declutter.

Grace Hur illustrates the journey towards finding the hidden beauty of emptiness in her powerful and thought-provoking nonfiction piece, “declutter.”

200%.

It’s a steaming mid-July day. The moving company is supposed to arrive in a few hours, but we still haven’t packed all our belongings. The morning flies past as my sister and I scurry through the jumble while our parents work their way through every corner of the house. I cover the vintage dishes in bubble wrap while my twin tapes the boxes with please-don’t-throw signs. The moving truck arrives, and we skip lunch. I watch the frustration rise as the huffs of my parents and the puffs of the movers’ ring across the tiny house. Tension mounts as the clock ticks closer and closer to 6 pm, the time when the house needs to be entirely cleared and when we need to be out of the house. It’s 5 pm, and all the big furniture has moved to the new house. I circle around empty rooms I once labeled as my bedroom. It’s a strange feeling because the space is much more open but the air still feels tight. I am soothing my cat in the master bedroom when I hear my mom cry out from the backyard. I soon realize that we have less than twenty minutes left to clear the entire backyard, the shed, and the garage, which never came into our minds to clean before. We grab as much as we can and drag them into the house. We build a Pisa tower with cans of paint, rolls of paper half-gnawed by rats, and branches once transformed into magic wands in sixth grade. While we stuff them into the remaining plastic bags, I feel adrenaline rush through my veins as I give quick glances at my watch. It’s 5:55, and the front door swings open. It’s the new owners of the house. They’re early, and they look mad that we aren’t out of the house yet. By 5:58, one of them, a man, throws a tantrum, yelling in a language I do not recognize, while kicking our boxes almost out the door. At 6:00, we are out of the house, but the boxes of junk are still sitting on the driveway. I feel I am in the center of attention as the man and my mom continue to shout, each in their world of defense. But all I feel is the shame upon the tower of junk we drag out of the house in front of the entire neighborhood. It is at that moment that I feel the rich flavor of humiliation.

 

For my whole life, I have lived in absolute disarray, in ways both physical and psychological. However long I live in a particular house, it is only a matter of a few weeks when cleaning becomes the mission of Hercules scrubbing the Augean stables. Laundry stretches across beds, plastic bags cover kitchen floors, uneaten food occupies the fridge, and impossibility settles upon the carpeted closets to be vacuumed inside. I am Atlas crushed by the weight of possessions. It’s not that I am entirely underprivileged, but luck always finds a way to slip by me, mockingly brushing past my life. Family matters get worse and worse until arguments become a weekend ritual. While financial problems and conflicts build-up, self-confidence plummets. No matter how many times I make wishes while blowing candle after candle on birthdays, nothing changes. Life has become a continuous cycle of clutter. Time chases me down, while clicking submit buttons at 11:59pm’s, rushing back and forth to meetings and pointless destinations, to-do lists are now a Sisyphean struggle. I am a maximalist.

 

180%.

Quarantine is helping me change that. I catch onto the Gen Z trend of reorganizing bedrooms to fight off boredom. At the same time, my mom introduces me to the world of “minimalism,” and with it comes a series of nagging to clean my room. And so it begins. A journey towards emptiness. 

I embark on a 1000 item challenge. First, the decade-old desk hutches, then the roll of flyers picked up from volunteering, booklets from university fairs, artworks from kindergarten, and dried-out pens leave the house one after another. Shelves and drawers are emptied until I can finally clear the dust off them. For weeks, I move from room to room, peeking into every furniture, poking at every binder, bag, and box, wondering what I can get rid of. It is in these moments that I feel a surge of triumph rushing through. I partake in a game of no wins, competing against my maximal self. Instead of searching for gold coins and treasure chests, I search for trash. As I progress further, I no longer spend time looking for things and where I’ve left them. Frantic runs to the lost-and-found during after-school hours, and passing of missing water bottle sketches are reduced to a minimum. By getting rid of things, I find more value in everything I possess.

 

170%.

A warning pops up, ‘Are you sure you want to remove them?’

“Yes.”

Remove. Remove. Remove. 

Satisfaction bubbles up as my fingers work their way through the phone, removing every

app I haven’t used in the past month. I’m getting better at this thing, this endeavor of

emptying.

Unsubscribe. Unsubscribe. Unsubscribe.

I feel less chaos in my inbox. I set a time limit for notifications.

