Canceled

by Ashley Zheng, age 16
Canceled Ashley is a rising junior currently in quarantine. She knows 2020 has been a difficult time for everyone, but wishes though this memoir, her readers can find a renewed sense of hope and unity. She would be glad if this story lit up a lantern in your sky.

“‘In times like this, we will abide by our motto to function in disaster and finish in style.'”

Trig functions still echoing in my head from my math test minutes ago, I dashed towards the library and slipped into the school meeting from the back door. I gave our dorm director a lopsided smile, hoping it would compensate for my hoarse gasps and disheveled locks. But his eyes were dark and solemn, a shadow of the man who smiled at every student he passed.

I stiffened. Scanning the library, I felt like a clown who had walked into a funeral. Girls who normally joked and cheered were silent, eyes upturned with uncanny focus. I followed their gaze to our principal, and saw her petite hands shaking.

“In times like this, we will abide by our motto to function in disaster and finish in style.”

Everything suddenly clicked. I tried to claw it out of my mind, hoping that I was just confused. It couldn’t be true. It mustn’t be. Please. But it was too late, like a Jenga tower that had already started to topple.

We were dismissed. Like a river, students flowed out and away. I was the rock in the middle of the current as they parted around me, streaming past, voices laced with sorrow, confusion, anger.

“School’s canceled. It’s all canceled.”

I staggered, leaning on a bookshelf as if it could stop reality from crumbling. The conversations around me tumbled and crashed until they faded, leaving only a dozen or so people in the library. As I lurched towards the exit, I felt as if I was underwater—sounds muffled, limbs light. I stared at the faint stains on the carpet blurring below my shuffling feet. I was looking, but not seeing.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned in surprise, breaking to the surface. It was my freshman neighbor.

“Hey, are you going to be okay? Do you have a place to go?” she asked. I smiled faintly, surprised that someone had reached out, shining a thin beam of light into this storm. I replied and asked her the same question.

“I… I was supposed to go to Connecticut for a spring camp, but it got canceled,” she responded, with a voice that grew meeker as she spoke. She had no plans, and only one night to figure everything out. I felt selfish. I had been worrying about the luggage I needed to pack, the goodbyes I wouldn’t get to say—but at least I had somewhere to go. She was not as lucky, yet she was there to comfort me.

I am not a hugger, but at that moment I wrapped her up, told her it was going to be okay even though I didn’t believe it myself. Before I knew it, she was crying. Then everything I was holding back bubbled to the surface. Friends. Teachers. Roommate. Dorm. Classes. Internships. The simple routines of school life—all gone.

I shattered.

We cried on each other’s shoulders between the double doors of the library, trying to calm ourselves down, until another pair of arms wrapped themselves around us. Her best friend’s. She didn’t say a word as she handed us each a tissue from the Spiderman-themed packet she kept faithfully in the front pocket of her backpack. I smiled despite my tears. Another beam of light.

My two favorite English teachers saw us, and immediately walked over. They asked if we had somewhere to go, whether we were holding up okay. They shared their own feelings, but also words of encouragement: we would get through this together and come out even stronger.

“We’re always here for you if you want to talk.”

My smile grew again despite my tears. They had no obligation to be our therapists, yet they were willing to help unravel the mess of tangled threads I had become. Suddenly I felt like the storm had begun to clear, transforming into a tranquil night.

As I stepped outside the library, the clear blue sky and bright sun starkly contradicted the invisible cloud hanging over the campus. The quad that was usually filled with laughter was now a field of tears, hugs, and goodbyes. It was heartbreaking to see everyone so downtrodden, yet at the same time uplifting to see everyone’s support for each other. I trained my eyes on the brick path, hoping no one would notice my tears, but in the one second I happened to look up, my eyes locked with a classmate’s. Her expression softened in an instant.

“Aww, come here,” she said, arms outstretched. I did. She held me and told me it was going to be okay. I had always known she was friendly, someone that I wanted to know better even though we weren’t close. But on a day like this, no one cared about friend groups or high school circles.

As I continued walking to my dorm, tears slowly drying, I ran into one of my day student friends. She told me if there was anything I needed, she would be happy to help, even offering to let me stay at her house if I had nowhere to go. I almost cried again, this time from appreciation.

As I kept walking, more and more people comforted me with hugs, words, or even just their gaze. It felt like each person was lighting a lantern, its individual glow merging with all the rest to light up my sky and vanquish the darkness.

On the last day of school, the seniors wore white—white like graduation dresses, like new beginnings. In a circle, arms on each other’s shoulders, they cried out in unison. I looked upon the sea of white with wistfulness, but also hope, because I knew it was not just my lanterns flying into the sky, not just the lanterns of hundreds of others at my school. It was millions of people in this state, and billions of others around this world. Luminous, effulgent lights of care, love, community, and unity.

In times of darkness—together—we will shine.

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