A Lesson On Beauty This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

March 9, 2011
Clary stared at herself in the mirror. Limp, mousy brown hair, green eyes, freckles spilling onto her slightly flushed cheeks. On her tip toes she barely hit five four. A perfectly imperfect, normal girl, both inside and out.
She sighed, thinking of the incredibly long legs some of the popular girls at school had. Of pin straight sleek blond hair, casually tossed over a shoulder in a glossy curtain. Of huge, beautiful wide eyes: icy and electrifying blue, or deep brown, warm and chocolaty.
Those girls had features they could be proud of, features that made them stand out. What did she have?
“Time for school, Clary,” her mom called from downstairs. “Hurry or you’ll miss the bus.”
“Okay, Mom,” she called back glumly. She paused, gazing at her reflection for a moment longer, then ran her fingers through her bangs and grabbed the backpack sitting on her bed. She slung the strap over a shoulder and headed downstairs.
Clary’s mom was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee as Clary entered. She was muttering and simultaneously perusing the latest edition of Cooking Light. “There’s something special about today that I don’t recall... but I’m sure I wrote it down somewhere. On the calendar?” She crossed the tile floor to glance at the calendar attached to the fridge. “Hm… that’s right, isn’t it picture day?”
Clary groaned internally. She’d been hoping that her mom wouldn’t remember. “Yes, it is.”
“Well, why haven’t you dressed up for it then?” She peered up from the magazine to gaze at her daughter curiously.
“Just didn’t feel like it,” Clary shrugged. She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Uh oh, I’m going to be late for school. See you, Mom!”
“Have a good day, sweetie,” she replied, smiling, but her eyes had already strayed back to the magazine.
Clary stepped into her shoes and beat a hasty retreat. It was one thing to know that she was completely plain, but entirely different for her mother to know she thought that. Clary could imagine the tirade she’d launch into about beauty and peer pressure and ignoring the popular girls. Well, Clary just wasn’t up for it. It was time, she thought, for a change.
As she hurried along the sidewalk, Clary reached into the pocket of her jacket to make sure that the tubes of lip gloss and mascara she’d sneaked in earlier were still there. She had taken them – borrowed, she told herself firmly – from her older sister Margaret's room. She didn’t know how to explain, even to herself, why she didn’t want her mom to know what she was about to do. She just knew that for at least one day, she wanted to be pretty.
Time for another day of school. Another day of being incredibly, unbelievably, unbearably normal.
Or not.
The bus screeched to a stop a few feet ahead, jarring Clary from her thoughts. As she scurried on and towards her normal seat, her hand closed over her pocket.
Her best friend, Jeremy, was waiting for her. “Hey,” he said, smiling widely as she sat down. “What do you think of this design?”
Clary couldn’t help smiling. Jeremy was an amazingly talented artist. He sketched everything – nature, trees, music notes, animals, random patterns. The drawing he showed her now was of a glass of water, half full. Or half empty, Clary thought dryly. It was as if an invisible line split the glass in half; the glass on the right side was perfect, smooth, unblemished. He’d even somehow captured the impression of light reflecting off it, giving the glass an ethereal shine. The left side, on the other hand, was dirty, smudged, and cracked.
“It’s a modern take on a classic philosophical question,” he said as Clary examined the drawing. It was strange, a bit different from what he usually drew, but she liked it anyway. “What does it mean?”
“Well,” Jeremy said, “the big question when one looks at a half-filled glass is: is it half full or half empty? Of course the optimists say its half full, the pessimists says half empty, and so on. But my point is that different views of various extremes are possible, even when people are looking at the same thing.”
Clary looked at the sketch again. Before, it’d seemed like a quirky, random drawing. But after Jeremy’s explanation, the glass seemed to hold new meaning. “I like it.”
“Glad you do.” He took the sketchbook back from her and flipped it shut before putting it back in his bag. “Now that that’s out of the way, what do you think of my hair?”
His usually messy brown hair was slicked down to the side, presumably for picture day. “My mom wouldn’t let me spike it or anything,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “Said I shouldn’t stray from the traditional old school look, you know? But in my opinion, the traditional is overrated.” He winked at her.
Oh, Jeremy. Clary laughed, and together they poked fun at the various hairstyles of the other of the students on the bus.
All students were scheduled to get their picture taken during fourth period. Clary had lunch right before that, so when the bell rang, she slipped into the bathroom. She peeked around to make sure she was alone before pulling out her sister’s makeup.
She was halfway through applying a layer of mascara when a group of girls barged in, talking and laughing loudly. Clary jumped, almost dropping the applicator. She bit her lip, not wanting to be seen, especially by popular girls – who she was sure the group was, because no one could be as shamelessly loud as they were – but before she could move, they saw her.
The first girl, Alexis, stopped to gape. “What is this?” she hissed, glaring at Clary distastefully. Clary flinched and shrank back.
