INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
“Essay #2” by Jackson Tobin takes the form of a college application essay. The applicant, Charlie Babineaux, twin sister to Annette, is a good-humored trouble-maker who entertains herself with pranks and protests. Annette is a rule-following straight-A student who entertains herself with student government and oil painting. In addition to the differences in their personalities, there are physical differences, too: Annette has cerebral palsy and Charlie is not living with a disability.
In order to gain admission into MIT’s Department of Media Disruption (which as far as I can determine, is not a real department), Charlie decides to stage a media disruption impressive enough to secure her spot. She will not write the kind of solipsistic, pandering tale that is expected of college admissions essays, the kind that would present Annette as hardship Charlie has had to overcome.
Annette, on the other hand, has refused to apply to college at all. Though she’s smart enough to get in any where, the local community college is the only place close enough for her to live at home. So rather than sell herself short she’d rather not sell herself at all, thereby also refusing to write the kind of college admissions essay that would be expected of her.
Reading and re-reading this story, I’ve enjoyed putting myself in the place of the MIT admissions officer. Charlie, who is smart but unfocused, is an entertaining essayist and a one-of-a-kind individual whom the right person would see great potential in. Would I accept Charlie to my own (highly competitive) college program? The answer, I have to admit, is probably not. I’d say no then regret it, stay up all night wondering if I had made the right decision.
That this question doesn’t have an easy answer is a testament to the strength of the story. Charlie is a dynamic storyteller, but she needs Jackson Tobin, the author behind the author, to help her with her blind spots. What does it mean that she will go to college and her sister will not? What does it mean to be identical, “two halves of a whole,” and yet so different? “Essay #2” starts out being about one thing and ends up being about another. Charlie happens along this path to poignancy through disruption, but Tobin knew where it was going all along.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
Possible Disruptions on the Occasion of My High School Graduation
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
by Jackson Tobin
Dear Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Media Disruption,
On the first day of our concern, I was in Principal Shurmur’s office. My twin sister, Annette, who is disabled, was in her wheelchair beside my regular chair. Principal Shurmur was across from us, at his desk.
Principal Shurmur: “I want to know what, exactly, you meant to express with your little stunt.”
Me (technically Charlene Babineaux, but please refer to me as Charlie): “We.”
At that, Annette gave me a look. It was one of her bad days, where she couldn’t quite turn her head, so I had to feel the look telepathically. And I did.
“We?” he asked, his eyebrow arching.
“We did it together,” I said. I am not a good liar, which may be useful for your admissions committee to know, though I will do it in the service of societal progress. So I looked at the other office chair, instead of Principal Shurmur’s face. He had clumsily dragged it out of the way, apologizing a lot, when Annette didn’t have the space to roll inside. “Annette and I.”
I could feel him looking at me. “The security footage clearly shows one person on the roof and—” here he paused, blushed. “The person climbed. Up the fire ladder.”
In moments like this, I wished Annette would be angrier. But she was not. She never is. I feel, sometimes, that I have to be double-angry, angry for both of us. This was one of those times.
“So?” I said.
He seemed to decide to abandon this point—the climbing point. Instead he picked up my write-up slip, and read: “‘Student poured a tub of blood into the air conditioning duct.’”
This was your applicant’s first attempt at Media Disruption for this essay. I told Shurmur I obtained a tub of porcine blood via the dumpster behind the Whole Foods, but the truth was that I had only made imitation blood: corn syrup and food coloring. I subsequently decanted the blood in the duct above the AV room while Kyle Lafferty and Marissa McBride—who had failed to stifle a laugh the week prior while reading my suggestion for the Winter Formal theme (Climate Apocalypse)—were filming the morning announcements, therefore disrupting media.
“Well,” I said. “If it was one of us, how do you know it was me? Not her?”
Principal Shurmur looked at me queerly.
“We’re twins,” I said, pointing to Annette. “Identical.”
Consequently, I became suspended. Annette, who does not like the identical joke, didn’t speak to me when she got home from school, unsuspended, or later that night.
You are probably thinking, Wow. That is a bit extreme, Charlie. But please let me explain some things about my actions and my suitability for your program.
