Illustration by Popularium. Source images Sony Pictures Television
Wednesday night. 10 pm. The one night I can stay up late. A voiceover mansplains, “Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy.”
It’s 1977. I am an 8-year-old at Washington Elementary School in Trenton, NJ. Our 3rd grade class is ruled by one Jacqueline Bransford. Jacqueline: fair and freckled, with long, kinky hair that inspires envy. Diana Ross and Crystal Gayle had a Beautiful Hair Baby, and she has great clothes and the fierce confidence of a thousand 3rd graders. She is terrifying.
I have to be friends with her.
An only child at the time, I was starved for kid camaraderie and thrilled when I was able to infiltrate the Cool Kids, presided over by Jacqueline. I had arrived.
Meanwhile, our new classmate Desiree was one of The Unfortunates. An underdog who sat alone with faded clothes and defeated eyes. Already Jacqueline’s antithesis. If that wasn’t enough, Desiree had had lice. And in 1977, children with lice had their heads shaved. A bald 3rd grader is a lonely 3rd grader who inspires snickering. Naturally, Jacqueline led the charge and everyone followed. Except for me. Because I felt only one obligate parasite away from being her.
My instincts told me to reach out to my shorn classmate, but the stakes were too high; I was on Jacqueline’s Popularity Payroll. I made a few weak attempts to catch Desiree’s eyes in silent solidarity, but failed. Until finally, a window opened.
Every day during recess, the Cool Kids played Charlie’s Angels on the playground. It was my favorite show, chronicling the adventures of three smart, beautiful detectives in LA who were continually put in situations that caused their boobs and butts to jiggle. Perfect idols for the pretween female. I was hooked.
To play, we needed three little girls: Jill, the blonde bombshell; Kelly, the stunning brunette; and Sabrina, the brains of the operation and a Plain Jane by comparison. Sabrina didn’t have enough hair, lines, or jiggle. Hers was the most difficult role on the playground to cast.
And on that day, no one wanted to play Sabrina. There was a hole in our coven of Angels and I saw opportunity in Desiree, who stood alone by the fence, watching us.
Inspired, I walked over to her. I had never seen her up close. She had tiny freckles. When I asked her to play Sabrina, her face lit up like a Christmas tree. Yes, she would! A pattern of disbelief and hope painted her face. Her days as An Unfortunate were finally coming to an end.
I closed the deal with a nod, walked back to the gang, and shared the news. Jacqueline cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. She had obviously overestimated my coolness. Murmurs rose amongst the group of extras and special guests. Someone chimed in that if Desiree was in, they were out. Heads nodded. Arms crossed. I saw my future pass before my eyes. And it was bald. It was lonely.
So what I did I do? What any savvy playground politician would; I turned around, approached Desiree and relayed, frankly, that no one would play if she joined. If she was surprised, her face did not betray it. She simply said, “okay” and turned away.
Then I walked away from her. Went back to the Cool Kids, where I belonged. Leaving her alone, where she belonged. I had failed her. Failed me.
Soon after, my baby brother was born, we moved to the suburbs, and I was never to dishonor that playground again.
I spent the remainder of my school years trying to compensate for what had happened on the asphalt. School was my Love Boat, and I, everyone’s personal Cruise Director, Julie McCoy. When a new girl showed up to school, I welcomed her with open arms and an open social calendar, even if I ultimately found many of them uninspiring. My mission: Leave No Kid Desiree’d.
Exchange student who spoke little English and donned the same unwashed outfit for weeks at a time? I am on it. Shy girl from Wisconsin with a bowl cut and dearth of personality? Bring it on. Bawdy transfer from Illinois who hit on my boyfriend? Come in for a hug, sister. I was still a politician, but now I worked for the good guys, and was never without at least a few Sabrinas around me at all times.
I never thought I would see Desiree again. But recently I was marathoning Stranger Things, and there she was in the character Eleven; same shaved head, same eyes that reflected loss and abuse. The resemblance was uncanny.
She was still an outcast, yes, but now she was different. Tougher. She had psychokinetic superpowers. She could destroy bad people with her mind: Make mean kids pee their pants. Break a neck or an arm with a blink and a nosebleed. Suspend people in midair. Pin a monster to a wall. She even scored herself a pretty blonde wig but looked prettier without it. I watch her get asked to the Snow Ball Dance and share her first kiss. She had become one badass motherfucker, and no Angel could touch that shit.
In their world of Hawkins, Indiana, Eleven and Mike and Lucas and Dustin join together to destroy the Demogorgon, restoring peace to a world that had turned ugly.
So I allow myself to take a journey with my Eleven. We are back on the playground again in 1977. And I am Mike and Lucas and Dustin. The playground, The Upside Down.
This time I leave the Cool Kids and join her — really join her. I get lice and have to shave my head, and together we are Twenty-Two. And we destroy the Demogorgon Jacqueline Bransford and her evil minions, ending their reign of terror forever.
I see things differently now. I’m not perfect, but I did try to help Desiree, even if I only succeeded in a fantasy. This revelation is bigger and better than any case those three little Angels ever cracked. I finally find peace in forgiving myself for being an 8-year-old girl who wanted to be popular.