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

Grow a House

Jieyan Wang explores themes of childhood poverty in her short fiction piece, “Grow a House.”

Part I

Before my sister started smoking cigarettes, she loved to visit the old, abandoned treehouse in our neighborhood. Often times, she took me along with her to the treehouse, which perched on its thick-leaved oak tree like an ailing raven. Sometimes, she did her homework in the treehouse, but most of the time she gazed out the window, staring longingly at the grassy hills in the distance.

During one of these viewings, a wind swept up, lifting the red and gold autumn leaves from a ground. My sister’s eyes fixed on something in the air, and she leaned over the windowsill with an outstretched arm.

When she leaned so far that it looked like she might fall, I called out to her, “Vivi!” However, she didn’t fall. Her hand closed around something. Backing away from them window, she stared at the object in her palm. I stepped behind her and peeked over her shoulder. It was a scarlet and pearl-colored feather, unlike any bird feather that I had seen. Wordlessly, Vivi slipped the feather into her pocket. She took my hand, and we walked back to our house. All the way home, she stayed silent, so I didn’t say anything.

Part II

Later, Vivi explained to me that the feather was a good luck charm. She carried it with her wherever she went, tucking it in her pocket or her backpack. It was around this time that she began to believe that everything could grow on trees. One time, she plucked the seeds from an orange and buried them in our front yard.

“What are you doing, Vivi?” I asked.

“Growing a house,” She nodded toward our cracked-wood home barely big enough to fit us.

I gave her a confused look.

She explained, “We’ll grow them until they’re big enough. Then we’ll live in them.”

“But oranges can’t grow that big.”

“They will if we take care of them.”

The orange tree grew and gave us juicy fruit every summer. Every year, Vivi picked the oranges, tucking her scarlet-and-pearl feather in the basket. However, each time, she was disappointed that the oranges weren’t big enough. Even when she was fourteen, she still clung to the idea of growing oranges into houses.

When she was fifteen, she came home with the basket of fruit and ate them expressionlessly.

“You’re not upset?” I asked.

“Why would I be upset?”

“The oranges still aren’t big enough.”

“For what?”

“The house.”

She stared at me for a second before saying, “Oh, that house. I was stupid. Don’t know why I ever believed it.”

Then she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket and lit it.

Part III

Neither my parents nor I could figure out what happened to Vivi. First, she snapped at Mom for asking her to clean the dishes. Then, she stormed out of the house and returned three days later. Finally, she smoked a cigarette in our backyard.

Mom and Dad tried to take the cigarettes away, but Vivi walked out of the house and threatened to disappear into the city streets. I told her that she wouldn’t, that she wasn’t that stupid, but the crazed looked in her eyes made me unsure.

Eventually, Vivi stopped attending school, and anyone who tried to convince her to go back to school would suffer her wrath. On the day Vivi would have graduated from high school, she drove us both in her dirt-crusted car to the grocery store, swaddling herself in a too-big gray jacket.

When we walked out, carrying bags of bananas, oranges, jerky, and bread, I said, “The car’s this way—”

“We’re going over there,” she said. I knew that she was going to take a smoke. Though Vivi was eighteen, she still looked sixteen, and she hated the “you’re too young” looks casted at her when she smoked.

We stopped in an alley and she lit her cigarette. I stood quietly, breathing in the smoke.

“So, there’s no climbing out of this rat hole,” she said.

“What?”

“Stupid I was, believing that I would be able to get out. I woke up long ago. There is no climbing out. Broke people are destined to have broke lives. Our fault is that we are born to moms and dads who barely make enough to feed us.”

“Vivi?”

She turned and looked at me.

“I don’t think that’s right,” I said.

She crouched down so that our faces were level, “I was once like you, so hopeful. Do you know what made me indulge in such lies?”

“No,” I answered quietly.

“Do you remember that feather I used to put in the orange basket? The one that I caught in the treehouse?”

I nodded.

“Well, it had the colors no bird had. I thought it must’ve been a gift from the heavens, or something watching over us. It was such a bright color that I was sure that it was a sign that we would make it out.”

Vivi paused, her breathing shaky. Then continued, “All those years, I carried it with me, slipping it into the orange basket. Then, one day, I dropped the basket into a puddle of water, and you know what happened?”

I shook my head.

“The color leeched right out of that thing. It was just a plain dove’s feather colored with dye, probably fallen off from someone’s old feather duster.”

She laughed humorlessly, “I should’ve figured it out long before. The oranges would never grow bigger than the ones at the store. What a fool of a child I was.”

With one hand, she reached into a grocery bag and threw an orange at the wall in front of her, juice splattering in her face, her laugh echoing down the alley. My heart pounded. I didn’t know what she would do next. My only thought was I didn’t want to find out. So, I ran and used some loose change to ride a bus home.

I’m still ashamed of how I acted.

Part IV

Soon after high school, I headed to college. Now, I am a journalist at a national newspaper.