First: Westlake High School serves approximately thirty-five dismembered bovines and porcines per day for lunch (according to calculations made by Annette and C. Babineaux), despite the pamphlet sent to the PTA by your applicant’s mother about the contribution of meat-eating to global warming;
Second: Westlake, Ohio is, in my opinion, the most boring and least disruptive place in America;
Third: Media Disruption occurs only when “people of vision deliberately break, pervert, and offend the content consumers and barriers to entry” (Bezos, Jeff; TED Talk). The barriers to entry, in this case, being literal, since the AV room is not wheelchair accessible.
Thus, I accepted Annette’s anger and my punishment. I accepted my mom crying in the van on the way home, even though it made me feel bad, because I saw the greater goal (more on this later).
Even as this episode concluded—Mom ceasing crying, the school paper writing a small article about what happened (attached here for your reference)—I knew it was not disruptive enough to gain admission into such a prestigious and discriminating program.
That night I went into Annette’s room and tried to induce her forgiveness.
She was painting. She is right-handed, but in recent years her right hand has become somewhat claw-like, as it suffers from intention tremor. But the left one is okay. She paints with this hand, her non-dominant hand, for hours at a time, longer than I do anything, even though it hurts her arms and spine and neck, even though she is often soaked with sweat when she’s done. I used to watch her, but recently I have stopped. When I used to watch, every time she dropped a brush I would rush to pick it up, resulting in me feeling sorry for her (which she hates) and her yelling at me to just leave them on the ground! So now she has like a hundred brushes in a jar on the easel, and the carpet in that corner of her room is covered in a floral sheet, spotted all over by triangular brush printings.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Move,” Annette said, because I was standing in front of the window. Her painting was of the van. Mom’s pea-soup-colored Dodge Caravan. Souped-up, Mom says, cringily, of her van. Both because of the color and because of the stuff she has added, like Annette’s wheelchair ramp and hand controls on the steering wheel so she can drive on days when I am morally objecting to the consumption of fossil fuels. For three months Annette had been doing paintings of the van. They were stacked in a corner of her room like old pizza boxes. Every time she painted the van it looked exactly the same, and every time she insisted it was different.
Annette peered out the window at the green-black Westlake nighttime. She then turned back to the painting, her hand rocking back and forth like a wooden chair with rounded feet, and finally poked the canvas with her brush.
I squinted at her painting. If the brush-poke had changed it at all, I couldn’t tell. But Annette fell back in her chair, her body relaxing, and looked satisfied.
I took her posture as an invitation to speak.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, a little less nicely. I added: “It would have been really cool if it worked.”
(The fake-pig-blood disruption hadn’t quite gone according to plan. I’d figured that the blood would flow through the duct like a downhill mountain stream, thereby spilling out of the vent and onto the desk/heads of the morning announcement anchors, Kyle Lafferty and Marissa McBride (see above). However, when I had last been in the AV Room—delivering my wheelchair ramp schematics—I had failed to see that the vent was relatively non-sloped, so the blood just sort of pooled, for several hours, and then stank, plus bugs.)
“Cool,” Annette said. “Cool how?”
I ignored this. As the Latin proverb says (translation via Magistra Hughes), There’s no accounting for taste.
“Do you hear me?” I, now irritated, said somewhat snippily. “I’m trying to apologize.”
She snorted. “This is you apologizing? Like everything else you do, Charlie, you certainly make it complicated.”
“I know you don’t like the identical joke. I shouldn’t have said that. And I know you have this weird friendship with Principal Shurmur—”
“Just write a normal college essay, Charlie. Christ.” She aimed one more stab at the painting, but, perhaps because I was still there, thought better of it, and put the brush down. “Everybody else writes essays without getting expelled. There must be some other way to tell MIT that you must be the center of attention at all times. Think of something else to write. Or there’s always self-immolation.”
I didn’t (yet) know what self-immolation was, but I’d understood her tone. That had been enough to let it slip out.
“Easy for you to say.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Coward,” she said. “You were going to say—what? If only you had a disability to write about? If only you had a hardship? Was that it?”
I know how bad this exchange must look. However, I hope that the committee would understand, as briefly referenced above, that certain actions have been taken by your applicant which may appear selfish or cruel but actually are in service of the greater good. In Mrs. Mullaney’s class we learned about utilitarian ethics, which is when right and wrong are determined by outcomes. If a seemingly bad small action causes a bigger good result, it is ethical. Like: if the guy who invented Ziplocs had a dungeon torture chamber that was very expensive to run, and you mobilized your followers to destroy the Ziploc factory, so the CEO of Ziploc no longer had any money to torture, that’s an ethically right action. Even with the breaking-in and burning. This is just one example.
