“Mom, did you get it yet?”
The frustration bubbled up in my voice as she turned her iPhone horizontally, peering at the screen with a perplexed look on her face. The automated shutter sound of the iPhone camera pinged as she took what felt like the fifteenth photo of the morning. I stood directly underneath the basketball hoop in my driveway: the site of our annual first day of school photo shoot. For the past eleven years, I have been standing here surrounded by siblings. This year, for the first time, I stood alone.
“I’m going to miss the bus if we don’t leave now,” I said. “Then you’re going to have to drive me all the way there…”
The threat of an hour-long commute caught her attention. Her head popped up over her cellphone and we were on the road in seconds. We made it to the bus stop just as the clumsy yellow vehicle teetered up to the curb. I hopped out of the car as my mom wished me luck on the first day of my junior year. I waved goodbye, gulping with the realization that driver’s tests, standardized tests, and prom date stress were all waiting for me at the end of the rickety bus ride. This was the clichéd year of suburban high school I had watched each of my siblings go through with varying degrees of grace. Growing up as the youngest of six children had sometimes felt like a personal viewing of five different John Hughes movies. Each year as we took our first day of school picture, the cast became smaller. The “jock” would depart, the “theater kid” would emerge, and all the while I would consider which character I would assume when it was my turn.
I inhaled a deep breath of the thick, humid air singular to the high school bus. Early September in New Jersey feels like August simply forgot to end. The temperature maxes out around 100 degrees and the sun shines until almost nine o’clock. Stepping outside, a conversation with the sticky air starts abruptly. The heat is the one doing all of the talking. At my high school, the first couple of weeks of each year were spent drifting through claustrophobic hallways. During the decade-long span encompassing all of our high school experiences, my brothers all sweat through their khaki pants and button down shirts, while my sisters and I fidgeted with the hems of our just-out-of-dress-code skirts.
The heat was a ubiquitous displeasure, but for some reason the one thing I associate with all thirteen of my first days of school is rain. My siblings and I had to be careful of this fact when choosing our wardrobe for the first day of school photo shoot. It was lazy rain, the kind of rain that never felt truly threatening, more of a suggestion than a full-on downpour. Maybe I remember the rain because memory favors the bad over the good, the rain over the sun. But the rain wasn’t bad. I remember the leaves and gravel smelling damp as I danced around in front of the camera in my black Mary Jane’s on the first day of Kindergarten. I remember dodging raindrops underneath the basketball hoop in my brand new Converse sneakers in fourth grade. This year, there was no one braving the rain beneath the basketball hoop. Time goes on, I understand. Traditions change.
On my first trip back home in October, I line up the photos of all thirteen of my first days of school. Each of those rainy September mornings is perfectly documented and preserved in stacks of photo albums. In the 2002 album, I am five years old standing underneath the basketball hoop, toting a backpack that is bigger than my entire body. My eldest brother clutches the keys to his beat up truck in his left hand with a smile that mixes the anxious excitement about his senior year and the calm reassurance that he will rule the school. My two sisters hug while my two other brothers fight. This is the only picture that features all six children together. Every few years new siblings would get their licenses, clutch their keys and smile the same smile. I would eventually grow into my backpack.
In many ways I feel defined by being the youngest in a large family. It is a topic that casually drops out of my mouth in the first few minutes of introducing myself to someone new. It is my “fun fact” on the first day of class, even though every teacher I ever had at school knew at least one of my older siblings. It is the thing I find particularly interesting about myself. Living with a brood of people for the first sixteen years of my life shaped me in ways that were individual to any other form of guidance.
We joke that our family has six alphas, a typical evening in our household featured each child clamoring for the imaginary microphone with voices that grew louder and louder. The alpha personality trait rings just as true for myself, but being the youngest lends itself to a sense of hesitation before interrupting and demanding attention, especially at a full dinner table. My siblings used to burst through the front door after their first days of school, tired from soccer practice or play rehearsal or a particularly difficult day of classes. They ran on adrenaline as they told the stories of the day and I listened, ears perked up for the small, hidden pieces of advice.
When I arrived home that afternoon after my first day of junior year, I washed my face off, the humidity dripping off my shoulders as I took in the cool air of my room. When I sat down at my desk to start my homework, I saw clusters of pictures tacked haphazardly onto my bulletin board. I wondered how the picture we took that morning had looked with only one subject. Later at dinner my parents asked me how my day went.
“It was fine, but I’m so tired,” I said and picked up my fork.
“And?” they asked.
I stopped chewing.
There was no one there to take over the conversation. No one there to regale us with tales of strict teachers and non-air conditioned halls. A smile started to play on my lips, slowly getting wider until it reached my ears. For the first time in sixteen years, I was not the audience. Even more importantly, as I stepped into the spotlight I knew I did not need to choose a clichéd character to play. I was free to be my own person.
I put down my fork.