Beneath His Kaleidoscope Eyes

The rattle of an aging radio agonizing over war and the address of his childhood home are faded structural realities. He grew up in isolation with an erased memory after contracting encephalitis, and he also grew up embraced by a loving family. He had nothing or he had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.

From his pipe, wispy gray strands of smoke swayed like living ghosts. Sunshine shimmered through his dusty window shades onto strewn book stacks and his silver threaded hair. Now with the wind exhaling, drifting the smell of fish from the bay into the walls of my grandpa’s apartment, he sat alone once again—this time in the vortex of the COVID-19 crisis.

When time slowed to a tormenting crawl, he turned on CNN. The news led him through the possibility of death and despair, a borderless sphere where loneliness reigns and hope is an ancient entity. With the click of the off button, he entered into a state of pure illusion, a state of numbness, like the numbness that follows an injury, before pain starts to make its way through. Everything seemed less real under the waves of oblivion, and that’s what he needed. I knew he longed for fiction.

Like the planets in celestial orbit, he was distant and lying beyond reach. Growing up in an era where silencing pain was status quo, Poppy maintained an emotional shield against vulnerability. To bridge the generational gaps between us, I searched the apartment for remnants of his former life. I found a 1960s Diana Camera wedged between tattered baseball cards and faded news clippings.

This unassuming blue and black piece of plastic was embedded with supernatural sorcery. With its transcendent powers, Diana dismantled Poppy’s manufactured illusion and revealed the true emotions beneath his facade. I photographed the lines of solitude etched in his forehead, the deep ravines of shadows that shrouded his existence. Through the lens of this vintage telescope, he communicated his untold stories and sorrows from youth: bursts of uncontrolled electrical activity between brain cells and his body bound to the wheelchair he called home. Emotional transparency, once an elusive concept, became a source of healing.

In my garage, aka the makeshift darkroom, I began to develop this picture while listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love” melting on the record player’s rusting needle. In tune with his melody, it occurred to me that this fragmentary image allows me to peer into the larger questions of the moment, into a country mourning the loss of human connection. The pandemic has been an exercise in subtraction. Poppy has experienced the voids left by neighbors who have succumbed to COVID-19 and the absence of friends and family. And then there are the intimate things that are gone: the handshakes, pats, and the strokes that warm daily interactions.

As the photograph dried and the gradients of grey took form, I analyzed Poppy. In his chair surrounded by tchotchkes, he stared at the pictures of his former dog and my Grandma in the 80s with cheekbones adorned in bubble gum pink rouge at the roller skating rink. When days meld into one and the pipe’s vapors envelope his being, he entered into a permanent haze of oblivion to escape living in a constant flashback. His current existence cloistered in his apartment is reminiscent of his childhood when his fever rose and was forced to stay in isolation to recover. The black and white film replicated his portal to the past. Somewhere at the intersection of peace and longing, his concealed pain thawed within the picture.

I picked up Poppy the day I finished processing the film, and we went to the deli on Cross Bay Boulevard. I had not seen him for a long time and his sullen face slowly waned. It was early in the morning and for a fleeting moment the chaos of the pandemic blurred into stillness. We ate our bagels and lox together by the bay, the salty threads of air whispered and the ebb and flow of waves hummed. In between coffee sips, we talked about our shared feelings of loneliness and yearning for normalcy. I finally knew what was beneath his kaleidoscope eyes, once a confusing mosaic of opaque colors. Now, a translucent vision of an old man trying to nourish his relationship with his granddaughter and cope with childhood trauma.

When Gabrielle Beck is not writing or photographing, she can be found repurposing vintage denim. She is a finalist for New York Times “Coming of Age in 2020: A Special Multimedia Contest for Teenagers,” and recognized by the National Council of Teacher’s of English.

Art by Sarah Little

 

 

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Wong Halmoni

I knew Wong Halmoni¹ through my mother’s stories. From these stories I gathered two images of her: she had given everything to her church even while she was poor, and she once took my mother “shopping” to buy a live chicken from the market and cook it into soup. My mother and her brother cried inconsolably, their tears mixing with the glistening oils of the stock as they spooned the steamed chicken into their mouths. Later they would profess that there was nothing else like it.

As we drove to meet Wong Halmoni in Hwe-in, her hometown, I turned these stories over and over in my mind, the same way I rolled skipping stones in my hands before flinging them into the river. The kind of stones that fit right into your palm, the kind you could wrap your fingers around and press into every fissure and smooth surface–firm, tangible, knowable. Not like Wong Halmoni. My impression of her was little more than “generous old woman.”

The radio songs began to crackle with static, signaling our nearing arrival–Hwe-in had poor reception. It was yet another isolating factor for Wong Halmoni, who already lived by herself in a small rural town. As the soft static hummed through the air, my excitement to meet Wong Halmoni trickled into curiosity towards this woman who seemed to be a saint and yet also quite alone. 

“Why have I never met her before?” I asked my mother. 

She paused.

“I guess it’s because she lives in Korea and we don’t,” she said.

“Do her kids visit her?”

“I think they do,” she hesitated, “maybe once a year. They live in the city, about an hour away, but I’m sure they could visit more…”

She trailed off. We sat the rest of the car ride in silence. 

When we arrived, Wong Halmoni greeted us without stepping out of her house. A smile touched her eyes. Come in, come in, she motioned. I peered into the room. Her floor was made of substrate and dirt. She began moving on her hands and knees, swinging her elbows in jerky movements to inch her body forward, her legs dragging behind like dead weight. My mother asked her what she was doing, but she just kept walking–no, crawling–and in the next moment our confused silence was splintered by my mother’s stammers in Korean and abrupt ruptures into the English that I could understand.

