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How I Became Elle Anderson
Noise was everywhere as I entered the trailer, flooding every crevice, behind furniture and under the television. My parents screamed words at each other, the kind of words that really hurt, salting the wound while your down, if you catch my drift. My mother and father went into a usual propaganda act, an act you get used to if you live with them. Mom, sobbing, letting her head sag, settled on the floor, miserable. Pop went into his speech about how the bills had to be
paid, how he couldn’t do every little thing for her. I frowned, noticed that my brother was missing. It clicked in my mind that he was upstairs with one of his many girlfriends, but brushed away the thought, excusing it like dust in the wind. I tossed a twenty dollar bill onto the table, which was once dark brown, a color that made you feel like jumping into a nice hot cup of coffee with cream, but these days was beige and almost painful to look at. I scurried out the door, gripping the remains of my paycheck from delivering papers in my hand.
As I walked out, my mind was elsewhere. It pondered why all of my friends were busy today, why the school had a meeting on Wednesdays and you couldn’t stay after. In any case, I had been forced to wander, something I found myself doing an awful lot these days. I had to, it was the only way to escape the havoc of home, branded in my mind as the worst place I
could possibly be.
These were the things I thought as I walked meaninglessly past the sign that once had said
“Welcome To Dartmoor”, but was so plastered in graffiti that you couldn’t tell. It said dirty things where the word Dartmoor had once been, things so bad I don’t want to say them. But let me tell you, you could tell from a glance at that sign that this was not the
place to be.
As usual, I walked into a convenience store called “Zoe’s Market”, where I always enjoyed a Popsicle or a box of crackers. As I shoved the saloon style doors (which are not too
practical for Maine), Anne, not Zoe, greeted me. She was Zoe’s daughter and pretty much ran the store alone.
“Hey, Sonya, what can I do for ya?” Anne Giroux (or Jar-You as her Mainer customers often called her) was a friendly girl who worked the weekend and afternoon shifts at Zoe’s Market since she wanted the money to purchase an apartment in Manhattan as she hoped to get into Columbia someday in the near future. Though her sub-conscious mind told her she’d never make it. (You aren’t smart enough Anne, you need A plus grades to get in there...) Anne was not one to give up and kept on pushing. Although I was only in seventh grade (I had skipped sixth) I knew Anne well. She often cam into my classes, for her greatest wish was to become a teacher.
“The usual please.” The words fell out of my mouth, my scratchy throat aching for my harsh breath, I hadn’t been walking here. My feet had carried me swift and quick. I was tired, breathless. I was about ready to plop down and have a good rest.
Anne nodded and her blonde curls bounced about her face as she leaned down to get an ice pop out of her freezer box. As she tossed the “usual”, a lemon ice, I slapped the “usual” amount of money down on the counter, a one dollar bill. And, of course, as usual, Anne refused to take it all.
“Really now Sonya,” she told to me in a sympathetic manner, “I know what you do to get this money, and I think it’s not fair. I’m not taking more than seventy five cents.” I sighed and took the quarter she held out to me expectantly. Anne was like a stern mother who didn’t want her children getting cheated out.
I smiled and waved goodbye, and that was it. As soon as I had left Zoe’s, I weighed my possibilities. I could go back to the trailer, that crazy hole of helplessness and noise, or I could go on. Usually, as soon as I had walked out the saloon doors once more, I’d turn back and try not to think about the consequences. I’d head back to the trailer, trying to get it running smoothly, as smooth as it could, at least, with my mother bathing in and on the brink of insanity, my father without work, and then my brother, who was fifteen years old and had recently dropped out of
eighth grade at the threat of me entering his grade next year. He should have been a sophomore, but he just wasn’t smart enough to pass into high school, he just didn’t get it.
The thought of heading toward that world of havoc and panic made me wince too hard to go there, so I decided to take the latter, letting the idea float away from me like a cold breeze. So that’s how I ended up walking up the road in Clinton, aimless and tired waiting to see if anything of interest would come across my path, a wish that never had been granted, as I tried so hard to simply zone out the world with all of it’s imperfections, to create stories where wishes came true and happiness could be taken for granted. In other words, what I knew as complete and total fantasy, what I wished my world could be. That’s when I walked right into the barn at Strawberry Hill Farm and stopped being Sonya Perry.
