is about how the narrator wishes her years weren’t rattling around inside her, I find the idea comforting. It feels good to know that all the ages I’ve ever been are still inside me, still a part of me. On days when I don’t feel old enough to be almost done with high school or making hugely important life decisions, it’s nice to know that I have all those years supporting me, contributing to who I am now. And it’s nice to know that each day I live now, each day of my senior year, each day of my seventeenth year on the planet, will come back to help me somewhere down the road.

It took me eight years to understand, but that pointless story about the pouty girl and the ugly red sweater finally makes sense. It’s nice to know that once I have a few more years inside me, a few other things might too.