“…When did this…”

“…Your legs…”

“…Nobody told me…”

They spoke back and forth in rapid Korean, and I strained my ears to understand a word or two. My mother later translated what Wong Halmoni said: she fell, the surgery wasn’t good, she couldn’t use her legs, but she was managing just fine, praise God. With that, Wong Halmoni carried on pulling herself across the floor with her elbows, and all I could hear was dragging and scraping, all I could think was where are her children?

Then I saw them on her walls, their photos everywhere. I was everywhere, alongside them. There were pictures from when I was born to my first day of school to my last birthday. A light peeked through the window, washing over the photos in a warm yellow. It was a wall common enough in our family to recognize it: this was a prayer wall. This was where she visited every morning and every night, asking God to keep her children’s health, to keep our strength. I took in her figure beside me–her white gossamer hairs that caught the light, her creased hands, her back hunkered over, her shallow breaths in and out, never uttering a word of complaint. Before I ever knew her, I realized, before she ever knew me, she had been praying for me. 

In that moment I sat beside her with a rising sense of suffocation, as I fumbled with all the words I would say to her if only I could speak Korean. I wanted to take her papery hands in mine, the way my mother did. Tell her that I missed her and was glad to see her, the way my mother did. But my mother’s relationship with Wong Halmoni was different the way her Korean was different from mine–the syllables were soft and loose and smooth in her mouth, while mine were clumsy, brief. At one point Wong Halmoni tilted her chin towards me and called me yeppuda. Pretty. I thanked her in broken Korean, smiling more than was natural to compensate for my blundering accent. For the rest of the afternoon I sat wedged in between them, too embarrassed to ask my mother to translate word for word, studying their expressions instead to make sense of their conversation. Wong Halmoni kept her gaze even, her voice gravelly. Mother reached forward to touch her wrist every now and then. I nodded along, not quite understanding. And when it was time to leave, I couldn’t help but feel that despite discovering that my great-grandmother had loved me my whole life, I hardly knew her enough. 

Some time later, after we left Korea, I would stop by the river to find a skipping stone. Examine it, then fling it far away. Watch it grow smaller and smaller until it becomes a dot in a space I can never reach. Hold my breath as it sinks into the deep blue, slipping out my field of vision like a memory.

 

¹Korean for “great-grandmother”

 

Miye Sugino is a seventeen-year-old who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in LA. Her work is published or forthcoming in Parallax Online, Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine, and HS Insider, among others. She will be attending the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this summer.

Visual Art By: Heidi Songqian Li

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Kido

First Encounter

 

That skinny boy darts through the hallways of our apartment, switches our intercom on and off,presses all the buttons in our elevator, circles about each floor until he has touched every doorknob, humming a single note throughout. Hooooooo. I follow close behind at the request of my mother, who doesn’t want him to get lost. Each time he peeks back at me to find that yes, I am still there, he giggles behind his palms. “He’s never been invited to another person’s home before,” his mother confesses. I am no less bewildered.

 

My Mother Says

 

He is ten years old, he is in my younger brother’s grade, his classmates pinch him until bruises bloom across his arms and legs, they tell him to go back to special ed, he considers them his friends, he is invited to our home to make real ones, his name is Kido. Not “kiddo,” but “kee-doh.”

 

Rain

 

The rain comes suddenly, spilling over the glass, blurring together the red tail lights and street signs and road ahead of us into indistinct shapes. Kido’s mother stiffens and asks Kido to bear what’s coming for just a little while, and when the window wipers start swishing back and forth, Kido shrieks and howls for so long that I cover his ears and eyes with my hands to blot the world out. He throws up.

 

Navigation

 

The second time they visit, my mother asks me to wait for them by the elevator–our hallways are a maze to navigate. Kido leads the way instead. “Over here,” he says and stops at each corner, making sure that we are still following him. Making sure we haven’t lost him. When he pushes the intercom, a familiar tone rings through the air. Hooooooo. Later I ask his mother if he has perfect pitch, and she is surprised that I noticed.

 

Beauty

 

Kido teaches me and my mother which jams to spread over the crackers and assures me that there is no sesame in anything, he has checked. I can’t recall telling him that I have a sesame allergy. As we eat in silence, his mother, winking at us first, asks him why he is acting shy.“It makes me nervous to be around beautiful people,” he says, then bites into his cracker. I laugh because the only other person who calls me beautiful is my grandmother.

 

His Name

 

When I tell Kido’s mother that I wish everyone else would hurry up and see what they were missing, a strange glimmer sets in her eyes–the expression of one remembering something forgotten long ago. Kido, she finally says, is a Korean name. And in Korean, his name means “prayer.”

 
 
 
 

Miye Sugino is a seventeen-year-old who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in LA. Her work is published or forthcoming in Parallax OnlineCathartic Youth Literary Magazine, and HS Insider, among others. She will be attending the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this summer.
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To Linger

When I called my mother from the settling dark of the cold November night, she was unprepared for the news. She rushed down forty floors of cold apartment steel with the tiny shovel and gloves in her hands, ran across the cold dead rubber of the playground floor in her purple rain boots. All I could do was point with shaking eyes and strained fingers at the cold box in the kudzu. I remember my cold fingers all but digging through my shirt, watching my mother trudge over the undergrowth like she had done every night for over a year, bending over to push apart the bushes like she had done every autumn night. The dead leaves crunched under her feet.

 

I remember being sent to wash my hands- wash the scent of deteriorating mammal from my pores. I remember looking into my own eyes and telling myself over and over, this was bound to happen, this was bound to happen. When I returned, my mother was holding a small, stiff bundle wrapped in a red blanket. And as she lowered the cold form into the hoary ground, the tears finally burst from my eyes- I crumpled in front of the small hole, unable to form words but begging his name over and over in the small prison of my clenched hands.

