Detention Essay #6
Mrs. Conway

 

My Personal Philosophy of Talent
by
Cassie Howard

 

I have this theory that everybody has a talent. Rich, poor, clueless—it doesn’t matter. I honestly believe that every human being on earth is born with one special gift. The problem is, not all talents are created equal.

People think that talent means you sing, or dance, or act. But those are the glory talents, the ones that everyone wants, and for every diva out there, about a million other people are walking around with one of the lesser talents, the kind that don’t get their own videos.

This guy I know, Fitz, his talent is always choosing the longest line—not the one that looks the longest, the one that takes the longest. There can be twenty people in one line and two in the other, and if Fitz gets in the two-person line, that’s all it’s going to take. Say he’s at the store—the cash register will break. When they finally get it running again, the person first in line will want to use about five hundred coupons. Then the next guy will try to write a check with no ID and the cashier will call the manager but no one will be able to find him because he’s on a break and . . . you get the idea. Fitz’s is definitely not the kind of talent you’d love to have, but maybe it will come in handy if he ever has to choose a line for something bad. Like a firing squad.

This other guy I know—actually, we used to kind of go out, but that’s another story—his talent is finding parking. There’s no place too popular, no lot too crowded. Quentin parks in front at school, at the beach, at the movies. If the hottest band in the country were playing a free concert somewhere with only a hundred spaces, Quentin would get there ten minutes before the group went on and still get a place right in front. His theory is that other people don’t believe there will be a good space left, so they don’t look. Mine is that parking is that guy’s gift.

Which brings us to me, I guess. I have a talent too, and it’s definitely not of the glory variety. My talent is coming in second.

I am the Queen of Second Place, the poster child for close-but-not-close-enough. And I’m not saying that to make you feel sorry for me—although, you know . . . feel free, if it helps. I swear it’s completely true.

I have a drawer full of second-place ribbons—for the science fair, for youth soccer, for a three-legged race I entered at camp. And unfortunately, my deal doesn’t end with contests. I take second place in everything, in every little aspect of life.

In eighth grade I had hair past my waist—so long I could practically sit on it. It would have been the longest hair in school, except that Amber Brooks could sit on hers. So last year I cut it, and I mean really cut it. The stylist only left these spiky little tufts. The first day I went to school like that, Kirsten Kirk came in with a buzz cut. You could see the girl’s scalp. And in case you don’t think hair’s such a good example, believe me, I’ve got others. It’s just that some of them get pretty personal, and anyway the bell is going to ring . . . right . . . now!

 

Welcome to My Nightmare

Hayley was waiting for me when I got out of detention. I had writer’s cramp from my middle finger to my elbow and I’d been concentrating so hard I felt like I’d been breathing underwater, but I still couldn’t wait to tell her what I’d been up to.

“Get this!” I said. “I had to write an essay about talent!”

“You’re kidding me.” Hayley shook her head, her scores of tight bouncy ringlets barely brushing her shoulders. We were both going through kind of a tufty thing last year—the difference is, her hair looks good now. “You didn’t give Conway the theory?”

“Of course. What else?”

Hayley knows the theory. In fact, she’s intimately familiar with it, since she’s been my best friend, like, forever. And in case you’re wondering, Hayley’s talent is whistling. Again, not in the glory category, but I’ve at least seen whistling in videos. Luckily for Hayley, she’s so smart she’ll never have to rely on talent. The girl gets solid A’s. I get mostly—you guessed it—B’s.

“That ought to be good for another ten weeks of detention,” she said.

“What? Oh! I didn’t tell Conway her talent. I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid.”

“You’re not dumb, either,” Hayley told me loyally.

You can see why I love her, but getting detention was pretty dumb. Even if it wasn’t my fault. Exactly. Even if the forces that conspired against me were so far beyond my control that I was practically their sock puppet. Even if it ought to be someone else sitting in that absurdly hard chair every afternoon writing Conway’s essays instead of me.

