Age: 14, Grade: 9
School Name: Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, New York, NY
Educator: Joshua Bar Lev
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Ela, Ela Alster.
There’s a Carola and a Shapiro in Between,
but That’s a Whole Other Story
for an Entirely Different Day.
My name has never been what I wanted it to be. I wanted a name with star quality, one that people would hear and remember forever, that they would hear and be struck with a reverie of quiet knowledge, and say, “she’s something.” At the very least, I wanted a name that spoke in some way to who I was. Even ordinary names held a piece of people that on their own, maybe they themselves didn’t have. Names like Olive, Amit, Alice, Ruby, Viviana, Violet, Julia, and Dinah, all spark faint wisdoms and recollections of what those girls might be like. Made it so that unless, like Dinah, forcing people to turn around and notice her, just by being her, is who they are, they didn’t need to walk around the world hollering “Hey, I’m me, look at me, I’m who I am!” Because their names would say just a little bit of it for them. But what do you think of, when you think of Ela?
Personally I don’t think of much, which is exactly the problem. My name is one step away from normal and one step away from gone. It slips away from storefronts and souvenirs, must always be forcefully customized for its singularity, and yet there are so many people that are so much like it. Just one letter away from being the same. There are no cult characters or cartoon classics for me to build myself off of, no actress or artist whose talents I’ve inherited by connection of name. And so, I’ve been forced to live up to myself, to create my legacy on my own, which is a million times harder than living up to someone else’s. I have always had to construct my own building blocks before I could ever make towers out of them.
So I guess for me, my name is just everything that I am. What I am is my voice. A tree breathing soft baritone, the hollow sigh of maturity stuffed and stitched up into 14 years of life. The hundreds of rings in aging wood circle around and dizzy my malleable mind. It’s a lot being 14 in a world where you have to be so much more.
I’m the wind blowing a feather into air filled with smooth jazz. The feather, for a split second, inanimate, feels like it’s flying. I’m also the somber outro fading to black, floating back down, melding amongst sidewalk stains and pigeon shit, and sometimes getting stepped on. Sometimes it’s my own foot that steps on the feather, and how ironic that is.
I am words that exist only on my own pages, bound in a notebook on a shelf in a room forgotten but constantly lived in, waiting for the next sad day. Words that rise in and are soon after forgotten in my imagination, and words that exist in quiet moments beside shoulders to cry on and endless dependence. My gift, I say, is that I’ll always be there for you darling, even when forever becomes hyperbole.
I am colors- latin and bright, soft curves and wild curls and drab brown eyes that aren’t actually all that dreary because of the lines and marks that crease around them. An unusual beauty in a world and in a city and in a school where there is no shortage of them. It’s hard being special in a world full of special people.
I am my last name, which is a woman skimming this river in Germany- quite literally, look it up. Her name is the Badenixe. A floating statue. She is a mermaid, she is giant, and yet she is drowning. She looks like Marilyn Munroe but I’ve never heard of her, and it pains me to think of how lonely she is, out there estranged in the water- there are always boats of happy families whizzing past her eyes. She is a spectacle yet she has secrets, ‘cause you see despite the fact that the mayor thinks she “sullies the lake,” most of the boats that pass her by are there to gawk at her presence… and never know her deeper. My last name is a history that I know nothing about, of which I have no idea.
She is probably the most out of place thing I have ever seen in my life.
My name is lost; it doesn’t know its intention -doesn’t know if it wants to be a star, or a mother, or a teacher, or nothing at all because it takes a lot of work to become something- except that it is never practicality and is always creativity. Logic has never been my best buddy. And see, creativity can be troubling because with imagination comes fantasy, and fantasy can rarely ever be reality when you dream as hard as you love- and my name loves intensely (and fiercely, vehemently, profoundly). My name is figuring out what it’s going to be in this world where it’s only noticed if it grabs people by the heart and forces itself to be seen. So for now, my name is love letters and sad poems and improvised loving. Writings not yet sent and never read and probably never will be. Make sure you read closely, or else you might not and won’t quite notice my name. But believe me when I tell you, you’ve gotta notice me.