After that day in the alley, I set out to prove Vivi wrong. It couldn’t be true that I was destined to have a broken life. I took jobs at restaurants to save up for college, applied for scholarships and studied for exams every free moment I had. There were times when I was screaming that I wouldn’t make it.

I’ve seen Vivi only once since I left her in the alley. Neither our parents nor I know where she lives. Somedays, I wonder if it would’ve been different if I hadn’t run from her. Maybe she would’ve felt more welcome. Maybe she wouldn’t.

The one time I saw Vivi was last week, when I was visiting our hometown. She came to our parents’ house for some food, dressed in patched up pants and shirt. We sat on the lawn, staring at the now-towering orange tree, while she smoked a cigarette.

After a long stretch of silence, I said, “Remember when you wanted to grow those oranges into houses?”

She held still for a moment, then nodded.

“Well, they still aren’t big enough,” I continued.

“I noticed.”

“But,” I said, gesturing at the tree’s tallest branches, “The tree’s big enough to make a treehouse.”

She didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then, she laughed. The sound bellowed through the neighborhood, filling it to its brim.

When she finally stopped laughing, she looked up and put her cigarette down, the tears in her eyes shimmering like a blood red sun.

Jieyan Wang is a high school junior in northern Idaho. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and published in Teen Ink. In her free time, she loves to play the piano and paint flowers.

The featured art piece is by Anthony Johnson, titled “Alone.”

Revitalized

Mina Kim explores the intensity and emotional turmoil that romantic relationships can bring in “Revitalized.”

 


 Thank you.
Thank you for the love.
Thank you for the fear.
Thank you for the tears.
Thank you for the rejection.
Because I learned to like being alone.


Thank you for the love.

Your cheeks are aching from all the smiling.

It is around dinner time when the baby blue color of the sky fades into shades of pink and lavender. Leo’s hands intertwine around your waist, and his head rests gently on your shoulder. The smell of his cotton perfume, which he adamantly argues is not limited to a woman’s scent, fills the space around you (and the entire apartment—it is quite strong). Staring out from the slightly dusty windows of the living room, you and Leo watch the sunset and frequently comment on some of the bizarre outfits of your neighbors outside, laughing a bit too loud when cranky Mrs. Dallows leaves the complex to walk her three Pomeranians in an electric purple jumpsuit paired with knee-high striped socks.

“Look! Mrs. Dallo—oh god—” you breathlessly manage to get out. Leo’s chuckling from behind, and you can feel the soft vibrations of his chest on your back.

“I feel like I’m in The Wizard of Oz all of a sudden!” he laughs.

Then, mindlessly, you crook your head to the side, locking your eyes with his doe ones. Bliss. It’s the only word that comes to mind when you’re with him.

Leo faces you, his eyes lingering a second too long on your lips. When he looks back to your eyes, which are still gazing at him, his cheeks wrinkle as he smiles, and he’s hugging you tighter.

“I love you,” you suddenly blurt out.

“I love you, too.”

And even though you’ve been together for three years, that’s all it takes to get your hands clammy and your heart beating erratically.


Thank you for the fear.

Your cheeks are sore from constantly gnawing on the insides of your mouth.

Sounds of light rain echo through the busy streets, and people are still out and about, socializing even during the darker hours.

You’re waiting. You’ve been waiting for an hour and twenty minutes now, and there’s still no sign of Leo.

Today is supposed to be a reunion date, where you both can catch up, after Leo’s month in Spain with his friends. Specifically, catch up on the past few months because you’re both living hectic lives: Leo with his new office career as a manager and you with your graduate school schedule and studies in English. Classes overlapped with business projects, internships with late-night shifts. But, despite the conflicts, it wasn’t like you to easily give up on a relationship, especially when you still think about Leo wherever you go. So, you desperately cling onto hope.

You wince when you accidentally bite your tongue and grab for the cup of water, which stands alongside a glass of Coke—his favorite—that stopped fizzing an hour ago. It’s pitiful. The side-stares you’re getting from the happily married couple on your right, the glances from the waiters, who are too nice to ask you to leave, and the replies you have yet to receive from your missing-in-action boyfriend.

You wonder if it’s worth calling Leo when you’ve already texted him every five minutes. But, scrolling through the previous messages in your conversation, you decide against it. He hasn’t messaged you anything longer than “no” or “sure” for over five months now.

It’s okay, you think. Leo’s probably jet-lagged and sleeping right now, you attempt to comfort yourself. But, your heart clenches funnily, and your lips begin to quiver.

The fear of losing him has haunted you for too long for you to spit out another reassurance. So, you leave the restaurant in hopes that the blackness of the night will hide your shaking shoulders.


Thank you for the tears.

Your cheeks become stained from crying.

