Today I’m sharing my runner-up winning short story for author Esther Newton’s first flash fiction competition!
When she was in nursery school, the teacher said she could be anything she wanted to be.
Sure, girls can be astronauts nowadays.
🚀Then, when she was ten: “We have lots of books about space if you want to know what it’s like up there.” 🚀Thirteen. “I think you really need to start taking your future prospects more seriously, young girl.” 🚀What the guidance councillor said was that being good at something is more important than the thing you’re doing being good.
Like, you’re not gonna be an astronaut, Billy. Let’s be realistic here. But, hey, you could be damn good at hospital administration. Take that leaflet, hon. We don’t have leaflets on going to space as a career. I suppose you’d have to go to America for that.
Or Russia, maybe.
🚀“You’re twenty-fucking-three, stop with the space shit.” 🚀“If you can’t be an astronaut, marry one.”
“Oh, honey, they always go for, like, beautiful women. No offence, Billy.”
🚀She’s nearly forty and people still bring up the astronaut thing, like she can’t forget she wanted crazy things when she was a kid. Every child dreams too big. She wound up doing chemistry instead.
And so they say: if you can’t do, teach.
Billy lectures Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at the university, then does life drawing classes at the leisure centre on a Friday evening. You’ll get chemistry students who want to be the next Robert Boyle and ones who really liked Breaking Bad. She’ll never say to anyone: no, you can’t do that.
Even if they do casually ask about cooking crystal meth. You know, for a friend. Their friend is, um, just curious.
She has her ways of talking around these questions.
But she doesn’t outright say no.
🚀Her students ask so many questions. Sometimes they make her stop and think: hey, who am I to tell them what’s right?
A whole lot of teaching, she finds, is actually about learning.
🚀“You’re twenty-fucking-three, stop with the space shit.” That was her first real boyfriend. Christopher, his name was. He said she’d just let anyone tell her what to do. Like he did for a while. 🚀What the guidance councillor said was that being good at something is more important than the thing you’re doing being good.
What Billy teaches her students is that that’s crap. If you want to be an astronaut, be an astronaut. Somebody has to be one, after all.
🚀“You know what I discovered after I started teaching?” Billy says to the woman so close to graduating. “Sometimes you just need to do what you want to do, because other people will guide you to where they want you to go, and maybe that isn’t always where you need to be.”
“Does that mean I can stop listening in class?”
🚀She still reads astronomy books in the bath. If only for fun.
Here’s how Space came to be.
This was a super fun story to write. I don’t do short stories. I’ve never had the confidence to commit to a format that requires a pitch-perfect grasp on plot, characterisation, theme. I like having room to breathe in my writing, and room to expand. Short stories are waaaaaay out of my comfort zone.
I don’t know exactly why I decided to enter this competition, when I don’t usually look twice at writing contests. Particularly if they’re on a global level. I never expect to get past the slush pile. Maybe it was because there was no entry fee? Maybe it was because, hey, it’s only 500 words maximum. Maybe I just took a notion and went for it. I’m not totally sure, even now.
I am so, so glad I did. Out of all the entries, my story was runner-up! It’s such an amazing, humbling, ego-boosting thing to happen, I’m honestly still in shock. I’ll definitely try entering more writing competitions now. It’s a small thing, maybe, in a bigger ocean. But I feel so confident about what I’m writing right now, because of this little high.
I thought on the theme: discovery. I thought about what I’ve discovered, in my life. This story came from a memory of my school guidance counselor, who pulled me into her office one day. I’d been skipping class. She asked me what I wanted to do with my life – I was maybe fifteen or so – and I said I didn’t know. She gave me this look. It said: you won’t do anything with your life. I can’t remember her exact words, now; but I didn’t go to a high-achieving school. She didn’t have much expectations of her students, or me, and she didn’t hide it. I’ve always remembered that moment when things have gone wrong at work, and it spurs me to fight on.
I guess I wanted to make my own little comment on how our smallest criticisms can steer the course of someone’s life. I hope you get that from this fun little story.