The Turn of Things

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A high school student with an imperfect academic record tries to discover her forte and turn her life around in college.

Submitted: January 18, 2007

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Submitted: January 18, 2007

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“Maple, what is the square root of four?” After Mr. Li, my advanced placement physics teacher had finished asking all the “core members” of the class to solve the difficult parts of the problem he posed on the board, he left this last question for me, as sarcasm, of course. It was the second semester of advanced placement physics. I struggled the first semester and barely got a C. From then on my performance went down instead of improved. By this time, the teacher had practically given up on me and used me as a joke for entertaining the class. I thought he was fair for doing that. I had reached my maximum potential in physics. No amount of teaching could make me understand the difficult problems.

“Two?” I answered. Many people in the class laughed. Even though I was quite used to what was happening to me in that class, something about what the teacher and my classmates did still bothered me. When the teacher finished the problem on the board and instructed us to work on problems in the textbook on our own, instead of working on the problems, which I began to realize I almost could not do at all, I took out the book we were reading for advanced placement English, Wuthering Heights, and held it high in front of my face in defense of my poor performance in physics. At that time, it was hard for me to accept the idea that maybe those advanced placement kids were simply smarter than me. I always told people that I was not very good in science to imply that English was really my expertise.

“You started reading for English already?” Sam, this thin, medium-height, pimply Vietnamese-American guy who was considered in my inner city school to be pretty smart by his teachers and peers, including myself, sat down in the empty seat next to me. Sam was also in my advanced placement English class. I respected Sam even though he was not good-looking, because he was one of the smart advanced placement kids. At that time, taking advanced placement classes and in turn belonging to the advanced placement crowd, besides being pretty, thin, fashionable, having long straight hair down to my waist, and popular in other respects, was my biggest honor. Yet doing poorly in physics made me doubt that I was ever one of them from the beginning.

“I am going to focus on English instead of physics,” I said. “I’m not a science person.”

“Not me,” Sam said. “I have not started reading for English yet. I’m too busy with this class and Calculus.”

“Are you going to take the AP test for this class?” I asked.

“Yeah, are you?” I thought Sam sounded a little doubtful. I wondered if he realized how bad I was doing in the class.

“No,” I said. “But I’m going to take the AP English test. I think I’m doing all right in that class.”

“Really?” He said. I was glad that I piqued Sam’s interest by asserting that I was actually doing well in AP English, a class that even he would consider challenging. Despite looking like an Asian version of Kelly Bundy from Married With Children instead of studious and conservative like a typical intelligent girl, which ironically was probably one of the reasons why all the advanced placement guys liked me, I did as well or even better than most people in AP English, which made me marginally an AP kid.

“Yeah, what did you get last semester?” I asked.

“I got a B. What did you get?” Sam, who was usually nonchalant toward other people’s business, sounded interested in my performance in AP English.

“I got a B too,” I said. It was unfair for me to compare myself to Sam like that. English was not the most important subject to him. He would major in one of the sciences in college. But it was what made me special—slightly above average. Realizing that, I decided to start working hard in AP English. I turned to where I left off in WutheringHeights and stared intently at the words on the pages.

“Maple, what are you doing? Why aren’t you working on your problems?” Mr. Li came to my desk.

Since I had become the joker in that class, I was used to coming up with something funny to say or do to start a scene every time the teacher asked me a question like that, so I turned around, pointed at the group of AP kids sitting in a cluster with their desks facing each other in the back of the class working on the problems together, and said, “They are not helping me.” Those kids had known me for a while, sort of accepted me, and were used to remarks like that from me. They were not offended. The teacher was used to this kind of reaction from me as well. He stood up straight, eyed the group in the back, and said, “Guys, I want you to stop what you are doing for a minute.” They all looked my way.

“Maple said she is not doing her problems because you are not helping her. Why are you not helping her?” He said half-jokingly.

“She doesn’t need our help,” one of the guys said.

“Come on, don’t give me that. You know why I think you are not helping her? You are envious of her. Maple has something you all don’t have.” Mr. Li said secretively, and then turned to me. “Now you tell me, why do you think they are not helping you?”

“It’s just like what you said. They are intimidated by my overwhelming goodness,” I said.

“Maybe,” Mr. Li shrugged. “Or maybe by your conceit. Now stop being ridiculous and work on your problems,” he said, sauntered back to his own desk in the corner of the front of the room, and resumed to a world unbeknown my seventeen-year-old mind.

I did not do those problems in the book. I did not know how, and it was too late to ask anybody else in the class to show me how to do them because my classmates were so much ahead of me and were getting ready for the AP physics test. I did the homework for all my other classes and spent the rest of my time reading WutheringHeights. To my surprise, I was able to connect what I read to my AP English teacher’s explanation and analysis of the book. Everything came together and made sense.

The next day, I paid close attention to everything the teacher said and took notes vigorously in my AP English class. After AP English, instead of going to my AP physics class, I went to the college advisement office.

The college advisement counselor was not there. Unexpectedly, the coordinator for the after school drama crew, which I was a part of the previous semester, was there. She was a petite, thin Native American woman in her forties with dark skin, long coarse black hair, and lots of warmth.

“Maple! How are you?” She said with a big smile and put one arm around me.

“Good,” I said. “I came because I have some questions about college.”

“That’s right, you’re going to college next year. Now tell me, where have you applied to? Why don’t you apply to Harvard? I know somebody at Harvard. I’ll help you apply,” she said.

