To Be a Superhero This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

November 22, 2010
Sliding glass doors that made futuristic whooshing sounds like invisible ghosts were pushing them aside, the eerie blinking of a motion sensor like a single red eye: this is why I moved to Cincinnati. The cafeteria was filled with doctors and nurses and medical students, recognizable by their scrubs and swinging name tags and that distinctive doctor-walk my dad learned in the hallways of Yale. I would copy him as we quickly passed through maze-like corridors. I would stretch my stride to match his, and his pockets would jingle with loose change and car keys. I would not jingle, but if I walked perfectly in stride with him, I could pretend that I did.

The Children's Hospital here is much larger. The hallways are an art gallery, with wide open rooms, not the underground tunnels I had gotten used to at Yale. I wanted to fall into step behind one of the doctors, stride along the corridors in the even steps of a metronome, hurried and purposeful. I was one of them the previous summer when I volunteered on A4, and I had on my own name tag, badge, hospital blue uniform, and purpose for my stride.

This time, though, I had to remind myself that I wasn't striding off to my volunteer job where grateful parents would hand sick infants to me for an hour of peace. I wouldn't be rocking in a chair, minding IV wires and helping a recent heart surgery patient sleep.

Those babies were surprisingly heavy. Their round heads were like weights pressing into my forearm, making my hand tingle and fall asleep too. It was clear I wasn't used to rocking infants to sleep. “Here,” the other volunteer would say, “hold her like this. Make sure to support her head.” I was paralyzed with the fragility of it all, the carefully mended heart I was cradling. But I realized that any infant I held was just that – a baby. Not a number, not a patient, not a defective organ. When I stopped worrying about the big picture, forgot I was in a hospital, forgot my volunteer badge, forgot the baby's plastic wristband and hospital bar code, only then was I truly helping. Slowly I became used to the foreign pose, and my arms learned to stop shaking.

I felt like Superman, like my volunteer shirt bore a large “S” emblazoned across my chest.


This time I wasn't matching my father's purposeful stride; I wasn't following the confident steps of a superhero. I was walking in small, timid steps, waiting to hear the crunching of eggshells beneath my sneakers.

“We need to sign in.” My high school counselor broke the awkward silence. I was staring at my toes, making sure that I didn't step on the lines between the squares of linoleum. If I stepped on a crack, the careful balance would shatter.

Next to me, my classmate was oblivious to the awkwardness, or used to it. He strode off confidently to get our group folder. His steps were the quick, skilled weaving of a soccer player, darting away from opposing players and always on the edge of a fake-out. He was too quick for me. He would duck behind a stranger and I would swivel on the edge of a crack. I could hear the eggshells breaking.

We settled in to hear the opening comments, and he sat on the other side of the counselor, happily diffusing the awkwardness with polite comments. I watched my feet swing, missing the ground by inches, and felt the cowardice of silence. I used to be a superhero in these hallways. In this auditorium, I had led my volunteer orientation group. But now I only knew two people, and they were ignoring me.

Somewhere in the hierarchical construct of my private school, teachers had paired our names, picking one male and one female to represent the student body. We had taken the same science, math, and history classes for three years. On paper, we could be the same person. Yet, as I watched him chumming it up with the only other person I knew, I could see a wall of silence cutting me off. They were discussing interests, spewing out ideas from their left brains. I trailed my fingers along the table, living on the right side, imagining patterns in the stains on the carpet, trying to find a metaphor to describe my isolation.

I could never be a doctor, but here I sat, at a symposium for future doctors. Some higher authority at my school took one look at my courses and decided that I would want to be a doctor. I was too ashamed to say otherwise, too thrilled at the idea of being chosen. In this moment of cowardice, I considered running to my father's office in E building. Anything to give me credibility, to show these two that this was my hospital and here I was not a mouse.

