Today I am so pleased to be sharing an extract of Surviving High School from Melissa de la Cruz & Lele Pons! Enjoy!
Aaar, That’s Quite a Black Eye, Matey
The first thing you need to know about me is that I wasn’t always the gorgeous, sexy, cool, breezy blonde you know today. I know, I know, it’s shocking. The truth is, it wasn’t so long ago that I was an awkward outcast wearing braces and last season’s clothes two sizes too big. “No!” I can hear you disagreeing. “Lele has always been perfect.” Well, you’re right, I have always been perfect, but that’s an- other story for another time. Let me take you back to the dark days so you can see that once upon a time my struggle was deep and my struggle was real:
I’m sixteen and it’s my first day at Miami High. The hallways are long and the student body is . . . intimidating. See, my last school (St. Anne’s School for Girls) was small—you might even say cozy, intimate. Oh, right, and Catholic. I come from a small Catholic school and a sheltered Catholic family; until today all I’ve known are the sweet, familiar faces of the same twenty kids I grew up with, plus everything that’s ever happened on the Disney Channel (#TBT Zenon: The Zequel #NeverForget).
My parents, Anna and Luis Pons, decided, abruptly and unjustly, that I should move to a bigger school so I could meet more people, broaden my horizons, blah blah blah, before I go to college. Didn’t anyone tell them you can get into college from any old high school just as long as you have a dope internet presence? Welcome to the twenty-first century, Mom and Dad, please take a seat
Anyway, I’m a good Catholic girl and I respect my parents’ wishes (look, I do my best, okay?), which is how I got here, day one at Miami High, epicenter of pretty girls and some of the most unrealistically good-looking guys you will ever see.
I wake up late (typical) and fail to get my first-day outfit down the way I had envisioned. The frilly white blouse, black pants, and knee-high boots that Rihanna had pulled off so effortlessly have me looking less like a pop star and more like a pirate. But I figure, hey, YOLO, right? And head out to Hot-Guy High in disguise as Captain Jack Sparrow. (I know YOLO is dated, but come on, you only live once! Heh.)
First things first: my schedule. A lady who looks like an old po- tato with glasses and unevenly applied lipstick hands it to me at the front desk.
“Welcome to Miami High,” she says, like she’d rather kill herself than even open her mouth to speak these words. She smells like strawberry candy and cloves, and it’s a little too much to handle first thing in the morning to be quite honest. Anyway, here it is, my educational fate for the next ten months:
1st period: English
2nd period: World History 3rd period: Calculus
4th period: Gym
5th period: Marine Biology 6th period: Spanish
Right away, I stand out like a sore thumb. And yes, I get the looks. You know what I’m talking about: those evil stares kids love to give that say “Ew, who the F is she?” In first period, English, a boy with spiky blue hair throws a crumpled ball of paper that bounces off my head. During second period, world history, a kid with a backward baseball cap calls out, “Hey, why do you talk so weird?” When I explain to him that I have a Venezuelan accent, he calls back, “I dunno, it sounds like you just don’t know how to talk.”
“You mean speak,” I say.
“You mean to tell me that I don’t know how to speak. Grammatically, I mean. It’s speak, not talk. In this context.”
“Oh my God, what a freak,” the boy mutters to a cluster of
equally jaded, pimple-faced boys who laugh and nod their heads.
In third period, calculus, a redheaded girl with glasses approaches me to say, “Everyone here dresses kind of more . . . subtle. Just so you know. For tomorrow.” Then she scuttles away to join her gaggle. Everyone has a gaggle. Except me. Lele Pons, lost and friendless, small fish in a big pond. Sigh. Here we go, junior year, I think to my- self, then drown my woes in an ice-cold Pepsi.
After third period comes lunch. Now, reader, I don’t know how long it’s been since the last time you were in a public school cafeteria, but let me tell you: it is one of the single most frightening places in the world. Literally, high school cafeterias deserve their own sea- son of American Horror Story. Reader, please let me have the honor of describing the diverse array of atrocities within the Miami High cafeteria:
--Lunch ladies: Mean, scowling women who seem to hate their lives and hate us just for being who we are. One with a name tag that reads “Iris” yells at me for not having my money ready in time. Then yells at me more for not having my money transferred onto a One Card (which apparently is like a debit card specifically for gross high school cafeterias?)
--Hairnets: The lunch ladies wear hairnets that get sweaty and oily and make me think of nets used to catch fish—I can’t look at their heads without imagining fish out of water flap- ping around desperately for their lives. Appetite = gone.
