I want to bite my fingernails. I really do. But it would ruin the pretty pink polish Mother had painstakingly painted on, the night before. There were no butterflies in my stomach, I had cocoons instead. The butterflies hadn’t hatched yet. I prayed they wouldn’t.
My hands hurt as I squeezed that sheet of paper so tightly, I couldn’t feel the fingernails digging into my palms anymore. I wanted it to be over with, to be far away from the judgmental audience before me. The upper crème class with eyes only for their prodigy.
Mrs. Lemons finished the graduation speech, before turning her neon-tinted smile in my direction. “…Princeton Gold is proud to present a special treat from an extremely talented graduate this year. Her poignant work of art is haunting, deep and filled with the microscopic things forming this experience we call life. I know you will be honored to hear this beautiful poem.”
The smattering of applause slowly grew to a full chorus as Mrs. Lemon delicately inched away from the microphone, extending a hand towards me. I shuffled forward, focusing on one stiletto in front of the other.
“T-thank you.” I stammered into the microphone and then winced. Great! What kind of an opening is that? I licked my lips. “I-I’m Shelby Donovan…and I’m reading….”
My mind blanked. I glanced to the half-crumpled paper in my hand, hurriedly bringing it to eye-level, hiding the gaping expanse of the audience. My eyes ached as I began the usual chant to scare tears away. No tears, no fears, no tears, no fears. “…my poem, The College Student.” I cleared my throat.
“It’s not our fault
That we don’t turn out
The way you want us to
It’s not our fault
We can’t become
What you want us to
In our own way
But it’s hard to say
I’m the girl with blue eye-shadow
That you cut in front of
At the checkout counter
I’m the dude with the earrings
In his eyebrow
At the gas station
I’m the girl gabbing on the phone
In the early morning
Because I missed class yesterday
And I need to borrow notes
I’m the guy texting his cousin
To get his half of the critical paper
Co-writing wasn’t an option
It was necessary
We’re the half-grown adults
Sneaking into reality
Dipping our toes in the water of your world
Testing the waves of insecurity
We don’t want this
But it’s not our choice
We won’t refuse it
That’s our choice
We feel the same things
We love the same things
Why do your eyes burn
When they glare at us?
Is it because we’re young
We’re so old on the inside
So tortured inside,
It hurts to laugh
But if we don’t laugh and smile
You call us ungrateful
You slap your labels all over our lives
Never seeing through
Don’t pretend you can’t see us
Because we see you
Don’t pretend we’re stupid
Because we’re just like you
Transparent to a fault
Ungrounded without purpose
We want something out of life
We want out of our life
Why can’t you accept us?”
The air was thicker than I remembered and as the paper inched down from my face, I scanned the sea of prejudiced parents staring blankly in return.
There was no applause. No criticisms. Nothing at all.
The awkward silence grew as I crumpled the paper in my fist, edging away from the microphone as fast as my stilettos would allow. Mrs. Lemon came forward and her French-manicured hand briefly touched my shoulder.
Her smile was soft, her voice hard. “Ladies and gentlemen, Shelby Donovan. A round of applause, shall we?” Mrs. Lemon repeated. “Shelby Donovan, a round of applause?”
A few soft claps started in front, grew. I turned as my fingers caressed the velvet backstage curtain, to see the graduates filing in loudly declaring their approval.
Shocked parents and relatives were reluctantly joining in. I didn’t understand why or why not. It wasn’t spectacular, it wasn’t horrible, but it was real. It was every memory in the five years I’d attended this private university. The ghost of things I was leaving behind as my fellow students screamed and cheered.
Snatching my graduation gown from the stagehand at the corner, I slapped the hat on my head and stepped out to join the celebration.
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