Rereading My Childhood — The Baby-Sitters Club #12: Claudia and the New Girl
I don’t understand kids and I certainly don’t understand babysitting. There. I said it. I read these books, but I could never babysit now, so babysitting when I was twelve is especially out of the question. (I thought wearing all black on Valentine’s Day was a clear message to the Hallmark Corporation what I thought about their fake holiday. Take that, Corporate America! Clearly, I was no condition to take care of another human life.)
Even with my disdain for children, I wouldn’t belittle someone who wanted to do it, especially if it was their job. Somebody has to take care of all the Stoneybrook kids while the parents are off at their ritual sacrifices or wherever the parents go. (It’s a ritual sacrifice, or a coven, or an orgy. Or Stoneybrook has an extensive nightlife culture for forty-somethings.) In Claudia and the New Girl, the titular girl has some impressive artistic credentials . . . and not much else.
Claudia is bored in class, but the day changes quickly when a new girl enters her classroom. She is dressed “like a hippie.
She was wearing a very pretty pink flowered skirt that was full and so long it touched the tops of her shoes — which I soon realized were not shoes, but sort of hiking boots. Her blouse, loose and lacy, was embroidered with pink flowers, and both her wrists were loaded with silver bangle bracelets. Her hair, which was almost as long as my friend Dawn’s and was dirty blonde, was pulled into a flat braid (which, I might add, was not held in place with a rubber band or anything; it just sort of trailed to an end). But the amazing thing was that because her hair was pulled back, you could see her ears. And she had three pierced earrings in each ear. They were all silver and all dangly, but none matched.
Just like a hippie. Needless to say, this girl captures Claudia’s attention immediately. Her name is Ashley Wyeth and Claudia asks the girl if she is related to famous artist Andrew Wyeth. The girl replies that she isn’t, but she wishes she was. She calls herself a “sculptress” and the two bond over art.
After the obligatory “here are all the members of the BSC” chapter, Kristy shows up first to their usual meeting and Claudia as some shitty things to say about her.
Kristy is really cute, but she never bothers to make herself look special. All fall she’s been wearing the same kind of outfit — jeans, a turtleneck, a sweater, and sneakers. And she hasn’t been doing a thing with her long (well, longish) brown hair except brushing it. Here’s an example of one of the big differences between Kristy and me. I was wearing a very short pink cotton dress, white tights, and black ballet slippers. I had swept all of my hair way over to one side, where it was held in place with a piece of pink cloth that matched the dress. Only one ear showed, and in it I had put my big palm tree earring. (Kristy was not wearing any jewelry.)
Geez, way to put your friend down, Claudia. Kristy’s outfit is timeless and certainly still an acceptable outfit today, whereas your outfit looks like a tacky neon dance club from 1984 threw up on a casino palm tree in Vegas. I want to like you, Claudia, but maybe if you didn’t spend all your time on your clothes and cracked open a book, you wouldn’t have so much trouble in school. Just a thought while we’re spilling tea and being jerks to one another.
The next day, Claudia sees Ashley at her after school art class. Ashley, who is wearing what I would call a “modified Canadian tuxedo” — “puffy white blouse, a blue-jean jacket, a long blue-jean skirt, and those hiking boots again” complete with a “strip of faded denim” tied around her head like “an Indian headband,” (cool words and outfit there, Martin and Ashley) and they discuss Ashley’s educational past, Claudia’s portfolio, and Stoneybrook’s art class.. Before she moved to Stoneybrook, Ashley attended the Keyes Art School in Chicago (which is not a real school, don’t bother Googling it, like someone I know), and she likes Claudia’s work. The art teacher, Ms. Baehr, announces an art gallery opening is featuring a sculpting contest. Ashley is instantly excited and encourages Claudia to enter as well, but Claudia wonders if she’ll have enough time.
While Claudia baby-sits the Radowsky boys, Ashley shows up while they are outside playing “Red Light, Green Light.” (And, before you ask, yes, there is a detailed description of how to play the ubiquitous childhood game.) Apparently, Ashley had just moved in next door.
“Why do you have to baby-sit?” Ashley asked me.
(The boys looked somewhat hurt.)
