By the time Ella reached 6th grade, she knew that if she was ever going to turn into an incredible swan, it probably wasn’t going to be for many, many years. Her frizzy, wild, uncontrollable hair – which was labeled “dishwater blonde” by her teacher, Mr. Pratley – was the furthest thing from attractive. Add two warts to her face, oversized glasses and a wardrobe that consisted of mismatched clothes from the 80's (definitely not cool in the 90's) and she really had no hope of ever fitting in.Now Rachel, on the other hand, was born a swan. Rachel was the most popular girl at Glenwood Elementary School. All the 6th grade girls awaited her arrival every morning, hovering by the main entrance, pushing each other aside so they could be the first to spot her, the first to hug her, the first to compliment her on that day’s outfit. She had perfectly matching outfits that showed off her slender, petite body and accentuated her light blonde hair, which hung neatly over her shoulders. Ella would stare at Rachel, full of envy. Ella’s family didn’t have a lot of money, and she was left to wear her brother’s faded hand-me-down Levi’s and scuffed up sneakers her mom picked up at the Salvation Army. Most of the kids teased Ella for her lack of fashionable clothes. “She’s wearing boy jeans again,” they would say. She tried to let it roll of her, like water off the ugly duck’s back. The teasing wasn’t as bad as what her older brother, Jack, endured. He definitely didn’t fit in with boys his age, what with his scrawny body, the thick-rimmed glasses, long hair hanging in his face, his slight lisp, his love for poetry and writing music, his vegetarian ways. He’d come home with horror stories of that punk Stanley throwing his books out the window, his old childhood friend Tom shoving him up against the wall in the bathroom, sweet-looking Chris tripping him on the way up to the front of the classroom. Kids were cruel, Ella thought.Ella and Jack’s mom had contemplated home-schooling the kids. It seemed to be the new craze, but their mom was scared that she’d screw it up somehow. Then 14-year-old Jack told her one morning, “It’s okay going to school. I can deal with those jerks. I’m just worried about the emotional scarring it’s going to cause me later in life.”It was at that moment their mom knew that no matter what she did or how she messed up, sending Jack to school was doing irreparable damage. That is when she decided to just go for it and pull him out of school.“Do you want to try home-schooling as well?” Ella’s mom asked her.Ella pondered on this for a few days. “Let me finish 6th grade and see how I feel,” was her final decision. She was determined to discover the secret ingredient of being cool. There had to be a formula for it, just like 2 + 2 = 4. Maybe it was Nike sneakers + blonde hair = popular? Or was being cool just left up to chance? Like winning the lottery?Ella continued to study Rachel closely every day, trying to figure it out. Was it the way she walked? The way she talked? Her cute blonde ponytail that bounced as she walked? It had to be her hip and fashionable clothing. Ella dreamed of the day when everyone would push and shove to walk next to her like they did for Rachel. Perhaps if she could only save up enough money to buy a pair of flash Nike sneakers, then she would be cool.Despite Ella’s awkwardness and her lack of up-to-date clothing, she still managed to be a floater. She could hang out with Rachel and the “in” crowd if she really made the effort. They’d let her tag along, but that was all that she was, just a tag-a-long. Or she could go to the other side and hang out with the socially awkward group of misfits, the truly unpopular girls who were poorer than Ella’s family. They wore ripped flannel shirts, shoes without laces and carried their books in a plastic bag instead of a backpack. One girl had a red scab on her head where hair wouldn’t grow. Ella asked her about it and the girl simply said that her mom had used her head as an ashtray when she was a baby. Ella almost laughed, thinking she was joking. When she realized she was serious, she gasped in horror and wondered why this girl was still living with her parents. Or why she didn’t religiously wear a hat every day.Ella knew she had it better than some, yet she couldn’t help but feel miserable because of her invisibility. If she didn’t make any effort, no one noticed her. She had proved this a couple years ago at Lauren’s 10th birthday party. Lauren invited all the girls in the class to her parties, just like Ella did. There were only ten girls in their grade – out of a class of 30. As Ella’s