Rachel, the narrator of “Eleven,” explains that “when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” This is why when she opens her eyes on the morning of her eleventh birthday, she’s surprised to realize that she doesn’t feel any different—she feels ten, and also like all the other ages below eleven. “Like some days you might say something stupid,” she explains, “and that’s the part of you that’s still ten.” She makes clear that this is also the case when it comes to crying, because sometimes “you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay.”
While Rachel’s conception of age is innocent and juvenile, it also expresses an understanding of the fact that human beings contain multitudes. Although she simplifies this idea by conceptualizing it in terms of age itself, her theory suggests that human emotion fluctuates and that it’s wrong to think people can be expected to always act in one particular manner. Ultimately, this acceptance of emotional fluidity is very wise, proving that children are capable of embracing complex notions about identity even when they do so in simplistic ways.
Today, though, on her eleventh birthday, Rachel wishes she didn’t have a collection of younger ages “rattling inside.” Rather, she wishes she were 102 years old, because then she’d know just how to respond when her teacher, Mrs. Price, pulls an ugly red sweater out of the classroom closet and asks who owns it. Looking at the sweater—which has “plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope”—the children all deny ownership. Then Rachel’s classmate Sylvia Saldívar pipes up, saying, “I think it belongs to Rachel.” Rachel doesn’t know why Sylvia would say this, guessing, “Maybe because I’m skinny, maybe because she doesn’t like me.” Regardless of why Sylvia decides to make this declaration, Mrs. Price believes her and puts the ugly sweater on Rachel’s desk.
Rachel’s and her classmates’ hesitancy to claim ownership of the sweater suggests that owning stretched out, unstylish clothing symbolizes something unsavory to them. Indeed, the general grunginess of the sweater bears implications about its owner’s financial stability, ultimately communicating something about the child’s family. In this moment, Rachel believes that if she were older she might be able to explain to Mrs. Price that the sweater doesn’t belong to her—this suggests that Mrs. Price doesn’t listen to her students, an important thing to consider when one takes into account that Mrs. Price’s name indicates that she isn’t Latina; as such, readers can reasonably draw the conclusion that Mrs. Price is dismissive of Rachel because she harbors previously conceived notions about the young girl’s cultural identity, believing that it makes sense that a young Latina wouldn’t be able to afford a more expensive sweater.
Rachel tries to explain that the sweater doesn’t belong to her, but Mrs. Price merely says, “Of course it’s yours. I remember you wearing it once.” Suddenly, as Mrs. Price is turning her back to resume the lesson, Rachel feels sick. She feels like the part of her that is three years old wants to “come out of [her] eyes,” but she squeezes her lids tight and tries to focus on the fact that her mother is making a cake for her birthday, which she’ll be able to eat with her family that night.
That Rachel thinks of her family in order to hold back tears suggests that familial love can often ground a person, helping him or her through difficult moments. Unfortunately, this is only a coping mechanism, allowing Mrs. Price to easily proceed with her preconceived notions about the kind of sweater Rachel can afford to own.
Upon opening her eyes, Rachel uses a ruler to move the sweater to the edge of her desk until it drapes over the side, at which point Mrs. Price demands that she put the sweater on that very instant. “Now!” she says, and Rachel can’t hold back her tears anymore—all the younger ages in her crop up at this moment, and as she puts her arms through the sweater’s sleeves, she starts crying in front of the entire class. Right before lunch, Phyllis Lopez, who Rachel says is “even dumber than Sylvia Saldívar,” recalls that she owns the sweater. Rachel takes it off immediately and gives it to Phyllis, and though she’s relieved to have gotten rid of the sweater, she still wishes she were 102 so that today could be “far away already.”
Rachel’s wish that she were 102 years old shows a surprising self-awareness about how she’s not acting her age in this moment. At the same time, though, this mindset also ignores her own logic, since if she were 102, she would also still contain a little girl somewhere inside—a little girl who could crop up and start crying at any moment. As such, there’s an illogic to her thought process, but this illogic actually further establishes the fact that the children in these stories are capable of living in complexity and willing to accept and exist in uncertain conclusions.