Tag Archives: Essay

Understanding Student Veterans

Understanding Student Veterans           

Chances are you have one in a class you’re taking.  They are a little older, but not too much older; you wouldn’t confuse them with a retiree auditing a class. They are in good shape; not as lean as they used to be, but they’re still pretty fit.  They might have tattoos; some wear metal bracelets with small font that you can never quite read, and others have wedding bands.  About half of them have a beard and long hair, and the other half have close cropped hair and fresh shaves.  They are never late for class and are usually the first one in the door for class, sometimes ridiculously early.  When they address their professors, they use terms like “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am.”  You might have even seen some of them get visibly angry when they feel like their professors are not getting the respect they deserve because students are talking, texting, or facebooking in class, and most likely they let the offenders know it.  Some of their backpacks are green, brown, or camouflage.  If you see one of these tell-tale signs, odds are you have a veteran in your class.

In my short college career, I have noticed many veterans in my classes.  I find it interesting how veterans interact with other students and I wonder how other students see them.  I don’t know what a traditional student thinks of veterans, but I can give some insight to how veterans see other students and how they come across to them.  I base this on my experiences as a veteran and my talks with other veterans; whether in formal interviews or informal conversations with other veterans.  I did these interviews in person and via email.  The veterans I talked to are from the current and late wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, and one professor who is a veteran of Vietnam.*

Based on my interviews and experiences there are two kinds of veterans in school.  There are the ones who look like all the other students with the only visible difference being their age, and the others are ones even a person with no knowledge about the military would know were service members.  They may look different, but one thing they have in common is they come to class prepared and are serious about their studies.  They treat school like a job and are not there to experience college like a traditional college student; they get very frustrated when they see other students come to class late and unprepared, doze off in class, and show generally poor attitudes.  To them, this is like someone slacking off at work and it drives them up the wall.  Veterans want to get done with school as fast as they can and move on with their lives.

You might have a friend who is a veteran but if you hang out with them outside of class, consider yourself an exception to the rule.  There are two main reasons for this: age and motivation.  The veterans are usually older than the traditional students, so there is a generational difference between them and they don’t have much in common with each other.  While a traditional student was living it up over summer vacation, a veteran was facing the summer fighting season in Afghanistan where people were trying to kill him every day, and he was looking to do the same to them.  There is not much in common between them, and what they do have in common is so little that there isn’t much to start a friendship over.

Another reason there isn’t much commonality between the traditional students and veterans is they have different motivations to get them through school.  Many of their goals are the same; they want to get a degree and move on to whatever job or career they hope to pursue.  What motivates them is what really makes them different.  I’d imagine traditional students are looking to get good grades – among other reasons – because their parents are paying for school and they don’t want to let them down; that is great motivation, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Veterans’ motivations are usually a little more personal.  Veterans will usually have families, with a spouse and children to support; they are in school to better their quality of life.  Another common motivation I found among veterans was the desire to honor the memory of friends that they lost in the service; veterans don’t want their friends’ sacrifice to be in vain, so they do their best to live a life that would make their friends proud.  The friends they lost will never have the opportunity they have now to live the life of a college student.  They know the fragility of life and realize we are not immortal.

I asked many veterans if they shared their experiences from their time in the service with other students or in class time discussions.  Most said they don’t volunteer too much; they will contribute to conversations in class if it is pertinent to the subject or the professor asks them specifically, but they don’t go out of the way to tell other students about what they saw, did, and experienced in the service.  You can hardly blame a veteran for this; many veterans don’t want to dredge up painful memories especially if they think that people will not give it the respect it deserves.

So now that you have gotten a small look into how veterans think and act and what motivates them, I’m going to aim this essay at veterans.   I don’t think veterans and traditional students are ever going to be best of friends. That’s not to say there is any animosity between them; in fact that’s the opposite.  All the veterans I talked to said they never experienced any animosity from other students or professors for their service.  I’ve read how veterans returning from Vietnam were not treated well by people who disagreed with that war.  None of the veterans I talked to had an experience like this and the Vietnam veteran only had it happen to him once.  Interestingly, his experience in college sounded a lot like veterans of today.  Veterans throughout time really aren’t all that different.  The student veterans I talked to reported they received more thank yous from traditional students and professors for their service than anything.  Even with the disagreement over the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan in our country, it is encouraging to say that overwhelmingly people support veterans.

