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By Misha Adams
I sunk my feet into the ground, displacing a tangle of green weeds and twigs. I could remember the sound of the football bending my sister’s wire-framed glasses. I was six, and I threw it as hard and high as I could to impress the neighbors: my grade school peers. She ran into the house in disbelief, but the kids across the street cheered. That same year, I planted a marigold near the living room window so Grandma could watch it grow, blossoming into a tangerine colored tree, just a little taller each morning. My cousins moved to the neighboring city, so we’d all mimic our favorite movie scenes and reenact them for our parents. They sat on the couch, grinning ear to ear, laughing at us. And, for the first time, I had slumber parties and friends over. But Grandma isn’t here anymore, and the red and blue football was swept away by the ditch-water current. Our cousins lie to us; we no longer have them over.
The air was cold—my lungs felt heavy and dull. I shifted my stance, attempting to even out the weight from my book bag so the straps wouldn’t cut into my shoulders. I remembered riding my bike down the street, up and back. Mom didn’t want us to get hurt, so we’d stay close by. I hadn’t rode a bike in years. More so, I didn’t recognize the front yard. The sparseness of the pine trees, the collection of soggy mudded potholes, nor the heap of pinecones toward the bottom of the hill. But a lot had happened—a succession of birthdays, low grade hurricanes, new neighbors, and lost friends. I slid my hands into my jean pockets, careful to hold my core tightly and refrain from breathing. I couldn’t remember what the front yard looked like because I no longer looked at it. It was only a distraction en route from the car to the house. I wanted to cry.
This morning, I burnt two slices of toast on the oven racks. They were charred, and the kitchen began to fill with smoke. Mom helped by opening a few windows and told me to stand outside so my clothes wouldn’t hold the scent. I smelled like fabric softener blankets, because she washed my shirts. Instead of laying on the couch, waiting for Anita’s mother to pick me up for school, I stood outside, right on the cusp of spring, waiting for a dark blue Jeep Cherokee. Waiting for another morning rife with reminders that I was never fully finished: one paper became two, one topic expanded into the next. And we were all numbers, ranked against each other, waiting even more for exciting university acceptances and surprising rejections. Who’d get into the big schools this year? Would anyone take time off?
Mrs. Bishop stressed that you could only try your absolute best, and that there would always be someone smarter than you. Better than you. And, sometimes, that person was sitting next to you during first period. You dealt with it, asked them for help, and hoped they’d be kind, even generous, about it. Despite Mrs. Bishop’s spiel, I wanted to become the best at something, even if only in our tiny sample of eager pre-college students. Even if it warranted sleep deprivation, ostracism, or self-destructive behavior. I thought about an angle by which I could approach this each day.
I became serious about school the day after a classmate planted the idea in my head that everyone assorted themselves around the classroom based on a gradient of intelligence—with the “smart” kids sitting to the far right, and the “dumb” ones sitting to their left, and closest to the door. She picked up her books, and decided to join the others to the right, claiming that her current seat made her feel inadequate. I knew the scatter of loose papers, inked with C’s and dog-eared D’s that I stuffed into my bio folder, didn’t speak to my intelligence. Nor was I applying myself. But, the idea that someone would collect her purse, binder, and pencil case to squeeze into a tight space across the room because the students on that side were “smarter” was absurd. Or was it?
I may not have changed my seat that day, but something gruesome happened nonetheless. I became hobbyless. Ultimately, I vowed that I’d dedicate myself to proving everyone wrong about my intellectual shortcomings by bringing up each grade by a letter—even two. I’d have to deploy a tunnel vision strategy, spend weekend afternoons reading and organizing my binders, and pick up a few tutoring sessions, but I was set on making an A in every class. I still wouldn’t understand trig, nor would I like bio lab. But I could prove that improvement was my niche. I could be the underdog.
