Chapter One: Hayley ONE HAYLEY
If you’re going to have an emotional breakdown and stop your car in the middle of a busy intersection, let me suggest the main entrance of Groveland High School. It’s wide, there’s plenty of sunlight, and it’s also Arby’s-adjacent just in case you want to grab some curly fries after the police show up and pull you from your vehicle. You’ll want to remember to dress appropriately, because several of your classmates will be filming the entire ordeal on their phones. Maybe wear something simple like jeans and a T-shirt but also have on a Batman Halloween mask, as if to say, “Sure, I’m crazy, but I’m the fun kind of crazy!” Or maybe wear a long flowing gown and wet your hair like Ophelia à la Hamlet, act four. That’s Shakespearean crazy, arguably the classiest form of crazy. If you’re hoping to use this moment to make some kind of statement, I suggest investing in a bullhorn or at least a poster board with large, legible writing. Because despite your other numerous accomplishments, this is what you’ll be remembered for during your time in high school.
Sadly, it’s too late for me to take my own advice. But even if I could go back in time and make these adjustments, I doubt it would keep me from ending up here—the school conference room with my parents and me on one side of the table and Principal Wexler and Mr. Keith on the other. Meetings like this are never good. Your school administration will never call you in two days before the start of your senior year to tell you how well you’re doing and how thrilled they are to have you as a member of the student body. No, meetings like this start with “We’re all here because we want what’s best for Hayley, and we want to set her up for a successful school year.” It sounds like they’re doing me a favor, but the tension in the room and the forced smiles make it clear this is no happy occasion. People who are already doing well in life don’t need a little committee to “figure out what we can do to get you to really thrive this year.” In this case, “really thrive” means “please don’t lose your mind again.”
“You’ve certainly accomplished a lot during your three years here, Hayley,” Principal Wexler says, looking down at what appears to be my transcript. Wexler is an intimidating figure. He has the broad chest of a retired football player, and he wears his green Groveland polo like a mob boss wears a finely tailored Italian suit. My ears start buzzing as he speaks, knowing already we’re headed nowhere good. It’s like our wasp mascot has escaped the stitching on his shirt and is now circling me, vigilantly watching for the best opportunity to sting. Wexler lifts his thick black reading glasses to his face to look over my file. “Your grades are impeccable. You’re active in multiple clubs, and I understand you’re quite the asset on our tennis team.”
These are the words I always imagined coming from an admissions officer at a reputable college with a distinguished premed program. They should be paired with a handshake congratulating me on admission and a good scholarship offer and then followed by a trip to the campus bookstore where I triumphantly hand over too much money for an overpriced sweatshirt with UNC or Cornell or maybe Northwestern stitched across the chest. Oh this? It’s my Cornell sweatshirt. Yeah, I’m going to Cornell. No big deal. Bill Nye, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Toni Morrison went there too, but whatever. It’s chill.
This is not that conversation at all. The only thing that’s about to follow these words now is a “but.”
“However,” Principal Wexler continues (“however” is just a fancier “but”), “we are concerned that you’ve inadvertently overpacked your schedule. We’d like you to scale things back a bit this year.”
And there’s the sting.
A nervousness tugs at my gut, pulling my stomach down like I’m at the front of a roller coaster peering over the edge of the first big drop, which makes sense because this conversation is only going straight down from here.
I didn’t overpack my schedule. I selected my classes the same way I’ve been doing since my freshman year, carefully choosing the courses that will look best on my transcript and building an unblemished record that will land me a spot at a prestigious college, where I’ll earn a diploma that can be matted and framed and hung with pride like Mom’s and Dad’s in the den. I’m on Groveland’s Accelerated Track, which means I take advanced science and math courses every year, but these days being smart isn’t enough to land a spot at a reputable college. Schools want well-rounded students; you can’t just have a singular interest. So during the summer after ninth grade, I begged my parents to let me go to tennis camp because what admissions officer doesn’t love a student athlete with a murderous backswing who also has a knack for writing killer term papers? I wore myself out learning the game. My best friend, Lucy, got tired of playing with me. Exhausted, she would just lie down on the court, and I would practice driving shots into the corner of the service boxes until the park’s stadium lights would cut off at midnight.
I want to handle this conversation in a calm, mature way, but when I ask, “What exactly does ‘scale things back’ mean?” there’s clearly an edge of annoyance in my voice. But how can I not be annoyed? I’ve been making all the best choices for three years, and now, just before what should be the culmination of my high school career, they’re changing the rules of the game.
