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TEEN STORY

Genius

My sister will be valedictorian at her graduation.

My brother will be valedictorian at his graduation.

And me?

I’ll be lucky if I pass.

“Want to study for the Chumash final?” I ask Rivka during lunch break.

She looks at me like I have two heads.

“The Chumash final is tomorrow,” she says. “I’ve been studying for a month. Did you even start studying yet?”

I don’t even answer; I walk away, blinking back tears. For her information, I have been studying. My mother tests me every night on a little bit of material, but there is lots left to do, and I have no idea how I’ll manage on my own.

Mindy has apparently overheard the exchange. “Don’t worry,” she says, putting her arm around me. “I’ll study with you tonight. You’ll be fine. Rivka was just being mean.”

Now, I happen to know that Mindy hates studying with other people, but I take her up on the offer anyway in the hope that it’ll yield some results.

That night, I buckle down, studying with Mindy for a few hours and continuing on my own, not even pausing for my usual baking break.

It’s no use.

The next morning, I hunch over my test paper, much of which appears to be written in gibberish.

I fudge my way through my Navi and math finals as the week progresses, with marathon study sessions that yield similar results.

By the time my history final approaches, I am officially done.

I don’t make plans to study, and when I walk in after school, I open a cookbook instead of my notebook.

Just as I am testing the peaks on my whipped egg whites, my sister walks in and announces that she finished writing her valedictory speech. And oh, do I want to hear it?  

No, I do not.

“Sure,” I say, focusing intensely on the bowl as I incorporate an almond flour mixture into the whites.

“Parents, teachers, and friends,” she begins. “Wait, do I say l’kavod? Dear? This sounds wrong already.

“Gosh, I have no idea,” I say. “Go ask Mommy.”

It is the perfect way to get her out of here.

I’m working on the lemon curd filling when my sister walks back in with her paper a few minutes later.

“How do you have all this time to bake?” she asks. “Are you done with finals?”

“I’m finished studying,” I lie, passing her a spoon of filling to sample.

“Yum!” she exclaims. “Life is much more exciting around here when you’re not busy.”

I agree with her until I sit down to take my test the next day.

As my siblings’ graduations approach – one eighth grade and one twelfth grade – there is a lot of buzz in the house about gifts and plans and who is coming in for what. Thank goodness I’m not graduating. I probably wouldn’t be allowed on stage.

I make my own plans in preparation for the graduations, filling our freezer with frosted and filled confections for the celebration that will follow. I shape caps and diplomas out of fondant, sprinkle edible confetti onto royal icing, and combine colors to get the exact shade of my sister’s graduation gown.

On the morning of my sister’s graduation, we arrive early so we can sit as close to the stage as possible. So I get to hear my sister’s name mentioned as loudly as possible when it is mentioned no less than four times before she gives her carefully practiced speech.

How are we even related?

That very same question follows me to my brother’s graduation that afternoon, where he literally turns red from all the praise heaped upon him by various teachers, rabbeim, and principals as they congratulate my parents after the ceremonies have concluded.

At least I didn’t have to see my report card yet, I think to myself as we pile into our car with the happy graduates.

Our backyard has been transformed for the double party. Small tables are decked with floral tablecloths and bunches of pastel balloons sway in the gentle wind. A hot spread of food covers two tables, but the crowning jewel of the affair is the dessert buffet prepared by yours truly.

“Tova is a genius!” my grandmother crows as she samples a mini trifle.

“She really is,” my mother agrees. “You should see her in action in the kitchen.”

I swallow a smile from the other side of the table. Genius may be the wrong choice of word.

There is a pile of gifts on a small the in the corner, and I finger them wistfully as my father makes a funny little speech, followed by my grandfather. Then my brother and sister stand up at the makeshift podium. My sister clutches a wrapped gift.

“Thank you so much for coming, everyone,” she says. “I know this party is for Shmuel and me, but there’s someone we don’t want to forget. Tova, this is for you.”

For me?

I take the parcel from her and rip it open in front of everyone. Inside is an apron decorated with photos of me and my siblings. CHEF TOVA ROCKS it proclaims boldly over the photos.

My family cheers and claps and gets back to the festivities at hand, digging into the food and schmoozing happily.

I stay alone for a moment, running my hand over the apron.  

Tova’s a genius, my grandmother had said.

Am I?

Maybe I don’t have to be valedictorian to be clever. Maybe I don’t even have to pass all my tests. Maybe there are all kinds of smart.

In a few days, I will get my report card, and I don’t think I’ll believe that theory anymore.

But when I stand in the kitchen afterwards wearing my new apron as I measure, sift, and beat, you can bet that my dreams will take me far beyond my grades.

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