Settling down with my backpack still clinging to my shoulders, I press the tiny bud firmly in my right ear and hit play on the well-used MP3 player. GRACE UNDER PRESSURE runs across the screen, the white light painfully bright against the thick morning air. I breathe, shoulders almost relaxing until realization dawns on me:
The grass is damp.
The wetness of last night’s dew seeping through my indigo skirt and up my underwear pushes me to stand. However, too drowsy to get up, I stay with my thumb circling the buttons of the tiny song machine, pressing each one lightly as if to see how far I can go till the music stops dead in my hand. Familiar strums scatter the creep of unease away and I try to hold onto the feeling as long as I can, remembering that the whole point of having this playlist is to mock life’s provocations. To escape this reality completely, like theater lights dimming to morph into a reverie of my own choosing.
But the uniform is scratchy and uncomfortable in Bangkok’s humidity, pulling me out of my daze, out of the movies, and straight back to school. Sweat feels like glue sticking my backpack, shirt, and back all in one sloppy sandwich.
Closing my eyes, I try again to focus on the somewhat comforting words of the song:
Come back, come back, come back to me like
You would, you would if this was a movie
Stand in the r–
Taylor Swift stops mid-sentence as my earbud was yanked off ruthlessly by a grumpy Mr. Sunshine. (Well, that’s not really his name but students call him that because a drop of sun won’t hurt this old fella.)
“Listen to this at home,” He tells me with a stern look, “A school is a place for learning. No parties!”
As if listening to music alone can be counted as partying.
I fight my nasty eye roll away with a nod, reminding myself that everything can be deemed disrespectful at my school. Besides, it’s not like it just happens here; most Thai kids suffer the same faith: bad haircuts, uniforms, and apparently no music on a Monday morning.
Thai schools have this thing. Every day, students are obligated to gather around on the football field before class starts, blazing UV rays beating down our backs while we sing the national anthem, pray, and endure the principal’s speech for another twenty minutes. That’s a good forty minutes of free vitamin D, except you’ll be smoldered to death first!
A lot of my friends try to look at the bright side, not literally, of course, unless they want to lose an eye. Legend has it that this slow-burning morning ritual gives students a chance to defy authority in their own ways, spying on their crushes, and playing pranks on each other. I, on the other hand, am standing perfectly still today. (Not because I’m complying. It’s just that… I don’t know... It’s easier this way.)
(And I sweat. A lot.)
“Hey, Grace!” Someone nudges me from the boy's line, and I squint to see Han, who appears to have grown at least two inches since the last time I saw him, his summer break curly hair now replaced by a schoolboy buzz cut. Hans grins, white teeth flashing despite the unfortunate loss of hair, before continuing, “Girl, where’s Grace? I mean the other one. The cool one. Not you.”
I shove him and he smirks, his sparkling lashes dancing in the daylight.
“I don’t know,” I chirp, happy to have someone to talk to. “But have you seen Han? He’s pretty tall and has quite the looks. You know, the one with hair. Not this one.”
Han rolls his eyes and chuckles before saying, “No really, where is she? I can’t remember the last time you two weren’t together.” His mellow voice drops an octave when the boy asks, “Are you guys… like dating or something?”
I raise my eyebrows.
“Nah. She’s my best friend.”
“Exactly! Tons of relationships start like that,” Han points out, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “But maybe that just happens in films. It would be weird anyway since you’re Grace and she’s Grace and everyone’s Grace.”
I feel my lips forming a small smile against my will. Grace is actually Gracie, but don’t tell the boy mumbling movie theories to himself. Instead, I say, “She’s rebelling. Grace, I mean. She’s taking a stand, you know? Saying no to this stupid assembly.”
“On the first day?”
“She rebels every day, darling.”
I find Grace half an hour later wrapped in the AC’s coolness waiting for English Elective to start. Same as the other girls, her dark hair is in a ponytail. But unlike them, Grace would pull her hair up so high, proposedly letting some of it cascade down her cheeks. Waterfall. Teachers would note reproachfully, tossing a ribbon just for Grace to ask me to tie a messy bow to show off the tousled locks.
Speaking of which…
Waving the expected black string as if on cue, Grace beams through her glasses when she sees me and mouths ‘I missed you at the anti-assembly today!’ She pats the seat on her right, but I’m already making my way to the back of the class, the familiar bounce taking over my gait like an impatient child waiting for popcorn before the movies.
