We get our yearbooks the Friday morning before the Jubilee weekend, the annual end-of-the-year carnival held in our high school’s parking lot. It’s kind of like the end of Grease! But with less hairspray and singing.
Ms. Benway hands the yearbooks out during homeroom, making sure we get the correct ones before anyone starts signing each other’s, because senior year, you get your own name engraved in the bottom right corner of the front cover.
I run my hand over the gold imprint, tracing my name. Jane Marie Smith, Class of 2018.
I open the yearbook. The binding is stiff, so I press the front cover back until the spine makes a cracking sound that cuts through the chatter in the room. It’s weirdly satisfying. I flip through the table of contents and the opening pages, looking for the senior class photos and quotes.
I can’t wait to see my portrait, between Alison Smalls and Cara Snyder, the way I have been every year since middle school. I feel the tiniest bit bad splitting them up, because everywhere but in the yearbook, they’re joined at the hip.
What I’m really dying to see are the senior quotes: that one line each person chose way back in September, to sum up his or her entire life philosophy in 150 words or less. I spent forever picking out mine and finally settled on one from Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading the light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
See, I’m more of a mirror kind of girl. I’m not the girl that boycotts the cafeteria menu for not providing enough vegan options, like my best friend Divya, or runs for student government, or is captain of a sports team, or even plays a team sport. But I am always there, supporting everyone else.
So I’m excited to see my quote right under my name and picture.
Except that when I find the page where I should fall, alphabetically speaking, I’m not there.
Alison and Cara are right next to each other, the way they are in real life. I keep checking the space in between them, as if my picture will sprout out of the sliver of white space, like a weed in the sidewalk. But of course, it doesn’t.
Alison’s quote: What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Alison Smalls would pick Emerson.
Cara’s is I woke up like this. – Beyoncé. That choice doesn’t surprise me, either.
I go through the entire senior section, scanning for my face and name. Maybe I’d been placed out of order by accident.
But when I get to the end of the alphabet, there is only this: Not Pictured: Jane Smith.
What the hell?
That’s what I say when I find Rudy Yee, the yearbook editor, in the hallway between classes.
“What the hell, Rudy?” I shove my open yearbook under his nose, so he can see where I’m pointing – at the space where my face is supposed to be.
“What’s your problem?”
I point harder. “You left me out of the yearbook. I was pictured. I had a quote and everything. I gave it to the office back in September, just like everyone else.”
Rudy looks at my yearbook, and then takes it from me. I glare at him as he flips through. He scrunches up his face as he sees what I already know: I’m not in there.
He looks back up at me. “You must have fallen through the cracks somewhere.”
“You had all year to ask me about it, to double-check. But now? Everyone in school has this yearbook, and I’m not in it.” My voice trembles a bit. I am not going to cry in front of Rudy.
I know it’s just a yearbook. But years from now, people will look through it and wonder why I hadn’t gotten my shit together to send in my portrait and quote when I did and Rudy Yee somehow overlooked me.
Rudy’s face is sympathetic, but he shrugs and says, “Nothing I can do about it now. Sorry, Jane.”
“That’s it? You’re sorry?”
Rudy opens his wallet and pulls out two twenty-dollar bills. “Here. I’m refunding the cost of your yearbook.” He holds them out to me.
I swat his hand away. “It’s not about what I paid. It’s that no one is going to remember I was part of this class.”
Now Rudy looks annoyed. “You have heard of the Internet, right? The yearbook is just something to collect signatures in and gather dust in your house until your kids take it out one rainy day and make fun of your hair. Get online and get over yourself.”
“My. Name. Is. Jane. Smith. I’m practically un-Googlable. Why were you yearbook editor if you don’t even care about it?”
Rudy makes a “duh” face. “For college apps? Obviously.”
Unless I end up doing something extraordinary with my life, it’ll be impossible to tell me apart from the hundreds of other Jane Smiths in the world. If my classmates lose track of me, I will not be easy to find.
I won’t be the candle or the mirror. I will be a ghost, with no reflection, no memories, not even a scorch mark left as a reminder of my presence.