Because I have excuses, believe me. I could make any sane person—which obviously excludes Conway—see my side in less than five minutes.

You know, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not dumb for getting detention.

I’m dumb because I’d do it again.

 

Oops. Backing Up Now.

You know what I just realized? You don’t have the first clue what I’m talking about. I mean, hopefully you’ve deduced that Hayley is the perfect friend while Mrs. Conway takes all the fun out of being a sophomore, but you still don’t know what happened. You can’t begin to comprehend how the fabric of my previously ordinary life has unraveled to the point that I’m dodging around school wearing sunglasses and a ski cap, counting the days until graduation lets me sink into oblivion. Unfortunately, there are seven months, a summer, and two whole school years left before that happens.

But I digress. I still haven’t even mentioned Fourteen-Karat Carter. Probably because even thinking about that phony, scheming soc makes me want to hurl. If there were any way to leave her out of this story, you’d better believe I’d take it. Seriously, I’d pay to take it. Maybe it’s true that we don’t always get to pick our friends, but we never pick our enemies. They just kind of find us somehow.

Fourteen-Karat Carter found me in the lunch line the fall of our freshman year.

“Geez la-weez,” she announced from behind me, in the loudest possible voice. “They ought to make people get a license before they sell them Sun-In.”

My hair was still long then, and the sad truth is I had gotten carried away with Sun-In over the summer. Anyone with truly red hair should be automatically forgiven for anything they do to it anyway, but the roots I had going by October were seriously noticeable. The strawberry blond I’d been trying for had come out brassy orange, and my new growth looked almost brown in comparison. My mom wouldn’t take me to a salon to have it fixed because she’d told me not to mess with my hair in the first place, and being a lawyer and all, she’s big on crime and punishment. My friends said it didn’t look that bad.

Fourteen-Karat Carter said, “You take carrottop a whole new place.”

Then she tossed her perfect blond mane, rolled her blue eyes, and cut right in front of me, her short, preppy skirt twitching across her perfect behind. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open, completely without a comeback. I didn’t even know who she was yet, but that was the moment I knew I hated her and that I’d hate her the rest of my life.

“Who is that?” I whispered to Hayley. “And how can we kill her with no one finding out?”

“Sterling Carter,” Hayley whispered back. “She’s in my Spanish One class, and so far all the guys have learned how to say is sí, señorita and muy caliente.”

“You’re telling me someone would miss her, then.”

“Afraid so.”

I just stood there, grinding a clog into that rock-hard cafeteria linoleum and staring daggers at the back of Miss Perfect’s Izod shirt. By then she had walked too far off to hear us, but she cast one last condescending look my way, tossing her hair as if the guy behind the cash register were filming a shampoo commercial.

“Sterling!” I spat. “What kind of name is that, anyway?”

Hayley shrugged. “You have to admit it fits her.”

Which, being true, irked me even more. I mean, what kind of person gets named for a precious metal and actually carries it off?

“More like Fourteen-Karat,” I grumbled. “At least, that’s what she thinks.”

“Oh, she thinks she’s all of fourteen,” Hayley agreed, laughing. “Just ignore her. The girl’s a soc.”

Which was practically a compliment compared to the things we call her now. Fourteen-Karat Carter is the most phony, scheming uberwitch in the history of Hilltop High School. If Mrs. Conway weren’t currently hogging all my free time, I’d send the girl’s picture to Webster’s, in case they need an illustration for psychopath in their next edition. Or, for that matter, one for soc.

Maybe you don’t have socs at your school—which is to say you probably do but you might call them something else. Snobs, preps, enormous pains in the butt. . . a soc (pronounced sōsh) is all those things and more. The word is short for social, as in socially elite and not afraid to let you know it. As in diamond-dripping debutante and future socialite. As in cross her and she’ll ruin your social life for the next four years. Are you with me now? You do have socs, right?

Anyway, that’s the story on Fourteen-Karat and all the good and legitimate reasons I hate her. Or actually, I’ve barely scratched the surface, but you get the idea. The thing is, I have to hurry home now, before my mom finds out I’m not there yet and the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan.

