Unlike many college transfers, Monica Kemp hasn’t changed her mind since she first tread Texas soil. “I knew I would love it here because I researched literally hundreds of schools,” she says. More than a thousand miles from home, Monica lounges on her neatly pressed bed in her neatly crafted dorm room. Two construction paper artworks, gifts from her cousins, spell out her name in foam letters with “TCU” underneath.
“My room is very descriptive of me: I like all my stuff because I chose everything for a reason—including TCU.” Monica has always known exactly what she wanted, from her college to her clothes.
A few weeks before Monica starts fourth grade, she finally gets to choose her own clothes for school. Of course, most kids would leap at the chance to grab the first clothing item to catch their fancy; but Monica is not most kids.
Monica’s little sister, a peppy second-grader-to-be, bounds straight over to the racks of frilly children’s clothing. Nicole ends up selecting a pink tie-dye tee, a denim skirt, and a crocheted shawl with a pink bow to top off the look. “It matches!” she exclaims to her mother, pointing to the bubblegum-colored backpack in the shopping cart.
Meanwhile, nine-year-old Monica strolls to the opposite end of the aisle, examining the merchandise from underneath her heavy black bangs. She extends a hand and grabs a shirt, slinging it over her arm with no hesitation. Then she circles around the display and snatches some pants before returning to her mother.
“Mommy, look what I got,” she says, brandishing her treasure.
Monica’s mom eyes the child-sized button-down blue shirt and khaki slacks that belong in the school uniform section. Both of her daughters attend a public school in Gresham, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon—their options for unique school clothes could not be more open.
“That’s great, Mon. You sure that’s what you want?” she asks, stifling a smile.
Monica’s blue eyes are serious. “Yes, Mommy. I want to look nice.”
After the first day of school, Dawn Kemp realizes just how different her daughters are. “What happened to your school supplies, Nicole?” she asks her youngest.
Nicole makes a guilty face that morphs into a smile. “I gave them to…” She counts slowly on her fingers, but then gives up. “My friends who didn’t have any.”
“And you, Monica?” their mother asks.
Black-haired Monica opens her backpack. Everything is in its place. She reaches in and pulls out a pencil; a dot of blue nail polish glistens on it. She pulls out a notebook with the same marking. “No one took my stuff because it’s mine,” she says simply. In college, Monica will mark every dish in her cramped kitchen arsenal with a tidy purple “M.”
A decade later, Monica crushes the phone to her ear, feeling the slide of glass against her cheek. She remembers endless nights spent researching colleges, aching to find somewhere that felt like home.
“We need to Skype!” Monica’s mom says from her living room in Gresham, a hundred and twenty-three miles north of Monica’s apartment at University of Oregon. Monica can hear the exclamation point and it sends her heart pounding.
The black-haired college freshman taps her phone. “Okay, hold on.” She snatches her laptop from her desk, where soft gray Oregon light filters in through the window. As always, the goslings and so-ugly-they’re-cute nutria splashing in the creek below the window catch her eye, and she pauses. The scene is peaceful, but Monica’s heart is not. Much as she loves this apartment, a nice place isn’t worth staying for.
She plops down, nearly dropping her laptop with the force of her bounce. On her computer screen, the blue Skype icon leaps as if it’s cheering her on. Her hands aren’t sweating at all, not even a little. Then her mom’s face swims into view, glasses and all. “Ready, Mom.”
“Hi, Mon.” Dawn Kemp’s voice is strained. “Remember that time you told me you were wasting those sixty-five bucks on the application fee?”
Suddenly Monica can’t breathe. “Yes…” Horrible scenarios of failure race through her mind. No, darn it. She hadn’t busted her butt in high school for nothing. Her feet had always ached by the time she ping-ponged from dance practice to National Honor Society meetings, and then to work at a local daycare.
Back in her apartment, Monica remembers to breathe and stare at her mom with fists clenched. She’s done everything she can; now it’s time to face the music.
“Well, you proved yourself wrong!” her mom squeals.
Monica’s eyes widen as the envelope leaps into view. She registers the giant purple “Congratulations” mere seconds after the envelope’s bulging seams. It’s the envelope, all the way from Fort Worth, Texas.
Monica rarely cries, but she can’t just hold back the tears when her southern-bred mother gets all teary-eyed too. They laugh at the choked-up feeling in their throats and sift through the papers together. Joy hums across the wireless connection.
Later, when Monica’s friends take her out for a birthday dinner, she’ll blow out the nineteen candles. Her mouth will curve into her signature wolf grin—bared gums and all. Finally, a school where she can talk to the professors as people instead of as presenters behind a microphone. A place where she can truly shine.
The next day will be harder, when she has to face the fact that her family won’t be able to afford this dream of hers. The debt would be unthinkable. Ever the planner, Monica begins to draft back-up plans and back-ups for those back-ups. South Carolina would be nice, too, she thinks.
Months later, the Kemps will fly all the way to Chattanooga to visit Monica’s aunt and uncle. That’s when Charlie and Jo-Anne will spring the glorious news on her: they will pay for her education.
She will get to be a Horned Frog.