A Loser at Age Thirteen

by Annette Pasternak

I racked my brain for a title for this essay topic, “Who Am I?” I know you are big on titles Mrs. Kelley, so if you don’t like this one I thought of two alternates. So please if you are going to grade me down because of this one, I’ll tell you the others and maybe you’ll like them better.

Who am I? This question would have been a heck of a lot easier to answer last year. Last year my star was rising. As you may or may not know, because I was still leaving early from school in September and a little bit of October, I was a gymnast. I placed 8th at states last year overall, and everybody was talking about me being the future New York State junior champion. I owned the Big Apple and the rest of the damn state too. (OK, not really. I’m not that conceited – I just liked the way it sounded.)

One fateful day Rob, my coach, was super-excited. We didn’t know why he was in such a good mood, but we all had a great time at practice that day. He even let us not do any “fun”. “Fun” was what we used to call “strength” – what we do at the end of every practice. Usually “fun” consists of pull-ups, handstand walking, 200 V-ups (“these ain’t your mothers situps” Rob used to say), and squatjumps across the floor there and back and there and back until your quads are screaming and you can’t even jump any higher than a quarter inch! We asked Rob why no fun, and he told us we were getting a new teammate. Her mother had signed her up already, but she hadn’t met Rob yet, so he was going over her house to meet her. We all wondered, why was she so special that he would actually go to her house to meet her?

The next day, I was doing a simple back walkover on the balance beam, warming up for my walkover, back ariel, back ariel run. I had just leaned back, put my hands down and kicked my right leg over when Rob yelled, “Sunshine! Welcome.” I don’t know what happened, but my shoulders froze up and my legs went over and instead of landing my right foot on the beam, my left leg whipped over too soon and the next thing I knew – Thud! There I was, standing on the mat next to the beam.

So, her name is Sunshine and she’s from California. It figures. What a dumb name. She was the California Junior Champion and took fifth place at Nationals. No wonder Rob was salivating all over himself. She seemed nice enough, but I’m sure it’s an act. They’re all fake out there in California. Everybody knows that.

Perhaps like me you are wondering, why did Sunshine leave the sunshine for “beautiful” Levittown, New York? Well, it has something to do with that her parents got divorced. Everyone feels so bad for her, but I really don’t see what the big deal is. I mean she’s a state champion. I’m not saying I want my parents to be divorced, but if I won states it wouldn’t be that tragic.

So after we all meet her, I got all nervous, like way more than an actual competition. I could kill myself for letting her psych me out, but when I got back on the beam her eyes were just watching me and I couldn’t do anything. I just kept falling over on my back walkover. Whump! I would fall. Then I would jump right back up and try again. Thump! It was like I couldn’t not fall! Over and over again. It was like a nightmare and I got madder and madder and madder with each try. I got so mad, I finally just punched the beam and ran into the locker room crying. I expected Rob to follow me, to help me or make me feel better, but instead I heard him out in the gym saying something like, “It’s okay, she’s just used to being the princess.” That made me feel a hundred times worse. I’m no princess. I work really hard. How could he say that? He knows I’m almost the only one on the team that comes to practice six days a week, even though we’re all supposed to. And I never goof off like Madison and Brittany.

It was a horrible betrayal, but, as the woman in that famous movie I’m forgetting the name of says, tomorrow is another day. So I go back to the gym tomorrow, and Rob doesn’t let me do anything except practice back walkovers on the low beam. It was a total humiliation like you cannot imagine, except maybe if you wet your pants in school. (I’m not saying you ever did this Mrs. Kelley. I hope you know I’m using the word “you” to mean anyone.) As if this mortifying experience wasn’t bad enough, something that ended up being even more devastating happened to me. Are you ready for this?…

FEAR happened. All of a sudden I got afraid. Afraid of the bars – the high bar was just too high. Afraid of the beam – too skinny. And afraid of the vault – the horse seemed so far away. My imagination went crazy. At night horrible scenes would play themselves in my head. I would run up and hit the springboard and go up into the air flying 15 feet. I’d see my hands come down in slow motion and I could see they were going to miss. Then at full speed they miss the horse and I crash horribly and break my neck. Then I’d come in to practice (for real, not in my mind) and remember the dream and just run up to the horse and stop. Over and over again. Deadly habit number two.

