Monday, September 16, 2013
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, Louis Slobodkin
It took me 30 minutes to read this short page turner that appears simple but is psychologically complex as it deals with issues of friendships, minorities, bullying, and classroom dynamics. Peggy and Maddie are best friends who take no interest in Wanda Petronski, a Polish classmate who lives in the poor part of town and comes to school every day in the same faded, clean blue dress. She sits on the fringe of classroom with the other poor students. When another classmate comes in a new red dress all the girls in the class circle her "oohing" and "aahing" at the red fabric. Wanda is standing next to Peggy and says that she has a hundred dresses. The girls immediately assume she is lying and Peggy cruelly teases Wanda every day about her dresses. Maddie is bothered by Peggy's teasing but is afraid to say anything because she takes Peggy's hand-me-down dresses and thinks she might become the target of ridicule if she tells Peggy to knock off the constant tormenting of Wanda. While Maddie doesn't mock Wanda like other students she protects her status with peers by not saying anything. When Wanda moves, the two discover that she wasn't lying about the hundred dresses, but had drawn them for a class contest.
The teacher reads a letter from Wanda's parents saying that they moved because of the cruel treatment of students toward their kids. Peggy and Maddie feel so bad they go to Wanda's house to apologize. When they can't find her they write a letter. Maddie decides to never "stand by and say nothing again" as she realizes that she was more at fault than Peggy for not telling her to stop teasing, because Peggy didn't really see her actions as wrong until she saw all the gorgeous drawings Wanda made displayed in the school. Maddie, on the other hand, was bothered by it long before the contest. When the two write Wanda a letter they don't actually write they are sorry. Instead they tell her she won the contest and her pictures were beautiful. It is hard to say sorry and I thought this was very authentic.
Wanda responds to their letter and it is obvious she forgives Maddie and Peggy. She leaves them two pictures of dresses she drew and Maddie realizes the faces on the pictures are hers and Peggy's. She can't believe it because Wanda drew them when they were teasing her. Rather than hating them as Maddie thought she would, Wanda shows through her present of the drawings that she chose to not hate but be kind even in the face of the girl's meanness. Wanda's grace toward them is a more powerful response then anger and makes Maddie even more determined to change and behave differently in the future.
I wasn't sure about the plot choice to tell the reader right away that Wanda had left the school, but Este's cleverly flashbacks and unfolding of clues as to why the girls tormented Wanda and why she left school kept the action suspenseful versus preachy. The technique allowed the reader to explore Maddie's psychological turmoil as she tries to process Peggy's teasing of Wanda every day. Maddie comes up with excuses for Wanda deserving the ill-treatment and shows how difficult it is to stop injustices by speaking out. Peggy is the most popular girl in school and Maddie gets clothes from her. Maddie has much to lose by angering Peggy and she struggles with saying or not saying something. In the end, she chooses to not say anything and the result is shame for her behavior. This is the kind of situation happens not only in school, but the workplace, families, and societies.
The subtle message about classroom dynamics and how the teacher who doesn't build a classroom community is one that spoke to me as an educator. Wanda sat in the back of the classroom with the rowdy boys who didn't "make good marks on their report cards." The teacher has relegated those with muddy shoes or learning problems to the back of the room. Wanda is forced to read in front of the class which she can't do because she most likely doesn't know English well enough. When the teacher scolds the class for the letter from Wanda's dad that says they moved because of the students teasing his kids, I thought she was being hypocritical. While the teacher wasn't out at recess and can't monitor unsupervised places such as walking to school, she can control what happens in her classroom and her nonverbal actions show she was just as much at fault as the other kids. In that regard the author's message is not only for children, but it is for teachers as well. We all can take a hard look at ourselves and take stock of how we are treating each other human beings.