A chubby woman sat the desk. Her long gray hair was tied back in a messy ponytail. She sat hunched over on one of those chairs, you know, the kind everyone loves since they spin around? Anyway, her back was an arch, her face sour, you could tell that with the sun still high she had other things she’d like to do. I hadn’t the faintest clue of what the color of the walls were since they were an explosion of colored ribbons and trophies. The woman’s face brightened as I entered the cozy little office. It took me a moment to get out of the zone and to realize that this was a riding farm, equipped with horses outside roaming the fields and grazing.
“Hello thar, ma’am, how ma’ A halp yow?” My mindtranslated her strong accent in seconds flat. Hello there, ma’am, how may I help you?
It was a good question, but I answered without a second thought, as if my sub-conscious mind knew what she would say and had layed the words out for me to save time, like it sensed something out of the ordinary and I guess, extraordinary. “I’d like to ride, if I could, miss. I’m not too good with horses, but I’d like... Well, I’d like to learn.” Her approving look told me I’d said what she wanted to hear.
“‘A’d’ll bay sags twunty fav far a lesson.”
That will be six twenty-five for a lesson.
I fished around and my pocket, pulled out a five, a one, and the quarter Anne had given me. Bless her!
Yes, bless her indeed. The more time I was here, the less time I was back at the trailer. I handed my findings to the woman, who smiled, stood, and gestured towards the door. Little did I know that this would change my mind, little did I know that I had a gift.
The barn wrecked of horses and hay, yet I bathed in the scent, unable to get enough of it. It was perfume to my nose, I’d never been near the scent before, yet welcomed it like an old friend. This made the already jubilant woman even happier. It wouldn’t have been surprising if a tear of glee dropped down onto the padded floor. That was before I saw the horses, all of them, standing in the many stalls, watching us. Then I saw him, a horse that was red like fire who made my heart explode. His coat shined with all it’s strength, his muscles pulsed, and he was beautiful, gorgeous, even. His eyes were wise and knowing. He was the most amazing creature I had even seen. It was my first exposure to these creatures and they (he) had already become the image my heart craved.
The woman grinned as she followed my gaze. “He’s a tough one, but you can try him, hon. He’s got power, but that stallion is taking too you real well. His name’s I’m On Fire, Baby, but he responds to only Babe, though he knows his name.” She gave him a sharp look, but the horse was too proud to give in and look away. Instead, the woman ended up looking at the floor, as if the stallion’s eyes burnt her skin. But when Babe looked at me, I held his gaze; his name
rattling in my mind.
“Babe.” He was still, locking in my words, letting them curl about him, slicing the silence. Oh, how wonderful that silence was! The woman smiled, so filled with glee at the sight of me, a girl never exposed to such an animal so full of love at first sight for Babe. He reached out his nose, cocked his head, urging me to come forward. I took a ginger step and at the touch of his skin I was hooked.
“I’ll saddle him up for you, darlin’.” I nodded absently as the words flowed freely through the air and the woman disappeared. I had a moment with Babe where I only looked at him in amazement. Then the chubby lady reappeared, holding a hunk of leather I would soon come to know as tack. This particular piece was a saddle, which you sit on. It rests upon the horse’s back, held on by only the girth, wrapped around the stomach. She led Babe out of his stall and slipped a halter over his head so she could secure him to the ropes, or cross ties. Then she showed me how to set the saddle on his back and how to tighten the girth. She explained to me how to be sure that it wasn’t hurting him or going to spook him. She then put on the bridle, a mess of leather ropes that go around the horse’s head which is used for directing. At last, we were ready, ready to go out and ride, ready for me and Babe to become one.
As I sat upon Babe’s broad back, I felt the gentle breathing and I heard the snorts of impatience. The woman, my instructor, called to me, “Nudge gently with your legs and he will walk.” It scared me, but I did. Babe’s legs began to work, moving with grace one at a time. It was amazing, the thought that I could control this marvelous horse that one so small could change the direction of one so large as Babe. I felt like an ant telling a hog what to do, like I had real power.
The woman stood at the edge of the arena watching in awe as I walked Babe along, letting my arms move with him, letting my eyes tell him where to go. Really though, it wasn’t me at all. I mean, it was, but it wasn’t, I can’t explain it. It was as if we were one being, horse and girl, challenging the world as one.
