Coach nods and I count down to begin the routine.
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
Music blasts from the speakers.
Our routine begins with high-intensity tumbling. We sprint across the mats, propelling our bodies through the air, hitting our handsprings, layouts, and tucks right on the beat. The girls are getting even more pumped as they move into formation for the flyer stunts. I step up onto my bases, let them propel me up into a barrel roll, and fall back into their cradle. The stunts are getting more and more complex and one of our flyers loses her balance during a dismount on a pyramid, smacking against her back spotter and sending her to the ground. The bases help the spotter back up.
Coach stops the mix. She’s frowning.
“We got this! Come on, ladies!” I shout. “Again from the beginning!”
We practice our routine over and over until all of the flyers are hitting their stunts. Our muscles ache and our arms are slick with sweat, but the better we get, the more pumped we are, so by the end of practice everyone is cheering louder, staying tighter, and flying higher.
That’s more like it.
We’re about to go through our last run when Mrs. Garcia pushes through the swing doors and power walks toward us. Her scuffed pleather heels thump against the wood floors. Weird. What’s the college counselor doing at cheer practice? Everyone else must have noticed her too, because they’re all chatting and whispering instead of getting into their positions.
Coach catches her eye and turns to us. “Ladies! Listen up. I want you to pair up and practice your back walkovers, back tucks, then cool down with stretches and splits, holding each side for thirty seconds each. Spot for each other. Start slow. Keep them controlled.”
As she joins Mrs. Garcia, I pair up with Kayla and help her slowly ease into a backbend. She tries to kick up with her foot, but can’t catch the momentum, so I help guide her through the move.
Kayla Paredes is curvy, with a tiny waist, curly dark hair and a quick smile. Boys have been worshipping at her feet since we were twelve, but she tires of them easily. She’s fifth-generation Mexican American, which means she learned Spanish in class just like I did.
“Movie night on Friday?” she asks. “My house?”
I’m about to say no, I have to study, but it’s been ages and we need to catch up. “Perfect,” I tell her. “I’ll have to clear it with my mom, but it should be okay. Let’s make chocolate-chip cookies.”
“With extra chocolate chips.” Kayla grins. After a couple minutes, Coach calls out for me. “Santos! Mrs. Garcia needs a word with you.”
Me? Is something wrong? Uncertainty creeps into my stomach. It’s October and I’ve been trying to narrow down my list of colleges. Did I miss an early application deadline? I’ve been going to Mrs. Garcia’s office every couple of weeks since junior year to make sure I’m on track. Could she have forgotten to tell me something important?
I help Kayla up before walking over, trying not to look too worried. Coach winks at me as she passes by on her way back to the group, and I’m relieved. This can only mean something good.
“I have something special for you,” Mrs. Garcia says as she hands me an envelope. She folds her arms, a slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth.
My heart begins to beat when I see a fancy logo printed in official navy blue ink on the top right corner: United States National Scholarship Program, Department of Education. Somehow, I know I’m holding my future in my hands. The one I’ve worked so hard for. The one my parents have dreamed of ever since we moved here from the Philippines when I was only nine years old. Danny was a toddler and Isko was still a newborn. I remember holding Danny’s hand on the plane while my mom cradled Isko on her lap as the plane rushed down the runway, lifting off toward America.
I wrote about it in my application essay, how one of my earliest memories is of looking out the window in our first house in California, at the bright lights and the stark silhouettes of palm trees, and how different it was from the view of the green and wet mountains in our house in Antipolo, where it was always muggy and raining, and we often kept the mosquito screens closed. I’ve come to think of America as an open window—open to new possibilities, to the new life promised to those who journey from far away to reach its shores.
The National Scholarship Award is one of the most prestigious in the nation, bestowed upon only the top high school students, the best of the best, who are chosen not only on their grades and scores but on their personal essays and teacher recommendations. It’s a bit like applying to college, I guess, but it’s even harder than getting into the Ivy League. I worked so hard on my application and I wanted it so badly. Now that it’s here, I’m shaking.
Mrs. Garcia puts her hand on my shoulder, startling me back to the present. “I’m so proud of you,” she says like I’m her own daughter.
I tear the envelope open, nearly ripping the letter apart.
As I unfold the letter, my eyes drift to the signature at the bottom. It’s actually signed—not printed—by the president of the United States. I return to the top and begin reading the body of the letter:
Dear Ms. de los Santos,
I am pleased to offer you a National Scholarship Award in recognition of your outstanding academic achievement. The award includes a financial grant covering four years of tuition to the college of your choice. Only three hundred students out of thousands of highly qualified applicants are chosen each year, making the award one of the most competitive in the nation.
