It was the week before the sixth grade dance. I had never gone to a party that went past 9:30 and played Top 40 music and required a scratchy dress. The summer breeze seemed so close. I could almost taste the burnt s’mores and velvet nights lurking ahead. The school hallways were painted in cool whispers and rose pink cheeks.
“Charlie wants to ask you to the dance,” my friend told me, before bursting into laughter.
“Ew … what do I say?” I replied.
That question pulsed through my mind, slid down my veins. I asked my mom for advice while sipping lemonade on the hot leather seats of our car.
“Honey, it’s really up to you. If you like him, you should say yes.” My mom smiled at me from behind her sunglasses. “And even if you don’t like him,” she paused, “you should still say yes. Charlie is such a shy and sweet boy, and his parents are our close friends. We don’t want his first experience with a girl to be you saying no, now do we? Think about how upsetting that would be for him.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My spirit strangled and suppressed as I realized my mother was forcing me to go out with a boy – with Charlie!
I didn’t like disobeying my mother (I didn’t enjoy the adrenaline rush of rebellion quite yet), and I guess I didn’t hate Charlie. His bottom lip did quiver when he spoke, but I decided I could overlook that for one night.
So I said yes. Then we avoided each other for the whole dance, and all of graduation, and the entirety of middle school.
Now, when asked about my early experiences with love, I try to shock people. Instead of the typical story of a kiss behind the slide, I tell friends that my parents forced me to go out with a boy I didn’t even like. Everyone looks at me with horror and exclaims, “Wow, what’s wrong with your parents?”
No. The power of that one word is hard to understand – the magnitude of two letters. But my mother was trying to save Charlie from the drenches of despair. I had rescued Charlie from rejection, but I couldn’t save myself.
On Fridays in the white-washed halls of my school, when the sun still hasn’t broken through the morning fog, the chamber choir practices – their collective voice sounding like a symphony, drifting into the dry pages of my math textbook, whispering across the cracked History class whiteboard. For three years I had endured the middle school choir, the muddied mutterings of the under-qualified director, the room that was always too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. I had poured my afternoons into singing lessons, my weekends into practicing, my school days into rehearsing. All I wanted was chamber choir. I idolized the girls in that choir, their hazelnut voices, smooth and buttery like Christmas, their soft smiles that demanded a certain respect. They could sing an old Irish poem off key, and the whole school would drool with wonder. A spot at Carnegie Hall was reserved for them every year.
I pushed away the thoughts of my spotty audition, of my choir teacher’s darkened face. My acceptance in chamber choir seemed inevitable; the sheer power of my desire, of my unwavering longing, was enough to secure me a spot in the most competitive arts group on campus. I was sure of it.
Spring break smelled of pine cones, heavy duvet covers, and fogged thoughts.
“Thank you for your application …” the letter read. “Spots were especially competitive this year … We regret to inform you …”
I could feel my throat sticking, suffocating. I folded into myself, the creases of my body deepening, my eyes buried in the sweat of my palms. Never before had I experienced this rejection, something so blunt, so out of my control. It changed the reflection of my being, morphing it into something small and unrecognizable. Out of the disorder of my mind, I forced myself to make a plan. With shaking fingers I wrote down five steps for how to face the insidious misery ahead.
Number one: Indulge in the sadness.
I cried for days, mourning the shattering of my self-image, the loss of my dream. I cried into my puffy pillow, into my pasta dinner, soaked the trashy magazines at the nail salon with my tears. I tried to distract myself. I watched instructional videos on YouTube until 3 a.m., learning how to survive in the desert, how to make apricot jam, how to DJ electronic music. My family was worried. They kissed me good night with hesitation; they tasted of pity.
After a week of stuffy rooms and sleeping into the afternoon, my darkening state finally depressed me more than the rejection itself. The tiny strength bubbling deeply within me, flickering and fading but still there, hurdled me toward Step two: Challenge the decision.
Channeling the kids I used to compete against in debate, the ones who wore pantsuits and brought in laminated papers, I wrote my choir director e-mail after e-mail, made meetings and phone calls. “The audition video didn’t record properly.” “The piano accompaniment was too fast.” Trying to save myself in all the wrong ways, I protested and pleaded. The answer was still no.
Step three: Confront the truth. Staring in friends’ dry eyes, I shook my head, endured their silence, their stiff hugs. I sat in the last row in choir and mouthed the words, afraid to let my voice escape my mouth, afraid that someone would wince when I sang, would understand why I wasn’t good enough. I could feel people’s eyes on me, waiting for me to make a mistake. Yet the truth was free and the reality slapping against my sore bones, icing my lungs like a dunk in the Pacific Ocean, refreshed me.
It’s hard to grasp. It slips and slides around my knuckles. It tastes sugary in my mouth. Step four: Acceptance. A melody that seeps into my cracked skin, that rubs against my tightened throat – it reverberates and pulses against me, into me, deeper than any music has before.
Every Friday morning, chamber choir fills the halls, their sound blanketing me, embracing me, surrounding me with a reminder of what I couldn’t reach. And I let myself feel it, feel what once made me so afraid, feel what is impressed into my soul. I remember Charlie and the sixth grade dance and how heroic I had felt. But I see now how I didn’t save him. I deprived him. I never let him feel the beauty of realization – the intensity of human courage, the dusty strength lurking behind every quiver. I took away his rejection, and for that I am sorry. Without rejection I wouldn’t have known my power, understood my being, and encountered my Step five: Resilience.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2016 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.