She closes the door to her bedroom and flips on the light, the brightness revealing a room in disarray. A low dresser with a gilded mirror on top sits in the middle of the room, painted white and distressed in that shabby-chic way popular with Pinterest enthusiasts. She makes her way to the dresser, stepping over shoes, magazines, and sweatshirts, each strewn about like debris after a storm.
She unfolds the sheet of paper and places it down on the dresser. Then, pressing her heels on the carpet, she feels the fluffy, woolly mounds embedding themselves between her toes.
She raises her face to the mirror. “Hmmm,” she says aloud and pats the soft skin under her eyes. Puffy. And blue. Had her eyes looked tired and baggy this morning? Her mind pictures a plum, tender and bruised from too many days in the sun. Gross.
Leaning forward, she reaches into the dresser drawer below the mirror, thumbing through lip glosses and foundation and nail polishes in search of her concealer. Days of final exams and research papers had taken their toll, not to mention a last-minute request to prepare a speech. And, lest she forgets (not that she ever could), the car accident. That day was still so fresh she relived it every night.
There it is. She swipes the peach-tinted concealer across her skin and watches as it dissolves the blue-purple stains with Oxyclean precision.
“You can do this,” she says. Then, throwing back her shoulders, she readies her posture like a ballerina warming up at the barre.
“High school for me started with a backpack. A caramel frappuccino. And a basketball. The backpack was mine. The frappuccino was my best friend’s, and the basketball belonged to Nate Caulfield.
It was the first day of our first year of high school. I was so excited I couldn’t stop smiling, as though I was on my way to Disneyworld. Just before we entered the gymnasium, I had turned to my best friend and asked, ‘are you as excited as I am?’”
She paused. Did she include her friend’s response or gloss straight over it to the basketball? Blast. I can’t remember.
She looked down at the paper on the dresser. “Basketball,” she says aloud and pulls the cuff of her black robe so that it drapes over her wrist.
“Just as we opened the door to the gymnasium, a basketball hits my friend’s frappuccino. It explodes out of her cup and spatters over our jeans and t-shirts. It even hit the top of my brand-new pink backpack. In short, I was devastated. This was not how the first day of high school was supposed to go.”
She bites her lip and attempts a smile before moving on. “That is until Nate Caulfield ran up to us. At the sight of his big, winsome smile, I felt my shock turn into humiliation. Here I was—a short, skinny girl of fourteen with brown stains on the crotch of my pants. And here Nate was. An athlete. A tall one. And a scholar – he bested me for the highest GPA in eighth grade. My humiliation should have increased ten-fold.
Except it didn’t.
Immediately, Nate offered his jersey, which, by the way, did little to wipe up the mess. He stuttered his apologies and wouldn’t leave us alone until we accepted his offer of new t-shirts and sweatpants from the bookstore.
“Everyone,” she said and practiced a broad smile, “That’s when I learned life’s most important lesson: that our goblin green and sunshine yellow school colors could be flattering.”
She laughed and felt the tip of her nose burn. Come on, she told herself. You can finish. You’re halfway there.
“I kid, I kid,” she began anew. “It took me a while to figure out the lesson. Four years and a terrifying car accident, to be exact.
The lesson here is this: we have a duty to each other. Even if we don’t know someone. Even if we don’t particularly like someone.
At the time, Nate and I weren’t friends. He could have laughed at us and walked away. But he didn’t. I could have thrown what was left of my friend’s drink at his face and told him he would have better luck as a ballroom dancer than a basketball player. But I didn’t.
Had either of us decided our pride was worth more than the other person, we probably would have gone four years resenting each other. We may have even pitted our friends against each other. And over what? A spilled frappuccino and some ruined clothes?
This is what duty means to me: To find what we have in common instead of how we’re different. To build each other up. To lend a hand when someone is down. And to be nice to someone we don’t know. If you’re thinking, ‘well, that’s not how I would define duty’ – that’s okay. But I think we can all agree on this: throughout the last four years, there were times when we hugged someone who was crying, or helped someone find their phone, or stood up for someone who was being cornered. These small acts helped make this school a better place. Maybe our legacy is that we’ll have left our classrooms and hallways better than those we inherited. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a chance to carry that legacy as we move forward into the world.
Should she include a transition here? Her eyes skimmed over the words. Nah, she thought. Maybe just a dramatic pause will do.
She flips over the sheet of paper and begins reciting her speech’s finale.
“Nate would accuse me of being too sentimental,” she said and attempted another chuckle. A ballooning weight stifled it in her chest. “Yet, the Nate I knew would sit and listen to the entire thing because that was his philosophy about life: putting others first. That’s what duty meant to him. So it is with a heavy heart that –” her voice stumbles, “that I fulfill one last duty to him, our real valedictorian.
You see, had Nate been at the wheel instead of the passenger side, he would be here, in his rightful place. Instead, you get me – the runner up. Again. Just as I was in eighth grade.” She smiles, genuinely this time. “Yet I couldn’t be prouder to stand behind him, even though he’s not here. He may be gone, but he will never be forgotten. So, before we toss our hats in the air, let’s give Nate one final round of applause.”
She looked up at the ceiling and pictured her friend smiling down at her. “I hope you’re watching because you still owe me a pink backpack.”