I take the dark string swiftly from Grace’s grip as soon as I reach her. “You can just wear your hair the way they want you to, you know?” My voice comes out light as I pull the ribbon into a knot, playfully tugging Grace's curly hair, knowing that it makes her head itch.
“I am,” Grace says, shaking her head hard to loosen the newly tied bow, “It’s in a ponytail isn’t it?”
“But if you don’t pull it up like you’re trying to be a walking fountain and bring a ribbon, they won’t bother you as much.”
My best friend shrugs as if to say ‘where’s the fun in that?’ and I just let out a chuckle and smile, making myself comfortable in the seat next to her.
“Hey, your playlist is still on. You might wanna turn this thing off so it’ll last the day,” Grace says, fumbling on the buttons of my MP3 player. Her thick eyebrows raise as she reads the title on the screen: If This Was A Movie by Taylor Swift, a sad sad song about leaving with a surprisingly catchy melody, which also happens to be Grace’s favorite track.
“It’s cool you included this one,” she says, “I know it’s a downer, but it’s hopeful. Like maybe in another world, a different time, broken hearts could heal and things could be different, you know?”
My breath hitches and I don't even know why.
It’s not the first time Grace says something like this. It's not the first time she flashes me a cheeky grin, eyes gleaming with more than enough hope to carry mine. It’s not the first time I scrunch up my nose to hold my giggles. And it’s definitely not the first time I wonder what it would be like if we were a movie.
A planned ending.
Not letting myself dwell too long on the crafted fantasy, I shake my head, remembering, instead, the unfamiliar sounds of Afrikaans swirling around the English Department last year. I ask with genuine curiosity, “Do you think we’re still going to get someone from South Africa?”
“I hope not.” Grace heaves a sigh, her chest deflating as soon as it expands. “I’ve had enough of them.”
My mouth drops in mock horror as I clutch my heart. “Oh, Gracie! I didn’t know you were racist!” I gasp, tilting away from my best friend, almost waiting for her to push me off my chair.
Except, she doesn’t.
Grace–the ever so pleasant Grace–doesn’t even crack a smile, only stiffens. My eyes widen a second before my stomach knows to sink. I mumble something sounding like an apology, but I can’t tell if Grace heard. Her dark eyes are not on me, but boring straight into the whiteboard as if pressuring a miracle to come to life.
“Oh. You wait and see who’s racist,” she mutters and I know to keep my mouth shut this time.
Turns out Grace was right. The new teacher, Miss Adams, is a white woman from South Africa (surprise, surprise) with short golden hair who loves everything about Thailand: cheap street food, respectful adults, and submissive kids. The more she talks, the more it dawns on me that this woman thinks we’re incapable of holding a conversation, incapable of understanding and responding to her condescending remarks. I stare at her, incredulous yet unsurprised. Most white teachers who come to our school are the same, taking silence as submission, taking lack of response as our incompetence rather than theirs.
When the new teacher spends another fifteen minutes claiming how Thai kids only know Bangkok and Chiangmai, and an only hint of English to go anywhere else, I hear Grace scoffing under her breath in Thai, “Um... Maybe we don't have the luxury to travel around the world, but we have the internet, you know?” Her hands are white from clutching her skirt, and I almost take them in case they’re hurting.
If this was a movie, I probably would.
But I’m so used to tolerating the reality of keeping secrets and waiting for miracles that I just sit there, gravity gladly holding me in spot.
I remember last September when English Elective was still Mr. Daniels’ class. Everyone knew he was a misogynistic jerk, but no one did anything, either too scared or just couldn’t bother. We all endured him and he was gone now, right? I can do that for another year.
Just when class is about to end, and I ready myself to leave, Miss Adams concludes that the reason behind South Africa's prosperity is the many white people living there. And the other countries in Africa? Well, she looks disgusted even to say the word ‘black’.
My mouth falls open like I’m gasping for air, body sinking in waves of unspoken words. My mind struggles to grasp a string of arguments when Grace's pencil snapped. An excruciating silence lingers for minutes after.
I wait for heads to turn, imagining the shock painted on agreeing faces. I wait for the stares and the sound of Miss Adams’ footsteps ricocheting off the classroom’s walls as she marches to Grace. I hold my breath, unsure if I'm finally kicking my feet to shore or readying myself to drown. I wait because it feels like that was something.
But nothing happens.
The world only stopped for Grace and me, nothing more and nothing less. None of the other students seem to care as they punch their phones under the desks. Not even Miss Adams seems to notice the thunder clouds swimming above us.
