The Ebbing Tide

September 17, 2008
“You’re thirteen?!?!” Peaches exclaimed, his large eyes gaping with a mixture of disbelief, wonder, and amazement. Melissa, Raquel, and I grinned. I had just broken the news to the two girls, only after very direct, unavoidable questions, while he was gone, and now it was his turn to be shocked.
He ignored my frantic gestures of prevention and hailed down Professor Amiel. “Hey Doc, do you have any idea how old Bonnie is?”
“Well,” our professor contemplated carefully, “isn’t she nineteen?”
At this, Peaches, Melissa, Raquel, and I simultaneously guffawed. We were all in on the “secret” now, and the Doc was bewildered at our sly amusement.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded indignantly.
Peaches volunteered to be the spokesperson and explained, “Bonnie’s thirteen”.
“Ha! Thirteen? Then she’ll be a middle schooler! She can’t possibly be thirteen! Tell me Bonnie, how old are you?”
“Um, I’m almost thirteen and a half, if that’s any better,” I admitted reluctantly. I foresaw the possibility of some drama over my age, thus I had tried to prevent, or at least delay, the release of this revelation. The four nodding heads around the table finally convinced the Doc it was indeed a true fact.
“So you’re telling me that a thirteen year old has been getting the highest grades on every test? Knows the answers to all the questions I ask in class? You’re saying this girl I’ve been telling to transfer to a four-year college, ‘cause she’s got the brains, isn’t even in high school?”
“Exactly! Ain’t she something?” chortled Raquel, still giggling.
These young people I have met, nineteen year old Melissa and Peaches (whose real name has been washed away by time) and twenty year old Raquel, are my classmates at Mt. San Antonio College. It was my first time taking actual college classes as a Special Admit student the summer after seventh grade at Mt. San Antonio College, and I had not meant for anyone to know my age. I did not expect to make any friends, or even to enjoy the experience very much. My mission was simple: get in there, learn something, get a good grade, and get out. The first day of class, I clanked clanked my way up the stairs in my sandals to the classroom, the lonesome sound echoing throughout the empty corridors. I made a resolution then to sit in the corner, stay out of everyone’s business, and pretend with haughty indifference that I did not care that I was a complete loner. But I did care. Like all humans, I have the primal instinct to seek out companionship. Waiting outside the door, I observed girls with heavy makeup and reeking of perfume greeting each other with ecstatic squeals while dark emo guys slouched around together. I felt like a pariah with “a deer in headlights” syndrome. How can I comprehend this otherworld? My friends and I regularly teased each other, joking that our stupidity will land us on the welcoming campus of Mt. SAC. Well, here I was then, amid all of these supposed “failures” who have nowhere better to go.
After a wait in the hallway, a curly haired man wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and a cap sidled towards the door. No way, I thought to myself. This better not be the professor. He was just about the least scholarly looking person I have ever seen, an enormous deviation from the typical white haired and bespectacled intellectual. When he fished in his pocket, retrieved a set of keys, and opened the door for the class to enter, there was no doubt that he was the teacher. I headed straight towards the middle of the room, a “safe” area, and plopped myself in one of the interesting butt-shaped chairs in front of a lab table. Then I closed my eyes and hoped fervently that someone not too weird would end up sitting at this table. When I opened my eyes, seated next to me was a plump and merry girl, full of smiles. She introduced herself as Melissa, then wondered aloud whether this professor was any good. Thank goodness, at least she cared for her education a little. Next to arrive was a fashionista with large sunglasses and a glowing tan complexion, Raquel. She resembled the ideal So Cal girl, and I soon learned where she got that perfect tan: surfing on the weekends with her boyfriend. She overflowed with zeal and seemed to be laughing constantly. The classroom soon began to fill, and the last to enter was a taciturn young man with peach fuzz hair (therefore his nickname) whose mellow expression contrasted sharply with his loud rocker dude shirt. He reluctantly took the last seat remaining at our estrogen dominated table.
