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Lithium The winged whirlwind: a short story

Feb. 19, 2019
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It all started with a pilot pin. One stupid, shiny airline pin, mass-produced in some factory but given directly to me. It was a gateway to opportunity, a dream dislodged from the background of reality. I wanted to be a pilot. 

At the time of receiving the pin, I was attracted to anything shiny as most six-year-olds are and the dream was written off as a phase by my parents. However, as the idea of flight began to take root in my mind over the years, I realized how wonderful it would be to fly all across the world, carrying people to and from their destinations. It seemed like there was so much power involved in the job, so much responsibility in transporting other human beings, so many lives in my hands and the structure of a metal bird. It was an attractive sort of power, and my piloting aspirations became more tangible, a sight on which to set my eyes. It never occurred to me that dreams didn’t work that way, that I couldn’t just pick a star and shoot for it. Had I known how many asteroids would be in the way, perhaps I wouldn’t have aimed so far away. 

8:04. I was four minutes late, which meant I was on time, as far as my standards went. As I rushed out of my mother’s beat-up Honda, spitting a quick goodbye that I’d apologize for later, I pinned the small pilot pin to the front of my jacket, easing my hair around the jutting edges of the winged plastic. With the pin secured, I moved faster towards the doors of East Grove Middle School, formulating excuses and apologies to deliver once I reached my destination. I burst into Ms. Carroll’s sixth-grade classroom out of breath, and all eyes turned to meet mine as I lowered my gaze to my feet. 

“Oh, Aella! Good morning!” Ms. Carroll, wearing gaudy, dangling earrings, welcomed me in with a flourish of her arm from the front of the classroom. She didn’t seem to mind my tardiness as much as I did. 

“Good morning, Ms. Carroll,” I smiled meekly. “Sorry I’m late again. We’re trying to work on that.” She nodded and smiled, returning dramatically to the Powerpoint on the screen as I situated myself in my seat. I avoided the abundance of curious looks from my classmates, focusing instead on the information held on the screen, and slowly, all attention turned from my entrance to Ms. Carroll. 

The board hosted four big words, all in colorful block letters. Career Show and Tell. The back of my neck began to sweat as my brain processed what these words meant; my heart rate increased. I reached for the pilot pin nervously, twisting it in place. 

“Yes! By the confused, slightly chagrined faces I’m going to assume you’ve all turned your attention back to the presentation,” she looked at me, winking. “I want you to tell me all about what you want to be when you grow up. It’s not all that far away for you guys, and let me tell you, it goes by quicker than you’d expect!” The rest of the class smiled nervously at Ms. Carroll’s assignment, prompting her to explain further.

“Okay, look, it’s not going to be incredibly difficult. You’ll come up, individually, and share a five-minute presentation on a career or post-educational path you’re interested in, accompanied by a visual of some sort. I recommend a slide document,” she gestured to the screen smugly, “but you can run your ideas by me as well. We start presentations two days from now, so jump on it!” 

A flurry of hands raised at the close of her statement, and she worked her way around the room answering them. I had zoned out by that point, pondering instead what exactly I would do for my presentation. For as much as I longed to be a pilot, I had never shared it with anyone, especially not anyone in East Grove’s sixth-grade class. I knew I had the option to lie, to say I was following in one of my parents’ footsteps of being a librarian or personal trainer, but neither occupation seemed like the right thing to talk about. For the moment I tried to fool myself into thinking I could escape this show-and-tell unscathed, without exposing my dreams, but I knew that was wishful thinking. I fell deeper into my mind. 

The rest of the day smeared into nothingness as I debated what to do. I knew that it was time for me to talk about my piloting dream, but part of me wasn’t ready to tell my secret. Once I released it into the world, it would become a real desire, something to be held accountable to, more so than it had ever been before. The thought of a career expectation put to me by my peers terrified me, and still, I found myself opening up the slide-show program and titling my presentation “My Piloting Dream.”

My brain and body worked in sync to produce a piece that I would be proud of, had I the confidence to share it. I tried to articulate to myself why I couldn’t admit this out loud, that I wouldn’t be faced with any consequences if I shared this information and didn’t follow through with it. As I continued rationalizing the situation to myself, it seemed more and more likely that I not only could but would present the dream version of myself to Ms. Carroll and the class. This was my dream—I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I wanted to be a pilot, and now, I was okay with wanting the world to know it too. 

I devoted the rest of my afternoon to polishing the slides, making sure everything was in place for my debut. My excitement mounted as the presentation garnered more and more slides, and in my excitement I emailed Ms. Carroll, asking her for permission to present a day early, tomorrow. I was certain I couldn’t wait, and this concrete accountability would ensure I wouldn’t worm my way out of the situation. 

Dear Ms. Carroll,

This is Aella Leroy, sixth grade. I was wondering if I could present my career show-and-tell a day early, tomorrow during class? I am very excited to show you my work.

Thank you! -Aella L.

I shut my laptop with finality after emailing her and ensuring the presentation was loaded correctly, giddy with anticipation. I focused on distracting myself by checking my mom’s email compulsively, waiting for a response. Of when it would come I wasn’t sure, but I knew she’d say yes. She had to.

I woke up to an email from Ms. Carroll, patiently unread in my mom’s inbox. I begged my mom to open it as we sped to school, late yet again, and she handed me her phone with the message on screen:

Aella,

Of course, you can present early! Consider it a test run. Please come prepared to present at the beginning of class today.

