by Andrea Clark Mason
When Anne Hathaway walked onstage in a pink gown to receive an Oscar for her role in Les Miserables, I remembered the year I had seen the musical of the same name: 1988. I was in seventh grade. I had been happy and well-adjusted in elementary school, but in middle school, my female friends became intimidating, and an influx of hormones meant I suddenly didn’t know how to act around boys who used to be my friends. I turned silent, unsure of what to say to anyone except my best friend, who attended another school, and my family. I took refuge in the story about the French revolution. Les Miserables had come to Philadelphia, and my parents had taken me to see it. I was enchanted with the story, with revolutionary France, with the young French orphan who seemed to be about my age, with all the songs. I bought the double CD and would play it in my room, singing along with the lyrics until I knew them all.
I ended up seeing the musical three times, once more with my grandmother, and then again with my best friend. Each time I felt more and more part of the story and like everything would have been okay if only I could be swept up in revolution. I was a romantic, taken with stories, and it was hard for me to conceptualize that this was just a story, not what real revolutionary France must have been like.
In the one class I liked at school, Humanities, we were allowed to do a project on “something that interested us.” One of my classmates wanted to be a TV news anchor woman when she was an adult, so that’s what she was doing her report on. I remember wondering how she could know already what she wanted to be when she grew up. I had no idea what I wanted to be, and there wasn’t even anything I was really interested in … except Les Miserables. My teacher looked dubious when I told him what I wanted to do my paper on, but he finally conceded, saying I could find reviews and so on.
One day we had class in the library, and we sat at small tables. My bag was up on the table, but I was paying attention to the librarian, who was telling us how to find sources on our topic. I heard some snickering behind me, and when I turned, I saw two boys holding a sanitary napkin. They had gone through my bag, opening compartments until they’d found the pad. I should have been angry, but instead I was embarrassed and unsure of what to do. I had gotten my period for the first time a few months before but not since then. I was carrying a pad around “just in case” in the event it returned at some unexpected moment. I grabbed my bag, and checked to make sure everything else was still there. Then I closed the zippered compartments they’d opened and tried to sneer at them. But I couldn’t. Instead, I hung my head and thankfully got up quickly when the bell rang only a few minutes later.
When the movie came out, I didn’t expect that seeing it would make me remember seventh grade, the year before I eventually changed schools and began attending private school. Perhaps I had connected with what most of the characters in Les Miserables display – a lack of power to change the difficult circumstances around them that are larger and more powerful than their own lives. Perhaps everyone in my grade was busy growing their first pubic hairs, learning the ins and outs of cliques and realizing how much their world was changing, but I was lucky to have a team on my side, even if they were imaginary characters – Jean Val Jean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and of course, Gavroche, the pre-adolescent street urchin around whom I felt pretty sure I knew exactly what I would say – Let’s sing a song!