“Trot him, girly!”
I didn’t know what that word, trot, meant but I managed it. Babe’s legs pumped faster moving in diagonal pairs and I moved with him, going up and down seriously collected. Babe was an amazing mover. It felt like he was floating as we went along. Then it was over, it had been an hour. My time with Babe was over, I had to leave and head back to the torture that was my life.I told the woman that I would return, that I wanted to be here longer next time, that I needed the scent of hay running through my veins and the feel of Babe’s fur and warmth coming off his skin. The woman nodded. “All right, miss, I’ll need your name to reserve for you, I’m Laura. Laura Hendriks.”
It came out of no where, here I really wasn’t Sonya Perry. My mind just made it happen and so it did. “My name is Elle Anderson. Thank you so much, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Oh my God, it hurt. I was so sore the next morning! I groaned and rolled out of bed greeted by a hard floor. I moaned in grief and walked out of my room. In the kitchen, my mother was buttering toast over and over, not sure if there was enough on the bread to suit our needs. I found that it was Saturday, a day I usually would be up early and...
Oh, no! Saturday! I grabbed a sweatshirt and hopped into a pair of oversized shoes. I dodged a bunch of scattered beer cans on the ground, my father’s I supposed, on my quest to reach the door. I ran out and pounced on my bike. It just wasn’t my day, as the chain was too rusty to move and when it did move, it was only so that it could snap on me.
Okay, I bet you’re a bit confused. Today was paper day, I delivered papers to earn some money and get paid twenty-eight dollars every two months, which is good pay, if you ask me. I like to be at the delivery house early, so I can finish early, so I can go hang out in town. But it wasn’t very early now. The printer’s was a good twenty minutes at a reasonable pace on my bike, forty minutes to walk and...
Yes! Babe! I could ride Babe there! I took off running towards Clinton, towards Babe. I passed the welcome sign, I passed Zoe’s market, and at last there I was, ten minutes later. Wow, could I run!
Laura was out already, filling a water trough for the horses. I ran to her side floundering passed the manure pile.
“Elle! What are you doing up so early?” Laura was quiet and happy to have the sun glaring on her back. I explained my situation to her, and she nodded thoughtfully.
“I understand, Elle, and when I saw you on Babe yesterday, well, it was amazing. You were centered and moving naturally with him, skills that take some months or even years to master. I couldn’t believe my eyes, you have a way with that horse. The tack room is next to Babe’s stall. The tack is fitted and labeled for each horse.”
I was shocked.
“Then… I can?”
Laura gave me a look of surprise that I dared doubt her. That was enough. Not another word was spoken,
I raced to the barn and stopped dead, Babe. I quickly came back to reality, trying not to relive yesterday’s introduction which, though marvelous took a very long time. I hadn’t a second to spare. I put on his tack quickly but carefully. In minutes, I was upon Babe’s back, guiding him for my life, my job, and my family’s bills.
Upon reaching the printing building, I tied Babe’s reins which are, for those up you who aren’t too keen on horse smarts, the ropes on the bridle attached to the horse’s mouth for instruction. Then I scurried into the building, grabbed the papers I had to deliver, and then trotted Babe along my route. Let me tell you, he was much faster than my old bike! At each stop, I would toss the paper at the porch not wanting to stop Babe for fear of falling off or not being able to get on. Some logical reason for each place kept me on his back happier than ever before. He was wonderful and I was done before usual despite the late start. To cool him off and give myself a rest too, I walked Babe the rest of the way talking to him when cars passed, pleading him to stay calm. He was a perfect gentleman, doing what he was told and taking it easy for me, like he wanted me to feel comfortable and stay on his back. Like, well, he actually wanted me there!
How I loved that horse! He was all I wanted and more. I thought about what Laura had said and asked Babe about it.
“Do you think she really meant it, Babe? Do I really have potential? Am I really good? Or is it all you? I bet it’s all you, isn’t it, Babe?” Of course, Babe remained silent, bobbing his head with every step he took.
At the farm again Laura was waiting for us eyeing Babe to be sure he was all right and he met her standards, not a scratch on him, not sweating too hard for the length of time we had been out.
