A funny and heartfelt story about learning how to rise above your most embarrassing moment while staying true to yourself--with the help of old friends, new friends, and some cheesy poetry.
At the start of ninth grade, Wilbur Nuñez-Knopf is hoping for a fresh start. But he just can't live down a deeply humiliating moment from two years ago that's followed him to high school. His good friend Alex has stuck by him, but Alex has started dating Fabrizio and he doesn't have much time to hang out. Luckily, Wil can still confide in his elderly neighbor, Sal. But he longs to have a special someone of his own.
When the school band does an exchange with students from Paris, a girl named Charlie captures Wilbur's heart. But his feelings aren't reciprocated. So Alex, Fabrizio, and Sal join forces to build Wil's confidence in the hope that he can impress Charlie when they go to Paris. Maybe, just maybe, Wilbur will find a new defining moment in the City of Love.
An Excerpt fromTremendous Things
The Mumps believe that we all have a handful of Defining Moments in our lives.
Their Number One Defining Moment was the night they met each other, sixteen years ago, at a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Vancouver. Dr. Frank-N-Furter had just declared, “A toast!” Mum threw her piece of toast at the screen and hit Mup in the back of the head. The rest, as they say, is history. They’ve been madly in love ever since. It has a happy ending, which I think we can all agree is the best kind of story.
My Number One Defining Moment doesn’t have a happy ending.
In fact, it hasn’t even ended.
The moment in question happened two and a half years ago, on my first day of seventh grade. We’d recently moved to Toronto, so it was also a brand-new school.
Oh, and it was also my first school ever.
Aside from a disastrous few weeks in kindergarten, I’d been homeschooled my whole life. But when we moved from Vancouver to Toronto, we made a family decision: it was time for me to get educated, and socialized, in an actual brick-and-mortar building filled with actual flesh-and-blood kids.
Mum and Mup—collectively known as the Mumps—walked me to Pierre Elliott Trudeau Junior School that first morning in September. They hugged and kissed me and cried a little right out front as all the other kids streamed past, which now that I think about it probably wasn’t the best optics.
What I remember most about entering that massive old redbrick building for the first time was the noise. I’d been around other kids before, obviously; I’d had frequent outings and get-togethers with other homeschooled kids. But we’re talking ten to fifteen kids at a time, tops. The halls of PET Junior School were packed, with hundreds of kids shouting, laughing, banging locker doors, running even though there were signs telling them to walk. My first instinct was to turn around and march right back out. But I thought of what Mup had said the night before, when I couldn’t sleep: “Remember, Wil: new beginnings bring new experiences.”
So I kept moving.
My pits were dripping with fear-sweat by the time I found my classroom. Our teacher, Mr. Markowitz, stood by his desk. I can still picture him in his brown suit, the shoulders dusted with dandruff. He gave us an assignment. “Write a letter to yourself. Describe who you are today. Then write a list of goals you hope to achieve by the time you graduate high school. Place your letter in the envelope provided, write your name on the front, and seal it. The letters will be locked into the school’s time capsule. And remember,” he continued, “you can be completely honest. These letters are for your eyes only. They will be returned to you, still sealed, six years from now, on graduation day.”
I was determined to do exactly as I was told.
So I was completely honest.
After school, Mr. Markowitz carried the sealed letters from our classroom to the time capsule, which wasn’t really a time capsule at all but the safe in the principal’s office. It was a short walk from our homeroom, down a flight of stairs and to the left.
But at the top of the staircase, according to a reliable eyewitness, Mr. Markowitz stopped to scratch his balls.
This had a ring of truth to it, because as we learned that year, Mr. Markowitz scratched his balls a lot. He did it so much, a rumor spread that he had pubic lice.
While he scratched, one letter fluttered, unseen, to the ground.
Time Capsule Letter, Graduating Class of 2025
Name: Wilbur Alberto Nuñez-Knopf
Age: 11 and 3/4
Describe Yourself As You Are Today: I am five feet four inches tall. Farah, one of my homeschool friends in Vancouver, told me I could play a young Marty Feldman if they ever made a biopic about him, which I thought was a compliment until we watched Young Frankenstein. Farah also nicknamed me “Blubber” because (a) I’m chubby, and (b) I cry a lot. The Mumps keep saying that (a) it’s baby fat and I’ll have a growth spurt soon, and (b) there is no shame in crying and the world needs more sensitive men. They also keep saying I’ll grow into my looks. I hope they’re right.