It’s been a long day of classes, and, in between each one, you are either half-running to a building on the far end of campus or haphazardly stuffing a bagel into your mouth to satiate your grumbling stomach. It’s one of those days where Professor Helen didn’t get much sleep and screamed at you in front of the class about how your essay papers weren’t double sided. One of those days where your clumsy hands decide to spill hot coffee onto your new jeans and where you want to be with Leo, even after months of your daily calls going ignored and your date plans postponed.

Are you two still together? In your heart, yes. Even now, he has you wrapped around his finger.

The afternoon wind brushes the exposed parts of your skin, chilling your ankles and slapping against your face and neck. You are walking back to your apartment, choosing this over the bus or taxi so that the coldness of the winter will completely obliterate the thoughts in your mind.

Strolling through the city, you feel mocked by the buoyant sounds of laughter coming from the restaurants and cafes at each block, and there is a twang of jealousy every time an elderly couple or family walks past you. But, all the pessimistic thoughts come to a halt when you see him. The man who you cared for and loved; the one who made you feel so worried for the past seven months; the one who seemed to carry no worries as he walks towards you, his hands enclosed with another woman’s.

The clicking sound of your shoes ceases at once. You can’t take your eyes off of Leo, and maybe it’s your rapidly heaving chest or your tear stained cheeks that reflects the city lights, but his eyes meet yours. His smile falters at the sight of you.

Please, don’t leave me here like this, you plead with your eyes.

But perhaps her beauty is more outstanding than yours. Perhaps you look too embarrassing for Leo to approach you. Perhaps he can no longer conjure up his feelings of endearment for you. Maybe that is why he averts his gaze to her, scratches his head as if he sees nothing, and calmly walks past you.

Are you two still together? In his heart, no, and the thought of that breaks you.

Muffled whimpers escaped from your throat while streams of tears burn your numb face. The signs of the restaurants become far too blurry to read. Once again, you hope the city lights will disappear and the darkness of the night will hide your shaking shoulders.


Thank you for the rejection.

Your cheeks squish against your pillow.

You wake up on the couch with stains of wine on your shirt, but it doesn’t bother you. For the last few weeks, you’ve greeted every morning on the couch.

Since the breakup, or so you assume, you’ve come to realize that you can swat away or ease sadness, but you can’t avoid loneliness. Loneliness clings so tight that you begin suffocating. Loneliness can’t seem to get enough of you, hindering your ability to properly eat, sleep, study, or function as a normal human being. It creeps into your dreams, your mornings, your nights, and into your mind. It constantly reminds you of the image of Leo and that woman.

Do people drift away from each other this easily? you wonder.

You can’t help but look through pictures of you and him when there was happiness at the very beginning of the relationship. At the time, Leo was the type of guy who would walk you past your home so that he could spend the ten minutes it takes to go around the neighborhood to be with you. But now you realize that he was distancing himself because he was too much of a coward to tell you directly, I don’t love you anymore. Then again, could you handle the impact of those five words?


Because I learned to like being alone.

Your cheeks are getting hit by the rays of the sun.

By the time the sun has fully risen, you’re skipping from your bedroom to the kitchen to make breakfast. Pancakes have become your favorite breakfast food these days, and you begin mixing the batter after you turn on the turquoise colored record player, a recent splurge for yourself, to play some Frank Sinatra. From the refrigerator, you pull out a few strawberries and a handful of blueberries to top the pancakes. Sitting on the couch, you look out the window and smile, seeing the beautiful cherry blossom trees and dainty flowers fully open to admire, for the new season of spring had finally come.

Sometimes, when you’re greeted with the scent of cotton or see your still oddly dressed neighbors, you think of him. Sure, there was no exact closure or apology, but you’ve come to a point where there are no poignant thoughts about him. It took time and the understanding that you can depend on and be satisfied with yourself to stop rebuilding the walls that had been torn down from hurt and rejection. You even learned to embrace doing the activities you used to do with Leo alone—taking walks around town, enjoying Friday nights with movies and wine, or dancing to music.

Feeling fulfilled, you munch on your delicious pancakes, grin at the sight of Mrs. Dallows walking her Poms, and feel content with only the sound of music filling your apartment.

 

Mina Kim is currently a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School who has been enjoying creative writing through her class at school this year. She especially loves freewriting on sense or specific detail. In her free time, Mina likes to travel with her family, drink coffee, and doodle in her journal.

Photograph, titled “Inhale,” by Jules Landa Ventre.

Scars

Margaret Madole illustrates the struggle of helping friends with mental illnesses survive another day in “Scars.”