mom had put it, “It’s just mean to leave one of the girls out. You need to invite them all.” Thankfully, Lauren’s parents agreed, otherwise Ella would’ve missed out on that party. There was a point during Lauren’s sleepover where nobody could find Rachel. Everyone stopped what they were doing and did a complete search of the house from top to bottom until they found her sprawled on a bed upstairs. She was in tears. Everyone cuddled her and hugged her and complimented her until the sniffles subsided and then she directed the whole crowd on to the next activity. Ella couldn’t help but think that the entire ordeal was absolutely ridiculous, but it was enough to get her mind ticking. What would happen if I tried the same thing? Ella thought.This thought led Ella to do an experiment. She picked a room to hide in, made herself comfortable on the bed and worked on an effective sob story. Two hours passed before she realized that nobody at the party missed her or mourned her absence. Either that or she was doing a pretty good job at hiding. She finally gave up and headed downstairs, shocked to find everyone happily devouring chocolate cake and strawberry ice cream. No one said a word about her two-hour absence; she was truly invisible. By the middle of 6th grade, when Ella was 12-years-old, she knew the game she had to play to be noticed. She had to quicken her pace if she was to hang out with Rachel and her two sidekicks, Melissa and Tiffany. She often got shoved to the outside of this tight trio, but still made sure to follow every story, every joke, and to respond at the right moment, with the right response, the right pitched laughter (not too high, not too low). It was very exhausting, and if Ella stopped to tie her shoe, poof, her supposed friends were gone.If Ella ever did end up in the middle of this tight trio, which was rare, the girls would lean over her to talk to each other or to tell a joke. Ella would stand there in the middle, laughing on cue, wishing more than anything that one of them, just one, would look her in the eyes and ask how she was doing. Or want to hear one of her stories or jokes. But that definitely never happened. Ella kept a few jokes on hand just in case.The year Jack became home-schooled was the year their dad started his sign painting business at home. They lived in rural Wisconsin, in a cozy, log cabin their dad had built himself. Ella was the only one waking up at 6:00 a.m. to take an hour-long bus ride to school. She’d come home to hear stories from Jack about how he had french toast with pure maple syrup for breakfast, walked the goats, climbed a tree, and did his homework in the hammock – still in his pajamas! The jealousy started to work its way into Ella’s core, especially when their pet goats no longer recognized her and only wanted to be around Jack. It seemed absurd that she was spending all day in some stuffy school, fighting to be popular, when everyone else was having all this fun at home.The last day of 6th grade finally arrived. Ella stopped trying to be cool. I’ll just be me. She really didn’t know who she was but she knew who she wasn’t – and that was Rachel. “What’s wrong, Ella? You seem a bit quiet lately?” Tiffany asked Ella on the monkey bars during recess. Tiffany was kicked out of Rachel’s group on a weekly basis. Ella could never figure it out. Rachel, Melissa and Tiffany would all be best friends one minute, and the next minute, it was just Rachel and Melissa. If you asked them, they would just shake their heads and say with anger, “Tiffany is evil. Don’t be friends with her. She is not to be trusted.” Then the next day, they were all holding hands, skipping down the hallway together, three peas in a pod. “Girls are mean,” Ella would say to her mom. “And so unpredictable.” “I’m sorry, sweetie,” was her mom’s usual response, patting Ella on the back and whipping up a fresh batch of chocolate-chip cookies. Ella decided to open up to Tiffany that particular day. She felt sorry that Tiffany had gotten kicked out of the exclusive Rachel club once again. “I’ve decided to try home-schooling next year. I’m tired of school. It’s exhausting trying to be popular. I feel like I can learn more at home.” “Wow, you’re so lucky,” Tiffany said, balancing on the monkey bars and pulling at a loose thread on her cut-off jeans. “I know what you mean. It’s so hard with Rachel. But we’re going to miss you so much.” “Really?” Ella said. “Yeah, of course,” Tiffany said. “Really?” Ella repeated herself, shaking her head. “You’re going to miss me?” These girls who never really talked to her, who never wanted to hear her jokes, who