Still, we veterans should make more of an effort to engage with and talk to traditional students.  I understand if veterans would like to leave behind their time in the service, and not talk about it – that was another life in many ways, and they have moved on, but for one reason,  I urge you to have more interaction with traditional students.  Let them know about the sacrifices that were made by our brothers and how war is an awful and ugly thing.  I had a student ask me once if being in the Marines was like the video game Call of Duty, and he was serious.  Veterans know it isn’t like a video game at all and we need to let other students know what it is really like lest they think war is a video game.  Don’t be the weird, loner veteran in your class; when asked about your service be proud of what you did, but don’t hold back when you tell them how it really is.

Like it or not,  students are not in the cafeteria reading the New York Times or Washington Post and looking at the latest casualty reports to come back from overseas; were you when you were their age?  No, you weren’t.  Even if they are aware of the sacrifices that were made, having someone who was there and experienced what veterans experience is invaluable.  You don’t have to go out and start telling war stories to college kids, but make yourself available and approachable to questions about your service, and be prepared to answer their questions.  Make sure our brother’s sacrifices are not forgotten[1].

With the information in this essay, I hope that student veterans and traditional students will interact more with each other.  The traditional students will learn more about the sacrifices of our service members and our veterans will use school as a way to reintegrate into civilian life while honoring the sacrifices of the service members who will never go to school.  College is used to broaden and challenge people’s minds and to become more well-rounded people.  Student veterans and traditional students, let’s both take advantage of this great opportunity we have in college and get to work together.

– J. D. Hodges, 2nd Place in Essay

[1] As of 13 March 2013 6,630 service members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Of those, 146 were females.  None of the veterans I talked to were females or served with females in combat.

A Child of the System

A Child of the System

Most adults can recall their childhood as being a safe haven where they were comforted, loved and well cared for.  That’s not how I remember my childhood.  I was a mere statistic, managed by an insensitive social services system.  I was one of 408,425 children placed in foster care.  I was placed there after both my parents were arrested for various crimes ranging from possession to murder.  When being placed in a foster home you can either go to a relative’s home, which happens about twenty-six percent of the time, or you can be placed in a non-relative’s home, which is what happened to me.

Prior to entering the foster care system, I was raised in an abusive environment, which actually helped me develop the survival skills I would need later in life.  You learn quickly how to be quiet and make yourself invisible.  I remember one particular occasion at the age of six, when I came home from school and found my father in a horrible mood.  You could smell the stale and acrid smoke mingling with the alcohol in the air.  The smell was offensive and it was difficult to breathe, and I held my breath as I entered our apartment and proceeded to my room to hide in the closet.  I stayed there until I heard his heavy footsteps pad into his bedroom and shut the door.   My father did not know I had even come home.

A few months later my father left me with a neighbor and never came back, and at the age of seven, I was placed with my first foster family.  I had already seen and experienced so many things a child my age should not have been exposed to.  I did not understand at the time that once your parents are gone you become a ward of the state.  The state places you with a family they have deemed to have a safe and good environment for children without parents.  The state pays that family money to help subsidize the cost they will incur by taking in a foster child.  That family is supposed to provide food, shelter, as well as clothing.  This does not happen in some cases.

The family I was first placed with had three other foster children who were all older than me.  I was given the hand-me-down clothing regardless of the condition.  Since I was the youngest and smallest I was given food after everyone else got their share.  At this point in my life, I was afraid of all adults, and had no one to trust or to look up to.  After about six months of being quiet and invisible I began to stand up for myself.  I became very argumentative and stubborn.  I retaliated.  Subsequently, this led the foster parents to request me to be placed in another foster home.

The second family reminded me of my parents, and I once again found myself slipping back into the role of being the invisible child.  I remember being scared that the foster dad would come in my room while I was sleeping, so I would sleep on the floor under my bed in the closet.  It didn’t stop him from coming into my room, but it helped me fall asleep.  I reached out to the foster mom, but she did not believe me and asked my social worker to have me removed.

