The clicking of my heels echoing down the deserted school hallway, black dress fluttering about my knees just as the butterflies do about my stomach, I focus on slowing down the thoughts racing around my mind: “can’t handle this today . . . just want to curl up in a ball and cry . . . they’ll think you’re an idiot . . . you’re already running late, might be better to just not show up at all . . . why didn’t you say something to her--No! You can’t go there right now, stay focused! . . . remember why you’re doing this.” I search inside myself, grasping for the confidence I had when I was five and decided I wanted to learn to ride a bicycle. I’d simply found a screwdriver, taken off my training wheels, and figured out how to ride it, undeterred by numerous falls. “You did it then; you can do it now.”
I reach the classroom; inside, the students are gone and the teachers sit at desks, presumably discussing the graduation speeches they have just heard. I’m later than I thought. “Save yourself the embarrassment of appearing irresponsible, just leave.” The idea seems rational; the universe seemed to be telling me not to do this. I’d faced numerous obstacles in writing and recording myself giving the speech and trying out meant I’d be late for an event for my friend, Leah, that being at meant the world to me. But this is something I need to do for myself.
Slowly, hesitantly, I open the door. “Is it too late to try-out?” I ask, clutching the DVD with white knuckles. Unfortunately, it is. Before I can leave, the vice principal pulls me into the hall.
“You know you’re not graduating this year, right?” he asks gently. The curling-up-in-a-ball idea is growing increasingly appealing.
“I know.” I reply.
“You’re welcome to come back next year and tryout then, though.” As I trudge towards my car, face burning, I question why I ever thought this was a good idea.
Two weeks earlier, I was sitting in English when someone came in to talk about auditions for graduation speaker. Knowing this didn’t apply to me, I began reflecting on my fear of failure. Throughout my life anxiety had paralyzed me; I feared people would judge me for having the audacity to assume I had anywhere near the talent needed to tryout for a team, submit an application, or even turn in an essay. My shelves have always been cluttered with blank notebooks untainted by my awkward sentences and shallow thoughts, although my head always swam with experiences I longed to record and ideas that demanded to be analyzed. Essentially, I always gave up before I even began, and those times I somehow summoned up the courage to try, I’d give up as soon as soon as confronted with an obstacle. As I half-listened to the logistics of the auditions, I pondered ways to move beyond my fear. Suddenly, it hit me. What better way to desensitize myself than to tryout for something I had no qualifications for whatsoever? I’m not an involved, popular, straight-A student, nor am I a particularly skilled writer--I wasn’t even graduating! So, I signed up to be rejected.
I try to put it out of my mind as I speed out of the school parking lot, agonizing over the fact that now I’m late and humiliated. When I arrive, I take a deep before walking inside. Immediately, I am overwhelmed by a gallery of Leah’s life and achievements. Her outstanding test scores are proudly displayed on a table in the back near vacation scrapbooks. Her mother, aged ten years overnight, stands beside a picture of a grinning six-year old Leah. Standing there, all traces of my embarrassment are washed away by a tidal wave of grief that knocks the air out of my lungs and leaves my cheeks salty and wet. I sit in the pews and sob into my friend Cole’s suit, collapsing into him, too weak to hold myself up. A steady stream of tears rolls down my face as countless stories are told by friends and family. When Leah’s coach’s turn comes, he marvels in her fearlessness, how Leah never let pride or insecurity hold her back. In that moment, I am unbelievably grateful I tried out to be a graduation speaker.
After the wake, I give my condolences to Leah’s father; he hugs me and tells me to be strong for her. Today, I try to go beyond that and carry on Leah’s drive and fearlessness, whether that means trying out for a cheer squad or applying to a college whose typical applicant has a much higher GPA than I. Trying out for graduation speaker helped me realize failure is temporary and nothing to be feared. After all, the cuts and bruises adorning my legs only made riding down the block feel that much sweeter.