Delete. Delete. De-

My fingers pause mid-air. I zoom into the picture, and I see my mom laughing, from three years ago. A rare picture of her. I find myself smiling until my mouth becomes a counterpart of my mom’s. I decide to keep the valuable ones.

 

140%.

I am determined to dive deeper into minimalism. I wish to leave behind as little waste as possible. However, it’s not an easy choice for a maximalist, and I realize that it must be a task of joined forces, involving the entire family. While I give up my unconditional obsession with cute stationeries, mom makes wipes out of old cloth. Dad makes trivets out of leftover wood while my sister ceases to order food. Checkouts at groceries become a polite series of no thank-you’s to plastic bags. When we decide to abandon the use of shampoo, I begin to wonder if minimalism has brought me a lifestyle backward in time. I feel like I’m fighting the currents of modern society. But it feels good. Good to be doing good for the earth.

 

110%.

I watch my possessions, leaving me one by one. Some move on for the better. Unused craft supplies, almost-new clothes, and childhood books are donated. My heart drums the loudest when they get sent to people in need, to people who have recently settled into the country. In the face of the current pandemic, I see a pattern of selfishness among people, stocking up their unnecessary needs, driven by public psychology. And I want to advise them, declutter.

 

100%.

I sit in front of the windows of the master bedroom, watching the late afternoon sunlight flooding in. Instead of squeezing in through furniture and possessions, light fills the entirety of the room, where my cat bathes. It’s my favorite time, the romantic period of the day, and a newly acquired luxury. I realize that home has become a space containing meaning. Time runs at a slower pace these days. In truth, I am nowhere close to the end, nowhere close to being a minimalist. But more than ever, I find myself living the moment. I tend to see the big picture more often. I no longer try to pursue perfection but, instead, find satisfaction within my weaknesses unique to myself.

 

There is beauty in being decluttered, beauty in emptiness, beauty in finding the internal beauty. Most importantly, I feel so light. It’s still the same old life, even plainer than ever, but I see it in a new light. I now wish to live a life where I fill the emptiness with “me.”

 

Grace Hur is currently a junior attending Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School. She loves to voice herself through many mediums, her favorite being Instagram. She calls herself a passionate writer and a student leader but in truth, she’s just a typical teenage girl with a terrible sense of direction.

Roots

In her poem, “Roots”, Katherine Mallory uses poignant imagery to explore the family dynamics and personal history.

i.

uncle used to climb mountains.

he was a lion: the king who emerged

from unnatural mountains composed

only of gunpowder and the orders

of one man against another.

his skin is a map composed of ghosts

and places and ancient stories-

it is older with this knowledge,

but the strong golden of his hands

still holds remnants of the old summer’s striking sun.

ii.

grandmother was a pearl right out of the sea

when she stepped onto the land of the free.

grandmother sowed the seeds of the most beautiful

flowers. she planted them in crevices where light

was a stranger; she wove them in her hair.

i carry grandmother’s flowers, i keep the seeds in my heart.

i know she watches me by the sea where she stepped.

iii.

my father runs through smoke. through the dusk

he dodges ghosts and the cruel tongue of fire-

and leaves; a hero to the glass children and their mother.

father made castles out of autumn leaves and music out

of thunder.

father finds light in the dark: he chases the sun as

he carries me on his strong back.

i feel him as he holds his kind hands out- i

think of father’s golden heart.

he echoes grandmother. they both plant flowers

in the core of dark soil; a new beginning.

iv.

the canyon that is my skeleton,

the pang of my copper heart

preserved against the tough rock of my rib.

it is a song for them.

Katherine loves to write because it serves as both entertainment and a learning outlet for her. She currently serves as the editor of her school’s newspaper and literary magazine. Katherine’s writing focuses on her family, her favorite places, and anything else she finds interesting. Her favorite form of storytelling is poetry because she loves to experiment with all of its different styles. When she’s not writing, Katherine is either watercolor painting or reading a good book.

Piano Player Fingers

In “Piano Player Fingers”, Yong-Yu Huang evocatively captures the dynamics of sibling and family relationships.

My mother said that Janet had piano player fingers: each segment arcing into the next, flexing in unison because that is how the human body is supposed to work. But the first thing I remember about Janet’s fingers is how she stuck them too close to my face and I, a teething toddler, promptly chomped down on them. A baby’s gums does nothing but coat everything in the slime of innocence, but she hollered for Mom anyway.