“I don’t have to,” I replied. “This is my job. I love sitting.” I told her about the Baby-Sitters Club and how it works and the kids we sit for.
“What do you do in your space time?”I asked Ashley.
“I paint. Or sculpt,” she replied.
“I mean, what do you and your friends to? Well, what did you guys do in Chicago?”
“Just . . . just my artwork. That’s really all that’s important to me. I had one friend, another girl from Keyes. Sometimes we painted together. The only way to develop your talent is to devote time to it, you know.”
Ashley is dedicated to getting her 10,000 hours before she turns 16 and is aged out of the art world forever. At lunch the next day, Claudia invites Ashley to sit with her friends, the BSC, but she doesn’t want to, saying she wants to discuss art with Claudia and their entries into the sculpture competition. They decide to go to a watercolor exhibit in one of Stoneybrook’s galleries, but only on the condition that they leave early enough for Claudia to be home for the BSC meeting.
Of course, Claudia is late for the meeting in her own house. Ashley just didn’t want to leave the museum. Kristy chides her for her tardiness, and Stacey expresses jealousy over the time Claudia has been spending with Ashley. Any potential jobs Claudia could have taken are given to Mary Anne and Stacey. Claudia is remorseful, especially at the way she disappointed her best friend, Stacey.
Then we get our first handwriting chapter, which belongs to Dawn at the Perkins’s house. She gets a phone call from Jeff, who admits he got in trouble in class for throwing an eraser across the room, sending the room into chaos, breaking a mosaic that cuts a kid (nothing too serious — I think I would have remembered a BSC title like Dawn and Her Brother’s Attempted Murder Trial). Dawn is forced to schlep Myriah and Gabbie “The Gabbers” Perkins in a red wagon to Jeff’s school and they have a conversation with Ms. Besser, Jeff’s teacher.
“I’m Dawn Schafer, Jeff’s sister.” Dawn explained why she had come instead of her mother.
“And I,” spoke up Myriah, “am Miss Esmerelda. I run a beauty salon. This is my assistant,” she added, climbing out of the wagon and pointing to Gabbie.
“I am Miss Gabbie,” said Gabbie.
“Would you like a makeover?” Myriah asked Ms. Besser.
“Oh . . . no today, Miss, um-”
“Esmerelda,” supplied Myriah. She turned to Jeff. “Would you like a makeover? From our traveling beauty parlor?”
“No way,” replied Jeff, turning red.
“I would like a makeover,” Gabbie told her sister.
“Oh good,” said Myriah, and got to work.
I love the Perkins’s. Long live the Myriah and Gabbie “The Gabbers” Perkins.
Ms. Besser pulls Dawn away says that they have a serious problem with Jeff and she wishes she could have spoken with Dawn’s mother. Dawn sends Jeff to their home and she takes the Perkins girls back to their respective home.
We’re back to Claudia, who is, once again, neglecting the BSC to eat with Ashley, where the Keyes alum herself says the most pretentious thing a 12-year-old could say. “I am an artist and my craft is calling.” (I felt myself cringe when I read that, and I cringed, even more, when I thought about all the stupid shit I said when I was a 12-year-old.) Ashley goes on about how she wants to sculpt an inanimate object and they should go to another exhibit, on the day Claudia has a club meeting, of course. After the exhibit, Ashley freaks out over a fire hydrant in the middle of the sidewalk. Then she starts pointing out everything around them, like gum wrappers, and traffic lights. Ashley encourages Claudia to sculpt a traffic light because of “the power it holds. It controls the traffic. It can make people late. It can prevent accidents. It’s a little box doing an awfully big job.” The pretension meter went off like crazy. My partner said I wasted money on that thing. Well, guess who’s wrong? I did use it! Like a traffic light, it’s a little box doing an awfully big job.
Claudia notices that she’s late for the meeting but Ashley doesn’t want her to leave. Claudia chooses to find a payphone, call Dawn, and tell her that she’ll miss the meeting. When she gets home, Mary Anne has left her a cold note about sitting for Nina and Eleanor Marshall. There’s also a note from Kristy that says, “Everyone at school thinks Ashley is weird. I just thought you should know.” Claudia is sad she missed the meeting, and how her friends are treating her relationship with Ashley, but she’s frustrated that she sacrificed a meeting and she still doesn’t have a subject for the sculpting contest.