You are among a select group of astonishing young people, people who by the ages of sixteen and seventeen have not only succeeded academically but have conducted innovative medical research, played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, competed in the Olympics, launched companies, volunteered for international social service organizations, and more. National Scholars go on to attend our nation’s top universities and use their gifts to improve both our country and the world.
It is my distinct pleasure to invite you to attend the National Scholarship Recognition Program to celebrate your achievement and meet with government officials, educators, musicians, scientists, business leaders, and past scholars. You will also have the opportunity to visit historic museums and monuments, as well as attend recitals, receptions and official ceremonies as guests of the Department of Education. Please complete and return the form included with this letter. Additional details about the trip to Washington, D.C., will be sent within the following weeks. Congratulations! I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ll do to make a brighter future for our country.
The President of the United States
I can’t even breathe. This is the happiest day of my life. Everything I’ve given up—the hours of sleep, the driver’s license (because my parents wouldn’t allow me to learn), all the parties I never attended, all the fun I never had, all the boys I never kissed...
Nothing compares to this scholarship.
Mrs. Garcia shuffles against the gym floor, leaving small smudges on the wood. “This is a huge deal, Jasmine. There hasn’t been a National Scholar from our town as long as I’ve been here. It’s the highest honor a student can be awarded.”
A full ride to any college of my choice. My parents won’t have to worry about not being able to afford tuition. It almost takes my breath away. I can see it so clearly. My future.
College. Graduate school. I don’t know yet what I want to do, but I do know that winning at the meritocracy is my American dream. A successful career and a handsome husband. A family. I’m old-fashioned that way, maybe because I’m Filipino, but ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted a family of my own and a marriage like the one my parents share. Corny, I know, but hey, I’m an American girl, and I want it all.
I worked hard for this, gave up everything. Some of my friends tease that I’m seventeen going on thirty-five. It doesn’t matter now. What’s certain is that I’m not going to be stuck with my parents’ limited options. My mom graduated top of her class in the Philippines, but in America she cleans up vomit in a hospital, and my dad, the smartest man I know, drives a bus for a living. But they always believed if their children became American like I am now, the sky’s the limit.
And here it is. The sky is on fire.
This is it. My year. My shot (thanks, Hamilton).
The exhilaration is almost as good—if not better—as sticking a killer landing at Nationals.
It was my father who taught us that an immigrant must work twice as hard as anybody else, that he must never give up.
“WHAT WAS THAT all about?” Kayla asks when Mrs. Garcia leaves. She raises her eyebrows and waits expectantly.
I can’t hide my elation, but I want to tell my parents first. The news is too precious, too hard-earned to share with even my best friend right now. It’s not that she won’t be happy for me; she’ll be ecstatic. But Mom and Dad deserve to be the first ones to hear.
“Just some good news about college apps,” I tell her. “She thinks I’m eligible for a Regent’s at the UC schools.” The Regent’s Scholarships are California’s answer to the National Scholarship Program. They cover thousands of dollars of tuition a year for the top percentage of applicants, and I’d known I’ve been eligible for a while as UC applications are due at the end of November.
“Well, duh, I could have told you that,” she says, as I pull the scholarship letter out of my sports bra and slip it into the front pocket of my backpack.
When practice is over, we run into Lorraine Schiana leaning against her car with a couple of boys in the parking lot. She’s twisting her dark red hair around one of her fingers. Lo is drop-dead gorgeous but never looks as if she’s trying. You know the type. Glamorous. Bohemian. Like a rock star’s famous girlfriend. She’s a total scene queen, always dating a different hot musician at least a year or two older, and dyeing her hair these amazing unnatural colors—pink, blue, lavender, and silver. Right now she’s wearing her hair au naturel, as she told me all that dye was drying out the ends too much. We’ve been friends since junior high, but Lo started running in different groups once we got to high school and my class load meant I didn’t have as much free time as I’d like. Even though we’re not as close anymore, I still love her. Her world always seems so much bigger than mine. She knows so many people and has so many fun things going on that it makes me feel a little jealous sometimes.
As I pass by, I give her a little wave, not wanting to interrupt her conversation.
Kayla leans over and whispers, “Who are those guys? Dibs on the one in the Bob Marley shirt.”
It’s like the boys can sense she’s talking about them because they train their eyes on us, which makes Lorraine look over too. “Hey, Jas,” she says. “What up, girl? Haven’t seen you in a long time.”