When I look at my wrists, I expect to see her scars. It doesn’t matter when I glimpse them—at dance, in the shower, on the bus—it always seems wrong that they are unblemished, perfect and whole in every way that hers are not. I can’t feel any other way, not when we live an hour apart and yet I keep her tucked in my pocket, closer than any neighbor. I never stop checking for her texts; I pause in the middle of phone calls with others just to type my replies. When she asks for a high number, I give it to her without question, and agree that yes, I will send her 93 texts if it will keep her from putting scissors to her skin and making more of those wounds. My English presentation can wait until we’re done—it can wait forever if it needs to. I ask my friends from school, the people who somehow have become less important than a girl who ever since we left camp has existed only within my phone, her soul contained in circuit boards and enclosed in a plastic shell, how I am supposed to care about Thoreau when all the way on the other side of the state, my friend has decided not to eat for fourteen days and there is nothing I can do to stop her. I don’t tell them that I half-expect to be the one who will faint from hunger in the middle of class before the two weeks are up if I don’t somehow talk her out of it. The worry keeps me from memorizing my speech, and yet I can recall exactly what she ate on December second: a single candy cane. Is it any wonder that I expect my frame to be skeletal, my stomach flat to the point of hollowness, my lunch box still full at the end of every day?

It seems unfair, even when she’s in the thick of it, for me to claim I feel anything at all. My wrists are empty, my stomach full, my brain free from the lies of mental illness. I know I cannot tell a teacher, “I can’t do this presentation because my friend is depressed.” Besides, I fear they’ll tell me that I’m wrong, that I should just leave it all to the professionals. They don’t know that I emailed her school counselor and still, when she stopped eating completely not once, but twice, it was me who snapped her out of it the first time and me who led our friend to give the warning that saved her the second time, even though her counselor had been pulling her from class for a period every day. The professionals cannot text her at midnight to keep away the doubts that crop up while everyone else is sleeping. So I learned how to fight with her, to throw every thought onto my keyboard in the hope that just one will click. The words to an anti-suicide speech are typed at the slightest alarming message, before I can even think about what to say. I have already adapted so much that it seems a miracle that my outside does not match my inside, that my figure has not lost its padding to the jaws of unsatiated hunger, that I can wear short sleeves without the fear of exposing white “cat scratches,” and that after everything, the only way we match is the bags under our eyes. It only seems fair that if I feel her anguish, I should carry her wounds.

After a month, her mother sends her to the hospital for evaluation.  There will be no more scars made with scissors, no more delayed meals, no more early morning conversations. Those are not allowed in psych wards. Meanwhile, I remain at home, in school, trapped in my own sort of isolation. A part of me enters the hospital with her as her wrists heal and her hunger dissipates; the rest lingers in honors classes, pretends that everything is all right. I hide how I’m afraid of her coming back with nothing fixed. I resist the urge to ask everyone fretting about their grades if they’ve ever thought about what it’s like to have real problems. I have to right to shout at them. After all, I am safe. I eat regularly. I have no lines on my wrists. But if that’s true, then how come in my worried haze, I can see the scars residing on my arms, bright and clear, marking me forever? Why am I, too, overcome with fear at being removed from everything I care about until some doctor deems me stable? How come, every time I look in the mirror, I am able to count my ribs?

 

Margaret Madole is a 16-year-old sophomore from Connecticut who refuses to be reduced to a collection of nouns in a bio. Other people have described her as a writer, actress, dancer, violist, and girl scout. She prefers adjectives like eclectic, loud, enthusiastic, nerdy, and creative.

Visual Art by Öykü Seran Harman

Rivers in Her Hands

In “Rivers in Her Hands” Viviana Wei explores a mother’s dedication to her daughter, and her daughter’s growth.

My most vivid memories of my mother are the thick, blue veins in her hands. They lurk beneath the surface of her thin skin, distant reminders of decades of age. I like to run my fingers over them, imagining that each line is a river encased in the pores of her skin.

Every evening, she raises me up to her worn chair, sits me in her lap, and runs her fingers through my hair as I trace the rivers in her hands.

“You can be anything you want to be,” she tells me.

“Really?” I always ask, even if I already know the answer.

“Yes.” My mother smiles a worn, tired smile, and I watch the earth crumble and crack around her eyes and mouth, the wrinkles etching her skin like moving plates.

I didn’t realize what she meant until I entered primary school, when talk of immigration and foreign countries began. During those times, I thought about my mother, and began to understand why she sat me down in her leather armchair every night after dinner and held me in her lap, whispering words of encouragement into my ear.

My mother, who never got the chance to be whatever she wanted to be.

My mother, who came to America in hopes that an unborn me would have a better future.

My mother, who never got the chance to go to school the same way I do.

But my mother is brave, resilient. She tells me how hard it was to learn English, how she spent years poring over textbooks, memorizing when to use “-ed” for past tense and when to change the word altogether. She tells me how hard it was when she first came to America, the strange looks and mocking from strangers with perfectly-enunciated English.

I can’t imagine my mother, who has rivers in her hands and the earth in her smile and the sunlight in her eyes, ever struggling with anything. It makes me feel lucky to have been born here—to speak English fluently.

When I came home from school crying after my classmates mocked my strange-smelling lunch, the shape of my eyes, the color of my skin, she was there for me. She picked me up, placed me on her lap, and sunk into the leather chair, whispering words of her home. She described Chinese countrysides and the family I had in a country across the world, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my heritage.

