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Back Straight, Chin Up, Say , “I am Beautiful”

by Rania Hussein Amin

From the first day Sam moved to live at his grandmother’s house on the farm, he had fallen in love with the vast green fields that surrounded it. Fortunately, this was now his house as well.

He’d wake up, wash his face, and—even before getting dressed—he’d run outside and take his long morning walk, surrounded by greenery and a variety of plants he had known nothing of before his arrival here. His grandmother acquainted him with each and every one of them. There was:

The Trefoil
The Wheat
The Cotton
The Maize
And the Onion

Each one of them had its own significant beauty, in its color, shape, or texture. Sam was very lucky to live in the countryside and get a chance to walk surrounded by those peaceful plants every day.

He used to sit on the small bridge above the canal and look at all his friends and talk to them.

“How did you like the strong wind today? Wheat, I can hear your spikes hitting each other, making soft bell sounds. Were you enjoying the wind?”

Or, “Onion, how are things under the ground? Do you have enough water and air?”

Or, “Cotton, in two weeks’ time we’ll start collecting you. Hang in there, you’re doing a wonderful job and looking great.”

And so on, Sam would talk to them and feel that he could hear their replies. Then they’d all be chatting together; they seemed like a happy bunch with no real problems . . .

Until the day came when a merchant arrived at their farmhouse asking them if they needed to buy seeds.

“What kind of seeds?” Sam’s grandmother asked.

“Flower seeds. Beautiful, colorful, exotic flowers from abroad!”

The grandmother looked at Sam seeking advice.

He said, “I don’t think so, Grandma. I love our plantations. I don’t think there’s space for anything else, especially flowers. They just won’t fit in this place.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Grandma.

“Would you like to buy just a few seeds maybe?” asked the merchant. “Try them out. You will love their colors, and I’m sure you’ll be asking me for more.” He took out a packet from his bag, opened it, and poured a few seeds into his palm, but still Sam insisted,

“No, thank you, we really don’t want any.”

So the man put them back in the packet and . . . what happened then was totally unplanned for. A seed fell from his hand while he was pouring them back, and because it was pretty windy on that day, it got carried away by the wind and flew off, until the wind calmed down again, and the seed fell right in the middle of the fields, only a few millimeters under the mud. When it settled in, it started feeding on the nutrients and the water.

A few days later, a stem started emerging from under the ground, with tiny little leaves.

Wheat was the first to notice the new plant.

“What is THIS?” Wheat asked Maize.

“No idea. It doesn’t look like any of us.”

“It’s a trefoil!” said Cotton.

“No way,” said Trefoil “I don’t have such a long stem compared to the rest of my body. That’s definitely NOT a trefoil!”

“Let’s wait and see,” said Onion. “In a few days, when the bud starts to open we will certainly find out.”

The bud finally opened up on a nice summer morning, and a bright pink and orange color shone through: a striking pink and orange in the middle of the dull colors of the other plants surrounding it.

“What in the world IS that? And where did it come from?” asked Trefoil.

“Absolutely no idea,” replied Cotton.

“I haven’t seen Sam planting any new seeds around here.”
“The seed must have been carried by the wind.”

“I hope Sam takes it away from here. We don’t NEED any new plants.”

“Yes, especially with such a bright color. It hurts my eyes!”

“You’re right. I hope he gets rid of it and fast.”

They all waited for Sam to walk through this area and find the intruder and take it away, maybe put it in a vase somewhere inside the house where it should belong.

And, in fact, Sam could spot the bright pink color from very far away, and, as fast as he could, he made his way to check on the emerging young plant.

“What’s that? And where did it come from? That certainly will turn into the most beautiful colorful flower ever!”

He was fascinated. It already even had a distinctive strong smell.

Sam was so excited that he turned to the plants, thinking they’d be just as thrilled as he was.

“It’s a flower!” he cried. “It’s a zinnia.”

But they all looked at him with a frown. A flower? A zinnia? So what?

Instead of walking through the fields, saying hello to each and every one of the plants as he did every day, Sam spent the whole time that day walking around that flower, admiring its beauty, and telling her how perfect she was.

The flower was listening to him, absorbing every word with pleasure, and with every compliment she started to thrive and grow and develop into an even more magnificent being, making Sam happier and prouder. When he finally left, they were all so full of jealousy and hatred; but none of them had the courage to express those feelings and preferred to keep them hidden inside.

The zinnia continued to grow taller and stronger and prettier. She was an incredibly lovely, multicolored, unique plant. Sam recognized her at once because he had seen her pictures in his books about plants. The zinnia, he remembered reading, is a very tall flower that is found primarily in Mexico. Sam felt so lucky to have one of them in his fields to add some color to the dull colors of his other plants.