often didn’t invite her to their birthday parties were going to miss her? What were they going to miss? Her wild, frizzy hair? Her mismatched clothes? Her ugly warts? “Yes, of course we will miss you,” Tiffany said. But Ella wasn’t convinced. Perhaps they were just going to miss having someone to make fun of. It turned out that that innocent, short conversation with Tiffany got Ella into big trouble with Master Rachel. Ella received this postcard from Rachel a week into summer vacation:Dear Ella, June 10, 1995What is this that I hear about you being home-schooled? We can’t lose you! We will all miss you so much!!!And I am very angry that you were speaking to Tiffany the last day of school. She’s not to be trusted. I hope that you will reconsider your friendship with her and remember where your real priorities lie. Hopefully we can convince you to come back to school.Love,RachelElla was baffled. There was that word again: miss. What were they going to miss? Ella was invisible!!! They never noticed her, how were they going to miss her? Maybe the formula for popularity wasn’t in shoes and hair. Maybe it was in trying, as in trying too hard. Maybe it was only when you simply stopped caring that people noticed you. Ella pulled our her journal and quickly scribbled down this new formula:THE FORMULA FOR POPULARITYI + (-C) + T = PI = IgnoreC = Care (so –C means you don’t care about anyone else but yourself)T = Truth (meaning to be true to who you really are)P = Popularity!She thought about this equation and decided to cross out the T. Perhaps being your true self didn’t really matter when it came to popularity. Was Rachel really being her true self? She was probably a different person at home. Maybe it was just ignore and not caring that equalled popularity? Ella felt better about this equation and put her journal aside. She felt happy that she’d finally figured it out. The summer went by with nothing more from Rachel. The first day of 7th grade arrived, and Ella slept until 10:00 a.m. “I guess this means I’m not going to school,” Ella said to her mom. They both laughed. They knew that Ella had already made her decision, but this made it real. It was the first day of school and Ella was at home in her PJ's. It seemed absurd that the rest of the world had to wake up so early when sleeping late felt so wonderful, so natural, so refreshing. Rachel called that evening to tell Ella about the first day of school. “I’m going to call you every day after school until you come back.” “Okay,” Ella said, not really believing her. And she was right, Rachel never did call again. But she did start writing letters. The most popular girl in all of Glenwood was writing letters to awkward, frizzy-haired Ella. Perhaps she was lonely too? But how could she be with all of that attention? Rachel wrote about school, what she was studying, who she had a crush on, what the other girls were doing, who was fighting with whom, and what sports she was trying out for. Ella would write back about taking dance lessons, what she was studying, how annoying Jack could be, and how their goat Glinda was pregnant. One day Ella invited Rachel over to spend a weekend at her house. Outside of the confines of school, Rachel was actually a nice person. They spent the weekend playing Monopoly, watching movies, and walking the pet goats.Rachel and Ella ended up sharing a secret obsession with playing Barbies, even at the age of 12. Neither of them wanted to suggest playing with the Barbies; they would just quietly nod towards Ella’s extensive Barbie collection, slowly pulling out the dolls and their sparkly wardrobe and pink accessories. The girls would spend hours creating exquisite homes for them, using silk scarves to decorate their walls and shoeboxes lined with fluffy socks as king-sized beds. They didn’t just dress them up and brush their hair, they wove intricate stories of drama – every day was like a real-life soap opera. One evening, there was a sudden knock on Ella’s bedroom door. It was Kyle, Jack’s best friend, asking if the girls were ready to play Risk. In a panic, Ella jumped up and locked the door.“What’s going on?” Kyle demanded.“Uh…” Ella looked at Rachel. “We are…um…changing. We’ll be down in five minutes.” Rachel was already scooping up the Barbies, tossing them into a big box and shoving them under the bed. They scanned the room to make sure they’d gotten everything – that they hadn’t left out a high-heel or a miniature Barbie brush. Once they thought they were safe, Ella opened the door.