For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
As the final day of this writing challenge approaches, I wanted to write a story focusing on gratitude–especially for those who go out of their way to commit small acts of kindness. Many of these, especially for people in vulnerable situations, rarely go forgotten. This is dedicated to my junior high principal–
It was the end of my 8th grade year, and yet again, I found myself sitting in on a sticky plastic seat staring at the rafters of the gym ceiling. One of the teachers was at the mic, giving a presentation of awards for students that had volunteered to save puppies or build houses for the homeless, or something else genuinely admirable. If I had had the time to do such things, I’m sure I also would have appreciated a piece of shiny paper with my name on it.
But for me, assemblies like this required a special type of self care and mental armor, and luckily I had plenty of time to build this up. I was always a decent student–it really wasn’t until I got to 6th or 7th grade that I got anything lower than an A. But that’s about as far as my in-school achievements took me. Theatre was the real world in my mind, for not only did it define who I was, but it was my true escape from the family issues we had been working through since I was about eight years old. I didn’t get awards, and didn’t expect them. “What do you do with them anyway?” I always thought. Still, year after year of blending in with the scenery during these meetings was a dreaded moment of the year.
But this year, things were a little different. My self-constructed mental armor was not as powerful as it had been. As I counted down the minutes to the final bell, I tried my best to muffle out the cliché compliments listed off about each award’s recipient: “Always goes above and beyond,” “She’s always smiling,” “Motivates everyone around her.” You often heard the same names, year after year, receiving these certificates. And great for them! Seriously, it’s nothing to put down. But that year, I couldn’t help but glancing around the room at all the other kids who fell into my category, the ones pretending not to get their hopes up.
Unlike in Plainfield, when our family’s struggles were often hidden from my friends, my current situation was a little easier for people to understand. This didn’t make it better, it just made it more public. And as I got older, and the pile of stress became heavier on my shoulders, I became less and less skilled at keeping my disgust off my face during events that made me feel small. My mother at this time was in the heart of chemotherapy treatments for ovarian cancer, after a terrifying and sudden surgery earlier that year. Throughout those months, I did a decent job at stoically squashing any panic or emotions down into the depths of my brain. Still, it was becoming more apparent that the threads were coming undone. I was getting worse at lying to myself.
Somewhere by the end of the assembly, the cyclical thoughts of rage started to churn in my brain. How long will this imbalance of recognition go on? I knew it wouldn’t get better in high school or college, probably even worse. What about all the other kids in this room barely getting through the day? Are they also tired of watching Sally Superpants win the 80th trophy for always being to school on time? And on the other hand, who am I to resent Sally Superpants? It’s not her fault the rest of us feel left out.
The only hope I ever had at one of these things was in the performing arts category. So on this particular day, when my anxiety was turning this insignificant meeting into a meter of my academic worth, I waited with anticipation for the choir awards to approach. And then they arrived, and…nothing. It was always the smiley ones. And the teachers, though well intentioned, always commented on how helpful and happy these students were.
That was it for me. A hot pressure welled up behind my eyes, and my chin started doing that uncontrollable quivering thing you dread more than anything in middle school. I pulled myself together, took a few breaths, and stared at the floor. Luckily, the awful two hours was over, and we loudly filed out of the gym toward our final class of the day. As we walked through the gym doors, the principal stood at its threshold, greeting the classes as the passed. I looked up briefly at her, trying not to be rude, but my eyes gave me away. I attempted a pathetic smile, but could feel my eyes were still puffy from earlier. Once in the hallway, I ducked into the bathroom and forced myself to get back to normal.
Just before the final bell of the day, the loudspeaker in my homeroom asked if I could head down to the principle’s office. Of course this is nothing anyone wants to hear, but seeing that I was too under the radar to ever get in trouble, I didn’t worry. To be honest, I figured I was getting bad news about something at home.
The kind principle (man, I wish I could remember her name), sat me down and asked how I was doing. At the point, I was positive something bad had happened. Otherwise she would have come right out with it. I lied, and said I was okay, and she told me she knew about everything my mom had been going through. Then she pulled out a blue folder and handed it across the room to me.
“I wanted you to know that I recognized what you were going through.” I opened it to find an embossed certificate, just like the ones from the assembly, with my name across the front. “I didn’t want to present it in the gym because it was so personal, but I appreciate you keeping up with school despite everything happening.” I didn’t know what to say. I honestly can’t remember what the actual title of the certificate was that she’d created, but let’s just called it the, “Congrats on keeping your sh*t together” award.
My eyes began to well up for the second time that day, and I told her how deeply I appreciated this. I tucked the certificate safely in my backpack and headed back to class without a word to those around me. How could you explain this to anyone? You couldn’t. It was one of those rare moments when an adult went out of their way to change my whole outlook on things. It made me feel like my head was slightly above water, even if I felt everyone else around me was completely on the shore.
I still think about that certificate, not just because it made me felt looked after, but also because it blew up the legitimacy of all the awards I thought I longed to receive. I didn’t need perfect attendance or best choir member award, and I definitely didn’t need a speech about smiling all the time, I was content and proud of my “keeping my sh*t together” award, and I was deeply grateful for that small moment of kindness that will always, always stick with me.