 

Janet gave up piano when she hit seventh grade because basketball was all the rage. Mom dragged me to all her games where my feet dangled as I saw on the bleachers. And when the people stepping over us to find seats stepped on my white sneakers, she would console me with those lemon drops she always kept in her purse when I knew that Janet liked basketball—she’d come home at seven from after-school practices, sweaty and beaming and starving—but I wondered if she started dribbling because she was sick of etudes and sonatinas, or if it was because she liked the way the ball arced into the hoop, a motion as natural as the way her fingers used to dance over the ivories.

 

The summer before Janet’s freshman year, we moved and sold the piano. My mom cried when she sold the piano; Janet cried when she said goodbye to her friends. And I sat, squashed in the backseat between Janet and her basketball shoes, glad that we were moving. I was sick of spending Saturday afternoons at the court with her.  In reality, I had nothing better to do. Janet had been going to sleepovers since she was five, while I had made a grand total of five friends in the twelve years that I had been alive. Some tangled organ inside of me sang that if we were moving, it meant that Janet wouldn’t have any friends either and so maybe, just maybe, she’d be my friend.

 

Seventh grade premonitions don’t come true. I learned that the day Janet strutted into high school and made it onto the varsity cheerleading squad freshman year. She dyed the ends of her hair platinum blonde and swiped mascara over her eyelashes as soon as Mom left the house in the mornings, sliding me the piece of toast with the most peanut butter as a peace offering. Or a bribe.

 

The high school didn’t play basketball or soccer or volleyball—they played lacrosse and waved pom poms at football games. Janet shot right up there on the social ladder, skipping rungs and accepting hands that boosted her up. Mom made me go with her to Janet’s first cheerleading performance. A couple of my new friends had sisters on the squad as well, so I sat with them, starry-eyed over the football players and watching as the cheerleaders flipped and danced and contorted themselves in perfect coordination: a red and white being of undulating limbs and high ponytails, high off of the attention fixated upon them.

 

That was the first and last time Mom saw Janet execute a perfect backflip: arcing through the stuffy gym air and landing, shoes squeaking against the varnished wood, without a wobble. Over sweet and sour chicken that night, she told Janet that she had found out that a retired concert pianist lived two blocks away and that he was willing to give lessons and let her practice on his piano.

 

“Such a waste of your lovely fingers—they’re so talented! And all those flips and tricks—what if you injure your fingers?”

 

I smirked. All of Janet’s friends were on the cheerleading squad, and if Mom made her quit, she wouldn’t even have time to kiss that football player she liked goodbye. The ladder would be wrenched out from right under her, and she’d hurtle down back into the masses and would no longer be perfect Janet.

 

I saw Janet’s nails dig into her palms under the table. She went to bed early that night, but our new house had thin walls, and I could hear the whisper of the pom poms as they cut through the air, over and over again.

 

But the next week, she came home from school, having traded her pom poms for a deck of cards.

 

“They’re vintage,” she told Mom when she huffed in disapproval at her eldest shuffling yellowing cards over the table,“like all those plates you like so much.”

 

I found out from my friend Bethany, whose brother was dating one of Janet’s cheerleader friends, that Janet was now playing poker at lunch and making a killing. When I came home from school, I’d find cards dancing as she made them vanish with a flick of her fingers and reappear in her other hand.

 

Perfect arcs, still, and I envied her ability to make things flow just right. The diamonds soared through the air and landed in her other hand in a rapid burst of plastic-coated paper slapping each other, as if pulled by some invisible string. I wished that I could do that.

 

She offered to teach me how to shuffle one Friday afternoon before her weekly piano lesson, but I was going to the movies with Andrew. He had shyly asked me out on Wednesday, during those last few precious moments of lunch. I left her offer untouched and instead asked can you lend me lip gloss.

 

She put down her cards, the queen of hearts on top, looking at me solemnly, and led me upstairs where she rummaged through the back of her closet and gave me four different tubes of lip gloss to choose from. She covered their labels and named them for me: “tastes like raspberries, will get you into trouble at school, makes you look kissable and the one mom doesn’t mind.” I grabbed “makes you look kissable” but nothing happened in the dark cinema except for a lot of crying scenes. That was my last date with Andrew.

 

Mom still thought that Janet was set on the trajectory towards Carnegie Hall.

