Jessica Morgan was ten years old and was already sure she was no good at anything. Her parents were eminent historians who studied the Civil War. They each had written numerous books and articles on the subject of Civil War history. Everyone Jessica knew seemed to admire them, including Jessica herself. To Jessica, her parents appeared to have limitless confidence and skill. She, on the other hand, had never felt successful or competent at anything she tried. Sometimes, Jessica wondered how she could be so different from her parents.
One hot summer afternoon as Jessica sat reading, the telephone on the wall beside her rang loudly. She picked it up on the second ring, placing a bookmark in her book. "Hello?"
"Jessica, it's Cassie."
"Oh, hi." Ten-year-old Cassie Parker had been Jessica's closest friend for six years.
The girls chatted for a few minutes, and then Cassie said, "You know my brother's old kayak? Well, we're getting rid of it."
"That beat-up one with the wooden paddle? Why?" Jessica was surprised. She knew he loved that old kayak. She herself had seen him using it.
"My brother Aaron got a brand-new kayak for his eighth birthday. Now my parents are dying to get the old one out of the garage. I thought because you live right on the creek and you don't have a kayak, maybe you'd like it."
Jessica hesitated. She didn't know the first thing about kayaking. What should she do? Suddenly, she heard herself say, "Sure, I'll take it. My parents have always said I could have a kayak if I wanted one, but I've never had the chance to get one."
"Now you've got a great chance. So, you want it?"
"Yes, I do!" Jessica's heart leapt. She was really getting the kayak!
"OK." Even if she couldn't see Cassie's face, Jessica was almost positive her best friend was smiling by her pleased tone. "I'll bring it over Saturday morning at ten. Is that OK?"
"Yeah, sure! Bye."
Jessica hung up the phone again and considered opening her book, but she was too excited to read. Tomorrow she would have her very own kayak. Visions filled her mind—visions of herself moving silently, gracefully through the marsh creeks behind her house, cutting the water smoothly. Visions of racing Cassie time and time again, propelling herself swiftly past Cassie's red kayak, winning dozens of races.
Then the dreams were abruptly cut short.
What if she was horrible at kayaking . . . just like everything else she'd ever tried?
The visions changed to pictures of herself floundering in the water, having tipped over her kayak, of herself running into the banks of the creeks and getting stuck in the mud.
Jessica knew she was rarely any good at anything, and, now that she thought about it, was positive that she would be as bad at kayaking as she was at video games and tennis and soccer and everything else she tried to do.
All her friends were good at something. Cassie was a straight-A student, Ginny was the best pitcher on the local baseball team, and Lila was always talking about her most recent experiences climbing mountains. They had never been mean to Jessica when she failed to do something as well as they had done it, but she nevertheless felt embarrassed every time they looked at her, smiling kindly, and said, "Come on, Jess, you know you can do it. Just try really hard."
Jessica's mind drifted back to last April, when she and her friend Lila had gone to their hometown's annual spring festival. There, among all the usual attractions, was something new—a climbing wall. "Hey, let's give it a try!" Lila had said enthusiastically, stepping forward. Jessica had had a sinking feeling, but she had agreed because she didn't want to appear as though she were afraid to try.
As the girls neared the wall, Lila confidently stepped up to the more challenging side, while Jessica uneasily approached the easier one. They were given harnesses to put on, and began climbing.
The movements felt unnatural to Jessica. As hard as she tried, she couldn't seem to find any handholds. It seemed that she stayed in one spot forever, awkwardly attempting to move upward. Out of the corner of her eye, she had seen Lila, scrambling steadily higher.
As Jessica tentatively pulled herself up another notch, she heard a sound that made her heart sink. It was the ring of the bell from the top of the climbing wall. That meant Lila had already reached the top and was on her way back down. Jessica, convinced she couldn't make it any further, gave up and headed toward the ground. Even now, the memory of that day made her cringe.
She was still thinking about that day, and about how she would probably have a similar experience with kayaking, when she went downstairs for supper that night. Only Jessica's mother, Elizabeth, was at the dinner table—presumably her father, James, was still working hard in his study. "Hello, Jessica," said her mother, putting a plate of spaghetti in front of Jessica as she sat down.