I had a short riding lesson. Laura was astounded at my riding once more and even allowed us to canter. Cantering is a gait that is easy to sit too and feels quite natural. Babe’s canter was really nice and floaty, like his trot, but I think it was easier.
“Oh, Elle, he’s tired, and you’re going to be terribly sore tomorrow if you ride any longer.” Thoughts of the pain this morning that had clawed at me so hard made me ache and confirmed her statement. However, I didn’t want to leave. How could I?
“But, Laura! I rode so little with you, can I stay and help?” I wanted to know every little thing about horses, I just had too. It was a need that flowed through my blood that made my fingertips reach toward the sight of Babe.
Laura looked down unsure as if putting her options in each hand, seeing which one was heavier, which one she wanted to do more. It was obvious she thought I was a good kid, that she figured I was all right. At last the decision was made. I was to stay and help her out with the horses.
As we cleaned the saddles and martingales, the bridles and the leather girths, she would speak in a soft voice about riding and each of her horses, their odd habits. I was amused to learn how when Babe wanted something he would cock his head. When I told her it could not be so, she willingly gave me a muffin (Babe’s favorite treat) for me to test it. Of course, Laura’s theory was correct, Babe let his head hang to the side, looking at me with his darling eyes. They were like a pool of water with depth and soul. It still astounds me today how much I loved that horse like it sincerely and truly was meant to be. I was with him and Laura for hours and hours bathing in her detail of each horse and listening to her tell me more about riding. We “mucked” out every stall, giving each new bedding and when at last night fell, we exchanged some horses in stalls to the fields and the horses in the fields got to come into the stalls.
Laura told me it was more natural for horses to be outside and everyday she switched although sometimes they all went out at the same time. However, she knew which horses got along, which ones were closer, like a herd, like a family.
I was filled with a complete feeling, as if everything was okay. My mind was rushing about, touching the words Laura had said. I had the feeling of the horses, their softness, their good nature, all the way home. Then I stopped dead in my tracks, the trailer lay ahead in my path. I took in a deep breath.
The feeling left, I was home. But as I walked in the door, I knew I would go back to the stable. It was my destiny, my fate would be upon a horses back. I knew that when I walked in, relived to find the silence, all slept. All was well and a slightly bright future seemed ahead of me. But, for now, I had to rest. I whispered goodnight and lay on my bed and let sweet sleep lull me away, far away...
I leaned forward on Babe, thrilled, flying. I closed my eyes and was captured in his sweet, rocking motion. I let him bring my arms with him, yet stayed in control. Not that it was entirely necessary, he would never let me fall, but I had to be in control. That is the way it is with horses. It was a beautiful Sunday and I had every intention of staying at the farm all day. I needed that feeling again, that horse feeling as it seemed a desire that would choke and kill me otherwise. I hadn’t stopped at Zoe’s Market today. It hadn’t so much as crossed my mind. I had been bent on
reaching the farm.
Laura had been bringing in a foal to check it as it was his first day out away from his mother, or dam, and she was completely filled with concern. I passed her and grabbed a bridle, too lazy, or perhaps only too tired, to put on a saddle. Laura didn’t mind so I figured I was doing the right thing. I sang Babe’s name and he trotted to me from the heart of the field. I grasped his halter and led him to the barn where I put on his bridle. He allowed me to bring him into the ring where we practiced. Though “bareback” was more difficult than regular riding, I liked it more. Babe was outrageously comfortable to sit upon, my balance was nearly perfect, and as I’ve said before, it was meant to be. I barely touched the reins, I only had to touch my legs a little bit more than usual and Babe was at my command. When at last Laura arrived, she was speechless, able only to watch us, our rhythm and perfection. All I did was move with Babe.
Laura had something on her mind, I could sense it right away, but refused to say a word about it until my session with Babe was over and he had been cared for and freed to pasture. Then I asked her the question that had been gnawing at my mind.
“Laura, what’s up?” It was a simple question, but she answered slowly and thoughtfully.
