“What do you want to be when you grow up?” they asked. I fantasised. Doctor. Actress. Athlete. Fire-fighter. All the great things that we should aspire to be as we grow older. Many of my classmates were thinking long and hard before they wrote their answers.
I didn’t have to.
Alongside my answer I doodled a stick-picture of myself pouring one beaker full of a strange and wonderful chemical into another, and held up my hand to indicate that I was done. Miss Flowers, my teacher, wandered over, surveying the class with her bright blue eyes as she passed each desk. She looked at mine and nodded approvingly, and I grinned widely as she put a ‘well done’ sticker onto my sheet.
Had it really been nineteen years since I’d written that? The memory was surprisingly vivid, no doubt helped by the worksheet I now held in my hands once again. Other alumni of Morning Grace College around the room pointed and giggled at their own answers, amused at what their eight-year-old selves had dreamt of and aspired to be.
Our ten-year reunion had so far been, perhaps a little surprisingly, a blast. Some nostalgic tunes played over the speakers as old friends and even some old enemies reunited to talk about their favourite memories and, inevitably, what they were doing with their lives now. I’d avoided that question six times since we’d arrived.
More than a few of the friends from my graduating class who I was still in contact with had been wishy-washy over attending and had been hesitant to come, myself included. Only the persistent efforts of our former history teacher, Mr. Gudjohnssen, had persuaded us down from the fence, and in the end we were glad he had.
A large ‘Welcome back class of 2004!’ sign was draped over a stage set up at the front of the beautifully-decorated function room. The building hosting the event had only recently been finished, containing a new theatre, gymnasium and media room, as well as the function room we were currently in.
“They always build the good stuff after you leave, huh,” commented Eliza.
“Too right, baby,” I replied. “Why, just twenty years ago they were probably saying the same thing about the four-square courts they painted in the courtyard!”
“Har de har,” said Eliza. She knocked back the rest of her champagne.
“Actually”, said a familiar voice, “as someone who was there, I can confirm that is one hundred percent true.”
There was no mistaking the Scandinavian-infused accent of Mr. Gudjohnssen, nor his amusingly large-framed glasses. The man had been my favourite history teacher for years. He was funny, approachable, and had a tendency to cut the crap and tell it as he saw it – all qualities that too few of my teachers had possessed.
“Those four-square courts got me through some difficult times, Sadie. I don’t mean to brag, but I had a mean backspin palm!” He posed as if he’d just hit the world’s best four-square shot. Which, you know, he could have. I wasn’t exactly an expert.
“I’m sure you did, sir.”
“Oh, you don’t need to call me ‘sir’ anymore,” he said with a broad smile. “’Andy’ will do fine.”
I blushed. “There is absolutely no way I can call you ‘Andy’, sir.”
“Well, how about we compromise on ‘Mr. G’? Good? Good. But forgive me,” he apologised, turning to Eliza and extending a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Mr. Gudjohnssen, or ‘Andrew’, if you can manage.”
“Hail and well met, Andrew,” said Eliza, shaking his hand. “I’m Eliza, Sadie’s wife.”
“Oh! Well, congratulations to the both of you! You must be extremely quick-witted to be with Sadie, I’m sure.”
Eliza smiled wryly at me. “She keeps up with me… most of the time.”
I shuffled to the other side of Eliza to let the two of them get acquainted. As I slowly looked around the room, observing the old art assignments and pieces which the staff had brought out to decorate, I overheard Mr. Gudjohnssen discussing how his kids were now at the school, and I winced a little in secret as Eliza mentioned that we weren’t planning on having children. A waiter came over and offered more champagne. I passed one to Eliza and then took two more, drank both within fifteen seconds, and breathed deep before returning to the conversation.
“So, Sadie. Eliza tells me you’re working at a bakery! That must be-“
I coughed immediately. “Sorry, I’ve gotta-“, I began, motioning toward the bathroom and heading in that direction before losing myself in the crowd and heading outside.
My head was a mess. Why did people have to ask? Why him, of all people? I’d said to Eliza before we came that I was feeling absolutely fine. I hadn’t had an anxiety attack in eight months. Why now? I forced myself to breathe, opening an app on my phone which helped me to breathe rhythmically and calm myself down.
After five minutes or so the attack subsided. I sat with my legs spread on the courtyard bricks, leaning backwards on my palms and looking up into the sky with my eyes closed.
“Lovely night, huh?”
It was Mr. Gudjohnssen.
I breathed in tensely again, expecting another anxiety attack might arrive at any second, but he simply pulled a tennis ball out of his pocket and smiled.