I was eight and a half when I was moved to my third family.  This family was the best, because they were caring and treated me like I thought all the other children’s parents were treating them.  It was like a fairytale.  I had people who cared about me and were very patient with me.  I remember being extremely shy and quiet at first.  They helped bring me out of my shell and gave me the encouragement to reach out for the confidence in myself that I was so severely lacking.  I cried when they told me they were moving out of the state and couldn’t take me with them, because I thought I had done something wrong that had drove them away.  I realized and understood later in life that their leaving was not my fault and had nothing to do with me, but at that time I did not understand or realize that.

Over the next year I went through three more foster families due in part because of my attitude, lack of respect, and selfishness.  During this time my grandmother decided to petition the court for guardianship of me.  I remember being taken to the county courthouse, and going before the judge to be asked where I wanted to go, I replied “with my grandmother.”

I was ten years old when I moved in with her and neither one of us knew what we were getting ourselves into.  We quickly realized the support system we thought was there, did not exist.  Every three to six months a new social worker would stop by.  They would make unannounced visits to see us, and were very unprofessional, as they had not taken the time to look at our case enough to learn our names prior to visiting us.  They would refer to their clipboard which contains all the information about our case.  Eventually they stopped coming.  This was around the time my grandmother got sick.

My grandmother passed away from cancer when I was thirteen years old.  This was extremely hard for me as she was the only family I had really ever known and trusted.  She showed me that there are good things in life, and she helped me adjust from being the child that I was to the woman that I am today.  She helped me understand that while bad things happen, that does not mean you can’t pick yourself up from situations and learn from them.  My grandmother taught me that regardless of where you come from or how you grow up, it is up to you to make something of yourself; that your past does not define who you are.  She always said that we are only given things that we can handle and I am so grateful for having her in my life for even the briefest of moments.  What she taught me will last not only for the remainder of my life, but hopefully for my children’s as well.

– Venette Gonzales, 1st Place in Essay

The Right Ingredients

The Right Ingredients

When I was a little girl, I assisted my mother with baking my birthday cake every year.   Being the creative person that she was, my mother always allowed me to select the type of cake and the decorations I wanted to go onto my cake.  My mother taught me how to measure every ingredient and explained to me how the ingredients make the personality of the cake.   After mixing the cake ingredients, we placed the mixture into three round nine inch cake pans, followed by placing them into the oven for baking.  I always peeked through the glass door of the oven to watch the cake rise and bask in the sweet aroma of the baking cakes flowing throughout the house.  Eventually the timer rang and I ran to let my mother know that it was time for the cake to be removed from the oven.  After taking the cake out of the oven we waited for it to cool before we began decorating it with rich, smooth, butter icing.

Oftentimes, while waiting for the cake to cool, my mother knelt down, held my hands, and told me stories about when she was a child and how she did certain chores afterschool.  I liked the part of the story when her parents would give her a reward for the chores she did throughout the week. She also told about how when she was seven years old she asked her parents for a dog , but it wasn’t until two Christmases later that she finally saw a puppy under the Christmas tree.  I think that was the beginning of my realization that patience comes in all situations.  Baking my birthday cakes with my mother was so much fun, but for my mother it was always a teachable moment.

As I grew to my teen years, my family and I took trips during the summer. On one particular trip we sat in the terminal waiting to board the plane.   There was so much activity around the newspaper and magazine stands; people were very busy.  There was even a man who was entertaining everyone by playing beautiful songs from his violin.  Most people in the terminal were very friendly, but an incident occurred when a customer thought his luggage was lost.  He was so upset that his language became    extremely foul at the airline agent.  The airline worked hard to retrieve the angry customer’s luggage, but no matter what they did, the customer continued to complain. After about thirty minutes of trying to calm and offer the customer a solution to the missing luggage, they eventually discovered that the luggage was mistakenly picked up by another passenger, and that the customer was not in the right baggage claim area.   When all was resolved, the customer looked embarrassed by his earlier display of anger and frustration.  My mother then turned to my siblings and me and said, “Sometimes, when you are not given the right ingredients in your birthday cake as a child, you will demonstrate a behavior like the customer who lost their self-control over a lost suitcase that was not lost but accidentally picked up by another customer.”

