It’s been over 20 years since I graduated high school. My diploma can legally sit at a bar in any city in the world! 😱 In hindsight, I can’t honestly state that those were the best years of my life. All I know is that they weren’t quite the worst either. 🤷♀️ The truth must lie somewhere in between.
Shelves of medals and trophies adorned my mother’s curio cabinets, a collection that she carefully curated and dusted until cancer ravaged her beautiful mind. There wasn’t a sport of academic subject that I couldn’t master, a competitor I couldn’t crush. A meet I wouldn’t miss. People in the community knew me by name and came up to congratulateme all the time. Kids either loved me or hated me, there was no in between. The faculty was always worried I would get bored, unionize my 57 classmates against standardized tests, and rebel. Despite my pedagogical proficiency and IQ, my mother refused to let me skip ahead or attend the public university’s accelerated high school learning program. Her insistence forced me to wonder how much different life would have been if I hadn’t acquiesced.
Once the decision was made to “provide me with a normal high school experience” my sophomore and junior years were smooth sailing. I made friends, aced all my classes, and got a brand new car. Then the 💩 hit the proverbial fan the summer before Senior year. Technically, I wouldn’t be eligible for the role of Valedictorian because I was considered a transfer student. The Catholic school I belonged to in Carolina (🇵🇷) ran through 9th grade with an automatic conversion of credits if we chose to continue our studies at the institution. The faculty had made an appeal to the PTA and governing board but it was fruitless; both organizations balked at granting an exemption even though we had great arguments and data points in our favor. Urgh!!! Thankfully, our efforts didn’t entirely fall on deaf ears. I wasn’t the first student who had been cheated by the rules and their interpretation, but I was the last!!!! The by-laws were amended to rectify the situation, for future alumni. The idea of applauding a usurper to the throne wasn’t sitting well but there was still hope that a miracle would happen.
Ultimately, I wasn’t going wallow in misery and ruin the last chance to adventure with my childhood friends over a resume padding title. F it! There were parties to attend. Boys to like. Relationships to build. Drama and rumor mills to feed. Losening the reigns didn’t cause much damage to my cumulative GPA, which had held strong at the top of the student lists since Kindergarten. Eventually my mother understood my intentions but questioned my ability to remain grounded amidst my educational entitlement and socioeconomic privileges. (My family wasn’t wealthy but they weren’t poor either.😁) Early admission to the engineering program was alredy guaranteed based on my SAT/AP tests, College Board scores, and outstanding GPA. There was everything to gain and nothing to lose from letting my geek flag fly.
Senior year was about self discovery and coming of age anyway…
The new and improved Overachiever 2.0 borrowed a manual transmission Mitsubishi 3000GT to make a grand entrance during the Senior arrival car parade. Not sure why my mom and her Army friends thought it was a good idea to let an inexperienced stick shifter operate a 320 hp machine! Four hours of training with my uncle, and a whole lot of chutzpah got me through the first of many ridiculous antics. Desperate times require desperate measures…
My goodie-too-shoes friends thought I was going insane, but the gambit worked. The guys thought I was a total badass!! 😎 The disappointment of not getting to speak at graduation was slowly fading away, replaced by infinite gratitude. I was free, master my own destiny, and there wasn’t anyone or anything that could stop my reinvention tour.
Less than four weeks later Hurricane Georges hit the island. I was back to being Girl Interrupted, stuck at home with no power, no water and 120 mph wind structural damages. The condo’s HOA sent a crew to board up our living room in an attempt to protect us from the elements until repairs could be safely made. Classes were canceled for a month and a half!😭😭😭😭 Since this was before the internet and emailing was a thing, we had to check in daily, in person, to get the latest news and/or volunteer to restore the grounds and speed up the rehabilitation process.
We did what we could to take control of our unique predicament. We organized clean up squads via landline. We hung out at the beach after a hard day’s work. The administration rescheduled our Ring Ceremomy, Prom and graduation plans as they raised funds to rebuild and repair the auditorium and gymnasium. The entire class compromised and accepted the additional sacrifices imposed by the national emergency. Worst case scenario, we’d have to take classes until mid June to make up for the lost days. Grandmas all over Borinquen prayed to ensure their favorites could get back to enjoying their friends and favorite teachers. Anointed by the gods, we became resilient, deliberate and wise beyond our years – invincible!
The hard work paid off. By early November we were back in the classroom.
