Illustration by Sara-Mara
For some annoying cosmic reason, Mid-Mid’s (Middleton Middle School) Eighth Grade Promotion Ceremony had been the beginning of the end not just for Zack Dore, but for his sister Gina as well:
Her graduation dress was the center of her “post-punk princess ensemble,” a frilly white dress with hot pink knee socks and black combat boots. Along with her flashing green eyes and thick auburn hair, Gina somehow managed to be pretty and make fun of pretty all at the same time. Mom wasn’t going to let her wear the boots until Ms. Killian, Mid-Mid’s incurably bohemian English instructor, called and insisted that the boots would be “delicious.”
It was Gina’s last official day of middle school. She’d done eighth grade right: played Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, won the Spring Poetry Jam, and gotten nearly perfect grades.
Nearly. Truth is they’d been slipping since the end of last year, and it was getting harder and harder to maintain the illusion of effortlessness, but no one except Gina was worried. Her grades and wonky wit had landed her one of just three student speaker spots on the graduation platform. Her task: to write and recite the annual “Wings of the Future Inspirational Closing Speech.”
Fifty-three minutes into the ceremony, Mom looked up from her program, for the sixth time, and whispered “I don’t see her.”
“She’s going over her speech,” Dad reassured. He was at least as nervous as she was but, being a lawyer, had mastered the art of pretend certainty.
After getting the nod from Mrs. Williams, Gina straightened the bows on her knee socks and crossed to the platform steps. She suddenly felt absurd and inadequate. Missy Herbert had just completed her valedictorian speech. It was good, but predictable. Which in Middleton was the quintessence of goodness. Not that Gina resented her, it was just that Missy was “safe,” and somehow her safeness drew attention to Gina’s not-safeness.
With Ms. Killian’s approval, Gina had decided to stand the whole Wings of the Future tradition on its head. “Not everyone soars forth on the wings of the future,” Gina’d planned to say, “some drag themselves backward on the elbows of the past.” Ms. Killian had called the line “pure genius.”
Only now had Gina suddenly realized that Ms. Killian was insane.
The Seventh Grade Jazz Ensemble finished their nearly on-key rendition of “New York, New York,” which had nothing to do with anything, but was their best number.
“And now,” five-foot-four-inch Principal Glassmann intoned in his incongruously large voice, “here’s Gina Dore, winner of last month’s Spring Poetry Jam, and our own Catalina in the spring drama production of The Dawning of the Shrew, to present the Wings of the Future Inspirational Closing Speech.”
Applause—frighteningly over-expectant applause.
It suddenly seemed to Gina that the sound was coming from alien scientists on the other side of a thick glass window who were here to study her in her…what?…natural habitat? Hardly. There was nothing natural about this. What was she doing here?
As she climbed the steps and floated toward the microphone, she thought, How absurd. All these humanoid creatures folded onto their posteriors, smacking their forepaws together as if it had some kind of actual meaning.
She approached the stand and raised the mic. Which, as planned, brought a hearty laugh (poor Principal Glassmann had to suffer this indignity at least a dozen times a year). But instead of jarring Gina out of her altered state of consciousness, their laughter only added to her sense of disassociation: Those creatures are making strange barking noises now.
Why had she agreed to give this speech?
Thoughts: Have you ever felt crushed under the weight of others’ expectations?
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