By this time, Sophia had successfully stuffed the envelope into the pocket of her bookbag.
“Nope. It should come soon though.” She said standing up a little too quickly. She had to stable herself on the dining chair to avoid falling over.
Excusing herself, Sophia escaped to her bedroom Without even taking her bookbag off, she collapsed into her unmade bed.
Sophia looked around at the room her mother had been nagging her to clean up for days. The atmosphere screamed senioritis. Random shirts that she had been too lazy to hang up were strewn across her wooden floor. Worst of all, was her desk to the right of her queen-sized bed. The white surface area could hardly be seen by the stacks of notebooks and college brochures laid in a heap that continued to pile up. The only survivors of her tornado of a room sat atop her night stand. They were two film cameras, a Canon AE-1 and an old electric-green disposable Fujifilm camera, which contained her oldest film because she was waiting until graduation to get it developed. It had been her dad’s idea
The only mess that Sophia created with intent was displayed on her walls. A plethora of film photos covered almost every square inch of the wall above her bed and desk, the oldest of them dating back to sixth grade. The wall told stories of trips to the amusement park with family, concerts with friends, and stills of nature, her personal favorites.
Sophia kicked her red Converse off and onto the floor, knowing she was only adding to the problem, but not caring enough to put them back in her closet. She slowly reached into her bookbag and pulled out the now crumpled envelope. Like any other envelope, her name and address were printed clearly on the outside, meaning that it was definitely hers. She knew it was dumb, but she had been hoping that they had somehow made a mistake and sent the letter to the wrong house, but that clearly wasn’t the case. In the top left corner, beside its emblem and printed in fine black was Harvard University.
Sophia stared down at the envelope in her hands. She knew how crazy she sounded for not wanting it. Every year about 40,000 of the most brilliant minds from all over the world sent in their applications in hopes of being accepted and less than 5% got in.
She slowly began to peel at the flap, the barrier that stood in the way of solidifying her future. Finally, she tore the envelope and was immediately greeted by a congratulatory letter.
Dear Ms. Okafor,
Congratulations! We are delighted to inform you that the Committee on Admissions has accepted you to the Class of 2023 Biology (BS) program.
“Shit!” Sophia yelled, falling into her bed all over again.
How was she supposed to tell her parents that she had gotten into their dream school but couldn’t attend because she had already accepted a position to study somewhere else? In all honesty she never thought that she would get in. Sure, she had the GPA and a variety of AP credits, but she wasn’t Harvard material, nor did she want to be.
It could’ve been the fact that her parents were both alumni, but even that couldn’t have undone the monstrosity that was her interview, where she had purposely arrived thirteen minutes late and had only half-assed the answers.
She didn’t know where she had gone wrong. She had orchestrated the perfect plan.
Get into University of Southern California Fine Arts program. Bomb the Harvard interview. Get denied. Somehow convince her parents to let her fly across the country and live in what her parents referred to as “the most liberal state in America”. She was already stumped on step three, so the odds were not in her favor. Sophia stuffed the letter back into its envelope. She walked over to her closet and pulled down an empty orange Nike box that she kept for storage and stuffed the crinkled envelope inside it, before carefully returning the box to its rightful place.
It took all of two days before Sophia’s parents found out about the letter. Sophia hadn’t planned on them finding out so soon and was hoping to get at least two weeks up to a month.
It was a typical Thursday night dinner. Her mother had prepared jollof rice, beef, and because no Nigerian meal was complete without it, fried plantains. Sophia’s dad was in a talkative mood, his usual quite demeanor set aside. As her mother loaded her father’s plate, he dished all about the hectic day that he’d had. He was a pediatrician at Mass General, where he’d been working for the past seven years. As she listened to her father continue to rehash his day, she couldn’t help but notice the new wrinkles that had set around eyes and forehead and the way the skin under his eyes had gotten significantly darker. Once again, Sophia wondered if her father even liked his job.
Eventually the conversation grew sparse like it always did, until someone excused themselves and signaled the end of dinner. Sophia was still working on her plate, mouth full of rice, when her mother cleared her throat loudly.
“So Sophia, have you heard from Harvard yet?” Mrs. Okafor asked. Her lips pursed, making Sophia notice the bold red shade of lipstick that she hadn’t seen on her mother in a while.
Sophia, willing herself to stay calm, took a long sip of water in an attempt to buy herself time. “No, I still haven’t. I don’t think I’m supposed to hear back for another two weeks or so.”