During the middle of the winter break, when temperatures reached a “cold” 80 degrees in the coast, instead of the tropically balmy 95 degrees of the perennial equatorial summer, I got sick. Really sick. The monga I caught thanks to “el sereno” evolved into a severe bronchitis. Days later, the pediatrician changed the diagnosis to pneumonia and ordered bed rest. 😤🥺 I spent the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day confined in my grandmother’s living room books spread out all over the floor, patiently teaching myself pre-calculus formulas to keep up with my AP courses. Every two or three days I would sneak back into the classroom to take tests and say hi to my friends for a couple of hours. The security guard was given instructions to only let me leave the premises if I was in casual clothes. From then on, every time I didn’t feel like staying for the entire day I wore jeans and a T-shirt to cut class. A forged permission slip signature didn’t hurt either. 😈
The CellularOne Motorola Razr cellphones didn’t have unlimited texting, or talking back then, so I sent out beeper messages to stay current on the latest gossip. The downside to my convalescence was losing 10 lbs and gaining a severe depression. Got used to sleeping during the day and Messaging (Microsoft IM) or ICQing at night. I did everything in my power to not be on the outside looking in. The fear of missing out and not bouncing back as fast as expected was at an all time high. My friends reassured me I wasn’t missing much but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being left behind.
Through it all, I continued to overachieve. To show up, perform and deliver high quality work amidst the fog of angst and social anxiety. My teachers used every opportunity to distract me, finding work above and beyond my student responsibilities to leave a legacy greater than my perfect average. The Dean assigned me a couple of important projects that assisted in the re-accreditation of the curriculum and Department of Education licensing. All this resulted in a unique brand of special treatment, of being given the keys to the kingdom so to speak, an advantage I passed along to my trusted circle of friends. Together, we were allowed to skip school, defer tests and/or go off campus for lunch quid pro quo. I scratched the administrators backs and they scratched ours. This enabled us to fully live vicariously through each other, reaping benefits that would have never materialized if I had been granted the loyalty exemption.
I became even more infamous for doing contraband runs to sneak in pizza, fried chicken buckets or taco party packs during lunch or club meetings. Random kids asked for the occasional favor in return for notoriety, feeding the hype. I had sophomore minions! Buahahahahahaha! There was sand all over the floor boards of my Mitsubishi Mirage camouflaging the occasional mummified fast food french fry. The trunk became a mini lost and found. Miles and miles of memories resided in the odometer, with room for the more. Mom hated that I was never home while my sister begged to take her with me. She was 10 and I was finally 18 primaveras old – an age gap extremely noticeable in our faces but not in our demeanor – which made it very difficult to explain why she couldn’t join me at the dance club or late night block party. 🙃
Lots of flip phone hang ups and tantrums permeated my days, yet I persisted.
In early May, the Valedictorian’s name was officially announced. They were the third highest grade point average overall, a full decimal point behind me. With a cumulative score of 99.3, my transcript would show a curved 4.0 – my mom’s pride and joy – and an honorary distinction of “highest-ranking” graduate. I took the defeat with grace, poise and humility, congratulating all of the speakers and the class president for their accomplishments. A part of me knew that in 10 years, heck six months, none of this would matter. The diploma would be confined to a drawer and my Bachelors of Science in Engineering would take center stage. C’s get degrees, and so would I. There was no motivation to be perfect, to strive for excellence when the guys from MIT would get paid by future employers the same as me. I was a bit bitter, nothing time and distance couldn’t cure.
Just when I started to gain weight and lift my spirits disaster struck again. The guy of my dreams, and best dating prospect, killed any chance of a steamy summer romance out of the blue, citing sibling loyalty. One of my early admission friends had dumped the dude’s sister rather than cut ties with me, as requested. 🤯😳😫 My new frenemy rebounded fast but the damage was done. There wasn’t enough time to tap in an alternate, and I couldn’t deny myself the pleasure of rocking the custom tailored lilac mermaid dress I had just dropped off at the cleaners. “A mal tiempo, buena cara.” Attending the biggest social even of our lives was more important that nursing my wounded ego.
I still sigh when recalling the long nights on Microsoft Messenger with the dark haired, blue eyed, 5’10”, handsome and poetic college sophomore. His declarations of lust and sweet embrace fresh on my mind as I got ready for the party. We had been crushing on each other for years before taking the plunge. It had taken me weeks to get over the sad realization that we’d never make out under the romantic haze of a full moon as planned. Our paths were diverging and couldn’t be put on hold to pursue each other. The pitty party would have to wait until after prom.