The bell rings, bringing the students back to life. The chattering breaks out and follows them to the hallways until Grace and I are the only ones left unmoved.
Motion pictures and devised denouements sound good in my mind, but what if the flick fails to satisfy? What happens then? This–all of this–can’t be a movie. If it were, no one would stick around long enough to see the end. Grace and I would sit there, eyes staring blankly at the camera, while the audience drifts to sleep, or worse, shuffles out of the theater for frozen yogurt instead.
“I can’t believe that just happened.” Grace whispers, her voice so quiet, so small. The broken pencil still in hand, she starts tapping it against the table. Something she does when she’s scared.
As if the graffiti on her desk was the most fascinating thing in the world, Grace hangs her head, dejected eyes swimming in a colorful hodgepodge of K-pop groups and Adventure Time characters. She takes off her glasses, placing them down gently like dying petals, and I can’t tell if she’s avoiding my gaze on purpose.
I open my mouth to say something, anything. But before words escape me, I see small teardrops hitting the wooden surface with a soft pitter-patter, like rain on barren land.
Grace is crying, and I just stand there, hovering over her like a ghost frozen in time.
“I wrote a letter. About Daniels,” Grace says after a while, her voice cracking, “Remember when he said you’re too skinny to get a boyfriend?”
I nod the smallest of nods because I’ve been trying to push that memory away for the longest time. My best friend saying it now seems to make it real again.
“I just– I can’t stand it, Grace. You just sat there and let him say that to your face, so I wrote a letter to Sunshine,” Grace sputters, tears running down her cheeks. Waterfall.
“You wrote to Sunshine?” I gasp, my eyes wider than I would like. “What did he say?”
“Nothing. I got nothing. Everything that I do or say doesn’t matter, Grace. We still get a teacher who can’t even respect us as equals because of what? Our skin color? Our dumb faces? Do I look dumb, Grace?”
She looks up at me, desperation consuming her features, and I feel my heart crack in my chest.
“Gracie, you’re not dumb.” I kneel to meet her eyes. “You’re just pressuring yourself too much. And you know what? I saw Han earlier today, wearing the lipstick you got him. He looked gorgeous. You would've been proud.”
“I can’t believe he actually wore it to school,” Grace sniffles as she stares at her palms.
I fight back a smile, remembering how pretty Han looked that morning, and knowing how much that means to Grace.
“I know you hope for something cinematic. You want to change the world right here and now like in Lemonade Mouth or something. And you have to know that I love that about you, but–”
“But life isn’t a movie,” She cuts me off, and it hurts more than anything hearing her say it out loud.
You know that part in every movie where the protagonist is so overwhelmed that their thoughts break free before everyone gets shocked and offended? That's me right this second, except I'm not the main character in a billion-dollar budget movie. I'm just me.
“You know what, Grace? As miraculous as they are with the soundtracks and cool costumes and everything, movies end in two hours. That’s all we see, the perfectly planned two-hour show. Life’s not like that. It just goes on whether you like it or not. You can’t turn it off like Netflix on a Saturday night, but that’s what you get. I know that you’re tired, but I just want you to know…” I pause, fumbling for the right words to say, but there’s no time to plan, to write the perfect script. And before I can stop myself I say, “I just want you to know that you have me.”
No epic orchestra to save me now. No gaffer to work on the lighting. No director to bellow, ‘CUT!! Over the top, Grace!’
(And maybe that’s okay.)
I shake my head, not yet brave enough to look at Grace’s dejected face. “If this was a movie, we’d probably be on our way to spark up a revolution or something.”
“But it’s not.”
“But it’s not. So, let’s just go to Sunshine and report it the old-fashioned way. If it doesn’t work, we’ll just have to find a different ending. Even if it’s dreadfully long and unpredictable, I’m planning to spend more than two hours with you, bud.”
I pull out my MP3 player and hand it to Grace with a grin, nodding for her to check the files. A second after brown eyes land on the screen, pink lips part as if to let out a scream of triumph, and the small girl springs up from her chair like a flower bud after winter. Grace looks at me, her wet eyes shining with restored hope. And without a word, she races me out of the classroom, so fast the sound of her footsteps seems to be bolting after her.
There is no graceful exit, just the ordinary chatters and the oppressive weather. No credits roll as the two girls run: one holds a tiny machine that beeps a small ‘RECORDING STOPPED’ instead of its normal repertoire; the other grips a string of ribbon and a pair of glasses, tagging not far behind. Both almost drowned in the pressure of people who couldn’t care less.