I also hope that if I grow taller, Jeremiah grows with me, because right now he’s the size of a tadpole. And I hope I can learn to control him better, because recently he’s started popping up at embarrassing moments for no reason. Like right now. I’ve had to put a textbook over my lap.
What else can I say about me? I want to be a writer when I grow up. I write a lot!! Mostly short stories about dinosaurs and outer space. Boy, I can get really lost in my make-believe worlds, which is good because we just moved to Toronto a month ago and I have a total of zero friends! I’m dying to get a pet, but the Mumps say I have to wait. I had a cat named Snickerdoodle in Vancouver, but he didn’t come home one day. The Mumps said he probably found another family.
Farah said he probably got eaten by a coyote.
Goals You Would Like to Achieve by the Time You Graduate:
1) Grow taller.
2) Grow Jeremiah.
3) Learn to control Jeremiah.
4) Cry less! It may be good for men to show their feelings, but if I cry one more time at that SPCA ad with Sarah McLachlan singing I will punch myself in the face—just thinking of it right now is making me tear up.
5) Make friends! I didn’t have a ton of friends in Vancouver except for Stewart Inkster, and once in a while another homeschooler like Farah. The Mumps keep saying they are my friends, but they are also my mothers, so I’m not sure they count.
6) Publish some of my writing! I know this is a long shot before the end of high school, and I also know every artist has to suffer some rejection, but as Mup says, “every dream begins with a dreamer.”
7) Have a Loving and Mutually Respectful Relationship (Mumps™) with a special girl. Fall in love! (And maybe, just maybe, once we are deeply in love, I could feel one of her boobs. Or both. But only with her Enthusiastic Consent (Mumps™)!
8) Last but definitely not least: Learn to be my best self. Try not to be so timid and nervous all the time. Be more willing and able to try new things. Put myself out there. Be confident and brave.
Like Mup says: “He who takes no chances wins nothing!”
Wilbur Alberto Nuñez-Knopf
At first I thought I was imagining things when I showed up at school the next day. Surely every single kid wasn’t actually staring at me.
I was not imagining things.
Someone had opened my letter—my personal, private letter—and taken photos of it. Then that person had posted it on every social media platform known to personkind, where it had been liked by and shared with every single kid at my new school and beyond.
By ten a.m. I was hiding in the nurse’s office, crying worse than I ever had during the SPCA ad.
By eleven a.m. the Mumps had been called in for an emergency meeting. I guess the principal decided I couldn’t be more humiliated than I already was, because she let them read my letter off her phone. She assured them that the school would find the guilty party and they would be dealt with.
On the drive home I was still crying a lot, so Mum sat in the back with me and held my hand. She’d come straight from the set of Where There’s a Wolf, and she was in full special effects makeup; her hand was hairy. “This isn’t the end of the world, peanut. It may feel like it right now, but you will rise above it.”
“Mum’s right,” Mup replied, peering at me through the rearview mirror of our new Hyundai. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
I let out a sob. Mum pulled me toward her, and I felt her hairy cheeks. “For what it’s worth, I thought it was a lovely letter. Honest and to the point.”
“And trust us, there is not a boy in your class who hasn’t suffered the indignities of a spontaneous erection,” Mup added from the front as I slouched even lower in my seat.
Mum stroked my hair. “We do have one tiny bone to pick with you, peanut.”
“Did you really have to use the word boobs? We’ve been so careful to teach you the anatomically correct names for body parts.”
“Ditto Jeremiah. It was cute when you were young, but I’m not sure it’s still age-appropriate or healthy to be anthropomorphizing your penis.” Mup sighed. “I blame myself for playing ‘Joy to the World’ a lot when you were little.”
It was true that I’d lifted the name from the song, because Jeremiah looked like a bullfrog. And he was a good friend of mine.
“To be clear, Wil: you want to feel a girl’s breasts,” said Mum. “And you want a bigger penis.” She smiled, revealing sharp, pointy werewolf teeth.
In case it isn’t obvious, I am an only child.