Mornings were all the same. I’d pick up a pair of pliable blue jeans from the pile and find a T-shirt to wear under my zip-up hoodie. A few of my jeans became too tight, since I wasn’t able to exercise anymore. I didn’t have time to harp on that, so I simply rotated the only three that could fit. I’d scramble downstairs for breakfast, slightly nauseous and disoriented from an abbreviated sleep cycle. Mom felt sorry. She’d make eggs and toast, or biscuits. There would always be orange juice. I’d pour a glass of juice while trying to loosen flattened biscuit from the roof of my mouth. I knew there’d be a lunch in the fridge: a sandwich, fruit cup, and a granola bar. I started carrying it in bits, as not to carry a bulky, insulated lunch bag. I’d stuff the food in the small of my ever-growing book bag, and rest on the couch near the window, waiting for Anita’s mom to roll around the corner in her Jeep Cherokee. I never said “Thank you” for anything, but I meant to.
I learned everything I could learn about filling my time. In a spare moment, I studied history dates or Spanish vocabulary. When I was completely spent, I’d get online and talk to friends from class—who were also excelling. We’d exchange essays for peer editing. We spoke about Frankenstein, themes, and motifs. Only months prior did I see a Hamlet play, and pass notes to girlfriends throughout its duration.
I became efficient and robotic. I never talked on the phone anymore, or went out after school. I came home, walked inside, and veered to my right, toward the family computer. I was the only one who used it, but no one gave me trouble. It was for academic use, after all. Everything lived in there: my assignments, and any semblance of a normal life. I spoke to my boyfriend online, even though we shared every class. My girlfriends, though few, were all from class. And my curiosities were all revealed in my search history. This pattern was temporary, but I couldn’t stray too far from it. Any reminder about life outside of the process was too bittersweet; it was refreshing. It scared me.
I thought everything was safe inside my process. All of the key players: boyfriend, friends, and school work were safe, protected within its confines. College was the out. It was everything. I kept saying, “Things will go back to normal once we’re done. We just have to make it to college.” Normal scared me. Because I didn’t know what to expect.
During nights on deadline, I wrote a few sentences, turned the nearby radio on to a whisper, and paced around the first floor of the house. I could dream of “College-Me,” whoever that would be. I was alone with my thoughts. No expectations. But it was over within minutes. And forgotten even more quickly. I didn’t know who I was. And I didn’t have time to figure it out.
But time was running out.
Graduation was hot on my heels. I felt it breathing down my collar, and onto my neck. It whispered mantras to me. So, I thought it was kind. It told me, “Just hang in there,” and, “It will be over soon.” But it never warned me about how hard it would be to endure the summer in between high school and college. “Normal” was pursuing me, but none of my previous plans came to fruition.
I made A’s, with one exception: a B in bio. I couldn’t shake the thought from my head that I could have been top 10 ranked had I made an additional A or two for a semester grade. My boyfriend left me. Apparently, he’d left long before—he stopped appearing online months ago because he was out, driving to new places with a girl outside of our program. My friends were happy, excited about college admissions. They celebrated with their families. I couldn’t share Normal with anyone because no one was waiting for it, delaying their happiness by counting on its arrival. Normal didn’t feel any better than this mad, hyper-focused perfectionism.
The dandelions drifted. First to the right, then to the left. The air, still cold from winter’s reluctant goodbye, pressed into my chest, disabling me from holding my breath any longer. I began to gulp for air, anything to suppress the tingling discomfort I felt beneath my eyes. My nose began to clog with stifled tears. I quickly held my sleeve to my face to shield myself from the neighbors. I looked away from the street and toward the living room window. I thought about the marigold that once lived there.
I never thought about whether the marigold would grow “correctly,” I simply wanted to plant a flower. I knew Grandma would like it. I wondered if Mom ever thought I’d plant her a flower as well. Just because I thought she’d like it. Just because I thought I’d like building a small garden. My eyes welled. A garden would be beautiful. Calming, even. But I couldn’t fight the idea that I had no business putting plants in the ground, considering I couldn’t score above the class average in biology.
#HighSchool #CollegeAdmissions #AdvancedPlacement #IB #PeerPressure #Teens #Memories #Nostalgia #LookingBack