“It’s alright. No questions. Just thought a game might help take your mind off of things.”
He pointed to the bricks. I looked down to see I had inadvertently sat down on the ‘Queen’ position of the school’s four-square court.
“Oh,” I stumbled, “I’m not – I don’t think I can-“
He just smiled again. “Relax. Non-competitive – you just hit the ball back to each other. I wasn’t fibbing earlier when I said it got me through some difficult times.”
I didn’t really have anything to lose, so I stood up inside the Queen square. He hit the ball towards me, using his palm to bounce it off the ground, and I returned it in the same fashion. A warm breeze blew over as we hit the ball back and forth for a few minutes. Who would’ve thought four-square had such relaxing qualities?
“So you’re not happy at the bakery, huh?” he asked suddenly, continuing to pass the ball.
“No, no, I’m not unhappy… I’m..”
“But you don’t want to talk about it.”
We kept playing for another minute before he spoke up again.
“Sadie, I haven’t taught you for ten years now. Why are you so concerned about what I think of your life?”
Nail, meet hammer. Damnit. I caught the ball in my hands and looked down at it.
“It’s just – I mean – you were-“ Pause. Breathe. I sighed, and gathered my words for a moment, using what little mental fortitude I had to look him in the eye. “You were my favourite teacher. It’s why I always paid so much attention to your comments in my old report cards. ‘Sadie has tremendous potential’. ‘Sadie has an exciting future ahead of her’. How could I not care what you thought of me tonight? I told you all my dreams about being a scientist, having kids, all that jazz – none of that lasted ten years. I’m just disappointed. I disappointed you, and myself, and probably Eliza-“
“Okay, stop,” he interrupted. “Disappointed yourself? Have you really? Let me ask you – and you have to answer honestly – does Eliza make you happy?”
“Of course she does, but-“
“Do you want to have kids with her?”
“Who do you regram more than anyone on Instagram?”
I didn’t reply immediately, half out of surprise that Mr. Gudjohnssen knew I had an Instagram and that he must have followed me on it, and half out of surprise that he knew the word ‘regram’.
“Uhhh… Heston Blumenthal, I guess, but I don’t see what that has to-“
“Your food blog has over a hundred and fifty thousand followers, Sadie. Do they know your recipes are as much science as they are baking?”
I was too befuddled to reply.
“Sadie, you don’t have kids, but you’re married to an incredible woman, who, assuming she’s not lying, is incredibly proud of you and what you do to love and support her. You’re not working in a laboratory, but you’re teaching cooking science to thousands upon thousands of people without even really knowing that you’re doing it. Why does what you what you told to a crummy old teacher about what you thought you wanted ten years ago make any difference to you now if the way you’re living now brings you joy?”
I didn’t know.
“I don’t know.”
“I didn’t expect you would,” he said. There was kindness in his eyes and a light smile on his lips. “Your serve. If you win the point you can stay out here as long as you want, I won’t make you go back inside. Those questions about what you’re doing with your life can be hard to answer when the grass seems greener on your classmates’ lawns. But if I win the point, you head back inside and tell your wife you love her. And maybe get her to slow down on the champagne – I think another girl from your class winked at her while you’ve been gone.”
“I’m joking, I’m joking! Come on – your serve.”
I palmed the tennis ball towards him. We rallied for all of three seconds before he played a shot I couldn’t have even hoped to return. The ball bounced out into the carpark and he walked back inside.
“Told you I had a mean backspin,” he called over his shoulder.
I looked down at the court, took a deep breath, and returned to the function room foyer. Eliza was waiting for me, although Mr. G had been right about the champagne.
“Come on,” she said enthusiastically, “your old principal is about to do a – hic! – an activity!”
Ms. Khan – still the principal at Morning Grace ten years on – was already speaking at the podium as we returned to the main room.
“When we returned these sheets to you at the beginning of the night, we hoped they would inspire you not only to look back but forward. At the side of the room there is a table with brand new, incomplete versions of that same worksheet. In your own time, we hope you will fill them out with your hopes and dreams for the future. All of you are now heading towards thirty, but you still have time to, as we say, ‘grow up’ even further. I look forward to reading your responses.”
A polite round of applause went around the room and a number of people headed for the table Ms. Khan had pointed out. Eliza dragged me in that direction and handed me a pen. I looked across at others writing their responses, then down at the sheet.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” it asked. I fantasised. Doctor. Actress. Athlete. Fire-fighter. All the great things that we should aspire to be as we grow older. Many of my classmates were thinking long and hard before they wrote their answers.
I didn’t have to.