--Inedible food: This food is practically criminal. I honestly, honestly don’t know what it is. It looks like a mound of Sty- rofoam covered in gravy and topped with cubes of something that could or could not be chicken. It comes with a side of “tangerines” that are actually just shreds of tangerine floating in corn syrup.
--Atmosphere: It smells bad; it’s loud; there isn’t a fair amount of oxygen to go around.
--High school kids: Never will you see as many high school kids packed into one place as in a cafeteria. If you’ve seen Mean Girls, then you know about the clique labels (sexually active band geeks, preps, girls who eat their feelings, hot Asians, etc.), but at Miami High there’s none of this. At Miami High, nothing is simple. Everyone is clumped together, each clique infringing on the personal space of the one next to it, so that you can’t tell where the jocks end and the nerds begin. School administrations won’t ever be able to abolish cliques, but they can force them to sit together, and this nightmare is the re- sult. Unlike in Mean Girls and also Every High School Movie Ever Made Ever, where the main character and often new girl doesn’t know where to sit because none of the cliques will welcome her, I don’t know where to sit because there are literally no places to sit. Even if a clique were to welcome me, I would have to sit on someone’s lap. Dear God, this place is a zoo.
With nowhere to sit and no desire to eat my food, I toss my card- board tray in the trash and hurry outside to get some air before I have a panic attack or accidentally stab someone out of fear and confusion. I sit down outside with my back against the wall and count down the minutes until this weirdness is over. But of course a watched pot never boils, and there’s no rest for the weary. A very professional woman in a blue blazer and patent-leather heels and a Hillary Clinton–type haircut clicks by clutching a walkie-talkie like she’s headed to diffuse a bomb. When she sees me, she comes to a startling halt.
“Excuse me, why are we outside?” She sounds vengeful and thirsty, like she wants to suck my blood.
“Ermm . . . I don’t know why you are. I am outside because I couldn’t breathe in there.”
“That doesn’t matter; you know the rules. No students allowed outside the cafeteria during lunch hour.”
“Oh, see, this is my first day. I didn’t know.”
“Well, now you know. Get back in there so I don’t have to write you up.”
“Write me up? Like in jail? I really don’t want to go back in.”
“Listen, I don’t know how they did things at your old school, but we don’t make exceptions for Miami High students. If I treated you like a princess, I’d have to treat everyone like a princess. You’re just going to have to eat inside like everyone else.”
“Because I want fresh air I’m asking to be treated like a prin- cess?”
“Please don’t take an attitude with me, I haven’t written up any- one today and I don’t want to start now.”
“Good Lord.” I’m practically laughing at this point, the absurdity of this woman and the situation is too much to handle. “I guess I’ll have to start a rebellion.”
“No need to be so dramatic. Stop by the main desk after school to pick up an off-campus form. Have your parents sign it and you’ll receive off-campus privileges during lunch. You don’t have to eat in the cafeteria, but you can’t be on campus. It’s for safety reasons.”
“Thank you. I’m so glad I didn’t have to turn this into something dramatic.”
She huffs and clicks away, her head leading her body so that she was practically a diagonal line. Gotta admire that delusional determination.
The bell rings and I’ve never been so excited to get back to class. I notice a kind-looking African American girl walking back on cam- pus with impeccably braided hair and indisputably nerdy glasses.
“Hey,” I call to her, “do you go off campus for lunch?”
“Oh, yeah, there’s no way I could survive going in there every day.” She gestures to the cafeteria.
“It’s disgusting, right? I thought maybe it was just my imagination.”
“No, girl, you’re right on track.”
“For the first time in my life, maybe. I’m Lele Pons.”
“I’m Darcy Smith. Nice to meet you. Make sure you get an off- campus pass ASAP, you seem nice and I would hate to lose you to that place.”
Note to self: get an off-campus pass or perish. Note to self: I don’t like this school.
Note to self: But I sort of like Darcy.
Fourth period is gym. Coach Washington is this boxy-shaped woman with a bowl haircut and two silver teeth. Oh, and she’s missing the pinkie finger on her left hand. She passes out these ugly neon uniforms and then marches us to the locker room where we are actually supposed to get naked in front of each other. Ew. Being a Catholic, I’m modest, and I try to be as discreet as possible—I don’t even know these girls’ names yet, and I don’t want their very first impression of me to be this beige Nike sports bra. But it’s too late. A slender-though-curvy brunette with big, bright brown-green eyes and fluttery eyelashes spots me in the crowd and, sensing my weakness, pounces.
“Hey, new girl.” She smirks. “I think my grandma has that same bra.”