Another girl, Olivia, shouldered her way up to the front of the group. “Well, what do we have here,” she drawled, twirling a blond lock around her finger. “It’s a little nobody trying to be somebody.”
Clary recoiled as if she’d been slapped. “What did you say?”
“You heard her,” Alexis sneered.
Clary ignored her. “You – you have no right to -”
“Excuse me?” another girl with straightened golden brown hair – Ashley – said. “Do you even know who we are? Who are you to tell us what rights we have?”
Before Clary could retort, Olivia seized the mascara from Clary’s limp hand. She dangled it in front of her, smirking. “Is this yours? I never thought that a girl like you would own makeup.”
Her cheeks flaming, Clary made a wild attempt to reclaim it. “Give it back,” she demanded.
“You’re better off without it, seeing as you have no idea how to put it on,” Ashley said nastily. “Actually, it wouldn’t matter if you had makeup on or not. No one would notice you anyway.”
Clary felt something scorching welling inside her, like a wave of anger, but it was much, much worse. To her horror, she burst into tears. Avoiding the stares of the girls, she skirted around the edge of the group and fled the bathroom.
And ran straight into someone who was walking by.
She fell and landed on her butt with an ungraceful “Oomph!” Not wanting to embarrass herself further, she kept her head down and stared at the floor, trying not to let anymore tears escape.
“Clary?” said an incredulous voice. Startled, Clary glanced up to find Jeremy hovering over her, a worried look on his face. He held a hand out to her. Humiliated as she was, Clary grudgingly bit down on her mortification and accepted it This was her best friend, after all. The one she’d spent hours at the park with, poring over his drawings, people-watching and making up their crazy life stories. The one she’d spent hours having intellectual conversations with about turtles and democracy and everything in between. The one who, she knew, would always be there for her without exception.
“Thanks,” she sighed as he pulled her to her feet. She rubbed at her face, then pulled her hand away to see her fingers blackened and smudged with mascara. “Oh, shoot,” she muttered. She frowned and looked up at Jeremy, who was watching her and looking concerned.
“Want to talk?” he offered.
“But you have to go to class,” she protested.
“Doesn’t matter. This is a friend emergency.” He took her hand and pulled her down the hallway. Clary shivered involuntarily at the sudden contact.
Jeremy found an empty classroom and steered her in. “Sit,” he ordered. Clary sat. “Now talk.”
She bit her lip, then exhaled. “I wanted to look pretty, you know, for picture day. So I took Margie’s makeup to school, so my mom wouldn’t think I was, like, giving into peer pressure or anything. But when I was in the bathroom Olivia and her whole entourage came in and they…” she faltered, her cheeks flushed. “They made fun of me, pretty much. And I got upset.”
Jeremy had been looking at her intently since she started talking, and now she felt like she was rambling. “Yeah,” she finished lamely.
“Well,” he said slowly. “You are pretty.”
Clary, who had been prepared for a wise guy scholarly comment, nearly fell out of her seat. Where was all the philosophy? All the shrewd insight?
“You’re pretty, so I don’t see why you would need makeup in the first place,” Jeremy continued. “Actually…” He took a step closer to her and gently rubbed his thumb across a smudge of mascara on her cheek. “I think you’re beautiful.”
Clary could imagine how she looked now, her face streaked with black tears. Her voice cracked when she spoke. “Even though I look like cr*p?”
“Yep,” he said, taking her hand. She glared at him halfheartedly, then gave in and smiled. Almost immediately it became a frown. “But I’m so normal. Ordinary. Plain.”
“Who said that?” he said with such sincere curiosity – as if he really didn’t believe she was plain – that she was surprised. “You’re not. Trust me.”
“But look at me.” Jeremy raised his eyebrows. Oh, right, Clary thought. He was already looking. “My point is, nothing about me is special. Stringy brown hair? Check. Freckles? Check.”
“Only when you don’t wash your hair,” he said innocently, then laughed when she hit him. “And freckles are cute.”
Clary ignored him and continued. “A demeaning five foot four? Check. Boring green eyes? Check.”
“You’ll grow taller,” he said, smiling now. Clary resisted the urge to punch him. “And your eyes are not boring. Green’s my favorite color.”
He was so close now that Clary had trouble breathing evenly. Stroking her hair, Jeremy said, “Impossibly soft? Check. Eighteen freckles? Check. Short in a cute way? Check. Eyes that could distract a guy whose house is on fire? Check.”
“You counted?” Clary asked, dumbfounded.
“I have, actually. But remember what I showed you this morning? The half-filled glass?” Clary nodded. “Well, there you have it. Beauty, as is everything else, is in the eye of the beholder.” He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and leaned down to whisper again, “You’re beautiful.”
This time, she didn’t question him.





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