The casual professor took his place at the front of the class and started off by saying, “Hi everyone, I am your professor. Since I do have a Ph.D., you can call me Dr. Amiel or Professor Amiel. But, hey, since I hate old farts with all their big titles, keep it simple with Doc or David or Dave.”
That beginning set the mood for the following classes. He knew his ocean stuff, he didn’t get a Ph.D. for nothing, but there was always a light and humorous aspect to his lectures. However, I noticed he had a slight aura of disgruntlement; life was not as fruitful as he had hoped. While studying oceanography at prestigious Boston University, he graduated with honors but was the laughingstock for choosing a rather obscure major. He soon realized that the few jobs with oceanography applications refused to hire him when they had the choice of another applicant from a school like Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Although he still wishes to conduct research on the high seas, he has learned to accept teaching at Mt. SAC and Cal Poly as his calling in life.
In our idle time between lessons and labs, our table group began to converse with each other both during and outside of class. Walking to class with Melissa, she told me about her aspirations and fears. Being a middle child in a family with a USC graduate older brother and a younger sister bound for Stanford, she felt like the only disappointment. When Doc asked me out of curiosity what I wanted to do, and I gave the standard “I don’t know” response, he did a double take before remembering that I, only thirteen after all, still had time to ponder and explore. For Melissa and others at Mt. SAC, they were at the stage in life where they should know what area of interest they want to delve into. Melissa looked toward the bulletin boards for inspiration. One day her dream was to be a graphic designer because of an artsy flier and the next she considered being a philosophy major in order to receive the advertised scholarship. She had so many different possibilities branching out before her that she did not know which road she wanted to take.
Raquel was the impulsive and spontaneous life of the party. She was ever the optimist, and when faced with calamity always discovered a solution. On a radiantly sunny day, she was borrowing her boyfriend’s pricey Oakley sunglasses. Unfortunately, the glasses fell out of her purse and plummeted out the window, shattering two stories below on the concrete ground. While Melissa, Peaches, and I let out a collective gasp, Raquel ran downstairs to clean up the shards before anyone got injured and calculated that if she abstained from shopping for two months, she would have enough money to buy her boyfriend a new, and even more stylish, pair.

Although Peaches was a bit reclusive at first, he soon became integrated into our group. His main interest was in music, and he was in two bands as a drummer and vocalist. He also enjoyed skateboarding with his friends in, of all places, Vons. Contrary to my first perceptions of a typical skaterboy, he cared about his health and didn’t smoke or use drugs. He only ate organic low-fat food and was a self described “health nut”. When I later admitted my first shadowy impressions of him, he grinned mysteriously. “Don’t group people. We all play our own songs and follow our own melody. But that’s all inside, girl. You need to know that.”
The class highlight was a field trip to the Ocean Institute at Dana Point where we boarded a research vessel to collect data such as water quality, sediment type, and plankton abundance. It was a clear day without a hint of sunshine; somewhat odd since it was midsummer. Since it was nippy standing on deck as the boat cruised through the open water and gusts of wind blew, we huddled together in an attempt to keep warm (especially Raquel, who dared to wear an airy summer dress). Soon, Pacific common dolphins, literally fifty or so of the cetaceans, joined us and swam alongside the craft for several minutes. They were elegant and sleek, gliding with effortless grace through the water and leaping into the air occasionally in a triumphant arc of silver. Their presence was a climatic “wow” moment, and most of the time afterwards was falling action as I gripped the railing with white knuckles and hurled my breakfast overboard into the inky cerulean waters. According to the ship captain, the sea creatures enjoy throw up immensely. If he was right, then all the critters had a plentiful feast since the entire class fed them nonstop. Melissa, Raquel, and I alternated between hurling and nibbling Saltine crackers, which were supposed to make your stomach less likely to turn. For me, however, the crackers obstinately refused to work their magic. Peaches, with his manly pride, at first refused to show such a sign of weakness. But when his complexion took on a sickly green tinge, he finally let go and fed the fishes as well. When we finally were able to set foot on stable land again, we were all a little woozy and hungry after losing all the food we had. We drove (well, Melissa drove and I snagged a ride since, ahem, I couldn’t exactly drive at my age) back to Mt. SAC and had lunch together at a casual Japanese place, Naked Fish. Over California rolls and teriyaki chicken, we thanked the heavens for graciously setting us free from the rollicking sea and Poseidon’s fury. Despite the dizzying ride, all of us had to agree, albeit a little grudgingly, that it was still an exhilarating experience that gave us a new appreciation for oceanography, not to mention the seasoned crew and Doc who had managed to keep their meals in their stomachs.
