#16: Jessi’s Secret Language

It’s our first Jessi book! When I read these books as a kid, I wasn’t crazy about Jessi and Mallory. I think it’s because they were younger (and Mallory seemed like a real dork) and they weren’t ~sophisticated~ like Claudia or Stacey. But let’s see how I feel now.

“My family is black. I know it sounds funny to announce it like that. If we were white, I wouldn’t have to, because you would probably assume we were white. But when you’re a minority, things are different.” Okay, I like that Jessi got real on page 3. This book is from 1988 but THIS PASSAGE IS STILL TOO RELEVANT. Jessi is the only black kid in her grade at Stoneybrook Middle School and the neighbors have been, well, unfriendly to her family since they moved into Stacey’s old house. Her family is Jessi, her mom and dad, her eight-year-old sister Becca, and her baby brother Squirt (a nickname).

Jessi is a ballerina, and her parents allow her to take lessons at a school in Stamford. (They also had a barre and some mirrors and mats put into their basement so she can practice at home.) Today there are tryouts at her dance school for Coppélia, a ballet about a doll maker, a realistic doll he makes, and the man who falls in love with the doll. Jessi really wants to be in it, but her school is very competitive and she’s not sure how things will go. At the BSC meeting, though, Jessi gets a cool new job – a regular sitting job (every Monday and Wednesday afternoon) for Matt Braddock, a new kid in town who also happens to be deaf. Jessi herself says she’s really good with languages, so she’s confident she’ll be able to learn Ameslan and communicate with Matt.

At dance class, Jessi finds out that she’s earned the role of Swanilda in Coppélia – and that’s the starring role! Everyone in her class is shocked but the dance teacher, Mme Noelle, makes it clear that Jessi’s audition was great and that she earned the part. Jessi is super excited until two little assholes in her class, Hilary and Katie Beth (who are jealous because they were the youngest in the class before Jessi came along) make snide remarks and call Jessi a Teacher’s Pet. Jessi goes home upset but her Mama talks her out of it – “would Mme Noelle really risk the whole production just to play favorites?”

Then it’s on to the next thing – Jessi tries to familiarize herself with Ameslan (which is American Sign Language) so she can begin to communicate with Matt Braddock.  She goes over to the Braddock house the next day and meets Haley, Matt, and Mrs. Braddock. She likes the family and begins learning sign language. She thinks it’s cool – “it’s very expressive, just like dancing” – but is a little bit overwhelmed with everything there is to learn. She also notices a bit of jealousy between Haley and Matt – perhaps because of all the special attention Matt receives?

It all becomes clear when Mary Anne walks by with noted brat Jenny Prezzioso one day; Jenny is confused by Matt’s deafness and is super bitchy and calls him weird and says she doesn’t want to play with him. Of course, Matt can’t hear her… but Haley can. And Haley gets really upset about how unfair people are to Matt and, therefore, how hard it is for Haley to fit in and make friends. Feeling awful, Jessi decides to take Matt and Haley to the Pike house the next time she sits for them. The uber-liberal and generally friendly Pikes find it cool that Matt knows a “secret language” and Haley gets to jump in and play translator, ingratiating her with the neighborhood crowd. The next day when Mallory and Dawn are watching the Pikes, they catch the kids coming up with their own “secret language” signs, and Mallory realizes they might as well have Haley and Matt teach them the real thing. Jessi is stoked – she thinks that if the Pikes and other neighborhood kids learn ASL, Matt and Haley will have a much easier time fitting in and making friends.

After ballet rehearsal, Jessi finds out that uber-bitch Katie Beth has a deaf sister named Adele… but Katie Beth hasn’t bothered to learn sign language, and neither have her parents. Adele goes to a special school for deaf kids in Massachusetts, so when she’s home her family just talks really loudly and hopes she can read lips. Jessi is horrified, and then is like THANK GOD MATT HAS THE BRADDOCKS. Still, Jessi is cool about it and signs to Adele, then teaches Katie Beth a few signs. She knows she and Katie Beth will never be friends (good, I say) but she thinks that she might have gotten Katie Beth off her back for a while.

The “secret language” is spreading among the Stoneybrook kids – Claudia teaches some signs to Karen, Andrew, and David Michael (with a little over-the-phone help from Jessi). When Jessi is sitting for Matt and Haley, the Pike triplets and Nicky come over with Buddy Barrett and play baseball with Matt, signing the whole time. They’ve learned all the sports signs they can. Jessi and Haley are happy about it, but Haley confides more in Jessi about how hard it is to be Matt’s sister, and that she loves him but sometimes she wishes he had never been born.

“Her feelings were her feelings. They didn’t make her a bad or a good person.” 

Jessi is thrilled when the other members of the Baby-sitters Club say they want to learn more about signing… and when they agree to come to opening night of Coppélia. Jessi also invites another group to the opening night of Coppélia – Matt Braddock and his entire class. The kids can’t hear the music, but they can feel the vibrations, and they can watch the stage show. The kids are all excited when Jessi attends their class to share the news, and Matt signs to Jessi that he loves her and that she’s his best grown-up friend. Awww.

Kristy baby-sits for Becca and Squirt while Jessi is at the Braddocks’, and Becca invites Charlotte Johanssen over so they can “pretend to be ballerinas like Jessi”. They call themselves the Polanski Sisters (creepy) and Kristy feels like they’re hiding something. Then she goes downstairs where they’re not dancing, and they literally tell her they have a secret, and that they can’t tell her but she’ll find out soon. And she does, along with the rest of the BSC. At the opening night of Coppélia, Jessi comes on stage before the ballet begins to announce to the audience that there are eight deaf children in the audience and that Haley and Mrs. Braddock would be narrating and signing throughout the play for the benefit of the deaf kids. Jessi finds out later that Katie Beth’s sister Adele came in for the special performance, too… and that Katie Beth is learning out to sign. JESSI RAMSEY CHANGES LIVES.

At the end of the ballet, as Jessi is taking her bow, Matt Braddock comes to the stage with roses for her and signs, “Thank you from all of us”. She replies that it’s the best night of her life and Matt signs that it’s his too. Awww. Then Adele, Katie Beth’s sister, comes up with flowers for Katie Beth, and they both start to cry. All in all, a great and very special night at the ballet. At the end of the night, Matt Braddock signs, “Happy… very happy.” And I try not to cry.


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