As I grew up, I learned not to cry about the teasing and smiled instead. Now that I’m too old for her lap, I sit across from my mother in a chair of my very own. Of course, she keeps her old, leather one; even when it sheds black flakes onto the carpet, neither of us can bring ourselves to get rid of it. We still sit across from one another in the evenings, but I miss the days when I fit in her lap. She still tells me stories of her beginnings in America, detailing her struggles, and how, to this day, she still hasn’t mastered English.

I kiss her cheek. “Your English is perfect,” I say. She smiles and reaches forward for my hand. I place mine atop hers and see myself in her eyes, in the bridge of her nose, in her lips.

I am a spitting image of my mother, and I hope that, when I grow up, I’ll be as selfless and noble as she is, too. Because my mother has rivers in her hands, and the power to change the lives of people who come after her.

Even when these rivers dry up and the earth shatters, I’ll always be grateful for the chance my mother has given me.

 

 

Viviana Wei is a 16-year old girl living in Cooper City, Florida. She goes to American Heritage in Plantation and enjoys writing and drawing. As a first generation Chinese-American, she speaks both Mandarin Chinese and English; she is eager to share her Chinese roots through her writing.

Visual Art by Rudy Falagan

Tilt

Tilt explores a taboo subject seen through the eyes of a small boy. Ashira Shirali uses a childlike voice to depict the hard realism within the piece.

This summer Mummy, Daddy, Bunny and I are going to visit Grandmammy in her house by the sea. We don’t visit Grandmammy often. Mummy says it’s because she lives so far away.

When we visit Mummy lets me and Bunny play at the edge of the water near Grandmammy’s house. Bunny gets all fat and bloated and then Mummy has to put him out to dry. Mummy says best friends can’t be stuffed toys but I know she’s wrong because Bunny is mine. He always wants to play the games I think of and he never laughs at me like the boys in school.

The last time we visited Grandmammy I was only in kindergarten. Grandmammy told me she’d buy me a chocolate sprinkle cone if I tell Daddy that I want Grandmammy to live with us. Mummy was angry when she found out. I didn’t get ice cream and we came back three days early.

I like looking out of the window to see the big trees at the side of the road. There are only small trees where we live. Mummy points out pretty birds and a little monkey sitting on a rock. The monkey acts very funnily, jumping about and scratching itself. I yell out, “Mummy, it’s touching its bum!”

Mummy says the monkey is acting in this Shameful Way because it isn’t intelligent like me. I look away quickly from the monkey which doesn’t know not to show its Private Parts in front of others.

We finally reach Grandmammy’s house. When I enter Grandmammy smiles and says, “Who is this handsome young boy?” I laugh and run to the other room to sit on the bed and watch Scooby Doo while Daddy and Mummy talk to Grandmammy.

During dinner, Grandmammy puts rice on my plate and says, “Such a shame that he has to grow up an only child.”

Daddy says, “We’re a happy family of three.” I feed Bunny some of my rice.

“Those who cannot do better must be…” Then Daddy is yelling at Grandmammy and Grandmammy is yelling back. Mummy is

trying to get Daddy to sit back down. Bunny falls off his seat.

Daddy goes straight to bed without clearing his plate. I ask Mummy if Daddy wants to play I Spy but she says no, not right now. Grandmammy says she can play with me, but I say no, thank you and sit with Mummy and colour my notebook.

On the last day of our visit, I make sandcastles till Mummy says it’s time to pack. I run in, put my clothes in my blue sailor backpack, and try to run out but Mummy stops me. I have to wait there while she and Daddy carry our bags to the car.

I sit on Grandmammy’s blue sofa and swing my legs. Grandmammy keeps strange things on the side tables – little stones from a riverbank, a mood lamp, a prayer wheel from Tibet. Grandmammy doesn’t have any toys or comics.

Bunny and I are playing cross and noughts with my red jumbo crayon when Grandmammy comes into the room. She starts taking out jars and boxes and putting them noisily on the table. Mummy says it isn’t polite to make so much noise but I don’t say this to Grandmammy because I don’t want her to feel bad.

I know I have to listen to Grandmammy because she’s older than me. I stop and make more crosses.

“You’re acting like a cat in heat,” Grandmammy says in an odd voice. She’s looking at me strangely. I look down at my notebook paper. I wish Grandmammy would go back to moving the jars. I wish Mummy would come back into the room.

I try to focus on my notebook. But Bunny falls off the sofa and I’m trying to win the game and I’m used to shaking my leg when I sit.

Grandmammy is yelling at me now. “Stop it! Shaking your legs means you want sex. Is that what you want?”

I stop doing everything at once.

I feel like when Vicky from class hit me on the head and I couldn’t breathe or think, I just waited silently for Mummy to come get me. My eyes are burning. I nod like a puppet.

Grandmammy said the s-word.

The Dirty and Wrong Thing you shouldn’t say.