Too quickly, summer began to wane and it dawned on me that this cheery foursome would soon be no more. Each of us belonged in our own milieu, and only because fate flung us together did we become friends. We understood this was one of those flings that when summer ended, we would not contact each other, get together for reunions, or have lunch together again at Naked Fish. Raquel, who was headed off to UC San Diego next semester to study psychology, and I, back to school, would not even be on the Mt. SAC campus anymore. This realization generated a sharp pang which reverberated throughout my being. On Finals Day, Doc was careful to completely isolate me, further underscoring my feeling of separation.
“You are all in a dark and hopeless pit, and Bonnie is the light,” he teased.
So to ensure that no one else found their way by using my light, a.k.a. cheating, I sat all by myself at the table nearest to the door. Although I had previously calculated that I only needed a 40% on the final to maintain my rock solid A, my conscience still dictated that I do my best. Question after question passed by, my mini essays straining to fit in the given blank. Peaches was the first to be done, and as he walked out the door, he gave a little wave and smile and then was gone. I heard his footsteps echoing down the hallway before they too ceased. Then Raquel in her stilettos, winking and already fumbling for her cell phone, left through that same portal with a whispered “good bye”. Finally Melissa rose to turn in her test. She gave me a few reassuring pats on my shoulder and we clasped our hands before she too slipped away like sand through my fingers. Then utter silence. I was the only student left in the room. After wrapping up my last answers, I handed Doc my test.
His lasts words to me were “Well, best of luck Bonnie. We’ll all be waiting for your debut on T.V. for solving global warming or something. Go out and make us proud!”
He never explained what he meant by “we” and “us”. Perhaps he was referring to Melissa, Raquel, and Peaches, or the class, or maybe humanity in general. I will never know for sure. But after some contemplation, I have decided that his advice was to do what he, and every slightly regretful person, always dreamed about but never got around to doing. This I mused while I clanked clanked down the same steps that I walked up the first day of class. Well, what a way to end this chapter in my life. I have come full circle, with the resounding clanks forever ringing poignantly in my ears.
I have never seen any of my summer friends since, although they still remain in my memories. Every time I see a group of skaters at Vons, savor a California roll, or feel the salty breeze blow through my hair on a boat, my thoughts wander back to the time spent at Oceanography 10. Although I learned an immense amount of knowledge about oceanography after taking the class, which helped me win second place at the Science Olympiad state competition this year, my most valuable insight came from the people that I have met. They altered the way I judge people, and showed me how the supposedly “bad seeds” are actually normal, wholesome people. I imagined that there would be shady drug dealing in the corners and drunken students spewing obscenities as easily as endearments in the classroom. However, this stereotype was quickly proven to be false when I met Melissa, Raquel, and Peaches.
I learned that the main key to happiness is the people you meet. Had I really isolated myself in a corner like I resolved at the beginning, there would have been no nostalgic memories. It was my connection to these people who I have come to admire and respect which really brought this experience to life. Every one of them had a priceless lesson to teach me: Doc - I should explore all my different possibilities, Melissa - I should not compare myself with others but rather judge myself on my own scale, Raquel - optimism is far more productive than worrying, and Peaches - do not worry about what others have to say about you. These lessons that they taught washed over me, soaked through the sand, and affected me to the core. Even now, the tide long ebbed and receded, the watery imprint is still there, not yet evaporated away. But even when the sand is dry, there will still be salt crystals of knowledge left, which I will cherish eternally and always think back to these unlikely teachers.

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swinginme! said...
Nov. 30, 2008 at 5:29 am
this was amazing! i loved how the story sort of came full circle. You are very talented indeed, i wish i knew you so we could chat about writing strategies!
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