Last week, I talked to my friends about beauty pageants, which led to a mocking of those ridiculous questions that all have the same answer (world peace), and then this led to a discussion of that silly contestant on Miss Congeniality who had to respond to “Describe a perfect date.” This is my answer.
I grew up on airplane rides and played in forts made of those cardboard balikbayan boxes because my family was always scooting from city to city and country to country. This made opportunities for amazing adventures but also caused me to seek out books as anchors. Sometimes I had to leave friends behind but I could always take my collection of books with me. My parents read me bedtime stories and if video had not killed the radio star, maybe my dad could have been a voice actor. Our flashlights never worked because I used them up to read under my blankets and I was the proud owner of a pair of glasses by the age of nine.
My third school was Dewey Elementary School, which was a brick building tucked away in the suburbs of Chicago. It was a nice and proper school, all stars and stripes and apple pie. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance in the mornings and scrambled all over the monkey bars in the afternoon. I was a bit of an oddball who wanted to be eccentric, just like the heroines in my favorite books. I didn’t want to be girly, so I welcomed my scraped knees and gangly legs. I wasn’t so close to my pigtailed classmates who knew how to talk to boys without catching cooties. My best friend was Stephanie Chun, who loved the Lucky Me packets we shipped from Manila, allowed me to comb her unruly hair, and agreed with me in thinking that boys were stupid.
Like most American schools, Dewey had Accelerated Reader, which was a program that quizzed you on books and awarded you points based on your score. Teachers then gave prizes based on your achievements. This usually meant a nice certificate your parents could proudly post on the refrigerator. Ms. Stern, my decidedly not stern and very cheerful teacher, had other ideas.
She told us that at the end of the quarter, the two students with the highest scores would get something “special”. Challenge accepted. I liked Accelerated Reader because it validated my geekery. My parents never pressured me but I was still your stereotypical violin-playing, straight-A-slinging Asian kid. I wanted to be like Matilda and Hermione Granger. And I loved Ms. Stern. She was always so happy and she gave us the most enthusiastic praise for any achievement, be it getting a good Math grade or mastering the cursive letter G.
Some weeks and several Roald Dahl books later, I was comfortably at the head of the class. And apparently, so was a boy. A tall, athletic boy named Ash, with blue eyes and an easy smile. I was surprised to see his name on the board because playground warfare had taught me that girls were better than boys and because I had never even seen him open a book. How mysterious. For the first time in my life, I felt a little clenching in my chest that had nothing to do with the chocolate milk they doled out during lunch time.