Even Ms. Drabek can’t pretend to care when it’s the last day of school. She scrolls through her phone while everyone signs yearbooks and talks about the Jubilee and graduation this weekend.
“Hey, Jane, sign my yearbook,” Iris Chang says, passing it to me. It’s heavy in my hands.
“Sure.” I write, Good luck at college! Stay sweet – Jane Smith. Even my penmanship looks boring. This is who I am. Forgettable.
I hand it back to her.
“Where’s yours? Can I sign?”
I look to my backpack at my feet, where my own yearbook is hiding. “I forgot it in my locker. Maybe you can sign it later.”
“Okay,” she says, and moves on to Max Niederman.
Next to me, Divya shoots me a look of disapproval. She’s the only one I’ve told besides Rudy, in a string of incredulous texts.
“You’re making too big a deal out of it. At least let people sign your yearbook,” Divya whispers.
I snatch her yearbook off her desk and let it swing open, the pages flapping in the air. “I showed up to every football game in the fall. I went to every dance. But somehow, I’ve managed not to make it into any of the pictures, not even in the background. It’s like I wasn’t here at all.”
Divya grabs it back, like she’s worried my omission is contagious. “At least come to the Jubilee tonight with me.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You’re going to blow your entire grad weekend because Rudy messed up your yearbook portrait?”
I’m about to tell her to stop judging me when her picture is right where it’s supposed to be, with her quote (We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? – 11th Doctor (Matt Smith)) below her name.
But that’s when Teddy Morganstern pulls up a chair next to me, yearbook tucked under one arm. One strong-looking, smooth arm. The kind of arm that could pull you by the waist and hold you against him as he bent his head and –
“Hi, Jane,” he says. “Divya.” His smile is warm, and his eyes are bright behind long lashes.
I sit up straighter, shaking myself out of my daydream about Teddy’s arms. “Teddy, hi.” I touch my hair, then notice I’m touching my hair, and pull my hand away too fast, grabbing a pen off my desk to cover up my awkwardness.
“You guys get your yearbooks? Can I sign?”
“Of course,” Divya says, trading hers with his. She gives me one more look, eyes wide, and points her gaze at my backpack. If she could telekinetically rip my yearbook out of my bag, that look would do it. “Of course I want to sign the class president’s yearbook. Who wouldn’t?” Her voice has a slight edge to it that I know is for my benefit.
Teddy blushes a little. “I mean, I hope that’s not the only reason,” he says.
“Of course not,” Divya says. “You have many great qualities that endear you to your fellow students. Doesn’t he, Jane?”
“Oh, yes! I mean, you’re also valedictorian.” Ugh. What am I doing, writing his resume?
“Just like his brother Andrew,” Ms. Drabek says, without looking up from her phone. I didn’t realize she’d been eavesdropping.
Teddy winces, just barely, but I notice.
“I didn’t know that about your older brother,” I say, a bit more quietly.
Teddy signs Divya’s yearbook as he speaks, his eyes on the page. “Yeah.” It’s more of a sigh than a word.
“How’s he doing?” Ms. Drabek asks, a bit of eagerness creeping into her voice. “Visiting home anytime soon? I graduated with him, you know.”
Teddy looks up at her and smiles again, but it’s the kind of smile I make when I don’t want Divya to know I can’t handle the sriracha she puts on our fries. “He’s in law school and clerking for some federal judge in D.C. this summer. I don’t know if he’ll be home at all.”
Ms. Drabek frowns, her summer romance fantasy shattered. She goes back to her phone.
Divya’s eyes are even wider now. “She totally wants your brother!”
Teddy shrugs. “He has that effect on people. He’s the guy everyone wants to be around. Or to be.”
It’s weird, because that’s exactly how I would describe Teddy, who is definitely a candle and not a mirror. He has a light in him that people are drawn to. And there’s also those arms.
But even he feels overshadowed sometimes.
Or he’s been a mirror all along, just like me, and I just didn’t know it.
I need to say something.
Maybe it’s because it’s the last day of school, and maybe it’s because I’m not in the yearbook, and maybe it’s because after wondering for so long what Teddy and I could ever possibly have in common, I’ve finally found it.
