WITS Voices: Getting from Ordinary to Intimate
January 8, 2016
By Margot Kahn Case, WITS Writer-in-Residence
One of the many vagaries of high school, as I remember it and as I see it played out in my WITS classes, is the question, “What makes me unique?” It’s so easy to go down the “I’m-not-very-interesting” path, in the same way that it’s easy to lose sight of your individuality in a sea of creatures whose survival is often dependent on being “alike.” To write a personal essay, especially the open-ended kind asked for on college applications, means to mine the vignettes of your life for something that sparkles. And sometimes you have to trick yourself—or be tricked—to venture a swim in these deeper waters.
This week, I stole a page from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life; the “G” page to be exact. The book’s centerpiece, after much stage-setting material up front, is a romp through the alphabet of Rosenthal’s word associations and fragment-stories. For example, the first entry for G is “Gas Tank: Every. Single. Solitary. Time I go to get gas I have to lean out the window to see which side the tank is on.” Glove, Glue, Go, Good to Bad Mood, Groceries, Grocery Cart, and Group Person follow. Read enough of these tidbits and you have a pretty good idea of who this person is, how she views the world, and what makes her tick.
For our version, I asked my Franklin High School 11th graders to write 5-8 entries for the first letter of their first name (students who had a very difficult letter, like X, could use their last name or another letter of their choice).
Over the years, I’ve given some assignments where an eerie number of papers sound the same; but in this case, no two papers of my 90-some students were alike. The only similarity I saw was a trend: a deepening of idea, a sinking into the personal, from the first entry to the last. Like AJ’s starting with “air” and ending with “America”; or Viet’s generic “vitamins” going to the deeply personal “van” that would reunite his family from across continents, that would bring his dead mother back, that would give him a moment of inspiration “to live a better life.” I like these entries on their own for all their randomness. But in almost every instance, it is the last entry that is the gem—an unexpected opening, a beginning.
I own the road trip fanatic’s best friend, the Apocalypse Planner’s wet dream, the one thing that can decide whether you have to call a tow truck or get to keep on going a while longer.
Storage lord supreme, the one thing I have too many of in my pantry. They’re like obstacles, the only thing keeping me from whatever I need in the fridge.
My go-to statement for when I need an excuse for why I made a stupid joke or do something others find weird. Serving as my best friend when I need a more sassy way of saying, “Why not?”
The verbal embodiment of my ego, my confidence jumps at the phrase as if obtaining the ability to fit it perfectly is all that I could ever want. It’s the reason I know so much about history, why I could recite the concepts of the Bekenstein limit, why I can build a computer and then code the programs to run it. It’s like a life goal…to be a jack-of-all-trades.
The only word I could use to describe the amount of knowledge I put into an argument. The word I use to describe the flow of reasons why socialism isn’t bad, why my friend Jordan needs to get a computer, or why school assemblies are a waste of my time.
– Jacob B.
I like fresh air, but I don’t like to go outside that much. Going outside after being inside for a long time is always refreshing.
I usually don’t ask for money, but my parents give me money without me asking. I sue the money to eat out for lunch. I am grateful my parents give me allowance.
Math, including algebra, is really easy to me. I get really lazy and end up not doing math homework. People think I know nothing because of my work. When a test hits, I always ace it.
I’m in the first generation in my family to be born in America. I don’t really know anything about being Filipino. Going to the Philippines was really cool but I still don’t know anything about the culture. Only the food and the sound of the language. When people tell me that I’m Filipino, I tell them I’m American. I am more used to American culture.
– AJ A.
As a child I would catch a cold every time the season changed. Even though I was sick, education is important to my mother, so I still went to school.
Every child wants to stay up and play. I was like that. I would have a video game by my bed so I can play it when my parents went to sleep. Now, sleep is a luxury I can’t afford. I would drown in all of the homework and projects before going to sleep.
Whenever I drive, I get scared. I’m a horrible driver. I was practicing how to drive with my dad and I was approaching a yellow stoplight. I should’ve slowed down my dad’s Toyota, but I was panicking. I decided to put my foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake and I ran the stop light.
Being an Asian American is hard. Whenever my mom sees me on my phone she tells me, “You should go study.” She expects me to always study. Whatever I do is never good enough. I always hear the same thing over and over again. “You could do better. You should go study.”
– Steven L.
Every morning on Thursday I constantly forget to take out the cans to the recycle bin. My dad becomes crazy and starts yelling and complaining about why they aren’t taken out.
As a kid growing up, candy has always been the best thing in the world to me. I would eat candy all day every day and I would buy it every chance I got. My mother would always yell, saying “You’re gonna get diabetes!”
Cars have always been my passion, ever since I was a little kid. My grandfather had his own shop where he would work on all kinds of cars. Anything from American muscle cars to European exotics, he would work on them all. Being as curious as I was, I would always watch and learn what work he would do so that I may do the same one day.
My dad always falls asleep on our couch at about 3:30 p.m. every Saturday afternoon. I always walk the short distance from my room to the couch to find him there, on his back with a sleeping mask on and a grin on his face, like someone in his dreams in telling him a dumb joke he can’t help but laugh at.
I cannot remember once when someone saw me writing with my left hand and didn’t exclaim, “You’re a lefty??” It’s always been like that. Learning my lefts and rights was the most difficult thing because I got confused about which one I wrote with. My kindergarten art teacher always sat with me in the tiny portable behind the school and while the class worked under the paper dragon on the ceiling he’d make me hold up my hands in L formation until I couldn’t get it wrong.
My favorite snack at about 10 p.m. every night when I was in 4th grade was lemon juice right out of the bottle. I’d sneak down in the dark and open up the bright white fridge on the tile floor and give myself a squirt from the yellow lemon shaped bottle. I’d close the fridge quietly and sneak back upstairs to my room all while my mouth puckered with the bitter taste.
My life seems to be full of loops. The most obvious is when I’m skating. When I play piano, I think I’ve escaped the loop but no, the circle of fifths comes back when I do scales. And at Christmas, when I open a small wrapped box, I see a pair of gold hoop earrings.
They’re needed for human health. There are so many kinds of vitamins, A, B, C, E… No one could live without vitamins in their everyday meals as I can see it on every advertisement to food, juice, and medication.
I was born in Vietnam and grew up 13 years there. Everything became close to me after such a long period of time. I knew the people, I knew the lifestyle. As I moved to Seattle, I’m very proud to say I’m Vietnamese.
I hate the feelings of being a victim under any circumstances. I hate when people judge me on the “crime” that I never committed.
I have a dream that one day my dad would buy a van and drive all my families around Seattle on a very sunny day. We would laugh, play and talk to each other about what we know about the world. That will be perfect for a young boy like me. But a dream is just a dream, even though my mom left me to go to another world and my family members aren’t really comfortable when seeing each other, but as long as that dream is still in my mind it would be my inspiration to live a better life.
Margot Kahn Case writes creative nonfiction. She is the author of Horses That Buck, the biography of an old rodeo cowboy. Her work has appeared in the collections Night Lights: Stories and Essays by 22 Northwest Authors, What to Read in the Rain 2012, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Publishers Weekly, and elsewhere.