It was a relatively cheap piece of a metal; the crystal accents dimly glitter in a symmetrical pattern, peaking at two and a half inches tall. Anyone could buy one just like it at Party City for twenty bucks. That’s all it really is, when I think about it: some extraneous accessory, available to all. All it does now is collect dust on the top shelf of my closet, forgotten along with old photo albums and a stash of clutches for special occasions.
But as Winter Formal of my senior year in high school approached, I wanted that crown more than anything else. It was the tangible representation of the validation I secretly craved from my peers. I went to a unique high school, where there was only one-hundred-fifty students in each grade, and all were on an accelerated learning track. It was only there I managed to flourish socially, learning I was a butterfly rather than the awkward troll I had felt myself to be in middle school. Though I had plenty of friends and was a leader in Student Government for three years, insecurity still buzzed in my veins. Despite my outgoing nature and positive interactions with others, I was always second-guessing myself: regretting jokes I made that were received with pitiful laughter, walking past the self-appointed “popular” crowd who threw snickers like knives at my back, and catching glimpses of myself in any reflective surface, the sight of smudged lipstick or a new zit perennially disrupting my focus.
Everyone’s insecure, I knew this. It’s all part of being a teenager. But even with this in mind, any ounce of social awkwardness made me squirm, keeping me up at night questioning my actions. I began to fight the insecurity starting to eat at my confidence like termites to rotten wood: I thought more carefully about the things I said, leaving little room for regret. I started smiling at the popular crowd, disarming them with my kindness, and I sacrificed my long, ombred hair for a pixie cut, showcasing my face to the world, unashamed.
Throughout my high school career, I transformed into someone who was cool, confident, and genuinely liked, the key ingredients to being popular: all I had wanted in elementary school, when I was stuck with glasses and braces and always stuck in the shadow my friend’s casted. But I had always felt like something was missing. I couldn’t have been popular; I was just me.
I thought winning the crown would make all the difference. A glittering souvenir to top my recently sheared locks; a fond relic of my past, serving as a buoy of self-assurance for whatever social obstacle I may encounter in my future. It was to be more than a memento; it was the key to unlocking something inside of me I had always hoped was there. The only problem was, I just wasn’t quite sure what that something was.
I had been flattered to have been nominated for Winter Formal Queen, but so were twelve other girls in my class. Student Government sent out a survey to the senior class in order to narrow down the top three candidates before the night of Winter Formal. I couldn’t campaign; I had no social media accounts to do so. But I didn’t want to rack up votes by spamming people with aesthetic posts and lengthy captions. I wanted to win because of the time I invested in meeting new people, learning their names, waving to them in the halls, plastering a smile on my face even when I was preoccupied or upset. I wanted to win because my name was in every message I sent as a leader in Student Government, every mass e-mail study guide I created and shared, all the staffing sheets of the Open Houses I helped lead and execute, and all the freshmen’s assignments in the Creative Writing class I served as Teaching Assistant in. My name sought after every nook and cranny to lodge itself, a list of achievements to trail behind me like the train of my dress as I would scale the stage and accept my crown.
They revealed the top three students for each category at the annual Holiday Game Night before Winter Break. My best friend, Gilliann, sole orchestrater of the Winter Formal Court elections, took the microphone and hushed the crowd of students to announce the finalists. She kept me in the dark as to whether I had made the cut or not; her poker face spiraling me into self-doubt, knowing she would have cracked by now if I had made it.
I sat somewhere in the back, inconspicuous in case my name wasn’t called. Gilliann announced the freshman and sophomore winners, and I cheered and clapped loudly as their eager faces accepted golden pins. For the juniors, I wasn’t so enthusiastic, only because my stomach was bubbling with worry.
Maybe I should have had Gilliann post something for me? I wondered. Maybe I should have mentioned it to more people in the halls, or should have swallowed my dignity to spam people through text?
There were four finalists for Queen due to a tie. To distract myself from the anxiety, I cheered for each name called, my heart sinking with every girl claiming her spot. In that short span, I had gone through all five stages of acceptance, my heart heavy with the notion of not qualifying.
“…and last, but not least, Kira Wolak!” Gilliann announced, and my head snapped up as those around me ushered me to stand.
Being at the end of the alphabet never, ever has it’s perks.
Relief flooded through me as I stood, receiving roaring applause with a stunned smile. Gilliann grinned connivingly at me as she handed me my pin, shaking her head and stating, “You never had any reason to worry.”
The buzz of victory didn’t wear off until the end of the night. Underclassmen greeted me eagerly, the admiration in their eyes warming my heart. The squad celebrated with plenty of photo ops, and I texted evidence to friends who lived out of state. The same part of me which had never expected to make it this far was now voraciously hungry for the crown.
I had staked my spot, but I still had three other girls to compete against for the title of Queen. Winter Break served as a buffer to preoccupy my mind with other matters, but when January 7th came, it was all I could think of while setting up for the dance. I imagined a grand entrance, like in those cheesy teen movies which rotted my taste during my tween years, where everyone’s breath would be taken away by my dress.
But my makeup had taken too long, causing me to be running twenty minutes late, and my Mom insisted on dropping me off due to the poor weather. I met Gilliann in the parking garage by mere coincidence, where my Mom snapped some pictures of us and went on her way after five minutes of convincing her we didn’t need her to hold the umbrella for us as we walked inside. Gilliann held the umbrella as I carried the bundled train of my dress in my hands, goosebumps emerging on our exposed limbs as we walked through the drizzling, wind-chilled evening to the front door of our venue. The umbrella swayed this way and that, threatening to invert against the wind, and we sighed with relief when we made it to the entrance. Our hair was blown into disarray, and there was almost nobody in the lobby, everyone upstairs already enjoying the dance.