 

His name was Mang-gae. I named him on a malingering summer evening, crisp and clean as the first bite of an apple. I named him for a wrinkled, ugly traditional rice-cake- didn’t the orange kitten look a lot like a rice-cake, rounded and scrunched up? I named him for longevity-the ugliest names will go the longest. I named him first. Out of the litter of five, he was the first to venture out into the open air, buttery and clean and yet infused with the limber grip of summer. He hissed at me as he ate snacks from my hand- then came back for more. I recall that one evening he swiped at me and left a bloody gash on my left palm, but was forgiven with the slightest brush of his whiskers against my mosquito-bitten calf the next day. I loved him as one would love a younger brother- complaining yet with a ferocity impossible to hide.

 

When he was named, it was as if he sprung up from a bed of identical kittens as a fully grown tiger- his face popped out at me like a flashlight from the box his family lived in. I learned his features. The pink nose, the high forehead, the delicate stripes on the back of his head. I learned his habits- the quirk of the tail when he was pleased, the negligent hiss when he pretended to turn his back on me. My father would watch him jump in and out of the same cardboard box for hours on end, almost purring with him when he settled down. I squatted in front of his closed eyes, wishing every day to speak to him.

 

Sometimes these days, I wonder what a year meant in the life of a fun-sized ginger cat. Was it an expanse of time he didn’t dare to encompass with a single flick of his paw? Or did the year he spent with us fly past like his baby-faced meow? I suppose I never will know. But if Mang-gae asked me the same question, asked me my bulksome human opinion on our shared year in broken yowls and hisses, I would tell him it meant more than any bond I had ever shared, whispering sweet nothings to him as if he had never left. Every summer night I spent with him seemed rosy with the remnants of the evening sun, but now I know that light was never the verdant vermilion of a summer day but his blooming warmth leaning against my hand. To look into the eyes of a creature unable to speak and enjoy its company was unbelievably precious, precious beyond conversational frippery and dated gestures. He changed my world solely with his acknowledgment of its existence.

 

To be able to look at a feather and think of someone who won’t be able to remark on it- to look at a torn sleeve and automatically see the night it ripped play out in front of your eyes. To trace an old scar on your finger, so faint you can barely see it, and forgive the claw that ripped it a thousand times over. To wonder if the small furry mind thinks the same. To wonder out loud to a bare grave, wonder if the hours I spent with you meant the same to you and know the answer before the tears hit the earth. To indulge in the vivacity of a living being during its short tenure on earth. To see it flown, escaped from its shallow prison of clay. I pushed my feet against the ground and begged the name that now meant nothing but a wrinkled, cheap rice-cake. Why had I ever named you for longevity? The dirt kept settling over the red blanket, over and over and over.

 

When my mother prompted me to say a few words for you, I could not. How could I ever let fly in a few words a bond that had never been expressed in words? Sobbing, I stammered out a generic prayer. I wish for you to be happy, I wish you all the things I could never give you, I wish for you to live in a haven with all the small things that make you happy- pureed cat snacks, inexpensive neon toys, cardboard boxes rimmed with cheap yellow tape and God knows what else. Certain things can only be said in words, clumsy and awkward. Some nights I have wanted to call after you, wherever you live now in the clouds. Most nights I did not know what to call, and now I think I may understand. You were many things- none of them spoken, many of them simply felt. And when I leave as you took flight, I should like to linger as you did- not as a broken call malingering in the kudzu, but as the fading light of a summer day, inexpressible in words yet blooming in syllables of faint touch.

 

Min Lee is a sophomore at St Georges School in Rhode Island. She enjoys reading fiction and creative nonfictions. Her interest in the field of neuroscience will lead her to pursue the study in college.
Visual Art by: Rita Yiting Ruan
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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.

Art by Saki

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Barefoot

If India was a heart, pulsing and beating in my palm, then the National Highway 66 was a pounding capillary with traffic as steady as the flow of blood. Sixty metres of rugged ebony asphalt and mud-ridden intersections, the National Highway 66 guided everything, from taxi drivers with beetlejuice between their teeth to bickering couples across the western coast of India. The sun blazed like a copper coin in the limitless blue sky, beating down upon the well-worn stones of a tired road. Anyone, from the street children selling coconut water at the junctions to the farmers guiding oxen through the rice paddy fields could tell you where these roads could take you.

But few travel the old road that diverts from NH-66. Only a handful of those people would cross the bridge that connects to the monsoon-blessed Shambhavi River, its waters meandering into lazy, stagnant marshes. Hardly any would care to remember the name ‘Hejmadi’, the old village settled on Shambhavi’s northern banks.

But I remember. And my reason to remember has charcoal black eyes and silvery hair tied tightly in a knot at the back of her neck. Paper-thin wrinkles line the edges of her cheeks, crimping into little folds every time she laughs. The world calls her Radha. I call her Maomma, my grandmother. And for years, I was content with knowing her solely as the latter, while falling asleep in her arms as she sang ​Ranganayaka in her low, powdery voice. It was a holy song meant to awaken God from his heavy slumber. So, as God’s eyes opened to my grandmother’s words, mine slowly and drowsily closed.

As I grew older, Radha’s presence became more than a shadow, details that I had overlooked as a child now sharpening into focus. I pored over photographs that smelled lightly of mildew, struggling to weave her tale. ​Yet the more I learned, the more I realized that there was a whole other side to her.

Before Radha, there was Meera.

