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Cracks and Fissures

Ms. Lavender asked a simple question—why can’t Dawn answer it?

We sat in a circle, everybody facing my second-grade teacher, Ms. Lavender. She handed everyone a slip of paper.

“Now everybody,” Ms. Lavender began, “I would like for you to answer the questions that I’ll ask you—you may say them aloud if you wish, but you don’t have to. Remember to write them down.”

I took a slip of lined paper from Ms. Lavender’s hand and selected a pencil before sitting back down.

Everyone else did the same. Ms. Lavender cleared her throat. “The first question is: what is your dream?” I pondered for a moment; nothing in particular came to my head. I bit my lip as my classmates shouted out answers:

“A scientist!”

“An author!”

“A zookeeper!”

“A doctor!”

“An artist!”

Ms. Lavender clapped her hands. “Wonderful, wonderful! Fabulous!”

“A human!”

I snorted and swatted the boy who had said that. “You’re already one, goose-head.”

“Now, now,” Ms. Lavender cooed to me. “Joseph can be what he wants when he grows up.”

I reluctantly bobbed my head up and down in a nod before sitting back down.

My teacher asked me again what I wanted to be when I grew up, her voice clearly laced with impatience. I tapped my pencil against my thigh. Why was she so insistent? Weren’t we a little too young to be thinking about that?

I pondered, and thought, and wondered, and questioned myself in various ways.

“So,” Ms. Lavender asked, “have you thought of what you want to be when you grow up?”

I shook my head and promptly answered no.

Ms. Lavender gave up.

*          *          *

It has been three years, and I still haven’t come up with an answer to Ms. Lavender’s wimpy question.

Seasons have passed: winter fell to cover the sky and ground like a veil, spring altogether changed the world, summer beat its hot sun against the crashing beach waves, and fall sent its fiery leaves traveling through the air.

What do you want to be? The question rang in my head, sending waves of annoyance through me.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Ever since I left second grade, I had tried avoiding Ms. Lavender as much as I could. All because of one skunk-snot question. I was a coward.

Then news came—news that changed half of my life in school. “Announcement: I would like your attention please,” the principal said through the PA system. “We would like to let everyone know of Ms. Lavender’s departure. We would like to see Joseph Millers and Dawn Cagonea in the principals’ office.”

I’d gulped as I heard my name being spoken. Ms. Lavender’s departure? What does that mean? Had Ms. Lavender left the school?

*          *          *

“I’m afraid Ms. Lavender has departed from us very recently,” Ms. Cari, my principal, told us when we came through the doors. I sniffed but didn’t say anything.

Joseph glared at me and smirked. “Has Ms. L moved?”

Ms. Cari put one hand on my left shoulder. I shifted uncomfortably.

“No,” she told us. “I hate to tell you two, but you have once been in Ms. Lavender’s class. And with that, I must let you know. Ms. Lavender, I’m afraid, has passed away due to a sudden particular illness.”

The question rang in my head, sending waves of annoyance through me. What do you want to be when you grow up?

I had never experienced anything that bad. Ms. Lavender had always creeped me out a little, but I wasn’t ready for that. I laughed. “No, she hasn’t. She’s much too young.”

Ms. Cari steadily met my eyes. I stared back up at her. I knew the principal was serious. I turned away.

“I want you two to think of something you can do for her. Something that can be buried with her at her funeral.” Ms. Cari told us. “It can be anything. It’s the least you can do.”

“Okay,” Joseph responded.

“Good,” Ms. Cari said, smiling. “Dawn? What about you?”

I looked away in disgust. How could anybody be smiling at this time? Do you smile right after you tell two fifth-graders that their old second-grade teacher died? No! This was ridiculous. That I knew.

“Fine,” I growled.

Joseph suddenly burst out laughing. I turned my murderous glare toward him, my scowl deepening. “I never noticed how funny you look when you scowl, Dawn!” He laughed for so long and so hard that by the time he stopped, his face was as red as a tomato.

“Are you okay?” I asked, watching as the color slowly darkened on his face.