They were still talking as we left the auditorium, back out the automatic door where the red eye winked at me in sycophantic amusement. I was third wheeling with my classmate and guidance counselor. We were in a crowd of people, other groups of three – one male student, one female, and one teacher. They walked in perfect triangles, sharing conversation in perfect thirds. I stood awkwardly askew, walking like a separate ­entity.

We reached our destination, a building I had never been to. The door wasn't automatic, and I, a few paces ahead, paused to hold the door. He went through in his weaving soccer-steps, and our counselor indicated for me to follow. We sat around a conference table, and the next speaker described his work at the hospital. Biology. “The human genome is made up of 20,000 to 25,000 genes. That's 25,000 ways it can go wrong. At Children's, we can test mutations, force our problems onto a frog fetus. With this defect in its heart, it can't possibly live. From the very first beat, this heart has a measured number of beats left. It will fail. We can measure it failing, watch as it slows. The blood is leaking out here. Can you see the hole? This sometimes happens in human infants. We want to discover what gene went wrong. That way, we can prevent it.”

I hovered behind the group as my classmate spun and ducked to get a closer look. The frogs made him uncomfortable, and I had been feeling uncomfortable all morning. He grinned at me shyly. I was still on tiptoes, and my mind was too focused on my balance to arrange my face for a smile.

We followed the tour guide into the maze-like corridors that reminded me of Yale. My classmate went down the stairs first, jogging, as though this was a soccer conditioning drill. I couldn't keep up. It isn't easy to tiptoe down three flights of stairs.

The next room was filled with tanks. The fish were engineered to have digestive system mutations and lived out their abbreviated lives in clear plastic. The water was so loud that the guide had to raise his voice. My classmate was bored; he sneaked into another hallway of tanks. I followed. It was like a library. The fish were numbered, a Dewey Decimal system with bar codes. One fish was named 498520918300. I wondered how much longer he had to live.

Rushing water covered the noise the eggshells were making, so I tried to start a conversation. He smiled again. Unsure whether he was laughing at or with me, I bet myself that if I could walk only on the white tiles for the rest of the day, he would be nice to me. Trying to win that bet, I forgot to tiptoe.

Next we went into a lab, where they showed us the failing heart of a fish. We watched it under the microscope as each beat got fainter and fainter.

“We inject the fish with dye so we can watch the blood circulate. Here we see the mutation. We have to make a large sample, breeding to get exactly what we want. We want this to go wrong.”

This was not the hospital I knew. I couldn't be a superhero as I watched doctors measure the final heartbeats of a fish dying under the insensitive light of a microscope. I understood how it felt to hold a baby, to rock it to sleep after heart surgery. Watching the fish struggle to live, watching its heart weaken with every attempt to survive, gave me that same restless feeling. The baby in my arms had struggled to pull the feeding tube out of its nose. Under the bright light, translucent fish can watch their own hearts stop beating.


I was slouching in a spinning desk chair, my classmate next to me. My anger for the fish was stronger than my embarrassment, so I was silent. I stared at his expression to distract me from the tanks of fish, hearts leaking slowly. His face was interested, with the flush of understanding a concept. He had been poking around the lab, as though ready to snap on a pair of gloves and begin an experiment.

“Look.” He pointed to the shelf. “HNO3. Nitric acid. What molar do you think that is?”

It was a chemical we had used in class. I read the label from my perspective where it said the number of moles. He laughed.

“I bet we used three times that. Our class is so hardcore.” He smiled. I guess I hadn't stepped on any cracks. He followed me out of the lab, continuing our awkward conversation about science and cool teachers. Our counselor stayed a few paces behind. She might have been smiling.

We headed back to school. Dropped off at the entrance, we were late for class. I patiently held the door for him as I had before, expecting him to hurry to class. I was surprised when he stopped at the next door and held it for me. For a moment I was a ballerina on tiptoe, until he gestured for me to go through with a polite smile.

We walked slowly to class side-by-side down the empty hallway. Mine was a purposeful stride, heels touching the floor, hips swinging in a daring step as though, at any moment, I could propel myself into the sky like Superman.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the December 2010 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.

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