And, as if the other plants knew what he was thinking, their jealousy grew even stronger, because Sam was obviously thrilled about his perfect, flawless flower.

What made it even worse was that many different butterflies suddenly started appearing and flying down to stand on the zinnia’s colorful petals to admire its beauty and taste from its nectar. Sam was so excited about that, “Look at all the butterflies! They never used to come and visit us here. Thank you, Zinnia, for bringing them down!”

Zinnia was happy and proud and had a big smile on her face. She felt loved, and had no idea of the hatred growing and growing around her.

Many days passed. Sam visited the fields more often now, spending time with all his plants as he used to and taking care of them all, but giving a bit of extra attention to Zinnia. Not just because she was beautiful, but also because she was one of a kind, and the other plants were not really friendly with her, so Sam was a bit worried that she might be feeling lonely or left out.

Yes, Sam was right; Zinnia DID want to make friends with the rest, but she did not know how to approach them. They seemed so cold with her, but she knew that one day the ice was going to melt and she WOULD be able to fit in. So Zinnia was optimistic and happy. She had Sam to take care of her, and she DID have some great friends, as colorful as she was: the butterflies. Every day they’d come down for a few minutes, stand on her petals and leaves, and tell each other stories. If only they could stay a bit longer!

When they left, and when Sam was not around, there were only the same old plants around her, who were—for some strange reason she didn’t know—ignoring her completely.

Then one day, unexpectedly, it was courageous Maize who decided to speak out,

“Ummm, Zinnia? I don’t want to be rude, but could you possibly turn your face around? Your colors are hurting my eyes!”

All the plants turned to Zinnia, happy that finally one of them decided to speak out the hatred they were all too unwilling to express.

Maize’s remark encouraged the other plants to speak out as well. “Exactly,” said Cotton, “Your colors are so vulgar. I have never seen orange and pink and yellow all together in one flower. This makes me sick!”

Zinnia was shocked and embarrassed. She thought she had beautiful colors but now she hated those colors, too, and was ashamed of them. She wanted to hide her petals, turn them upside down, anything, but not let them show.

“Oh, my God, I’m choking,” said Wheat and started to cough.

“What’s wrong?” asked Maize.

“The smell!” said Wheat. “Don’t tell me you can’t smell this.”

“I can,” said Onion and started to cough, too.

“I wonder where this smell comes from,” said Cotton, and they all turned their heads to look at Zinnia, and suddenly they all burst out laughing.

Zinnia lowered her head even more, facing the mud, and held her breath, hoping to stop the smell from escaping her body.

“How tall ARE you, anyway?” asked Trefoil.

All the plants started giggling. And, suddenly, Zinnia felt she was too tall, so she stooped, hunching her back a bit in order to be close to the tallest one of them.

“I . . . I don’t know,” she said shyly.

“No need to be shy about your height,” said Wheat, faking kindness, “It’s ok to be tall, but not tall and skinny! You are far too skinny for your height, I feel like you’re going to break any moment.”

Zinnia stooped even further, folding her leaves tightly around her stem, trying to hide her body. Somehow, she wanted to disappear out of sight completely.

“And what’s your name again?” asked Onion.
“Z..Z..Zi..Zin..Zinnia,” Zinnia stuttered. She
was starting to lose all her self-confidence.
“Z..Z..Z..Zinnia?” echoed Onion and laughed.
They all laughed with him.
“Z..Z..Z..Ztupid,” said Cotton.
“Z..Z..Z..Zilly,” said Trefoil.
“Z..Z..Z..Zombie,” said Maize.

They all laughed, even though they knew it was not even funny, but they wanted to be mean, and the more Zinnia felt broken and insecure, the happier they were. Stooping down further with every word they uttered, it was impossible for her to raise her head above their height as she had before. Now they could finally feel superior.

Night came, and Zinnia spent it crying her heart out. She found no one to console her, no one she could turn to or cry on their shoulder. She was so ashamed of the way she looked, her colors, her smell, her height, her figure, and even her name.

By the time Sam made his way toward the field the next morning, Zinnia had stooped down so low that she had reached the ground. Sam couldn’t find her at first and was going crazy. “Where could she have disappeared?” There was no other human being around here, so no one could have possibly stolen her. How . . . and then he looked down and saw her. There she lay on the mud, her body crumpled and her face hidden by her leaves. He could barely recognize her.

“Zinnia, what happened to you?”
“I’m just tired, Sam, I’m so sad!”
“I’m very depressed. I feel totally worthless!”

