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Finding Self

Awkward and shy, Ava’s only happiness comes from reading dictionaries and learning new words

People are making room for me as I slither by. They are afraid to be “touched” by me. I quietly shuffle past, head down, eyes on the ground. As I enter my English classroom, someone yells, “Watch out!” Students laugh. My teacher, Mr. Gallagher, tries to quiet everyone down.

I shrink, my stomach tightening, and hurry to the very back of the room, hunkering down low inside my big, black jacket. Hiding like a baby kangaroo in its mother’s pouch, I begin to feel safer. Slowly, I lug my 40-pound backpack onto my lap and relax when I feel its comforting weight. I know never to make any eye contact with the teacher because then he sometimes calls on me. And I definitely do not want that to happen. So I stare down at my feet for a minute, and then cautiously lift my head enough to look around my desk.

“Pop quiz!” my teacher announces enthusiastically. All the other students sigh and moan, but I get pumped up. A test means no talking, and silent rooms with no talking are what I like the most. Then my teacher says, “Don’t worry! This isn’t going to be graded. This is just a pre-assessment for our next unit: Etymology!”

I grin from ear to ear in my head, but my facial expression stays the same. It is a word test, and I love words. I love the way they look. I love the way they sound in my mouth. I even love the way they smell and taste. I don’t think anyone else knows that words have an odor and flavor, but I do. To me, each word is unique. I love to pore over dictionaries, spending hours at a time learning where words come from. I can instantly memorize everything that I read or see. Can other people do this as well? From what I have read, it seems that they can’t. I know my parents can’t, but they are unlike me in so many ways; this is just one more way. Slowly, I take out a pencil and wait for the quiz to be passed out. Mr. Gallagher hands me the quiz and smiles kindly at me. I don’t smile back. I just take the test and stare down at it. It really is all on etymology— where words come from. And even more than I love silent rooms, I love word origins.

Even under my rough jacket, I notice that many students are glancing at each other’s answer sheets. But I know all the answers. I finish the quiz in five minutes flat. Then I crawl out of my chair and trudge to the front of the class to hand my paper in. When Mr. Gallagher sees me. His eyebrows rise. “Are you sure you’ve finished? Have you checked your work?”

I nod.

“Okay then.”

I turn, slouching back into my chair, waiting for the time to pass. Staring at the clock, I wish the hour hand would move faster. Then I begin to daydream. I think about the clock and about the ancient Sumerians who gave us sexagesimal counting for time, and I begin to wonder about all the different kinds of counting and measuring we do. Our decimal system is Hindu-Arabic and we get inches and pounds from the United Kingdom, which uses the British Imperial System . . .

I glance around at the other students. They seem to be having a challenging time with those problems. I am surprised and think that I may have gotten a high score on this quiz. But then, since I am so bored, my mind wanders off again. Suddenly, the bell rings. Everyone quickly passes their quiz in and hurries out the door.

This is my last class of the day, so I go to the library and walk straight to the dictionary section. This is my daily schedule. I am so interested in learning new words that I can’t even keep track of my time. My parents let me stay because it keeps me occupied. And besides, they don’t really know what else to do with me.

I know that I learn differently from other kids in my school. I just cannot concentrate at all during school except on things that I’m interested in. I don’t really care about school or tests in general because I’m not interested in them. I only do what I like to do.

In math class, my mind wanders to thinking about how the words “integer” and “integral” are related. When I am in history class, instead of focusing on the chapter in my textbook about the Civil War, I have a debate in my head about whether or not the word, “Yankee” comes from Cherokee or Dutch. Things that I’m not interested in, I just can’t make myself do, no matter how hard I try. My grades are mostly C’s, but that’s only because the teachers feel bad for me. In most classes, I probably deserve F’s.

I have never had friends. I don’t really know how to joke around and make small talk with the people around me. My feelings are all stuck inside, with no one to interact with. When I’ve tried, people just tease me. By now, I have stopped trying.

The librarian has always been very kind to me. She understands my love of dictionaries and recommends good ones to me or tells me when a new dictionary has been bought.

I feel safe in the library. I get to relax from my hard day with other students bullying me. I get to taste words and smell them. I get to be me. I also love to read other kinds of books, especially nonfiction books. But dictionaries are my first love.

