Sandra Cisneros's short story "Eleven" is narrated by an eleven-year-old girl named Rachel. Rachel tells a story about an embarrassing incident that happened to her at school.
At the beginning of the story, Rachel reflects on the occasion of her eleventh birthday. She speculates that when somebody turns eleven, they are also, at the same time, "ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one." In other words, when somebody turns eleven, they still have inside of them their ten-year-old self, and their nine-year-old self, and so on. Rachel uses the image of "little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other" to emphasize what she means.
From this starting point, Rachel then reasons that when somebody is eleven, they might still sometimes do something, or feel something, that is really, for instance, the thought or feeling of their five-year-old self. As an example, she says that "some days you might say something stupid, and that's the part of you that's still ten."
Rachel then says that she wishes she were older—"one hundred and two instead of eleven." She explains that she wishes she were older because if she were older, she would have "known what to say when her teacher, Mrs. Price, put the red sweater on [her] desk." At this point in the story, Rachel recounts the incident involving Mrs. Price and the red sweater, which took place earlier that day. This incident also helps to explain why Rachel thinks of aging the way she does, as a series of dolls, one for each year, and one inside of the other.
Earlier that day, at school, Mrs. Price asked Rachel's class which of them was the owner of a red sweater that had been "in the coatroom for a month." One of Rachel's classmates suggested that the sweater belonged to Rachel. Rachel, in hindsight, suspects that her classmate had malicious intentions, because the sweater was "ugly" and looked like it might have been "a thousand years old." Mrs. Price, nonetheless, accepted that the sweater belonged to Rachel and so put it on Rachel's desk.
Rachel tried to object but found that she was unable to do so with any conviction. She protested in a weak, "little voice" that, she says, "was maybe [her] when she was four." Rachel tried to think of ways to get rid of the sweater. She looked forward to lunch time, when she could throw it "over the schoolyard fence" or perhaps leave it "hanging on a parking meter." She pushed the sweater away from her, to the very edge of her desk.
At this point, Mrs. Price became annoyed with Rachel and insisted that Rachel put the sweater on. Rachel wanted to protest that the sweater wasn't hers but, once more, found that she was unable to do so. Frustrated, she imagined "all the years inside of [her] . . . pushing at the back of [her] eyes," making her want to cry. At this moment, she wished that she could have been simply and only her eleven-year-old self, rather than all of her younger selves, too. Trying to hold back the tears, Rachel did what she was told and put the sweater on, even though it "smell[ed] like cottage cheese" and was "all itchy and full of germs."
At this moment, and all of a sudden, Rachel started crying and shaking uncontrollably, in front of the rest of the class. The "worst part," however, as far as Rachel is concerned, is that another pupil, Phyllis Lopez, chose this moment, right before the lunch bell was due to ring, to proclaim that the sweater was in fact hers. Rachel took the sweater off straight away and handed it to Phyllis. Mrs. Price was unapologetic and "pretend[ed] like everything [was] okay."
To calm herself down, Rachel told herself over and over that she was eleven and that there was a birthday cake waiting for her at home. But this didn't seem to work, and Rachel, acutely embarrassed and angered by her teacher's unapologetic attitude, wished that she was "far away . . . like a runaway balloon." This image, of Rachel as a tiny balloon disappearing into the distance, is the image with which the reader is left at the end of the story.
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