Home > Finding My Voice

Finding My Voice
Author: Marie Myung-Ok Lee




“Moooo!” It is still dark when I reach to shut off the Holstein-shaped alarm clock that my best friend, Jessie, gave me for my sixteenth birthday. To shut it off, you have to pull down on the cow’s enormous plastic udder. Mom wanted to throw it out. I told her it was just humor, Jessie-style.

   I step into the steamy shower and let the warmth coax me awake. I shampoo, shave my legs, and let the conditioner sit in my hair for exactly five minutes, just as it says on the bottle. After toweling off, I put on deodorant, foot powder, perfume, and then begin applying wine-colored eyeliner under my lashes.

   Do boys have to go through all this trouble day in and day out? How about Tomper Sandel, the football player who appears to be naturally cute with his shaggy blond hair and cleft chin—does he worry about how he smells?

   I put on extra eye shadow in a semicircle around my top eyelid. According to Glamour magazine, this will give Oriental eyes a look of depth. I’ve always known that I don’t have the neat crease at the top of my lid—like my friends do—that tells you exactly where the eye shadow should stop. So every day I have to paint in that crease, but I don’t think I’m fooling anybody.

   “Hurry up, Ellen,” Mom calls from downstairs. I throw on my new Ocean Pacific T-shirt and jeans and run down.

   Mom is standing in the kitchen, quietly spreading peanut butter on whole wheat bread. She turns to look at me, and her eyebrows dip into a slight frown.

   “Is that what you’re wearing to school?”

   “Yes, Mom,” I say. We go through this scene every year.

   “What about all those good clothes we bought in Minneapolis?”

   “Those dresses are great,” I say. “But no one wears a dress on the first day of school.”

   “Oh,” Mom says, as if she’s not convinced. She turns to finish packing my lunch. As usual, Father has already left for the hospital so he can get an early start on patients with morning-empty, surgery-ready stomachs.

   I grab the Cheerios and milk, and eat while looking over my schedule one more time. This year, I won’t have Jessie in a single class. She took typing and creative foods so that she can have more free time. In the meantime, I’ll be sweating out calculus and trying to tack gymnastics onto my already-stuffed schedule. My parents say I have to take all the hard classes so I can get into Harvard like my sister, Michelle.

   “Here’s your lunch,” Mom says, handing me a brown paper bag. I open it and find a small container filled with soft white ovals in sugary liquid.

   “What is this?” I grimace, holding the tiny container aloft. “Litchi nuts,” Mom answers. “Remember? You love them.”

   “Not for lunch,” I say, a little too vehemently. The truth is, I don’t want people seeing those foreign-looking nuts and asking what they are.

   Then I remember that every day Mom packs Father’s lunch, then my lunch, while I’m up in the bathroom doing my deodorant-perfume-powder dance.

   “Well, thanks, though, Mom,” I say. “Could I please have a Hershey’s bar from now on?”

   Mom smiles. She is so thin and small in her gown and robe. I throw my lunch in my knapsack and kiss her quickly.

   “Goodbye, Myong-Ok. It’s your last year here,” she says. I look up at her upon hearing my Korean name. To me, it doesn’t sound like my name, but to Mom, I think it means something special. Sometimes I think she has so much more to say to me, but it gets lost, partly because of the gap separating Korean and English, and partly because of some other kind of gap that has always existed between me and my parents.

   On the way to the bus stop, I slip the container of litchi nuts into a garbage can alongside the road. Wasteful, I know, but I’m always so nervous on the first day of school. All those kids. Especially the popular ones.

   Everyone is at the bus stop—the same faces from last year, and the year before, and the year before that, but my throat still constricts. I wish Jessie lived nearby so she could take the bus with me. Two of the hockey players, Brad Whitlock and Mike Anderson, are loudly hooting and swaggering as if they own the place. I slip back and try to become invisible.

   When the bus comes, student bodies swarm around the door like eager bees waiting to get into the hive. I let most of the kids go ahead of me, but as I board, someone shoves me from behind.

   “Hey, chink, move over.”

   In back of me is Brad Whitlock, a darkly adult look clouding his face. The sound of his words hangs for a moment in the cramped air of the school bus. Numbly, I look around. Everyone seems to be looking somewhere else: out the window, at their books, just away. Brad pushes past me to the back of the bus, where he resumes guffawing with his friends.

   I sit gingerly in the nearest seat, like an old lady afraid of breaking something. I feel so ashamed, and I don’t know why. And why Brad Whitlock, the popular guy who had never before even bothered to acknowledge my existence all these years at Arkin High? I keep my eyes fixed on the landscape and concentrate on keeping them dry.

   As soon as the bus doors open at school, I rush out without looking back. Once I join the tide of people flowing into the brick building, my heartbeat finally starts to settle. Now I feel protected, anonymous. Inside, excited voices unite in a single deafening roar, punctuated by the staccato of slamming locker doors.

   “Hey, Ellen!” Jessie’s voice rises above the din. She will never know how glad I am to see her familiar face.

   “Hi, Jess!” I say, keeping a falsetto of cheerfulness in my voice.

   “Are you okay?” Jessie’s big brown eyes study me closely. Then the prefinal bell rings.

   “I’m fine, thanks, Jess.” I slam our locker door, imagining that Brad Whitlock’s fingers are caught in it. Maybe someday I’ll stop to really think about it, about what it means to be different.

   The prefinal bell means that I have one minute to get to room 2D, the chemistry classroom. I see my friend Beth sitting in the corner by the window. I also see Tomper Sandel—all muscles under his Arkin High Football T-shirt—sitting in the same row.

   Crossing the room to join Beth, I pass Tomper’s desk.

   “Hi, Ellen,” he says, and smiles.

   “Uh, hi, Tomper,” I say, trying not to stare. Tomper Sandel—saying hi to me?

   “Ahem,” says Mr. Borglund, our teacher, as he stands in front of the class. He looks like a cartoon character: his skin is as dark and wrinkled as a dried apple, and his hair—which I’m sure was blond in his younger years—stands straight and stiff, the color of a Brillo pad, on top of his head.

   When he tells us to pick lab partners, Beth and I quickly choose each other. Mr. Borglund ushers us all across the hall to the lab room, which has rows of black counters with sinks and weird spigots crusted with powdery precipitates of experiments past.

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