But it’s not as hard as I think it should be to find the words.
“Well, Andrew’s in D.C., and you’re here. He’s old news.”
Teddy looks up from the yearbook and a slow smile spreads across his face, his eyes locked on mine.
I would kill for the ability to read minds right now.
I’m so obvious. I can’t stop staring at him, and it’s like it doesn’t even matter, because school is over.
And Teddy just broke up with Emily, and we’re going to college in different cities in three months, so it really doesn’t matter.
Divya hands Teddy back his yearbook. He scrawls a quick note in hers, and looks at me. “Jane? How about you?”
And like that, I freeze up again. I don’t want Teddy to know that, unlike him, nobody will be talking about me after I’m gone.
After what I’m certain is an eon, I manage, “Um, it’s in my locker. I can sign yours now, though.”
Teddy hands his yearbook to me and I flip to the back inside cover.
Now what? Clearly not what I’m thinking, which is “I’ve had a crush on you since the fifth grade, and now that you and Emily broke up, maybe we could hang out some time?” with my phone number beneath it.
I glance at Divya. I need her to distract Teddy to buy me some time to think.
“So, Teddy, what are you doing this summer?” she asks.
They start talking about summer jobs, and I stare at the blank page. Divya and Teddy’s conversation fades away from my ears as I focus on his yearbook.
What would Edith Wharton say?
For one thing, she wouldn’t overdo it. I picked her for my quote because she knew how to say something true and meaningful without being too wordy.
Teddy, I write. I know you’ll go far, no matter what you decide to do with your life. The only person you need to live up to is you. And you’re already pretty great. I hesitate over the closing. I could write “Love, Jane,” but that would be a bit much. I could write, “Sincerely,” but that’s too formal. I bite my lip and draw a small heart, making two swooping strokes with my pen before I can think too hard about it, then write Jane after it. A heart is a heart, but a lot of girls sign their names like that. It doesn’t mean I’m saying I love him.
Even if I kind of do.
I snap the yearbook shut, and Divya and Teddy jump.
“Sorry.” I hand it back to him.
“Should I read it now?”
“Maybe save it for later.” I wink at him.
I wink. At Teddy Morganstern.
And he seems to be just fine with it. “Okay,” he says, standing up. His eyes are on me, the whole time.
“We’ll see you at the Jubilee, right?” Divya asks.
“Definitely,” Teddy says, and he winks back.
“You are going,” Divya says at lunch.
“You cannot still be upset after Teddy basically asked you out this morning.”
“He didn’t ask me out.” I get hot all over, thinking about it. But I squash the feeling. “A cute boy being nice to me doesn’t make up for the fact that I am a total nonentity in the yearbook. And frankly, I’m a little surprised you’d suggest that it did.”
Divya blows her straw wrapper at me. It hits my cheek and falls to the table.
“Of course it doesn’t. You’re not in the yearbook, fine, but you’re still a part of this class. So show Rudy! Show everyone. You belong at the Jubilee.”
“How?” I crumple the wrapper in my hand.
“What was your senior quote again? Be the candle, duh. Quit being the reflection for once. Force everyone to pay attention to you.”
“You’re not suggesting that I, like, set a fire or something?”
“What? No. Don’t be so literal.” Divya leans in closer. “Do something so big no one will forget you. Flash everyone on the Ferris wheel.”
“You know I don’t like heights. And I would never flash anyone.”
“Okay, but if you could do something big, what would you do?”
And just like that, I know what that big something should be.
I’m impressed with how easily Divya takes to scheming.
We go to Walmart after school. I get the spray paint. Neon pink.
Diyva picks up matching black hoodies for subterfuge.
“I’m worried you’re a little too excited about this.” I can’t be responsible for starting Divya on a life of crime right before she heads off to the University of Michigan.
“What? Gotta dress for the job you want,” she says as we pay. “It’s cosplay, Jane.”
Then I understand.
Divya goes to cons on the weekends and dresses up as her favorite sci-fi and fantasy characters, with these amazing costumes she’s sewn herself. I’ve never been into it. I have never been able to be anyone but plain old Jane Smith. “You’re already halfway there.”