“You guys are wearing the same clothes,” Kyle said. Leave it to him to be so observant. “These are different jeans,” Ella lied.Kyle just shrugged. “We got the game set up. You guys ready?”Ella had had a crush on Kyle since the first time she’d seen him on the bus, when she was only 8-years-old. He’d slid in next to Jack, and Ella couldn’t help but stare at him for the entire ride. He was adopted and originally from Brazil. His slightly dark skin and jet black hair made him very exotic for rural Wisconsin. Ella’s crush deepened more and more over the years – up to the point where she called it love in her journal. She knew that he was a bit of a bad boy. There was an edge to him – a warning label that said stay away. Ella had always had her heart set on meeting a down-to-earth man; someone who loved to garden, wanted to live in the country, was a vegetarian, and loved to climb trees. Ella didn’t see any of those qualities in Kyle. He liked rap music, wore baggy jeans and a backwards hat, talked about how he couldn’t wait to get away and live in the city; he even confessed to stealing. It was obvious that this was a futile love; it would never develop into the relationship that Ella envisioned. Even though she knew it was pointless, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. She spent hours confessing her love to Kyle in her journal, formulating equations that might sum up the meaning of love. She came up with these two equations:Love Equation #1A + H + E = True LoveA = Attraction (Kyle was the hottest guy she’d ever known)H = Humor (Kyle had plenty of this, she was always laughing at his jokes)E = Excitement (She had never felt so many tingles before in her entire life)Love Equation #2A + S + F = True LoveA = AttractionS = Stability (Kyle didn’t have this…not with his criminal ways)F = Future (How could she build a future with someone who wasn’t a good person?)Ella studied these two equations for a long time. She studied them for so long that her face grew sweaty, and her glasses started sliding down her nose. She just couldn’t figure out the meaning and core function of love. She knew that Equation #2 would lead to a more sane, predictable life because she wouldn’t have to worry about her husband cheating on her, stealing food from the local grocery store, doing drugs or ending up in jail. But Equation #1 could mean that she would be laughing for the rest of her life and that her body would have that amazing tingling feeling all the time, which made her feel ecstatic. She hadn’t figured out yet what that amazing tingling feeling was or where it came from. Nobody had ever explained it to her before, and they certainly didn’t teach you about it in school. It was like she had swallowed a million butterflies and they were ripping her insides apart but in a really good way. For now, she decided to call that feeling .54. She didn’t know what that number represented or what it was a scale or fraction of, she just needed to have some tangible thing to equate to that feeling. For some reason that number jumped in her head and she just went with it.Ella worked up the courage to try to push the boundaries with Kyle. One night, when he came over for dinner, she reached her foot under the table and tried to play footsie with him. There was a moment when she thought their feet had met. She felt a sudden blast of .54 (a.k.a. tingles). Then she realized that her foot was only rubbing up against one of the table legs. Embarrassed, she blushed and swore that she would never attempt that again. Yet the gravitational pull towards him was too great; she felt powerless in her desire and need to touch him. The next time Kyle came over for dinner, she tried another plan of attack. She dropped her napkin first, ducked under the table to gauge where his foot was, and then inched her foot slowly towards his foot. But the minute their feet made contact, he pulled his foot away, swatting at it as if there was a bug attacking him. Ella didn’t know which was worse, him pulling his foot away or her getting all excited by rubbing up against one of the table legs. Ella wondered if the equation for love was similar to the formula for popularity. Maybe she just needed to ignore him and not care. Either way, she decided to give up on her pursuit of Kyle’s love.A few weeks later, Kyle came over for the weekend. Ella was making a scrapbook of her recent 13th birthday party, which was held at a roller skating rink. Kyle glanced over her shoulder while she was sorting through the pictures.