“But why? Something must have happened! Did anyone upset you?”
“I have no friends, Sam. No one wants to be my friend, because I’m not good enough for them.”
“Not good enough? You’re talking nonsense, Zinnia!”

“Nobody loves me.”

“Zinnia, they just don’t know you yet. You have to make more effort, talk to them, make conversation . . .”

Zinnia started to cry, and no matter how much Sam tried to boost her ego, or encourage her to get up, he couldn’t stop her. She buried her face deeper in her leaves and cried. And cried.

Sam looked at the other plants. They were all pretending like there was nothing wrong.

“What happened here, guys? Were you unkind to her?”

“Not at all,” said Cotton. “We were just kidding with her the way we always do with each other, but she took everything too personally.”

“She’s very sensitive,” said Onion.
“Very difficult to deal with,” said Maize.
“Yes,” said Wheat.
“She’s just not one of us,” said Trefoil.

“They were just kidding, Zinnia,” said Sam. But Zinnia knew they were not, and all she wanted was to be left alone, until she wilted and just disappeared out of sight.

Sam tried to find other solutions and started giving her more nutrients and more water or making space for sunlight to reach her, but nothing worked. Days passed and Zinnia’s leaves were wilting more and more every day, until the shiny colors changed to a dull brown. Her smell had long gone and the leaves had lost their bright green color and were now yellow and withered.

The more life was draining away from her, and the uglier she became, and the more satisfied the other plants were. The competition was gone. They could feel good about themselves again, and Sam turned with all his undivided attention once more to them.

The ridicule continued though because the fear of her regaining her beauty was still there.

“Look at how old you look now; you should DO something about that.”

“You look like you were stomped on by a rhinoceros.”

“Or hit by a car.”

“Stand up! Why do you lay there all day doing nothing, face to the mud! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“Lazy bum!”

The more they made fun of her, the more she shriveled and withered, until the day came when they woke up, and looked at Zinnia, ready to attack, when they found her totally motionless.

“Hey, you, wake up!”
“Hey, Zin . . . Z . . . she’s not moving, guys,
she’s . . .”
“Is she . . .”
“She . . . she . . . she’s . . . dead?”

That day when Sam walked in the field, he didn’t pass by Zinnia. He had long forgotten about her, knowing that sooner or later she would die anyway. Why bother about her anymore? He had decided to give more attention to the other plants, because he knew he had neglected them a bit since Zinnia arrived. So that day, he was walking among them with a smile on his face, asking them how they were doing, when he noticed that there was something different about them, something sad and gloomy.

“What’s up with you today?”
“Sam, we have bad news for you.”
“What is it?”
“It’s Zinnia. She’s . . .”
“She’s . . .”
“She’s dead!”

“We’re so sorry, Sam. . . . We . . .”

Sam ran to the place where Zinnia lay. Yes, indeed, she was dead. But he had known that this was going to happen. No time to grieve now. What he had to do was lift the spirits of his other plants. Stuff like that happens, they have to get used to it.

“We still have each other,” he said, “Come on, cheer up.”

But guilt had taken control of them. They could not stop thinking about, “What if . . .? What if we had been kinder? What if we had been more understanding? Less selfish?”

Finally, losing hope in cheering them up that day, Sam decided to postpone this to the next day and go home and grieve his lovely favorite flower alone.

His lovely flower was lying in the dirt face down, totally motionless. But was she dead? No, not dead. Very slowly, she was turning her head upwards to look at the sky: “Dear God, I have only one wish left. Please let me die. Please, just take me away from here.”

Not only God, but someone else was watching her from up there: A beautiful butterfly with the colors of a rainbow was fluttering above her and wondering, “How odd! Where’s the gorgeous flower that was here in that exact same spot a week ago. Where could she have gone to?”

The butterfly stepped down and stood beside Zinnia, thinking she was some sort of weed.

“Hey, Weed, do you have any idea where my beautiful flower has gone? The flower that stood here in this exact same spot a week ago . . .”

“A week ago,” answered Zinnia, “a very ugly flower was standing here. Maybe you mean a month or a year ago.”

“No, no, just a week ago!”


“Yes, here! I’m positive!”

“The butterfly IS talking about me!” thought Zinnia. “Beautiful? Me??!”

“Hey, Weed,” insisted the butterfly, “you MUST know what I’m talking about!”

“Could you please describe her to me?” Zinnia asked the butterfly.

“She must be mistaken,” Zinnia thought.

“She’s slender and elegant . . .”

“Too skinny you mean . . .”

“No slender and elegant. AND tall . . .”

“Yes, too tall . . .”

“No she was larger than life. I couldn’t get enough of watching her. And her colors!!”