Some words I don’t like. For example, “chair.” That word tastes like cabbage to me, and I loathe cabbage. Other words that I really dislike are “window,” which tastes like Brussels sprouts, and “dark,” which feels like snakeskin in my mouth. On the other hand, I love the word “flower,” which tastes like ice cream.

After staying in the library for a few hours, I decide to go home. No one is home. Most of the time, my parents are at work. I am alone every, single day. But I like being alone. I don’t have to think about other people’s feelings when I say something. I don’t have to worry about sharing. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.

After making myself a dinner of bread, yogurt, and crackers, I get ready for bed. I have no idea that tomorrow will be a turning point in my life.

It is a regular school day: students mocking me, afraid to be “touched” by me. A typical Friday morning. Everyone is planning where they will go on the weekends. I love weekends. I can be alone with my beloved books and not have to interact with anyone else at all. Counting down to each Saturday is what keeps me going Monday through Friday.

In English class, Mr. Gallagher gives us back our etymology quizzes. When he reaches me, he smiles. “Great job! You received a perfect score. In my 12 years of teaching here, I have never had a student get a perfect score on this quiz before.”

The whole class can hear. They don’t cheer and clap for me. Instead, they stare. I can almost feel their eyes burning holes in my face. I try to bury myself under the desk, hoping all the staring will go away. It doesn’t.

Mr. Gallagher keeps on talking. “You are an amazing student. What an intelligent girl! How did you learn all these words?”

I take a deep breath. My voice comes out below a whisper. “I . . . uh . . . from reading dictionaries.”

But Mr. Gallagher won’t give up. He wants more details.

“I just have an interest in words and learning about where they come from and their roots,” I explain, clearly annoyed. He knows I am frustrated by his interest, so, of course, he stops. But he keeps a careful eye on me.

The next day at school, Mr. Gallagher calls on me to define the word “etymology.” I can’t hide anymore. Every few minutes, when he catches me trying to bury myself inside my jacket, he calls on me again.

I can’t escape anymore. Why is he even taking the time to ask me questions and wait for my reply? After the class ends, as usual, I slither out, trying not to be noticed. But Mr. Gallagher comes out from behind his desk and says, “Ava? There’s a town spelling bee coming up. You should enter. You have a great gift for learning words quickly and accurately. I know that you would do well in the competition. If you do win, you would get to advance into the state competition. No one in this school has ever gone past States before, but maybe you could be the one.”

I feel overwhelmed. This is the first time a teacher has ever wanted to enter me into a competition. Why is he being so nice to me anyway? My head spins around and around, and I hear my heart thudding loudly in my chest. I don’t know what to do, so I just run. Out of the classroom. Past all the students staring at me. Past the double front doors of the entrance to the school into the parking lot.

I don’t know how long I spend kneeling down next to a brown truck. All I know is that there is an overpowering aroma of avocado and peanuts in the air that disgusts me. Suddenly, I hear footsteps approaching. I duck under the car for protection, but also because I want to see who it is in safety. I see shiny, black shoes. That could be any teacher, I think to myself. I stay still, trying to control my breathing. Butterflies swirl around in my stomach. My eyes dart in every direction in an attempt to find out more about the person who has followed me.

A sudden voice shatters the silence: “I didn’t know that such exciting news would bring so much sadness.” It is a kind yet stern voice, and I know it is Mr. Gallagher. It would’ve been so much easier if he hadn’t noticed my existence. Suddenly, I break into noisy sobs. I don’t know what has gotten into me. I guess that after so many years of being alone, of keeping my emotions stuffed inside myself, with no arms to cry into when I feel miserable, my feelings are finally ready to come out. Still, I don’t reply to his words. I don’t know how to.

Mr. Gallagher tries to persuade me again. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. The winner of this school spelling bee receives a few grand prizes! These prizes include a $100 check, a brand new bookcase, and 50 different books of the winner’s choice!”

Now, I am listening. I could win 50 different types of dictionaries. I have already read all the dictionaries in the school.

I realize that I want to find out more about the contest, so I squeeze out from under the truck, brushing bits of gravel off me, and stand up. Mr. Gallagher smiles peacefully, like he knows that his persuasion methods have worked. I follow him soundlessly back into school.

At the end of the day, I stop by his classroom as he asked. I have thought about the contest over and over again in my other classes. My final decision: I want to enter.