 

When she asked me for a favor, I couldn’t say no. I wanted to be the magnanimous sibling who helped their crying sister. The one who would climb into my window at three in the morning, mascara running and a deck of cards, creased and stained, sticking out of the pocket of her ripped jeans. I wanted that moral superiority to dangle over her stupid French-braided head. She asked me for money, and I handed it to her wordlessly. All one hundred and twenty dollars of my babysitting money for the family next door who always wanted me to come over and be such a good influence on little Izzy. Janet’s hand stayed outstretched, as if she expected more, but the moment that I opened my mouth to tell her that the wad of tens and twenties was it, she yanked me into a hug.

 

She smelled like cigarette smoke and the girls’ locker room and cheap deodorant, so I held my breath until she let go of me and whispered in my ear. 

 

“You’re the best sister. Thank you so much, I swear I’ll pay you back. Please don’t tell Mom, thank you so much, good luck with your algebra test tomorrow.” 

 

She said that like a prayer. The mantra followed her to the window.

 

Downstairs the next morning, I was greeted by my mother and a police officer who tipped his hat at me politely but I did not see him—I only saw my mother’s red-rimmed eyes and raspberry nose and the papers in front of her. I did not see Janet anywhere near.

 

“Did you know anything about this?” Mom’s voice was switchblade soft, and I wasn’t fooled by her splotchy face anymore.

  

She jabbed a blood-red finger onto the top document, and I leaned in and saw a mugshot with my sister’s eyes wide and not entirely focused and looking so young—nothing like the piano player, three-point shooter, card trickster that dwelled in the pictures on the mantelpiece. 

 

“She asked us to contact you, miss, but as part of our policy we don’t contact minors. We called your mother when we picked her and some other teens up for illegal gambling. Turns out she was running quite a prolific business and was getting involved with some local gangs.” 

 

Something heavy and sticky began bubbling up in my stomach, and for a second, I thought it might be the “makes you look kissable” lip gloss, but I knew it wasn’t that when I turned to my mother and said “piano player fingers, huh.”

 

Yong-Yu is a Taiwanese teenager who has lived in Malaysia for all her life. Her current favorite self-descriptive adjective is “culturally-confused.” She had been previously published in The Heritage Review and the bitter fruit review. In her spare time, she can be found binging Doctor Who, playing the flute, or lazing around the house.

Art by: Tao Tiva

Two Poems by Nathan Lee

In these two poems by Nathan Lee, visceral and natural imagery is employed to create an authentic picture of teenage life.

the king’s road

i don’t want this poem
to ache. i want to think

about that dusk as tenderness
instead of something with       teeth.

let me just tell you
about the asphalt, the white sycamores,
the silver car engines singing a river of light.

i was standing on the sidewalk,
breath dripping onto the dark earth, thinking

about the red scrapes of road burn
on tanned thighs.       how a car crash

ing into a boy will
smash his head and
snap       his spine into match

sticks, maple leaves, so many scars like
tire tracks smeared on concrete.

but
there was the cool evening breeze

and someone’s golden lab, his limbs joyfully askew,
is chasing his ratty tennis ball near the edge

of the road. that’s
this road going nowhere,

this road leading my body home, this road shattering
into a tunnel with a prism of color       at the end.

ignore
the bitter taste of       gasoline. i’ll tell you instead

how summer lingered in the air thick

enough to bite.

how through
the slender green pines across the street

i watched the sun paint
a watercolor goodnight.

Worm Moon

Imagine this: the stars
in your rearview mirror
are closer than they appear.
In the spring dusk,
the ripe apricot moon
kisses the asphalt.

Those stars, that moon,
the same bright fires
that lit up the night
when we tore ourselves
from the water of history. Now,

nothing is real but
the wind in your lungs
from the open windows,
the lilac freeway speeding by.

You grasp your breath in your palms
as it hums a holy melody;
your heart a bass beat
through the radio. Tell me again

how memories are anything
but half-remembered stories;
how love is the opposite of forgetting.

And oh, to be hand-in-hand and balancing
on the tender edge of desire.

Tonight, you sit in your car and let
the songs you loved back in middle school
blast out the open windows.

Tell me how you can still sing along.

Nathan Lee is an emerging transgender poet. He is currently a high school senior at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California. His work is forthcoming in Polyphony Lit and Lambda Literary’s collection Writing Out of the Closet and has been published in Celebrate Creativity, a local anthology.

Visual Art by: Johnson Anthony

Parallax Fiction and Poetry Scholarship Contest

Win a $25,000 scholarship to attend Idyllwild Arts Academy as a Creative Writing major, and possible publication in Parallax Online!

