I’ve been summoned.
Every student at Skyline High School knows the principal’s calling card--that infamous wallet-sized light green piece of paper. So when Marcus Scott, the self-declared Hermes of school messengers, busts into my AP English class like he’s walking onto a Broadway stage, I don’t pay him any mind. Instead, I grow an inch taller in my seat, extending my raised hand high in the air.
“Why, Sasha, yes, please,” Mrs. Gregg says. Her eyes dart between Marcus and me. She nods for me to proceed and we both smile. We’ve been doing this exchange all senior year. She asks the tough questions, and while other students are thinking, I stay ready to answer. Like right now, my fingertips flutter in the air as I wait to respond to her question about Shakespeare and his influence on modern media.
But that moment never comes, because Marcus walks up to Mrs. Gregg, hands her the summons slip, and then points at me. It’s not until Marcus leaves that Mrs. Gregg slides the flimsy paper across my desk and I realize what’s happening. All eyes in the room shift to me, and my body stiffens. I know what they’re thinking, because it’s what I’m thinking too: What the hell is this about?
I’ve been called to the principal’s office all of once, and it was because my perfect-attendance certificate needed to be picked up. Without making too much of a fuss, I grab my bag and place my pencils, pens, and highlighters in their respective pouches--yes, they each have their own homes. Then I gather the rest of my things and go. Quickly. Trying not to overanalyze how the word now is circled three times in black ink.
In the main office, a small bell on the door dings, announcing my presence. I take another step and am met with a mix of familiarity--I’ve been going to Skyline since freshman year, and the school is like my second home--and newness, because I’m never actually in the main office. The walls are adorned with student photos from the last three decades, with a sea star, a sea otter, a sea lion, and my personal favorite, waves (because we are, you know, making waves here as the second-best public high school in Monterey), as a backdrop. When you go to school this close to the Pacific Ocean, the themes are always gonna be nautical. Mrs. Brown, the world’s nicest office attendant, perks up.
“There’s our number-one girl,” she calls from behind the counter. “Sasha, sweetie, it’s so nice to see you. Whatcha doing here?”
I inch toward her and hold up my summons slip so she can see I’ve been called to the office--I’m not just walking around, loitering, wasting class time. As if I would do that anyway. Her eyes dart across the paper and then back at me before breaking into a warm smile, like the sun. I swear, if every high school in America had a Mrs. Brown, student productivity would increase by, like, a lot. People would just be better.
“Have a seat, honey. Principal Newton is finishing up a meeting and then he’ll be right with you.” She leans on the counter, closing the space between us. Up close, her brown skin glistens. Her straight black hair is in her signature short bob, and her bangs have a streak of gray that makes her look badass, like how I imagine Storm would be in her fifties. Or forties, or thirties? Maybe? Mrs. B is one of those women with flawless skin and a playful personality who seem to defy age.
I try to return her kindness with a smile.
“Knowing you, I bet this is something good--exceptional, even.” Then she flashes me a wink.
I can’t help but feel . . . thrilled. Being swept out of class to the principal’s office. I’ve been on point all senior year--scratch that, my whole high school career--and maybe this meeting is about that.
For once, the main office is empty, so I take the seat closest to Principal Newton’s door. I shut my eyes and savor the peace. Silence. A little mental vacation, if you will. But as soon as I begin to relax, the bell rings.
“There she is. Hey, Mrs. B--that’s B for beautiful.” A deep voice interrupts my peace. Moment gone. I open my eyes and turn my head.
Mrs. B rests her elbows on the counter. “Here you go,” she says, that infectious smile still on her face. “Ezra, honey, you’ve been called to the office? Don’t tell me you’re in trouble, now.”
From my chair, he doesn’t see me, but I have a full view of him. He’s wearing a fitted white tee and white jeans, which make his brown skin pop. His curly black hair is pulled up in a small but high ponytail, and he’s got a medium-sized gold chain around his neck that lies on top of his shirt. A small diamond sparkles from his ear, and his black camera hangs across his chest like the sheath of a sword. I take one last gaze and notice the outline of his face, his nose and jaw, which are prominent. He stands so tall and straight it makes the bones in my back follow. I really need to work on my posture.
