Last week, I revealed the person I dedicated my book to by accident.
I had asked my parents and neighbors if they could make a video opening my first book box, since I couldn’t get the boxes sent to Kenya. The book box opening is a special moment for any writer, especially for the first book. I wasn’t patient enough to wait until I returned to the US to do it myself, so I thought I could experience it vicariously through my family and friends.
I wasn’t expecting my neighbor, Dagmar, to ask mid-video, “Can someone look at the dedication to see what it says?”
They flipped through the pages. My other neighbor, Joanne, got to it first. “For Tara,” she read.
Where do I begin when it comes to Tara? We met in second grade, when we were seven years old. One of my first memories was playing with Tara on the classroom floor. We had been given blocks with different letters on each face. The teacher asked us to roll and arrange them to make words. We had three blocks each. Mine were S, U, N, and hers were N, O, T. We put them together to spell “SUNNOT,” which sounded so much like SNOT that the two of us were rolling on the ground, giggling as tears streamed from our eyes. Our peeved teacher ended up separating us for the rest of the day.
When I think of Tara, I think of those belly laughs. I also think of someone who is honest to a fault. As a child, she was a blunt instrument, and whatever she would think, she would vocalize. Once, when I showed up to school picture day wearing a shark t-shirt I had gotten in Cape May, Tara took one look and said, “You forgot it was picture day, didn’t you?”
Tara was different from the other kids, and I would understand this more as I got older. She would crinkle her nose and squint her eyes repeatedly. She would make a series of aspirated huh sounds as though she were trying to force something from her throat. In middle school, the puffs turned into curses. When she wasn’t being bullied for having Tourette syndrome, she was being pressured by other kids to shout swear words during classes or assemblies. And they’d laugh. Not the kind of laughter I associated Tara with, but laughter that came from a darker place – at the expense of someone who was clearly struggling.
“It feels like there’s a demon in my head,” Tara once told me. “Something that makes me do these things, and I have no power to control it.”
I often wondered what it would feel like to have a demon in my brain. I wanted to help Tara get rid of it, but I didn’t know how.
In seventh grade, our teachers organized a competition where groups of us had to establish mini societies with different governing structures, cultures, and religions. It was meant to be an interactive exercise that would get us to appreciate history and politics. Instead, most of the students used the opportunity to wage war in the hallways with wooden swords, spears, and bows. I was chosen by my set of peers to reign as the group’s feudal lord, and I was responsible for crafting a constitution. After finishing it, I had to appoint someone to read it on stage in front of all the students.
“Can I read it?” Tara asked.
I gulped. It was a tough call. Tara was a performer who enjoyed offering unsolicited performances of Broadway showtunes. But she could stumble on her words, and her tics could get in her way, especially when speaking in public.
I had to choose between reading the constitution myself – articulating the words the way I wanted to get my point across, which, in turn, would earn our team precious points from the panel of teacher judges. Or I could hand it over to Tara – a girl who was willing to put herself out there, even if she might mess up.
My teacher gave me a concerned look when I told her I had chosen Tara to read the constitution. “You don’t have to do that, Michael. You can read it yourself if you want.”
I didn’t change my mind. Tara read the constitution. She fumbled some of the words. She wasn’t as loud as I knew she could be. She skipped some lines and repeated others. Every once in a while, she’d look up at me, and I’d nod, and she’d try again. She received a half-hearted applause at the end of the reading. We scored decently – not the top, not the bottom. Somewhere in the middle.
But that didn’t matter. My friend gave it her best. She did it.
Tara may have struggled with certain aspects of school, but she could craft an argument and get her point across better than anyone I knew. Tara was the first person to call out the ridiculously gendered nature of middle school sleepovers. She didn’t understand why I could have sleepovers with our mutual male friend, Danny, while she always had to go back to her house, simply because she was a girl. So one afternoon, she refused to go with her father when he came to pick her up. “I’m staying over!” she yelled. To my surprise, her equally stubborn father refused to put up a fight. Instead, he pulled out of driveway as fast as he could, leaving Tara in my family’s care.
In the final two years of high school, Tara blossomed in a way that would have been difficult to predict. She was more focused, and she had aspirations to become a teacher. She still had tics, but they didn’t seem to have as much hold over her the way they once had. She was my prom date – twice – sparing me the headache of having to go with an actual date, as well as the loneliness of not going at all.
Something I wasn’t expecting when my parents and neighbors filmed that video was the reaction from others Tara and I went to school with. Some said the dedication had left them in tears. Several celebrated Tara, acknowledging her for who she was and what she overcame. We all saw Tara be subjected to some of the cruelest bullying because she was different. But she always had room for others. She always had space for the oddballs. She made other people feel good about themselves, and she made us laugh – something we so desperately needed during that deeply challenging time.
Tara couldn’t seem to fathom why I had chosen to dedicate Deficient to her out of all the people in my life, and she asked when I made that decision. I think I always knew the book would be dedicated to Tara. So much of it is an ode to our friendship. Through Tara, I witnessed the journey of someone who felt different and broken. She was the ultimate underdog, and now she’s a rockstar mother who is teaching her two boys values that will shape them into lovely little beings while also serving as a role model for other kids as their teacher. Tara gets how hard adolescence can be, and she’s helping other people figure out their own journeys, with her unique blend of wisdom, insight, and humor.
Tara’s a hero – a legend in every sense. And that’s why the dedication of my first book goes to her.
I couldn’t get my books shipped to Kenya, so my family (Tito & Leah) and neighbors (Jojo and Dagmar) helped out from a distance. Plus, they reveal who the book is dedicated to! Love you all! 💜 1 month and 5 days away from release… #bookreveal #bookreveals #booktok #booktoker #yabook #yabooktok #scifibooks #bookrecommendations #debutauthor #debutbook #arriba #wrestler #wrestlersoftiktok #superherobooks