 

Okay. New Plan.

This whole in medias res approach might have worked for the Greek poets, but it’s confusing the heck out of me. Not that it can be helped, since you showed up right in the middle of things. It’s just that I can’t remember what you already know and what I haven’t told you yet. I’m pretty sure I haven’t even mentioned Kevin, and he’s the most important part of this entire story.

You know what? I’m going to skip right to him—to when I first saw him, I mean—because even though I could fill a book with all the ways I loathe Fourteen-Karat (not to mention all the stuck-up, petty things she did while we were freshmen), things didn’t get really ugly between us until this year, until Kevin Matthews transferred to Hilltop High and stepped into Mrs. Conway’s otherwise relentlessly heinous sophomore honors English class.

Okay, you know what again? I’m going to cover that momentous day in really complete detail, but before we move on, you deserve at least five good reasons why Fourteen-Karat Carter shouldn’t be popular, believed, or even tolerated:

  1. Because never, not once in her entire life, has she ever had a zit, stubbly legs, or a close encounter with Sun-In.
  2. Because being better-looking than I am does not give her the right to move in on a guy I so clearly claimed first.
  3. Because Jeannie Patrick said that F.K. called me pushy, desperate, and completely without shame. Which is a joke, because everyone knows how Carter gets her boyfriends. Four already this year. If I were counting.
  4. Worse, Hayley heard F.K. tell Quentin she pitied him for ever being seen with me and that he ought to aim higher next time if he doesn’t want the whole school to think he’s a loser. Who’s desperate now? It’s so obvious what she’s up to. Not that I care. But still. Poor Quentin’s so clueless he didn’t even realize he was only her backup plan.
  5. Are we up to #5 already? Because I could go longer, believe me. All right, then: I happen to know for a fact that F.K. cuts the tags out of her clothes so no one will find out she’s not really the size four she claims.

Whew! I feel better. Now back to Kevin.

 

In the Beginning . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 9:16 a.m.

I’m not normally an obsessive person—not very obsessive, anyway—but I’m positive that’s the exact day and time I first laid eyes on Kevin Matthews. I know this because I wrote it on the cover of my blue notebook and it’s been there ever since. It’s almost as if I guessed how important this moment would turn out to be, as if my entire future flashed in front of my grammar-glazed eyes.

Anyway, the classroom door flew open and Kevin walked in a few paces behind Principal Ito, who went straight up to Conway and started whispering with this intense look on his face. The thing is, Ito always looks like the world is counting down to nuclear war. No one pays attention anymore. Besides, suddenly there was something much better to pay attention to.

“Oh. My. God,” Cyn Martin whispered, leaning across the aisle between her desk and mine. “Is it hot in here, or is it him?”

“Shhh!” I whispered back. “You’re talking about the man I’m going to marry.”

We both laughed, clapping hands over our mouths when Conway broke off her summit with Ito long enough to shoot us a dirty look.

But even though I was laughing, I was completely serious. I mean, not about marrying him. Probably. But I knew. Somehow I just knew that Kevin was the guy I’d been waiting for, the one who was going to make everything right. If he wasn’t, why did my heart leap around in my chest until my blood felt carbonated? I could tell my cheeks were purple too—another special bonus of being born redheaded. When Hayley blushes, her brown skin glows like she’s wearing makeup. I blush so hard I turn splotchy. Life is not fair. Which is kind of my point, but I’m getting off track again.

Anyway, Conway and Ito were yakking on, and Kevin was just standing there, looking like he wished he were anyplace else—which is pretty standard in Conway’s class. He kept shifting his weight from one scuffed Adidas to the other, his hands stuffed so far into his pockets that the hem of his blue T-shirt hovered an inch above the waistband of his jeans. And not that I was staring (much), but his abs were incredibly tan—something we appreciate here in California—and a line of curly brown hair ran straight down from his navel. The hair on his head was brown too, which I probably should have mentioned first, and all spiked through with the kind of highlights that suggest a long, close acquaintance with salt water.