And she was a flurry of bare feet thudding against the grasses of rice paddy fields, the peal of her anklets following her like a shadow. It was the age of black and white ​— of an India that was free, but in bloodied pieces. Of post-Partition pressure tearing apart the Indian soil, but Hejmadi wrapped in its own cocoon, unperturbed.

It was amid this sea of contrasts that Meera grew up, a nine-year-old with a charcoal dot beneath her ear to ward off the evil eye. Seven children in all, the Shenoy family was virtually a village of its own, scurrying about the mud-walled courtyard in the midst of their boisterous games. Meera’s mother watched and smiled. Meera only had a few faint memories of her mother — a gentle caress, tender hands weaving her hair into braids, a chime of laughter. She would count the callouses on her mother’s palm as they walked hand in hand through their coconut groves. Bare feet muffled against the silence of the fertile earth, the ghosts of their footsteps erased by the wind. It was during the handful of years with her mother that Meera learned to befriend the stubborn coconut. How to burst it open against the ground with a single crack. How to scrape the last bits of flesh off its shell.

What Meera didn’t know is that some coconuts bear tiny, fine cracks beneath the surface. They shrivel slowly from the inside, the white flesh dissolving beneath the sun. She would soon see these thin, jagged cracks in her mother’s waning health. For months, her mother battled fevers and a hacking cough. But still, she roamed the leafy groves, dismissing the signs of her growing illness with the wave of her hand. ​Little did ​Meera know that her mother would never live to see another coconut season, never guide her through the dense arms of palm trees again.

The courtyard was silent as her mother lay on her charpoy. Those few fleeting hours before she died, she swallowed her finals sips of coconut water, the glass trembling in her hand. Soft sobs filled the night as Meera sang ​Ranganayaka for her mother. God arose from the distant horizon, welcoming an old friend.

~~~

Life without her mother was wounded and fragmented. Meera learned to tie her own braids, her stubby fingers fumbling with the ribbons. She ground coarse masala powder against a stone and swept debris off the courtyard floors with a broom. She carved the ground beyond her house with white rangoli and lit sticks of incense beneath the altars of the household gods. Ashy plumes of smoke clouded her vision. The temple was no different from what she had become, clouded by the obscurity of what was no longer there. In all her teenage years, Meera was a child struggling to fit in her mother’s skin. She rebelled, thrashing against the void she was expected to fill. In local paan stalls, she secretly smoked beedi cigarettes, the feeling of tobacco mixed with temburni leaves burning in her throat. Meera’s aunt speared her left nostril with a pointed stick, her eyes screwed shut through the agony. When the pain subsided, she threaded a glimmering crescent of a stud through the hole.

“You are a woman now, ” she said, beaming.

But at night, when the coconut trees whistled in the wind and her father sang Ranganayaka t​ o the sky, Meera was still a little girl wrapped in her mother’s shadow.

The years passed by slowly. Old scars learned to heal with the gentle fingers of time. The village was the same, with the medleys of grey-bellied cuckoos reverberating across the fields. It was Meera who had changed, with her hair longer and threaded into spiraling braids, her features the very image of her mother’s. The knee-length skirts and blouses were now replaced with half-sarees, the ends of the cotton fabric tucked into her ​kamarbandh​. Her nose ring was larger than the last, but gone was the stinging pain that had come with it. Gone was the anguish that marked her early childhood, the vision of her mother now blending like watercolors into the past.

Meera still roamed barefoot, the soles of her feet resilient against the Indian soil. But the ground where she had learned to walk had changed. The seamless rice-paddy acres, so enormous they could have swallowed her, were now but a faint horizon through the window. With time had come the overbearing verdicts of her conservative older brothers, imprisoning her within the confines of four walls. “A woman’s place is in her home”, they repeated, their words twisting into firm metal bars. But the stern gaze of her brothers only made Meera love the open air with reckless abandon. Heartfelt but headstrong, she refused to watch life slip between her fingers. Bare feet tiptoed across the courtyard as she slithered into the night, the village fair awaiting her. Her eyes grew wide as she watched larger-than-life actors prance across the stage, the bells of their costumes jangling in the distance. It was those nights when Meera tasted the stolen fruits of freedom.

As she grew older, her father and brothers descended into a whirlwind of preparation for her marriage. Meera’s father counted the acres and examined the cows of local landowners, his love demanding nothing but the best for his daughter. Marriage was a circle, a rhythm of brides leaving their homes to make new ones. The day a woman adorned her forehead with the vermilion dot of good fortune, she became a strand of an age-old fabric much larger than she was. But in between the threads of red and gold tradition, Meera saw the same pattern of captivity, the same narrow walls of domestic drudgery. She had no interest in walking in the footsteps of her mother and the mothers before her. Her brothers pleaded with her. “Why must you argue? Are you not happy?”

“Of course I am happy. I just want more.”

But what ​did s​he want? Frankly, Meera didn’t know what she wanted. All she knew was that sometimes when the village Ferris wheel ground into motion, her fingers grasping at the breeze, Meera felt irrationally but utterly complete. Bare feet fluttered against the sky as Meera’s Ferris wheel cart swung gently at the top. Her gaggle of friends waved to their companions below, but Meera looked nowhere but upward.

She wanted to spend the rest of her life reaching for the sky.

Meera was sprawled on the charpoy on the terrace, dreaming of the Ferris wheel when the stranger from Bombay arrived. Her sister grabbed her arm, whispering excitedly.

“Meera! There are visitors at the door! They are bringing a ​boy.​”

Meera rolled her eyes. “​Another ​suitor? The matchmaker had just brought in a boy two days ago.”

Her sister giggled. “This boy isn’t the same as the rest!​” She leaned closer, her smile only growing wider.“ He’s​ different. Y​ou know, these other boys come swaddled in their​ dhotis, looking like baby ducks crossing the pond. But not this one! He is wearing crisply ironed brown pants. ​”​

Meera’s eyes widened. “When will I get to see him?”

“No, you cannot see him. What would people think?”

“How can I marry him without seeing him? What if he’s short or plump or…” Meera struggled to find words, “…or ​ugly?”​

She darted across the courtyard, leaning against the walls in a desperate attempt to catch broken pieces of conversation. There were muffled words, the voices of her brothers too faint for her to discern. As the discussion continued, Meera stared at the chicken-wire window etched into the wall a few feet above her. Her eyes hardened into resolve, as she knotted the loose end of her half-sari to her waist.

Bare feet mounted the tiles that lined the courtyard walls. Her sister stared at Meera’s antics in silent horror, entirely prepared to flee in the case that she was caught.

When Meera stared through the spaces between the wire mesh of the window, she saw nothing at first. The faces of her family members were hidden behind a billowing cloth hung to dry. She cursed her fate under her breath, clutching the edge of the window sill for support. Then something flashed before her eyes, and she gasped.

Shoes.

Shoes were not for Hejmadi’s farmers or businessmen. They belonged to those who walked down bustling roads carved by slabs of concrete. The shiny black Indian loafers meant nothing to brothers who accounted for land and the aunts who prized the family name. But for Meera, shoes were the symbol of a world she had never seen, of the things that she never had. Every scuff mark brought a piece of the city’s crumbling sidewalks, every stain of shoe polish was the mark of city monsoons. No one in Hejmadi cared for those shoes because they had no interest in its whereabouts. For the earthen village soil, living barefoot was enough.

But not enough for Meera.

“Of course he’s ​different!​” Meera whispered to herself, recalling her sister’s words. “He’s from the ​city.”

In the midst of her joy, she lost her balance and fell to the ground with a thud. Bruised bare feet on the ground again, giddy and quivering. Her sister clucked like a mother hen, scolding her for being so foolish. But still, she smiled in a daze of some sorts, remembering nothing but the shoes. It was settled. Meera was to be wed.

