Finishing the Puzzle by Evan Barragate

The Puzzle-Piece Plotting Method: Using What You Know to Build What You  Don't | Jane Friedman

In fewer than two months, I will be finished with the phase in my life that I have been stuck in since before I could read or spell my middle name. In fewer than two months from now, I will put the last piece in the giant puzzle–the puzzle I have been working on for a dozen years (not literally though–I hate puzzles). By this, I mean I will be done with K-12 schooling. I doubt that any phase in my life will have a more profound impact on who I am than these years. Beginning as a baby-toothed, lips-on-the-drinking-fountain-faucet, velcro-shoed, training-wheeled kindergartener and developing into the gorgeous, sun-kissed, basketball-player tall, risky driving, perfect-in-every-way adult (?) I am today. I have learned many things over these years (except how to swim and tie my shoes the non-bunny ears way), and I am grateful for the way my life has changed (except for getting body odor when I don’t shower, getting out of bed covered in pimples, having to drive myself places instead of getting hauled around by my parents, and having to wear a slimy retainer every night that tastes like poop when I wake up). When a puzzle is almost complete, I like to take a step back and look at the whole picture. At times it looks like the outstanding work of art illustrated on the box. But usually, it looks like a cheap, plastic imitation of the picture on the box with weird squiggly lines covering it, making you feel disappointed and think I can’t believe I wasted all that time putting this together. To avoid this disappointment, I will look back at the nearly-completed puzzle of my K-12 schooling without looking at the big thing. Instead, I am going to look back at all the little details that were once so significant–like the puzzle piece with the little turds that ended up being rocks beside a river or the one with yellow flowers that were actually ducklings.

The details of the puzzle that is these past twelve years are not images; they are memories–ones that took so little time but are so vivid that I cannot forget them. If years are colors, my middle school years jump out the most. They are also the ugliest color, like an orange-yellow-green that looks like vomit. When I think of this time, the first memory that hits me is from my seventh-grade science class when I was fresh off crutches after a broken leg. There was a substitute teacher–a very rude and annoying one–who had gotten into an argument with another student. I had a vendetta against substitute teachers throughout middle school because they were all out to get me. When I saw them arguing, I knew I had to step in to help a fellow student. I jumped in–and next thing you know, the fight was entirely between me and the sub. It had escalated from a petty fight to World War III, and I had taken a conflict that had nothing to do with me into an even bigger one that entirely revolved around me (like always). Then the substitute tried closing in on me, blocking my path between two tables with my back to the wall, telling me I wasn’t leaving. I had only one option left; I did a running jump and hopped over the long table, sprinting out of the classroom. The whole class cheered for me, which made up for the detention I received after. The most surprising aspect of this table-jump was that my leg was broken while I did it. 

More from that colorful time period, I have another memory centered around that busted bone in my thigh. It was right before first period, the busiest time of the day. I was crutching down the hideous middle-school hallway among the hideous, pimpled faces of pre-teens. Yet no matter how ugly and awkward they looked, they intimidated me–even those who were my age. The intimidation came in part from the cruelty of that age, but primarily due to the fact that I was walking (if it can even be called walking) on crutches. I tried calming myself down by remembering that all I had to do was make sure I didn’t fall; that was the worst thing that could happen. As I crutched further toward my class without slipping, I calmed down. And as I became calmer, I started to pick up the pace. Soon I forgot that I had any reason to worry. I was just another kid walking down the hallway. In the middle of that thought, my quick-moving crutches hit the tile floor with such speed that they didn’t suction onto it, instead slipping and flying up into the air on my next step. With my crutches still in the air, I flew backward and hit the ground with my front side facing the ceiling, laying motionless with my arms sprawled out like a dead bird. Everyone crowded around me in shock as I struggled to get up, looking like a miserable turtle flipped upside down.

Though middle school had some of the most memorable moments, most of my K-12 puzzle is taken up by high school. While I know that these past four years have been the highlight of the past twelve and have had the least regrettable moments, I always think it’s more important to reflect on things through a pessimistic perspective. So when I think of the negative, one of the first things that comes to mind occurred at the beginning of this year. I was in the restroom–where most of the bad things that happen in the high school take place–blowing my nose with toilet paper from the stall. No other stall was open, and someone outside really wanted to use the one I was in. He started by yelling for me to come out, then pounding on the door, becoming more furious each second. Naturally, I reacted to this by not saying a word and pretending like I wasn’t there, hoping he would believe it–even though the door was closed and there are foot-long cracks in them that he could see me through (why do they build them like that anyway?). Finally, I snapped back and cursed at him to leave. As I could have predicted, this really made his rage peak. In a split second, the garbage can came flying over the stall door, like a scene out of a movie. The can was full.

I often forget that a small percentage of my K-12 years were online. Despite how boring it felt to be in them, these virtual classes are interesting to look back at because of the unique situations they resulted in. The most horrific of these is one that I might have already written about in a past blog, which wouldn’t be surprising because I basically write the same thing every time but with different situations (sorry). Since I don’t want to look back and check, I’ll just share this experience now and hope that I didn’t before. In this first-period online class, I usually got ready for the day–a good way to take advantage of classes not being in person. I would often join the Zoom, turn off the microphone and camera, and leave the phone somewhere it wouldn’t bother me until I was done. But one morning, I joined while I was in the shower, assuming that the camera and microphone would automatically be off until I turned them on. This, of course, ended up not being the case–and when I joined the class, the teacher could see and hear everything that my phone could. I tried to turn off the audio and video as quickly as possible, but the screen was wet from the shower, making it difficult to do so. I think the phone faced the ceiling and that was all the camera captured, but I’m not certain, and the memory still haunts me. This is the darkest, most frightening part of the puzzle.

We may only go through the phases of our lives for us to look back and realize how embarrassing and awful they were and move on to the next one. I like to think that they get better with each one that passes. And even though puzzles are tacky, disappointing, and ugly, they are occasionally entertaining–kind of like life.

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