What I’m trying to say is: yes, that was what I was going to say. I had nearly blurted out the cruelest thing I could have said; and yes, Annette saw straight through me.
I kicked over her painting of the van. It fell with a flat thump to the carpet. Mom has made me scrub the stain in Annette’s carpet three times hence, but there is still a ghost of the van.
“What about me?” she yelled, as I stormed out. “Aren’t I your great big hardship?”
You should know that Annette has been in her chair her whole life. She can stand, sometimes, if she has something to brace herself against; she can walk, too, with a walker, though she hardly ever does anymore. All of it—the chair, the physical therapy, the day-separated plastic containers of pills—it is something she is used to. She is used to old ladies practically bursting into tears when she rolls by. She is used to the way people at movie theaters or hotel desks or Mom’s Christmas party lean in and speak at her in slow, loud, enunciating voices, smiling so hard that their faces are painful to look at. She is used to people saying she is brave, when they really mean that they are sorry that this happened to her, which really means they are glad it didn’t happen to them.
She is used to all of it. She has jokes.
THEM: You are so brave!
ANNETTE: Brave?! I peed my pants when I saw The Shining! Matter of fact— *here she makes expression of concentration*—I’m peeing my pants right now!
THEM: My cousin/aunt/neighbor’s stepson has cerebral palsy, too.
ANNETTE: Of course! I saw him at last year’s convention!
THEM: You are truly an inspiration, young lady.
ANNETTE: *twists face and makes Chewbacca sound*
The jokes are a “defense mechanism,” (Mom—Nicole Babineaux, 41; nurse; nice, tired) but that phrase, in my opinion, is sort of misleading. It makes me think of animals, how small things evolve to survive. Annette’s jokes aren’t like that, like a porcupine’s spines or a skunk’s excretions, because the jokes aren’t natural, and they aren’t easy for her to make. I know this not because I am her twin, but because our bedrooms share a wall, and for years I could hear her practicing the jokes as she got dressed. Over and over, for hours, until she got the tone just right.
Not applying to college: that is a defense mechanism, too. Of course she would get in. She would get in to places whose SAT ranges are so high they’d give me nosebleeds.
But how could she go? Would Mom quit her job, get some crappy wall-to-wall carpeted apartment nearby, in case Annette’s health suddenly went bad? Would she get a service dog again, like she had for ages 8-11, constant sneezing and runny noses of her allergies be damned? Could she be the girl in the wheelchair without us? Without me?
There was community college, of course, or Shawnee State. If she went there she could live at home. But the only time I saw Dad mention either of these options Annette closed her face up like a fist and left the room. I understand it, even if Mom and Dad don’t: those places, they are consolation prizes. They are so much less than she deserves, so far below what she has earned. She’d rather just blow the whole thing up.
So she didn’t apply at all. All those years of Student Government. All that SAT tutoring—all for nothing. The applications Mom had printed went from a pile on the kitchen table to a pile in Mom’s office to, presumably, the recycling bin.
And then, like everything else, she made it a joke. Annette University. When Mom pointed out her grades are slipping, she said, they don’t mind over at Annette University! When Mom was frowning her way through my philosophy capstone (Diamond Handcuffs: The Delusion of Monogamy by Charlie Babineaux), Annette, grinning, said, dumb and slutty—perfect for AU! Free morning after pills at the student union!
Because that is how she deals with things: she laughs, and then later she goes quietly into her room alone and forces herself to get over them. I will be honest and say that although sometimes I wish I was in her room with her, most times I am glad I am not. Either way the sight of her closed door makes me feel lonely, in a way that is hard to explain. It’s like: I feel lonely for Annette, that she needs to close everyone off, but I also feel lonely for me.
I know that is selfish to admit. She is the one with the disability—I am able-bodied and healthy. But there was a time that I can almost remember, when we were babies, before we were old enough to understand why her little baby-fists didn’t unfurl like mine, or why the left side of her face looked sort of blurry, or why she couldn’t wink—when we were still the same. Still twins, still connected.
Ergo: the reason I am explaining all of this is that several weeks after my suspension, something happened that Annette couldn’t get over, couldn’t laugh off.