“No, I can not go to Harvard,” I said. “I’m actually waiting for my letter from UCLA. But I don’t think they will accept me. My grades are not good enough. I got accepted to UC Irvine and USC. I don’t know which one I should go to. Is Mr. Chavez here?” I said.

“No, he will be back after lunch. But I’ll tell him you came by, okay?” She said.

I went to AP physics class late. Nobody cared. That was a free class for smart people. The teacher didn’t bother us with trivial matters like tardiness.

When the class was free to disperse and work on the assignment on our own, I went and joined Sam and the other kids.

“Did you get your acceptance letter from UCLA yet?” I asked Sam.

“No,” he said.

“Did you get it from all the other schools?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“So the only school we’re waiting for is UCLA?” I said.

“I guess,” he said.

“Is that the school you want to go to?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Where are you going to?”

“Maybe USC,” I said.

That day, when I went home, I got a thin letter from UCLA. “We regret not being able to offer you admission into the University of California, Los Angeles,” it said.

A few days later, in AP physics, Tony, who was not only an AP kid but also good-looking, on the varsity basketball team, and admired by one of my female friends, said to Mr. Li, “I got into UCLA.”

“You did? Good for you,” Mr. Li said with an ambiguous smile, and then said to the class, “Who here are going to UCLA?”

“I am,” Sam said.

“Me. I got into UCLA,” Alvin, who was doing well in AP physics but had an atypical laidback attitude, raised his hand. Actually, the AP kids in my school were laidback, proud, and valued coolness and good-looks instead of nerdy and conservative.

“Good,” Mr. Li said.

“That’s where you went to, right?” Sam said.

“That’s right,” Mr. Li smiled, and then looked straight at me, who sat right in front of him in the front of the class. “Where are you going to?” He asked.

“USC,” I said.

Mr. Li did not ask me why I was not going to UCLA. He simply frowned, shook his head, and said, “Nay, don’t go to USC.”

A few weeks later, after the AP exams, we were all sitting in the back of the class chatting.

“I’m going to USC,” Tony said.

I was flabbergasted. “You are?” I exclaimed. “But why? Why aren’t you going to UCLA?”

Mr. Li, who walked by our cluster on his way to his other desk in the back of the class, overheard us and said, “Tony, you’re going to USC? No, don’t go to USC. I thought you’re going to UCLA.”

“No, I’m going to USC. Closer to home,” Tony said. I was surprised that somebody with a 3.9 GPA gave such a simplistic reason for the decision of his life. But secretly, I was overjoyed.

One day, Mr. Li said to us, “Those of you who have done well in high school may find yourselves not doing as well in college, especially in the beginning. In college things are a little different.”

In the first week of school at USC, my psychology professor recommended us to keep up with the reading assignments and study everyday instead of cramming right before the exam. I used that advice for all my classes. It occurred to me that that’s what those AP kids from my high school would have trouble doing. They were so used to depending on their natural intelligence, concentrating on the sciences, and hardly read.

In the second semester of freshman year, I ran into Tony in line in the cafeteria.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“To my friends,” he pointed at a group of Asian guys sitting around a table in the cafeteria. They were not from my high school. Maybe they’re rich, I thought. Or maybe they’re Asians from other low socio-economic neighborhoods. I was curious about what kind of friends Tony made.

Then I remembered what Mr. Li told us about those AP kids not doing as well in college, and asked, “How did you do last semester?”

“I got a 3.4. What about you? How did you do?” He said.

“I got a 3. 8,” I said. “I’m doing better than in high school.”

“Everybody else did better in high school. College is harder,” he said. I didn’t think so. College was my only chance to start over.

In the second semester of sophomore year, I moved from home to an on-campus apartment and met my neighbor, Phil. Unlike the guys from my high school, he was not Chinese-Vietnamese but a third-generation Chinese-American guy who grew up in a suburb in San Francisco. This Taiwanese girl I met in my freshman year, who also lived in that apartment, introduced us and said he was cute. But I found his tall, lanky frame, his greased-back hair, his somber black wool blazer, long blue jeans, heavy black leather lace-up shoes, and his in-your-face attitude odd.

“There are two kinds of Asians,” he said. “The kind that belongs to the fraternities and sororities, and the kind that doesn’t. You and I are the latter type,” he said on our way to the on-campus Carl’s Jr.

“Why is that?” I said. But I was a homecoming princess and cheerleader in high school, I thought. I wanted to take out my wallet and show Phil a picture of me from high school, with long straight hair, perfect make-up, and fashionable clothes. I wondered how I was different from the Asian sorority girls in USC. But the only thing I could think of to say was, “I met some of them in my education class. They’re not that pretty though.”

“You think so?” he said skeptically. “But they are the popular girls in this school.”

“I didn’t join a sorority because I wanted to focus on my studies,” I said.

“I can not see you as one of them,” Phil said. Why did he think I was a misfit? Then I saw Tony walking towards us from the opposite direction.

“Hi,” I waved at him as usual. He smiled vaguely and acknowledged me inaudibly.

After we passed Tony, Phil said, “He’s in the Beta fraternity. You see, he looks like a typical frat-boy.”

But he’s my friend from high school. Tony and I go way back. AP physics, that cluster in the back of the class, all of us talking about college. It seemed absurd how Phil thought Tony fit in while I didn’t. But I didn’t bother to ask Phil about the reasons behind what he said. I didn’t really care why he was a misfit, or even why I was one. Even I thought he looked weird and unpleasant.


© Copyright 2018 JChou. All rights reserved.

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