~~~
Marriage in India was not simply the exchange of rings in front of a fire. It was a moment of change, when women left the final pieces of adolescence in their childhood homes. Meera stared at herself in the mirror, her hair coiled into a bun and slicked with coconut oil. Thin strokes of kajal lined her eyes. There was once a time when Meera wanted nothing more than to be a woman, to fit into her mother’s cotton sarees and carry her borrowed confidence. Yet as the moment had finally arrived, she wrestled with the fear that simmered beneath the surface. Meera remembered the moment before she had broken her first coconut. Gingerly, she had looked up at her mother asking,

“I don’t know if I can do it, am I ready?”

Her mother smiled. “You always were.”

The coconut cracked open that day, its fruit for the taking. Wordlessly, Meera draped the loose end of her saree over her shoulder and walked into the light.

They say when God chooses to awaken on Earth as a mortal again, his incarnation is given a new name. Meera had grown up chanting these names in the household temple, singing, “Hare Rama! Hare Krishna!” And now, wrapped in red and gold, she was gifted her own name. When women were married in Meera’s village, they were given their new identities, the shells of their previous lives unraveling into the​ mandap s​moke. As the vermillion dot of good fortune was painted on her forehead, she was christened Radha — the namesake of God’s beloved. It was a new name, one that did not conceal Meera but rather embraced her. That night, it was Radha and her husband, Govind, who left the village, promising to write letters home. Bare feet welcomed the new earth below it, regardless of what lay ahead.

~~~
It took another thirty years before the National Highway 66 was built by the Indian Government. Carefully, the changing times molded pieces of Southern Karnataka, constructing buildings where there were grasslands, factories where there were terra-cotta homes. But the banks of the Shambhavi River are the same. The golden stretch of land resists not the water, but accepts its tranquil ripples and currents. Coconut trees reach towards the sunlight, its fronds whispering in a language of its own. I stare at Maomma. Her nose ring glints beneath the sunlight and I am reminded of both her pain and her pride. Time has been both kind and cruel to her, but my grandmother is at peace with the waves that have molded her.

I begin making my way down the waterside, but she halts.

“You are forgetting something,” she tells me, her eyes twinkling.

“What?”

Silently, Maomma slips out of her sandals, beckoning for me to do the same. We cross the patchwork of sand and silt, the two of us barefoot and laughing. My feet sink into new soil. Grains of sand coil between my toes and suddenly the generations between us disappear. Gone are highways that divide us, the languages that separate us. With every growing step our footprints grow closer and closer, until the horizon melts into the water below and no longer can we tell them apart.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

Visual Art by Nahyun Sung 

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Perfect Case of OCD

For a while, OCD wasn’t just a disease, it was my disease. No one else was allowed to claim it, because if other people suffered like I did, It was basically like I never suffered at all. Quite a selfish thought, really, but OCD is a very self-absorbed disease, seeking all one’s available attention until there isn’t any left to give.

In fourth grade, I had to whisper the names of every student in my class (in alphabetical order) to no audience other than my humidifier and the radiator (which stopped and started in reluctant applause at my incredible memory). If I failed to recall a classmate, I couldn’t fall asleep. It simply wasn’t feasible. I would shut my eyes and listen to the heavy lull of the radiator, but my fists would clench and the fallow colors creeping through the cracks between my curtains, the hapless four A.M. light, would settle atop my eyelids. But sleep would not come.

In sixth grade, I chewed each bite thirty times in each cheek, for I thoroughly believed, even one bite short of my perfect number, I might fail to digest the meal entirely. It would settle in my stomach like a rock and plop itself there, an eternal resident of my digestive system. I knew it was a foolish thought, and I kept it to myself. But I believed it nonetheless.

In eighth grade, I cried because I knew something wasn’t right. Nothing was ever right. But I was never sure what. Breath taut, like a shrinking elastic. Four in, seven out. Harsh beams of light filtered through my sterile shades; the four strips of white that shone on the sliver of the floor between the bed and the wall were the same every day. Four was a bad number, so I avoided them. One foot on the cold hardwood, another, until they were side by side, toe to toe. Three sips of water. Gulp, gulp, gulp. Cup back down. Center it, good. Every morning was the same, and I liked it this way.

It was also in eighth grade that I developed my x-ray vision. It was a Tuesday when Max Jacobs threw up in the middle of first period. Mrs. Peterson was explaining the importance of special right triangles and he started coughing. He didn’t even bother aiming for the sink or a trash can, it blanketed his desk like a cocoon, spilling over into his open backpack.

“Oh, dear,” began Mrs. Peterson, but I didn’t stay to listen to the remainder of her sentence. I pulled on my sweatshirt and hurdled over an empty chair to reach the door before any of his germs spread to my open lips. I saw things nobody else could, the bacteria floating through the air, crawling along the carpet, clinging to the bottoms of my shoes, sinking into the raw skin on my palms. I despised the nurse’s office. It was the most germ-ridden room in the entire school. They were everywhere in there: in the bathroom where countless stomach ache cases had thrown up, on the armrests of the benches where the cold cases rested their sweatshirts after they’d coughed in their sleeve. I avoided this hell hole at all costs. But I didn’t know where else to go. I perched myself on the table as I hyperventilated. I had never breathed so fast before, but I didn’t have time to be impressed with this new skill, for the nurse was rubbing my back with her hand, the same hand that had rubbed hundreds of other backs that same very week. I tore away and shoved my hands in my pockets where they wouldn’t touch anything else, held my breath so I wouldn’t have to breathe the infested air. By the time I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, she was dialing the number on my emergency contact sheet. I breathed into the hood of my sweatshirt and waited.