Here’s what I know. She had a meeting scheduled with Principal Shurmur. In the meeting, they were going to talk about the Winter Formal. (Annette is student body Vice President. The current student body President, Heinrich Beasmore, is in Colombia on a very snooty service trip. Thus, Annette is in charge of Winter Formal planning.) She went to said meeting after school on Thursday, and then proceeded to fail to pick me up from Ultimate practice at Barrett Field. I stood at the gazebo getting chomped by mosquitoes until it got dark. I had to walk home. My phone told me the walk was 3.4 miles. By the time I got home, to use a Dad phrase (Peter Babineaux, 42; husky but not fat; funny; away on business), I was royally pissed.
But when I got there, I saw the van in the driveway. The ramp door was open, so all the lights in the van were on, but no one was inside.
I hurried into the house. It was dark. I walked through the kitchen (empty) and the mudroom (no sign of Annette’s coat), and went upstairs, turning lights on as I went. I had that scary-movie sensation, when your guts feel like they’ve been double-knotted.
Annette’s bedroom door was open. I flicked on the lights. The window was open: the breeze and the night-sound of traffic on I-83 pushed inside. And there was Annette’s chair, empty, between the window and the stack of old paintings.
I went to the window and carefully climbed out. There is a narrow stretch of shingles outside the sill, a foot, maybe, wedged there between the sill and the gutter. When we were younger, and we fought less, we would come out here at night; I’d help Annette onto the ledge, and then she’d press forward onto her hands and knees and sort of army crawl up the slope of the roof, into a sitting position. We’d sit and smoke the cigarettes that Mom hides in her sock drawer, talking about nothing, only crawling back inside when dawn started showing, working on the black line of the horizon like an eraser. But I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out on the roof. And even then, with my help, it had been dangerous trying to get Annette out there. Thinking about how hard it must have been for her to climb out on her own, how close she might have come to tumbling over the edge—all of a sudden I felt seventeen years’ worth of guilt for every time I hadn’t been there, every time I’d acted like I had the night before.
She was there, halfway up the roof, where the incline of the roof-shingles makes an armpit with the window-shingles. She saw me coming and wiped her face. Her cheeks were shining in the dim orange of the streetlight. She’d been crying.
You have to understand something. Annette and I have different fingerprints. I bet you’re surprised. Our whole lives, in a way, are about division. Divergence is maybe an even better word. We were one egg in the womb, and then, poof, there were two eggs, two of us. From that moment we were on separate paths. The different parts of Mom’s womb that we touched changed our fingerprints. I came out first, eleven minutes before Annette, and by the time she did, the air in the room was different. The temperature, the smell. The chemicals in my mother’s body, after delivering a baby. Only eleven minutes later, but everything was different. And so it has been, on and on and on.
Annette’s life, the doctors explained to Mom, who later explained to us—it would be hard to predict. They told Mom that Annette might die before she ever left the hospital, but she didn’t. That she might die before she turned five, but she didn’t.
One doctor, I remember, used the phrase 50-50 shot. I never got it out of my mind. Fifty-fifty. What he’d meant was that it was a coin flip, whether Annette would survive another year—but what I heard was: Two equal parts. Two halves of a whole. Me and Annette. She could have been me. I could have been her.
And always, every year, when we sit there blowing out two cakes, Mom doing a bad job hiding her crying, I have this tiny, awful thought: what if we weren’t meant to be two people at all, but one? We were once a single zygote. What if the split wasn’t 50/50 at all? What if things haven’t been equal from the very beginning?
That’s what I think, in that moment while the candles are flickering, everybody is holding their breath so they don’t accidentally snuff them out. And some part of me knows: it isn’t equal . It never has been. Of course not.
She was up on the roof, and she wiped roughly at her face where the tears had left streaks. All around us, peepers and crickets yammering. Me half-hanging out the window, feeling like, utilitarianism aside, I would have dumped myself straight out onto the front lawn if it would have gotten her to stop crying. But I didn’t say that. We don’t say things like that to each other. Not anymore.
Instead, Annette sniffed. She nodded, as if answering something I’d forgotten I’d asked. And she said, “You figure out a new plan for your essay yet?”
We climbed back into her room (Annette allowing me to help her) and started brainstorming.
Something had changed after her meeting with Principal Shurmur. She wasn’t pushing me away, or hurrying me out of her room. Now she wanted to help.
