I was never the tall kid, the best-dressed, the one that girls looked at twice. Never the coolest, the most popular, the most likely to succeed. Just a flower in the wall, barely a stem. Sometimes I was told I had potential, but mostly I was lucky to get by.
I wish someone had told me back then that those years spent in fear were the best years of my life. I wish someone had said, “Why are you holding back. Why don’t you go crazy. You’ll thank yourself later.”
This is the universal burning of all people – that we wish we knew then what we know now. Only later we regret that we couldn’t live out the entirety of our dreams.
I went alone to the senior prom because I knew no one would go with me. I was the awkward Asian, terrified of rejection, head down and unmoving. I remember that my dad let me borrow his Cadillac for prom and said, “She will like this expensive car. She is fortunate girl.” He adjusted the lapels on my tuxedo and made sure the fake red rose in my front pocket was just right. He said it felt like only yesterday when he carried me on his back through an old playground and pretended that we were flying in an imaginary sky that stretched into some kind of forever.
I drove the Cadillac to the senior prom. It was okay to be alone. I lied to my dad because I wanted him to believe I was the best, that I was the one that all the girls wanted, that I was a son he could be proud of.
Maybe in that world of other possibilities that never happen, I could’ve had the courage to ask some girl to the prom. Some fluffy girl dressed in a pink strapless gown and her hair would’ve smelled like Herbal Essence and she could’ve held my hand when I walked through that intimidating doorway and we could’ve danced to Fatboy Slim and the Electric Slide and Stand By Me and she would’ve sat with me at one of those glittery tables and smiled at things I had to say.
I don’t have a senior yearbook because there was no one I wanted to remember and no one wanted to remember me. I look at my yearbooks from middle school and mostly everyone just wrote “Have a nice summer,” because that’s what you say to someone you don’t really know. I flip the pages and look at all the pretty white girls who would never say hi, and these were my daydreams during class, that one of them might shake my hand and find out how cool I really was. If I had only just stepped up. If I had only just a lot of things.
I dream about them sometimes, walking through the high school hallways and seeing their faces. People I hated, people I wanted to know, people who were like me with their heads down. It’s usually the same dream – late to class, running late, can’t find it, going up and down stairs, running across the grass, backpack bouncing up and down. In dreams at least, the people actually wave and give me high fives and pat me on the back. It’s all frantic but they notice me.
Sometimes I dream about them because I want to go back and do it all again, but mostly because I want to go back and stay there. I want to fly there into some sort of forever.
Most of those teen high school movies give the nerd some redemption, a happy ending. It doesn’t happen much in what we call real life, but it did happen for me once.
Four months before graduation a counselor approached me. He was very fond of my awkwardness — most counselors were — and he offered me a spot in the multicultural festival. Meaning I could do a Tae Kwon Do demonstration in front of the entire high school.
I was reluctant at first. This could be another opportunity for embarrassment. I was confident of my ability but in front of all those smoldering eyes, I didn’t know. It could all just be disaster. I might slip, fall over on my face, and what a crock that would be during lunch time – oh hey did you see that Chinese kid fall over throwing a kick and pretending to be one of us, one of the cool people, did you see that crazy insanity. How dare he.
I thought about it for a day and I went back to the counselor. I said, Yes, of course I will.
So I got ready. I got the music, I practiced the routine, I busted myself into shape. I jogged miles and miles, I kicked the bag until my legs went limp, I did push-ups and sit-ups and jump rope like I was fighting for the championship title. I punched that bag and imagined I was punching my past, punching my weakness, punching all the charisma I was lacking to be like them.
The day grew closer and I grew giddy, nervous, scared, excited, nauseous. I hardly slept the night before showtime, and then the morning arrived.
I drove to school with my black belt and uniform next to me. I played the music for my exhibition over and over in the car, and then I parked and took the keys out and cried. I didn’t know what else to do; I just cried and cried. All those years of high school and I had been shut off, shot down, shut out, and this was the one chance to redeem myself in front of the whole school, and all I could think was —
Can’t do it. Too scared, I can’t do it.
Because some part of me wanted to remain the wallflower.
I cried, man. I cried like a baby. Every time someone called me chink, every time someone called me a pancake face, someone calling me Buddha, someone yelling ching chong in the hallway, someone sucker-punching me and saying my father killed his dad in Vietnam, some girl telling me I was too ugly to date her, someone calling me a Chinese busboy.
I cried because I was afraid. Maybe I was never supposed to be the cool guy. Maybe I was just the nice guy who never said much and ignored all the insults, and that was that. No one would remember me and I could look back at all those scribbles of “Have a nice summer” and be content with being mediocre, and I could tell my father that yes, the demonstration went well and the students loved it, they sure did, and I could’ve smiled through that whole lie while my dad would’ve smiled back when he really knew I was lying.
Instead I grabbed my black belt. I grabbed my uniform. I didn’t believe in God back then but I prayed to him. I asked him to forgive me for not trying harder. I asked him to give me the courage I never had.
I went inside the high school gymnasium and they were all waiting.
Put on the uniform, stretched out, warmed up, tied on the black belt.
I walked to the center of that cold gym floor. There weren’t many lights but it was so bright. It was a sea of faces eyeing me, judging me, taunting me. I was about to run out the double doors and never look behind me, but then the music cued, I grabbed my nunchucks, and then I lost myself. That’s what they call in the zone.
I whipped those nunchucks like a madman. Right from the start, they cheered. They were actually cheering. Something like adrenaline exploded through me and I must’ve thrown a jump kick that reached the ceiling. I ended in a split and everyone went crazy.
Then I pulled out the wooden boards and someone held them for me, and I picked the eight biggest football players in the audience and set them to crouch in a line in front of the board.
I started from one end of the gym and ran toward the line of crouching football players. I jumped over all eight of them, over those kids who never gave me a chance, who called me every horrible racial slur they could think of, who brought me to the rock bottom of my own gutted self-worth, and I flew over them right through the sky. I sailed through the air and my foot cut a straight path through all those hateful bitter memories and I broke that little board into a thousand splintering pieces. I landed and yelled my heart out.
The football players stood up and there was silence from the bleachers. Then the football players chanted something. Everyone joined in. Something I wouldn’t forget, ever. Slowly, but in total unison, louder and louder.
They were saying – Bruce . . . Bruce . . . Bruce.
Bruce Lee. They were calling me Bruce Lee.
So then I bowed low and did a Kung Fu pose, and just like good old Bruce, I yelled out, Waaaaaah. They laughed, and it was a good laugh.
Even now, I walk around the shopping mall and someone from my high school sees me and there’s recognition. They make a little karate stance and mouth the words Bruce, and I make the karate stance right back at them.
If only someone had told me to enjoy it, to live it up, that these are the best times. I guess we realize we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously; it’s okay to laugh at yourself. God was right behind me all those wonderfully miserable years. Sometimes all you get are those moments, and day by day you seize them, or you don’t. There is still more, you know. The best is on the way.
Written on 10-19-04
For Sean Cowles. 1984-2003.