I hesitantly knock on the door and hear a “Come on in!” Mr. Gallagher is expecting me.

I look him in the eye and say, “I want to sign up for the spelling bee.” I have practiced what I was going to say in my head over and over this morning.

“Okay! I will put your name on the list! You should also practice for the spelling bee. Do you have time after school every day?” he asks in an urging tone. I am not ready for that question. What am I supposed to say?

“Uh, yes?” I reply, unsure of what I have gotten myself into. After school is my reading time. Even though I know I will like to learn new words, reading calms me and makes me happy. I don’t want to give up my reading time. Also, I don’t think I want to spend every afternoon with this teacher. Learning words is fun, but not while interacting with people. I would have to do something I love while doing something else I hate. Even so, I decide to give it a try. I will do my extra reading in the mornings instead.

The next day after school, I drop my backpack into my locker and stroll over to my English classroom. Surprisingly, there is another girl inside. Eyeing her nervously, I take a seat as far away from her as possible. At first, she doesn’t notice me, but when she does, she jumps up in joy. “Yay! I am not the only one practicing for the spelling bee contest!” she declares. I look at her, startled. She slides over to a desk right next to mine. “My name is Alexa! What is yours? Have we met before?”

“Uh . . . My name is Ava. I am in your science and history classes.”

“Oh! Sorry! Yes, I remember you now. You are the one in the big jacket that rarely talks at all. Oh well! We can prepare for the spelling bee together!”

Over the next few practices, I get to know Alexa better. She is very friendly, and she is also very smart. She does not have my talent for memorizing the spelling of words, but she works hard. I thought that I was the only person who had an interest in word origins, but now I know that is not true.

The next few weeks fly by. I study after school every day with Mr. Gallagher and Alexa. Alexa and I have actually become close friends. Talking with her and Mr. Gallagher is not hard anymore. I learn to openly express my feelings and concerns in front of them. When I make mistakes, I no longer hide inside my jacket or get nervous. Slowly, tentatively, I begin to develop the courage to stand up for myself.

The day of the competition is approaching. I am getting more and more nervous as each day passes. Mr. Gallagher tries to calm me down by saying, “You can do it! Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!”

But I always think: What if I mess up in front of all those people? I am always worrying about what other people will think of me if I ruin the competition. That night, my mom tells me, “Great things never come from comfort zones.” From that point on, every time I feel an anxious thought well up inside me, I whisper the phrase to myself and push the scary thought away. I know I have the ability to win first place at the competition.

The day of the competition arrives. The first few rounds go by in a blur. Most of the students are eliminated; many were just participating for fun or extra credit. Then, some students who are serious about spelling get knocked out. Finally, only one other girl and I are left on stage. She has won this spelling bee for the last five years. My cheeks are as red as freshly picked tomatoes, and my hands cannot keep still. I don’t think that I have a chance against her. But I know that I have to try my best.

“Spell ‘convalesce,’” the judge announces.

”C-o-n-v-a-l-e-c-e!” the girl answers proudly.

“Incorrect!” the judge declares. The girl next to me freezes for a moment like an icicle forming on a rooftop and then stomps her foot in rage. She glares in my direction, slowly looking me up and down. Her rage envelopes me like a disease. I feel scared and sick to my stomach.

That’s why I am grateful when I hear the teacher say, “If you get this one right, Ava, then you win this competition. But if you get it wrong . . . ” the teacher continues. I think of all the hard work I have done to reach the goal I was so afraid of before. I have my chance to win. I take a few deep breaths.

“Spell ‘chauvinism,’” the judge commands. I think for one second only. I know this word well. I read it in the dictionary just last night.

“C-h-a-u-v-i-n-i-s-m!” I answer.

“Correct!” the judge bursts out. There’s no clapping and no cheers. Everyone is silent. No one expected me to win. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a scream. “Congratulations Ava!” It is Alexa. The audience bursts suddenly into an avalanche of applause and cheering. I stand, frozen stiff for a moment, but then slowly begin to smile, like the sun shining through a window. I am given a $100 check, a brand new bookcase, and a coupon for 50 books like I was promised. But I get even more than that: I have a friend now.

Salena Tang author of Overcoming
Salena Tang, 13
Lexington, MA

Evelyn Yao artist of Finding Self
Evelyn Yao, 13
Cerritos, CA