He must be able to sense me staring at him, because he does a small pivot, and our eyes connect like magnets. I blink nervously and avert my gaze.
He turns and holds up his summons. “I was hoping you could tell me. You know what this is about, Mrs. B?” he asks, his voice a lot deeper than I remember.
“No idea, honey. But go ahead and have a seat by Sasha. Shouldn’t be long now.” She motions for Ezra to sit in one of the two empty chairs next to me. Ezra gives them a quick glance, but decides against it. Instead, he stands awkwardly, lingering by the doorway.
If Ezra is Mr. Fashionista right now, I’m the opposite. I have a strong urge to slink down in my seat and blend in with the wooly fabric. Today I’m in my black Nikes--but not like sneaker head Air Maxes or Jordans, just regular, degular, old-man running shoes with worn laces tied a little too tight. My long locs are pulled back in a messy bun, giving end-of-school-day vibes. I didn’t have time to do anything special with my hair this morning. Okay, I never do. Who has that much time? I’m too busy with school. I mean, this isn’t New York Fashion Week, right? Who cares that I’m not wearing makeup? I huff and catch a whiff of . . . Wait . . . am I wearing deodorant?
I’m in my favorite baggy, ripped blue jeans and a black tank top, layered underneath a holey, loose green-and-red flannel with the sleeves rolled up. I give myself a quick once-over and . . . what am I? Going to go work on the railroad? What is this--pioneer chic? Not that I care what Ezra thinks, but I know I have better outfits than this. I peek down at my arms, my umber skin is a little, okay, maybe a lot, dry, with tiny white flakes speckled across my arms. Did I put on lotion? Out of habit, I pat the side of my hair. This is fine, I am fine.
I gaze back to Ezra, who hooks his thumbs in the front of his pockets.
Has he been staring at me this whole time?
He raises his eyebrows and says, his voice soft and deep, “Hey, you.”
My chest tightens. I wish I had my headphones on, so I could pretend to be listening to NPR and avoid any type of conversation with him. Before I can respond, two tearstained freshmen walk out of Principal Newton’s office.
“All righty, then. Who’s next?” Principal Newton’s voice bounces off the walls. That just happens to be his energy--he’s like the Energizer Bunny, but with eyeglasses and a big smile. Skyline High is totally his Disneyland, the happiest place on earth. But I guess if you’re going to be working with kids, it’s the right kind of energy to have. He appears, then holds open the door and makes a big “come on in” gesture with his other hand. I blink out of my trance and stand. Ezra takes a step back, and I scoot past him.
“Oh, you too, Ezra. Both of you, come inside. Have a seat, please,” Principal Newton says.
Both of us?
We enter his office, which consists of four large black chairs, a tall lamp, and a desk that is an absolute mess, with multiple piles of papers, pens, and books in disarray. I cannot with this chaotic energy. Just give me five minutes in here, some color-coded folders, and a label maker and I know I could make this room shine. Sparkle. Sing. But that’s not why I’m here, so I snag a seat and ignore the mess.
“Sasha, this is Ezra. Ezra, this is Sasha, another senior. Do you two know each other?” Principal Newton asks.
“No.” “Yes.” We speak at the same time.
“No,” I say again, with a little more authority in my voice.
So maybe that’s not entirely true. I guess if we’re going to get technical about it, Ezra and I have met. We used to be friends--best friends, actually--but that was years ago. I don’t know him now. I knew him. Past tense.
“Okay, fine. We’ve met,” I say, doing my best to ignore the glare I know Ezra is giving me.
Ezra sits down, leaving an empty spot between us. Principal Newton tugs at his green bow tie and then rubs his bald head. He smiles as he sits up in his big, rolly chair. He clears his throat, and his cheeks turn a light pink.
“Is this where the kids would say ‘it’s complicated’? Is that the relationship status update here? Verified? Green check mark?” His voice booms as he laughs at his own joke and welcomes us to do the same. I wait for Ezra to respond, but he doesn’t. So I don’t either. At least we both can agree on silence.
