America’s Best High-School Writers

Snapshots of life at home.
April 9 2013 6:45 AM

Death of a Sunflower

Young love, bad haircuts, and Fibonacci numbers: An essay by a Scholastic Writing Award–winning high schooler.

(Continued from Page 1)


Mr. Grey stands at the front of the classroom in his shirt that looks like graph paper. His paunch presses against the fabric and I can make out the outline of a belly button—his point of origin.

His mouth is moving but his words are flat as a function with no slope. I rest my head in my hand and look to my left. Noah and Jenny are playing a hormone-fueled game of tic-tac-toe. Parker’s mouth is slack and his eyes are unfocused. But Lana has stopped mid-doodle—I see the makings of a dinosaur, or maybe a giraffe—and she is staring intently at Mr. Grey.

Am I missing something? Has Algebra 2 suddenly become fascinating? I tune in—something something, “ … golden mean. The pattern is everywhere.”


Mr. Grey rubs his hands together in what might be excitement and picks up a piece of chalk. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 ... “Take any two consecutive Fibonacci numbers,” he says, “and the higher they are, the closer their quotient will be to the golden mean. Everything in nature arranges itself mathematically.”

The way rabbits reproduce. Seeds on a strawberry. Petals on a flower.

“The number of petals on any flower is a Fibonacci number, and they spiral out from the center according to the golden mean. Sunflowers, for instance, always have a Fibonacci number of petals. Typically, a small sunflower will have 34.”

I remember the game we used to play, back when I had those two long braids—he loves me, he loves me not—and how everything hung on that last petal. The question that seemed to determine the course of our whole lives, that question of romance and happiness, was really just a math question. It all boiled down to a Fibonacci number.


My hair is longer now. I coil a lock around a finger and check the black clock on the white wall. Twenty minutes before English.

The cafeteria is gray and the food in it is grayer. Your hair is the only color—I see it from across the room. You’re in the lunch line and I wonder what would happen if I joined you, but then I see you are talking to someone else. The line moves forward and I catch a glimpse of her yellow hair.

You lean forward and rest your hand against the white wall. Your eyes do not leave her face. You laugh and your T-shirt flutters.

That night I get home and turn on the shower. Hot water pours over me, hot as a summer sidewalk, hot as the steam from a halal cart in August, hot as the crisp brown edges of a cigarette.

For the first time, I read the back of the shampoo bottle. It says “massage vigorously.” I close my eyes and there are no colors at all, just the rush of hot water and the fragrant steam and my fingers digging into my scalp.

I pull my hands away and there are still hairs coiled around my fingers. The water hits them, and they fall to the bottom of the tub. They contort in hieroglyphic curlicues, curl and wave meaninglessly on the plastic mat. Finally they slither toward the drain and little bits of me disappear into the pipework.


I love Lana’s house. The kitchen counter is granite, cool to the touch, and just the right amount of shiny. The art on the walls is edgy in a soothing, familiar way. But tonight there is music and the living room is filled with people I only half-know, so I perch on this bar stool and run my fingers over the stone. In my head, I make an inventory of the countertop: used birthday candles, a bowl of strawberries, assorted wax drips, a pink cupcake tower, someone’s empty glass.

A hand reaches for the glass, long and square with nails that need to be cut. I look up to see whose it is—you catch me looking through the tower of pink frosting, forget about the glass and beckon me over.

You are unsteady, and you use my arm for balance. My hair falls in my face and I move to push it away, but suddenly you are very close and before I can think your mouth is on mine and the whole world tilts 30 degrees and I find myself hoping the art doesn’t fall off the walls.

I’ve never paid close attention to this section of wall before. There’s a print of a flower with bright yellow petals and a dark center. Heavy dark lines strike through the picture—there is rain and thunder in the flower’s world. Then I realize those are my eyelashes. I put on mascara because I knew you would be here, and I hated myself for doing it.

Your tongue, your lips, your teeth, your slobber—the whole inside of your mouth is suddenly no longer a mystery to me. Will never be a mystery again. I try to taste you but I taste nothing. I try to feel you, but you are too busy feeling me. I try to smell you but there is nothing to smell.

I remember my eyes are supposed to be closed. I shut them tight and imprinted on my retinas are bright yellow petals. A golden number of petals. A Fibonacci number.


My phone buzzes and I am surprised to see your name. We haven’t spoken since Lana’s party. Months ago. We pass in the black and white hallways and your blue eyes look straight through me.


It’s a text. You want me to have dinner with you at your house. Your parents will be out.

I coil a brown lock around a finger. You must want to reconnect. I remember our reflection in the warped glass and I smile. Yes. I’d like to be friends again.

That night we eat steaming pasta with lots of yellow parmesan. When we are full we go up on your roof and look out over the city. Your eyes sparkle in the lights and the delicious cold. I lean over the edge and when I turn around, you are directly behind me.

Your hands are soft as they cup my face. You smile into me, confident. The night is beautiful and the food was good. “Can I kiss you?”

My stomach flutters like a T-shirt in the breeze. Like your T-shirt, leaning against the white wall of the cafeteria, smiling into the girl with yellow hair.

Another time, another white wall behind you. A sunflower in a storm, petals trembling. Rain slashes them. One by one, they tear away from the dark brown center, fly off into the howling wind. Only one petal is left. Only one golden answer to the math question.

I smile back into your clear blue eyes, just as confident as you are. “No.”


This time when I sit in the barber’s chair, I look the stylist in the mirror and tell him exactly what I want. This time, there is no mistake.

I walk out of the salon and the sunshine is golden. I catch sight of myself in a shop window. The glass is smooth and in it I see my new hair that says, This girl had the courage. Hair that says, This girl spoke up. Hair that is who I want to be.


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