"Hi. Cassie called. They're giving away Aaron's old kayak."
"Aaron got a new one for his birthday Well, anyway, Cassie called me to offer the kayak to me. If it's OK, she's bringing it over tomorrow."
Her mom smiled. "I hope you'll like it."
The rest of dinner passed in silence—they were both hungry, and felt no need to talk. After eating, Jessica read her book and watched television awhile, and then went to bed, apprehensive about the next morning.
* * *
Jessica woke abruptly at the insistent ring of the alarm on the clock radio sitting on her nightstand, which read eight o'clock. She got out of bed, showered, and changed into shorts and a T-shirt, and by that time it was eight-thirty. Only an hour and a half until my kayak gets here, she thought nervously.
She waited, almost hoping that Cassie would be late—but no, she arrived ten minutes early, laboriously dragging two kayaks and two paddles. "I was only counting on getting Aaron's kayak, not yours, too," Jessica said as she opened the door and stepped outside to take her new kayak and paddle.
"No, they're not both yours," panted Cassie, passing her the blue kayak and one of the two paddles. "I brought mine so we could go together in the creek behind your house. I'll teach you how to do it."
Jessica did not think Cassie could have said anything more terrible. Now Cassie would actually see her kayaking. This is the worst thing you have ever done to me, Cassie, Jessica thought angrily, but she grinned with a huge effort and said in a voice of forced excitement, "Awesome!"
They went down to the Morgans' dock, and Cassie held the kayak still while Jessica climbed in hesitantly Cassie smiled warmly at her best friend. "Come on, Jessica," she said encouragingly, confidently sitting down in her own boat. "Don't be afraid. Have you been in a canoe before?"
Jessica nodded mutely, remembering summer camp and an unfortunate collision between her canoe and a rock.
"Hold the paddle like this—no, put your hands farther apart—yes, that's right. Now push the water back, alternating which side you do it on—left, right, left, right." Jessica obeyed nervously, and found her kayak moving forward. "Now, to turn left, you paddle on the right side two or three times, and you do the same thing to turn right, except you paddle on the left side. Oh—are you OK?"
Jessica nodded, looking defiantly over her shoulder at Cassie from where her kayak was lodged, stuck in the mud. "Back-paddle!" Cassie called.
"What's back-paddle?" Jessica's heart pounded. Please don't let Cassie have to help me get out of this, she thought frantically.
"Paddle the opposite of what you've been doing—push forwards!"
"Oh, OK . . ." With every ounce of determination she had, Jessica thrust the wooden paddle forward. Her heart leapt as the kayak actually began to move. I did it, I back-paddled! she thought, unable to believe it.
And with a few quick movements of the paddle, she was speeding down the creek again, Cassie at her side, both of them laughing hard.
* * *
The next week, Jessica couldn't stop grinning. She finally felt good at something, and she was hopeful that she might even have a talent for kayaking. She'd been setting her alarm clock early and going out alone to the creek every day since Cassie had shown her how to use a kayak. She practiced in the quiet, twisting marsh, under the pale blue morning sky, with tiny pewter fish zipping around her. The only sounds were the gentle lapping of the blue-gray water against the sides of the kayak and the sandy banks of the creeks, the shrill calls of the seagulls as they dove and swerved above Jessica, and her paddle hitting the water with a soft splash. It was still and beautiful, wild and untouched, and she always felt calm and peaceful when she kayaked among the herons and minnows and big blue crabs. With each passing day, Jessica felt more confident and skilled.
By noon on Tuesday, Jessica was itching to go kayaking with Cassie again and finally called her. Aaron, Cassie's brother, answered, and knew by the simple "Hi, Aaron" at the other end that it was Jessica. He knew her voice from the many times she'd called Cassie, and handed the phone to Cassie without Jessica even having to ask him to do so.
"Hi, Jessica." Cassie sounded puzzled. "What's up?"
"Oh, I just wanted to go kayaking again, that's all. Could you go with me if you've got time?" Please let her say yes, I want to race her, Jessica thought.
"Yeah, sure. I'll be over in a few minutes."
"I'll be waiting on the dock."
"See you." They both hung up their phones, and Jessica raced outside and sat down on the dock, dangling bare feet into the cloudy marsh water, her kayak tied to the sturdiest board.