Sophia’s mother clucked her tongue in response, something she always did to represent her distaste for something.
“Really? That’s strange, because my friend told me that letters went out last week.”
What friend? Her mother didn’t have any friends. Sophia began to spiral, and she tried to wipe the sweat off of her clammy hands onto her jeans, but she couldn’t shake the discomfort that rapidly spread through her body.
Her mother knew.
Sophia knew she had to be very careful with what she said next. On one hand, she could lie, insist that the letter hadn’t come. But that wouldn’t be believable. They lived less than fifteen minutes away from the admissions office, and if the letters had been sent out last week, like her mom’s friend had said, it would’ve already reached the house. Plus, she was a terrible liar. While she could will her voice to remain calm and steady, her body gave her away. The frequency at which Sophia had rubbed her palms against her pants and the lapse of time it was taking her to formulate an answer told her parents everything they needed to know.
Her father let out an exasperated sigh. “You didn’t get in, did you? I don’t know how this happened. I can make a few calls tomorrow morning. They must’ve made a mistake--”
“Clement. She got in.”
Sophia turned to her mother in confusion. How had she known? It couldn’t have been that obvious. Her father let out an excited cheer that filled the room, before stopping abruptly.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
Before Sophia could even open her mouth to say the words that had been gnawing away at her for months, her mother interjected.
“She didn’t want us to know, why else?” Sophia’s mother practically spat.
Sophia had never seen her mother look at her with such disappointment and anger. Sophia couldn’t say the same.
“Is this true?” Hearing the disappointment in her father’s voice was like a jab to the stomach. She had never wanted to disappoint him. He had always been so good to her--to the family.
Sophia blanked. She had no idea what to do. “No- I-- um.”
“Don’t try to deny it,” Mrs. Okafor chided.
Sophia cleared her throat. “Yeah, it’s true that I got into Harvard.”
Another cluck of the tongue from her mother. She had to power through.
“I’m grateful for all that you’ve done to get me to where I am today.” Sophia blinked back the tears that were forming. “But I don’t think I want to study biology at Harvard.”
Her father hunched over, placing his elbows on the table and rubbed his temples in disbelief.
“What do you mean you don’t ‘think you want to study’ there? It's one of the top schools in the country. Why would you choose to study biology elsewhere?”
Sophia glanced at her mother, who now had her head bowed.
Sophia took a deep breath. Every fiber of her being was fighting against her, but she had to say it. For her mental health. For her future. For her happiness.
“I don’t want to study biology at all. I’ve been accepted at the University of Southern California to study Fine Arts and photography. I’ve accepted the position.”
The events that followed were a haze. There had been lots of yelling, crying (from her mother), and sighing. Everything that Sophia had feared would happen, had happened, except somehow worse. Sophia’s father had launched into his rant on how they hadn’t immigrated from Africa to the States just so she could turn around and become “Americanized”.
“This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t bought her that silly camera,” Sophia’s mother spat.
Her father ran his hands over his shaved head. “How was I to know it would turn into this?” He then turned to Sophia who couldn’t meet his eyes. “We’ve always told you that your academics come first. Taking pictures is not a suitable career choice.”
“I should have taught her at home. She’s become Americanized.” Her mother chimed in before tears spilt down her face.
Her father nodded his head in agreement. “You can’t behave like everyone else Sophia! It’s different for us. You can’t become distracted.”
It continued for much longer. Through it all, Sophia sat perfectly still. She bit her tongue like she always did.
She didn’t tell them that USC was also one of the best schools in the country. That no, she wouldn’t be studying photography, she would be studying Fine Arts. If Sophia was honest with herself, she wasn’t even 100% sure what she wanted to do with her life. She did however know that art brought her joy and excitement that STEM club never did, so she was going to ride the wave for a while.
She stared straight ahead at the trophy case. The stupid trophy case that held years upon years of first place math competition trophies and certifications of completion for more science camps than she could count. Nowhere along the weekly dusted glass shelves did one of Sophia’s photos appear.
Sophia was now a walking depiction of her parents’ worst fears. She knew that. But it didn’t make what her father said next hurt any less.
He sat down, breathing deeply after finishing his multifaceted spiel. His voice was low, and wavered. “We can’t in good conscious support the mistake you’re making. If you go to that school in California, we won’t support you financially.
