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Illustration by Mora Vieytes
Good Enough

Can having the right shirt make you happy?

By Rachel Vail
From the November 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to analyze a fictional character and a poem, then write an original poem from the character’s point of view

Other Key Skills: inference, structure, making connections, motive, character, theme

Story Navigation

As You Read

Think about what the Orion shirt symbolizes to Dori as the story unfolds.

I stood on the toilet lid, staring into the bathroom mirror. Then I flushed the toilet so my family—especially my mother—wouldn’t be suspicious.

I jumped down and turned on the hot water full blast. I soaked my washcloth in the steaming water until my palms burned, then pressed it to my face. I breathed in through the wet heat. After a few splashes of cold water, I dried my face, took one more deep breath, and attempted a smile. I hoped nobody would be able to tell I’d been crying.

When I stepped out of the bathroom, Mom gasped gleefully.

“Oh, it fits perfectly! Boys, look at Dori!” She pulled me out to the deck and I twirled around, not trusting myself to speak, as my brothers complimented me on my new shirt. “Cute, Dori.” “Looks good.” “Nice.” I looked up at my dad, who was slouched in his chair, watching us. “You look beautiful, sweetheart,” he said.

I tried to say thank you, but only the “thank” came out. I pressed my lips together and counted to 210 by 7s, trying to calm myself with math.

 Of course, math is what got me into this mess in the first place.    

My troubles started a few days ago. Mom had come home between shifts at the diner. I was preoccupied with my math homework, and she sat down next to me and put her swollen feet up on the kitchen table. 

Mom comes home between shifts whenever she can, although she doesn’t really need to. My oldest brother is in charge while she’s at work, and as for me, I’m old enough to keep myself out of trouble. I just do homework or read. In my whole life, I have never caused trouble.

Well, until now.

And this trouble was just for me.

“So, have you thought of what you want for your birthday yet?” I remember Mom asking. I rested my forehead in the space between my thumb and my index finger, leaning in closer to the math problem I was trying to figure out.

“Come on,” she urged, after a gulp of her iced tea. “I gotta get back to work. What are you really hoping for?”

“An Orion shirt,” I mumbled, still attempting to focus on my work. It was the second week of school, and it was important to me to make a good start, to not fall behind.

“What’s an Orion shirt?” Mom asked enthusiastically.

I shook my head. I hadn’t meant to say anything. I erased the column of numbers I’d been working on.

“Tell me,” Mom said, giving me a nudge with her glass. “What’s an Orion shirt? I’ve never heard of that. Don’t chew on your lips, Dori. They get so chapped.”

I let my lip slip out of my teeth and said quietly, “It’s nothing, just a kind of shirt.”

“That everybody wears?”

I shrugged, then nodded, and dusted my eraser crumbs away instead of looking at her. “They’re just, you know, soft cotton, like knit. With a collar. And on the left collar, there are three small red stars.”

 “Oh, yeah,” Mom said cheerfully. “I’ve seen a lot of girls wearing those at the diner. They’re ‘the thing’?”    

I shrugged again. “Yeah, but they’re expensive.”

“Oh.” Mom stood up and kissed me on the top of my head. “Well, maybe the strike will end soon.”

“Maybe,” I said.

My father’s union had been on strike since July, more than two months already. Every day, my mother told me maybe it would end soon. We hadn’t even gone shopping for school supplies, our annual tradition the weekend before school starts. I was still using last year’s notebooks, trying to write small—to not use too much paper.

“I don’t really want an Orion shirt,” I told her as she rinsed her glass. “I was kidding. What I’d really like is, um, maybe a package of colored pencils. You know, the eight-pack they sell in AJ’s store.” 

I knew my brother AJ could get them for a 40 percent discount at the stationery store where he works after school.

“We’ll see,” Mom said, getting up. “I’d better hustle.”

Ivana Milic/Shutterstock.com

WHO WAS ORION?

In Greek mythology, Orion was a famous hunter. He was placed in the night sky after his death, becoming a constellation. The three stars of the Orion shirt are a nod to the three stars that form Orion’s belt. What is Dori hunting for in the story?

The only reason the Orion shirt had entered my mind was that Lisa Verilli has the locker next to mine. Every morning, I hear her and Carleen and their friends complimenting each other on their Orion shirts—and on their hair, their homework, their ice-skating, their singing, their everything.

They are polite and pretty—and never really outwardly mean, at least not to me. Lisa whispers “hi” to me sometimes. She even gave me half a hug the first day of school this year. But mostly she doesn’t notice me; none of them do.

They are in the A group. I am in no group at all. I do my work. I go home. And although they are as polite with one another as grown-up ladies, they scare me a little.

The day Mom was asking me what I wanted for my birthday, Lisa and Carleen and the rest of the A group had been comparing which colors of Orion shirts they had. Yellow and white seemed to be the top two. I wasn’t paying close attention, but after I closed my locker, I turned my head and found myself eye to eye with Lisa.

She flicked her eyes down my body, taking in the hand-me-down T-shirt with the faded football on it, from my brother Cal, and the brown shorts gathered up by a belt that AJ had outgrown.

Lisa smiled sympathetically. I shrugged to show I don’t care about surface things like what I wear. But later, at the kitchen table with my mother and her iced tea, I began thinking about myself in an Orion shirt—imagining how it would feel to get one of those purring compliments: “Oh, Dori! That’s the exact Orion shirt I wanted! But it looks much better on you.” 