Win a $25,000 scholarship to attend Idyllwild Arts Academy as a Creative Writer, and possible publication in Parallax Online!
Submit a story or poems by October 10, 2020 to be considered.
Click here for more details.

Two Poems by Vera Caldwell

In “Diagrams of Knots” and “Evening With West Texas and Alzheimer’s”, Vera Caldwell’s experiments with form to create deeply meaningful aspects to poetry.

Diagrams of Knots

                                                                          My eyes are lopsided like used tea bags

                                                      and my fingernails are picked into grey, upturned crescents

                                           by the time the sun has set.

                                   I reach into my deep blue sheets to find:

                          what-ifs like diagrams of knots,

                    abandoned requests for wisdom I don’t have,

              acres of misspoken wit,

          an elaborately constructed fantasy

      in which things are infinitely vibrant

   seem warped as if through a reflection

  in a mall fountain—I am haunted.

 In the light of this paraphernalia,

 I cannot sufficiently engage

 in anything of use.

   I recline in the yellow lamplight

     like a tiger head rug,

       conscious that my mouth hangs open,

           issuing myself correctives

                 that turn over every minute like paperwork

                        boring my eyes into the pictures on the walls

                               as if I could find some respite in them

                                        and hazily marveling

                                              at how I’ve ever been able to handle

                                                                                               the morning.

 

Evening With West Texas and Alzheimer’s

 

Oma stirs her melted ice cream,

spills a little on her plastic placemat:

 

Daddy, Lolly, and I got these bowls in Alpine at a tiny store just down the road from our house, during a stormy afternoon, when the sky had turned purple and the trees were trembling. We’d just taken the Thunderbird for a drive around the mountain and we wanted to do something special. Daddy saw these bowls and loved the blue enamel. I put the bag between my feet for the drive home, as the rain was starting, and they began to shine in such a beautiful way, with many different colors, that at first I worried the enamel was made of some sort of poison. I’ve never seen them shine like that again. Daddy said the altitude was so high and the atmosphere so thin that we got more radiation from the sun than other places, that it must have touched the bowls somehow that day.

 

with shaky hands she picks up the blue bowl from Costco

puts it by the sink

and disappears out the front door

to sweep the driveway for the fourth time that day

a few minutes later, we see her looking up at the dark sky

broom forgotten loosely hanging from her hand

her figure now smaller and shrouded by trees

 

Vera Caldwell is a sophomore at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. As well as writing, she plays guitar and composes songs in her band, Nobody’s Daughter. Some of her favorite writers include Mikhail Bulgakov, Stanislaw Lem, Patti Smith, Ocean Vuong, and Fleur Jaeggy.

Art by Sherry Huang

Composition of Columbus

In her poem, “Composition of Columbus,” Sarah Nachimson creates a sinister quiet presence in small town life, while developing an intense sense of nostalgia and yearning.

A.
This is a beginning
under the oak trees

where midwestern
boys burned their throats

with their father’s liquor
bottles. Girls came to

kiss at night, leaving cigarette burns
to scatter the ashes of their innocence.

This is a beginning in the quiet town
where we know real architecture

and real sounds of bullets. Both arch
over our heads and we embrace

these strange halos.

B.
This is a resolution
that we’ll leave the soil

where southern twang top
sour songs like syrup.

where everyone knows how to
strum a guitar,

and every girl sings Dolly Parton
for the elementary pageant.

This is a resolution
that we’ll fly to great cities

where skyscrapers make
us feel minuscule.

Magnificent things will seep into our minds,
all the urban ideas and emotions.

A.
This is a return
to the town where she never

thought she belonged. But
mother’s hand grew feeble,

fingers like brittle bird bones.
Father drove off into the

southern night years ago,
gone when the midnight ink

drenched his silverado.

Sarah Nachimson is an emerging writer with only a small scattering of published pieces. She hails from sunny California and is currently a sophomore at Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls School. She is a reader for Polyphony H.S. and an editor for Siblini Journal. Her writing has been recognized by numerous organizations, including Scholastic, and published in the Los Angeles Times and New York Jewish Week, among other places.

Visual Art by Audrey Carver.

Deaf Republic: A Step Beyond Protest

Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky, follows the story of a war-ravaged town, where after the tragic shooting of a deaf boy by a soldier in the street, deafness becomes a form of protest.

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky: ISBN-10: 1555978312. Price: $11.00. Published March 5, 2019.