The Secret Thing grown-ups do in movies after they take off their clothes, even though you should never show anyone your Private Parts.

The Very Shameful Thing you cannot say.

The Chinese paintings on Grandmammy’s walls are tilting. It makes my head hurt. I want Mummy to come and take me away like she did after Vicky hit me. I want to go far away from Grandmammy who says these Terrible Things.

But my arms and legs aren’t working so I just sit there.

Mummy and Daddy come to take me to the car sometime. They say bye to Grandmammy. I say bye to the plant next to Grandmammy’s feet. Grandmammy says she hopes we visit again soon. I hope Daddy forgets the way to Grandmammy’s house.

The small pebbles in front of Grandmammy’s house are jumping. My Lightning McQueen sandals are tripping over them so Mummy takes my hand. My eyes are open too wide and I look at the dancing pebbles so Mummy doesn’t notice and make me repeat the Bad Thing Grandmammy said.

In the car I open the window and look out. Mummy asks me if I want to sing a song. She asks if I want to play I Spy. I pretend to sleep and she stops asking.

I feel like I’ve fallen in a very muddy and smelly puddle. I don’t touch Mummy’s hand when she gives me a sandwich so the dirt won’t get on her too. When we get out of the car to go home I see the sandwich fallen on the floor.

Only at night, when I’m pouring shower gel and water into my ears do I realise that I left Bunny behind.

Ashira Shirali is a high school student from Gurgaon, India. She loves books, music, good food and the colour blue. Her work has been published in Teen Ink and Moledro Magazine.

Visual Art by Paulina Otero

Parallax Fiction and Poetry Scholarship Contest

Win a $25,000 scholarship to study Creative Writing at Idyllwild Arts Academy!

Idyllwild Arts is an arts boarding high school nestled in the mountains of Southern California.  Our Creative Writing majors intensively study poetry, fiction, and dramatic writing (in addition to running Parallax Online!).  If you are in high school and you love to write, consider taking your passion to the next level by entering the Idyllwild Arts Parallax Fiction and Poetry Scholarship Contest for a chance to win a $25,000 scholarship to attend Idyllwild Arts!
Deadline: December 2, 2016
Open to: High school students entering 9th-12th grade in Fall 2017.

Click the link for details.

Sea Cucumber

Read about Alexandra Lewis’s narrator’s discussion of cucumbers with her therapist in the short story, “Sea Cucumber.”

When I was little, I only ate cucumbers. My mom tried to put them in salads and on sandwiches, but I’d pick them off and eat them alone. He asks me why I’m talking about cucumbers. I kick my shoes off the side of the couch and rub my toes against the fabric. I tell him his couch is the color of a peeled cucumber and I think about the way food tastes with pill coating in my mouth.

The air in his office smells like sea salt and onions. Sometimes, I tell him, I think about drowning myself. I tell him that everything happening has happened before, and that I watch myself contribute to it. I inhale salt water, and he asks me if I’m breathing heavily because I’m agitated, and that agitates me.

In the bathroom, I gargle a handful of sink water. I see a different person in every mirror, but if I could cut the skin off my face I’d find myself. I’m a product of my repetition. Back in the office he offers me coffee, tea, and I think about what fish drink. If you put them in a tank of beer, would they get drunk? If you walk sixty steps from the left wall, you can make it to the right one, but he calls this pacing. I stopped counting out loud. Eighty-six weeks ago I would have called it crazy, but now I’m just waiting for a finger to tap against the glass.

I tell him that I lost my virginity sitting on a baby changing station at a truck stop, and when it was over I felt like a mother and a fetus and a whore and a queen. Is the predominant difference between a sea cucumber and a land cucumber that one can sustain itself and the other needs a vine? He doesn’t answer. I lie on my back on the love seat across from him and wonder what his home life is like, even though I’m not supposed to. If I stare at the ceiling for too long, I start to see big gold triangles and when I close my eyes, they stay there and glow. In my dreams I swim out of my skin, but when I tell him about them he calls them nightmares. Sometimes I’ll look up and see the sun behind a skin of waves.

He taps his pen on his clipboard and I ask him what his ideal day would be. He asks, without answering, what mine would be. When I say a day underwater he asks how often I think about killing myself.

“How often is too often?” He writes this down. I bring my knees to my tummy and hug them—fold my chin into my chest. “Did you know that fish never close their eyes?”

“Hmm,” he says, and looks at me like I’m leaving something out.

I tell him about when I was thirteen and tried to make soap. I dumped a pot of boiling water on my foot and I had to use a fake name in the emergency room so that they couldn’t bill our house. He asks if that upset me and I feel inhuman. I try to count how many seconds I take on each breath to gauge my agitation.

I ask him to identify key differences between happiness and unhappiness. They say I have a chemical imbalance. Fish can sing, you know, I say, and he nods–hits his pen against his chin. He asks me how I occupy my time here outside of our sessions. If something could make me feel anything, I tell him, I’d do it every day.

