I live alone — I always have since elementary school. I wasn't privileged with having my parents there for me. I didn't grow up with my father; he left when I was four. My mom worked from morning to night, so I spent no time with her. While I grew to appreciate her sacrifices, it strained our relationship. My sister, Paola however, was there for me.
Paola picked me up every day from elementary school. Walking home was the best time of my day; the time I got to connect with a person and actually tell them what I drew in school or the new song I learned to play on my recorder. She was the one who fed me, read me bedtime stories and tucked me into bed. I grew to love her like a mother. In time, Paola left me too.
Having to tend to her newborn child, LaMya, my sister could no longer devote her attention to me. Since I was only in second grade when Paola had LaMya, I did not comprehend my sister’s actions. I felt abandoned, and I longed to hear someone say I’m proud of you. I used that as a driving force to excel in elementary school.
Before my niece was born I wasn’t the brightest kid; I would get C’s and B’s. Diligent studying, however, paid off. In the fifth grade, Kings County sent me a letter about the “Citation of Honor.” I was one out of two kids in my school to receive this award. My mother and sister told me si tu quieres, puedes; if you want it, you can achieve it. Like the engraving on a statue, those words stuck with me forever. I felt empowered knowing my mother and sister had faith in me. In high school, when my mother told me yo quiero que tengas un mejor vida que la mia; I want you to have a better life than mine, I finally accepted that they had other responsibilities. I don’t remember the last time anyone asked me how my day was, but I admire my family's sacrifices for their children to have a better life.
Now I pick up my niece from school and listen to her day as my sister did for me. Everything I learned from my family, I pass on to LaMya. My family’s values of sacrifice and self-determination, values embodied in my persona, I echo on to her. One day, if she ever feels lonely, she’ll know who to come to.
Work drains so much vitality from the people I care about. I know they must work so that one day I will go to a great college, have a good career, and be successful. I will not let my family’s economic situation deter me from my future. I used to be selfish and stubborn; I longed for their attention to hear that they are proud me when in reality they always were. I now understand and don’t feel so alone anymore.
Olivia Rabbitt '16
Bishop Feehan High School, Attleboro, MA
The bright blue eyes that alight with unfettered curiosity on the burgeoning bulletin board are not only my own. Nor are the ears that listen raptly to the hum of student life and the gentle sing-song of our tour guide’s voice. Almost in tandem, my companion and I tear ourselves from the vivid vignette of college life and return with unmatched strides to the vast expanses of the campus. As the tour continues, I am neither surprised by the eager questions my companion poses - “Where’s the baseball field?” - nor by the heightened interest painted so clearly across his face. Wandering amongst the tall stone buildings, I appreciate for the first time how much this visit means to my constant companion, my father.
Growing up in a home overflowing with seven children and two working parents, my father spilled out into the “real world” at age eighteen. He took with him his younger brother, an impossibly solid work ethic, and a Chevy Caprice. Neither of my grandparents were fazed by their son’s moving out of the house so abruptly; their expectation had always been clear: go to school, learn the basics, then work. The notion of higher education never crossed my father’s strong mind until years after his high school graduation. To hear him describe his adolescence is almost like hearing a fable told from the perspective of the Prodigal Son.
With the outspoken and unyielding influence of my mother, my father decided that none of his children would make the same foolish mistakes that he had made. Learning for learning’s sake was always the focus in our home. From our nightly story "The Hobbit," to endless explorations in the woods, to gardening, to building, my brothers and I were never bored. While it was from my mother that I first learned to question and explore, it was my father who was able to capture my inquisitive spirit and help ground me in the practical.
Perhaps because he was a self-sufficient teen, my father exudes a quiet self-assuredness that can result only from years of independence and a deep understanding of the nature of the world. My father never once isolated me from the “real world.” Instead, he found a unique way of protecting that left me both completely aware and largely unscathed. By leaving me free to make mistakes and chase wild dreams, my father was always able to help ground me back in reality. Personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments are all values that are etched into my mind, just as they are within my father’s.
In a few short months, I will reach the same benchmark that my father did on his eighteenth birthday. However I will not go forth into a cruel, cold world without a guiding star. I have always known that my path in life will be paradoxically different from, but also much the same as, my father’s. Education has always been my focus, but the joy I find in nature and hard work could only be traits taught by the man who now walks beside me. I will, with luck, never buckle under the same burdens he has borne nor will I forget the values he has instilled in me.
On this sunny September afternoon, as I envision my own future, I cannot help but wonder what my father sees as we gaze across campus.