It took a little over five minutes for Cassie to arrive, and even less for Jessica to untie her boat, hop in, and start sculling around.
"Race you to that dock with the crab trap on it," said Cassie suddenly.
"OK." Jessica felt confident. She was not just certain that she was capable of winning, she was certain that she would win, by a long shot.
"On your mark . . . get set," Cassie said loudly. Jessica tensed up, ready, arms set to move. "Go!"
And they were off, at first side by side, but then Cassie began pulling ahead. Jessica's self-assurance that she would win lessened slightly, but she worked herself yet harder, and with a massive effort, she began gaining on Cassie.
This made her grin, but the real moment of happiness came when she sped past Cassie and, with one quick back-paddle to slow herself down, stopped.
Jessica had won.
Cassie cheered as she halted beside Jessica. "Nice one!"
Jessica blushed embarrassedly. "Thanks." She might have looked shy, but underneath that, she was bursting with pride at her skill.
* * *
Jessica's father, James, met her in her bedroom that night. "Jessica, I saw you this afternoon, kayaking with Cassie."
She turned off the radio that was blasting rock-and-roll. "You did? Do you think I'm good?"
"I think you're very talented." At this, Jessica had to smile, slightly embarrassed but altogether pleased. "In fact, what I came up to talk to you about is kayaking."
"What is it?" Jessica was very curious.
"There's a kayak race for ages nine through twelve in two weeks; I read about it in the newspaper. The prize if you win first place is a brand-new kayak and paddle. It starts at two in the afternoon and it's down at the park. You might want to think about entering."
"Maybe I will," Jessica replied. Competitions weren't usually her thing, but this sounded like fun. "Thanks for telling me."
Her father started toward the door, but then turned. "You are very good at kayaking, Jessica. I think you could win that race."
When her dad left, Jessica stretched out on her bed, resting her chin in her hand. She was seriously considering entering this kayak race. She was hopeful she could win, or at least come in at second or third place.
Jessica suddenly leapt to her feet. She had made up her mind.
She was going to enter.
* * *
The next few mornings, Jessica woke up at seven because she wanted to practice for the race with no one else around. Every morning she followed the same routine, laboriously dragging the kayak from the garage to the dock and speeding down the creeks.
But on the fourth morning, something happened.
Jessica was going along confidently, fast and smooth. She was full of energy and excitement—in fact, a little too full.
She was so excited, staring up at the blue sky, that she didn't notice the rock. She hit it, and her kayak flipped violently over.
In a split second, Jessica was in the cloudy marsh, stunned from the sudden impact. She was trapped underneath her upside-down kayak. She couldn't see, hear, or breathe underwater. She writhed frantically in the pitch darkness, desperately trying to get to the air that was only a little way above her. Her heart pounded in terror as she kicked and flailed her arms. She slammed sideways into the kayak, banging her arm and head against it.
Miraculously, one of Jessica's wild thrashes brought her clear of the kayak and upward. Her head broke the surface of the water, and she gratefully inhaled clean, cold air that smelled of the marsh, her clothes and hair clinging to her skin.
Gasping, Jessica shakily flipped her kayak the right way up and found the paddle. She climbed weakly in and for a moment sat there motionless, unable to believe what had happened. Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to be away from the kayak and the marsh, as far away as possible. She began to paddle back home.
When she got home, she threw the kayak and paddle in the garage and stormed upstairs to her room. "Jessica?" called her mother, but Jessica ignored her and slammed and locked the bedroom door behind her.
Why did I decide to kayak? she thought as water dripped down her back. The memory of the darkness of the water, the inability to breathe, the utter terror, was still fresh in her mind. I won't do it anymore, I won't. I'm never kayaking again.
She was sure of that.
* * *
For the next two days, Jessica didn't kayak at all. In fact, she rarely came out of her room and didn't call Cassie, Ginny, or Lila once.
On the third day, Jessica's mom came into her bedroom and sat down on the bed beside Jessica. "Jessica, what's wrong? What happened?"
"My kayak tipped over when I was practicing the other day," she replied shortly.
"Oh. Well, why haven't you gone back to the creek?"
"What if I tip over again?"
