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"Ice Cream": Third Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011

That was a minor milestone compared to today. The chairs and stands of the gymnasium are nearly full now, and the line of students is visible at the door. At any moment, the band will begin to play the processional. All in white graduation gowns, the students wait uncharacteristically quietly. Some students must be thinking of how this is their last time in this high school gym as seniors, of the all-night party that lies ahead, of the upcoming summer, of work and college, and of the decisions of adulthood. Parents may be thinking of the passage of the high school years, the assemblies and concerts, conferences and celebrations, and of the end of another stage. I remember when my daughter was a freshman. The year was full of growth and adjustments. One particular day flashes into my mind: I had pulled ahead of the other cars in the pickup line. I parked in the fire lane and got out, uncomfortably next to the "No Parking" sign. The familiar twinge of conscience and the looks of the other parents reminded me that I could get ticketed or towed for this. With the budget cuts, though, there was no one to walk my vision-impaired daughter to the curb. Unless I was there to greet her, she would have difficulty locating me or the car.

Walking inside, against the flow of chattering teenagers, I sought mine. I noticed the gangly boys, leaning with cool affect against the wall, idly talking, jostling, watching groups as they approached and passed. Those boys who had not yet matured seemed to feel the gauntlet. I was struck by the difference in appearance, the 14-year-olds who still carried the boyish softness, compared to the manly 18-year-olds who exuded their mastery of the world around them.

I scanned the lingering groups of friends, the pairs and trios who carpooled, the individuals walking with brisk purpose. Finally, I saw my own. She walked alone, as usual. Her awkward gait was impeded by the large backpack she wore. She seemed blissfully oblivious to the glances and faces directed at her from some students as she passed. I was not. I heard the flap of her feet in spite of the noise in the hallway and tried to quell the social anxiety I felt, not sure it if it was from empathy or my own insecurities.

She smiled with recognition, and I hugged her, appreciating that she will never feel embarrassed by public affection. After a day of loneliness, she craved touch and conversation. I unburdened her from her backpack and we made our way to the car. Again that day, I was relieved to find it where I left it, with no ticket on the windshield.

As we proceeded home, I asked the usual questions about her classes and her day. She chattered joyfully about a joke one teacher told, about a prank she witnessed, giggling as she remembered. For the most part, she was the observer in her tales, relating what she had noticed but rarely what she had done. This day was slightly different, though. Her characteristically sunny face clouded as she told me that she got a bad grade on her biology test, returned today. I reminded her that she only needed to pass. I reminded myself of the miracle that she takes biology at all.

Those days, she talked incessantly from the time she joined me until she went to bed. My theory was that she had a certain amount to say each day and needed to squeeze it all in during those hours. Ever since she realized in kindergarten that her speech impairment—not the listener's lack of attention—limited others' understanding of her, she resisted talking in public. We had set a goal for her to be able to order for herself in a restaurant, and for her to be conversational with people she deemed safe, but it did not come easily for her.

She continued talking about biology class, and about how they had to do work in groups. Her group did not include her, so she just watched. Her facial expression told me how she felt about that. I struggled with what to say; she moved on. This afternoon, she continued, her special education teacher was celebrating. The entire class did the assignments this week, so she had brought in ice cream! There was a choice of wrapped bars for each student. Bless this teacher, I thought for the thousandth time.

We pulled into the garage. As I put the car in park and cut the ignition, she turned to me, her face again glowing with the carefree joy I see so often. She concluded her day's description with a decision: "I'll just remember the ice cream."