I am a half-dead fish, floating on top of the water, watching patterns of pelicans. I’m waiting for one to swoop me up and cradle me in the bath of its beak. I sink further into the crease of the couch cushions and feel like I’m in a cucumber coffin.

I think about killing myself three times a day, exactly three, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s why I don’t snack. He writes this down, and I take a deep breath.

 

Alexandra Lewis

Alli Lewis is a high school writer from Michigan and Ohio, and she goes to Walnut Hill School for the Arts. She would like to dedicate this piece to her late feline companion.

Artwork by Diana Ryu

 

Sunday Dinner

Fiora Elbers-Tibbits describes the cliché Sunday dinner in her brutally honest and satirical prose piece, “Sunday Dinner.”

The family comes bubble wrapped, prepped to eat over synthetic discourse.
Prayer first. The future’s passed around; patrons pile on the collection
plate. The oven is hot and the timer cheats. Women leap at the beep,
unrehearsed in their assembled domestic burst. Another spring chicken:
underdone meat, dry like chalk. She’ll learn. The men are robust with
compensating promises, raises and grease simmering at the table, lingering
green outside the confession booth. They lurch. A bubble pops and the
curtain drops. Chairs adjust, scrape back singed skin. Faith and heat
converge.

Fiora Elbers-Tibbits
A senior creative writing major at Walnut Hill School for the Arts.

Art by Florence Liu

Robin the Noble

Sabrina Melendez battles gender norms in her modern twist to a heteronormative fairy tale.

My dearest Princess Delilah,

            I have been watching you for months through this window. I know that sounds a little creepy, but I promise that I looked away every single time you were changing out of respect. That being said, I think you look beautiful every time you dance quietly to yourself in front of the mirror, or read that one text book on molecular biology, and that little twitch you’ve got below your left eye is just adorable. I love you dearly, and I think that if you consent to marrying me, I could make you very happy. If you’re interested, I will come at once to your aid and rescue you from the tower. Please send word immediately through this carrier pigeon.

                        Yours truly,

                        Robin the Noble

 

Dear Robin the Noble,

            Thank you kindly for your letter. I think its sweet of you to like the twitch below my left eye. I’ve always been self-conscious about it and I haven’t been able to leave the tower to get it checked out. Before you come to rescue me, though, I would like to know a little more about you. Like, I don’t know, what do you look like, and what’s your favorite color, and what would name a pet guinea pig, and so forth.

            Sincerely,

            Princess Delilah

 

Dearest Princess Delilah,

             I have brown hair and blue eyes and white skin, and all ten fingers, and all ten toes. My favorite color is fuchsia, and as for the guinea pig I would name it Cornelius Bernard. I would want to endow a guinea pig with a magnificent and noble name in order to make up for the poor animal’s size, and the seemingly insignificant, perhaps even embarrassing, role of being one’s pet. I would always address it by its full name, saying “Here is your breakfast, Sir Cornelius Bernard,” or “Do let me clean out your cage, Sir Cornelius Bernard.”

 I hope this letter has served well enough, and I do hope you are still interested.

            Love,

            Robin the Noble

 

Princess Delilah was, of course, still interested, and sent word right away that she would most definitely like Robin the Noble to rescue her from her tower. Princess Delilah waited many weeks for her sweet Robin, and was beginning to become a little doubtful, when she finally heard a knock on her bedroom door.

“Just a minute!” she said, and ran to the mirror to fix her hair before posing herself perfectly at her desk, molecular textbook in hand, angling her face towards the door in such a way that she was sure, would display the twitch below her left eye. “Okay, okay, come in.”

And there he was, inside of her room, perfect brown hair, perfect blue eyes, and he would’ve probably had white skin too, had it not been for the scorch marks all over his face and arms.

“Princess Delilah!” he said, and got down on one knee to bow to her highness.

“Robin, my most noble!” squealed Delilah, throwing the book to the floor and jumping with glee. “You’ve made it at last!”

But the man rose, scratching his head. “Robin? I am no Robin. My name is Prince James. Perhaps you’ve got me confused with another?”

Princess Delilah did not understand. “Another? What other?”

“Well, princess, I know you can’t see because your little window points conveniently in the opposite direction, but the front door of your tower is guarded by this huge fire-breathing dragon. Perhaps you’ve got me confused with a suitor who failed to get past it. Either way, I got past the stupid dragon and so technically, I am to marry you.”

Princess Delilah clasped her hands as tears welled up in her eyes. “But… My dearest Robin… Do you mean to say that he is dead?”

“I know not this Robin, but I saw the dead scorched bodies of many men lying along the pit that leads to your front door… I’d say if he hasn’t come yet, he’s probably dead.” At this, Princess Delilah collapsed the ground and began to sob into her hands.