It wasn’t exactly the grand entrance I had been picturing. But it was then I started to piece together how no matter how magical a night, not everything turned out like the movies. We quickly signed in and voted for Court, encountering friends (and, incidentally, rivals) who were also casting their electronic ballot. The entire school was voting for each position, meaning I was at the mercy of every freshman, sophomore, junior and fellow senior in attendance. As I entered the elevator, I tried my hardest to keep my mind off of calculating my chances.
Reaching the third floor, the doors slid open to reveal pop music blasting through high-powered speakers and colorful, swirling lights creating an energetic ambience. Gilliann found the rest of our friends and subjected us to mandatory photo ops before our makeup was to be compromised by working up a sweat from dancing. I made the rounds and greeted everyone from friends and loose acquaintances to underclassmen eager to pay me compliments, consistently intercepted by a new face on each of my attempts to reach the buffet. By the time I finally sat down with my plate of food and took my first bite of pasta, Gilliann had taken the microphone and announced voting had ended and the results were in.
Valeria, another friend of mine, checked my teeth for any lingering marinara sauce before escorting me to the crowd which had gathered by the foot of DJ’s small stage. Once again, underclassmen went first, and each grade cheered for their Lady and Knight, Duchess and Duke, Princess and Prince, until, finally, the moment I had been waiting for had arrived. Strangely, a sense of calm settled upon me as Gilliann drew out her words, creating suspense. I glanced over and found Sami, another friend of mine also in the running; we grabbed each other’s hands and gave them a squeeze before letting go.
When my name was called, there was no wave of relief, or even remorse for Sami. There was only a burgeoning sense of pride for accomplishing something my eight-year-old self would have considered impossible: winning a popularity contest.
However, it wasn’t anything like the movies. The crowd didn’t part for me naturally; I had to “excuse me” my way through to the front. My Winter Formal co-chair draped the sash over my shoulder and placed the crown in my hair. The crown didn’t fit like I thought I would, the plastic combs on either end digging into my scalp the wrong way; I immediately adjusted it, smoothing any stray hairs before re-perching my prize delicately atop of my head. The DJ’s imported stage was too small to admit all winners, so all victors remained on the ground with everyone else.
When they called the name of my best guy friend as the winner of King, we rolled our eyes at each other as he was dressed with his own sash, scepter, and crown. I greeted my match with a hug, neither of us able to contain our laughter. We were known as the most platonic guy-girl friendship at our high school, and winning titles that were normally suited for couples was not lost on us; we were right in suspecting this would further fuel our parents’ futile desires for us to end up married one day. Cole may not have been the typical prince charming in those teen movies, but I wouldn’t have wanted to share the night with anyone else.
The moment flickered by so quickly. The crowd of three-hundred-fifty people cheered voraciously for the newly awarded royalty, but then the music soon came back on and everyone dispersed. The yearbook teacher took the royal winners’ pictures, and then we were released back into the pool of normal students.
Slowly, a frown started to form on my face, one I tried to hide as I returned to my plate. I was not placed on any special pedestal – I did not elevate to a new social pedigree. The congratulations I received from peers from all grade levels and social strata caused little flutter in my stomach.
It was then I realized I never wanted their validation. I wanted my own.
With this crown, I had expected to transform, like Cinderella with her Fairy Godmother’s magic, into some stunning, inexplicable beauty. I wanted to be the girl who really did have it all: smart, kind, funny, attractive, (moderately) athletic, and liked by all.
But I was still me. Except, now with a crown and sash that barely fit and a scepter which was inconvenient to carry.
Winning the crown was the catalyst to help me realize it never really mattered how other people saw me; what mattered was how I saw myself. I had been so focused during my high school career on doing things to communicate the attributes I wanted others to see in me, I had lost sight of who I truly was.
I was already everything I strived to be. That’s not to say I didn’t have room for improvement, but rather, anything I had convinced myself I lacked was completely fabricated.
It was time for me to start accepting myself for the Queen I was, inside and out. Maybe I’d never see myself as someone as glamorous in the teen movies, and maybe other people would never see me that way, either. But who I am is more than good enough, and glamour and validation seems as cheap as the crown in comparison to spending the night with my friends.
Besides, the whole royalty thing was a hassle. My scepter quickly became bothersome, and it was the first to be set down by my clutch as I went to enjoy the rest of the night. Then, the sash kept slipping off my shoulders as I danced to my favorite songs, causing me to ditch it as well. Later, I found it damp with a sickly sweet stain over the text “Winter Formal Queen.” But it didn’t matter; it never really did. What mattered was nine years later, eight-year-old Kira finally fulfilled her dream, even if it wasn’t how she expected to.
I dig the crown out of my closet, moving purses aside and stretching on my tippie toes to reach it on the top rack. Not having touched it since the day after Winter Formal, I pull it down to examine it. I run my thumb gingerly over the crystal accents, wondering if I’ll be flooded by an overwhelming wave of sentimentality. Instead, only a small smile blossoms on my face, and I watch in the mirror as I set the crown atop of my head. I turn my head this way and that, making what are meant to be regal expressions and sucking in my baby cheeks to give the appearance of cheekbones. I laugh, breaking my composure, and stare long and hard at who I’ve become.
It’s funny to think how a cheap piece of plastic spurred such a transformational arc in my life. I may never have been a typical teenage queen, but by following my own path, I’ve realized being “typical” has never been in my list of aspirations. All I’ve ever wanted was to be the best version of myself. But who says I can’t stay true to myself and be popular amongst my peers? After all, if the crown fits…
Edited by: Sabrina Loftus