“Who’s that babe Jack is skating with?” Kyle asked.Ella glanced closely at the picture. The picture was taken from afar, so you couldn’t tell at first glance that it was Ella. “Um, Kyle. That babe is me.” It was true. She had used a ton of mousse to calm her hair down so that it cascaded down in spiralling curls instead of looking like she had just been electrocuted. She was wearing super tight leggings and a short, low cut shirt she’d bought with her very own money she’d earned from babysitting. Ella had also spent the evening skating without her glasses, bumping into people along the way but determined to have at least one day out of the year where she didn’t look like a complete dork. “No shit. Really?” Kyle looked closer. “Damn.” Then he blushed. “I didn’t mean…well…geez, you sure that’s you?”Ella didn’t know whether to feel complimented or offended. What, I can’t be a babe? She knew she would never be sexy in his eyes. She knew that she was just the little sister, a young innocent girl with no experience with boys. Yet the fact that Kyle liked the person he saw in the picture compelled Ella to try to win his attention once again. The following weekend, Ella and Jack invited Rachel and Kyle to come over. They decided to watch Saturday Night Live after devouring three large pizzas. Jack claimed the rocking chair, arranging pillows all around him so that he looked like a head floating in space. Somehow Kyle ended up wedged between Rachel and Ella, holding the big bowl of popcorn. Taking long, deep breaths, Ella slowly began inching her fingers closer to his hand, which was wrapped around the popcorn bowl. Her movement was so slow, like a flower slowly opening up the morning sun, but her heart was thumping around wildly in her chest and the butterflies were going nuts, totally out of control. Ella was so afraid he would yank his hand away but figured if she touched it ever so softly, maybe he would feel a tingle (.54) and keep it there. And maybe he’d move his hand closer…maybe even interlace his fingers with hers… But just as Ella was about to make contact, she saw that Kyle’s other hand was interlaced with Rachel’s! The shock was too great. Ella jerked her hand away suddenly, causing the popcorn bowl to go tumbling to the ground. She was on her hands and knees within seconds, trying not to cry as she focused on picking up the scattered pieces of popcorn. What an idiot she was! “You are such a klutz,” Jack said.“Oh, Ella. What happened?” Rachel said, sinking down to the ground to help Ella clean up the mess.“I just…I don’t know…I’m sorry…” Ella stammered. How did this happen? Who reached for whom? Ella never knew Rachel even liked him! Kyle was supposed to fall in love with Ella! All this time she figured Kyle didn’t return her love because she was so young, but Rachel was the same age as her. So what did that mean? Perhaps the reason he didn’t like Ella wasn’t because of her age. It was because….He just doesn’t like me, she thought.Of course it made sense for Rachel to win Kyle. Everyone loved Rachel and her perfect features, her sweet little smile, her model-like blonde hair. Rachel couldn’t help it if she was a beautiful swan and Ella was just an ugly duckling. Ella decided that the formula for popularity must be similar to the formula for attraction. It wasn’t something you could learn; you either had it or you didn’t.After that disastrous weekend, Ella decided to give up on the equations for good. She felt convinced she had figured out the Popularity Formula, which was closely related to the Love Equation, but neither had led her to gain popularity or love. What was the point in understanding these equations if she couldn’t make them a reality for herself? She buried her journals deep inside her Barbie box and shoved the box to the back of her closet. When Rachel looked for her Barbies next time she was over, Ella sadly shook her head, indicating that she had gotten rid of them. She never asked Rachel about Kyle. In a bittersweet twist of fate, Kyle was arrested for stealing a car a few months later and was sent away to a youth detention center. Ella knew she should’ve followed Love Equation #2, which stated that love needed to have stability and the promise of a good future in order to thrive. She made a note to add H (for honesty) to that equation in the future. Then remembered she wasn’t doing those silly equations anymore.Although later that night, she couldn’t help but scribble out one last equation on a piece of paper before she fell asleep:The Odd Duck Phenomenon AK + W x P = SAK = Awkward KidW = WisdomP = Patience (not popularity)S = SwanShe held this piece of paper close to her heart as she fell asleep. One day she wouldn’t be a duck anymore. This equation she knew was 100% true.
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