With no explanation, she started telling me what Shurmur had discussed with her, the plans for the Winter Formal. She unrolled, on her desk, a big blueprint-y drawing of the layout of the dance. I am sure I don’t need to tell you this was top secret stuff.
The Winter Formal, she explained, was to be Winter Wonderland themed. (Please see earlier, where I explained Westlake’s staggering boringness.) There would be little glittery snowflakes dangling from the gymatorium ceiling on glittery strings; there would be several frosted plastic Christmas trees on the stage; there would be papier-mâché penguins as centerpieces on all the white-table clothed tables. And so on and so forth.
She also explained that there would be a big presentation at the beginning of the dance. Shurmur was going to make remarks, sort of a toast, give an award—Annette seemed vague on the details. But—“that,” she said, “that’s where you come in. When everyone is stopped. Watching and listening. That’s your moment.”
Instantly, disruption ideas appeared in my mind: We hire a locksmith and lock everybody inside the gym. We drive a car to the gym and park it on stage. We rearrange the marquee letters above the stage—WESTLAKE HIGH SCHOOL into: WE HATE SCHOOL. WEAK HIGH SCHOOL. Or STALE TALK SHOW. COOL LAKE WHIGS. We fill the penguin centerpieces with blood—
“Jesus, Charlie,” Annette said. “Why is it always blood! No blood!”
It wasn’t all blood, I told her. But she was right. I had done the blood thing before, and I don’t need to explain that to you, admissions committee, about the daunt of your 11% acceptance rate. I felt itchy and frustrated, sitting on the floor of Annette’s room, worrying that I had a great opportunity but not the creativity to seize it. I thought of self-immolation again—but, no. No use getting in to MIT if I was dead.
Something else was bugging me, too. Annette.
“Was it this meeting?” I asked. I tried to stare at the floor, but I had to look at her. “What was it? That made you so upset?”
But she just looked away.
“Anal fissures,” she said. “Now go. Go plan your stupid thing.”
Here I will fast-forward past a few weeks that are not super-relevant to our story. Things that happened:
- Dad came home and the three of us went to a Browns game. On way home after game:
- Dad: “There is no better argument for nihilism than the Cleveland Browns.”
- Annette: *laughed*
- Me: Looked up nihilism on my phone.
- At Thanksgiving, relatively good time had by all, except when Mom overcooked turkey, proclaimed it petrified. Hard to disagree. Dad went back on road next day.
- Crazy Jeff Garbo at school was rumored to have shoved sharpened pencil into eye of Trevin Lutz. Lutz indeed seen with eyepatch. Garbo, however, was neither expelled nor in jail; day after rumor, he was spotted at school; it was soon revealed that Lutz had a contact-lens related infection. Disappointment.
- I finished four college applications: DePaul, Ohio State, University of Pittsburgh, Loyola Chicago. (Since these were listed on p. 4, I assume it will not hurt my admissions chances to mention them. They are just safeties.)
- Me and Mom at dinner table one night working on Common App essay.
- Annette (at open door of pantry): “We’re out of Puffins.”
- Mom (not looking up from essay draft): “Well. The keys are right there and there’s gas in the van.”
- Annette: “I don’t want to go to the store.”
- Mom: “Annette, shh. We’re trying to work here.”
- Annette: “I just don’t understand why we don’t have them if I put them on the grocery list.”
- Mom: (put down red pen, crossed arms)
- Annette: “I’m just saying.”
- Mom: “Annette Marie. You are an adult woman, perfectly capable of buying groceries for yourself. And I am not your maid. You better fix your attitude—“
- Annette: (slammed pantry door) “Fuck this.”
- Mom: (stood up so fast her chair tipped over) “Go to your room! Right now!”
- Annette: (did not go to room; picked up keys) (*in fake-nice singy voice*): “Anybody need anything from the store? I need to go so I don’t disturb Charlie’s college applications! Because I’m an adult woman who better learn self-sufficiency! But Charlie needs Mommy to check all her commas and periods! Oh well! Once Charlie is off getting a 1.5 GPA in her American Studies degree at Buttfuck State College at least I’ll have had lots of practice going to the HyVee!”