“Too vulgar!”

“Vulgar?? They were heavenly. God’s most perfect work of art. And she had this golden crown on her head . . .”

“Yes, it looked ridiculous, right?”

“Ridiculous? What’s wrong with you, Weed?” asked the Butterfly. “Are you jealous or what? That flower was a masterpiece! And I could smell her scent miles away. I miss that sweet smell that filled the whole place!”

“You . . . you do?”

The butterfly looked down and a tear fell from her eyes on Zinnia’s face. Zinnia looked up and watched the butterfly crying quietly.

“Why are you so sad?” asked Zinnia.

“You don’t understand,” replied the butterfly.

“She was like a dream to me. I have never seen anything so perfect. I told all my friends about her and they were all very eager to see her, but now she has just disappeared! Do you think she was taken by some selfish human, to put in a vase? Or to smell and then throw away as usual?”

“I . . . I . . .” stuttered Zinnia, but she was too shocked to speak, “I . . .”

But before Zinnia could utter a word, the butterfly was gone, leaving Zinnia deep in her thoughts: “So I’m beautiful? I’m perfect? A dream? Slender? Elegant? I am God’s work of art???”

For the first time, she wanted to stand up and show off her beauty, but something was pulling her back. A very strong fear, a will to escape from her surroundings . . .

“Why were they all telling me such lies?” she thought, “Why were they trying so hard to put me down? Why?”

She tried again to stand up, but couldn’t. She just couldn’t move.

“I can’t be dying,” she thought, “I don’t want to die! Now that I know how precious I am . . .”

But still, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t move. The fear of ridicule had taken full control over her mind and paralyzed her completely.

She closed her eyes, and when everything went all dark and quiet, she finally fell asleep.

She was awoken by a drop of water falling on her yellow, wilted leaf. Then she heard a sob. Thinking it was the butterfly again, she was just about to turn around when she heard Wheat’s voice, “I’m so, so sorry . . . so, so sorry, Zinnia! I wanted you to go away because you were a threat to me. Everyone thought I was the most perfect plant here, until you came. You made me feel ugly and I hated you for that. But the truth is, now that you’re gone, I still feel ugly. . . . I feel bad and ugly. . . . I feel bad and evil and ugly and sick to the stomach. . . . I feel . . . I . . .” Then Wheat broke down.

“You should,” Wheat heard a voice coming from behind him. “You SHOULD feel bad about yourself!” It was Cotton speaking.

“Why are you saying that, Cotton?” asked Wheat, feeling shocked.

“You don’t remember what you did to me yesterday? You kept pricking me with your spikes and that really hurt! You did it on purpose!”

“I did not! It was windy and the wind kept pushing me . . .”

“You need to gain more weight to be able to stand still in wind, you look so ridiculously skinny . . . and those abominable spikes of yours . . . you’re just . . . silly.”

“So I’m ridiculous?” exclaimed Wheat.

“Have you looked in the mirror lately and seen those chubby white cheeks of yours? I can’t look at you without having to hold back my laughter.”

“Why are you making fun of his white color? Look at YOUR own dull beige, Wheat, and hold your tongue!” That was Onion speaking.

“Cotton’s problem is not just his color; he’s good for nothing! You cannot eat cotton, can you?”

Cotton started to cry, “So what?!” he screamed! “At least my head is not big and oval and all pimply!”

“Exactly!” laughed Onion.

“Look who’s laughing!” said Trefoil. “Onion, have you ever smelled yourself?”

Everyone else laughed.

“Be quiet, Shorty,” said Onion. “At least I taste good! Nobody eats YOU but a few stupid animals.”

And on and on they kept fighting and making fun of each other until they all started to feel really bad about themselves; and feeling too tired to continue the fight anymore, they suddenly all fell asleep.

Zinnia was awake, listening to the fight, and she spent the rest of the night thinking about what she heard. “How could I have been so stupid? How come I never noticed THEIR flaws? Their insecurities? For me they were all perfect, all such beautiful role models, and I would have died to become like any one of them.

But how come THEY don’t see how perfect they are? How come THEY don’t know?

Maybe because there was no one there to tell them anything positive?

Not even me!

I was too busy thinking about myself, feeling sorry for myself to really see them or try to understand them, or figure out why they do what they do or say what they say.

I was too busy engrossed in my own problems to really care about them.

To help them.”

Her will to help is what suddenly gave her this push from inside. She HAD to stand up and help them all see what gorgeous plants they were, just like the butterfly did for her. She regained her appetite and started feeding on the nutrients in the ground until she was strong enough to straighten her stem again. The food and water started reaching her leaves and petals and slowly she was gaining her beauty back: her colors and her smell and her gorgeous, golden, shiny crown.