“Well, then.” He coughs, annoyed by our lack of enthusiasm for his comedy routine. He brings his face to his laptop screen as he pecks at the keys with his index fingers. He finds what he needs because he presses his hands together and his eyes light up. “Let’s talk about why you’re both here.” He leans away from his screen, his blue eyes dart from me to Ezra. The only sound in the room is the fluorescent lights from above, crackling as if insects are being fried inside.
“As you know, it’s late April, and senior year is wrapping up. There are several things on my radar, of course.” Principal Newton takes a long pause. Apparently, he’s a master of the art of suspense. “Teachers and administrators are beginning to prepare for end-of-the-year activities and whatnot. You both know that senior year has lots of moving parts, don’t you?” He perks up in his chair, waiting for an answer. I’m doing everything in my power not to scream, so I keep quiet. I’m not one for surprises. Ezra just shakes his head like he has no idea, like he’s genuinely interested in this buildup.
“Yes, lots of moving parts, lots to plan. Prom, Senior Legacy Night, and, of course, graduation. This is a special time for seniors, so much happening, there’s so much good stuff on the horizon. But I digress. This is all to say that, as of today, we have two people tied for the position of valedictorian and the accompanying scholarship.”
Okay, now I’m really listening.
The scholarship. $30,000.
“This is new for Skyline High School and for me. I’ve never seen such rigor academically. Same classes, same grades, two different people.” Mr. Newton points to me and then Ezra. “One, two.”
“What?!” The shout comes louder than I’d like, but his words awaken everything inside of me. I’ve never missed a day of school, I’ve never turned in a late assignment, I’ve made sure to give everything the proverbial 110 percent.
Before either of us can utter another word, Principal Newton continues, his voice becoming more serious, like he’s about to give a lecture . . . or a eulogy. “This is rare, of course, and anything can happen by June, but I wanted to let you two know because--”
Ezra shifts in his seat, agitated. “I’m sorry. Are you sure?”
“Positive. I actually wanted to discuss this with you both today so that we can--” But before Principal Newton can finish, I’m on my feet, backpack falling on the floor.
“It should be me!” The words fly out.
“Excuse me?” Principal Newton slides back, his chair squeaking.
“With all due respect, Principal Newton”--I lower my tone and sit down again--“it should be me for valedictorian. I’ve worked extremely hard these last four years and . . . and . . . when is the last time the school has had a valedictorian who was not only a woman, but Black and Korean? I think I--”
Ezra jumps in and cuts me off. “Whoa, whoa. Hold up. You think you should get it because of your gender and ethnicity?” He fakes a laugh, the space between us narrowing. Our brown eyes lock. “In that case, I think I’m more deserving. Being both Black and Jewish, I can say that I am very underrepresented, not only in--”
“Oh my god, you can’t be serious right now,” I clap back.
Ezra’s eyes widen, the incredulousness on his face hard to ignore. “Serious about how I identify? Yeah, actually, I am. It’s literally what you did three seconds ago,” Ezra replies.
“Okay, but it’s different--”
“How is it different?”
“Enough,” Principal Newton barks. The room goes painfully silent. “The last thing I want to do is get either of you upset or worked up about what could be. There are lots of hypotheticals here. So please, let me continue.” He pauses and softens his voice. “I am so proud of you both. You’ve done something amazing, truly. Your hard work is a testament to this, to your grades. Absolutely outstanding. Historically, the person with the highest GPA is valedictorian, and the second highest is salutatorian. Both positions are, again, very impressive, and both people will have the opportunity to speak at graduation.” The energy in the room is heavy. “But unfortunately, per the stipulations of the award, only one wins the scholarship,” he says.
The scholarship. The one thing that means everything to me.
My central nervous system shudders, and I dig my nails into the arm of the chair. I’m suddenly faint, queasy. This is not the good news I was anticipating; this is certainly not something exceptionally good. This is its evil twin. Tied? With Ezra? Of all twenty-five hundred students at Skyline, I’m tied with him? I bite the inside of my lip so hard I’m sure I draw blood.
Principal Newton gazes at me. “I know, Sasha, that this isn’t what you were expecting to hear.”
Copyright © 2023 by Danielle Parker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.