The only thing I wasn’t afraid of was the floor. That was my best event, because I’m great at tumbling and dancing, and you can’t really fall, badly anyway. So when I went to gymnastics camp in August for a week, I went to easier groups for beam, bars, and vault. They would usually send me to join a higher group, and then I’d spend the rest of the session cutting out, and I’d maybe join the higher group the next day. They sort of lost track of me with all my changing levels, so by the end of the week I was just hanging out in my cabin or in the woods, when it wasn’t time for floor ex or free practice. Free practice was great – I fell in love and got my triple-twisting layout at the same time! He was one of the spotters and the first time he spoke to me he said, “Hello, Jessica from Long Island”. I was all, how in the world does he know everything about me? Then I remembered I still had my dorky nametag sticker on, but that doesn’t explain how he knew I was from Long Island. His name is Will and he was from Virginia and talked all weird, but it was actually kind of charming.

The week after gymnastics camp my family went on our annual vacation, camping in the woods, this time in New Hampshire. I was sooo mad at my mom because she made me leave my phone at home and Will had said he was going to text me, but it was just as well because when we got back home I didn’t have any messages from him, so it’s good I didn’t ruin the whole trip waiting for his stupid text. It turned out to be a pretty fun week camping, but the clearings had so many rocks and sticks that I couldn’t practice at all and I got really out of shape.

After vacation, going back to gymnastics, it all just went downhill and it is honestly too painful to write about. Finally, in October I quit. So now I’m just a normal 7th grader I guess, which is totally depressing. I don’t know if I can live being just a regular person. Is life worth living if you’re not going to be famous? Do you ever feel like that Mrs. Kelley? I know you’re just a schoolteacher, but did you ever have dreams?

So now I’m just focusing on school, trying to be a better student and already stressing about getting into a good college so I can join the rat race and get old and die. (I hope I’m not depressing you, Mrs. Kelley.) My brother is applying to college now. He tells me about all the scary stuff, like the SAT’s and college application essays, but he’s not afraid. Unlike me, he’s really smart. When I told him about this homework assignment he told me not to have an existential crisis. I don’t know what he means, but I think it proves my point.

After experiencing my first kiss, etcetera, this summer, I’m contemplating a life of celibacy. Except that when did you ever hear of a nun being famous? Except of course Maria in The Sound of Music, and that doesn’t count because she never ended up becoming a full nun. She failed, just like me. But remember, the reverend mother always says, “Whenever the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a Window.” I just hope I can find my window, that He’s not all tricky about it.

On the bright side, I joined the track team and we start practicing next week, so maybe there’s some hope for me there. Running seems totally dumb, but at least it’s not scary, and I won’t get fat. My brother says there’s an event called the long jump where you run up like you’re running to the horse, but then you just take off of one foot and jump as far as you can. You don’t even have to do anything in the air or look good or point your toes. It’s almost as dumb as running in circles, but I probably wouldn’t be too bad at it. I have to do something or I’ll go crazy, so why not track? I’m terrified actually, but I’m going to have to be brave like Maria. What if this is my window?

What if it isn’t? Will I have the strength to go on???

“Who am I?” you ask. I am afraid. I never used to be afraid. Now I’m afraid of trying again. I’m afraid of failing again. I’m afraid of boys. I’m afraid I’m a quitter. I’m afraid of being a nobody. I’m afraid the best title for my college application essay will end up being, “A loser at age seventeen”.

Well, that’s it Mrs. Kelley. I wonder if you give extra credit because I know I am way over the required length for this assignment! I hope you’re still reading!

2 Responses to “A Loser at Age Thirteen”

  1. Candace McClellan says:

    Author! Author! A wonderful story that evokes pictures of the teenaged years which made me smirk and whimper and cry and laugh. So enjoyable.

  2. […] 0 NEWS Congratulations to Annette Pasternak, who just had her first short story–”A Loser at Age Thirteen“–published online: http://www.aflyinamber.net. Annette also has a story in Burst literary […]

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