Sophia couldn’t fall asleep that night. Her eyes were still puffy from crying and her mind was still racing. There was one thought above the others that she just couldn’t shake.
How in the world had she gotten in?
Sophia knew she should’ve been plotting ways to get back into her parents’ good graces, or even figuring out how she was going to afford living in California on top of finding money for tuition, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Every time she tried to shut her eyes to fall asleep, her thoughts spiraled.
She had been so thorough, up to the point of including not one, but four spelling and grammar errors in her admissions essay.
Sophia’s mind hurt from thinking so much and she turned to her left bedside table to check her phone, when she got distracted.
Her first ever camera. The lime green Fujifilm disposable camera glowing through the darkness of her room like a beacon. She reached over and picked it up, studying it carefully. Sophia smiled softly to herself as she recalled how she wouldn’t develop the pictures until she had graduated high school. Holding it for the first time in a while, Sophia was brought back to the first time she had ever used it.
Her first trip to Harvard.
Sophia could vaguely remember the first time she had ever stepped foot on Ivy league soil. She had been eleven and her mom had just picked her up from school, when she had announced that they would be stopping by the university so her mother could briefly pick something up from a friend. Sophia didn’t think anything of it as she sat in the familiar leather back seat of her mother’s Range Rover. She pulled out the Fujifilm disposable camera that she’d received as a birthday present, after weeks of pleading. Sophia carried the camera around everywhere, diligently waiting for the perfect first moment to capture.
She remembered the way her mother had taken an hour longer than usual to get ready. The way her mother had repetitively smoothed down her edges, making sure not one hair was out of place. The way before they had even stepped out of their car, her mother pulled down her front car mirror to reapply the red lipstick third time in the span of the ten minutes. Sophia had never seen that color on her mother. Sophia thought that with how much her parents talked about Harvard at home, her mother would’ve taken the time to point out the array of brick and gray-toned buildings so massive Sophia felt they could’ve swallowed her whole. Instead her mother rushed across the campus, never slowing down enough to allow Sophia to capture a picture of the story book-esque lawn. Once they had reached their destination, another large gray building not much different from the others, Sophia could never forget the way her mother had told her repeatedly to sit and stay on the bench while she went into the office directly across the hall to talk to a friend, closing the door behind her.
Sophia waited ten, twenty, thirty minutes for her in the dated hallway. Out of sheer boredom, Sophia took out her beloved camera and captured pictures of anything of interest she could find in the hallway, deciding it was as good of a time as any. She took pictures of the golden plaques outside each office door, the white tiles on the ground, the green plant beside her wooden bench. When Sophia heard the door across the hall open, she scrambled back to the bench.
Sophia had found it odd that on her mother’s lips a tint of red had taken place of the bold lipstick and her hair was messier than before, but Sophia was much more focused on getting outside to take more pictures.
In her bed, Sophia pressed down on the button on the camera’s side which opened the latch, exposing the film cartridge. Sophia had been too young to understand what it all meant at the time, but had known ever since ninth grade. She didn’t tell a soul. Sophia couldn’t think of her mother in that light. She convinced herself that she would ruin the family if she told her dad. Her mother had gone back to sporting her typical casual look so, Sophia figured it was over.
Sophia took a deep breath. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe her mother had nothing to do with Harvard. She prayed her mother had nothing to do with Harvard.
But she had to know for sure.
She had promised herself she wouldn’t develop the pictures from her first camera until she graduated from high school. Her dad had compared it to “a time capsule.” Graduation was close enough.
The three to five days’ time it had taken to get her film developed seemed to drag on. Sophia boarded herself up in her room, only going downstairs to eat leftovers once her parents had finished eating. There had been one encounter when her father had been going up the stairs, at the same time Sophia had been heading out for class and that had been awkward. He had just gotten home from a long day of work and had his white coat draped over his shoulder. With every step closer to him, Sophia silently begged him to look at her and say he had made a mistake. But her father kept his head down. They passed silently like two ships, her father refusing to acknowledge her. Sophia had been especially avoiding her mother like the plague. She didn’t know if she could be around her until she knew the truth.
She got the call at school. The Walgreens, where the film was ready, was only a short bus ride away, so she began her walk to the station since she still didn’t have her license. The strong gust of wind from behind seemed to carry her through the black iced coated sidewalks. She pulled her jacket hood tighter over her head as early dustings of flurries coated the streets and prayed the Arlington Heights bus wouldn’t be delayed.