Ilya Kaminsky´s Deaf Republic is a brilliantly-crafted book of narrative poetry that moves through a sad and deeply thought-provoking plotline, inspired by Kaminsky’s own experiences in Russia as a child. It follows the story of people in a fictional town using deafness as a form of protest against violence and war, after a soldier kills a deaf boy in the street.

The depictions of violence and love throughout are eerily and astonishingly beautiful. Kaminsky creates a terrifyingly dreary and oppressed feeling throughout the book, while also highlighting the beautiful relationships and hope the townspeople continue to have despite the violence and oppression they are surrounded by.

As the poems go on and the story progresses, the townspeople who do not give up their protests are taken away one by one if they show signs of deafness. Despite this, protests continue in a silent fashion, while the responses of the soldiers grow more and more violent and intense.

The poems themselves are experimental. For example, “Dramatis Personae” is an early poem in the book designed to introduce characters in the collection. Kaminsky is also unafraid to say what he means, sometimes very intensely such as in the poem “As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy’s Face with a Newspaper.” One of the lines within this poem is “We see in Sonya’s open mouth / the nakedness / of a whole nation.” The poems progress the overall story, and while in general the story is quite heavy and sad at times, each poem also adds a surprising and delightful level of dark humour, shocking language and profound descriptions of the violence.

Deaf Republic does not fall into the tropes of what is popular in poetry right now, which is mostly geared towards younger readers and is generally humorous, or give an air of shallow meaning masquerading as powerful. Instead Kaminsky goes for something different, using humour in an intelligent and meaningful way, and using illustrations subtly. Deaf Republic explores traumatic topics and heavy storylines beautifully rather than making the reader feel bombarded by violence. One thing that Kaminsky does well here which is important is including love in a story about war. War often tests our ability to maintain love, positive feelings and peace within ourselves and our homes while we’re experiencing violence outside of them. One of the most important things to remember in times of war and violence is to keep a sense of love or joy in some way. Kaminsky highlights this importance through the relationship described in his book, and the townspeople in general.

Kaminsky, who is hard of hearing due to a misdiagnosis of mumps at an early age, incorporates sign language in conjunction with deafness and protest, through simple and beautiful illustrations of sign language throughout the book. These drawings add to the poems without the poems becoming reliant on them.Overall, Kaminsky provides readers with a beautiful experience with Deaf Republic. The themes and plot can, at times, be related to current issues, and the book does an amazing job of bringing hope out of a traumatic situation. We could all learn a lot from the townspeople of Deaf Republic who put their lives on the line in the name of hope and love, and who refuse to give in to oppression.

Not Your Numbers

Sara Jhong warns against the use of standardized test results and other “numbers” as a way of measuring students’ success in “Not Your Numbers.”

I was five when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but when you’re born into a first-generation Korean-American family, even at five, you learn to hold your tongue about your ambitions. Instead, I confided in my grandfather—curled around him in his library, I told him what I was afraid to tell my own parents. He looked at me sympathetically as if he knew there would be so much that I’d have to endure to even have a chance at writing, and whispered, “There needs to be someone in this family who is in love with what they do.” I wrapped my arms around him; I think I cried.

I’m sure somewhere throughout my academic career I convinced myself that my writing was inconsequentially a part of who I was. Somewhere along my timeline were moments that led up to it: my third grade teacher putting “incredible!” at the top of all my writing, the speech I wrote in sixth grade that my teacher called “irrefutably beautiful” before I even knew what ‘irrefutably’ meant, the essay contest I won at the beginning of my junior year of high-school. I’m sure five-year-old me unknowingly learned to tie the voice in my writing to who I was. I’m sure I expected to grow into my identity as a writer like toddlers expect to grow into their parents’ clothes when they play dress up, even when they’re so small that the sleeves hang off their arms and trail on the ground behind them.

But on my seventeenth birthday, I lost my first writing competition—a mandated essay given by my school’s junior year English teachers. It was only then that I became solemnly convinced by the itchy feeling of lost ambition that the dream that I intended to grow up into didn’t fit me right around the shoulders and didn’t hug me in all the right places and left me a forgone version of myself. I wasn’t upset because I lost, as I explained to my English teacher shortly after, I was upset because I seemed to have deceived myself for years that this dream that I held so close to my heart was not mine to hold. I was upset because I felt as though a piece of me died: the only piece of me that I loved unconditionally.

