Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Hundred Dresses

Written by Eleanor Estes
First published in 1944

Today, Wanda Petronski was not in her seat, but nobody, not even Peggy and Maddie the girls who started all the fun noticed her absence. Wanda sits in the last seat in the last row in Room 13 – where all of the rowdy children sit. Wanda was quiet and rarely said anything at all – never laughing yet sometimes they would see a crooked sort of smile – but that was all. Wanda was only noticed when she was out of the classroom. Sometimes they would wait for her – to have fun with her.

Maddie and Peggy were the closest of friends and together it was easier to have fun with Wanda – but they couldn’t today because after two days they finally noticed that Wanda Petronski wasn’t at school.

The Dresses Game…
Wanda lived in Boggins Heights which was really no place to live – along with her father and brother, Jake.

Wanda Petronski – most of the children in room 13 didn’t have names like that. Wanda didn’t have any friends. She came to and from school alone. She always wore a faded blue dress that just didn’t hang right. It was clean and all but definitely not ironed.

“Wanda” the girls would say – “tell us again, how many dresses did you say you had hanging up in your closet?”

“A hundred,” said Wanda.

“A hundred!” they exclaimed.

“Yeah, a hundred all line up – silk, velvet and in all colors.”

Then before she’d walk to the brick wall of the school building where she usually stood and waited for the bell to ring the girls would burst into shrieks and peals of laughter.

Obviously, the only dress Wanda had was the blue one she wore every day. Why did she say she had 100? What a story!

Sometimes they would have her talk about her 60 pairs of shoes. Of course every pair was different. Again, they girls would laugh with delight and then walk faster and leave Wanda behind.

Now Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children and animals, but never thought that she was being cruel to Wanda. Anybody could tell that Wanda was lying. And anyway it’s not like they made Wanda cry.

As for Maddie, asking Wanda so many questions about her hundred dresses was beginning to bother her. Maddie was poor herself and usually wore hand me down clothes. She was thankful though that she didn’t live in Boggins Heights or have a funny name. Sometimes when Peggy was asking Wanda those questions in a mock polite voice, Maddie felt embarrassed. But suppose Peggy and the other girls started making fun of her – now that was different. She didn’t want that.

A Bright Blue Day…
Somehow Maddie could not buckle down to do her school work. She was thinking about Wanda and how the dresses game began.

On a beautiful spring October day when the sky was blue and we were all talking amongst ourselves about our new school dresses is when it all began. Wanda wanted to be included, hesitated and stated firmly, “I got a hundred dressed at home.”
Nobody believed her – though she described each one. Some were everyday dresses, some party dresses and some for dance class.

“Well why don’t you wear them to school then, or are you afraid of getting ink or chalk on them?” Peggy muttered.

With this everyone fell laughing and talking at once. Yes, that was the way it had all begun, the game of the hundred dresses. It happened so suddenly and unexpectedly on that bright blue day.

The Contest . . .
Maddie was glad that today Peggy could not make fun of Wanda. She wished she had the courage to write Peggy a note and ask her to stop, but again she shuddered at the thought of being the next target to be made fun of. The only time Wanda talked about her hundred dresses was in the school yard. Thinking about Wanda and her hundred dresses all line up in the closet made Maddie wonder who was going to win the drawing and color contest. For girls, this contest consisted of designing dresses and for boys of designing motorboats. Peggy drew better than anyone else in the room – Maddie was sure that Peggy would win. Well, tomorrow the teacher was going to announce the winners, and then they would know for sure.

The Hundred Dresses…

The next day was drizzling. Maddie and Peggy hurried to school under Peggy’s umbrella. The minute they entered the classroom they stopped short and gasped. There were drawings all over the room, on every ledge and windowsill tacked to the tops of the blackboards – all in dazzling colors and brilliant lavish designs, all drawn on great sheets of wrapping paper. There must have been a hundred of them all lined up! These must be the drawings for the contest. Everyone stopped and murmured admiringly.

Jack Beggles’ motorboat design had won for the boys and as for the girls, “Although just one or two sketches were submitted by most, one girl - and Room 13 should be very proud of her – this one girl actually drew one hundred designs – all different and all beautiful. In the opinion of the judges, I am happy to say that Wanda Petronski is the winner of the girls’ medal. Unfortunately Wanda has been absent for some days and is not here to receive the applause that is due her. Now class, you may file around the room quietly and look at her exquisite drawings.”

