I barely ever raised my hand in middle school. Classrooms were mostly silent spaces, except for the teacher instructing and then begging for hands. I was a straight-A student but rarely spoke in class. I was already getting bullied for having zits before many of my classmates, and for wearing monocolored sweatsuits, so I didn’t want to risk attracting more attention. My teachers would indicate their disappointment at parent-teacher conferences, but the pattern didn’t change. I was scared to put the spotlight on me. What if I accidentally stammered, or worse, stress-farted? Better not take that chance, Elona. You’ll prove your smarts in your homework, I thought.
After another silent school day, I went to the pawn shop with my family. Pawn shopping was fun because it felt like a sketchier version of thrift-store shopping. So many mundane, heavily used things that would normally roam free at a thrift store were in glass cases here. My dad let my sister and I pick out whatever kids’ movies or video games we wanted. That day, I chose the movie Babe. Ever since reading Charlotte’s Web in elementary school, I’d had a fascination with talking pigs. They seemed so magical—in the same way a lot of people would probably feel about a unicorn. It was an easy entertainment choice that would go on to change my life.
Babe became my favorite tear-welling, victorious-against-all-odds sports movie. In it, a self-assured pig named Babe wins a sheepherding contest. This feat was unheard of in the fictional town, since sheepherding contests were typically won by sheepdogs. The fabular quality of Babe helped me step out of the notion that only men could thrive against challenges. To me, typical sports films, like Rocky or Ali, were steeped in aggression, masculinity, and competition. I didn’t want to be a competitor. I wanted to be a creator, like Babe. I wanted to create a space to succeed as my truest self—although I had only a scarce idea of who that was at the time.
As a young black girl who was questioning her place in the world, a triumphant story that I could relate to was a big deal. I didn’t have many role models who looked like me. If I saw a character in a film who did, they were often a sidekick. These characters amounted to racial or gender-specific stereotypes that didn’t resonate with me. I wanted to be able to love rock music openly, wear flashier clothes, and say what was on my mind, even if people’s expectations of a black girl made my choices surprising. These desires made me feel defective, as though I had gone wrong somewhere. I felt like I couldn’t have any real success or outward identity unless I diluted myself into a set of tropes that could be easily classified.
Whenever I watched Babe, the pig transformed into whatever part of my authentic self that I wanted to grow. Babe sniffed, questioned, and held his head high even though he was completely marginalized. As the only pig on Farmer Arthur H. Hoggett’s grounds, he was told by other animals that he would never amount to anything except food for Hoggett’s family. This hit me hard because at times it felt like my dreams were out of reach because of others’ expectations based on my race and gender.
Babe’s fierce decision to remain himself may have been shamed but Hoggett saw the power of Babe’s integrity. Hoggett himself was even transformed by interacting with Babe. He was known as a man of few words, but in Babe’s presence, he would come to sing, dance, and smile brightly. Hoggett risked ridicule from his family and peers to enroll Babe in the sheepherding contest. When he and Babe walked onto the field, they were greeted with booing. By the end, Babe had gained a perfect score, not for being anyone else, but for tapping into his own quiet confidence. The crowd’s boos transformed into a standing ovation and deafening cheers. Both Hoggett and Babe stood in silence for their victory. To me, their silence meant that they were unphased by other people’s opinions, both good and bad. Their pride was measured by their own sense of achievement and I admired that. For Babe and Hoggett, gaining the opportunity to define oneself was the entire contest.
Babe taught me that showing up to define the fullness of myself was a battle worth fighting every day. As long as I was alive, there was always an opportunity to do so. A scene that I would often rewatch, that continues to tug at my heart to this day, is Hoggett dancing for Babe. Babe is, uncharacteristically, at an emotional and physical low point after running away from the farm in the rain. I related to Babe’s exhaustion in the scene. In middle school, I wanted to run away from others’ expectations, too. I constantly felt under pressure to excel in academics, or to perform obedience for the benefit of my parents’ and teachers’ pride. I didn’t have much of a support system beyond my little sister and my best friend. I wasn’t encouraged to question standards, or figure out what was in my best interests in my home life and at school. In the movie, instead of being scolded for straying, Babe was embraced. Hoggett lovingly fed and blanketed him, he even sang and did a jig for Babe. It made me cry to see the love Hoggett showed Babe and to see that even those with great promise can unravel and be vulnerable, and that it was OK. For Babe, showing weakness bred opportunity for friends to show kindness. In my case, I took up journaling and used my vulnerability as a creative strength. I learned the importance of creating my own support system through self-love.
I continued to rewatch Babe throughout middle school. Babe’s courage at the sheepherding contest followed me when I tried out for my middle school’s basketball team, entered a short story contest, and broke in the dance floor at my eighth grade prom. Babe showed up for life. He was fully present. He was aware that being visible was a social risk that could lead to greatness. I applied that lesson to my life and experimented with expressing myself. By end of middle school, and during my entire summer break before high school, each day had become a dare filled with opportunities to speak louder, give myself haircuts, or say hello to someone cute.
The first day of high school was a fresh start. Few of my middle school peers joined me at my new school due to school district changes. I had started to experiment with my clothing over the summer—lots of safety pins, one-inch buttons, and DIY glamour experiments to channel my weirdo heroes, Bad Brains, John Waters, and Josephine Baker, all at once. I would put on some music, and piece outfits together based on how the songs made me feel. Then, I’d model in my bedroom mirror, changing clothes until an outfit created a spark. The combination probably didn’t make much sense to other people, based on some of the stares and snickers I got while waiting at the bus stop on my first day, but that didn’t matter to me. I found beauty and truth in what I wore.
I had survived the halls and made it to my first class. The teacher went through the attendance. Each name was followed by a distant, unenthused “Here.” When the teacher got to my name, my hand rocketed up: “Present!” ♦