My cell phone vibrates in my pocket, and I sneak it out to look at the screen. It's another text from Dad – the third one today – and it's not even lunchtime yet.
Reminding you I'll be late. Do your HW!
Dad knows cell phones aren't allowed in class but probably thinks I'll check it between periods. I look up quickly to make sure my English teacher, Mrs. Beale, isn't watching and then stuff the phone back into my jeans pocket.
Mrs. Beale stands tall – at least as tall as she can in her bulky green sweater and winter boots – and gives us her get-ready-for-it looks. Convinced we're paying attention, she asks, "How can one know when he or she is the best at something?"
Most of my classmates stare at her, out the window, or into space, but unlike some of Mrs. Beale's other journal topics, this one doesn't stump me.
That's because I used to think I'd always be the best. In fact, I used to think a lot of stupid things. Like if I ate all my vegetables, I'd grow up to be big and strong, another Hulk Hogan, or if I sat too close to the television screen, the rays would ruin my eyes, making them bulge out like golf balls. I'd be the first kid, Dad warned me – teasing only a little – to have his name in all the medical journals beneath Before and After pictures, the first one showing a smiling, clean-cut kid with deep brown eyes; the second displaying E.T's twin, all because I watched close up too many "South Park" and "Futurama" episodes.
"You should include an explanation about a time in your life," Mrs. Beale adds, "when you really wanted to be the best at something." Then she leans her hips on her wooden desk and smiles, the way a comedian does just before the punch line. Except that's it. Mrs. Beale probably figures that's all she needs to say to get us writing.
How can one know when he or she is the best at something?
Mrs. Beale won't like my answer to this prompt because I haven't been the best at anything for four years. I write that being the best actually sucks because it's only temporary. Like it's been almost forty years since the Chicago Bears won a Super Bowl, I don't know anyone who listens to Eminem anymore, and even being President means you get four, maybe eight years, and then afterwards most people forget about you. The truth is the best probably have no idea they're one packed suitcase away from becoming invisible.
Another one my dad always harps on is that a D on a report card means Dumb, as in I'm dumb. Sometimes it means Disappointing, as in he's disappointed. I hear his voice in my head almost every day: "A D, Alex? Really? A D? You have to do better than that."
After Dad got his current job teaching economics at Lake Erie Community College here in Ohio, he complains so much about his students' sloppy writing or attendance problems, he's disappointed most of the time.
Dad will say something like, "I think you're smarter than this, Alex." Then he'll look at me like he's just noticed I have measles on my face and ask, "What is going on with you, son?"
What happens after you've been the best? That's what I should really write about. Instead, I write in my journal about the biggest D: D for Disappointment. I guess that's what I've been since we left Illinois.
I add a closure sentence to my second paragraph: The best isn't always the best.
I can't help but smile. Dad would love Mrs. Beale. See, he has this thing about being the best. And I was once.
Once upon a time about four years ago when I was in the sixth grade at Elm Street Elementary School back in Illinois, I was the class president, most popular, funniest – all those things. At least that's what the sixth grade graduation survey said.
All the guys wanted to be on my squad in gym class, I got invited to every birthday party, and everyone at the end of the year wanted me to sign their little yearbooks. It was heaven. It was the best year I have ever had in school.
Now I'm in the 10th grade here at Amherst High School, and I'm not the class president. I'm definitely not popular. I'm not anything.
Maybe I have myself to blame. I don't really like speculating about it. I stopped trying to rank all the events in my life from best to worst when I realized I'm living the worst ones right now. We moved again this past summer, and right now I'm not the best or the worst. I'm A.
A for Average.
Next to me, another kid hides his cell phone in his lap. His fingers push at the little keys while his eyes slide left and right to find the right letters. His head is down like the rest of us, so Mrs. Beale probably thinks he's writing in his journal. I wonder if he's writing about his elementary school days here in Amherst, Ohio. I want to ask him if he was ever the best at something but, of course, I keep my mouth shut. Mrs. Beale has a simple rule in sophomore English: No talking during journal writing.
You could include an explanation about a time in your life when you really wanted to be the best at something.
When I think about those days in elementary school four years ago, when I knew the next day of school was going to be great, when a classmate always had something funny to talk about, when I looked forward to the next report card, I feel good. But it hurts, too, because now I'm no way near being the best at anything.
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