Frankly, my wounded heart wasn’t expecting to run headfirst into “another one that got away” on the dance floor. Before I got my hopes up, I scanned the room to confirm my suspicions – he was roped in by his parents to chaperone his sister and her BFF, the recently crowned Salutatorian, who refered to herself as his date. 🤦♀️ The possibility he’d be attending with or without me had slipped my mind. The wretched encounter broke me in ways I cannot yet accurately describe. Romeo failed to muster the courage to escape with Juliet through the hotel’s back doors, straight into the Caribbean sea. So much for happy endings…
I spun around and grabbed a contraband bottle of alcohol out of the well manicured hands of a punk rock goddess and took a swig on my way out of the ballroom. F@%k, was I unlucky! What good was all this academic success and normal teenage years nonsense the adults peddled if I couldn’t get laid, much less find love! 😑Clichés aside, the reality was my friends were on their third dip in the dating pool, putting laps on me! How was I not winning at this too? The rest of the night was a blurr, existential rage barring me from having a good time. Around midnight, my starving homies tracked me down to do a quick run to the 24hr Burger King a few blocks away. I crammed my frenimies in the back seat, in between my bosom buddies. I dropped them off and stepped on the gas. The afterparty awaits!
Screw you guys, I’m going home!Eric Cartman, South Park
There was one last hope for redemption left: graduation. I’m glad to report it went over without a hitch! NOT! (Psych!) Five minutes into the ceremony I fell and almost broke my neck carrying the class colors. Blame a gown hemline malfunction. The gasps of surprise from the crown as I stumbled and hit the cold marble of the church was epic! My unrequited crush’s face was priceless. I wish I had a video to gif all of it. My mom couldn’t help to chuckle as I dusted myself up and elegantly covered up a second slip as she asked me if I was okay. I stuck my tongue out at her in jest, which she reciprocated. She knew I didn’t want to be there, and had dragged me to the commencement kicking and screaming. “This day is more for me, your mother, than it is for you. You are not going to miss it. End of story.”
Can’t blame the Colonel for forcing my hand. As the proud parent of the “Queen of the Nerds” she knew I had negotiated a secret, last minute trade with the principal in which she yielded her speech slot to me if I allowed her to co-declare my classmates graduates. Why, you ask? During the rehersals, she had asked me to write a Valedictorian essay just to see what I would have said. My words had moved her to tears! Earlier in the week she had offered me the Salutatorian spot, a co-Valedictorian tandem speech, and a suspension for insubordination when I disrespectfully declined both options. The draft cohesively explained why I was so frustrated with the adults in the room. All we wanted was what we had earned, what was rightfully ours, with a hefty serving of dignity and respect. The artifice worked like a charm! My name was added to the list of speakers and very few people were made aware of the changes. I got my grand gesture.
Not today, Satan.
Up on the podium, tightly gripping the lectern, I stared down at the crowd with love. The ordeal was finally over. Phew! The audience lauged at my jokes and appreciated my candor as I related that adversity was necessary, surmountable; a predecesor of innovation and by product of change. I encouraged them to be resilient, to favor an uncertain yet hopeful future over a comfortable easy road; to believe in second chances. I reminded them that grades and accolades don’t feed the soul, and are worthless in the grand scheme of things if we don’t have people to share our joy with. I urged them to love themselves, their kids, and to prioritize the right values; to be grateful for every moment shared and every lesson learned. I dared them to color outside the lines; to give credit where credit is due – at work, in school and everywhere else in between.
The rest will take care of itself…
After graduation, a couple of the PTA members apologized for having failed me, and gave the principal kudos for pull off the speech heist while indiscriminately respecting their ruling. No other student before had been allowed to graduate their classmates, and not everyone was happy about it. All the players lived and got over it, eventually. The rest of my life would center around finding the win-win in every situation – my holy grail – impossible to secure without collaboration and trust. If there was a better way to approach a solution, I’d find it, or die tryin’. That senior year taught me that not all students were treated with equity and equality, a preview of social injustice, and of the agendas adults carried arround in their pack pockets. I’m glad the rule book ensured it wouldn’t happen to anyone else, ever again. Leading by example is not as glamorous as it sounds.
Hindsight is 20/20. I don’t regret a moment of the chaos of my 12th and last grade but I could have done without it. My husband enjoys listening to my tall tales, enthralled by the incredible crossroads I encountered along the way. Life is about the journey, not the destination. I wouldn’t be the same empathetic, kind, self-confident individual my counterparts grew to love. I stay in touch with most of my mates, observing from a distance how their lives evolved to include children, multiple partners, and fulfilling career paths. I hope they know we were instrumental in raising each other, providing a safe space and net from which to plunge into success. I can’t stress enough how much they mean to me, and how ecstatic I am of still being considered a friend.
Better times are always ahead when you are in the presence of stellar company…