Max scratches away at the paper on his desk, willing the pencil work and do his bidding. His brow scrunches into a tight band around his forehead, and his hand sweats from the ferocity of his grip. He glances up at the whiteboard, where his teacher, Mr. Brown, just wrote the prompt for today’s personal essay: “Write about a time when you faced a challenge and overcame it.” The black, handwritten letters dance and jump in front of Max’s eyes, looking more like a secret code than a sentence, and he sighs deeply.
He looks back down at his desk. Even he can’t read his own writing. The short sentences, scribbled across the paper like chicken scratch, start in the middle of the page and curve downward like a wave, until the words scrunch together in a jumbled heap at the edge of the page. It’s almost completely illegible, and the few words he can make out are definitely misspelled. His work is so bad that he can’t even remember what he was trying to write only minutes ago.
This is hopeless, he thinks to himself.
His pencil pauses in the air, hovering above the page as he tries his best to regroup. There is no reason why this shouldn’t work, why Max can’t just make this assignment happen. The words are there in his head. He can see the whole essay unfolding with majestic genius inside his mind, but when he tries to write, the whole thing becomes an unintelligible mess.
Write about a time when you faced a challenge and overcame it.
The words echo inside his head, and Max wills himself to write. He can do this. He knows he can. Why can’t he get it together? He looks around at his classmates and sees the furious movements of their pencils across the paper. Their efforts make tiny scratching sounds echo through the quiet air, and the classroom smells like sweaty teenagers. The silence is deafening, so intense that it becomes a sound of its own, beating loudly in Max’s ears and making him fidget with restless energy.
Though the classroom door and windows are all closed, Max can hear the faraway voices of a nearby PE class playing on the field. The windows are high on the walls, too high for Max to actually see the class outside, but they reveal a thin, long rectangle of piercing blue sky and the purple blossoms of the Jacaranda trees outside the building. He watches the delicate blooms and feathery green leaves dancing in the wind, and longs for the feel of the hot breeze against his face. The sight has a hypnotic effect, and without realizing it, Max’s mind begins to wander.
Write about a time you faced a challenge and overcame it.
He absently scratches his arm under the sleeve of his shirt, and remembers pulling it on this morning, unearthing it from a small pile of dirty clothes lying on the floor in his room. After the shirt, he had chosen his one halfway decent pair of pants, trying not to look at himself in the mirror when he was finished. Max never looks in the mirror if he can help it, because he never likes what he sees.
If he does happen to look, what he will see is a baggy shirt, stained and frayed in all the wrong ways. Old, faded jeans, handed down from a dead uncle, cinched at the waist with a belt and torn at the knees. Worn out sneakers with the soles worn down on the heels and peeling off at the toes. And frizzy, copper hair on top of his dark, freckled face, unkempt and in a blazing mess.
He really needs a haircut, but he always needs a haircut. Max needs a lot of things.
Like food, for example. Max’s stomach lets out a loud moan as he sits at his desk, trying to recall what he had for breakfast. After getting dressed that morning, he had gone out of his room in the direction of the kitchen. He had to pass by his mother on the way, where he found her, like every morning, passed out on the couch.
Just like his appearance, his mother is another thing he tries to ignore. Dressed in cheap, lacy lingerie and sprawled out like a pale, dead fish in the summer sun, his mother breathed loudly through her mouth as she slept. Her arms were splayed wide, revealing the dark bruising and track marks from the night before. The coffee table next to the couch was littered with empty alcohol bottles, syringes, and crack pipes, and the floor around her was covered in trash.
But Max tried to avert his gaze, making his way to the kitchen in the hopes of finding something to eat. The fridge was empty, save for a half-empty carton of rancid milk, a container of moldy, ready-made mac and cheese from the deli down the street, and a bottle of orange juice with only one tiny sip left. Max grabbed the mac and cheese and ate around the mold in the center before gulping down the last of the orange juice.
Then he looked in the cupboards and found a package of dried pasta noodles, an expired can of sliced beets, and an open container of bright pink cake frosting. Forgoing the pasta and beets, Max grabbed the frosting and plunged his finger into the sugary goo, before stuffing his mouth with an enormous glob of it. He finished everything off with a sip of tap water from the kitchen faucet that he drank with his hands. After that, he was out the door.
“Mr. Montgomery,” a stern voice says sharply, pulling him out of his reverie. It is his English teacher. Max looks up and sees Mr. Brown glaring at him.
“Stop dreaming and get to work,” Mr. Brown barks.
Max gives him a quick nod and then looks back down at his paper. His cheeks flush from embarrassment, and he tries to get back to work.
Write about a time you faced a challenge and overcame it.
There are so many challenges in Max’s life that he could write a whole book if he could just get his damn pencil to start working. He could write about having to be in Special Ed because he can’t pay attention, or read, or write, or do math, or anything else his teachers tell him to do. He could write about his stupid mom, but he doesn’t even want to waste the paper on her. He could write about his asshole dad who left as soon as he found out that Max’s mom was pregnant. He could write about the gang of guys who like to find him after school and knock him around before he finally makes it back to his garbage heap of a home.
Or, better yet, he could write about his name. Yeah, that’s a good one. He’ll write about the story of his name. Now there’s a real, serious challenge, because every single time Max hears someone say his name, he wants to crawl into a hole and die. His mother chose it, but she was never one for paying much attention or doing things right. When she was Max’s age, she didn’t spend much time in school. Yet on one of the few days she did attend, she learned about the Roman Emperors and the name Maximilian stuck in her drug-addled brain. When she got herself knocked up at the age of sixteen, she decided her kid would be named something regal. Something proud.
Somehow, everyone in his school and neighborhood seems to know that his worthless excuse of a mom had the bright idea to name her dumb, half-wit son while she was on crack.
Yeah, Max knows challenges. He has plenty to say about that. But overcoming? What about that part?
He taps his pencil on the paper, giving this some serious thought. Has he overcome any of his challenges? Right now he feels smack dab in the middle of them, like a cricket sinking in a vast pit of slimy quicksand. Can he honestly write about a way in which he has overcome them?
Definitely not. But he thinks he could under the right circumstances. He could if someone were willing to give him the opportunity. If someone outstretched a hand and rescued the little cricket, he knows he could. He could overcome anything, if he just had the chance.
But seriously, who is going to go out of their way for him? It’s not like anyone is standing in line, waiting for their turn. If anything, when people see him, they tuck tail and run hard in the opposite direction. Max is nothing but trouble, and no one wants trouble.
He kicks at the floor under his desk with the worn heel of his shoe, feeling a fresh wave of frustration bubbling inside him. The silence becomes more deafening than ever, and suddenly all Max wants to do is stand up and throw his desk through the window.
Then the loud bleating of the bell interrupts the silence, and the room erupts with sound. Class is over.
“Alright everyone, bring your essays up front and leave them here on my desk,” Mr. Brown hollers over the cacophony of student voices.
One by one, Max’s classmates shuffle to the front of the room and place their completed assignments on Mr. Brown’s desk. He looks down at his paper in front of him, realizing that there are now wet sweat prints from his hands in addition to the illegible scratches of his handwriting. He tries to wipe the page clean, but the combination of dampness and pencil lead turns the whole thing into a grey, smudgy mess.
Max’s frustration morphs into anger and he crumples the paper into a tight ball in his sweaty palms. He swings his backpack onto his shoulder and makes for the door, pausing only to throw his paper in the trash. That’ll be another zero credit day on the books for him, inching him one step closer to the failing grade he knows is waiting for him at the end of the school year.
Yeah, Max has plenty of those.
But right now, he’s about a million miles away from overcoming them.