English Language Arts: Identity Vignette, Personal Essay
Throughout the year, we'll shine a light on one of our subject areas and student work. Phoebe, an 8th grade students in Ms. Seuling's English Language Arts section explores aspects of identity in her Identity Vignette, and Gustavo, an 8th grade student in Ms. Schoen's English Language Arts class, shares his Personal Essay on how we see and shape our feelings and life experiences.
Here’s the thing: I don’t like to think about who I am. Because the fact that I don’t really know scares me. I keep deleting what I’m writing and retyping it. The fun of this assignment is that I get to choose what part of myself I show. I get to create a persona through omission. I choose the image of myself that you see. That’s the problem; the choosing.
There’s a quote I read once by Otto Frank, father of the famed Anne Frank, writer of the brilliant Anne Frank diary. I can’t quite remember where I read it, or when. It was as follows: “Most parents don’t know, really, their children.” I wonder, if my parents read the following vignette, if they’d be surprised.
A small town, late July, with white fairy lights draped over the lazy limbs of oak trees and one movie theater and a red brick library with an impressive selection of 40’s mysteries. Forever washed in twilight-colored hues, it smelled of salt and crabs and sundown. This town hugged an East Coast ocean, green like my eyes, with the kind of reckless, tumbling waves that one found intoxicating. I got drunk on the dance of that ocean, nearly sent my father into a rip current to save the flailing arms of a drowning man, then sobbed on the beach; on the burning sand; convinced that I had almost killed my father. I thought I had that much power; I didn’t.
I remember that town through the eyes of a girl I saw at sunset. She was maybe two years older than me. I saw her in the fudge shoppe, with her mother. She had eyes like her mother, brown and huge and trusting, like a deer. And then later, I saw her eyes through the gray, gray smoke of a cigarette. I breathed the smoke in. It’s stench was one of nightmares, of sick. I wondered where her mother was.
In that town, I trekked the rutted gravel driveway of an alabaster-shingled house, barefoot, with my cousins, their hair the color of lemons. We played football on grass, inhaled the smoky fumes of the campfire and burning marshmallows, saw the same stars at night.
I had many sleepless nights in that town, lying on a stiff-backed bed that was not my own, spread with the patchwork quilt that was, the bed itself a lie without breath. I listened to the sound of car wheels on gravel, on road, and I watched the buttery white rays of light that slivered through the shades and streaked across the ceiling of the darkened room. I listened to music - the music of my head - a jumble of lyrics and melodies that I could nearly grasp, a child reaching for a balloon stuck just high enough in a tree that their efforts to obtain it were fruitless. Every time that I thought that sleep would never steal me away, the rains would come. Summer rains with plump raindrops and lightning the color of purple stars. The rolling sound of a storm, sweeping out towards the ocean. And my glowing green eyes would close, slowly, and the soundtrack of the rain would lull me to sleep.
That summer, although very likely romanticized by the foggy lens of memory, is a looking glass into the carousel of my brain. The truth is, I don’t know what defines me. I guess it’s every moment that I have ever lived, every second, since 4:19 a.m. on June 29th, 2006, to now. That summer was a part of my time on Earth. In a way, any passage from the past 13 years could be the summation of my entire existence. It’s not a question of which memory. All of them are me, things I did and said, things I loved. No one moment sums me up better than any other. All the memories are there. It’s not a question of which one. They’re all mine.
Regret, Memory, and The Result of Taking A Chance
An essay, in its bare essence, is simply a variety of words arranged in a particular way to serve their author’s purpose. Those words themselves are merely letters scrambled so that they may hold meaning to their reader. In contemplating the substance of words, I came to realize that people are a lot like words. People are made up of experiences in the way words are made of letters. Your combination of experiences defines you, and new experiences can change your definition. The word “no” can be transformed into the word “noble”, or the word “nothing”, much like how someone who comes from nothing has the potential to grow into a titan of industry. Expanding upon this idea, I believe that when you define someone, you should not only consider actions they have enacted in the past but also weigh in the miracles they may effectuate in the future.
The vast catalog of words can be used to promulgate a wide assortment of emotions. Happiness, fear, and anger can all be intensely elaborated through words. Regret, however, is one of the most difficult emotions to express. It could be viewed as a sort of Herculean feat due to the simple fact that the expression of regret involves exigent amounts of explanation as to why you regret a certain action. I have an incredibly difficult time putting my regret into comprehensible words. And yet, regret is possibly the most universal emotion to ever exist. While everyone probably has experienced some moment of misery or some moment of joy, our brains do not function in the way where we are able to easily select our most joyous or miserable moment. Be that as it may, it would be nearly effortless to pick out a moment you regret. In a minute, I could compile a long list of regrets, from things I wish I did, to a multitude of things I wish I didn’t. Some of these range from smaller regrets, like regret for not writing certain things in an essay in fifth grade, to far greater regrets like letting certain friendships deteriorate until they no longer existed. Of course, if my great collection of regrets has taught me anything, it’s to not dwell too much on the past lest you run the risk of living in it. At the same time, forgetting what once was is just as grim an idea. After all, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If I were to forget my actions and the roles I have played in my life events, I would almost certainly make mistakes I have made before. Your regrets may weigh heavily on your mind, but not acknowledging them would be to chance making the same mistake again. The regret which lies within your memories can teach you more than you may imagine.
