| Cozey Feature |

The Letter

A quandary. Which meant that the high school wasn’t going to let me in. Which meant I was stuck. 

I always thought I would for sure make it into TBYR — Toras Bais Yaakov of Rockaway. I was the girl whose notes were photocopied and passed around like contraband, the one who’d be graduating with a 4.0 GPA, and recommendations from my principal? I knew they’d be stellar.

“Shira, you’re such an overachiever,” my parents always said, but I could detect more than a hint of pride in their voices. And my friends, with their hushed whispers and sidelong glances, knew I was destined for greatness.

I don’t know when I decided I wanted to go TBYR. It was no secret it was the most competitive and hardest school in New York, and maybe even the nation. Girls called the school The Best Yearly Retreat (even though it wasn’t a dorming school), and friends quipped on the phone, “Too Busy, You’re Right.”

Maybe it all started with the tuna sandwiches, my favorite main for lunch. The ones I’d unpack from my lunchbox, only to be met with wrinkled noses and suppressed giggles from my classmates. Or perhaps it was my interest in wearing socks adorned with frilly ribbons, and my tendency to profess my love for pink bubblegum to anyone who’d listen.

It wasn’t until the most popular girl in the grade sidled up next to me during class to ask me for my math notes after I had a run-in with the school bully that I realized something crucial. While I might not attract a ton of friends due to my choices in clothing or lunchtime fare, smarts gained popularity, or at least a begrudging respect. Being singled out for intellect never harmed, and suddenly, overachieving just made sense.

That was, until that Earl Grey Tuesday morning when I got my rejection letter. Just like every morning that December, I checked our dented iron mailbox for a large envelope before the bus came, and it was at the top, my name face up for the world to see, neatly written in black ink.

Shira Stark

202 Bellville Ave.

Rockaway, New York

The envelope felt lighter than I was expecting, and I quickly tore open the top and read the words, We regret to inform you...

I stared at the letter, blinking tears away from my eyes.

“Where am I supposed to go?” I said quietly, feeling my mother reading over my shoulder. She had walked me out, eager to see if I had gotten a response. And then, before she could respond, the bus pulled up, its doors swung open, and I left Mommy standing there, her eyes wide in shock and dismay.

At recess, Mrs. Frankel, the principal, called me into her office.

“We have a slight problem,” she said frankly. She was always very matter-of-fact, void of expression, and yet this time, her downturned mouth showed otherwise.

“I’m afraid we’re in somewhat of a quandary. You didn’t apply anywhere else.”

A quandary. Which meant that the high school wasn’t going to let me in. Which meant I was stuck.

So, I answered with the first thing that came into my head. “Why don’t they want me?”

“It’s not that they don’t want you, Shira. It’s that they accepted other girls and have no more room.”

“Mrs. Frankel,” I said levelly. “I think that means they don’t want me. You see, if they did, they would have made room for me.”

She looked down at her folder. “Shira, it’s never pleasant when we don’t get the things we want. But luckily, we have other options, and those options, even though you may not see it now, are better for us.”

She was right; I didn’t see it — there was no way any other place could be better for me. But I also needed a high school.

“Yeah, okay,” I said, and she handed me three full envelopes, weighed down with applications.

Walking out of her office felt like a nightmare. The one you realize you’re having but can’t wake up from, until your heart dips to your toes and your eyes pop open with a snap. I had never dreamed of anything else, of going anywhere else. Who was I, if not the best student, if not the smartest girl in my class?

The envelopes I had shoved into my bag seemed to dig painfully into my back as I passed girls sharing where they were going for high school.

“Shira! Shira!” Nomee short stopped in front of me. “Where have you been?” She sucked in a breath. “I’m dying to tell you, dying!” She grabbed my arm and pulled me into an empty classroom.

“It came! It’s here! Our dreams have come true!” Her words tumbled together as she rummaged through her bag. “We’re going! I got in! I got in! I never would have believed it, but look!” she shoved her acceptance letter under my nose. “I never thought I’d go with you. You’ve always been smarter than me, but can you believe it?” her cheeks burned bright as her eyes gleamed. “If only our little kindergarten selves could see us now! You never cared what anyone else thought; you’ve always had such a strong vision, but me?” She took another gasping lungful of air. “This is so cool, huh?”

“Yeah…” I trailed off, trying to make the corners of my mouth lift, if only a centimeter. “It’s going to be great!”

That night, my parents and I sat silently around the supper table, as they stared at me with sympathetic eyes. When I finally made my way upstairs and stretched morosely onto my bed, I noticed a package on my desk. And, as illogical as it was, my heart skipped a beat. Had they realized their mistake? Was this what I thought it was?

“A letter came for you,” Mommy said, passing by my door, “I put it on your desk; I think you’re going to like it.”

Shira Stark, the label read.

202 Bellville Ave.

Rockaway, New York

The envelope felt heavier than I was expecting, and I tore it open, reading the words Dear Shira on the top of the page.

I smiled as bubble gum wrappers fell across my desk as I removed the letter, and an old pair of frilly Shabbos socks tumbled out. I’d forgotten about this time capsule I’d written on the last day of third grade with Mrs. Leibowitz. I’d forgotten that it’d be returned to me in eighth grade before I graduated, and I couldn’t help but laugh as I read:

Hi Shira, it’s me! Me! From the past! Isn’t that silly? Mrs. Leibowitz says this is called a time capsule. We’re learning about it in history. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I have to put in the things I love, and then when I’m in eighth grade, I get it back. What’s it like being that old? Can I walk to school myself? Mrs. Leibowitz put a phrase on the board we have to write down, she said it’s the theme of the year.

Here’s the phrase, I hope you remember it.

“Sometimes the best things in life are the situations we never expected.”

I have no idea what that means.

Does old me?

Love, Shira

I laughed at the pencil smudges marking the page, and the crude heart after my name, before the weight of the phrase hit me. Because Old Shira didn’t know what the phrase meant, not yet anyway. But as I took out the application letters from my backpack and spread them out across my desk, I couldn’t help but turn the phrase over in my head. Maybe Mrs. Frankel had a point, and there was only one way to find out.


(Originally featured in Treeo, Issue 998)

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