“What do you mean?” I follow her out to the parking lot.
Divya bats her eyes and speaks in a falsetto. “Andrew’s in D.C., and you’re here. He’s old news.”
“I was just trying to be reassuring!”
“Jane, I have been waiting years for this side of you to come out. Honestly, I think this yearbook snafu is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. It’s like senioritis on steroids.”
I stop in my tracks. “What do you mean? This has been one of the worst days of my life. I’ve never felt like a bigger nobody.”
“Don’t you see? You have been living in this defined little box, and now it’s gone. You stood up for yourself to Rudy. The old Jane would have never done that.”
Divya unlocks the car and we get in.
“You think it makes you nobody, but what it actually means is that you can be anybody. Including the kind of girl that flirts with Teddy Morganstern.”
On the football field, they’re putting out all the chairs and the podium where we’ll cross the stage tomorrow morning.
There are food stands, games, and rides, like the Tilt-A-Whirl, and a Ferris wheel that towers over everything else, where the parking lot usually is, so we have to park at the middle school and walk over.
My last Jubilee. I breathe in the scent of baking flour from the fried elephant ears and the spun sugar of cotton candy.
Having the spray paint in my backpack puts me a little on edge. The cans clink together when I walk. Every time a teacher walks by, my heartbeat pounds a little faster in my chest. But I remember what Divya said.
It’s cosplay. It’s not me, just a character I’m playing. Someone who isn’t afraid of getting in trouble, or of being seen.
The football team has a pie-eating contest booth, which I usually find disgusting, but when they ask for volunteers, I raise my hand. The quarterback, Brandon Rodriguez, hands me a paper bib, and I tie my hair back. Divya gives me a thumbs up. When Brandon yells “Start!”, I thrust my face into a chocolate cream pie and don’t look up again until I’m licking aluminum. Divya snaps pictures of my sticky face and I grin and wipe the whipped cream and pudding out of my hair. I don’t win, but I also don’t care, especially after Brandon fist-bumps me and says, “Nice job, Jane.” I didn’t think he knew my name.
Next, Divya and I ride in bumper cars with Iris Chang, shrieking and laughing as our rubber bumpers collide and send us spinning across the floor.
At the dunk tank, I somehow manage to dunk Mr. Murphy, my calc teacher. When the bell rings and Mr. Murphy drops from his seat into the clear tank below, everyone gathers around, clapping and cheering and giving me high-fives. With every slap of someone’s palm to mine, I think, I am here. I am seen. I am one of you.
Soon the Jubilee will close for the night and everyone will go home. Then Divya and I can get to work. But in the meantime, I want to enjoy every last minute of my final Jubilee.
Divya and I have just finished a round of Skee-Ball when I hear my name.
“Hey, Jane, want to ride the Ferris wheel with me?” Even before I see him, I know it’s Teddy.
I turn, and even though I want to say yes, I panic at the prospect of me and Teddy, alone up in the air, and Old Jane takes over. “I don’t really trust any moving contraption that can be set up and dismantled in a few hours.”
Even New Jane should probably stick to the games and the food, safe on the ground.
“Oh. Okay.” Teddy frowns.
“Jane.” Divya gives me a little nudge from behind, pushing me towards Teddy. “You’ll be fine.” To Teddy, she adds, “She’s cracked out on cotton candy. What she meant to say was that she’d love to.”
“Uh huh,” I say, but I can’t feel my feet as Teddy and I walk to the Ferris wheel line.
“Crazy that we’re graduating, right?” he asks.
“Yeah, crazy.” I’m trying to calculate how high the Ferris wheel is and if I’d die on impact if it collapsed or if I’d just be paralyzed.
The attendant lets us on. I tug at the safety bar to make sure it’s secure.
Teddy snaps his fingers. “Hey, just realized I never caught you with your yearbook after English class. I’ll have to sign it tomorrow at graduation.”