When the morning came, Cotton was the first to open his eyes. Yawning and stretching, he looked up, and the first thing he saw was a big, bright pink, orange, and yellow circle facing him. At first, he thought it was the sun, but no, it was . . . Zinnia? Was he still dreaming?

“Yes, it’s me!”
“Zinnia!!! Wake up, everyone, Zinnia is
“We missed you!!”
“I missed you, too!”
“You’re . . . you’re . . . you’re beautif . . .”

When they realized how stunning she was, the fear started seeping back into their hearts.

Zinnia felt this, and for the first time she understood them perfectly well. They had no idea how special they were. They needed someone to tell them that, to love them, to care . . .

“I had a very strange vision last night,” said Zinnia. “I saw a little boy sitting at a dinner table crying. His plate was empty because there was no bread. Wheat was too busy feeling sorry for himself, he didn’t know how much people loved him and could not live without him.” She looked at Wheat. “The beautiful delicate, elegant Wheat with the wonderful golden color was too busy feeling sorry for himself!”

Then she turned to Maize. “The boy’s mom was sad, too, because she found no Maize to use as starch or to put in her son’s salad. And why? Because the wonderful, bright yellow Maize with the gorgeous little kernels

decorating it like valuable beads is busy feeling sad and sorry for herself.”

“And she felt sad because she had no onions to cook any meal. Almost every meal requires onions!” She turned to Onion. “And why was Onion missing? Because the perfect round plant with the wonderful soft layers of skin is busy feeling sorry for himself.”

Then she turned to Trefoil. “Mom and her son live in a farm, and they are raising cows, sheep, and donkeys. The animals were sad and hungry. They had no more Trefoil to eat. Nothing tastes better for them than the juicy Trefoil. But sweet little Trefoil with the tiny bright yellow flower did not bother, because he was too busy feeling sorry for himself.”

“And what worried Mom most was that they needed to buy clothes, but the factories were running out of cloth. Why? Because there was no more Cotton. The soft, fluffy wonderfully rounded Cotton was too busy. With what? He was too busy feeling sad and sorry for himself, of course!”

Wheat, Maize, Onion, Trefoil, and Cotton all felt happy and flattered. They loved the compliments they heard for the first time. But they were ashamed of the way they had acted last night and the way they had treated Zinnia.

“When I first came here,” Zinnia said, “I was fascinated by your beauty; all of you! You all seemed so perfect and self-confident; and I felt lucky to be a part of this wonderful field full of amazing plants. . . . And then . . . you all know what happened then.”

All the plants looked down feeling ashamed.

“When you were mean to me, I lost all my self-confidence, until a butterfly flew by and gave it back to me by showing me who I really am. I decided then that I had to change the way I look at myself. I told myself . . . no, I SHOUTED at myself, ‘Back straight, chin up, and say, I AM BEAUTIFUL!’ And now I’m telling you the same thing: ‘BACK STRAIGHT!!’”

They all stood straight.
They all lifted their heads up.
And together they all shouted,

Their sound shook the whole field, the house, and Sam’s bedroom where he was lying in bed, reading a book. He sat up in bed, and then ran as fast as he could toward the fields. He could hear the soft wind brushing over the plants and the clinking sounds of the wheat spikes, and had a feeling that everything was alright again. And then he saw her. . . .

Zinnia, shining bright in the middle of the field with a big smile on her face, and all the other plants standing tall, looking at her with love.

They all looked so wonderfully happy and fresh. He saw a butterfly fluttering above his head. She was in a hurry, flying as fast as a butterfly could toward Zinnia, who was looking at her and smiling.

“Zinnia’s back! Zinnia’s back,” Sam said to the butterfly happily.

“YES,” said the butterfly. “YES!!!” And when she finally arrived at her destination, she hugged Zinnia with her big colorful wings and said, “Welcome back!”

“Thank you, my dear. I couldn’t have made it without you!” said Zinnia.

“Sam is so happy, too!” said the butterfly. “You have no idea how much we all missed you!”

Zinnia turned to Sam, and found him looking at his feet, not looking happy. He was actually looking upset. All the other plants turned to him as well.

“What’s wrong, Sam?” asked Zinnia.

“Wheat told me the whole story now. I can’t believe I am to blame for all that. I was too struck by your beauty, Zinnia, that I neglected the others. That’s what created all those problems, and I was so—”

“SAM!” shouted Trefoil.
“What?” asked Sam.
Sam straightened his back.
“CHIN UP!!” shouted Maize.
Sam looked up.
Then they all shouted.
and they all laughed.

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