Michelle jogs back early through the classroom door, winning the ACT scavenger hunt competition for seventh hour. I hand her a Capri Sun, and she acts like it’s a medal. This isn’t like herserious Michelle never gets excited. But today she seems, dare I say, happy. Which is sadly weird for most gen-ed English juniors in high school. She smiles at her phone screen as she sucks the Capri Sun dry. 

From her desk in the empty classroom, she blurts, “I got a prom dress this weekend. It’s so pretty.” 

“Oh!” The comment catches me off guard. I love chatting it up with students, but Michelle always keeps to herself, “Um. Yay. Can I see?” 

Without hesitation, she jumps out of her seat and rushes up to me, fearless. She scrolls proudly through the two pictures her mom had taken of her in the dressing room of Macy’s. She says proudly that she split the cost. Her cheeks bright, she squeals again, “It’s just soooooo pretty!” 

I can’t help but gush toolike she’s my own daughter. The dress is silvery blue with spaghetti straps. She scrolls to a picture of the delicate pearl butterfly clips she’s planning to wear in her hair.

“You’re gonna look like a princess.” I smile, trusting she knows I mean real princess, not Disney. What do I even mean? I don’t have the words to tell her that she will shine from the inside. I need to find more of those words.  

She nods in agreement, so I ask the princess, “Who are you going with?”

“My friends.” She meets my gaze, vehement, “It’s gonna be really fun.” 

I nod enthusiastically, “Yeah, that’ll be a blast.” But for some reason, I’m not convinced. 

She lets out a sigh like a gust of wind, “Um, actually, this guy won’t ask me and I won’t ask him, either.” She shrugs, “But I’m going with my friends, so it doesn’t really matter.” She raises her voice, “But it’s gonna be really fun.” 

My eyes narrow as I try to hide a smile, “Hmm. And you . . . want him . . . to ask you?” 

“Well, yeah,” she says, like duh.

I put my finger to my lip, deciding she wants a wise adult (at least I qualify for one of those) to tell her something true that she knows on the inside, but maybe has forgotten. I don’t hesitate, “You have to ask him!”

She steps back, surprised, then rolls her eyes when she sees I’m serious. 

“There’s no way. I can’t,” Her fingers touch her forehead as she glances out the window, but not before something glints in her eyes—something like hope. And here’s the thing: she doesn’t go back to her desk. 

I say a quiet thank you to the universe. She’s letting me see her, and I don’t take that lightly—even if she’s not gonna ask the guy, who by the way is missing out on something wonderful by not seeing her too.

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My own teenagers don’t give me that. I often find myself in my own living room sweaty and tongue-tied, desperate to say the right thing. In the meantime, they keep their hearts tucked away out of my reach, and I hate to admit it, but in response, I probably act aloof, not wanting to come across as needy.

But in the classroom, I don’t care about any of that. I speak slowly, like my words by their very nature hold essential energy, and the weight of responsibility tastes sweet on my tongue. I deliver spiritual truths with a capital T. Like a TedTalk. 

“You wanna go with him, right?” I pressed.

Her head bobs convincingly.

“Then, no. You have the courage. You just have to pull it out and use it.”

She raises a skeptical eyebrow, but I think she wants to believe what her soul knows is true.

I point to her skull. “There’s something in your brain, some little weird groove with an idea that got planted in it without your say-so. We have so many of those—random ideas—preconceptions that we let into the driver’s seat and guide our lives. Think about it.” 

She envisions hundreds of maybe not-true ideas in her brain. 

“And that one idea that says, oh, putting myself out there like that is too scary. Oh, God, no. If I don’t try, if I pretend I don’t care, then I won’t be . . .”

She nods, eyes wide and darting around the empty room. She’s hearing me.

The TedTalk camera rolls strong, “But, Michelle. Honey. You can let that go.” 

The corners of her lips curl up.

I add, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” 

She scoffs, “Um, let me see . . . rejection?” 

My chin pulls back. She’s smart. 

