First Day of Senior Year
Monday, August 29, Washington, DC
Mina stood under her umbrella in the pouring rain, staring with dread at the doors of Bellington High School, a big imposing redbrick building that loomed above her like every scary mansion in the horror movies she despised watching.
First day of senior year.
First day of hell.
“Mina Lee, get your butt inside before we drown to death!” Her best friend, Saachi, grabbed Mina by the arm and began pulling her up the stairs.
Mina heaved a great big sigh as they joined the mass of students filing into the school through the imposing entranceway. The girl in front of her whipped her curly wet hair back, slapping Mina across her face.
Mina flinched and swatted the hair away, causing the girl to turn and glare at her.
“Do you mind?”
Mina narrowed her eyes, her nostrils flaring with displeasure. “Yes, I do mind. I don’t like eating hair for breakfast.”
The girl turned without another word.
“Did you say something?” Saachi asked.
Before Mina could respond, an elbow rammed into her lower spine.
She whimpered. “I am a sardine packed tight into a smelly tin can of death.”
“What are you mumbling to yourself?” Saachi asked. At five foot ten, Saachi could use her height to maneuver deftly through the crowds without getting hurt.
“I am a bunny rabbit caught in the coils of a deadly python.”
“I am a girl who doesn’t want to be late to her first class,” Saachi cut in. Apparently annoyed at the snail’s pace, she barged ahead, scattering kids left and right as she shouted “Excuse me!” at the top of her lungs.
“I am a salmon swimming against the current into the gaping jaws of death,” Mina intoned. They’d finally made it inside the expansive lobby that led to hallways spiderwebbing into the depths of the building.
“Listen, can you save your existential crisis for exams?”
Mina stopped in her tracks, causing Saachi to nearly trip and fall. “What’s the point, Saachi?”
“Mina,” Saachi said threateningly.
Students yelled their frustration at Mina, some even shoving her. But Mina refused to budge. She might be only five three, but she was a mighty five three and could plant her feet like small sledgehammers.
“I mean why am I even here? What’s the point when I don’t know what the future entails? My dad thinks he has my life all figured out, but I don’t want what he wants. Do I? I mean what am I supposed to do? What do I need to do? Do I just listen to my father like a good Asian daughter?”
“Girl, I will pick you up and haul you into first period. I am not playing,” Saachi fumed.
Mina saw the murderous intent in her friend’s eyes and released a heavy sigh. “All right.” She shuffled her feet to move forward, letting Saachi drag her. “I am a pawn in someone else’s chess game of life.”
“Shut up, Mina! Where’s your first class?”
Mina pulled out her schedule and peered down at it morosely. First period, Psychology, Salatto, Rm 246 Second period, Honors Calculus, Khan, Rm 225 Third period, AP Studio Art, Ellis, Rm G84 Lunch Fourth period, AP Art History, Butler, Rm 108 Fifth period, AP English Literature and Composition, Steinberg, Rm G20 Sixth period, Advanced Figure Drawing, Vasquez, Rm G82 Seventh period, Women’s Studies, McGinnis, Rm 157
Mina groaned. “I am a daisy trapped in the killing field of war.”
It was clear that Saachi had reached the end of her patience. Mina hastened toward the large staircase.
“I am a cog in the education machine of mediocrity,” Mina grumbled as she stomped up the stairs.
“Keep walking, cog,” Saachi replied sharply.
The third-period bell rang, and Mina sped down the stairs and through the hallways for the first time since she’d stepped foot in school. She loved all her art classes, but this semester AP Studio Art was taught by her favorite teacher. Ms. Ellis was young and hip and not that much older than the seniors she taught.
A smile lit up Mina’s face as she crossed from the monotonous void of high school drudgery into the vibrant chaos of the art room. She could smell the mix of old and new paint, both musty and milky wet, along with the pleasant chemical scent of turpentine. The sun had finally chased the rain clouds away and filled the room with bright natural light.
“Mina! So good to see you! How was your summer?”
Ms. Ellis had long straight brown hair that she kept in a loose ponytail and stylish black eyeglasses. What was most striking about her was the innate grace she seemed to exude, even when wearing a dirty paint-covered smock.
