When I was four, I was offered $20,000. Twenty thousand dollars to hold an umbrella, walk toward a school bus, then turn and wave good-bye to my mother. When I turned around, there were rivers of silent tears streaming down my face. The producers loved it! They thought I was brilliant being able to call up tears on demand. But my horrified mother knew those were real tears, so she said we were going home.
In their desperate effort to cast me, the producers even offered to hire my mother for the commercial. She declined for both of us. As nice as it would have been to pad my college fund, it was not worth the cost.
Agents and producers kept calling. Even strangers on the streets of Manhattan would tell my mother that I should be a child model. I am not sure why. My hair was a mop of unruly brown ringlets that defied gravity. I showed up at auditions in mismatched clothes while the other perfectly coiffed little girls twirled in pretty dresses and black Mary-Janes.
When I was a little older, I did an American Express advertisement that was featured in The New York Times. All I had to do was hold a trumpet, which I did not know how to play, and smile next to my “family.” An Italian boy was my pretend brother, and a Cuban lady was my pretend mother. By then I understood it was all an act.
Once I began school, my mother was not willing to pull me out of class for auditions, so that was the end of my child modeling career that never really was. I do not resent her for it. In fact, I admire her decision.
I did not belong in front of a camera. I belonged in the classroom, on the softball field, and in a pool. Going into freshman year of high school, I set perfect attendance as my personal goal. Even on those brutal mornings when my alarm clock would ring before I even had a chance to close my eyes, I would march off to school, exhausted but determined.
The same goes for swim meets and softball games. Being absent is simply not an option. Whether I am squatting behind the batter, ready to pounce on any foul balls, or poised in center field, ready to defy the blinding sun and keep my eye on all fly balls, or coiled up on the starting block, ready to release my body into a bullet of kinetic energy, this is where I belong after school. These are the moments of joy in my childhood. The real relationships I have built with teachers, classmates, teammates, and coaches are worth more than any staged familial bond in an American Express advertisement.
No one will pay me thousands of dollars to engage in class every day without fail, hit a walk-off home run against a rival team, or get a personal best time in the 50-meter freestyle. But that is where this 17-year-old girl gets her richest rewards. That is what puts a smile on my face, a real smile that I would not trade for a paycheck or an acting career. I am happy to be a student. I am excited to be a center fielder and a catcher. I am elated to be a swimmer. Some day soon, when I have to turn around and wave good-bye to all this, there will be real tears streaming down my face. But the laughter, friendships, and memories will be worth it.