“No kidding,” Joseph gasped after the violent burst of laughter.

*          *          *

When the school bell rang, signaling the end of the day, I groped around my desk and drew out the old sheet of lined paper from second grade. It just sat there. On the top, the question stared back at me:

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I shook my head. After three years, I’d still ended up gazing at the same piece of paper.

I grabbed the sheet and raced toward my fifth-grade teacher. “Ms. Cari wanted Joseph and I to make something for Ms. Lavender,” I explained. “Can you help me with this?”

My teacher nodded thoughtfully. “Dawn, which subject do you favor?” I blinked and answered, “Language arts. I’m interested in plants as well. Botany?”

Mrs. Bethany moved on. “Do your talents belong in art? P.E.? Music?”

I thought for a moment. “Art,” I answered.

Mrs. Bethany looked at me closely, “Do you enjoy pouring out your thoughts on paper?”

I shuddered; all those years of staring at this one question made my stomach feel queasy. The thought of sitting in my chair, staring some more at a new blank piece of paper, wasn’t enticing.

“No,” I told my teacher hastily.

“What do you think?” Mrs. Bethany asked me, gesturing to the question.

I shook my head. “Mrs. Bethany, I don’t know.”

“‘Be somebody who makes everybody feel like somebody,’” Mrs. Bethany suggested. “It’s a quote.”

No. I shook my head but immediately regretted it. I must have seemed like a bad person, rejecting a good suggestion like that.

Mrs. Bethany sighed. “Tell you what. You’re too young to be thinking about your future, worrying about your future. Maybe you should take a break from this question.”

I panicked. I had to do something for Ms. Lavender quick! She couldn’t wait forever. Then I remembered: Ms. Lavender was dead. I nodded stiffly to my teacher.

“Thank you,” I added absent-mindedly.

When I got home, I determinedly decided to fill the sheet in. But as I flopped down on my bed, the paper clipped in on a clipboard, I knew that I still didn’t have an answer. But by the end of the day, I had filled it in. I puffed in relief. When I read it over again, I felt a boulder settle down in my stomach. This was not what I had been hoping for—not at all. It was filled with rows and rows of the same words.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
I don’t know. Why don’t I know? I don’t know. Why is this question so hard to answer? I don’t know. Why don’t I know? I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I pondered, wondered, thought so hard for three years. At last I find the answer—perhaps this is the answer for now? Maybe? I don’t know.
Dawn Cagonea

I felt like a vacuum cleaner had just sucked up my long-lost teddy bear or something. I was devastated.

I coughed, my pencil dropping from my hand. My handwriting hadn’t changed in three years; what a surprise. I felt like a vacuum cleaner had just sucked up my long-lost teddy bear or something. I was devastated.

Why?

Because I couldn’t answer a question from three years ago. How smart am I? Or, the more appropriate question: how dumb am I?

As I’d written on the paper, I don’t know. But I had to change it. I didn’t want everybody to see me in my fancy dress at the funeral and then read the dumb answer that I had written laid next to Ms. Lavender’s body.

*          *          *

The funeral. Mom insisted I wear a long black dress with silver sequins and ruffles. But I wasn’t going for it. So in the end, I wore a long-sleeved short dress with a silver necklace that sparkled in the moonlight. When we headed out the door, I grabbed the paper with my question and a new answer on it. I had slipped it in a sheet protector, ready to be laid alongside my teacher in her bed to heaven.

When I got in the car, I took the paper out of the sheet protector and smoothed its crinkles the best I could. I read it over again. It was much better than the answer I wrote when I was in the “I don’t know” phase. I was happy that I actually had an answer. Sure, it was only a sentence long, but I couldn’t think of anything else to write, so I had taken my teacher’s suggestion.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be “somebody who makes everybody feel like somebody.”
Quote by Brad Montague.

But then, as the car took off, I realized something: when Ms. Lavender asked us the question, she never got to ask us the other questions that she must have had stored up in her mind.

Ella Yamamura
Ella Yamamura, 12
Cary, NC

Sage Millen
Sage Millen, 12
Vancouver, Canada

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