Chapter eight starts like a handwriting chapter but is really just a group text in the BSC notebook. Mary Anne writes that some of them are neglecting their official duties, forcing other members to fill in. Dawn chimes in that she doesn’t mind being vice-president. Stacey says that they used to have a V.P. who was nice but then she “never shows up at meetings and she hangs around a person who wears BELL-BOTTOM BLUE JEANS to school.” Just wait a few years, Stacey. Bell-bottoms will come back and be called “flares.”
Handwriting chapters are a way to tell a story about another character without the first-person narrator actually being there, seeing the events unfold. This is usually for babysitting jobs, but this chapter is a little different. Claudia can’t make another meeting, so this one is about the meeting she missed.
Dawn talks about what happened to Jeff after her mother found out what he had done. She had a conference with Jeff’s teacher. He’s been acting up and refusing to participate in class. They exchange platitudes about “not letting him get away with a thing” and praising good behavior. Dawn is disappointed they didn’t discuss moving Jeff to California to live with Dawn and Jeff’s father.
The Papadakises call, and they don’t bother to consider Claudia for the job, they just hand it over to Kristy. Which, honestly, if Claudia isn’t at a meeting, she really shouldn’t get a job unless everyone is unavailable. It’s as if someone doesn’t show up to class and then gets mad when they miss assignments. You need to show up. The meeting ends with Mary Anne crying over their crumbling relationship with Claudia. I don’t blame her.
At school the next day, Claudia sticks up a poster of some guy named Max Morrison in her locker using gum. We are reminded that the school doesn’t allow tape in their lockers, so the kids have to be creative and they use gum instead. And I will reiterate that it’s worse to deal with gum than tape and the school policy on tape needs to be reexamined. Immediately.
Ashley shows up moments before the BSC.
“Do you suppose you’ll be able to clear time in your busy schedule to get to the next meeting?” Dawn asked me.
I looked at her in surprise. What kind of question was that from our even-tempered alternate officer?
“I plan to,” was all I replied.
“I hope you approve of that,” said Kristy to Ashley.
Ashley still looked awfully uncomfortable. “Claudia,” she began uncertainly, and then seemed to gain confidence. “Claudia is an artist-”
“Don’t remind us,” interrupted Kristy.
“She’s an artist,” Ashley went on, “and she needs to spend time on her work.”
“What are you? Her tutor or something?” asked Stacey.
“I’m her mentor,” replied Ashley, as serious as always.
Ooh, the douche chills.
“If Claudia is going to develop her talents to the fullest — and I think she can go a long way in the world of art — . . . she has to devote as much time as possible to her art,” Ashley finished.
Okay, slow down, 12-year-old mentor.
“Spending time on anything else, especially baby-sitting, is just a waste.”
“Hey,” said Kristy, turing angrily at me, “does this mean you’re quitting the club? It would be nice if you’d let us know. We’d like to hold meetings somewhere other than in your room, if you are. And of course we’ll have to give our clients our new phone number, make up new fliers, all sorts of things.”
“I’m not quitting the club!” I exclaimed.
“Could have fooled us,” said Stacey.
They storm off and Ashley says, “Who needs friends when you have art?”
Claudia misses more BSC meetings and blows off a shopping date with Stacey to go to Ashley’s house. The rest of the BSC decides to get revenge on their former best friend and vice president: they are going to systematically kill everyone around Claudia until it drives her insane. I’m just kidding. That’s more akin to Fear Street. Since the BSC meetings are held in Claudia’s room, and they’re in her room without the artist herself present, they misplace her things, like putting crackers in an old purse.
So, Kristy and Mary Anne short-sleeved my bed. Was I ever mad that night when I discovered what they’d done! I was dead tired because I’d stayed up trying to catch up on my homework and read The Twenty-One Balloons (another Newberry book). By the time I was ready to go to bed, I was so sleepy I could barely turn my comforter back. When I did, and I slid between the sheets, my legs only went halfway down. I kicked around. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. Finally, I lifted up my comforter and looked. I couldn’t believe it! Pinned to the sheet was a note that said: Ha, ha! Sleep tight!