Mom shifts in her seat beside me, unbuttoning her blazer and releasing a small sigh. It’s so humiliating that she and Dad are both getting a front-row view of what is gearing up to be one of the most unpleasant discussions of my life. I’ve been sandwiched between them for multiple parent-teacher conferences, conversations where all I had to do was sit there and smile as my teachers piled on the compliments. Mom would smile, and Dad would scratch the back of my neck in a way that was somehow embarrassing and wonderful at the same time. Now I don’t know what’s going to happen; we’re in uncharted territory.
“Extracurriculars are important,” Mr. Keith jumps in, “but these activities should be enjoyable. They should energize you. If they’re draining or becoming a burden, you should step back and reevaluate.” I bite hard into my lower lip to keep from lashing out as my irritation spreads, building like static over my skin.
Mr. Keith is my school-assigned guidance counselor, and he’s basically what happens when a hippie decides they’d also like a 401(k). Keith is his first name, but he insists we call him Mr. Keith because it’s just so cool and youthful, isn’t it? He’s always wearing sport coats over T-shirts emblazoned with cheesy graphics and only stops wearing his Birkenstock sandals when the temperature drops below twenty degrees. He’d probably make a great counselor at my little brother’s middle school, or even here if I was interested in majoring in hacky-sackology or pan flute studies, but I’m not. I want a serious guidance counselor, not Bob Marley meets Bob Ross.
“We must learn that there’s a difference between resting and quitting,” he says. Mr. Keith loves to drop these sorts of phrases, corny positivity mantras that Instagram models like to use as captions for photos of themselves doing yoga on a mountain.
The weirdest part is that Mr. Keith and Wexler are basically best friends, and it doesn’t make any sense. Wexler is a strict disciplinarian, and Mr. Keith has multiple rainsticks in his office. In high school, Wexler probably wore the prom king crown while Keith wore a flower crown, but it doesn’t matter. Now they’ve united forces against me. Apparently, it takes both ends of the social spectrum to properly reorient my mental health.
“We want you to succeed here, Hayley, but we don’t want you to burn out,” Mr. Keith says, sliding a copy of my senior schedule across the table. I pick it up and my parents lean in. AP English. AP Calculus. AP Chemistry. AP European History. Looks great to me. “We’d like you to step away from the Accelerated Track program,” Mr. Keith says.
It’s like having a golden retriever tell you to give up on your dreams.
The charge of irritation I was feeling slides toward full-blown panic.
Ever since Mom told me about this meeting a week ago, I’ve been trying to imagine the worst-case scenario for how this might go—maybe weekly mandatory check-ins with Mr. Keith or not being allowed to drive to school—but I never imagined this. “No,” I manage to say, my voice quiet, like I’m testing the waters. Wexler and Mr. Keith don’t react. “No way,” I say, more forcefully this time. “Dropping out of the AT program during my senior year will look terrible on my transcript.” Mr. Keith gives me a pitying smile. It’s the same look my mom gives my little brother, Tanner, when he talks about building his own tree house in the backyard, something that’s never going to happen. I hate that look.
“Aren’t you supposed to be encouraging me to keep working hard?” I ask, my voice too loud and too sharp for the small conference room. “It’s like you’re telling me to throw the car into neutral and just cruise to graduation.” Wexler and Mr. Keith both flinch, and I realize, considering the circumstances, a car metaphor may not have been the best choice of words.
I catch my parents exchanging a glance over my head. Wexler and Mr. Keith might be a lost cause, but I can at least make sure I have Mom and Dad on my side. “I can handle the workload,” I tell them. The words come out sounding more like a plea than an affirmation, but at least they’re out there. I’ve spent years working toward an impeccable academic record, and I’m not going to let one moment of weakness bring that crashing down.
Mom puts her hand on my knee, and I realize I’ve been bouncing my leg so fast it’s practically shaking the table. Not exactly the confidence-inspiring behavior of a self-assured individual. She gives me a weak smile. Dad puts a hand on my shoulder, and all I can think is it’s not the back of my neck. I suddenly feel very small, like a toddler trying to elbow their way up to the adult table at Thanksgiving dinner. My parents—a woman who succeeded in becoming a partner at her law firm the same year she gave birth to my brother, and a man who successfully manages a team of corporate consultants and still found time to run three marathons last year—are having to sit here and comfort their daughter, who can’t even handle high school.
