At Hastings Elementary the Star Student award was given out every month by every teacher in the school to either the teachers’ pets or the students the teachers pitied most because they could never win any real awards. In a third grade class of twenty-some-odd students, that meant by the end of the year a third of us would be named Star Students, so it was not a particularly exclusive honor, but in third grade we hadn’t yet gotten to statistics or probability, so whenever one of us won, we still thought we were hot stuff. Towards the end of the year my teacher, Ms. Feeley, had lost her patience with all the hopeless causes in my class and had turned the corner from pitying them to dreaming of ways to murder them with blunt-tip scissors, so she gave the Star Student award to her very favorite student who was the smartest, most talented, best-behaved, and least self-aggrandizing, sycophantic student she had ever seen in all her fifteen years of teaching: me.
When my name was announced as the winner, I was of course not surprised, having won this award every year for the past four years of my exemplary elementary career. I had a whole section of my dresser cordoned off for Star Student swag: neon splatter paint t-shirts, buttons, pencils, pencil toppers – all the good stuff. These were all prizes from the Star Student Rally, which as a winner, I had the honor of attending at the end of the school year. All spring I looked forward to the pilgrimage across town to the big middle school gymnasium – the one with stadium seating bleachers! – and to the reunion with my fellow kiddie-kingpins from around the district.
Flash forward: there I was at the rally, basking in the glow of my Stardom, and giddy over my recent grab of a choice Koosh ball, one of a hundred being thrown into – in hindsight, perhaps the preposition should be at – the squealing crowd by a posse of PE coaches, when the smell of popcorn wafted out from the concession stand in the lobby and drew me away from the festivities. While noshing in the lobby, I reflected on all of the hard work and sucking up I had to do to reach this, the pinnacle of pre-pubescent achievement. All the shoulder rubs I had to give, all the personalized #1 Teacher Christmas ornaments I had to make my mom buy. It was almost enough to bring a tear of pride to my eye… but it was not to last.
Ms. Feeley: Holly! Holly! What are you doing out here?
Me: Basking in the considerable glow of my own glory.
Ms. Feeley: There will surely be time for that later, after all you win every year.
Me: Oh, you flatter me, Ms. Feeley. But why have you interrupted my reverie?
Ms. Feeley: Why Holly, did you not hear? You’ve won the raffle!
The raffle! THE RAFFLE! I raced back into the gym and saw my prize gleaming up on the pedestal. A brand new bicycle! I had won the game of life. Ten minutes ago, I thought I had reached the summit with four straight years of Star Student wins, and I was content to be among this special group of five hundred elite grade school students in Duncanville, Texas. But now the universe had confirmed by random draw what I long suspected – I was the most special.
It turned out that the bike I won was too small for me, so they gave me a gift card to Wal-Mart instead so I could pick out my own. I came home with a pink 10-speed. It had gears! I would fly circles around the other schmucks in my neighborhood. Dad showed me how to work the shifters, but I was too excited to pay attention – they looked easy enough for a grand prize raffle-winning Star Student to figure out. I was ready to go – now!
Thirty minutes later: my dad, little brother, and I are cruising down the trails through the woods at Lakeside Park on the edge of our neighborhood. I’m bumping along, trying to keep up, my feet pedaling at lightning speed. My new bike and I are one. We are meant for each other. The seat is the perfect height. The handlebars are set at the perfect pitch. The tires are inflated to the perfect pressure to support my weight. I saw my dad fiddling with it earlier when we got home from Wal-Mart, but I can tell he didn’t change anything because this bike’s providential perfection remains intact.
As we emerge from the park and start to pedal home through the neighborhood, my dad and brother start to pull away from me. I am struggling. How is my little brother going so much faster than me? He’s not a Star Student. He doesn’t have a new bike. He is only seven years old! It is then that I realize that in order to take advantage of all ten speeds on my ten-speed bicycle, I will have to shift up in gear. I look down at the levers on my handlebars; I try to remember what Dad was explaining to me earlier; I fail; I make a guess and pull. Oops, that one’s the break. I pedal faster to pick up speed. If my legs were churning butter I’d have enough to build a life-sized sculpture of my nine-year-old ego. I look down at the levers again, choose another and pull it. Nothing happens. I pick a third lever and pull. I hear a click and feel resistance on the pedals, and my speed picks up. Victory! I look back at the chain, wondering how that worked, exactly. I look back at the lever and pull it one more time. More resistance, more speed. Yes! I’m an expert now, a gear-shifting prodigy, I’m —
At this point I had been looking at my bike – and not the road – for a full two minutes. In that time, I had sped up and almost caught up with my dad and brother. But before I reached them, I ran into the back of a parked pick-up truck. I must have had a premonition that something was about to happen, because at the last second I did look up from my handlebars. What I saw was the white tailgate of an F-150 rocketing at me at an impressively high speed. Instead of swerving or breaking, though, I just gaped. Wow, I must be going twenty miles an hour. That’s probably a world record. I should start training for the Olympics.
I flew over my handlebars and hit the tailgate mouth first. Somehow I landed on my feet, my new bicycle mangled around my ankles. I screamed. Something hurt. While maintaining a steady 120 decibel wail – not wanting anyone within a three mile radius to be caught unaware of the tragedy that had just befallen me, I took inventory. My hands were okay. My arms were sore, but they worked. My shins were scraped, but I’d had worse. My head hurt a little, but I was still conscious. My mouth hurt, but… well, actually my mouth hurt a lot. I moved my tongue and tasted blood. I ran my tongue over my teeth. Where four of my bottom teeth used to be, there were now jagged broken spikes. And worse: where my two front teeth used to be, I felt a gaping hole. Where were they?! What happened to them? Are they stuck in the truck? Are they strewn on the ground? These were not baby teeth. These were big, beautiful, straight, white, grand prize raffle-winning grown-up teeth! And they were gone.
Dad: Stop talking, you’re spraying blood everywhere.
Me: WHERE ARE MY TEEEEEEETH?
Dad: What are you saying? I’m too old to hear noises at that pitch. I’m going to find a dog to translate. Here, lie down in this stranger’s yard and try to calm down.
Me: (Spits out blood on stranger’s lawn, contemplates life’s futility, despairs for the future of a humanity deprived of my pearly, potentially world-peace-bringing teeth)
Dad: Your mother is on her way.
Me: Where are my teeth?!
Dad: Open your mouth, let me see. (Has a vision of dental bills to come and begins to despair as well). Well, they’re still in there, but the top ones look like they have been smashed up into your gums.
Dad: Okay, close your mouth now, you’re scaring your brother.
Mom: (Pulls her car up to the curb next to us and the hood is smoking)
Mom: Is she alive?
Dad: Yes. Also, it looks like you left your emergency brake on.
Mom: Oh my sweet baby! My Star Student. What happened? Are you okay? Let me see your teeth.
Mom: Ohmygodcloseyourmouth! (plasters on a smile) Don’t worry, we’ll get them fixed. Everything is going to be okay.
Me: No it’s NNNNNNAAAAOOOOWWWWTTT! I’m never going to be beautiful again!
Mom: (pauses to absorb the absurd magnitude of her daughter’s wholly unwarranted vanity, then turns her back and laughs hysterically)
When I returned to school for the final week of classes, I wore my new Star Student T-shirt, hoping it would distract from my fat lips, bruised cheeks, and Frankenstein gums. When Ms. Feeley saw me, she gave me a look of abject pity. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror after recess. She was right. I looked awful. I hoped it wouldn’t heal before August. If the fourth grade teacher Mrs. Jackson sees me like this, I thought, I’ll be a shoe-in to win Star Student again next year!