"Jessica, you can't let one setback get in your way. You've got to keep going. You can't give up now. You're good at kayaking. You just made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes, Jessica."
"You and Dad never seem to," Jessica replied, almost under her breath.
"It may seem that way to you, but it's not true. Your dad and I have both had disappointments and made mistakes. Do you know how many times I've had to revise the books I've written, or how many rejection letters your father and I have gotten from publishers over the years? It's hard not to give up, but if you really want something, you've got to keep trying. You should get out there and try again, Jessica." Her mother tried to sound cheerful and upbeat.
"I don't want to!"
"The only way you can overcome a fear is to face it. Face your fear of kayaking, Jessica. Remember, even if you lose the race, you still entered and tried."
Jessica crossed her arms over her chest decisively. No one could make her enter that race, not even her mother. "I don't want to enter," she repeated stubbornly.
"All right, Jessica, I won't force you to enter, but just remember this. Failing when you've given your best effort is much more honorable than failing without trying." Jessica's mother stood and left the room.
Jessica sat there on the bed, staring at the white door, cracked a little ajar. I still won't enter, she thought defiantly, but deep down she wasn't so sure anymore. Her mother's words kept echoing in her head.
That night, it was hard for Jessica to sleep. She tossed and turned, thinking about what her mother had said to her. There was a gnawing feeling inside her, a nagging feeling that kept telling her that her mother was right.
The next morning, Jessica decided to call Cassie. Jessica waited a moment, and then heard "Hello?" from the other end of the line. It was Cassie's voice.
"Hi, it's Jessica."
"Oh, hi, Jessica. What's up?"
And Jessica spilled out everything, about the race and her fall from the kayak, about her talk with her mother and her feelings for the past three days. "And I'm still scared about falling out of the kayak, Cassie, and I don't know what to do," she finished.
There was silence from Cassie for a moment, as though she were trying to find the right words. And then she spoke. "You're good at kayaking, Jessica. I think you should enter."
"But I . . . have you ever tipped over?"Jessica sputtered.
"Yes, I have, and it scared me, too. But you've got to keep trying."
"Cassie, don't you understand?" Jessica's voice was pleading. "Don't you understand how I feel?"
"I understand, but I still think you should enter. I saw how much you like being in a kayak. You've finally found something you like. Why don't you stick with it and get really good at it? Who knows how good you could get?"
Jessica was silent.
"Jessica? Are you still there?"
"Yeah," Jessica said in a very quiet voice. "I'm thinking about what you said."
"Did I sound like I was lecturing you? If I did . . ."
"No, Cassie. No, it's not that."
"Then what? I'm not telling you to enter, I just think it would be right."
"I guess it would be."
"Yeah, and you're talented."
Jessica smiled, flattered. "Really? You think so?"
"Yeah, I do, honest. Go ahead, Jessica, go ahead and enter. It doesn't matter if you lose—not that I think you will, but . . ."
Jessica laughed. "OK. I think I'll enter."
"Good for you. Well . . . bye."
Jessica hung up and told her parents that she'd changed her mind, she was going to enter.
As the day of the race drew closer, Jessica's nervousness mounted. She practiced for hours every day because using up all her energy in kayaking helped her forget— briefly, anyway—about the race.
The evening before the race took place, Jessica was out in the marsh at about seven o'clock, kayaking, when Cassie's red kayak rounded a bend.
"Hi, Jessica!" she called, coming closer. "I thought you might be out here. I thought you'd maybe want some company."
"Hi, Cassie! Thanks for coming! Do you want to race?"
They raced each other a few times, and then the girls began to go more slowly down the creek. The dim light of dusk shimmered on Cassie and Jessica's hair, making Cassie's sun-streaked blond hair shine and the red highlights in Jessica's brown hair stand out.
"Oh, Jessica—look!" Surprised, Jessica looked up from her lap, and gasped at what she saw.
The sun had begun to set, smearing streaks of bright, beautiful shades of pink, blue, purple, orange, and scarlet all over the sky, like a masterpiece painted by a giant hand with the prettiest colors there were. The heavens had been spread with a thousand magnificent hues, some dark, some pastel, some in-between, and the sight took Jessica's breath away.
