Friday, May 29, 2009


Or: Tears, part 1

"Did you really write this? Is all of this true?"

It rarely happens, but every once in a while, a student writes something so good that I have no choice but to ask. I'm in the English office with one of my eleventh graders, reviewing his personal essay.

"Yes, everything is true," he says. "Well, I'm not sure about all the dialogue, but I think that's what he said."

"This is pretty incredible," I tell him.

High school students have the hardest time writing about themselves. Many claim that they've never experienced anything worthy of an essay, that their lives are boring, that they are nobodies. Or they write too much about the most minor point, or a negative trait that they really shouldn't be revealing. But with a little digging and a lot of prodding, most produce some really interesting stuff. Back in Chicago, there were plenty of stories of survival--from gang warfare, drugs, bad parents. Here, at an elite boarding school full of well-to-do Indians and other Asians, there are stories of success and tradition--the uncle who became a billionaire, the grandmother teaching Tibetan ideals.

One kid, though, really blew me away. I probably shouldn't reveal too much--it is a personal essay after all--but maybe he wouldn't mind.

One boy found out at some point in elementary school that he was a quarter Jewish. Living in Germany at the time, he was given a new nickname, and a game called "Catch the Jew" was established. He thought it was all hilarious (his emphasis, not mine).

Then, about a year ago, he met his one remaining Jewish relative, his grandfather. The boy laughed so hard he cried when he saw the old man's big nose. Then, the grandfather told a story about the time he left an orphanage after the war, after four years in a concentration camp, when all he wanted was an ice cream cone.

That's the sparknotes version, missing the emotion and cleverness. But trust me, the essay is incredible. If it's true.

In class, I raved about it and asked the writer if he'd be willing to read it. He agreed. He's sort of a show-off, likes being the center of attention, so he stood proudly in front of his peers. His pronunciation isn't the best, plus he started reading way too fast, so he wasn't doing any of it justice. At a pause, I interrupted, "Are you a little nervous?" He admitted he was. "Well, slow down," I said.

He did. When he got to the ice cream incident, he paused a little longer. "Just a minute," he said. He bent over, hiding his face behind his paper, shoulders heaving. Soon, he was sobbing out loud. He couldn't get a single word out, just remained crouching at the front of the room, tears and mucus running down his face.

The class sat in stunned silence. Here was a campus tough guy--someone who flirts relentlessly, who gets busted smoking and doesn't care, who influences shy Korean boys to talk to girls, who plays sports and laughs and openly admits he drinks--weeping.

I let him stay in that position, all by himself, for a minute. The longest, sweetest, most beautiful minute of the school year. I'm pretty sure the story is true.

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