Sophia Mitrokostas ‘15
Sturgis Charter Public School, Hyannis, MA
Three hours rumbling up what seemed little more than glorified goat paths had left me tetchy and with a revolting stickiness behind my knees and neck. The heat was indecent, and I was one of twenty or so family members hiking up the side of a Greek mountain where my great grandmother’s ancestral home still stood. I was sixteen, and lost in the tragedy of having worn long sleeves that day. The village we were aiming for was Krapsi. It is situated too many miles from the city of Ioannina, where I had spent the preceding two months languishing in perpetual boredom and heatstroke. An inconsiderately placed thorn bush compounded my foul mood, and I resigned myself to a dull day of overbearing relatives and slapping away insects of primordial proportions.
Our weary party arrived just past blistering noon, collapsing into cracking plastic deck chairs sheltered from the sun by a canopy of grapevines, droopy with fruit and heat. The women retreated into the kitchen, and soon there came the muffled sounds of rolling pins against the pine boards, the spitting and cackling of olive oil in old pans and children’s hands being swatted away from open bags of sugar. The men minded the toddling little ones and produced backgammon boards out of the thin air.
I began disinterestedly wandering through the house, perhaps questing for something cool to press my cheek against. Thrusting out from a verdant cliff ledge, the house had a stone porch, of sorts, which wound like a necklace around the structure until it met a large courtyard shaded by walnut trees to the west. The rooms were plaster-walled and cool, the bedrooms sparingly furnished. There were no mirrors in the house, nor were there doors. I considered the mountainous vista with the curious sensation of being considered by mountains.
I thumbed through the deck of cards discovered in drawers along with bits of twine and bent nails. Their stiffness was long played away, and they folded like dollar bills in my hands. I imagined countless afternoons out in the courtyard, the kings and queens and aces laid flat against a burning table where small change was jovially won and lost through a haze of pipe-smoke.
I discovered a perplexing hole at the center of the courtyard’s flagstones. My uncle taught me about the pole that once grew out of that hole, and about the sleepy donkey that turned around and around the pole for hours, crushing the grain strewn all about the stone underfoot. I wondered at this, silent with respect for donkey and grain-strewer alike.
My grandfather’s faded sketches of great trees in the courtyard, brittle and humble as moth wings between my fingers. My grandmother’s half mended apron, stuffed between a wall and headboard when she was a broody sixteen and mourned afternoons spent out of the sun. The charcoal trees in my grandfather’s artwork were a little less great than the ones now hosting my clambering cousins, and my grandmother has long ago forgone aprons, cleaning her floury hands on the cheeks and noses of squirming grandchildren. Nonetheless, I handled both with the reverence accorded to captured ladybugs and a mother’s jewelry.
I met with a heavy wooden door in the foundations of the house, quite suspect and frowning. It gave way to a lightless, stale room choked with old farming equipment, dusty looms and barrels, and a section of bare wall that my grandmother revealed to be false. We pushed it aside, and I beheld the airless, breathless space where she and my family (my family?) had hidden from foreign soldiers looking to take her brothers into their war.
The house has since fallen into the mountainside below, the result of the frequent earthquakes that rock the region. I’m told all that remains is one wall and a handful of indomitable walnut trees. More than three-hundred years of Sunday mornings, new grand-children, and evenings silent save for the sounds of stars and crickets: now swallowed by ivy and the slow crush of tree roots.
Old houses are polite. They stand quite impartial and unblinking, however you might scuttle about in their bellies and tap their ribs and listen to their hearts. They do not insist. This was not merely an old house in the mountains, but home distilled, eternally new and alive and breathing great breaths. These people could not bear the stern, sterile title of “relatives” any longer. I had seen their lives undressed. In that place I lived, through things forgotten and left behind by other, a life I could not understand, and met again and again people I could never know. My people, my mountains, my walnut shells cracking like exclamation points beneath heels stained by their juices.
A place made of faded Turkish cushions and the strength of mountains taught me what it means to truly be home, and that plumbing is sometimes a matter of faith.
Justin R. Anderson '14
Trinity School, New York, NY
How I Stopped Being a Ghost and Started Eating Sambal
Julian, my ten-year old brother, has an irrational dislike of cheese. He will not knowingly eat anything that has cheese, and in fact the simple mention of cheese may very well throw him into a fit. Bizarrely, one of his favorite foods is pizza and he will quite happily eat any dish so long as no one mentions it contains cheese. Julian’s predilection annoys me not only because my favorite thing to eat is cheesecake, but also because it reminds me that as a kid I had an even stranger quirk: I refused to eat Asian food.
A word of background is in order. My mother is Chinese, originally from Malaysia. I straddle two cultures because I am half-Chinese and half-Caucasian. As a child, I would go to Malaysia each summer with my family to see my mother’s relatives. As a child, I did not understand why my Dad would turn heads on the street or how he had the ability to stop people in their tracks. My mother had married a foreigner and in her small hometown of Bahau, an “Orang Puteh,” (white person in Malay), was few and far between. I did not make blending in any easier by refusing to eat Asian food.