What else? Straight brows, high cheekbones, chiseled jaw, and a completely perfect nose. I couldn’t see his eyes then, but I can tell you now they’re green. Sea green. Picture Michelle Pfeiffer as a totally hot teenage guy.

Unless that seems weird. In which case, don’t.

Eventually Principal Ito left and Conway turned to address us: “Class, this is Kevin Matthews. He just transferred here from Orange County and I hope you’ll make him feel welcome.”

A little more detail would definitely have been appreciated. For instance, where in Orange County? People act like that place is a dot on the map, but it’s the size of a small country. Why did Kevin’s family move? What did he think of Hilltop? And, most importantly, did he have a girlfriend back home?

But that’s all we were getting. Her introduction complete, Conway pointed Kevin toward two adjacent vacant desks at the back of the room. He started walking, dragging his feet like he already suspected the horrors her class had in store. For me, on the other hand, sophomore honors English had suddenly developed the potential to become a truly rewarding learning experience.

I’ll make him feel welcome, I thought, cranking up my smile as he walked past. I’ll make him feel very welcome.

 

(Love at First Sight)2

I could barely wait to find Hayley at lunchtime and tell her that I was in love. Truly, deeply in love. And in case you don’t think it’s possible to meet a guy at 9:16 and be so head over heels you’re in pain by 11:50, just wait. It’ll probably happen to you someday.

Not that I’d technically met Kevin yet, but if I’d moved my knee I could have bumped it into his when he walked past my desk. You have to admit that simply smiling at him was a lot more mature. I should probably confess that I might also have tossed my hair, but that was a reflex or something. He noticed me, too, because he smiled back.

Did I mention? Perfect teeth.

Anyway, somehow I survived third-period algebra and the massive yawn known as Western civ, and the minute the lunch bell rang I ran off to find Hayley.

She was waiting at our new favorite place on the edge of the quad. Now that we’re sophomores, we never eat in the cafeteria unless it’s raining. Anyone who’s remotely cool either brings a lunch or goes off campus. The school board actually figured this out, so in order to keep the lunch ladies busy, they built two grab-and-go kiosks outside in the quad to sell the school’s version of fast food. We usually buy diet sodas there, and sometimes pizza or these killer fresh-baked cookies.

I ran up and yanked Hayley’s arm so hard I practically pulled her over. “You aren’t going to believe this!” I cried.

“If this is about you marrying Kevin Matthews, I already know the whole story,” she said with a smug little grin.

My jaw dropped. Hayley’s a good friend, but she’s not clairvoyant. I mean, not as far as I know.

“How . . . how . . . ?”

“Cyn Martin’s in my fourth-period Spanish class, remember? She went on about the guy for fifteen minutes. In Spanish.” Hayley’s eyes got a faraway look. “Which was kind of impressive, I have to admit.”

“In front of the whole class?”

“Señora Gomez is so desperate to get us to speak in whole sentences now, she doesn’t much care what the topic is. She made the mistake of asking Fourteen-Karat who the most handsome celebrity is and F.K. said Brad Pitt. So then Cyn broke in and said this guy who showed up in her English class this morning could be Brad’s younger brother. Fourteen-Karat said mucha duda and they got into this whole feature-by-feature comparison thing. He sounds pretty cute. Kevin does, I mean.”

In front of the whole class?” My voice had gone up an octave, but that’s what happens when I can’t breathe.

“Geez, calm down—you’re turning purple, Cass. We had discussion groups today. It was just me, Cyn, Fourteen-Karat, and Ellie Marx.”

My heart started beating again, but I still wasn’t positive I wanted it to.

“I was only kidding about marrying him,” I said.

“I know that. Why are you getting so—” Understanding dawned in Hayley’s brown eyes. “Oh! You think Cyn told everyone about you lusting after Kevin? Relax. She only told that part to me.”

“It’s not lust,” I protested, but that was just a reflex. I was so relieved I didn’t care what she called it.