The Ferris wheel starts to move with a groan and a squeak, and I swallow. It’s fine. It’s not going to fall apart. Definitely not when we’re up at the top. We totally won’t go crashing down to the ground and die with our whole lives ahead of us. My classmates will never forget me then.
“Or do you have yours in there?” He points at my backpack. “I’ll sign it now.”
“No! I mean, no. I don’t have it.” I kick it over to the side, where he can’t reach it.
Teddy looks like he’s sorry he just locked himself in a flying car with an unstable girl.
We fall into silence. I look up at the night sky, finally dark and full of stars.
It’s a good thing we’re both going off to different colleges so I can forget this ever happened. Old Jane and New Jane are battling it out, and Old Jane is winning.
We get higher and higher, stopping each time they add new people and let more off. While we’re moving, I’m okay, but each time it stops, our little cab jerks and sways. I grab the edge of the seat with one hand, and Teddy’s wrist with the other. It’s not like this morning, when that senioritis on steroids, as Divya called it, took over.
No, this is mortifying.
“Are you . . . okay?” he asks.
I shut my eyes for a moment. “I don’t like heights.” I open my eyes and lock into Teddy’s. “I don’t believe that something temporary like this can be safe or a good idea.”
“So . . . why did you agree to come on it with me?”
“Because you asked?” Because Divya made me. Because I’m trying to be someone else for a night.
“I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known it was going to freak you out. I could have just challenged you to one of those water gun races instead.” Teddy pulls his wrist out from under my hand.
I want to leap from the car and let the Earth take me.
Until he takes my hand instead, intertwining his fingers with mine and letting them rest in between us.
I look at our hands, then up at him.
“Does this help?” he asks.
“Yeah.” It’s all I trust myself to say.
I look out across the Jubilee, which is now lit up for night and filled with our classmates’ voices laughing and talking, and music pumping from speakers. I can see Divya, who appears to be playing corn hole with Lizzie McCoy, tossing sandbagged sacks through holes in a wooden target. I can see Jenny Kim and Matt Bradshaw, and Alison Smalls and Cara Snyder, and all of the kids I grew up with and will be leaving behind soon.
“Are you going to be someone new next year?” I ask.
“Like, are you going to reinvent yourself at college? Take up hockey or guitar or calligraphy?”
“Calligraphy,” Teddy repeats.
“Or whatever. Calligraphy is just one of the many options.”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.”
“Well, you could always just do whatever your brother did.” It comes out harsher than it sounded in my mind, and I hear Teddy’s sharp intake of breath.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s okay if you want to be like your brother. It sounds like you could do worse, as far as role models go.” I babble to fill the dead air around us.
After a long moment, Teddy exhales. “You know, I read your yearbook message.”
“Yeah. It was . . . exactly what I needed to hear.” He squeezes my hand in his, just the tiniest bit.
“I meant it.”
“What about you? Are you going to be someone new at college?”
“I want to be myself first. Whoever that is.” If I’d been more of a joiner, maybe I’d have a better idea of who I am, by virtue of having tried more things. Maybe one picture in the yearbook wouldn’t have the power to make or break me, because I could be many Janes, not just Old Jane or New Jane.
“They, um, forgot to put my picture and senior quote in the yearbook,” I add. The confession is a relief somehow.
“Doesn’t matter now. It happened.”
Up here, I can see the football field, where graduation is set up for tomorrow.
But I can also see all of the seats, where we’ll sit in our itchy, hot robes and hats while we listen to Principal Brady blather on about our potential, and we’ll all act kind of bored but also excited, and Teddy will give his valedictorian speech, and our parents will watch us get our diplomas under the hot June sun, and the marching band will play, and then we’ll all go our separate ways and do the best we can with what we have.
I continue, “So, after I realized I wasn’t in the yearbook, I had this idea. Divya and I were planning to do it after everyone leaves tonight. I wanted to spray-paint my name on the football field. So tomorrow, when we have graduation, nobody would forget me.”
“I wouldn’t forget you. Even if you’re not in the yearbook and your name’s not on the football field.”
“Let’s see. You always have the best comments during English class, like when you totally eviscerated Dimmesdale for being a tool in The Scarlet Letter.”
