A Rare Opportunity
Up until that point, English class had been unremarkable. We were halfway through The Picture of Dorian Gray
. Mrs. Harris, with her voluminous behind precariously perched on the front of her strained wooden desk, scanned the room searching for flickers of comprehension—or, at the very least, consciousness—in a sea of clueless faces. I slid ever so slightly down in my seat, letting my long wispy hair, still damp from my morning encounter with winter’s sloppy-wet sleet, fall around the sides of my face: trying to hide. I’ve never much been one for participation. I generally know the answers—I just don’t appreciate the attention that comes from knowing them. Answer correctly and you have further cemented your reputation as a brainy, hopeless outcast. Answer incorrectly, and not only are you considered a bookish nerd, but now you’re even bad at that. It was a lose/lose situation. So I read ahead in the book, tuning her out, glancing up every now and then to the clock above the chalkboard or to the windows where blustery, chalk-white skies hung over another frigid January day. Evanston, Illinois, and the tundra that was the greater Chicago area would likely look this way until April, but it never bothered me so much. I liked the way that braving its wind-whipping wrath could make a person, even someone as easily tossed around as me, feel stronger.
"So let’s talk about the nature of good, evil, and hedonism," the teacher droned on.
At the mention of hedonism, on reflex, my eyes darted two rows in front of me. Buzz-cropped Jason Abington, wearing his basketball jersey, number 9, to advertise the big game this weekend, nibbled on the cap of his blue ballpoint pen—my
blue ballpoint pen. Somewhere inside my stomach, swarms of butterflies fluttered from their cocoons. It was for this very reason that the front outside pocket of my backpack bulged at all times with scores of these pens, which I had, optimistically, bought in bulk. Jason never seemed to have his own and somehow, by an odd stroke of luck, he had asked to borrow one from me weeks ago and then again and again and now this is what I had become to him: a purveyor of pens. At the desk beside him, a blonde creature—his
blonde creature—named Courtney twirled her artfully hot-rollered, bodacious curls. This is what boys like him were conditioned to expect. This wasn’t me, and I couldn’t imagine it ever would be, regardless of what magical metamorphosis one was expected to undergo during high school. I was a work in progress, but I had no reason to believe the finished product would ever be quite like that.
I had stopped paying the least bit of attention to Harris’s lecture when she called, "Ms. Terra? Haven. Did you hear me?"
To be honest, no. Scrambling, I shuffled through the shards I had caught of her lecture, searching for the most likely line of questioning and then shooting out an answer that ought to fit. "Um, Dorian and Lord Henry believe in following the senses, pursuing whatever pleases them, uh, no matter the consequences, and, um, not worrying about right and wrong?" I proposed, sweat dampening my temples. Jason angled his head back just a touch in my direction. I felt other eyes on me too.
"Thank you, that’s lovely." She was holding a slip of paper she had just taken from a senior girl, bored, chewing gum, who now left the room. "But your presence is requested in the principal’s office."
A weak chorus of "Oooooh" broke out as I gathered my books and boulder of a backpack heavy enough it carved divots into my narrow shoulders. As I squeezed through the aisle, passing Jason’s desk, he looked up for only a moment, expressionless and still chewing on my pen.
In my two and a half years of high school, I had yet to set foot inside Principal Tollman’s office—I’m just not that kind of girl. So I couldn’t imagine what this could be about. On the walk there, footsteps echoing on the linoleum, faded voices muffling out from passing classrooms, I tried to think what it could be: Was it Joan? Was something wrong with her? This is how it is with me, always expecting the worst.
But in our case, this sort of overreaction was justified.
This is just what happens when you are discovered, as I was, at roughly age five, in a muddy ditch somewhere off Lake Shore Drive in the dead of winter.
A little Jane Doe, barely breathing, no memories of anything that came before that night, no one to ever come looking for you. And you get raised by the kind nurse who eventually takes you in, names you, feeds you, clothes you. After a thing like that, worry becomes more than a reflex; it becomes an umbrella shading daily life, hovering closer every time someone gets home late or doesn’t call when they say they will.
"Ms. Terra, have a seat," Ms. Tollman said over the top of the rimless reading glasses perched on her nose when she saw me standing in the doorway of her office. She squared up in her chair, watching me, until she finally spoke. "So it looks like congratulations are in order." I felt my eyes involuntarily bulge. "We’ve just been notified that you and two of your fellow eleventh-graders have been accepted into the Department of Education’s Vocational Illinois Leaders internship program."
It took me half a second too long to process.
"Oh, wow. That’s great, thanks," I said, more reserved than she probably expected, but I was preoccupied. My mind sorted and sifted through everything I’d applied for in the past year. There was just so much. Anything that could earn me extra cash for college or would sound good enough to help me clinch a scholarship to one of my dream schools. Internships, fellowships, essay contests—my mailbox and my mind flooded with the constant stream of applications and deadlines and hopes. And yet, somehow, this didn’t even ring a bell. The principal took off her glasses and stared at me with a faint smile, a director waiting for the reaction shot she wanted. "This sounds fantastic," I started. "I really am honored. But forgive me, I can’t seem to recall actually applying for this." A nervous grin propped up the corners of my mouth.
She laughed, a small, charmed chuckle.
"Yes, well, that’s because you didn’t. That’s the beauty of this particular internship. They just pluck the best and the brightest and place those students with a thriving Illinois enterprise for the semester. It’s a new pilot program the state seems to be trying out. You will each be paired up with someone at this business who will act as a sort of advanced independent-study tutor and a mentor. And—"Glasses back on, she read from a paper. "Let’s see, ooooh, yes, it appears you’re going to be placed at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago. Why, that’s really remarkable, you know. They’re about to reopen, and the woman who owns it has become the toast of Chicago’s business world practically overnight. You may have seen her in the Tribune
and on the news. This is a tremendous privilege. It says here that room and board are provided, and there’s a considerable stipend in exchange for good old-fashioned hard work."
Her words rushed at me too fast to make sense of. So I would be living at this place? Living at a hotel? Working full-time? No actual classes? "Considerable stipend"? It was a lot to wrap my head around. Do things like this just fall from the sky? Perhaps the near-perfect grades I worked so hard for, the afterschool job I had had for pretty much a decade, the Saturday nights spent at home studying, were finally paying off in something that