“No, I’m sure it’s the purest love,” Hayley teased. “It must be, if you’re planning to marry the guy.”

“Well, first I’ll date him. Then we’ll have a long engagement while he saves up for a big rock from Tiffany’s.”

We both laughed, but the weird part was that I sounded confident. Which was ridiculous, because when it comes to my record with guys, there was absolutely no reason to think this time would be any different.

You know what the Queen of Second Place gets when it comes to boyfriends?

I’ll give you a hint: Boy+friend. Which part comes second?

Remember Quentin, that guy I mentioned before? We dated freshman year. Okay, “dated” might be overstating things. We hung out. A lot. Sometimes at night. At the movies. Or over pizza. I had his phone number memorized, his name doodled all over the inside of my notebooks, and his picture hidden under the books in my locker, just waiting to be taped up inside the door the moment we made it official.

Then one night we’re at a basketball game against Simi Valley and practically the whole school is in our gym. I’m thinking we’re really putting ourselves out there for everyone to see and this time he’s for sure going to kiss me when we say good night. Finally our team wins and everyone is screaming and hugging each other, celebrating the victory. Quentin wraps his arms around me, and do you know what he says?

“It’s so much fun doing stuff with you. I never thought I’d have such a good girl friend.”

You heard me: Girl. Friend.

So of course I said what a great boy friend he was. And the next day I dug his picture out of my locker and ripped it into confetti. Which made me feel better for about two seconds, and then I felt even worse.

It’s okay now, though. I’m pretty much over him. And Will Malone from eighth grade. And Jeffrey Avila from sixth. Hayley and I don’t even mention my humiliating crush of last summer, so I’m sure not going to spell it out for you. Let’s just say that when He Who Shall Remain Nameless moved to Florida this fall, it was the biggest relief of my life. I mean, now I probably made it sound sexual or something, which is so far from what happened it’s ridiculous. Forget about second place—the queen didn’t get to second base on that one.

Anyway, there I was in the quad with Hayley, sounding inexplicably confident, and who do you supposed walked right in front of us on his way into the cafeteria? Kevin—who can totally be forgiven for eating in the caf because a guy can’t be expected to figure out everything on his first day.

“There he is! There!” I whispered to Hayley, trying to point with only one pinky. “He’s wearing a blue T-shirt.”

Hayley’s brows leapt when her eyes found him, suggesting that up until then she hadn’t completely bought the whole Brad-Pitt’s-brother thing.

“Wow. What’s his talent?” she asked.

I smiled. “Still under scrutiny. I suspect that it’s being ridiculously photogenic.”

“That’s a talent?”

“Models think so.”

“Yeah, why do models get so much credit for looking good, anyway?” she asked. “It’s not like they did anything to deserve it—it’s simply an accident of birth.”

Hayley says she understands the theory, but sometimes I have to wonder.

“That’s what talent is,” I said as Kevin disappeared. “In fact, that’s kind of its definition. Come on, let’s eat in the cafeteria.”

“In the cafeteria? You are in love,” she said, shaking her head. “Not to rain on your parade, but what do you actually know about this guy? Besides how his jeans fit, I mean.”

And that’s when I made my first big mistake.

“I know he’s going to take me to the Snow Ball,” I said, naming our school’s annual winter formal.

“In your dreams!” the world’s most obnoxious, sociest voice said behind me. “Like he’d ever go out with you!

I turned to find myself face to face with Fourteen-Karat. I hadn’t even heard her walk up.

“Why don’t you mind your own business?” I said. As you can see, my retorts remain sterling when it comes to F.K. “I suppose you think he’ll take you.”

My second mistake, and this one was huge. The moment those words came out of my mouth, I knew just how big I’d messed up. It was as if Fourteen-Karat and I were musketeers and I’d just whacked her across the chops with my glove.

F.K. sucked in her breath. Her eyes went all squinty. And then this really creepy smile curled the corners of her mouth.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly what I think.”

 

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