On the night of my birthday, we cooked out in the backyard—hot dogs, my favorite, and a white cake with chocolate frosting. My little brother, Nate, whispered to me, “There’s a big present and a card with a rainbow on it, but don’t tell anybody, because it’s a secret.”

I promised I wouldn’t tell anybody, but he was so excited he couldn’t even eat his cake— so Mom let him give me the presents. There were two, held together with a shiny yellow ribbon.

On top was a card made by Nate. It had a drawing of a girl with long, long hair, much longer than mine, standing beneath a rainbow. On the inside it said, DORI - HPPY BDAY. U R THE B. That’s Nate’s way of writing “You are the best.” He’s only 4 and a half.

I let him tear open the small present. It was a box of colored pencils, the eight-pack. I smiled and said thanks and wondered what was in the big box.

Until I realized.

I tore open the wrapping paper and saw that in that box was a shirt. A soft knit shirt. And on the left collar, three little red . . . hearts.

My stomach dropped.

It was a fake.

A knockoff.

A cheap imitation.

It was still too expensive, probably. And it was worse than having no Orion shirt at all. It was the fakeness that was so awful. I’d rather wear my brothers’ old T-shirts. At least they are what they are and don’t try to be anything else.

I held up the fake shirt for everybody to see while my mother explained that it was an Orion shirt, the hottest trend of the year. I chewed on my lip, and she didn’t stop me. I gave her and my dad kisses, thanked them for the presents with all the gratitude I could muster, and quickly helped clean up the wrapping and dishes so I wouldn’t have to look at anyone. 

But when I got back outside, there was Mom, holding up the shirt, saying, “Go try it on, Dori. Let’s see how it looks!”

So I went obediently to the bathroom, tried it on, cried at my reflection, modeled it for my family, then headed straight for my room. I peeled it off and put on a comfortable old pair of pajamas. I folded the shirt, placed it neatly in my drawer, and closed the drawer tight. When Mom said I should come watch TV with everybody, I yelled down that I was tired and had to finish a book for school.

Moments later, Mom came through the door. “Hey, birthday girl,” she said.

I kept reading.

“Your new shirt is going to look great with your jeans.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but no words came. Just shame. Shame at not being able to afford the real thing, a rehearsal shame for the real shame I knew I’d feel when Lisa and Carleen and the rest of the A group saw me.

I pictured myself standing there wearing that fake, I-wish-I-had-what-you-have-but-I-can’t-afford-it imitation shirt. Not good enough. I turned away while my mother tucked the blanket tight around me.

“You are so loved,” she said softly.

At the lockers early in the morning, Lisa looked at me, not unkindly. But then Carleen yanked on Lisa’s yellow Orion sleeve and whispered in her ear. I hung on to my locker and waited as I tasted the salty tear that slipped out by accident.

I raised my eyes to meet Lisa’s.

“New shirt?” she asked.

I nodded, and another tear fell, this one plunking straight down onto my arm.

Carleen taunted, “Is it an Orion?” 

I shook my head and kept on crying, ready for the humiliation I knew I deserved.

“No,” I blubbered, burning with shame, “it’s a fake.”

When I blinked, the tears stopped. I suddenly couldn’t believe that I, of all people, would be standing in the middle of the hallway crying about a shirt. These tears are what I should be ashamed of, I realized, not the shirt, not hearts instead of stars.

The eyebrows of the A group were all raised. I touched the bottom hem of my new shirt. It felt very soft. I imagined my mother standing at the display at the Bargain Mart. I pictured her rubbing the material, adding up how much it would cost with tax, how much it would subtract from how little we had. Then I imagined her picking up the shirt anyway and carrying it proudly to the checkout for her daughter.

You are so loved, I heard in my head.

A fake?

Depends what’s real, I guess. 

I smiled at the A group and told them, “But it’s the best present I ever got.”

And then I walked away, feeling good enough. 

Ode to My Shoes

Panatphong/Shutterstock.com

my shoes
rest
all night
under my bed

tired
they stretch
and loosen
their laces

wide open
they fall asleep
and dream
of walking

they revisit
the places
they went to
during the day

and wake up
cheerful
relaxed
so soft

This story was originally published in the November 2019 issue.    

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Activities (8)
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Answer Key (1)
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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (5 minutes)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING THE STORY (30 minutes)

3. READING AND DISCUSSING THE POEM (20 minutes)

4. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING

Differentiated Writing Prompts
For Struggling Readers

Write a note from Dori to her mom explaining how the shirt helped her learn what she values most. Write your note as a well-organized paragraph and use details from the story.

For Advanced Readers

In a well-organized essay, explain how an item of clothing can be meaningful. Include ideas from the story, the poem, and one other source— fiction, nonfiction, or your own experience.

CUSTOMIZED PERFORMANCE TASKS
For Graphic Novelists

Retell the story of “Good Enough” in the form of a graphic novel. Be true to the characters—to how they speak, behave, and interact with each other.

For Creative Writers

Write the next scene of “Good Enough”—the conversation Dori and Mom have that afternoon after school. Be sure each character speaks and behaves in a way that is consistent with the story.

Literature Connection: Novels that explore the emotions of early adolescence    

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