As they chatted, Mina let herself relax in the familiarity of her favorite classroom. She waved to a few old friends who were drawing in their sketchbooks and then went to sit down as Ms. Ellis greeted other arriving students.
Mina straddled the art horse at her usual spot next to the windows, which now shimmered with cascading streams of raindrops. She took a moment to stretch her back as she settled into her seat. Art horses were benches with movable drawing boards. While they were very practical, they were not at all comfortable.
All the students sat facing a large round table in the middle of the room. It was covered with an array of eclectic boxes that displayed a variety of interesting objects. Skulls, vases, antiques, tea sets, plates and jars filled with a mishmash of colorful stones, old toys, and small weird knickknacks. Satin fabrics and silk flowers were strewn in deliberate disarray. It was a display Mina could get lost in, providing hours of artistic inspiration. And that was the whole point.
Ms. Ellis made her assignments challenging and reminded Mina to think of art as more than just beautiful creations, but as things of power and structure and space. It was this belief in the importance of art that reminded Mina of her mother. “Never forget, Mina. Art is magic,” her mother told her.
And Mina had believed her. How could she not when she’d seen her mother breathe life into all her paintings?
Mina’s mother had been a highly talented artist. She created realistic paintings that looked like vibrant photographs. It was her mother who taught her all about art from a young age. Put pencils and brushes in her hand. Let her roll her whole body in paint and decorate the walls of her art studio with handprints. Mina could communicate through drawing before she even learned to talk. It was in her blood.
“Hey, Mina! You’re here!”
Mina saw Christina Jackson sit down in front of her, looking immaculate as usual, her black hair smoothed into a tight ponytail.
“I didn’t think your dad would let you take this class,” Christina continued.
Mina’s face darkened, her lips tightening. “Yeah, he’s not happy about it.”
Christina frowned in sympathy. “I’m sorry, Mina. What are you going to do about art school applications?”
This was something that had been worrying Mina all summer. “I don’t know. Maybe apply to universities with good art programs instead of just art schools?”
“But what about RISD? We talked about applying together.”
Mina sighed. “He’s fixated on me going to a ‘real’ college.”
“Why don’t you apply to the Brown/RISD program like I am? He can’t possibly be against that.”
Rolling her eyes, Mina snorted. “You’ve clearly mistaken me for someone else. I’m the Asian that’s bad at math, remember? Brown would be offended if I applied to them. Unlike you, Miss Genius Jackson, sure to be valedictorian, who also happens to be a brilliant sculptor. All the top schools are gonna be fighting over you in one big nasty catfight. Rawr.”
A flush spread on Christina’s cheeks, giving her dark brown skin a rosy glow and highlighting the few freckles she had. Mina thought how cute her friend looked when she got embarrassed.
“That’s not true,” Christina demurred.
Mina pretended to talk into a mic. “Ms. Jackson, you’ve been accepted to all the Ivies and fifty top schools across the world—where do you think you’ll go?”
“Cut it out, Mina!” Christina laughed.
“No, the answer is whoever gives you the most money, of course!”
“Well, I’m hoping we both get accepted to RISD,” Christina remarked.
“You’ll definitely get in, but I don’t know if RISD will even take me.” The thought was depressing. It had been her first choice for a long time.
“Stop being so hard on yourself, Mina,” Christina said. “You’re smart and wicked talented. You can go to whatever school you want.”
“Not if my dad won’t let me.” Mina grimaced.
“You’ve got to convince him! We’ve been taking art together for three years. I’d love to continue that in college.”
“Yeah, me too,” Mina replied. She loved having art with Christina not only because her friend was so talented, but because they challenged each other to do better.
“Oh, and I read your webcomic,” Christina said, with a smile. “Your art’s amazing.”
“Really?” Mina beamed. “You must be, like, my third actual reader. It hasn’t done well on Toonwebz.” She’d been uploading a webcomic all summer on the popular online comics platform, thinking that if it became successful it would help convince her father that art school was worth it. But so far, it hadn’t garnered many views.
“Your line art is really clean. Every panel is like a portrait. It must take you ages to do an episode—your art is so detailed!”
Copyright © 2024 by Ellen Oh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.