a note to days gone by

“What, me?”

She flips through the last few pages of notes, flustered. “I, uh… the geography… boundary question — um. The boundaries of Europe… That is -” she pauses, takes a deep breath. “Sorry, I’m just really nervous. Um. Could you come back to me, please?”

The T.A. shrugs. “Certainly,” she says, nodding at the next student over. Me. I glance at my neighbor, all brown curls and nerves under the eyes of all these strangers. Oh, I think. Oh, honey. Hang in there.

“I agree with what I think she was trying to say. That is, the importance of the geographical boundaries in defining the European continent –” My sentences weave themselves easily into paragraphs I never planned. I pull on the reading and reference our professor’s lectures, drawing a mess of words and ideas into ordered thought and coherence. The discussion comes naturally for me, even though the topic is new. I may not ask brilliant, thought-provoking questions — I’ll leave those to my siblings, thanks — but talking? Spinning a semblance of patterned dialogue from scattered thoughts and vague understandings? There, at least, I hold my own.

The girl smiles shyly and nods as I finish speaking. “Yes, exactly!” She affirms my additions to her staggering phrases. “Thanks,” she whispers.

I smile back, nod my head once. I sit back and listen to the next student discuss his impressions of our reading assignment. My mind slips into reverie; my smile dips into nostalgia, sinking into my first memory of ninth grade English. Suddenly, I remember –

thump. “Beowulf,” I blurt. thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. I am fourteen years old. I am sitting in a new city, a new school — for that matter, a new type of school. This is not the eighth-grade graduating class of six girls I’ve known for years. This is a standard, twenty person English class at a Quaker high school, and right now every single eye is focused on one thing: me. My heart keeps racing: thumpthump. thumpthump. I feel my face flushing. Breathe, girl. Breathe. Come on, come on. It’s just a question, and you knew the answer. It’s over now. You’re fine. Breathe. Come on, breathe!

“That’s right. Very good.” My teacher looks surprised. “Beowulf was the first epic written in the English language.” I exhale slowly, trying to calm my body’s reaction to speaking up in class. I hate public speaking. A shaky smile snakes across my face. But you were right.

I breathe deep, focusing on the next girl answering the T.A.’s questions. She’ll be fine, I think. She may not like speaking in front of strange groups right now, but she’ll learn to cope with it. It’s what Vidya told me last year, I realize — that TEDtalk about “fake it ’til you make it.” Eventually, it’s all Orwell — make a mask, and you grow to fit it.

I spare one more second for my memory, turning to look at her for a moment more: the teenager sitting at the long tables of the English classroom, a newcomer thrust between circles of old friends, eyes skittering across the faces that will soon no longer be strangers. I give her a mental nudge, an encouraging smile: you are going to learn, honey. You will. And when you do — oh, just look where you will fly!

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