It was the last day of classes before Christmas Vacation and crumpled bits of wrapping paper littered the pre-teen crowded halls of Crescent View Middle School. The students pushed and jockeyed for position as they filed into the darkened auditorium for the much-anticipated annual X-Mas Canned Food Drive Assembly. The Student Body Government had spent weeks preparing, hoping to make it better than the last - which included a trivia competition between a towering man from the local NBA team, a D-list actor and the proprietor of the local computer store. This year promised to be just as thrilling with an exciting game of “Name That Tune” hosted by some community college freshman who had been an extra in High School Musical.
The only thing I ever liked about assemblies was the way that I could fade into the background and watch the world around me without being talked to or bullied. I could blend into the crowd and just be left alone with my thoughts and daydreams. I could watch the people around me and never really be noticed.
The games began and they drew the names of three contestants from the raffle drum to stand behind the cardboard game show props. Names. Laughter. Music. Prizes. Rinse. Repeat. Over and over. I busied myself muttering the correct answers and watching three girls in the twelfth row paint their fingernails and a couple affectionately pawing at each other in the third row. I watched two guys laugh, roll up some paper and throw it at their friend in the tenth row. I watched a gloomy artist scribble on his jeans with a marker in the eighth row while the girl next to him applied thick gloss to her lips and blew kisses into her mirror. I watched the contestants hurry up and down the stairs to cheering and applause. I watched and watched, invisible and forgotten. Then I heard it: my name.
No longer anonymous, I slowly got to my feet as they called my name a second time and slid past the sullen guy on the end of the row. The stairs down to the stage seemed to stretch on forever, reminding me of a perspective project I had done in art class, and making me regret sitting in the very back. I watched my feet as I took each step, careful not to look at the faces of the students watching me as I made my way to the stage. One foot in front of the other. One step and then the next.
Suddenly, halfway down, my breath caught as I felt my foot slip. I’d taken a step too wide and only caught the edge of the carpeted stair with my heel. In one mighty swoop, my foot flew into the air and I gasped, crashing onto the step beneath me. My arms and legs flailed and flopped gracelessly as I bounced from step to step...down...down toward the brightly lit bottom of the room. Faces blurred past me as I plummeted down the steps.
Finally, the auditorium stopped spinning and I collapsed in a tangle on the step near the fourth row. Everything seemed to be in slow motion as I turned to look at the girl sitting in the chair at my side. Her eyes were wide and her mouth open, heavy mascara and lipstick making her look like a glamorous cartoon fish. I turned my head the other way, looking at an empty step below me, wishing the garish red and orange carpet patterns would swallow me up.
The auditorium was silent. The orchestra of noise had stopped the moment I crashed to the floor. Everyone was quiet. My mind raced as the seconds felt like hours. I looked at the girl next to me again. Her fishy expression was still the same. I looked at the carpet. It still had not opened up to save me from this moment. I took a breath and shakily rose to my feet. Everyone was looking at me - the artist on row 8, his kissy friend, the boys with the paper, their friend on ten, the girls on the twelfth row and the couple on the third. Every eye in the room was watching as I stood, brushing off my clothing and adjusting my glasses. Every breath was held, unsure as to what to do next. Instantly I decided what I would do. I raised my arms in the air, back straight, head high: I took a bow.
The room erupted with applause and cheering, the awkward silence gobbled up by celebration. I carefully finished my journey to the stage, shook the celebrity’s hand and grabbed the buzzer. Names. Laughter. Music. Prizes. Then I cautiously made my way back up the stairs to my seat, accompanied by more applause and high fives.
The only thing I ever liked about assemblies was the way that I could fade into the background. But this time I didn’t blend into the crowd. This time the floor failed to swallow me and save me from disaster. This time it was thrilling and exciting, as promised.