One of the most notable aspects of Malaysia is the various cuisines to be found there: Chinese, Thai, Middle Eastern, Malay, and Indian foods are all to be had in great and glorious quantity. As my mother says, Malaysian food was fusion cuisine before fusion was cool. However, while everybody in the family was eating more and more exotic dishes, I would insist on Kentucky Fried Chicken or Happy Meals, no matter how difficult or inconvenient they were to obtain. The irony is that nowadays I actively seek out hotter and spicier dishes.
What caused this change of heart? I suppose a psychologist might say that I had an epiphany one day that my refusal to eat Asian foods reflected some internal subconscious conflict or denial of my true nature. After all, this was not about happily trying to “Super Size” myself, as I played hockey and baseball, sports where speed is essential. Perhaps the true story is more prosaic; the jury is still out. One of my uncles – ironically the biggest foodie in the family – became a very devout Buddhist and a strict vegetarian. So when we stayed with him in Kuala Lumpur, we then needed to find a place that could satisfy the many different tastes and dietary requirements of twenty to thirty relatives. That was when I discovered the food court.
The food court closest to my uncle’s house was literally the size of a football field, with the sidelines and end zones packed with vendors creating every conceivable form of cuisine. This place was wild. Indians were eating next to Malays, Chinese next to Australian ex-pats. Who or what you were mattered little; what was important was what you were ordering. There were stalls serving chicken and rice, seafood, noodles, soups, pastries, vegetables, satay, and even “French” crepes. I got to know the crepes vendor well and he would even start one up as soon as he saw me approach. After two weeks, I finally started sampling small bits of all the dishes being passed around. I was not really eating Asian food, I thought – I was eating French food with a few nibbles on the side.
One summer later, the nibbles got bigger and the crepes smaller until I was finally through the looking glass.
One Chinese expression for white people is "Gwai Lo," which means “ghost man.” I am part ghost; I am part Han Chinese. In many ways, I have been caught between two worlds, American and Asian, New York and Malaysia, listening carefully always but not always understanding where I fit in. However, food has become a bridge between these two parts of myself. In food, I have come to understand myself and am now one of the family’s more adventurous eaters. Crabs in sambal (chili and shrimp paste)? Send them right in.
Yet, for some reason I still cannot get Julian to eat cheese.
Madeline H. Conley '14
Brattleboro Union High School, Dummerston, VT
I don’t watch television.
I don’t watch television because family legend has it that when I was a baby, there was one of those infamous Vermont snowstorms that knocked the antenna off our roof. My parents, already ambivalent about television, decided not to replace it. That was seventeen years ago. We had our little VCR, and now DVD player, and throughout the time I was growing up, that was enough.
I stopped watching TV altogether when I was 13. The impetus was my best friend deciding to give up chocolate for Lent and me deciding I would try to go without television. I stopped watching videos and DVD’s. Just stopped. For two months I didn’t watch a minute of TV. At the time it didn’t mean much, but it’s a decision that’s come to matter a lot to me. Someone asked me, “How long are you going to not watch?” “Until I don’t want it anymore.”
I’ve grown up in the shadow of Mt. Wantastiquet and Black Mountain, in the corner of Southern Vermont. I live in a small town, in the same house that I’ve lived in since the day I was born. People gather in church basements and granges, on the ski trails, and in the co-op. I live in a place of community, farms, art and poetry. I love that when I go out, I see people I know and feel known. There is plenty to do besides watch television.
I don’t watch television because Garrison Keillor’s smooth voice rose and fell from the introduction of a book of poems bound in bright yellow paper, and spoke to me. He murmured, low and cool, “television is a product, not a medium,” and I heard him. I can’t think when I watch TV. I get swallowed in lethargy, and I forget what it means to really concentrate, to really see, and hear. And when I don’t watch television, my mind feels clean, my body right.
It used to be that the numbing movement of colors on the screen was my refuge when I was scared or anxious or tired, a short-lived solution, and a temporary slowing of the gears in my mind. But I realized it wasn’t a refuge - it was just a way to immobilize my mind and to avoid what was making me anxious. I sensed how dangerous it was to equate relaxation and safety with turning off my mind. I pictured some horrifying Orwellian scene where I was trained to feel nothing and think nothing. That’s an extreme, but there is a passivity in television that I’ve always thought was dangerous for me.
In my time away from television, I have learned how to love poetry, how to love listening to the radio, and be happy with just the crooning and swelling of voices. I have learned to play the guitar and sing at the end of a tough day. I have learned how to really listen. I have heard, and really heard “This American Life,” a radio program of stories, a little like those old-fashioned radio programs that my generation missed out on. (You know, the kind where they clapped coconuts together for beat of horses' hooves, and shook sheet metal for the sound of thunderstorms).