When I got home, I stood under the bathroom’s judging light. I scrubbed the antibacterial soap into the bleeding canyons on the backs of my hands, cracked from a combination of over washing and the biting winter air. I used only the hot water until the skin beneath my fingernails turned purple like the bath toy my mom used to give me that changed color in the pink bubble bath steam. I clenched the skin of my cheeks in my molars until my eyes watered and counted to one hundred. A solid number. A safe number.

“What are you doing?” My dad flicked off the faucet. I was just relieved that I didn’t have to touch it. Hands suspended in the air, water dripping onto my socks, I whispered, “Washing my hands.”

Suddenly, I found myself in a cold office. All the laminated degrees, they meant nothing to me, but they must have meant something to my parents, for it made them trust this man with my care for hours at a time, even though they hardly knew him. I was told his name was Dr. Clump, and that was all I really knew about him, besides the fact that he graduated with a PHD from Brown. It haunted me that he knew so much about me, yet I knew so little about him, and I was determined to find out more. All I knew was what I could see, and I never liked that, because there were always things lurking beneath the surface. I knew he leaned back in his chair as he talked, and his stomach protruded over his thick black belt, landing on top of his desk. I knew a diet coke left a wet ring on top of a textbook sized, “A Comprehensive Guide to Adolescent OCD” Perhaps he was going on a diet, a rather unsuccessful one, I presumed. I knew he closed his eyes while he talked, inspiring me to coin the nickname later when I described the session to my parents: Closed-eyed Clump. His desk lacked any photographs of his wife, kids, even a dog. There were only generic framed pictures that it was clear he didn’t take, a fall leaf, a droplet of water on a brick, they seemed meaningless, and they were hung crooked on his wall. I wondered if he had done it like that on purpose, because surely no grown man could manage to accidentally center a photo that poorly.

I sought solace in the small octagonal window behind him, the sky blue, grey, black, orange, depending on the time of day I was dragged to this stifling room, always cold in the summer and warm in the winter. I loved the drive home from his office, from the city, buildings stacked neatly side by side, precisely planted shrubbery, because I knew I didn’t have to stare past his ugly glasses into curious, prying eyes for at least another week. But I loathed the ride there, the car-seat fabric stretching between my white knuckles, rolling the window up and down because I couldn’t get it just right.

During one of our earlier sessions, I noticed his computer had adopted a new screensaver: polar bears. It changed about every thirty seconds or so, and each depiction of the animal featured a new pose, one leaning against a rock, one sitting cross-legged, one standing on its heels begging for fish, one resting on its back, its stomach stretching out over its legs. Then and there, I decided my shrink quite resembled this arctic species, but his most accurate likeness was certainly the last image on the slideshow.

“Do you know why I chose the polar bears?”

I shook my head.

“Now that I brought it up, and you’re staring at them, you can’t stop thinking about them, can you?”

I shook my head again. This was our usual routine. He would say something he thought to be profound or groundbreaking and smile to himself at his own genius while I either nodded or shook my head, depending on what I deemed appropriate.

“It’s like OCD. As much as you try to stop yourself from thinking about your compulsions, they will never go away. You have to stop trying to make them go away, and they will.” This seemed extremely counterproductive. Wasn’t his entire job to cure me? Not to make up reasons why I wasn’t yet cured. I realized how unfair this entire thing was. Why me? Dr. Clump told me I had the perfect case of OCD, but he also said nothing was perfect. He was full of contradictions. It comforted me, knowing that something about me was perfect, just right: my OCD. That meant there were other people like me, probably a lot. And as I watched the sinking orange beyond the car windshield, past the puzzle of buildings, while my dad whistled his usual backing out of a therapist’s driveway tune, I thought about this idea. I thought about it quite often. Nothing is perfect. What exactly did that mean? I had heard things described as perfect before, so how was it possible that perfection didn’t exist? It was August when I realized he was right. During one of our dimmer, lamp-lit sessions over the winter, he told me to go kayaking. I was watching sleet blanket a telephone wire through the octagon as he described the ripples in the water that stem from the rivulets dripping off the paddle. How they appear unflawed at first glance, the rings all equal lengths from each other, separating slowly until they sink into the black depths, continuing far into the distance.