Got her, Kristy. Claudia was mildly inconvenienced. At the end of the meeting, Stacey posits that Ashley likes Claudia because she’s an artist, not because Claudia is Claudia.
A few days later, once again while babysitting the Radowsky kids, Ashley visits Claudia. Ashley questions why Claudia spends her time with the children and actually encourages her to just leave them and go with her and sculpt a donut or whatever the fuck Ashley wants to do.
Ashley’s ice-blue eyes turned icier. “This is the thanks I get for-”
“For what, Ashley? What did you do that you expect thanks for? What did you do that you wouldn’t have done just because you’re my friend?”
“I taught you about sculpting. I taught you how to look beyond Ms. Baehr and see what else you can do.”
“And you think you deserve to be paid back? You think I owe you something? Friendship doesn’t work that way. Friends are friends because they like each other, not because they’re in debt …But you want me to devote my life to art. And that’s not fair. You shouldn’t make up conditions for friendship. Besides, there’s more to my life than you and art. I’m not giving anything up.”
Ashley regained her cool as quickly as she’d lost it. “You mean, you’re not giving anything up just for me. Because I’m not important enough to you. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it. Well, I’ll tell you something, Claudia Kishi. You are ungrateful. And foolish. And you don’t know a thing about being a friend.”
If I were Claudia I’d just wipe my hands and say, “Good riddance.” Then I’d go apologize to the BSC and end the book. But that’s not the end. We still have the sculpting contest to wrap up. When Claudia returns to the Radowskys, she decides to sculpt Jackie because he’s really “alive.” Like, get this kid some Ritalin alive.
The next afternoon is Mary Anne’s turn to sit for the Radowskys. Claudia visits and asks if she can sculpt Jackie and apologize to Mary Anne. Oh, and look who shows up again.
Ashley leaned over to look at the sketch I was working on. “I saw your bike outside. What are you doing here? I couldn’t believe you were baby-sitting again . . . and I see you aren’t.”
“Nope. I’m starting my sculpture for the show. That should make you happy.”
“Not if you’re going to sculpt him,” replied Ashley, pointing.
Jackie’s eager face fell.
Jesus, Ashley. You’re one of those people defending ICE putting kids in cages, aren’t you?
“Him has a name,” I told her. “He’s Jackie. And he’s one of my good friends.”
Jackie’s smile returned cautiously.
“So you lost your nerve,” Ashley went on, as if she hadn’t heard me. “You’re going to sculpt a person.”
“Because I’ll sculpt what I want to sculpt. I’ll sculpt what I do best, and I do people best, even though I still have a lot to learn.”
“I’ll say. Well, you’re not going to learn it from me,” retorted Ashley, and she headed for the front door. Her parting words were, “You’re ruining your career, you know.” Then she let herself out.
All that in front of Jackie and Mary Anne. Seriously, Ashley, take it down a notch. You’re barely a teenager. No teenager has a career — only very serious hobbies.
she calls the BSC and apologizes to them. Claudia misses another meeting, but this time it’s because she’s trying to finish her homework. However, despite her efforts, Claudia won’t be able to finish her sculpture of Jackie in time for the contest, especially if she wants to finish her homework. She tells Jackie in person the disappointing news. He takes it well, but he’s still sad. Claudia returns to the club during the next meeting and they officially make amends.
At the contest, Ashley wins first place, but Claudia’s sculpture is still displayed as a “Work in Progress,” which makes Jackie ecstatic. Ashley and Claudia share a moment, and at lunch at Stoneybook Middle School, Ashley actually sits with Claudia and the BSC, but Claudia makes it clear that this isn’t a common occurrence. The BSC is back together and we never have to think about Ashley again.
Ashley is one of the most onerous characters I’ve read so far. Sure, I’m not a kid-person and I could never babysit on a regular basis, but I sure wouldn’t go out of my way to insult children right to their faces and speak about them as if they weren’t there. That’s the thing that annoyed me the most about Ashley. She had open disdain for kids who were being perfectly sweet. If we never see Ashley again, it will be too soon.