The rejection notice feels cold and heavy in my hands.
I sit in a chair outside Ms. Bates’ office—Ms. Bates, the counselor and school newspaper editor. You wouldn’t find a single comma out of place in those sports articles. So, in a way, I already know why I’m here. You did this to yourself, didn’t you?
Once the tick of the analog clock has faded to white noise, the wooden door swings open, and Ms. Bates beckons me inside. I wipe my palms on my jeans as I sit in the plastic chair; Ms. Bates has a swivel chair, a testament to her superiority. The door clicks shut.
Ms. Bates is a short, brown-haired woman; it is easy to imagine her with two kids in college, maybe a boy and a girl, and their university stickers are definitely slapped on the bumper of her Subaru. Not that I’ve ever seen her car. She gives me one of those smiles so often found in educators who are convinced they can change kid’s lives, but there’s a bit of quinoa still stuck behind her incisor.
“Jess, how you’ve been? Thanks for coming in today,” she says with the same stale sweetness as the lollipops in the glass bowl beside her nameplate.
“Mhmm,” I say, because my heart’s already beating fast.
Ms. Bates must have sensed my anxiety or seen the way I fiddle with the paper in my hand, because she sits down gently as if the two of us were on a teeter-totter. “Don’t worry, honey, you’re not in trouble,” she tells me. “I just happened to see something I wanted to talk to you about. You know how I’m in charge of the school newspaper, right?”
“Yeah. It’s really good,” I say lamely. It’s actually pretty bad.
I feel that prickling sting behind the lids that renders it difficult to sustain eye contact. When Ms. Bates opens up her desk drawer, my will flies faster than the weird kids who sprint to the cafeteria, and I finally break. My gaze shifts to the lollipops and their vibrant cellophane wrappers.
“Well, honey,” Ms. Bates continues, “I read all the submissions the students send to the newspaper, and that includes the little writing contest we held last quarter. I read the entry you submitted. You like to write?”
Ms. Bates is not the baseball coach, so I truly wonder why she throws me curveballs instead of getting on with it. But I smile despite the little squirrel that’s squirming around in my stomach, and my fingers fold the corner of the rejection notice. “I guess,” I say. “Just for fun.”
“It’s always good to have a hobby. An outlet.” Ms. Bates sagely nods behind the rims of the glasses she bought at Costco. “But when I was looking at your writing, I saw some things that concerned me.”
“Oh.” I glance down at the rejection slip, at the note that asked me to come see Ms. Bates Thursday during lunch. I had expected this to happen before I had even received it—I had expected this to happen as soon as I turned in that stupid story. But the part of me with pencil shavings for a spine still wants to tell her that I really am a good kid, that there is nothing strange going on, and there is no need to worry. I keep my mouth shut with an effort.
At last, Ms. Bates withdraws the papers from her open desk drawer and sets them between us gingerly, like the ink is gunpowder. “I want to talk with you about this,” she said, “not to punish you, but just to understand.” She’s going for the motherly warmth of a cozy hearth, but it feels more like the frying circuits of an overheated computer.
I stare at the papers and the sloppy staple holding them together. I had wanted to get the staple at a perfect forty-five-degree angle, but, as usual, things hadn’t worked out the way I wanted.
Ms. Bates clears her throat and speaks to fill my silence. “Let’s see here.” She looks at the typing slathered across the pages but doesn’t actually read it. “Your story was about… pirates? In… space?”
“Mhmm. They go on an adventure.”
“An adventure.” I notice a slight raise of a penciled-in eyebrow. “With all kinds of action, I noticed. A swordfight. And the ending…”
“What is it?” I lean forward, eager to get this over with, but I can feel those pencil shavings at the same time, coalescing into a hard ball of lead. I am determined not to give in.
“Well, it’s happy.” Ms. Bates puts her thumb beneath her chin and an index finger over her lips, her features furrowed. “Your characters, they win the big battle. They end up friends, and all of them are alive. Do you see how a counselor like me would be worried about this?”
I shrug and shift lowered eyes to my name printed on the incriminating evidence. “I guess so. Doesn’t mean anything, though. It was just an idea I had.”
“I don’t think so, Jess. To me, this sounds like a cry for help.” She reaches out her hand as if to pat mine but stops just short for dramatic effect. “I’ve seen many teenagers call out to me through their writing like this. And as someone who cares about you, I don’t want to ignore the warning signs.”
“But there’s nothing wrong with me, really. Just what’s so off about it in the first place?” I demand, surprised at my own boldness. “What is so horrible about stories and fantasies?”
“It’s just not… It’s just not sad enough.” Ms. Bates sighs, but I think she’s excited to have a hard case to crack. I can tell she’s secretly impressed with how artfully she extends her sympathy. “The other kids, you know, didn’t write this kind of stuff,” she says. “Sarah Williams wrote about high school heartbreak. Casey Johnson wrote about his abusive father. That’s the kind of thing teens are supposed to write about. Those are the kinds of submissions the newspaper likes to receive.”