“But,” he had said, “even one of the most seemingly perfect sights in nature is still not entirely perfect. A boat could drive by, disrupting the pattern. And this is essentially what OCD is. Something disrupts the pattern and it upsets us.” This sounded like something a bearded man with horn-rimmed glasses framed by Brown degrees would say, but it was also one of the moments when I was most fond of my therapist. It was a very therapist thing to say, and I liked that. I liked that it was expected, but I still wasn’t sure how that piece of advice could fix me. Come summer, though, I did as he told me. As soon as I stepped into the boat, I immediately became ill-at-ease. It tilted with the shifting wake, I never liked being off balance. Water soaked through my shorts, prickling the skin on my thighs. My breathing began to tighten again. 7,4,7,4. I watched the sky warm to a pale red reflecting in the water on the ripples. It’s true. They aren’t perfect, but they’re still beautiful. Exposure therapy, a term Clump liked to throw around a lot; I knew it was important for me to get better, but I kept putting it off. Getting better, it seemed hard, far away, the future you imagine on the hopeful edge of sleep, but in the back of your mind know will never find its way into reality. I dipped my fingers into the cool pink water, sweet on my chipped fingernails. I let them stay there for a solid amount of time. I didn’t count, just waited for my fingers to grow numb as I stared at my rosy reflection in the lake water. I tried to remember the second part of what Clump had said. As he was finishing his sentiment, I remembered, I was watching a cardinal flick ice from the telephone wire,

“Even if something disrupts the pattern, don’t let it upset you. Nothing’s perfect, and that’s okay.”

Lily Oldershaw is a sophomore in high school who enjoys writing based both on her own experiences and creating worlds from her imagination. She hopes readers of her work will think about the world differently and take a piece of it with them into their everyday life. When she isn’t writing, Lily can often be found doing yoga, watching interviews on Youtube of interesting people, and trying to shorten the pile of “To Be Read” books on her desk.
Visual Art by Anastasia James 
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Green and Gold

The story opens like this: a small suburban town, incredibly picturesque scenery, high expectations and even higher taxes. A teenage girl mingles with her friends in the hallway in the few sacred minutes before class begins. She looks like the average Chappaqua student. She sounds like the average Chappaqua student. She is one, isn’t she?

Mm, not so much. Before Chappaqua there was Eastchester with its white picket fences and lovely neighbors, where she and her parents piled into a rented single-bedroom, single-bathroom multi-family house for four years. Before Eastchester was the Bronx, a tall apartment with a view of the city skyline from the top floor and piles of rotting garbage from the bottom, where they stayed on the fourth floor for a few years until a drunk man was shot to death in the bar behind their building, after which her parents deemed it high time to move out. Before the Bronx was South Side Chicago, notoriously dangerous, not particularly pleasant either, especially not the grimy studio apartment (demolished a few years after they moved) that she can only remember from photo albums—but her first home nonetheless.

Before that before and even before that, if you really dig deep enough, you’d trace her life tree down through its suburban trunk, into its roots buried in sketchy South Side Chicago soil, through the Americas and across the horizon of the Atlantic.

The real story opens like this: a big city, street lamps blurring together under the ink of night. A 25-year-old newlywed waiting for the 8:15 PM bus calls this city her home, the only home she’s ever known.

She’s a planner and has been one for her whole life. She knows what she’s doing, what she’s capable of, what she wants in life. This city is her childhood and her youth. This life is comfort and familiarity and convention guaranteed to lead to stability.

Above the streetlamp, a sliver of moon hovers, just enough for its beams to skim the dots of drifting snow. The wind warns of an impending storm, tugging at the end of her ponytail and swirling the tip into a brush dipped in the gold of the streetlight glow, ready to paint her future. She looks around herself at the streets she could navigate with her eyes closed, the people she’s loved her entire life, the home she’s slowly built for herself.

Yet she knows there’s more. Her husband just left to study abroad in Illinois. She wants to support him there, and maybe she should. But how can she not think about all of the impossibilities? If she leaves her home, will she ever come back? What about her mother and father and brother? Will she make it in a country whose language she can barely speak, whose culture is entirely foreign, whose location is halfway across the planet? How does she survive financially, socially? Emotionally?

The moon brightens and brightens, fans out across the sky. Hours pass and the snow comes softer, everything rhyming with the word “go”. She thinks again of the impossibilities, and then of the possibilities. The promise of spring, glowing green and gold.

And then she rushes toward it with every ounce of energy she has.

She first works as a minimum-wage fast-food server at a Chinese place in downtown Chicago. She comes home every night nauseous from the sickening smell of oil soaked into her clothes and her hair, hands burned and blistered from the frying pan. For now, no other stores will take her with her poor English. So she studies hard.

Half a year later, a friend introduces her to the owner of a Japanese restaurant a few blocks east and she lands a job immediately. The restaurant is nice, somewhere she might have chosen to dine with a few friends on a Friday night if she were back home. She carries a secret snack stash of edamame beans in the left pocket of her apron and a pocket-size dictionary in the other—here, she relies much more on English. She gets tips now, and a few months later, she and her husband save up enough money to buy a bed frame to go with their mattress.

Because she adores children, her third job is babysitting. It pays well and she grows close to several of the families she works with. She has her very own baby to babysit a year later: her daughter, born on a chilly November morning as twilight surrenders to dawn. Shortly after, her husband receives a job offer in the Bronx, so they say goodbye to their friends (surprised by how sad they are to go), then on a foggy weekend begin their drive to New York City.

The sunsets from the balcony of their new apartment blanket the entire city until only tiny glittering lights are left dotting the skyline across the pier, countless specks of light, countless dreams and wishes. Their room is close to the ground floor so on windy days she gets a whiff of the garbage piles on the streets, but it’s nothing compared to the fast-food place she used to work at. Days bleed into weeks. She upgrades her pocket-size dictionary to a handheld electronic one that she buys from a Dollar Tree two blocks down.