It’s easy to sit in the dark, the colors bouncing off your wind-burned cheeks in the theatre, or in the den by the wood stove. It’s easy and often comforting to feel as though you’re in the company of more beautiful, glamorous people, with seemingly more beautiful and glamorous lives. It’s easy to turn your mind off for a little while, to turn your body off.
But it’s not for me. I don’t want to be dependent on a machine. I want to be reliant on real people, on my own body, and my own mind. I want what’s real, even if it’s not easy or glamorous or action-packed. There’s a different sort of comfort in that. I don’t watch television because of the way it disconnects me from what is pure and simple and authentic.
I don’t want to be passive, ever. I want to be where I am, when I’m there. I want to be engaged, I want to listen, and I don’t want to run away from my own mind. And I’d like to live my life like that: with engagement, gratitude, authenticity, and happiness. My mom jokingly calls me a “little pilgrim,” or an ascetic, a puritan. But it’s not about self-righteousness. Because after a while, what I first promised myself became true. “Until I don’t want it anymore,” I had said. And I just don’t want it anymore. I haven’t for a while. It’s not about self-abnegation; it’s about doing what I love.
Shannon E. Keating '14
Ridgefield High School, Ridgefield, CT
I’m more comfortable curled up. Erect, I ache. Stretched out straight I’m obtrusive; unfolded, I am vulnerable, and open to the elements. With limbs whining for well-worked joints, I have a body meant to bend.
I like to think I’ve failed in completely acclimating to the world outside the womb. My ceaseless inclination to double up, clutch my knees to my chest – shrink — seems to me indicative of some subconscious prenatal nostalgia. Maybe I yearn for that kind of personalized closeness, that secure, wet warmth: a distinctly singular existence, compact and uncomplicated.
I have both scientific and spiritual fascinations with birth. That fascination translates into the way I look at bodies: interestedly, hypercritically, but with a platonic detachment. My easiest conclusions are sensibly drawn from the body at my constant disposal. And my favorite conclusions to draw are about how and why I bend.
The moment my raw pink arms and legs shook loose for the very first time, I had just been freshly excavated from a slapdash caesarean. Parting my amniotic-slicked lips, I screamed. For my first few weeks of sleepless existence, I screamed. My mother, overwhelmed, lugged me back to the place I was born. There, a doctor rearranged my small red appendages to fit together the way they had pre-birth. With a quick little gasp, a stretch and a yawn, my vocalized discomfort came to a close.
For seventeen years I have continued to indulge in those calmingly, repetitive motions. I accredit them to the same physician my mother owes many a night’s sleep. I take tests with my legs wedged haphazardly underneath me, read books in a complicated body knot on the couch. I sleep tucked in a neat little ball, secure between my sheets.
There are those bugs I loved to nudge as a kid, ever-curious, just to coax them into tight slate spheres. They and I may share a common natural tendency to curl away from the unpleasant, if in fact I’m not just recreating the safest place I’ve ever known. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
I am flesh, and I am bone. If I temporarily dislodge myself from my busy little life — my glorious, happy mess of a life – I am, for a moment, robbed of my neurotic obsessions, my books and my songs and my stories. But wipe me blank, tabula rasa, and I am also gently freed of my trivial day-to-day pains, which are rendered manageable, distant — even inconsequential altogether.
This is my secret. At night, if my bed fails to hold me close enough, I’ll draw a bath. The rising temperature whips stagnant air into steam that clears my thought-bogged mind. I strip down bare, a whole complex human encased in uneven, thirsty skin. And I immerse myself in thick hot water that boils a layer of my lifeless cells into warm oblivion. I am licked clean and new.
There, I am cradled and contained. There, I pull myself close, and can forget. I may as well be suspended in bodily fluid, an embryonic sac, surrounded on all sides by a silence that demands nothing of me quite yet. There I am the kind of alone that doesn’t encompass lonely, because I alone actually exist. The heat momentarily laps at my accumulated years, and I am ageless as eternity.
All we are is bodies.
Somehow, I was small once. Somehow, I’m not anymore. I was born in my own body, and then that body grew. The mind may forget, but this body of mine has instinct sunk deep in its bones. And those bones remember the way they lay all those years ago. As I grow – despite my keen sense of discovery, of wonder – some tiny part of me laments the new and the unknown. I’m comfortingly propelled, when the world gets too big, to make my own world very small.
I bend. Once, two cells turned into ever-dividing billions, and now I bend to bet the reversal of time’s tugs. Fingers curled, arms tucked in tight, cross-legged and spine curved. I am more comfortable curled up.