“I, um, well, you, er.” It was hard for her to get this out, no doubt about it. “Uh, well, Elle, your riding with Babe is... amazing. This is more than you’d expect out of a beginner, it more I’d expect out of a championship rider, actually, and, well... You know, the state dressage is coming and... Well, I always enter someone in it. It brings good money to that special rider and the stable if you place. The entrance fee isn’t very much, only seventy dollars. It’s nothing considering the first place prize at the regional if you’re in the top ten states and... Would you please ride in it for me? Please?” I saw the pleading in her eyes, but only one thing was in my head. Me? The state competition? I’m good enough?
“Yes!” I screamed it loud enough to get the stares of a few bored horses, who immediately went back to their hay.
This was the start to my career, my life, or maybe the end because by accepting this, I would really be Elle Anderson. Sonya Perry was a name I could not truthfully say I was and in saying that, it wouldn’t be that much of a lie. But when Laura said I needed to complete the entrance form, the truth came crashing down on me. I was a minor. I needed a parent’s signature.
I walked in the door and was happy to find that Pop was in town. I found Mom doing the dishes, humming Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to nobody in particular.
She was in a daze and it was my chance. When nobody but me was around, my mother found a way to become fairly normal.
She looked up and stopped humming. “Hmmmm?” Never mind, apparently she wasn’t done humming. At least she didn’t feel like talking.
“Could you sign this for me?” Her questioning look made me uncomfortable. “To, um, be in this horse riding competition?” It came out like a question, because I really wasn’t too sure myself.
I handed her the sheet which she read.
I had completely filled it out with Laura’s help at the stable. All was filled out except the place that expectantly said “parent/guardian signature”. She stopped reading a moment.
“You ride?” I nodded quickly. “And what’s this in the name place? Who’s Elle Anderson?”
She looked genuinely concerned now. “Why didn’t you put in your real name?” She didn’t seem offended just confused.
“It’s just that... Well, Mom, you know everyone stereotypes us as, as... trailer people. I don’t like
it! It’s just that they don’t understand us. I never thought this riding thing would become big like this, but it did, and, and...” I gave her a miserable look and she didn’t hug me or try to comfort me. She just stared and tried to make sense. I was crying now, tears rolling down my face. Then she did the one thing that did comfort me, that amazed me and tickled me pink: she signed her name on the page and handed it to me.
“Sonya, or Elle, whoever you are, I wanna... I wanna... I wanna come.” I was touched, I adored her that moment; she was the most wonderful thing in my life that second.
I breathed deeply and tried to calm down Babe, who was thrilled at the sight of all these strange, exciting horses everywhere. It had been almost a month since I had first sat on his back. Everyone around us looked like they knew what they were doing, giving us disgusted looks at times, knowing that I was a beginner, despising that I went into uncharted waters and tried to compete against them, those who had ridden before they could walk without assistance. But I was there, there was no turning back now. I watched patiently while everyone before me rode the
test. Then I was called: “Number sixty-three, Elle Anderson, riding I’m On Fire, Baby, please enter the arena.”
I looked around and saw my mom in the stands, scared of all the people around her, yet looking at me with love and full to the brim with sweetness and urging for me to go on. So I walked in with Babe, halting in the center of the ring like Laura had taught me to do. I saluted the judge and began the dance known only as Dressage. I remembered to do a flying change down the
diagonals when I cantered, a flaw that would hurt otherwise, as the other options were going on the wrong lead, or trotting a moment that would be fatal.
But I made it, Babe made it... We made it. When the winners were being announced, I watched as girls in last place sobbed and trotted their horses away in disgust. But I stayed. Only five horses stood in the center on the ring, Babe and I being one of the horse and rider duos. As the names were said and trophies were given out, I stayed. Babe was perfectly still, waiting for what he knew was coming. “Second, number twenty-eight, Madison Sibyl, on Rio. And first place is awarded to... Number sixty-three, Elle Anderson, on I’m On Fire, Baby. Well done, and we’ll see you at regional!” I thought I would explode, I had won. The crowd cheered and it was over. My mother ran down to me, tears of excitement and pride falling from her eyes. What really surprised me was when I saw my father and brother coming down from the stands in similar states. I was so happy and complete and you know, maybe things would turn out okay, I didn’t know, the future will tell me soon enough at the regional competition.
Though there weren’t any miracles, I must say my family was better, the house was quieter, and my Pop finally got a job. Who knows, maybe wishes do come true. Mine sure did.