Ms. Carroll

A slow warmth began to spread across my face, but for once I wasn’t sure if it was due to nerves or excitement. It was this warmth that fueled me to leave the car, to sprint toward the classroom, backpack and dreams in tow. 

“Good morning! Hi, Ms. Carroll.” I smiled at her anxiously, and she shuffled me in. 

“Aella, are you ready to share?” Ms. Carroll looked at me expectantly, and I nodded. After setting my stuff down, I practically skipped to her computer. I plugged in the presentation, and moved to the front of the room, my hands tightly gripping the hems of my sleeves. I cleared my throat, trying not to make eye contact with any one of my peers for an extended amount of time. I hadn’t realized that presenting to the class mentally did not entail the same feelings that physically standing in front of the class did. I stalled, bending over to tie my shoe; I could hear the class getting antsy. 

“Whenever you’re ready, please.”

“O-okay. Hi, everyone, good morning. So I wanted to do my, uh, show-and-tell presentation on my dream career: piloting.” My forehead began to sweat, a layer of sheen formulating on my face. I cleared my throat again. 

“Piloting is a very important career. It, uh, provides a lot of people with an opportunity to see the world safely, and without pilots, how would we be able to get to other countries?” Ms. Carroll nodded encouragingly, and I removed my hands from my sleeves. I could do this. 

And then I was flying through the presentation, speaking to these people who had known practically nothing about me until now. I was proud of the way my heart knew what to say, and I was proud that my brain could piece passion into words. I felt my face cementing into a smile, with Ms. Carroll’s encouraging expressions only fueling the fire within me. 

The class clapped at the conclusion of my presentation, slowly stilling to silence as Ms. Carroll sat grading my work. I looked at my shoes as the quiet settled over me, my face garnering heat. I had confessed my dream to people who weren’t related to me. I was elated. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Jason Cunningham lean to his left, whispering to Rachel Diaz, two kids whose names I knew only because they created drama wherever they went.

“Why would she want to be a pilot? I don’t get why she’s so excited…” Ms. Carroll’s ears perked up and she swooped in, rapidly guiding me to my desk. The entire class had heard Jason’s comment, and my reddening cheeks were suddenly accompanied by eyes brimming with tears. 

“Hey, Jason, that’s not nice. Women can be pilots too! Please apologize to Aella.”

“No, it’s fine.” I wiped my eyes, turning from the linoleum to Ms. Carroll. “Can I please use the restroom?” Without waiting for permission, I ran to the door, more ashamed of myself than I had ever been. 

Doubt had infiltrated the deepest corners of my mind. 24 hours ago, I had been over the moon to share my dreams and now they had crumbled at my feet. Looking at myself in the grimy bathroom mirror, stupid plastic pin in place, I couldn’t remember why I wanted to be a pilot in the first place. For years, my dream had been based solely on the fact that I’d received an item that thousands of other kids had received before me. I removed the pin, stopping short of throwing it away only because of nostalgia.

Jason Cunningham was right. Why did I want to be a pilot? Ms. Carroll was right, women could be pilots too, but did that mean they couldn’t be before? Was my dream completely invalid because I didn’t know why I wanted to pursue it, but also because women aren’t generally seen as pilots? I buried my head in my hands, stressed by the fact that I cared so much about the future at age twelve, upset at the fact that I set myself up for failure by sharing the truth. I didn’t want to go back to class—I couldn’t face everyone or Ms. Carroll after this.

I left the bathroom dismally in favor of the nurse, abandoning my backpack in my classroom. I knew my mom would take me home if I called, and I also knew she’d gather my stuff from Ms. Carroll’s if I asked. I decided that was the best option for me at this point. I knew I couldn’t face school any longer. I was a girl lost, undefined. After knowing for so long who I was and what I wanted to be, to have it all ripped away from me at the deliverance of a few offhand words was devastating. I had to go home. 

Melancholy was simple, at least for a few hours. My mom brought me home wordlessly, knowing I’d inevitably share when I was ready. I curled up in bed, thinking about who I was and why I was her. I thought about the experiences that had shaped my life and why they were important to me. I recalled the first time I wore the pilot pin, reliving the wonder and fascination that accompanied my first flight, high above civilization. I thought about Jason Cunningham’s words and the way he whispered them to Rachel Diaz, the way he didn’t care about what he was saying, the way it seemed like he was speaking just to have something to say. I thought about Ms. Carroll’s words and how I was certain she didn’t realize their implications. I know she would never tear me down or hurt me, and while I couldn’t say the same about Jason or Rachel, I knew their words shouldn’t impact my dream.

I had wanted to be a pilot for forever; a dream that long-standing cannot be shaken by the winds of unawareness. I am in control of who I want to be, and I am in control of what dream I possess and how I pursue it. I uncurled, leaving the layered blankets of my bed to look for the infamous pin. I needed to see it. 

I rummaged through the front pocket of my backpack. My hand gripped the familiar plastic edges and I smiled, content. I pulled the pin out of the bag and enclosed it in my palm, grateful that I hadn’t thrown it away in my hasty moment of despair. I held the pin close to my heart, reassured of what had always been. I put the pin back in its rightful place near my heart, where it would stay. Everything was right where it needed to be.

I may not be able to control what happens in the future, but I can control what happens in the now. I want to be a pilot—that much I know for certain. I can’t let any non-believers rip my confidence from me, especially not with a few silly words or undertones. There’s always going to be someone unhappy with what I’m doing; as long as it’s not me, I know I’m doing something right.