Wexler takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose, like he’s already growing tired of this conversation. “There is another option,” he says, folding his large hands on the table in front of him. “If you want to stay in the AT program, you’ll have to cut back on the extracurriculars. Resign from the tennis team and sign up for some, uh, less intense electives. Maybe TV Production.”
“TV Production?” I scoff. “Like AV club?”
“TV Production is a class,” Mr. Keith says. “They produce the announcements each morning. We actually have a pretty nice studio. Have you ever seen it?”
Of course not. I’ve never seen Groveland’s art room either, but that’s okay because Introduction to Pastels isn’t exactly an impressive addition to your transcript when you’re planning to apply for premed programs. Is this how they see me now, like some girl who’s too fragile for real academic rigor? Is that who I am? I stare down at my schedule, running my finger along the edge of the page and testing how far I can push it without giving myself a paper cut. So I either drop out of the AT program or quit tennis and take some boring electives. They might as well be asking if I’d rather have them chop off my left leg or my right. Either way, my stride is wrecked. Dad must sense my apprehension because he says, “Are those really the only options?” His disappointed tone nearly cracks me open.
“At this point, we really believe one of these would be the best path forward,” Mr. Keith says.
“Part of succeeding means knowing your limits,” Wexler adds. Ironic considering his barrel chest is currently testing the limits of that poly-cotton blend. Ugh. Dr. Kim, my therapist, says I tend to get pretty judgmental when I’m feeling vulnerable, and I hate moments like these when I prove her right. Because really, who am I to judge anyone at this point?
Wexler leans back in his chair and crosses his arms like everything is settled, like he’s made me an offer I can’t refuse. Several moments of heavy silence pass, and it must become too much for Mr. Keith to bear because he digs into his blazer pocket and comes out with a handful of candy. “Would anyone like a Starburst?”
This is my life now.
I’ve reached an all-time low, but at least there’s snacks.
I know I have the next line in this little play, but I can’t form any words. Before my incident, I was all confidence because life made sense. It was a science: determine what you want, work hard, achieve your goal, repeat. But now that same equation doesn’t seem to work. Because sometimes it leads to being pulled from your car at eight thirty on a Thursday morning. So as much as I might want to speak up for myself, I can’t. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s best for me to sit back and let people whose brains aren’t malfunctioning make the decisions for a while.
“Okay,” I say meekly. “I’ll do the second one. I’ll take TV Production.”
We all get up to shake hands, and I thank them for their concern, but it’s like someone else is speaking. It’s like I’ve gone numb. Even when we conveniently run into the TV Production teacher, Mrs. Hansen, who just so happens to be free to give me a tour of the studio, I don’t even care that this was clearly a trap. This had been the plan all along, and they only made it seem like I had a choice. People like me who make bad choices don’t get to make real decisions.
My parents head off to the car while Mrs. Hansen guides me downstairs and through a large set of wooden doors with an unlit ON AIR sign hanging above them. I try my best to nod at the right times as she points out the editing bays and sound equipment, but it’s difficult. Trading sunny afternoons on the tennis court with my team for this cinder-block room where I’ll stare at a computer screen is not an even trade at all. My face must be telegraphing my disappointment because Mrs. Hansen says, “I know this elective wasn’t exactly your first choice, but I think you’ll really enjoy TV Production, Hayley. I tend to give the class a lot of freedom. You guys really get a chance to make this program what you want. Within reason, of course.” She smiles at me, and I do my best to mirror her excitement, but I can feel my smile faltering.
“Check this out. Sit here.” Mrs. Hansen pulls out one of the chairs at the anchor desk, and I take a seat. Then she goes over and switches on the monitor and points one of the stationary cameras at me. I appear on the TV, seated at the half-empty desk. Mrs. Hansen positions the camera so that my face is center in the frame. It’s the same image I saw when I checked the mirror before leaving the house this morning—straight red hair, large brown glasses, freckles prominent from a summer spent in the sun. I bring my hand to the side of my temple, testing to see if I can feel it. Can I locate the part of my brain that’s damaged? Is there a knot or a scar? Mrs. Hansen peeks out from behind the camera. “Pretty neat, huh?” she asks.
“Yeah. Pretty neat.”