13 Ways of Looking at 13
By Isabel Marks & Elena Nicolaou
What was the worst year of your life? The right answer is 13. Here’s why.
CELL PHONE (2007-2008) Mom said she was on her way but her way wasn’t coming fast enough. I tried to look busy. Flip phone out. Flip phone open. The flip phone could survive an apocalypse, I was sure, but that didn’t make it interesting or me more interesting. I typed fake messages to real, faraway friends. On that phone, sentences were a series of choices, buttons pressed three times for the right letter. My life was a series of choices, too, but I could not read the sentence that explained why they had friends and I had a flip phone. When Mom arrived, I snapped the phone shut And welcomed a conversation that spoke back. (2019-2020) I kept sending all these texts to my friend when she left for three months. She answered them in one big burst -- The girl who annoyed us had annoyed me, Colin Jost and Michael Che had kept going. I stopped keeping screen time, too much guilt gnawing away. LUNCH TABLE POLITICS (2007-2008) In the first week we had to choose our friends for the rest of the year. It was more than lunch, that first week, it was speed dating meets Survivor. If you were cool, you knew where you were sitting, because you’d decided in the summer. If you weren’t, you had to charm, fight, con your way into security. That week was a game of musical chairs only once you sat, you sat for good, and you better hope you had a table. I watched them write my name, the cooler girls, on the piece of paper. They knew that I knew that I was lucky. (2019-2020) Every time I tried to describe it, I thought it would be easier with a diagram. It kept changing and shifting. I always sat on the edge, to keep an eye on everyone. FAVORITE MOVIE (2007-2008) We bought tickets for one movie, I don’t remember which, and we snuck into another. Sweeney Todd. Rated R. In those days, I had a cardboard cutout of Johnny Depp in my room, dressed up as a pirate. Here, he was a cannibalistic conman, a barber who chopped up his customers. I was in love from the moment he opened his mouth. And when he sang “Johanna’ with passion, I wept through popcorn. After the movie my mom put a plate of meat in front of me. “I can’t,” I said, thinking of Sweeney and his razor blade. Either it was the guilt or the blood or the popcorn, but I lost my appetite that night. Johnny watched me as I slept. “Do they think that walls can hide you?” he’d sung in the movie. I hoped not. I wanted to be found. (2019-2020) The night seventh grade ended, I watched Booksmart, alone in my room at like 8pm. I didn’t take any lessons from it— I still haven’t. All I knew was that it was fun to watch, I guess. MY BEST FRIEND’S HOUSE (2007-2008) She painted her bedroom a deep red. We said it looked like Paris. She had a computer where she burned CDs and led a secret life. She taught me how to straighten my hair. The room smelled like something going terribly wrong even as she complimented me. She was the youngest and I was the oldest. She was miles ahead of me. At one point she got so far ahead she stopped hearing me (or she stopped turning around). Once in a while I caught up and she waved, limp-wristed. But that’s hardly a hello, once you’ve experienced the other thing. Hours of together with no need for goodbye, more like see you in a second, and how about I call you when I get home? Sometimes, I’d be over her house before she got home. All that stopped when I was 13. We weren’t on a track. It wasn’t like she could do a lap and catch up to me. She ran cross-country in high school and was never home anymore. (2019-2020) Every time I’m in her room, I end up on that window seat that isn’t a window seat. Or on her bed. I felt a bit shell shocked, That someone would want to remember me, That I didn’t just exist in her head but on her wall. Six months later, three quarters of the photos were unpinned, taken down with spite. We’re not going to talk about other bedrooms. We’re just going to quote Great Aunt Judy.
MY FAVORITE TEACHER (2007-2008) Señora Friedman let me choose a new name. I chose Isabel. She said Elena was a beautiful name so she made me keep it. I became Elena Isabel. I thought Isabel would make me more interesting. Insead I was just me. Me, but with more Isabel. And with a few more Spanish words. (2019-2020) I literally don’t think you get how much I miss her. Most of my grade…tolerated her? I wouldn’t figure that out for another year. The class was fun. She was fun. WHAT I ALREADY MISS (2007-2008) Watching clouds gather in the sky. Glum winter clouds, the kind that carries snow. Waking up to a blanket of white and a call in the morning with two magic words: Snow day. Like a coat sliding off the hanger, I slumped, unhinged from obligation. For a day, I had nothing to be but free. (2019-2020) That skin felt old, hidden from the sun. And getting asked why I was hiding it felt like power, like a secret confirmation. My head felt old too, back when I would run out of sleep meds. Most days, I couldn’t hide the laugh when I won the Latin Kahoot. I was floating, flying, held up by some halo. Didn’t they see how easy Latin was? ONLINE ME (2007-2008) I got married when I was 13. We were married for years, she and I, and we were happy. My best friend was my fake wife on Facebook. In high school I got a boyfriend and I called her before changing my relationship status. Do you mind? I asked. If she did, she didn’t say so. She and I became friends before Facebook. We knew there was life outside it. (2019-2020) I used it to wreck myself, And let it hold the carefully coordinated disdain for those who used it differently. I kept trying to use it as an escape, but I wasn’t particularly successful. My problems still existed in chat rooms. WHAT I’LL REMEMBER (2007-2008 and 2019-2020) The weight of my backpack, a practical one. The vending machine that gave out pens and pencils. The principal, Dr. Dunay, possibly the scariest man who ever lived. The sound of an out-of-tune orchestra in the early mornings. The walk to the car where Mom sat waiting. The empty hallways on the slow walk to the bathroom. The water fountains and their water, cool, unparalleled. The shrill of the bells telling me where to get next. The anger and the comfort in that: Always knowing where I needed to be. Always knowing my friends were around the corner— And my enemies, too. (They were often the same people.) I remember being hungry to fight. To have something beneath my fists that wasn’t a laptop, to hear a crunch and a crack and for my heart to speed up. And then I just remember being hungry, and my heart slowed. Okay, so you think I’m stupid. Which is fine, I guess. How do I stop tucking my hair behind my ears? I’m bored, can I have some of your saturation?
After reading the poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, we were inspired to write our version about the experience of being 13-years-old in two different generations. The original poem comprises 13 different perspectives on a single subject (a blackbird!) and emphasizes the importance of perception in shaping reality. Our poem gets at the universality of 13—but the specificity of it, too—by comparing our relationships to things like social media, cell phones and lunch table politics. The end result is 25 reasons to be glad you grew up.
Isabel Marks (she/her) is a high school freshman from New York City. Her Scholastic-award winning work can be found in notebooks and laptop folders. She edits for Polyphony Lit, where she serves as a member of the Junior Executive Board. Outside of writing, she likes yogurt, politics and art of all kinds.
As a culture editor at Oprah Daily, Elena covers the latest in books, movies, TV, pop culture and the ever-expanding world of streaming. Prior to Oprah Daily, Elena worked as an entertainment writer at Refinery29 for three years, writing about everything from royals to reality TV and developing the site’s book section.