As the sunset faded to a dark blue night sky, Cassie said, "Well, I suppose we should go home. Hey, I was thinking that maybe tomorrow I could go to the race with you. Can I?"
"Sure, of course you can!"
"Thanks. See you, Jessica."
"See you, Cassie." And Cassie was paddling to her house. Jessica watched her go until she was only a rapidly moving red speck in the distance. Reluctant to leave the marsh, Jessica finally turned her own kayak around and headed for home.
As she climbed into bed that night, Jessica's thoughts turned toward the race. She couldn't believe she was actually entering. Jessica had never done anything like this before. Anticipation and nervousness filled her—but there was another feeling, underneath the two emotions she had experienced before. This was something Jessica had never felt. It made her want to grin confidently and boast that she was entering the kayak race. She barely recognized it for what it was.
* * *
Jessica woke the next morning with a mixture of excitement and apprehension in the pit of her stomach. She was absentminded and quiet all day; the race left no room for any other thoughts in her mind.
At one-forty-five, Jessica, Cassie, and Jessica's parents got in the car with Jessica's kayak and paddle tied precariously atop and went down to the park. When they arrived, there were quite a few children lined up along the bank of a wide, straight creek that looked to be about five feet deep. A long scarlet ribbon with red and yellow flags attached to it that was obviously the finish line had been stretched across the width of the creek about thirty meters ahead. Jessica joined the line of children, all with their kayaks in front of them, and saw that every face was taut and anxious. She stood between an extremely short nine-year-old girl who was shifting her weight from foot to foot, and a twelve-year-old boy who was trying to cover up his nervousness by acting relaxed and slightly bored. She smiled nervously at the girl beside her, and she smiled back, now hopping on her left foot.
The cry of "Get in your kayaks, everyone!"startled Jessica. She looked around sharply and saw a man with a bright red megaphone standing close by. Jessica slid into her kayak and picked up her paddle with shaking hands, forgetting her dreams of winning the race. Cassie and Jessica's family stood nearby with the other spectators, beaming and waving at her. Please just let me finish, she thought, smiling feebly back at them.
She eased her kayak a couple inches ahead so that she could push off easily out of the sand.
She tightened her grip on the paddle. "Go!"
And they were off. Suddenly there was no time to be afraid. Adrenaline rushed through Jessica's body as she worked up speed and leaned forward, working her arms harder, the rush of air whipping her hair against her cheeks. A tangle of happiness, excitement, confidence, and hope filled her as water dripped from her paddle onto her lap, going as fast as she could go. She could hear Cassie and her parents cheering her on. Other kayakers disappeared from her mind and vision. She no longer knew or cared whether she was in the lead or not. The finish line was near. The flashy red and yellow flags were whipping in the breeze, so close, so very, very close . . .
And then she passed beneath them. Jessica stopped her kayak on the bank, panting and smiling. She had done it. She had finished the race. Her parents were there to meet her, smiling, clasping her hands as she climbed out of the kayak. "Jessica," said her father excitedly, "you came in second!"
"You got second!" said her mother, hugging her.
Cassie came running up, grinning broadly. "Jessica, you did it!" she cried. "I knew you could!"
"Thanks, Cassie, but you're the one who convinced me to enter and everything." Jessica was very happy. In her beat-up, secondhand kayak, only recently having gained confidence in herself, Jessica Morgan, the pessimist, the girl who had thought she couldn't do anything, had not only finished a race, but had come in second.
The man with the megaphone walked up to her. "Good job," he said. "What's your name? How old are you?"
"Jessica Morgan. I'm ten."
"Well, Jessica, that was a great race. We've got a ribbon for you."
"You do? Where?" Her heart pounded excitedly.
"Right this way" As if in a dream, Jessica followed him to the starting line.
They started out with fifth place. A tall eleven-year-old boy got that. The fourth place winner was a black-haired boy of about ten. Jessica saw that the nine-year-old girl she had stood by was awarded third place. And then came second place. Jessica could hardly believe it when her name was announced. She didn't even hear who the first-place winner was.
The red ribbon was placed in the hand Cassie wasn't holding tightly. Looking down, Jessica read the gold letters. SECOND PLACE.
She had never dreamed that eleven letters could make her so happy.