“So? Congratulations! Welcome to the human race,” I throw up my hands, wanting to shake her. “But that’s why we’re in so much trouble! Everybody’s too afraid of rejection to care about each other!” 

The words are out of my mouth before I know what I’m saying, but I go with it. It’s not until the silence after, when Michelle’s eyebrows draw together as if to battle with each other, I begin to feel opposing armies in my chest closing in on my heart. I think of my husband.

I have a fun, worry-free relationship with the greatest guy in the world. If I’m insecure about my relationship with my kids, David puts me back on solid ground. He’s easy. I picture him: Tall, balding redhead with a bright, consistent smile and funny sense of humor. He’s my mirror. 

Except that we haven’t had sex in . . . a couple of months. It’s bothered me, and I haven’t wanted to admit this little sadness inside my heart. And the longer it’s gone on, the more distant I feel from him. 

Michelle’s eyes tell me she’s waiting for more guidance. I let the words pour out of me, “Do you wanna live the rest of your one singular precious life letting that negative fear of rejection rule you? Who even told you that rejection is so bad? Rejection just is. Everybody gets rejected. No biggie.” I point at her heart, feeling deeply the ache in mine. 

She smiles wistfully, her mind churning behind her striking green eyes. She finds her desk again, back to studying herself in the gorgeous dress. I think she knows it’s her beautiful and true self on the inside that makes it that way. 

Eventually, the rest of my seventh hour saunters in, Michelle pries her eyes away from her phone, and I dismiss the class a minute early. 

In the meantime, my phone flashes. Joseph needs a car to get to work. Amelia needs a ride home. A text from David pops up right away: Meals, meet me in Popeye’s parking lot. My heart fills with unspeakable appreciationlovefor him. I swallow hard. And my desire to show it.

I bite both my lips. I haven’t said anything to him about wanting to be close even though I’ve longed for the physical connection. So what’s the problem? I sigh. I don’t want to come across as needy. I never have. But something’s different in me nowI want to change. 

I step out of my classroom, into the blinding sun. It feels hot, certain, and direct like a forest fire seeking out the old growth. You have to ask for what you want echoes behind my eyes. But I cringe when I imagine myself facing him and saying the words, we haven’t had sex. Those words taste gross. I’m independent. Not needy. I exhale, feeling sweaty already in the sunthe weather has changed so quickly. I smile to myself. Everything changes. Can I?

I step back into the air-conditioned classroom, feeling chills all over. It feels a little like hope.

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David’s in the kitchen. “Hi,” I hesitate, waiting for the blender to quiet, “where’s the kids?” 

“Hi,” he mumbles, gulping his smoothie, “Joseph’s with Evan and Meals went to get food. I’m going on a run.”

I grab the kitchen counter, losing my nerve. He has stuff to do. So do I. We’re like thatindependent, happy people. No big deal. I head down the hall.

But something stops my steps, and I take back my brain. I breathe out the residue of pride and old habits that keep me silent. I wheel around, stride back to the kitchen, and place my hands gently on his shoulders. I gaze daringly into his brilliant blue eyes. They slay me.

“Um,” I smile from the inside with nothing but true gratitude for all he is as a father, as a husband, as a person. As always, he is calm and unwavering, waiting for my words. He always gives me thattrue, steady peace. 

I stammer, “We haven’t . . . physically . . . connected . . .”

His face softens right away, and he looks kindly into my searching eyes, “I know. It’s been too long.” The rest of the pride falls away as cicadas sing inside my belly. I take his hand, warm and reassuring and true.

On our way down the hall, an archaic notion about the power of fragility gets uprooted from my brain, and it feels so good to know a new truth: my heart will never shatter because straightforward honesty is what I choose now. Fragility? Enough already. I vow to dig at any archaic notion that takes my power to love away. Even if it’s a little weird or a little painful, or if it takes time. That’s the real learning: not planting new ideas, but getting rid of old ones.

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Kerith Mickelson

Kerith Mickelson is a high school teacher and freelance writer in Phoenix. When she's not practicing body and brain yoga and tai chi, she's trying to beat her husband at pickleball or watching shows with her three teenagers and two dogs.

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