- Annette: (went out kitchen door, slammed it, started van, drove away)
- Mom: (crying, stood up, went upstairs, closed bedroom door quietly)
With two days left before the Winter Formal, I was starting to freak out. The bolt of inspiration I awaited had not yet electrified. Every night after school I scoured the blueprint Annette had given me, and I googled best senior pranks and media disruption and cool ways to make anarchist statement + high school + not technically illegal, but I kept finding the same stuff. Toilet-paperings, car/parking lot stuff, prank phone calls to the principal. Etc. I knew I would come up with something better eventually, but I was running out of time.
I hope that the committee will consider this next part with the following qualifications in mind:
- I did not actually 100% go through with it (more on this below).
- I conducted plenteous internet research and two controlled backyard experiments.
- I am willing to bet no one else in your application pile showed this kind of commitment.
If you recall, earlier in this story Annette made a snarky half-joke about “self-immolation,” which means to "set fire to oneself, especially as a form of protest or sacrifice” (Google). After I looked it up that night, the idea kept bugging me, poking at my mind for weeks like a stone in my shoe.
Although I couldn’t really watch the videos of the Buddhist monks self-immolating in the 1960s without crying, I thought that was also a pretty strong indicator of how powerful the spectacle was. I did not want to actually burn myself—I hope that is obvious—nor did I want to be seen as “culturally appropriating” something so serious, so I found what I thought was a good middle-ground:
I would steal the Westlake High School mascot suit (the Proud Bear);
I would set up a Kiddie Pool full of water on the wings of the Winter Formal Stage;
I would douse the mascot suit—with myself inside it, carefully ensconced in Dad’s flame-retardant onesie (from his yearly trip with “college buddies” to “NASCAR camp”)—in lighter fluid;
I would set the suit on fire, run across the stage blazing and screaming something impactful (Impactful Statement TBD) and dive into the Kiddie Pool.
Westlake High School’s janitor, a 74-year-old man named Dexter Higgins, has been an unwitting accomplice to all my disruptions. Dexter is very nice. He has one eye that long-ago detached from its roots and thus points down and to the right, at nothing. He is good at his job in the sense that the school is pretty clean and the trash cans are usually emptied on time, but he is bad at his job in the sense that he has not remembered to lock the big industrial delivery door for—this is a guess—twenty years.
I couldn’t take the van—the Souped-Up Van is well known around Westlake—so I started the long walk to the school at midnight and got there at quarter to one. I went in through the auto shop door, ignoring the cameras (which are all fake/turned off), and made my preparations. I stole the mascot suit from Coach Gerrity’s office. I went into the gymatorium and inflated the Kiddie Pool, dragged it to the wings of the stage, filled it with water and covered it with a sheet from the school’s production of Sweeney Todd. I had also brought a small bath of my fake blood, just in case, so I tucked my industrial bucket beneath the tablecloth skirt of table number six.
But then I heard something behind me. I stood up too quickly, cracked my head on the table, and whirled around.
It was Annette. She was between tables seven and eight. On her lap, the bear’s head, which I had apparently dropped while dizzily pumping up the Kiddie Pool with my breath. The bear’s head looked spooky, there in her hands, its big meshy eyes black and empty.
“You followed me?” I said.
She didn’t answer. She scratched the bear’s fluffy ear.
“The pig blood thing,” she said. “You stole that from Carrie.”
I thought about this. It occurred to me that it was possible that Carrie, a Stephen King book-cum-movie which, without spoiling too much, involves a girl having pig’s blood dumped on her at a dance, had subconsciously influenced some aspects of my disruption.
“You shouldn’t do this,” Annette said. “You don’t even have a reason.”
This annoyed me. “You’re the one who suddenly wanted to help me.” Except, there, in that moment, I couldn’t remember exactly how she’d helped at all. What inside information had she even given me? Who cared that the theme was Winter Wonderland. But she had encouraged me, hadn’t she? She wanted me to do something.
But before I could ask, she said, “I know. I know that I told you about it. I know that I helped. I just wanted… I can’t explain it now. But I changed my mind. You can’t do it. You might get expelled.”
I snorted. The sound echoed weirdly in the empty gym. “I won’t get expelled.”
“You really might,” she said. “You’ve already been suspended three times.” (NB: the other two are addressed in Supplemental Essay #1: Miscellaneous Disciplinary Concerns.)
“What do you care?” I said. “You probably want me to get expelled. That way I can’t go to college. So I have stay home with you.”
