Girl of the Year 2017: Gabriela Speaks Out

Published: 2017. Author: Teresa E. Harris


Gabriela's mostly excited for the start of middle school, but nervous too. Teagan is going to a magnate school focusing on STEM (for her coding talents), so the best friends will be separated. Still, the first day goes pretty well. Gabriela's glad that Isaiah is there with her; they've become good friends. But in the last class of the day, Gabriela finds herself assigned to sit next to Aaliyah, a perfectionist who saddled Gabriela with the nickname "Repeat" for her stutter. And as the students are getting ready to head home, they're pelted with water balloons. Isaiah's book of poetry by African-American activists is soaked--and Gabriela recognizes Red and one of his friends in the group throwing the balloons.

Apparently, there's a hazing called Sixth Grade Initiation. Red and his friends insist it's all in good fun, but Gabriela points out how unwelcome and unwanted it makes the younger students feel. Red confides that there's more to come, but seeing how it's clearly not enjoyed "in good fun" says he'll try to back off. The next day, the sixth grader students' lockers are decorate with cutting nicknames, like G-g-g-gabby for Gabriela and Fakespeare for Isaiah. Gabriela notices that Aaliyah claims to have not had one, but she has a crumpled piece of paper reading "Lonely Loser" as the older students seem to have noticed that her know-it-all perfectionist attitude is off-putting to her peers. Gabriela does see that Red added "Twinkle Toes" to the corner of her paper (a nice reference to her love of dance), but also sees the sixth-graders calling each other the names to spite each other.

When a teacher mentions that student body elections are coming up, Gabriela is inspired to run for representative on the platform of eliminating Sixth Grade Initiation. She has a lot of support from her grade, and Red and his friends like her stance as well. But of course Aaliyah is also running, and she's so good at campaigning that Gabriela feels like she doesn't stand a chance. For a bit, she thinks about changing her platform (Red suggests students be allowed more technology and internet access; he'd like to listen to music while doing in-class work and talk with his deployed mother at recess), but comes to the conclusion that she'd rather run on what's important to her. But is there any way she can win?

A talk with an overwhelmed Teagan (the new school is much harder than she anticipated, and is making her question her abilities) gives Gabriela an epiphany: Teagan is a coder and always will be; she doesn't have to prove it anyone else. Just like Gabriela can be a leader whether Aaliyah believes she can or not (Aaliyah's been saying some nasty things to her like, "How can you stand up for our class if you can't even speak up for your friends?"). Gabriela resolves to speak out against the Sixth Grade Initiation during her campaign speech: even if she doesn't win, maybe she can convince people the harmful tradition needs to go. An email from Isaiah about working together to build a better future rather than against people to win solidifies her view. In an effort to not alienate people, Gabriela tries to help Aaliyah with something, and when that backfires, writes her a poem.

To Gabriela's surprise, her overture works--quickly. Aaliyah writes her a letter apologizing for her treatment of her, explaining that she had decided to stop trying to make friends since it never worked at her old school. She mistook Gabriela's stuttering for looking for a reason to get away from Aaliyah, and held a grudge ever since. The girls quickly start to build a friendship. The timing couldn't be better: when the votes are tallied, Gabriela and Aaliyah are tied. Instead of a runoff election, the girls decided to serve together.


Dedicated to Keith.

Teagan lives with her grandfather.

The book makes it seem like there's only one speech therapist for the whole school district. My oldest has speech therapy, and thanks to a couple recent moves, has been in four different school districts in two states. Each had multiple speech therapists.

There are several mentions of Isaiah's parents pushing him to branch out with his interests because he focuses too much on single subjects. The way it's written, I wonder if they're hinting at Isaiah being on the autism spectrum.

The teachers clearly don't like the Sixth Grade Initiation, but don't really do anything to stop it. For example, if they know mean nicknames will be put on the six graders' lockers, why not have a teacher or two stand in that hallway to stop it from happening? (I really hate hazing like this, even having done things like sports and ROTC that stereotypically have hazing. "Let's make the new people miserable so they feel like part of the group!" I find it works better to treat them like you're happy they've joined.)

Gabriela was running for sixth grade ambassador. Why were the other grades voting for the sixth grade seat? I would understand if she were running for student body president or treasurer or something, but when we did elections in my school, the representatives for any given grade were only elected by their own grade.

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