Naturally, most people responded to my unsettlement by insisting that this one loss was not a reflection of who I was as a writer: it didn’t invalidate my writing or my love for my craft. Instead, to everyone else, it was just what it seemed to be—a loss. Friends and family couldn’t
comprehend why I was so upset, and truthfully, neither could I. It was only after taking a step back from the situation that I realized that the root of why I was so torn up was because somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that my writing was directly correlated to my worth. So if my writing wasn’t enough, I wasn’t either.

Suddenly, as I walked the halls of my academically competitive high-school, I realized that students from all across the board tied their worth to marks on papers and numbers on scantrons. In the same way that I believed my writing had a direct correlation to my worth, my peers held the same mentality about the numbers on their transcripts. And so did I. I became overtly cognizant of how unhealthy and unstable that attitude could be, but I could not abandon it. Even as I talked to peers throughout many different grade levels, they remarked that they felt the same way, but there was nothing they could do to change it. Having your worth determined by numbers and letters seemed to be a frightening standardization that most students are all too willing to accept as the general norm. As public school education becomes more competitive in the coming years, it will only get worse.

When I entered high-school, my ambition for writing was still there, so I’m confident that age didn’t distort my vision at all. Instead what I’ve come to realize throughout my years of public education is that the moment I began losing faith in that dream was when I started to see myself as a reflection of my grades rather than my passion: two-dimensional numbers on transcripts. The grade at the top of my in-class essay was more important than the writing that went into it—somehow the words on the page seemed to matter less than the single letter at the top of my paper. Who I was as a writer and a student became determined by people who only knew me for forty minutes a day, five days a week, and I let their impression of me and my work become a direct reflection of who I was. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I began hating what I saw in the mirror. It’s no wonder that so many students feel the same way.

School administrators nationwide tell students that their grades do not define them and that they’re more than the letters written on their transcripts. But they also recognize them as seven-digit student IDs and judge them by what can be valued on paper. Even the most well-rounded students get processed through the mass machine of public education and come out the other side two-dimensional. We insist that a set of numbers doesn’t define our children—we’re wrong.

Adam Grant, the author of “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” remarks that grades have little correlation with “creativity… and teamwork skills,” yet students still equate their worth to them, “[creating] an academic arms race,… [where]… students… strive for meaningless perfection.” The root of this problem has nothing to do with misconception—students are, for the most part, overwhelmingly aware of the fact that, in the long run, their SAT and AP exam scores won’t matter. The genuine issue is that it isn’t enough that in the long run, they won’t matter, because in their current state in their existing classrooms, they view their worth as directly correlated by those types of exams. The now is more critical, more consuming than the long-term consequences. Grant even illustrates the concept that in the workforce, more successful people are actually the students with lower GPAs and exam scores, and their high-scoring counterparts usually cannot find the strength within themselves to excel in real-world scenarios. We raise our children through a public education system that has almost no correlation between working in their schools and working in the real world. However, even if students know all this, and I’m afraid most of them do, they are still compelled by the notion to aim for the unobtainable. Because it’s not just their grades on the line, it’s their self-worth too.

Ideally, students would earn grades reflective of the time and effort they put in, but in reality, students who employ lucky guesswork on multiple choice exams are essentially equal to the students who know how to do the accurate work to complete problems. Because there’s no difference between these types of answers or students, students see their efforts as meaningless, or worse, fruitless, convinced they aren’t doing enough if they don’t have grades to show for it. Schools put awarding work ethic, and effort in the backseat behind the actual grades students earn, encouraging them to believe that how hard they work isn’t what matters—at the end of the day, it’s all about the number.

Stanford columnist Annie Jia references psychologist Madeline Levine’s quote that when students “‘feel… they’re only as good as their last performance, [they develop]… the inability to construct an internal sense of self.’” When you base your self-perception on your own and other people’s merits, you’re disappointed continuously, ceding to the same malicious mindset of many students. While academic competition is healthy and constructive for most school environments, the same competition can become debilitating and destructive for students if they don’t understand that their grades are not a determinant factor of their worth. The institution of this mass mentality leads kids to believe that if their grades aren’t as good as their peers, neither are they. Numbers only define this spectrum of self-worth; it doesn’t take into consideration students’ moral standing, personality, work ethic, or character.