Prince James got to his feet and found himself standing awkwardly in the room, not quite sure how to go about cheering up his bride-to-be.  “I mean—I’m not so bad, am I? I’m rich, charming, handsome” At this, Princess Delilah cried even harder. “Geez,” he said, scratching his head. “How do you know this Robin anyway?”

Princess Delilah lifted her face, wiping away tears, still beautiful despite the blotchy redness of her tear-stained face. “He- He sent me letters.”

“Well how much can you really tell about a person from a letter?”

“Well, he’s funny and smart and loving and accepting, and and and his favorite color’s fuschia.”

“Fuschia?”

“It’s like a pinkish-purplish-blue.”

“Don’t you think that’s kind of girly?”

“A color’s a color. Besides, what’s wrong with girly?”

Prince Harris chuckled. “Well, no girly guy’s gonna be able to get through what I just got through back there with that dragon.”

“And why not?”

“C’mon, don’t make me explain.”

“Well, what’s your favorite color?”

“Blue, I guess.”

“That everybody’s favorite color. What would you name a guinea pig?

“I don’t know, Fluffy? Squeakers? Miss Piggy?”

Princess Delilah sighed again.

“What’s wrong with those names? What else would you name a guinea pig?”

At that point, both Princess Delilah and Prince James heard footsteps running quickly up the tower stairs. Princess Delilah jumped to her feet. “Do you hear that? It must be Robin, coming for me now!” Prince James rolled his eyes. He thought about bringing up the whole first-come-first-served rule, then drew his sword instead in order to challenge the oncoming suitor. But Princess Delilah didn’t even notice, for she was too busy staring at the doorway. They both stood staring for several minutes, until Robin finally made it all the way up the winding stairs and into Delilah’s room, at which point Princess Delilah let out a gasp and Prince James dropped his sword. For there was Robin, perfect brown hair, perfect blue eyes, perfect white skin, visible even beneath the ash and bloody wounds, but Robin was a woman.

Princess Delilah and Prince James stayed frozen in shock, their eyes fixed upon Robin, whose body was covered in steel armor save for the helmet which she carried with one hand. Everything else was caked with soot or blood, but there she stood, ready to battle a thousand more dragons if they got in her way. Then, she turned to Prince James and recoiled, dropping the helmet.

“Seriously?” she said. “I’m second?” But they merely continued to stare. “I—I spent so much time training. I swear, princess, I’ve tried to beat that stupid dragon of yours thirteen times, but I barely started fencing a few years ago, and well I could get past it sure, but killing it was a different story.”

Killing it?” said Prince James. “You killed her dragon?”

“Yeah. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Kill the dragon, marry the princess…”

“I thought it was just get past the dragon, marry the princess.” They both turned to look at Princess Delilah.

“R-Robin? Is that you?”

“It’s me.”

“But-but you’re a…”

“A what?”

Prince Jamess, suddenly regaining his confidence, laughed a little. “Why, you’re a woman.”

“Yeah, I’m a woman. I didn’t think that would be a—wait—is it a problem?”

Princess Delilah nodded slowly. “I mean, it’s not that I don’t—I mean I just, I’m just not… like that.”

“Like what?”

“Well, I don’t really… go for women.”

“Go for… Oh, you mean you…” Robin suddenly understood, but the lump in her throat grew so large she could hardly speak.

“I’m sorry.”

Robin looked away, trying to hold back the tears welling in her eyes. “It-It’s fine, I mean, maybe I should’ve put that in the letter. I guess I just assumed…”

Prince James laughed again. “Why would you just assume something like that?”

Robin’s face turned red as she stood ashamed and embarrassed in the middle of the room, her heart ripping to shreds. She turned to leave, but before she started walking, she twisted once more to look at Princess Delilah. “Your, um, your little eye twitch… It’s even more adorable in person.” And with that, Robin turned to walk back down the stairs from which she came.

But before Robin could go down a couple of steps, she was stopped by Princess Delilah. “Wait!”

Robin halted. “Anything you wish, princess.”

“Maybe we can start over, huh Robin?” Princess Delilah smiled shyly. Maybe we could just be… friends?”

Robin smiled sadly and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s fine.”

“How would you like to be my lady-in-waiting?”

Robin thought about it. She would be around the ever-gorgeous Princess Delilah every single day, doing anything in her power to make her life a little easier, to make her a little happier. It was all she ever wanted. She accepted the job immediately. Princess Delilah then ran back up the stairs to Prince James and agreed to marry him as Robin stayed halfway below on the same step, drawing sloppy hearts on the soot of her helmet.

 

Sabrina N. Melendez

Sabrina Melendez is the 2013-2014 senior editor of Parallax Literary Journal. She enjoys writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, dramatic fiction, and songs. She is  from El Paso, TX, but likes to identify as a Puerto Rican because Puerto Rico is a far cooler place to be from than El Paso. Aside from writing, Sabrina likes to play piano, sing, spend hours in the ceramics studio, and make puns that inspire others to leave the room. 

Art By Eunji Kang