DISALVO FAGAN, ALAINA
Alaina DiSalvo Fagan
Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: St Saviour High School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Jennifer Maurer
Writing Portfolio: Learning to Fight
Looking for Joy
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
CCD was the acronym without a meaning.
I learned today that it stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. No one knew that back then. I doubt anyone knows that now. Catholics aren’t big on learning things. Just on making sure others learn them, whether they like it or not.
I’d go every week after school to the church near my house. I didn’t like it very much, but it was essential to my education, as my father insisted. I knew my father wouldn’t lie to me.
I never really told him how much I hated going. I didn’t want him to be sad. I’d tell my mother. I told her everything. She would smile wide, tell me how wonderful it was going to be the next time, and leave the room. She couldn’t look me in the eye afterwards.
I had long hair back then. It fell far past my shoulder blades. My father would have me sit on the floor between his knees as he brushed it back. He would use detangler, he would use conditioner, he would use special rubber bands that were meant to reduce the ache, but I would cry every time. I hated my thick, frizzy hair. I hated that I found comfort when he would brush it, even though it stung.
He’d give me two ponytails, tied so tight that my whole scalp throbbed. Friends would make fun of me for them. I went to him in tears, one day, and asked why I couldn’t have one ponytail like all the other kids. He told me that the others were simply jealous. Two ponytails were much better than one. He pretended not to hear when I argued.
“What does Heaven look like?” the CCD teacher asked, on the first day.
Hands shot into the air. I watched. I didn’t understand.
Smiling faces, round with the lack of all they had seen, dutifully answered the call: “Rainbows. Clouds. Sugar and joy.”
All eyes turned on me.
“What does Heaven look like?” the teacher asked me, expectantly.
I knew what I was meant to say. But my half-formed dreams clouded my already splintered vision. I knew what I thought. It didn’t fit what the other kids had said.
The teacher’s face began to fall.
“Old men in an oil painting,” I proudly proclaimed. “Cracked and yellowed, eyes unfocused, looking for joy from the bottom of their graves. They’re very angry, but they’re all saints, so it’s alright.”
The teacher looked away and changed the subject.
I didn’t phrase it that way, back then. The words wouldn’t fit in my tiny mouth. But I can still see the image in my head, and that’s exactly what it was.
I had never realized that God was supposed to be a joyous thing.
When I thought of God, I thought of my father’s glare as I lowered the kneeler onto the floor much too loudly. I thought of the rare days that he would force me to go to Church, and how I never saw him open a Bible. I thought of the yellowed piece of paper on my mother’s dresser, covered in tally marks of all different colors, reading words that I wouldn’t understand for a long time. I thought of the Psalm she would read every single morning but had failed to memorize after more than ten years.
I had a “Read With Me Bible” as a kid. I still have it, somewhere, falling to pieces on my bookshelf. All I remember from that book is King Nebuchadnezzer and the men he failed to burn alive. I loved how complicated his name was- here was someone else who’d never find their name on a keychain. There were some wonderful stories about Jesus in there, too, but it all seemed very far away. I read it the same way I read Percy Jackson, or Harry Potter. It never seemed like something I could relate to.
God was itchy. God was too-loud clicks of heels on marble floors, uncomfortably wet kisses from relatives I didn’t know, and a faraway force that had never helped me.
God seemed like an old, decrepit man who didn’t like me very much. God seemed like the complicated words that my father would use on purpose when talking to me so he’d seem smart when I was confused. So when someone asked me what Heaven was like, that’s what I shared.
On my worst nights, when I was about five years old, locked in a room in my father’s house with the phone hidden far out of reach, I would pray. I would beg God to bring my mother to save me, beg Him to make me forget about my mother completely so I could learn to love the days I spent with my father. Neither prayer was ever granted.
I hated my First Communion outfit.
I wore a veil. The harsh comb on top of it dug into my scalp with a fury. That veil is the only thing I remember about that day, except for this:
“What did it taste like?” asked an uncle I would stop speaking to in a few years. “The Eucharist?”
I made a face. “Stale, whole-wheat cardboard.”
He looked confused.
I missed my Confession.
I had a whole group of kids that were supposed to do it with me. But for some reason- I’d bet my life savings that I had gotten Strep Throat for the tenth time in a year- I missed the Confession ceremony.
The church set up an alternate date for me to show up, alone, with one other child to receive Confession.
The CCD teacher had given us examples of sins to confess. I kicked my sister while playing soccer was a popular one. I didn’t play soccer. I didn’t have a sister. But I’m pretty sure that’s what I told the priest, anyway. I reveled in the feeling emanating from his hand placed on my head. It was like an egg cracking on top of my skull, purifying my mind and cleansing my soul. I wonder now how much of that was real.
The priest gave me and the other child stickers after our Confession: saints that matched our birthdays. For November 8, I got St. Stephen. At eight years old, I was sure that this man’s name was “steff-en.” No one bothered to correct me as I rambled about him being stoned to death. I don’t think they were listening.
I mentioned it to the CCD teacher one week, and she regarded me with confusion. There was no St. “Steff-en,” she insisted. I must be mistaken. I must’ve imagined it. I must be wrong, as children so often are.
When I stared at a light for long enough, colored spots would swim in my vision. My father told me the spots were angels. I would stare proudly at the sun for much longer than anyone else I knew, because I thought the angels were protecting my eyes. Blue and green would dance in front of the light, and I would give thanks.
Thank you, I would pray. Thank you for making me special.
When I was very young, I sat in a church. It was some gathering of my father’s family- I don’t remember what. All I do remember is the huge, black spot that danced in front of the altar. I screamed and cried at the sight, frightened in a way that I had never been before. My father allowed me to go outside. He told me that I had seen an archangel. Or a demon. I don’t remember which.
My father’s cousin was a very spiritual woman. We’d drive all the way up to the Bronx to visit her. I would lose my footing on the steep slopes that held up her apartment building. She would smile at me in her cluttered apartment filled with weeds and skittish cats, and tell me I was special. One day I drew a picture of what I knew my guardian angel must look like. I drew a bunch of vowels and consonants together into what must’ve been an 18-letter monster, confident that God had put the name of my Guardian Angel into my mind. My father’s cousin smiled at me, and I was so proud.
Even then, I felt like the angels were laughing at me.
Religion got worse as I grew.
When I was around ten, I wore a tiny silver cross around my neck, with an even smaller diamond set in the middle. I didn’t wear it because I was religious. I wore it because my mother’s sister had given it to me.
At a Passover Seder filled with my father’s girlfriend’s relatives, I clutched it so hard my knuckles turned white.
My father made me take it off before the dinner. “We don’t want to flaunt the fact that we’re different,” he said. “Don’t worry. God won’t mind.”
I had no choice but to leave it behind.
Every other weekend, I’d be in Philadelphia, or upstate New York, or some other place where my father’s new family lived. I concentrated on the pulse of my mother’s blood flowing through my veins. I wouldn’t let myself get sucked into this world of people who didn’t know me.
I’d be in silence, no matter where we were. The house. A nursing home. A carnival. A t-ball game. I’d wrap myself up in my own thoughts, sending out a cry to the universe. I would pray for God to send me a boyfriend. A boy who would save me. A boy who would whisk me away from my father and take me to a place where I would be happy. I knew it would happen. I just needed to concentrate as hard as I could. God wouldn’t fail me this time.
I’d suck in my belly. I’d stick out my chest. I’d brush my lips with my toothbrush so they’d swell up, try to cross my legs and twirl my hair as coyly as I could. I was never feminine, but I tried so hard to be. If I could get a boy to fall in love with me, I could use him to my advantage. He’d be my ticket out of here.
I think I was twelve when I started doing this.
God never did send me a boyfriend.
When I was older, my father dragged me to a church that we had never visited before. He asked me to get him “a missellette.” I had only been to Mass twenty-odd times in ten years, so I had no idea what “a missellette” was. But this did not earn me mercy.
Later that morning, during the Mass, I couldn’t stop tears from falling down my face. But I stared resolutely at the altar, even as my father’s gaze burned a hole in my temple. I was so proud of myself that day. What a rebellion! I refused to look at him, and never faltered.
I knew that the holiness of churches lied in the respect people gave them. No one dared curse or gossip inside such a holy place. People always spoke in hushed voices, sat silently, and listened to the priest with wonder in their eyes.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I rarely spent time with other children.
The magic spell broke when I started rehearsals for my Confirmation in middle school.
The kids would cackle and scream, cursing and laughing up a storm. They’d roll their eyes at the priest. A boy nicked my phone out of my back pocket when we were standing on line in front of the altar and laughed about it with his friends.
On the day of my Confirmation, the incense stung my eyes so badly that my makeup ran down my face. I sat dutifully in my pew, hands folded in my lap, next to a boy who loved to poke my shoulder and touch my hair without permission. I stared up at Jesus on the Cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I couldn’t feel the magic in the church anymore.
High School was an awakening.
Like they could smell my attraction to girls, the religion teachers doubled down. Every class was an inundation of the horrors of abortion, of dressing provocatively, of having sex before marriage, of even thinking about the softness of another girl’s lips.
Of course, by that time, I had made my first friends.
Most of them ended up being queer, just like me.
In High School, we’d go to Confession as a group. The religion teachers would hand out papers detailing the sins we might’ve committed. We had come a very long way from kicking our sisters during soccer practice.
Instead of stressing, instead of feeling guilt crawling up my spine, I giggled with my friends in a pew in the back of the church. We doodled flowers over explanations of the commandments, genderqueer symbols over Have you had innappropriate thoughts about a peer of the same sex? We hid the papers in our skirt pockets as the religion teacher walked by, still laughing.
“Are you going to go up to confess?” my friends would ask.
“No,” I’d respond.
I thought of my father, aging and balding somewhere out there in the world as my mother sued him for custody. I thought of the psychologist I had sat down with, outlining everything I had ever gone through. I thought of late nights where I’d lie awake, staring at the ceiling, praying to God even though I wasn’t sure if He was listening.
“I have nothing to be sorry for,” I would say.
I see the church as just a regular old building, now. But I have found the magic again.
The magic is in the laughter as I clap along with thirty other girls in my school’s Gospel Choir, singing our hearts out to God. The magic is in texts I get from my friends at one in the morning, in the small smiles that grace my lips in the darkness. It’s in the knowledge that the worst part of my life is over, that I will wake up every morning in my mother’s house, and that I will never have to see my father again. It’s in the laughter that bubbles up my throat as I sit around the table with my chosen family, my small yet mighty bunch. It’s in the connections I forge with other people as I finally grow my own identity.
I still think God is angry with me, sometimes. But I know in my heart that He isn’t.
Catholicism: A Student’s Perspective
Corroded shells in pale robes drag gilded chains behind their feet.
They and their disciples of cracked skin and downturned lips
Are on a holy mission:
Spread the darkness.
Rip loved ones away from their own.
Create a wave of indifference to reign over the land.
Get our chains to encircle every woman’s slender neck.
Make them all holy, as we have become.
As they burn through the land, they call out to those near and those far:
Let go of delusions of love.
“Of course we must,” says the educated woman, proud and prim and proper.
Her eyes darken, turning beady and shadowed.
Her gaping maw grows razor sharp teeth,
Her skin a mess of veined stone and rust.
(Can no one else see it?)
“Come with me, children,” she says, “forget what it is to feel.”
The children, of course, follow; what else do they know?
A crucifix hangs around her neck.
The crowds of salivating men reeking of cigar smoke
And of women with sparkling chains strangling their necks
Cheer and scream and shriek and roar.
Salt runs down their cheeks
As they proudly watch their children be drained of life.
“Thank God,” says one of the decadent shells in his chamber
When he hears that children are being beaten and crushed and raped
By consecrated men who have never been told no.
“Finally,” he says, “we can condemn the ones who love one another.”
“No one is forcing this on you,” says the woman,
Carefully chosen for her beautiful face and kind demeanor,
Smiling blandly out from the screen
In a classroom much closer than you think.
She reaches towards the children
With talons much sharper than a reprimanding tongue
To tear out their hearts and twist around their minds.
“Just accept it.”
The children start to scream, but they don’t even notice it.
The girls and boys grow and change as years go on
Flinching when they start to think of love
As since infancy they’ve been told of its perversion.
Girls peek at other girls with sidelong glances
Yearning for a laugh or a soft touch or a kiss.
They know they will never get that and live.
So the boys unweave the flowers from their hair
And the girls sheathe their swords, and lock away their dreams.
Even an institution of undulating hate encircling the globe
Cannot stop every pair of hands that reaches in darkness.
And once those hands touch,
Once the children learn how to fill up their souls
From far-away friends calling out through computers,
There is no power on Earth that can stop
Their laughter and life and light.
And God smiles every time, for someone has finally found the truth.
An Environmental Plea
Whenever I turn on the news, I hear something different.
Half the newscasters say, the planet is dying!
The other half dredges up all their mudslinging tactics
All their powers of misdirection and lying
And manages, through taunts and scathing wisecracks,
To tell everyone sitting there glued to the screen
That those other speakers are out of their minds.
The planet is still very cold and still green.
There is no solution that we need to find.
Chemicals are good, lead exposure is safe,
Product regulations are not something we need.
If your skin itches and all your clothes chafe,
Don’t worry! DDT will fix that for you at a high speed.
Most people think that these people are the problem.
That these are the ones paid by those men
Who use speakers with brains small and faces solemn
To confuse the public as much as they can.
But this is a lie.
Denial doesn’t last forever.
Rich men know exactly who to buy
To ensure the time they have to worry is never.
Most don’t know the voice that spreads the real danger,
For rich men in power are very intelligent indeed.
They know how to escape the pointing finger
That will bankrupt them and destroy all they’ve achieved.
The rich men in power make sure that in the end,
The loudest voice, the one that overpowers them all,
Is the one that blames common people (and their friends).
That blames everything they do, big and small.
They turn their fingers toward the people
And say, I know exactly who to blame. YOU.
I don’t care that you’re poor. That you’re feeble.
Why can’t you find something helpful to do?
Why don’t you keep your children away from the paint?
Why don’t you use a filter for water from the tap?
When we say to check your lead levels, why do you wait?
What am I supposed to do with these complaints that fell into my lap?
To work, why aren’t you riding the El?
Why are you using plastic drinking bottles?
Why aren’t you doing something to help?
Don’t you see that you’re all just awful?
Meanwhile, those in power do whatever they like.
They dump tons of garbage and oil into the sea,
Watch the oceans rise from the melting of ice,
And kick off their shoes, as everyone lets them be.
They burn toxic fuels, put smoke right into the air
They give fake apologies to those dying of natural disasters
And turn a deaf ear when people say, “That’s not fair!”
They say, “People! Increased floods and droughts are NOT the fault of your masters.
They’re your fault! Don’t you see?
You bought gasoline and electrics by the dozen
You, with your litter, YOU poisoned the sea,
And now you think it’s OUR fault that the planet’s an oven?”
Who knew that all of us
Would so readily accept
That WE are the cause
Of this planet’s gruesome death?
That WE are to blame for all the suffering
That WE are to blame for hazards and sickness
That are pumped out by factories corporations are running.
How could they have done this without seeming suspicious?
It is our job to stand up for what’s right
To raise awareness of the problems plaguing us
To fight for our people and our planet’s plight
To make sure politicians know we’ll make more than a fuss.
Remember my request
The next time you turn on the news.
Don’t be like the rest.
Don’t be a fool.
Civil Disobedience at 15
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Going into High School, I was very excited to be a part of something bigger than myself that would make me feel happy and loved. I thought that since the school was founded on religious beliefs, everyone would look out for each other, and the teachers would promote a community of inclusion and understanding. On my first day in religion class, I was proven wrong. In my school’s religion curriculum, students are taught that all people in LGBTQ+ relationships are being manipulated, abused, or taken advantage of in some way by their partner. We are told that transgender people are perverting the gender identity given to them by God, and that every soul is intrinsically, unchangeably either male or female. We are told that LGBTQ+ people are welcome in the Catholic Church, as long as they acknowledge that their very existence is a sin. When my friends and I ignored the religion teacher’s “no opinion” policy, she deducted points from our grades. When my classmate did a presentation on adoption and included a picture of a gay couple in her slideshow, the religion teacher turned off the computer. We stared at the blank screen.
It was appalling that my school continued to force this curriculum on us even though we have such a large population of LGBTQ+ members in our school. The administration ignores it, but over 50% of my peers at school are queer. We have secret victories. We hang rainbow flags on the insides of our locker doors, draw pictures of Steven Universe characters in class, quietly share pictures of queer icons like Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie during Black History Month. We nod our heads when the teachers spew hate and ignorance, because we’re terrified to do anything else. But all this reached a breaking point during my Sophomore year. Many of my fellow students walked out of the classroom during our daily religion classes. I didn’t. I stayed. I looked over at my friend. She stayed too. That day after school, we began to write a series of essays detailing the problems we faced. We wrote ten essays over the course of the school year, the messages from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton pounding through our veins. On the last day of school, we met with our school principal, presented her with these essays, and explained to her why we felt the curriculum was both offensive and ignorant of students’ identities. Our principal was very quick to vouch for the character of our religion teacher. She threw up her hands, insisted there was nothing she could do, and took the ten essays we had been working on for months and shoved them in a drawer. My friend and I sat in the principal’s office helplessly for the next twenty minutes as she droned on and on about a completely different subject. This moment made me lose all my faith in the school administration, and made me seriously question my religious beliefs. This fueled my desire to stand up for teens who are oppressed, raise awareness about the hatred that is still being passed on to future generations, and to help kids see themselves represented in history books. Because of this experience, I want to become a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and hope to someday found a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ kids in conservative environments.
My goal was to get the principal to hear me. She didn’t. So, I got the names of the students in the grade below me that were scheduled to take that same religion class the following year. I shared the essays with them. They heard me.
Her soul was light, and bubbles
Flew from her mouth when she laughed.
When she walked, you could see the ribbons
Trailing from her fingers as she sang.
But looking back, I wonder:
Were those ribbons woven from fanciful delight
Or were they made of blood
Her very self being forced out of her hands?
Was she spinning in circles of laughter
Like a young child discovering snow
Or was she out of control
Unable to stop her dizziness
Begging for someone, anyone to hold her still?
I used to think she was tied to the queen of night.
That awful woman with talons
Sharp as the cruelest words
And heels sounding resolutely on the floor.
This girl carried with her always a book of lies
That the queen had chained to her wrists.
The book scorched and burned and killed
All the ones it didn’t like
Poisoning their minds with heaviness and guilt
Until they cared enough to purge their own existence.
But she, this girl, was different from the queen.
Even with her armor on
Even as she painted her skin every day
To match the pattern of darkness
As well as she was able,
You could still see the light shining through.
I realized her happy face was not a face at all
But a mask of placid stone.
Underneath, her features were soft as dove’s feathers
And they screamed of fear.
Her bow lips pressed thinly together
To push against the lump in her throat.
Today I saw the mask crack,
Split down the middle,
Like I’d imagine an iceberg
At the epitome of perfection
Would look as it crashed inevitably
Into the welcoming ocean.
She sat me down, her ribbons hanging sadly,
Forgotten and tattered on the floor.
And she stole Alice’s bottle right out of her hands.
She drank from that cruel flask, and right before my eyes
She began to shrink.
The bars imprisoning me were big enough to fit her, too.
And this girl, with her hair like fire
And her deep blue eyes turned a shallow green,
With fidgeting hands and impatient legs,
Removed every piece of armor
Until I saw, astonished,
That her face was the one I saw in the mirror.
She began to tell me her story.
And as she spoke
The book of lies she carried with her always
Only got bigger and bigger and bigger.
She reached to touch it with her dainty, ungloved hand
And pulled it back with a yelp, seeing it burnt to a crisp.
I could silence myself no longer.
How could you do this? I asked.
How could you pour that wretchedness
Into the empty minds of children waiting to be filled?
I see you. You are one of them.
Don’t you feel their pain
Hear their screams
Touch your own cheek to see tears
Matching their own on your face?
With her eyes trained on the door
She nodded slowly.
And showed me her scars.
They ran even deeper than my own.
I saw many of them had been put there by her own hands.
I didn’t comment.
The two of us sat in that tiny room
And shared the stories of our terror.
Both of us, trapped in our skin,
Realized how similar we were,
The schoolgirl and the teacher.
We both knew beyond a doubt
That one day
We would rise up.
And no one else would feel this
We would make sure of it.
Why not now? I pleaded.
She shook her head.
She told me her hands were tied.
I looked down, and indeed they were.
But while the rope had been given to her
Before she knew how to speak
She didn’t seem to realize
That the knot was of her own making.
I know what it takes to shed your chains
I had done it long, long ago.
It’s easy to face demons,
Like the one I had bested with my mighty sword,
But it’s much harder to face your own-
And that is why I still dream of it and shake.
I looked at this sad, small girl
And realized how much smaller she was than I.
I bid her farewell and ran well away
My books a weight like pillows of lead
Bouncing on my back.
I felt a pain in my chest
And looked down to see a knife protruding from my heart.
I ripped it out, ignoring the blood that came.
I vowed to use it, and all this pain, as a weapon.
Now, in my chair,
Twirling that knife between my fingers,
I think of the Lorax.
Seuss was right when he said unless,
But you are a fool
If you believe he was talking about trees.
The Psychology of Climate Change
Category: Critical Essay
On September 15, 2019, the New York Times headline read, “Notre Dame’s Toxic Fallout.” According to this front page article, the April 2019 Notre Dame fire left 460 tons of lead dust floating in the air around Paris. At the same time, the fires in the Amazon Rainforest are still raging. If the Amazon Rainforest is allowed to burn until nothing remains, up to 140 billion tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the air. Now, I don’t expect the Amazon Rainforest to be on the front page every day. And I’m not suggesting that the New York Times is deliberately ignoring the problem in the Amazon by putting Notre Dame on the front cover. But it’s strange to me that the general public seems to understand the tragic aftermath of the Notre Dame fire more than they can wrap their heads around understanding an ongoing fire in South America’s Amazon Rainforest. Do most people even know the possibly devastating effects this ongoing fire could have on their personal lives? The lead pollution in Paris affects Paris. The fumes from the Amazon will affect every nook and cranny on Earth. The Amazon Rainforest is often called “the lungs of the world.” While the Notre Dame fire in Paris seems close to home, the Amazon Rainforest is home. What happens in the Amazon doesn’t stay in the Amazon — it affects climate change worldwide. But when most people hear “climate change,” they think of polar bears and glaciers. No one thinks climate change is a five-foot flood in their driveway. No one thinks a drought means taking away their Poland Spring bottles or forcing them to use their bathwater more than once. No one thinks a hurricane will destroy their landlocked community. When they tune out reports stating that 30% of the world’s species are going up in flames, is anyone thinking about their favorite foods winking out of existence? Not being able to link the big picture with the smaller one, the more personal one, is what ultimately gets in the way of people caring. It’s very difficult for any one person to picture the vastness of the entire world in their head. But if a global problem arises, people shouldn’t assume they don’t need to care about it. Humanity is flawed. We love stories that zoom in on specific issues, because they’re easy for us to relate to and understand. But when we’re presented with an ongoing problem that seems abstract and far away, it’s easy for us to ignore how it can affect our daily lives. In order to effectively combat climate change, we need to understand why it’s so hard for us as a species to believe that this issue is as broad and as serious as it is. There are two main things we need to be worrying about: a lack of personal understanding and a surplus of fear. We need to remind ourselves that climate change affects each and every one of us in an intimate and personal way. But just as importantly, we cannot be consumed by fear over the enormity of this problem; instead, we need to turn our fear into action. We need to go to protests, make better choices, and vote for political officials that will take immediate steps to slow and reverse the effects of climate change on our quickly deteriorating planet.
The Past is a Foreign Country
Category: Critical Essay
“The past is a foreign country…” – L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
The above quotation is not just used by L. P. Hartley. It is also the penultimate line in A Frivolous Woman by Nadine Gordimer, the fourth short story featured in the collection Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories. Discussion- and subversion- of the past is a common thread running throughout this entire collection. But the characters in each story are not the only ones questioning their past and their personal relationship to it; Gordimer manages to reach the core of the reader and cause them to question their own fundamental beliefs. Characters in each story have a complicated relationship with the past: some are desperate to be connected to it, some hate it with a passion, and many are dumbfounded by the fact that they are stuck firmly in the present. In each story, Gordimer encourages the reader to disregard their past experiences, to disregard their expectations, and to disregard everything they think they know. In each story, Gordimer creates a firm precedent for the reader to stand on before tearing it all down in one fell swoop.
When I first began reading this collection, I was fascinated by the subject material, but hopelessly confused by the writing style. On the most basic level, the format of each story forces the reader to think differently. One story addresses the reader directly. One story encloses its dialogue in quotation marks, another uses dashes, a third doesn’t enclose the dialogue in any punctuation marks at all. In several stories, absolutely no dialogue is used, all of it description of events or introspection. Every few sentences, Gordimer goes off on tangents, which made me extremely lost as to what was going on. I began to think it was hopeless that I would ever be able to read the book, much less comprehend it.
The seemingly unassuming book would glare at me across the room, taunting me with the mysteries it held. But at one point, I had had enough. I sat down to conquer my foe head-on, and found myself slowly becoming enthralled. Gordimer’s writing can make the reader feel uncomfortable, not at home in their own skin. But it is precisely because of this that Gordimer’s short stories must be read. Only when we truly question our ideologies and values do we know who we are as people. As a society, we all have a preoccupation with the past: past experiences, past people, past status quos. We all want to live in the past to some extent; we overly romanticize it and refuse to focus on our future. Nadine Gordimer encourages us to remember our past every day of our lives, but to use it as motivation to change ourselves and adapt to the future so we can live our lives to the fullest.
My favorite story in this collection, Safety Procedures, is relatively short. In it, a man prides himself on being different from everyone else. He has exceedingly intelligent conversations with his wife. He refuses to watch television on plane rides, preferring to silently observe the world outside the window. But when he gets on a plane, it begins to experience violent turbulence. It only gets worse and worse until everyone is being thrown around the plane, and the pilot announces an emergency landing. The narrator wonders if the plane is sentient and actively trying to kill everyone, just so it can fly uninhibited. All the passengers are screaming and crying for help, for death, for mercy from God. But the narrator turns to the woman next to him, and she is completely calm. She speaks to him for the first time since they politely wished each other a good evening at the beginning of the flight. She tells him that she is completely sure that the plane will land safely. Why? Because she has tried to kill herself three times, and none of her attempts have worked. She knows there is no way that she will be so lucky as to die in the crash. Sure enough, the plane crashlands safely. The narrator never sees the woman again, but he is sure of her survival.
I gasped out loud when I read the ending to this story. I was completely prepared for the woman sitting next to the narrator to be hopeful, to say that she was calm because she knew everything would be fine. This was the story that convinced me that Gordimer was wildly more intelligent than I had originally, foolishly presumed. The events of this story forever changed not just the narrator’s outlook on the world, but my own. It forced me to realize that things are quite often the opposite of what I presume they are due to my own experiences. My perspective is but one in a sea full of people thinking completely differently and living completely different lives. This story, and in fact the entire collection, humbled me immensely. How arrogant was I to believe that I knew anything about other people’s lives?
To establish the idea of changing and twisting perspective and expectation, Gordimer turns society’s beliefs about race upside down in the eponymous first story. In this story, a white man is fascinated by the fact that a long-forgotten ancestor of his was a black, South African diamond prospector, making him one-sixteenth black. Instead of being somewhat ashamed by this fact, or at the very least hesitant to share the information, the man tries to find out everything he can about his ancestor. He does everything he can to paint a picture of what this man’s life must have been like. He tries to track his genealogy to find out if he has any living, black relatives through this ancestor. And when he shares this with his coworkers, they titter and chuckle and commend him on his findings, all of them a little jealous, because absolutely everyone would kill to be able to say that they’re black. Consider this excerpt from the last paragraphs of the story:
“The standard of privilege changes with each regime. Isn’t it a try at privilege. Yes? One up towards the ruling class whatever it may happen to be…So what’s happened to the idea of the Struggle (the capitalised generic of something else that’s never over, never mind the history-book victories) for recognition, beginning in the self, that our kind, humankind, doesn’t need any distinctions of blood percentage tincture. That f***ed things up enough in the past. Once there were blacks, poor devils, wanting to claim white. Now there’s a white, poor devil, wanting to claim black. It’s the same secret.” (p. 15-16)
That phrase, repeated several times throughout the story, stuck with me for days. It’s the same secret. What does that mean? I believe now that it means that no matter who you are, you’re extremely misguided if you’re trying to be something you’re not because society tells you to do so. There’s no reason for it. So many people do it every day, try to pretend they’re people they’re not, and why? To fit in? How lowly are we that that is what matters to us? Many are not shallow at all, but do it to survive. And isn’t that even worse? We’re never going to go back to the world of our ancestors. We’re never going to go back to a world where black people had to cling to any whiteness they had in order to survive. But even so, that world still continues to haunt us every day.
The rest of the stories in the collection all take different approaches to the idea of forcing the reader to change their perspective. The strangest story in this collection- and that’s saying a lot- is Tape Measure. This story is told from the perspective of a tapeworm living inside a human host’s intestines. Gordimer fascinatingly manages to spin an extremely compelling and relatable story based on the imagined experiences of a non-human subject. The tapeworm lives a happy, if quiet life, safe inside its host, relatively unbothered by anything and happily consuming the food its host eats. One day, the owner decides to forcibly remove the tape measure from its home. We, the readers, know the host must have taken some sort of medicine to get rid of the tapeworm; from the tapeworm’s perspective, it is being choked by poison and forcibly removed from its home for no reason. The tapeworm eventually becomes used to its new life in the sewer. The story ends with it pondering whether the cycle will begin all over again for some other lucky tapeworm, with a host unsuspectingly ingesting it. But the tapeworm telling the story never again finds itself in a safe, warm intestine- as far as we know.
This story further demonstrates how disconcerting it can be to change your perspective. The tapeworm describes its existence as “just and fair,” and is completely sure that its host feels the same way. This story is an extended metaphor for racism and all other types of systematic oppression, just like its predecessor: what is comfortable and benign for one person may be sickness, pain, and death for another. This story also further emphasizes Gordimer’s main point: we can never return to the past, no matter how wonderful or terrible it may have been. But the past will continue to influence our present, whether we like it or not.
As readers, our duty is to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes. Most don’t even think about this when they begin to read; it’s an automatic, unconscious decision. Gordimer challenges everyone who reads her work to consciously decide to change their perspective, to fully understand the ramifications of that act, and to force themselves to recognize how differently each of us sees the world. Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories may seem difficult to read at first. But I promise you, you will not regret delving into the many worlds that Nadine Gordimer so artfully creates.
What the Founding Fathers Actually Wanted, and Why We Shouldn’t Care
Category: Critical Essay
In today’s society, it is harder than ever to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. Every time you turn on the news, completely contradictory opinions are being shared, offensive and inflammatory language is used by people in power, and religion and prejudice are finding more and more ways to be the main influence of federal policies. An extremely controversial topic of debate lately has been whether or not our government should live by the letter of the law; whether or not we should all follow the rules and regulations set out in our Constitution completely literally. Sections of the Bill of Rights, especially the Second Amendment, have been the subject of heated discussion. Another topic that has been under similar scrutiny is whether the Bible should be interpreted exactly as it is written. If those arguing for the Bible to be interpreted literally actually studied the Bible, they’d be singing a very different song. One verse in the Bible that many love to refer to is Leviticus 18:22, which says “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” Leviticus is a book of the Bible that was compiled more than 2,000 years ago; because of this, it has many rules that people break every day. Some examples of these are: 1 Timothy 2:9, which prohibits braiding your hair and wearing jewelry; Leviticus 11:4, which prohibits eating bacon; Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits wearing two different fabrics at the same time; and Leviticus 11:7-8, which prohibits playing football.
Liberal Catholics are living proof that it is better to follow the spirit of the law than the letter of the law. Just as thousands of level-headed people choose to interpret the Bible with a grain of salt, we should be wary of interpreting our nation’s Constitution literally. Former president Thomas Jefferson himself, according to Zachary Elkins, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, “thought the dead should not rule the living, thus constitutions should expire frequently.” Former president George Washington is quoted as saying, “the basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.” Alexander Hamilton wrote that “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection or choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”All of these statements come together to say one thing: the Constitution should be considered a living document, while the people of America need to work tirelessly to ensure that it remains true to the intentions of its writers. The Founding Fathers agreed with the “new” and “liberal” idea that the Constitution should not only be interpreted differently to fit the times, but should be changed altogether every so often to keep up with our ever-advancing world.
But let’s backtrack for a minute. Yes, the Founding Fathers were the ones who fought for our country’s freedom and painstakingly outlined the rights and freedoms they believed the American people deserved under a democratic government. But the Founding Fathers were also white, slave-owning men who frequently wrote about how they believed African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and anyone who strayed from the norm to be less than human. Thomas Jefferson was a rapist who fathered six children (that we know about) with his underage slave Sally Hemings. John Hancock ran an international smuggling ring. George Washington, at the time of his death, owned over 300 slaves, and organized the building of the White House almost entirely by the forced labor of African-Americans. Thomas Jefferson, with his fellow Revolutionaries, in the most hypocritical move of all time, wrote the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” These men didn’t even believe all men were created equal, much less women and gender non-conforming folk. It was illegal to be LGBTQ+ in the eighteenth century. It was completely legal to own, beat, rape, and murder other people as long as they weren’t white. It was not only legal to commit these atrocities: it was socially accepted and even encouraged. The Founding Fathers may have created a brilliant outline for our country’s government, but they were morally reprehensible in every sense of the word.
The part of the Constitution that has been getting the most attention lately is, as I addressed earlier, the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment states that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This amendment to the Constitution was written at a time where American colonists had just wrenched free from the clutches of the British monarchy. The reason the Americans won the Revolution was because of “a well-regulated militia;” they were ordinary people, and everyone who was part of the official army was fighting for the British. Today, no one is trying to free themselves from European imperial rule. There is no need for “a well-regulated militia,” and even if there was, “well-regulated” is a far cry from the current state of affairs. The phrase “well-regulated militia” describes a group of people under the command of a higher organization who registers all guns used, does background checks on all gun owners, and checks the mental and physical health of hopefuls before selling anything.
Something else that needs to be addressed is the type of gun the Founding Fathers knew about. There were no AR-15s 200 years ago. The idea of someone being able to kill dozens of people within a few seconds was unheard of. According to the Washington Post, “the typical firearms [at the time the Second Amendment was written] were muskets and flintlock pistols. They could hold a single round at a time, and a skilled shooter could hope to get off three or possibly four rounds in a minute of firing. By all accounts they were not particularly accurate either.” Modern weapons, on the other hand, are vastly different: “According to the makers of [AR-15s],” says the Washington Post, “a good shooter can effectively fire 45 rounds per minute. The guns are stable and accurate at distances five to 10 times farther than a typical Second Amendment-era gun. Standard magazines can hold 30 rounds, and shooters can swap out magazines and continue firing in just a matter of seconds.” The Founding Fathers couldn’t even imagine this type of weaponry, and they definitely couldn’t imagine it being accessible to the public with virtually no limits.
Semi-automatic weapons are killing our children. If a homeowner wants to have a pistol in their bedside table just in case of a burglary, I say let them. But make them go for training to use that gun, let them register its purchase, let them register every time they shoot it and the type of ammunition they use. The Founding Fathers were extremely problematic, but they did have a few good ideas. Let us allow for the freedoms outlined in our Constitution. Let us allow for sensible gun purchases in our society. But let us put our lives far before our liberty and our pursuit of happiness. Let us realize that our lives, and the lives of our children, are so much more important than our right to own a device that only brings chaos and death in its wake. And let us realize that picking and choosing from the ideas of white men who have been dead for 200 years to defend the right of all people, including the mentally ill, to own military-grade weapons is worse than despicable.