When you don’t know the boy in your physics class, but know he has a C; when you’ve never spoken to that girl in history class, but you know her last quiz grade, understand that it’s easy to hang a number over someone’s head to measure their worth; it’s hard to look at people as more than that. Students do it all over the nation, and if we raise a generation so number-obsessed, aren’t we raising a generation that will never be satisfied with their worth or their accomplishments. Aren’t we raising children who invariably go through a cycle of believing that they are not good enough if they don’t have the numbers to show for it? Changing how you see people doesn’t require changing the world—it requires changing yours. Though schools determine students’ merit by grades earned and classes taken, I remind myself that students must be more than that. Because in the end, students aren’t two-dimensional reflections of a number, a letter, or a transcript, but products of passion, ambition, and heart: things that cannot be measured on paper.

Sara Jhong is a high school junior at Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York. She has won awards from previous writing competitions in the past and greatly enjoys the Parallax Journal.

Displacement by Sumin Seo

Om mani padme hum

Gabriel T. Clément explores modern Buddhism and its interactions with society, in Om mani padme hum.

What would Buddha be like if he were roaming the soil today?
Would he still wander India?
Or leave due to atrocious air quality and mass population?
These are things Siddhārtha never had to put up with

Would he still believe in putting up with everything?

The world is much too cynical, and we’d designate him as a cult leader
Or if he’s lucky, a trendsetter
Marketplace Buddhism seems to have consumed the West
At least the East remains pretty pious and punctilious
The West has just managed to pervert our daily meditation between Sunday brunch and our afternoon run
What would Buddha think of T.S. Eliot’s, Allen Ginsberg’s, and others’ flirtations with his doctrines?
Subverting them to their gyration and needs for transgression
(Though some engage with honesty)
America has seemed to distort Buddhism into chic leisure
If Siddhārtha was from America, he could’ve shown L. Ron Hubbard how to get the people clear without an E-meter
Buddhism could’ve been fantastic for capitalists if it was American
Would Buddha indeed remain so abstinent with all this hegemonic global marketing for intemperate gluttony?
A little leniency would’ve been helpful since there was no way he could have predicted what was to come
Would he have preferred the religious miscellany of Taiwan where temples amalgamate various beliefs, counting his developments?
Or favored the autonomous institutions of the West?

He’d have the intellect to discern the perpetual profit of unification

In our unified globalist world would he find bona fide social union?
Or technological excuses for minimal concrete interaction?
The traditional Buddhist wouldn’t bother with the strange portable hypnotic machine
But there’s the possibility that Buddha would shiver at the notion of it being away from him
Maybe we could’ve received texts of sutras personally from Gautama
His works on simplicity would align with Apple’s philosophy quite well
What would the political Buddha look like?
Would he lean left or right?
Or would he find it all to be in vain?
What would he have to say to the people of Myanmar who commit atrocities in his name?
What would he have to say to the tension-fueled relationship between the two Chinas?
Or about American carpet-bombing in the Middle East?
Would he find the will to keep on instructing in his ways?
The meditation to stay mindful in these mindless times
Or would he find it all hopeless
And see nothing human left
All that was left was humanity’s struggle to survive
And billions of zombies craving blue light and higher reception
Recording instead of listening to the monks in Taipei chanting the last of the meaningful matter

II

I’ve been set free
I’ve accepted the truth of suffering, and thus I’m free
I’ve rolled up to Buddha’s crib, and I’ve come out free
I’m unchained from the dead and the living
Free of the light and the dark
I’m free of linguistic oppression, and I now enumerate the beatitudes in Sanskrit
and chant mantras in Latin
I’ve fled to Taiwan only to find America
I’ve been working on a fifth noble truth; corporations
I’ve been lobbying Congress to send out presidential alerts for any metaphysical trembling
I’m set free of association, and I now use rosaries to recite the buddhavacana
I’ve never had so much spiritual rebellion and defiance
The rounds of suffering have left us tired and imprisoned to some fate
We’re only safe in the world we create

III

If you listen real close, you can hear the om
Just put your ear to the speakers of the universe, and it’ll resonate through you
The banging of the unseen echoing drum
The beat that we always go to
You don’t need to buy it on iTunes for $0.99
You don’t need to stream it either
Just listen to the flexing air void of suspense
And reach a little deeper

Gabriel T. Clément is a junior at Jersey City’s Saint Peter’s Preparatory. He was born in Montréal, Québec, and lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. His influences are mainly those from a Québécois background (Leonard Cohen, Émile Nelligan, Irving Layton) and others like Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot, and Eliot Katz.

Visual Art by Sarah Little.