“And you aren’t concerned about them?”
“Of course not!” An impatient grin pulls at the woman’s thin lips. “Kids are always filling up their pages with angst and darkness. That’s what makes it art, isn’t it? That’s what makes it good!”
Ms. Bates waits expectantly for my enthusiastic reply, but I just cross my arms and stare at a stain in the floor carpeting. I was already familiar with this fact; I had read the newspaper countless times and marveled at how eloquently ninth-graders had described their depression in tear-smeared letters. Some pieces were even written entirely without capitalization—a real showstopper.
But I didn’t understand—still don’t understand—why suffering makes something more meaningful. Why despair makes something better written. The stubborn child inside of me, the one who appreciates a positive emotion every now and then, refuses to nod along with Ms. Bates. I can feel our teeter-totter rocking back and forth.
Still she is determined to convince me. “You are a good writer,” Ms. Bates tells me, fishing for all the best movie lines she could remember, “but you could be a great one. There’s just something missing, and it alarmed me, that’s all. Usually I’ll see at least one mention of a coffee shop to symbolize tortured artistry and loneliness or maybe some nostalgic flashbacks in italics. But I couldn’t find any second person in your piece, and that sent up a big red flag.”
“I was just trying to be unique,” I say, nearing exasperation. “Kayla Dawson has published a sob-inducing little memoir about her eating disorder in the past five issues. I thought maybe happy could be new or interesting or powerful or—”
“But happy isn’t deep.” Ms. Bates shakes her head. She leans back in her swivel chair and laces her fingers like a therapist closing in on the eureka moment. “People always like some good oppression. The stories of all the emotionally damaged and internally conflicted children are just so important. Their voices deserve to be heard—or do you disagree?”
I realize that Ms. Bates is on the offensive now, and I have leapt right into the sugar-sticky mousetrap of that deceptively welcoming lollipop bowl. “No, I—” I shake my head vehemently, because God forbid I find those such-important stories too dramatic, too flowery, or too unoriginal. Those kids have already been through enough as it is. Could I dare disagree with stricken lamentations?
“Jess, I know the advertisement asked for short stories,” Ms. Bates continues, eyes gleaming now that the kill is near, “but that doesn’t mean fun little adventures anymore. At your age, excitement is shallow, and innocence is privilege, and standard narrative structure is just so naïve. Can’t you think back on anything that made you cry or gave you trauma? Any racial or religious persecution? Not even a broken friendship? Because that’s what impresses people—it makes you sound so very intellectual.”
The fervor in her voice and the almost-wicked shine to her eyes warps Ms. Bates to resemble a rabid animal, if only for a second. In that moment, however, I feel a cold kind of dread that presses its clammy hand around me until I shrink into myself. Her words don’t make sense to me, but a persistent thought, a hopeless desperation, prods the back of my mind. You want to get published in the newspaper, don’t you?
“It’s just that everybody’s trying to make themselves seem different in the same exact way,” I protest meekly.
Ms. Bates gives me playful, narrowed eyes; she knows she’s already won. In the end, I am no match for her and her swivel chair. She might say this only goes to show that satisfying conclusions are the least interesting.
“I’ll tell you what,” she says, tapping a finger to my sorry excuse for prose. “I can see you’re coming around, and I know you have real potential. We’ll try an exercise to fix your mindset. I want you to give a second try at this submission, and maybe this time you’ll see things in a new light.”
I think about my name on the rejection notice, and then I mentally transfer it to the contributors’ segment of the school newspaper. My words printed on pages other people will read, even if the words are slathered so thick with emotion you can’t quite see the point underneath the shiny surface. I bounce my head lightly and offer a small smile without showing my teeth. I get off the teeter-totter and out of my chair, but I leave my story behind.
A day later, I sit with my notebook in my lap and chew on my pencil eraser, but instead of drawing doodles and constructing plot outlines, I close my eyes and pretend I’m a space pirate. Except I haven’t won the grand battle; the enemy’s cannons were just too loud, and their swords were just too sharp. I imagine that all my friends have been killed, all my treasure stolen, and all my hope extinguished—maybe that I even lost an eye, so I have to wear an eyepatch now.
Then I write about how sad and lonely I am, taking care to use second person when I’m actually referring to myself, and including one-word paragraphs to showcase true flashes of genius. I throw a skull in there for a real edgy metaphor. When I’m done, I think I feel better. Like a real writer.
Still, the acceptance notice feels cold and heavy in my hands.
Danielle Sherman is a sophomore in high school who wants to pursue a career in writing and editing. She is currently a First Reader for Polyphony Lit and has been published in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards’ past anthologies. Aside from writing, she loves soccer, art, and her local library.