She takes her daughter to the library near their apartment and explains to the librarians in what broken English she can muster that she’s going back to school soon, that she’ll be busy but can’t afford a nanny, asks if it’s okay to maybe drop her daughter off on the weekends. And so it’s between the beanbag chairs and lime green leather couches with the help of the librarians that her daughter learns how to sound English letters out, how to put them into mysterious bundles called words, how to read—and god, after she learns how to read, there’s really no stopping it. She sees the way her daughter falls in love with the adrenaline rush of a plot twist, the desperate itch of a cliffhanger, the way the page opens up doors to worlds and people that don’t even exist in this dimension of the universe.

Outside of those library walls, weeks blur into months, months into years. She’s back in school for her master’s degree: classes in the morning, interning in the afternoon, work in the evening, homework deep into the night as the sky blackens and blackens then pales again, hinting at dawn. A few hours of sleep. Repeat.

Seven hundred sunsets and sunrises later, she receives her diploma and a New York State teaching certificate and an indescribable feeling of warmth. Her daughter is growing up. When she lands a second interview for the first time, she buys herself a laptop to replace the battered electronic dictionary that she barely even needs anymore, switches out her flip-phone for the newest Nokia. They move out to the suburbs into a good school district that’s two hours away, but she takes up the offer at the Brooklyn elementary school anyway when they tell her she’s hired. It’s the first call she gets on her smartphone and she saves the number into her contacts with shaking hands.

Sure, she’d like to sleep past 5 AM and not commute for four hours a day, but she loves teaching more, and she loves her daughter the most. The sun blazes and blazes, pans out across the sky. The glow of spring is here.

My mother’s story is one in 37 million. Most of those voices remain unheard, memories buried, some families even separated at the border of two countries. In so many ways, my mom was lucky for being admitted legally, for being with her loved ones from the very beginning, for being able, after all these years, to pass on her story to her daughter, who will pass it on to the world. Because stories like her mother’s deserve to be told.

To make the choice she did meant that she viewed the world in a way I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around. She saw her life through a lens larger than herself, far larger, and I’m eternally grateful for that lens and for her unrelenting dedication, for not only her sacrifices, but also the mindset she instills in me by simply existing.

Her decisions have shaped me more than anything else has. I moved around a lot as a kid. It’s ingrained in who I am. From a young age, I learned to say hello and goodbye to people, because chances were I wouldn’t get another chance if I passed this one. I learned that home is where the heart is, that my family would always be my sun, unfailingly there for me every morning to keep me alive and warm. I learned that my friends are just asteroids orbiting in my life, just like I’m an asteroid in theirs. One day they’ll spin off into the abyss and new ones will come, and that’s okay. Everything I have in my tiny universe is temporary, but that’s kind of the beauty of it, isn’t it?

I’m writing this on my porch steps right now. It’s getting dark and I should probably head back before the mosquitoes get to me. But the moon is almost out in the same Chicago sky I was born under a decade and a half ago, and its faint outline greets me, a lullaby of dulcet silver against rich velvet on a hazy summer night. And if I just give myself a minute, if I’m still enough, I might hear the faint jingle of the New York City ice cream truck accompanied by an orchestra of sirens and honks. A breeze might bring a whiff of that citrus-flavored candy my mom used to buy for me on her way home from work, and I might just feel the tickle of grass in my small picket-fenced backyard in suburban Eastchester. Even with my eyes closed, I can imagine so vividly the roses that climb up my neighbor’s trellis here in Chappaqua, where the stars are brighter than city lights; I’ll picture the sunflowers and little dandelion seeds choreographed by the wind, and I’ll know, truly, that I owe everything to her.

On her twentieth wedding anniversary last week, she sat me down as the guests left, pulling out of our driveway one by one as the sun dipped behind the clouds. Tell my story, she said. Tell it to the world, dear. Write something for me.

I will, I promised her. But you’ve got to teach me your secrets first. How did you do it?

And she just laughed, took my hands in her calloused ones. I could see every wrinkle around the corners of her eyes. Sometimes, she said to me, it’s almost as though she can see herself standing at the airport alone, waiting at life’s crossroads, clutching onto a map of fate without any labels and racing down a one-way street that could very well be a dead-end—but racing anyway, because she knew that it would be worth it.

If not for herself, then for her husband. If not for herself, then for her parents and their parents, watching from above. If not for herself, then for her daughter’s life tree and its Chicago roots, for all of its branches that have yet to sprout, for the hope that its leaves, under the warmth of the spring sun, will bud green and gold.

 

16-year-old Zoya Yan is a junior attending Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. As a first-generation American, she loves to explore her heritage through her writing. In her spare time, Zoya enjoys reading and napping with a preference for the latter.

Art by Noah Jones

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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

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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

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