Annette looked at me for a long time. Like I said, I was upset. I was confused. I felt guilty. I had accidentally scorched a toenail during a controlled backyard experiment that afternoon and my foot was throbbing so bad it was like it was trying to tell me something. I was surprised Annette had followed me there—she doesn’t like to do rule-breaking things. And as I looked at her, looking at me, feeling the whole swirl of confusing feelings… for one of the first times in our life I had no idea what she was thinking. We share 99.6% of the exact same genetic material and yet we are very different people.
“You can be a real idiot sometimes, Charlie,” she said. She put the bear’s head on the ground. And then she rolled out of the gym, and I heard the van start up, and for the second time in a month, I walked home in the dark.
Winter Formal day. I got up and felt pukey. Mom had already taken Annette to school for the Student Government meeting at six, so when she came back to give me the van and then carpool with Bev to the hospital, she was too tired and too focused on work to notice I was acting strange. She just gave me the keys and kissed me on the head and left.
I drove to school in silence. No Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, nothing. In the back seat, I had my black duffel, stuffed with the necessary implements for all my potential disruptions: Dad’s jug of Kingsford Lighter Fluid; Dad’s floppy flame-suit; three Bic lighters; band-aids and Neosporin and aspirin; and the tattered friendship bracelet Annette had made me during our first year at sleepaway camp.
The school day passed without incident. No one was talking about pranks, or if they were, no one suspected me. Is it silly to say I was a bit disappointed? I do not, as Annette has sometimes suggested, do everything for the attention—I do things for the societal benefit. But the attention is a not-bad byproduct.
In sixth period, I asked Mr. Holster for a pass and he signed one, yawning. I went to my locker and got the duffel (my locker reeking like a grill). I went to the girl’s locker room, waited for Sadie Jorgenson and Ashley Wu to finish re-straightening their hair, and then changed into the mascot suit. I slipped into the gymatorium—decorated and dark—and ducked underneath table six, where I found my blood bucket, undisturbed from the night before.
The dark, quiet space underneath the table felt like the inside of the igloos I would make for Annette and I when we were kids. I had five hours until the dance started, and for the first four, nothing happened.
I played games on my phone ‘til it died.
I looked at the gym floor and tried to guess where I was on the basketball court by the weird hieroglyphs of tape on the ground.
I laid on my back and stared at the green and pink landforms of gum adhered to the bottom of the table, wondering who had chewed them, thinking about how teeth are almost bones and our whole bodies are just bags of bones and cables and goop.
I don’t usually genuflect so deeply, to tell the truth. But I was nervous. Actually, I was, to use a Dad phrase, “pants-messing scared.” The self-immolation suddenly seemed offensive and misguided. Even if it wasn’t, it was not impossible I would get expelled. It was not impossible I would die, or at least burn my arms/face/scalp irreparably. And for what? These disruptions were not MIT-worthy. They were just stupid pranks. The Charlene Babineaux show, as Annette would say. I could practically hear her voice in my ears. Why did I do any of the stuff that I did? Did I even believe in any of it? Anything I did? The veganism? The demonstrations? The sit-in at the Rowley IndiePlex? Everything I did suddenly seemed empty. It was all spectacle.
I was crying again, quietly. I decided to leave. To pull the plug on the whole thing. I would go home and take the MIT bookmark off my browser and finally let Dad teach me how to be a fucking accountant.
But just as I went to climb out from under the table, the double-doors opened, and I heard Principal Shurmur and Vice Principal Mack, and then a cacophony of voices, and the whole class of 2019’s shoes squeaking on the gymatorium floor.
I was trapped.
Within minutes, it got hot under the table. All those bodies, throbbing with hormones, excreting their weird heat in the air. I was sweating in the mascot suit. I had to take the bear head off, which was bad, because if anybody peeked under the table, or if I went for it and fled, I would not have a disguise on.
And then, after who-knew-how-long, I heard the music fade out, and the sound of somebody tapping on a microphone.
“Hey, all right,” Principal Shurmur said, with maximum lameness. “How we doin’ tonight, Seniors?”
A few mild woops.
“I just want to say thank you to our teacher chaperones—Ms. Bachelder, Mr. Link, you guys are looking very spiffy this evening.”
“And to all our student government representatives, let’s get a round of applause.” Genuine clapping. “Yeah, right? What a great night. Everyone being safe, enjoying themselves. You guys did a great job planning this.”