Memories are just as much the lifeblood of humans as actual blood is. Memories shape you into who you are. They create your biases, your opinions, your tastes, dislikes. Memories, both merry and unfavorable, are constantly pumping through my brain as if they were blood pumping through my veins. I cannot choose out of my memories a fondest memory nor a most austere memory. Perhaps my fondest memory is of a stormy day, spent indoors with my family, which serves as a metaphorical reminder that your family is there for you even in the seemingly darkest of moments. Or instead, perhaps my fondest memory is that of a day spent killing time with friends long gone. A memory buried so far down my banks of recollection it is nearly forgotten. Time is always a strange concept. It’s hard to imagine that an extensive amount of time has passed between an event and the present moment, especially when in your mind you can picture it as clear as if it were yesterday. However, time is perhaps an even stranger concept when you find yourself unable to picture the event in question as anything more than a vague whisper from the ghosts of your past. You have a hard time pinpointing when it was that the memory is from, your feelings while experiencing it, and who was along for the ride. However, even these hazy slivers of time can impact your life. After all, memories are what ultimately shape your opinions and your beliefs. And by extension of that, memories become the most powerful thing in the world, as they can influence entire perceptions a person has of another person or a thing. If you have nothing but grand memories of a certain person, you may find it difficult to have any other feelings towards them besides those which are also grand, regardless of what they may do to you.
I am undeniably quite young, and once again the strange concept of time plays in. Two years is an eternity to me, as it is just barely over a sixth of my life. However, for someone that has lived for a considerably longer amount of time than I, two years may seem like the blink of an eye. So perhaps, while I think two years is a considerable length of time to know someone for, you may think it is nothing. Regardless, I have known this person for two years’ time, approximately. If you were to ask me my opinion on them when I first met them, I would probably describe them as nothing short of vexatious. In fact, I would without a doubt have gone into a mad ramble ticking off every box as to why I found them absolutely pestilent. And yet now, it’s almost comical how I would not be able to list more than three points as to why I might find them displeasing. Memories do indeed change your perception of a person. As it so happens, I talked to this person once, as in had an actual conversation with them. My reasons for doing so retrospectively seem perplexing considering my opinion on them, but I am incredibly grateful that me from two years ago did so. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea where I would be had my disliking of that person not evolved into a friendship. The memories I have constructed over the course of my friendship with them will undoubtedly last a lifetime.
Now, let us presume that I did not take the chance of conversing with a person I loathed. Let us presume I held my preconceived notions of them above all else, and just never bothered to get to know them. Where would I be? That is a question I myself do not know the answer to. The only thing I can say for sure is that I would be a completely different person. I have assumed so much of my personality due to their influence, from the way I talk, to my tastes in music and humor. Honestly, I would say that they in part helped me unlock the ability to write as well as I do. Of course, immediately after writing those words, I flung back in my seat and contemplated for a few minutes whether or not to keep them in this essay. I decided to, not necessarily to boast about my writing prowess, but instead to highlight one of the ways this person influenced me. After all, I do not consider myself to be a writer of any particularly higher than average standard. However, what little attributes of a good writer I do have, I probably if not certainly owe to this person. My mind truly becomes a discombobulated pile of sludge when I try to imagine my life without them. And all it took was not judging a person based solely on my past experiences with them to give me the best friend I have ever had.
To not judge a book by its cover is something we have all been told. Of course, this quote is so rarely used in reference to actual books. It is more often than not used to say that you shouldn’t judge someone from how they present themselves to the world. After all, words someone says behind closed doors is more of a testament to their nature than words they shout on a stage. My friendship with someone who I consider to be my closest friend ever came from this idea. Me and them don’t talk much nowadays. And when we do talk, it’s for very short periods of time in comparison to times when we spent hours talking. And yet, despite the fact that their presence in my life is not as prominent now, I still believe they have been the single greatest influence on my life ever, not including my own kin. Due to my own experiences, I believe that you shouldn’t judge someone exclusively by their past or your preconceived notions of them, as you never know what could spring forth from you taking a chance.