The children burst into applause and each walked around the room.

“Look Peg,” whispered Maddie, “there’s that blue one she told us about. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yeah,” said Peggy, “and here’s that green party dress. Boy and I thought I could draw!”

While the class was circling the room, a note was delivered to our teacher Miss Mason. She read it several times and studied it thoughtfully for a while. She then clapped her hands and asked for everyone to return to their seats.

“I have a letter from Wanda’s father that I want to read to you.” said Miss Mason.

“Dear teacher: My Wanda will not come to your school anymore. Jake also. Now we move away to big city. No more holler ‘Polack’, no more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in the big city.

Yours truly, Jan Petronski

A deep silence met the reading of this letter. Miss Mason wiped her glasses with her white handkerchief.

The first period was a study period; Maddie tried to prepare her lessons but had a very sick feeling in the bottom of her stomach. She realized she had done just as much as Peggy to make life miserable for Wanda by simply standing by and saying nothing. She had helped to make someone so unhappy that she had to move away from town. She wanted to go see Wanda.

When school was dismissed in the afternoon, Peggy said with casualness – “Hey let’s go and see if Wanda has left town or not.”
Peggy and Maddie had the same idea, Maddie glowed with that thought. Peggy was really all right, just as she always thought.

Up On Boggins Heights. . .
Maddie hoped that they would find Wanda so that she’d be able to tell her they were sorry they had picked on her, and how the whole school thought she was wonderful and to please not move away because we would all be nice.

“I think that’s where the Petronski’s live,” said Maddie, pointing to a little white house with lots of chicken coops. The house and its sparse little yard looked shabby, but clean. It reminded Maddie of Wanda’s blue dress, shabby but clean.

“Wanda!” they called, but only a deep silence remained.
“Let’s see if the door in open.”
They cautiously opened the door and there was absolutely nothing left in it. In the corner was a closet with its door wide open and empty. Maddie wondered what it had held before the Petronski’s moved out. She thought of Wanda saying, “Sure a hundred dresses…all lined up in the closet.”

Nothing would ever seem good to Maddie again. She would always have that thought that she made Wanda Petronski move away. She was never going to stand by and say nothing again.

It was a long day, all tired out from walking, feeling and thinking, Maddie finally fell asleep.

The Letter To Room 13…
On Saturday, Maddie and Peggy spent the afternoon writing a letter to Wanda Petronski. It was a friendly letter telling about the contest and that she had won. They told her how pretty her drawings were and wondered if she liked living in the big city. They had meant to say they were sorry, but it ended up with their just writing a friendly letter and they signed it with lots of X’s for love.

They mailed the letter to Boggins Heights with ‘please forward’ on the envelope. The minute they dropped the letter in the mailbox, they both felt happier and more carefree.

The letter did not come back – so Wanda must have received it. Perhaps she was so hurt and angry she was not going to answer. You could not blame her.

It was now Christmastime and there was snow on the ground. On the last day of school before the holidays they were celebrating with a class party. Singing and dancing as Miss Mason played the piano.

After the party the teacher had a surprise and showed the class a letter she had received that morning.

The class sat up with sudden interest and listened intently to Miss Mason as she read the letter.

“Dear Miss Mason:

How are you and Room 13? Please tell the girls they can keep those hundred dresses because in my new house I have a hundred new ones all line up in my closet. I’d like that girl Peggy to have the drawing of the green dress with the red trimming and her friend Maddie to have the blue one. For Christmas. I miss that school and my new teacher does not equalize with you. Merry Christmas to you and everybody.

Yours truly, Wanda Petronski.”

On the way home from school Maddie and Peggy admired their drawings from Wanda. They felt that this showed that she really liked them. It shows she got their letter and that this is her way of saying that everything’s all right.

Peggy felt happy and relieved.

Maddie felt sad because she knew she would never see the little Polish girl again and could never really make things right between them.

At home she pinned the picture of her dress on her wall. The colors in the dress were so vivid that she had scarcely noticed the face and head of the drawing. It looked like her, Maddie! In excitement she ran over the Peggy’s and confirmed that her picture looked like her.

“What did I say!” Said Peggy, “She must have really like us anyway.”

“Yes, she must have.” agreed Maddie.

She blinked away the tear that came every time she thought of Wanda standing alone in the sunny spot in the school yard. Remembering her voice as she said, “Sure, a hundred of them – all lined up…”

Monday, April 5, 2010