For some reason, my stomach clenched. Strangely, I was feeling that tingly twin feeling. The onset of telepathy. But then again, maybe I didn’t realize that then. Maybe I only see it now, looking back.
Shurmur cleared his throat.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one particular member of our Class of ’19 student government. This student has been an elected rep for four years. She has done it all—planned events, mediated student disputes, fund-raised.”
I belly-crawled to the front of the table and lifted the tablecloth. It took my eyes a moment to adjust, but when they did, I could see Shurmur on stage, and behind him, an easel, with a big rectangle perched on it, covered by a black cloth.
“This student,” he said. “Is someone I really admire. Not just as her principal. But person to person. She is—oh man, she’s going to kill me. She really didn’t want to do this! But I have to embarrass her, I’m sorry. Listen, I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say her bravery, her energy, her spirit… she is an inspiration. An inspiration to our whole community.”
The crowd clapped, murmured. I heard people muttering, whispering. Somebody sneezed.
“We want to dedicate a scholarship to this person. This pillar of our community. So that we can all remember her impact on this place.”
And he reached over and pulled the curtain off the easel. Underneath was one of those huge novelty checks.
ANNETTE BABINEAUX MEMORIAL SCHOLARSHIP, the check read.
And right then it all clicked.
Her meeting with Shurmur. Why she’d been so upset. The vague stuff she’d said about a presentation, an award.
He was doing the two things she hated most. One: all those barfy words about her bravery, her integrity, what she meant to the community. And two: pretending she was already dead.
He turned to back to the microphone, and he was about to say her name—and all of a sudden I had my reason.
Admissions Committee Reader, the reason is not always one thing. This is what I learned in my disruption—this is what I will know for the rest of my life. When I graduate from your program. When I get my first job. When I get old and have kids. When Annette’s 50/50 finally comes up the wrong way. When I have to pull over on the way to work to write down her old jokes to make sure I still remember them. When I visit Mom alone. When June 11th is no longer our birthday, it is only my birthday.
I was under the tablecloth, sweating through my bear costume and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But then I saw Annette on the side of the stage, the left wheel of her chair and the scuffed-white toe of her left Converse, and the twin-telepathy feeling was crashing like cymbals in my ears—and I lifted the tablecloth, and I went.
Please find the attached pictures of my disruption. There are three.
In the first, you will see Principal Shurmur pulling back the black cloth on the novelty check that is propped on an easel. If you squint, you can see the end of the To: line of the check —BABINEAUX MEMORIAL SCHOLARSHIP. If you squint, you can see Shurmur glancing to his left, his eyebrows knitted in surprise or confusion at what he is seeing. Also there, at the side of the stage, you can see Annette, just starting to roll out from the wings. Her back is to the camera. She is still partly obscured by the curtain. And yet—though I am biased, though I know her better than anybody—I bet you can tell how horrified she is. You can feel it, just looking at the photo. The tension in her neck, the way she grips the wheels of her chair: her titanic embarrassment. Her panic. The SOS signal she was sending, that only I could hear.
In the second photograph, Annette has emerged from the curtain. She is making her way across the stage. She is craning her neck, turning back to look at something, something behind her. She still has not made it to the edge of the spotlight that is illuminating Shurmur and the mic stand and the check, so even though she’s out on the stage, she is still semi-shrouded in darkness.
Behind her, a headless Westlake Proud Bear has clambered onto the stage. In the bear’s arms is a bucket. The bucket is swinging; a wave of extremely believable fake blood is cresting. The bucket is tilting; the corn syrup is reaching the lip of the bucket, just about to fly. Because of the angle of the camera, you cannot see the bear-person’s face—only her sweaty pony-tail, the Utah-shaped birthmark on the back of her left ear. You can only see, in other words, the moment before the real moment.
But before that—before the blood hits, before Principal Shurmur is covered, his suit sticky, his toupee gloopy and lollipop-red, his doofy novelty check ruined—before the eyes widen in the faces in the crowd, before the chaperones rush to the stage—you can see it. Frozen in a photograph, Attached here as proof.
Look at Annette. She is pretending to be shocked. She is pretending to be oblivious. But look at the corners of her mouth, her cheeks, her eyes. Something is changing. An expression is forming. It is like: pre-delight.