“Alissa Escarce . . . Alissa Escarce," I muttered to myself, my finger moving slowly down the long list of names taped to the scratched wall. "Eugenie Cha . . . Jennifer Li . . . here we go, Alissa Escarce," I whispered, half glowing with pride, half shaking with nervousness. I was standing in the music room at John Adams Middle School, waiting for my turn to play the violin as a finalist in the Kiwanis solo competition. A week before, after spending hours practicing and perfecting my solo piece, I had played in the preliminary round of this competition. I had been chosen as a finalist, one of the eight best musicians at my school. I remembered, before the performance, the terrible jelly-like feeling in my legs, my fear and pounding heart, and afterward the glory and pride that came with being chosen as the only sixth-grade finalist. In a few minutes, all these feelings were going to repeat themselves, only more intense and frightening. Still, through my nervousness, I felt a need to prove myself, to win.
Ten minutes later, I sat on the railing outside the auditorium, waiting for my chance to show off my musical skills. I was in my own world, separated from everyone else, especially Mrs. Taylor, my accompanist, who was chatting away happily and unconcerned beside me.
"So," she asked, with a huge, toothy grin on her face, "how's school?"
"Good, I guess," I answered dully and distantly, a chill running through my anxious body.
"That's great!" she replied cheerfully, oblivious to my lack of excitement. "I hope you're not nervous. I'm sure you'll do a great job! You played wonderfully during our rehearsals!"
"Yeah—thanks—I hope so," I muttered abruptly, now chewing on the side of my cheek, trying in vain to calm my nerves.
"You know, my daughter . . ."
Suddenly, her animated speech was interrupted by the squeaking of the auditorium door. My school acquaintance, Jennifer Li, emerged carrying her cello and looking at the floor. A woman walked out briskly after her, turned toward me, and asked, "Alissa? Are you Alissa?"
"Yeah. Yeah, that's me," I stammered, my heart pounding like a drum in my chest. "My turn?" I asked cautiously.
"Yes, you can go in now," she assured me, smiling, "Good luck!"
Unable to answer through the gigantic ball that was forming in my throat, I nodded stiffly and proceeded into the auditorium on quivering legs that threatened to collapse, Mrs. Taylor right behind me. I finally found my place beside the piano, alone and small before the judge, the small crowd that had accumulated at the back of the building, and a few music teachers, including Mr. Park, my orchestra director. He looked at me piercingly, freezing my brain under his hard stare. In those few seconds that contained an eternity, his cold, emotionless eyes made me realize that winning this competition might take more than I had to offer. I was suddenly completely absorbed in my thoughts and worries, oblivious to the world around me. Then, as suddenly as my mind had been distracted, I was brought back to my senses by the judge's booming voice, which said, "Tune." I fumbled to pick up my violin, tuned my strings to the piano notes with shaking hands and played a few scales, embarrassed and shy before my small audience. I waited once again, staring at the clock in the back of the room, as the judge filled out my entry form. The clock was acting strangely. Its second hand seemed to move first slowly, then extremely quickly, then sluggishly again. My terrified twelve-year-old mind assured me that it was broken.
When the judge finally finished writing and said, "Play," I picked up my instrument once more and played the first note of the piece. It rang out, crisp and clear. That first note cooled my tense nerves and fed my wavering confidence. The piece climbed and turned and shimmered, each note brighter than the last. I nailed all but two notes, the difficult sections and fancy twists sounding more beautiful than ever before. As I played the last vibrating, shining note, the back of the room exploded in applause. A shy smile forced itself onto my face no matter how hard I tried to subdue it. I put down my violin and looked around the room to see Mr. Park clapping lightly, looking at me and smiling his vague, indecipherable smile. I walked out of the room, proud but unsure of myself, hoping that the judge had thought that my performance was as good as I imagined it.
The next morning, as I sat down in orchestra, I was uncertain whether to look forward to or dread the announcement of the competition results. Finally, when Mr. Park stood up on the podium to announce the winners, I sat back and looked up at him hopefully.
"First place, Rebecca Beasley, from John Adams Middle School," he announced blankly, looking around the room. "Second place, Ilana Summers, from Lincoln Middle School," he continued, as all eyes snapped toward the tall blond girl sitting next to me. My heart sank, so heavy I thought it would just fall through me. I had hoped to beat her, the only obstacle between my current position and being the best violinist in the school. Still, I sat, now hoping for a different prize.
"Third place, Heather Peterson, from John Adams Middle School," Mr. Park said quickly, when most eyes had left amazed Ilana. "And fourth place, Daniel Cooper, from Lincoln Middle School." I sat back in my chair, my vision clouding with tears.
Suddenly, Ilana turned to me, wide-eyed, and whispered, "Oh, my God! I can't believe that judge! Yours was the best!"
"Yeah, well, I guess not," I mumbled hoarsely, forcing a small, sad smile of congratulation. I looked down, sighed heavily, and began to unpack my violin.
"Oh, well. It's OK, you know. You can't always win. And there's always next year," she said, a proud smile on her face.
"Yeah, next year," I whispered, more to myself than to her. I knew that what she had said was true, that I had tried my best, and that if I kept on working, next year would surely be my year of glory.