“That’s what you remember? My English class arguments?”
“You hit the desk at one point because you got so mad that Mr. Randolph didn’t agree with you. And your hair fell in your face, and you didn’t even notice. You just kept at him.”
“Well, Dimmesdale was a tool. I can’t believe you remember something I said in English a year ago.” Or how I looked when I said it.
Teddy bows his head, like he’s a little shy. “And once in third grade you wouldn’t let Grant Wilson torture the class hamster and you shielded it from him with your body until someone got the teacher.”
“I forgot all about that.”
“And you always write in purple or green or turquoise.”
“I hate black pens.” I didn’t know he noticed that. Any of it.
“I’m just saying, people notice more than you realize.” He nudges my knee with his own.
I could float away right now, like a balloon, if Teddy weren’t holding my hand.
“What was your senior quote supposed to be?”
“It was Edith Wharton. ‘There are two ways of spreading the light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.’” Saying it out loud to Teddy, it sounds sad to me. Like I have no self-esteem. How had I not realized sooner that I picked the senior quote of wallflowers everywhere? “What was yours?” I hadn’t even checked.
“‘It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.’ Teddy Roosevelt.”
“Had to go for the namesake, huh? I like it.” The message fits this Teddy. It’s optimistic and pragmatic at the same time.
“I can’t help it that T.R. is highly quotable. Plus, it’ll make for a good speech tomorrow.”
“Nah, it’s fine.” Teddy gives speeches all the time as class president, but I couldn’t do that in front of the whole school. At least, Old Jane couldn’t.
“I’d be nervous. But I think that Teddy’s got the right idea,” I say. “I am trying. From now on.”
Teddy clears his throat. “So, is there anything you want to try to do?”
“I can think of a few things,” I say. My eyes drop to Teddy’s mouth. “Why’d you ask me to come on the Ferris wheel with you?”
“A guy can’t go on a Ferris wheel alone,” Teddy says. “That’s weird. You’ve got to go with someone.”
I pause. “Why me, though?”
“I didn’t want to fail by never trying.”
That’s when I lean in and kiss Teddy Morganstern right on the mouth.
Divya’s grin when she sees Teddy and me get off the Ferris wheel holding hands would be insufferable if I weren’t so distracted.
“I can’t believe you kissed him,” she says after he leaves, promising to text me later. She chants it over and over again, dancing and jumping around me. “Who knew you had it in you? This was a big win for New Jane tonight. And on her first outing.”
“It’s not that big a deal.” But I can’t stop grinning now, either.
“Maybe we should spray JANE + TEDDY on the football field instead!”
“About the football field,” I say. “I don’t think we should do it.”
Divya stops jumping around. “What? Why not? Don’t tell me that it’s because Teddy made you realize you’re still special even if you’re not in the yearbook, or some shit like that.”
“It’s really not just him. It’s just that I was up there, and I could see the whole school, and graduation’s a big deal, for everyone. I’m not in the yearbook, but I’m still in the class.”
I was part of everything tonight. I was in a pie-eating contest and Brandon Rodriguez fist-bumped me. I dunked Mr. Murphy.
It wasn’t just Teddy.
“I was prepared to risk losing my diploma for you,” Divya says. “All in pursuit of one great moment of badassery and you’re going to back down.”
I throw an arm around her and pull her close. “I know. And I appreciate it. Which is why I have a different idea.”
Maybe we all have moments where we’re the candle and moments where we’re the mirror, and just because I wasn’t the candle in high school doesn’t mean I won’t find something exciting and new in college. Something that might light a spark, making me burn so brightly that everyone will have to notice. I can be anyone. By September I may be a whole new Jane. And by December, another one.
You can do something big so no one will forget you. Or you can do a million little things, so that the people who matter never do.
And failing that, you can spray paint JANE AND DIVYA WERE HERE ’18 in a little corner of the parking lot, where the grass has almost grown over and no one ever parks, and take a selfie, one you can frame and put in your dorm room in the fall.
Because even if they paint it over, nobody can take the memory away from you, of a perfect summer night with your best friend.
by Melissa Baumgart
Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature