In our first session, I told my tutor how much I used to love to take my siblings to the park when they were little. He said, Oh, so you had to help raise them? No, not really, it was just for fun. Climbing trees and picking apricots and playing fetch with the dalmatians that were always there on Saturday mornings. He said, So you needed to get out of the house to have fun? Tell me more about that. He asked questions that didn’t fit my life so I could write a story that didn’t fit my life but did fit the genre. Everyone embellishes, he said. The struggle is what makes the hero. Then maybe I should write about my parent’s divorce? A frown. Oh, God, no. That’s been done to death.
I wasn’t the star of the play, but I was in it. I wasn’t the star of the team, but I was on it. I wasn’t the president of the club, but I went to all the meetings. I didn’t win the competition, but I tried. I’m good at public speaking and applying liquid eyeliner. I rotate my date night underwear, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in love. My parents still brag that I potty-trained myself, that I was the first person in my class to learn to read. My favorite thing about school is when it’s over. In the hollow of a tree at the far end of the parking lot, I keep a collection of things that have been lost or left behind: a post-it note with a 209 phone number, a brass key, a conch shell charm, a souvenir penny from Yosemite, a lipstick, the wing of a swallowtail butterfly, the promises of my childhood.
Things that are more important right now: planning my spring break trip, sponsoring a voter registration drive, working at In-N-Out, pretending to be vegan to impress a girl, sleeping in, sleeping around, photographing treetops, playing D&D, disappearing, losing twenty pounds, gaining twenty pounds, vaping in the bathroom, hiding my eating disorder, solo kayaking the Green River, memorizing the capitals of every country in the world, learning to surf, sneaking out after curfew, raising money for Syrian refugees, walking the dog, dyeing my sister’s hair blue, breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma, planting succulents and ponytail palms, writing a screenplay, lying about why this is the best I could do, re-learning how to dream.
They keep telling me to find my passion. My voice. My story. But none of the adults in my life have even done that, so how am I, at seventeen, supposed to? I keep having a dream where I’m ice skating on a pond, and a dragon appears, sets a ring of pines ablaze. The flames melt the ice, and I fall in. I flail in the water. The fire closes in on me. Unable to save myself, I let my legs go limp and say goodbye. But my skates bump up against something in the water. I realize I can touch, that I could have been touching the whole time, and walk right out. On the shore, the fire from the dragon keeps me from freezing, and I watch the stars spell out my most intimate questions in the sky. I lay there for a long time, listening—
Alison Davis: “I’m a high school English teacher, and I’ve been helping students with their college essays for many years. I go to great lengths to de-emphasize the commodification of identity, and especially of suffering, and I hope it matters.” (web)