Last year, Lulu was elected student council representative of her first-grade class, along with Ava Pingry. She didn't quite know what this meant and mentioned it a few days after it happened.
Up until then, I would have found it awful that in first grade kids were already voting for class presidents, but suddenly it seemed like a quaint idea, a way for them to see democracy in action.
And if it was a popularity contest, well, Lulu had earned her popularity the honest way: By being nice to everyone.
Regis and I weren't so lucky. . While we weren't unpopular, we were shy children (and shy adults) who can't understand why Lulu isn't timid. (Zeb is the shier of the two)
As a child, I had a visceral fear of becoming a pariah, like Sharon Pringley, a rail-thin girl with some mysterious neurological disorder that made her hands shake. In gym, she ran funny and had a high-pitched voice, which rose even higher during her frequent hysterical fits of frustration. There was something wrong with Sharon, but no one knew what it was. Since no adult ever told us, we assumed Sharon could stop being so weird if she wanted to, although deep down we knew she really couldn't.
Sharon was tortured throughout grade school: during recess, kids mocked the way she ran; her training bra straps were snapped in the library; boys sniffeled on purpose during quiet time, a noise that made hyper-sensitive Sharon burst into tears.
I stood by and watched with a sick feeling in my stomach, wishing I was brave enough to stand up for Sharon. But I was too cowardly to risk being ostracized myself.
For I was sure that if I made one false move, it would be me who'd be getting her bra snapped. Maybe I'd be exposed for not quite knowing the meaning of the word "dildo,'' the all-purpose insult of fourth grade
Maybe I'd wear the wrong sneakers, like I had earlier in the year, when classmates ridiculed my Winnie the Pooh Keds. I expected compliments, but instead was greeted with smirks and sarcastic renditons of the "Winnie the Pooh'' theme.
For Lulu to be elected student council representative in first grade meant she'd never have to go through any of this.
As first-grade rep, it was unclear what Lulu's responsibilities were. But every month, Lulu and Ava got to eat lunch with the student council in Miss Domino's fifth grade class, and this made Lulu feel like a big girl.
There was only one occasion when Lulu wanted to become politically involved. For some reason, the entire school year had nearly passed without "Crazy Hair Day.'' Lulu wanted to spray her own hair pink and was disappointed that the council had skipped the tradition. ("Pajama Day'' had also been cancelled by the administration due to fears that the kids would wear "inappropriate'' pajamas to school).
I told Lulu that as a voice for other first graders, she had the power to make a difference. I urged her to push for Crazy Hair Day. But I guess it was too intimidating for a six-year-old to go up against kids twice her age and she never raised the subject.
That was the end of her student council involvement.
She wasn't re-elected this year. But I know Crazy Hair Day had nothing to do with it.
I blame Ava Pingry.
This year, all Lulu's friends from Mount Nabor are in the other class. And nearly all the girls from Hunt Club Road, the wealthier part of the district, are in Lulu's class. Including gorgeous, olive-skinned Ava Pingry, the queen bee of the group, who came to school each day in a variety of funky ponchos, mini-skirts and platform boots--just like a Bratz Doll.
On Back to School Night, I could see signs that Ava's star was rising while Lulu struggled to find a place for herself. Except for her best friend Lexi, none of the Mount Nabor girls had written Lulu's name on the formulaic poems posted outside both classrooms, which required kids to list the names of two friends.
Several children had written "Ava,'' including Violet, the timid girl of the Hunt Club clique, who didn't make Ava's list.
Ava's first choice was Amanda Morinsky, a cute, unprepossessing child who'd stepped into a role I had filled briefly during my own childhood: Friend of the Popular Girl.
I knew the perks that came with the territory: the popularity-by-association; dibs on the second-hottest boy in class, since the first-hottest would naturally choose the Popular Girl.
As lady-in-waiting to flirty tomboy Rue Finch, it was my job to listen to her dramatic, self-involved monologues, which were thrilling--her mom had committed suicide and her brooding father beat Rue with a belt when he was mad. But I knew she would never listen to mine, even if I had any.
Thirty years later, I had transferred my resentment to Ava Pingry--a seven-year-old. I was becoming the Texas Cheerleader mom.
I convinced myself that Ava had subtly worked to undercut Lulu because she considered her competition.
My evidence? The letter Ava had written last year when Lulu was Student of the Week: "You are cool. You are cute. You have nice hair. You help me every day. You are nice to everyone. You are cooler than me. I love you a lot every day. You are my best friend.''
Despite her apparent affection for Lulu, it was obvious Ava considered her a rival, and she was wrestling with her conflicting emotions. I was satisfied to note, however, that she did think Lulu was cooler.
But then I noticed the passionate hyperbole of all the other girls' letters: Lulu was "beautiful as a princess,'' she was everyone's best friend and they all, apparently, loved her a lot every day.
"Wow, Lulu, do you think they all think you're really their best friend?'' I asked.
"No, they're just writing that to be nice,'' she answered.
"But why can't they just say, 'I like you,' or 'You're my friend?'' I said.
"Because the teacher says you have to be NICE,'' she answered, as if this was obvious.
Instead of giving each other sincere, if less extravagant compliments, her classmates routinely wrote letters that were filled with fulsome praise sometimes saying the opposite of what they meant.
It was then I realized that when Ava wrote, "You're cooler than me,'' she really thought SHE was cooler than Lulu, and she was only trying to be gracious!!!
On election day, when I picked Lulu up from school, she seemed happy and didn't mention the results. The bigger kids had been campaigning for council all month, and Lulu had given me bulletins, but seemed oblivious to elections in her own class, and although I was keeping avid score, I tried desperately to conceal that from her.
But on election day, I broke down. Trying very hard to sound casual, I asked if they voted in her class today.
"Yeah. I didn't win this year,'' she said. "But that's okay because last year I had to miss recess and now I won't have to.''
I was relieved that despite my hideous overinvolement, Lulu was unscathed by her loss.
But then she added, with a note of resignation in her voice, "Amanda Morinsky won instead of me.
And Ava won.