Once armed with the pictures, Sophia knew she couldn’t go home. She took a seat on the scratchy metal bench at the Walgreens, in between the green lottery vending machines and the tobacco stand. Bracing herself, she pulled the thin stack glossy photos out of their envelope, careful not to put smudges on the photos with her fingerprints.
The first ten photos were the incoherent visualizations of an eleven-year-old: pictures of her friends, her dolls, her backyard. Sophia was losing hope until she found a picture of a scratchy golden plaque with a few words engraved. She had to hold it at an angle in order to read it properly.
Gerald Williamson. A name, but nothing else. She had left the flash on and it had blinded everything else out. Sophia flipped anticipatingly through the stack, desperate for more information. To her disappointment, photos only revealed potted plants and blurred photos of fingernails, a result of unfamiliarity with the camera.
Sophia felt nauseous. She quickly pulled up Google on her phone before typing in “Gerald Williamson Harvard.” She sat for a moment, her thumb paused above the search button.
She could get up right now, throw the pictures away in the bin on the other side of the lottery machine and forget this ever happened. She could swallow her pride, apologize to her parents, and study at one of the most prestigious universities. She could go back to being the light of her parents’ lives, the daughter that they bragged about on Facebook and to their family back in Nigeria.
Except it was too late. Pressing search, Sophia held her breath while waiting for the page to load. There it was, clear as day: Gerald Williamson- Department of Economics.
Sophia hunched over in relief. She felt herself slowly coming down. Her work, however, wasn’t done. Sophia knew herself and the only way she would truly be able to let this go was if she saw it with her own eyes.
Sophia found herself on the T, hurtling herself north towards Harvard. Her stomach twisted in knots as she emerged from the station and ventured onto campus. She moved through the clusters of students talking feverishly, guided by the campus map on the phone. She had to stop one time to ask a student for directions, but she eventually found herself inside a building that seemed somewhat familiar, even though they all still looked the same to her.
After her second time circling the hallways, Sophia walked up to the amused department secretary seated near the entrance.
“Excuse me, do you know where I can find Professor Gerald Williamson’s office?” She assumed he was a professor. How else could her mother have known him? The woman sighed heavily, as if tired of answering the question.
“Sorry. He no longer works in this department. He got transferred to admissions three months ago.”
Sophia didn’t have time to rationalize her decisions. She marched through her front door and didn’t stop until she stood directly across the island from her mother. As usual, her mother tended to dinner, chopping vegetables for what looked like stew. Her hair was tied back, her apron fastened, and her lips, a fine hue of red. Her mother glanced up at Sophia, but didn’t offer a greeting. The two stood in the modernly decorated kitchen until Sophia worked up the nerve to speak.
“I like your lipstick.”
The knife slicing into the carrots echoed through the room.
“Gerald Williamson seems to like it too.”
Her mother put down the knife slowly, still not speaking. It was the quietest Sophia had ever seen her.
“Why did you do it?” The crack in Sophia’s voice must have hit a nerve. Her mother immediately crumbled onto the granite counter, her sobs slicing through the room. In all of her eighteen years, she had never seen her mother cry, let alone bawl. She stood in her spot frozen, unsure what to do.
“For your future. For you,” her mother said, reaching for Sophia’s hand.
Sophia flinched. “I didn’t ask for this! I never asked for this.” She was shaking, she was so angry.
“I can explain.”
Sophia crossed her arms, bracing herself for what she was about to hear.
“He was a friend of mine and your father’s back in graduate school-” her mother began.
“Dad knew him?” Sophia screamed. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“All I ever wanted for you was to succeed.”
Sophia shook her head immediately. She thought she could handle it, but she couldn’t. Every piece of information she found out only seemed to make it worse. This was sensory overload. She couldn’t shake the pounding that spread from her temples to her head and she could feel her palms slick with moisture.
“I can’t hear anymore.” Sophia turned to walk away, before facing her mother once more. “I’m going to USC. You can tell father.”
Sophia could still hear her mother’s cries even through her bedroom door. Even her room felt different--tainted.
Sophia climbed on top of her unmade bed and stared at the highlight reel of her happiest moments. She reached up and tore a photo down. Then another, then another. With every four-by-five she ripped down, she grieved everything she had lost. She grieved for the loss of her untainted childhood, the loss of her parents’ approval, of trust, of the version of the woman her mother used to be. She tore the photos off the wall until her fingers stung from the cuts, and her tears clouded her vision entirely.