“Congratulations on knowing so much about your grandma’s underwear,” I say right back, without thinking. The room goes silent and Bright Eyes raises her eyebrows at me in a way that, I have to admit, freaks me out a little. Have I messed with the wrong chica? She shuts her locker door slowly and deliberately, as if sending me some kind of warning sign, then flips her hair and turns to leave. “Yo’ mama wore this bra last night,” I mutter to myself and whoever is still listening. Great one, Lele, great one.
Out on the field, Coach Washington takes roll and I learn that Bright Eyes actually goes by the name Yvette Amparo. Washington pronounces my name like “Lee Lee” and I just absolutely have to correct her. That’s the second thing you need to know about me: I can really lose it when bitches call me Lee Lee. Some dimwits even call me Ley Ley or Lilly. Does nobody know how to read? It’s Lele . . . like, Leh Leh, or like “you can stand under my umbrella ella ella eh eh eh,” except if you add some L’s: “You can stand under my umbrella ella ella Lele Lele.” That’s how you can remember it whenever you’re struggling. Leh, like heh. I try to explain this all to Coach Washington, but she loses patience quickly and moves on.
I gotta tell you, tackle football seems a little intense for a first- day sport. Couldn’t we just stick to something safe, like jumping jacks? Apparently not. Apparently gym teachers in large public schools enjoy torturing their students. As soon as Coach Washing- ton puts Yvette and me on opposite teams, I know I’m going to have to take her down. That’s the third thing you need to know about me: I’m a physical person. I’m not saying I’m not smart, I’m just saying I prefer to use my body to work out issues. You know, go on a run, have a solo dance party, punch someone if necessary. I’ve seen the way boys resolve their discrepancies: a little roughhousing and it’s all in the past. They’re like lions in the wild. But us girls, for what- ever reason, we’re expected to talk it out like little ladies. Gah!
Anyway, so we get out on the field and I’m all in. Suddenly it’s like if I don’t win this game for my team, I will have officially failed my first day. If I win, however, I’ll be my own personal hero and will triumph over the brutal awkwardness leading up to this moment. As soon as Washington blows her whistle I’m running and jumping and diving and clawing my way through the field with so much enthu- siasm that I forget I don’t actually know the first thing about tackle football. Oops. Through my veil of adrenaline I can see someone toss Yvette the ball, and I go for it. Maybe I shouldn’t, maybe it’s wrong, but I throw my body on top of her, tackling poor skinny Yvette to the ground. But she doesn’t go down easily. She puts up a fight, thrashing her head all around until CLONK, her skull knocks into my face with the weight of a bowling ball. I bite my lip, trying not to scream. Stars spin around my head cartoon-style and Coach is blowing on that stupid, shrill whistle.
“Okay, okay, time out. What’s going on here?” she says, ramming her hands together perpendicularly in the “time out” gesture.
“Lee Lee attacked me.” Ugh.
“I didn’t attack you; I tackled you. Like how you do sometimes in tackle football. Which we are currently playing.” I put my hand to my right eye, which already feels bruised. Yvette gets all huffy and Coach makes me sit down, and then I get huffy all by myself in a corner, mad at Yvette and Coach Washington and the kid who threw a paper ball at my head earlier and my stupid parents for making me come to this evil, awful place.
By the time I’m changed back into my regular (a.k.a. pirate) clothes, my right eye is completely swollen shut. Bitch gave me a black eye!
“You know you look like a pirate, right?” Yvette snarls, sauntering out of the gym.
“Arrrrr!” I holler after her. I want to make her walk the plank.
At home my parents ask me that awful question every kid dreads hearing, the question that sounds like nails on a chalkboard: “How was your day?”
“Fine,” I say. Then I change my mind, suddenly inhabited by the spirit of honesty. “Actually, it was terrible. The place is ginormous and everyone thinks they’re so cool.”
“Oh, Lele”—my mom says my name perfectly, always a comfort, albeit slight—“I’m sure none of them are as cool as you.”
“Thanks, Mom, I’ll make sure to tell them my mom thinks I’m super cool.”
I go to my room and collapse onto my bed, groan into the pillow, kick my feet a little bit for dramatic effect. After my self-pity party I decide I’ve suffered enough for one day. It’s time to shake it off like Taylor Swift, time to let it go like Elsa.
It’s time to go to my happy place: Vine. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn says that nothing very bad can happen at Tiffany’s, and that’s exactly how I feel about Vine. Nothing very bad can happen on Vine, at least not to me. Vine is the one place I feel untouchable. I sign into my account and type in the title of tonight’s Vine: “The Advantages of Being a Boy.”