When we finally got settled on the plane, I began to reflect back on my life.  I thought about the ingredients my mother and I used to put into my birthday cakes, the stories about the chores my mother did after school, the story about the long-awaited Christmas puppy, and now about the unruly customer in the airport.   I realized that had the customer listened more and spoke less, his outcome could have been more positive, but instead lots of on-lookers walked away with their opinions of that customer because of his behavior.

I believe that what we are taught at an early age can sometimes be demonstrated in the person that we become in the future.  I recall a childhood friend who had parents that never used the word “no.” Whatever she wanted, it was always “yes.”  In public, when she didn’t get what she wanted, she fell on the floor screaming so loud that everyone stopped to see what was going on.  Embarrassed by the spectators, her mother gave in and rewarded her. When my friend got older and had children of her own, they gave her the same treatment that she gave her mother.

So here I am as an adult. Life has taught me many valuable lessons, but the one that always seems to ring true is “first impressions are not only lasting, but they can also be the last impressions.” These days, more and more it seems like you only get one opportunity to get it right.  And as my mother used to say, the ingredients of a cake can determine the personality of a cake, the same can be said about people. “Whatever ingredients are put into a person’s life at a young age can make up the personality of who they become when they are grown.”

–  Janie Bundrant, 1st  Place in Essay

The Challenges of Raising Children and Who Has It Worst?

The Challenges of Raising Children and Who Has It Worst?

“Please control your child.” is something all parents hate to hear. Whether you are younger or older this is going to be said to you. For example, I am a single parent raising my three year old boy in my parents’ home, and I constantly hear my parents screaming “come get this boy.” Usually after the screaming back and forth, my parents realize I am only twenty-two, and then I start to realize it as well. Parenting can be very difficult,whether you are an older or younger parent; however, older parents are more effective when it comes to raising children.

While younger parents offer great values in their children, older parents set longer lasting values such as manners, responsibility, and patience. Manners are very important because when you are meeting someone that is one of the first things you are being judged on. Older parents usually dress their children appropriately for most occasions, for example, formal events you are most likely to see their child fully clothed and suited properly for the event, and also behaving pleasantly to everyone around. Since older parents come from a different time period, they tend to carry traditional values such as responsibilities. These include, getting up early and working hard for very long hours, owning up to mistakes, and learning to become independent.

It takes a lot of patience when dealing with children, no matter the age of the child. When younger children are getting sick, tired, sad, angry, or hungry their response to what their feeling are usually unpleasant, until a parent corrects them; older parents techniques for this kind of behavior are more effective. To illustrate, an older parent dealing with an angry child tactics usually involves patience, listening to what the child has to say, and getting understanding of why the child is angry, so they can resolve the issue. The values listed above are values a child needs to grow and ultimately become successful in life; older parents are more successful at enforcing them.

Although older parents have great values for their children, many younger parents have some good ones as well. Younger parents are very well equipped when in dealing with social and self-help values. Society is changing rapidly, and keeping up with that can be very difficult. Younger parents are more aware of this, and are able to teach their children how to keep up, for example, teaching their child how to use a computer is very essential in these current times. The method of self-help is something all parents offer their child; however younger parents do a great job at enforcing it. If the child is at an appropriate age, and would like to get something practical such as something to drink, the younger parent is more likely to show the child how to get it and make the child get it them self. As opposed to older parents who would just get it for them. Younger parents are really great at keeping up with their children. Another value younger parents have is motivation. In these current times, there are younger parents going to school in comparison to older parents. Raising a child, going to school, and working are very hard things to do, but younger parents have proved over the years it can be done. By doing this younger parents are more likely to motivate their children into finishing school. However, older parents still offer longer lasting values, which are more important.

Financial stability is something all parents need to have for their child. Older parents are usually married with two sources of income, and are able to maintain steady funds. Often having long term employment, older parents can afford to take off of work any time they want. For example, when a child has to leave school, or any other place he/she is being cared in, it is not an inconvenience of pay. This is not to say that younger parents do not offer financial stability for their children, but age does have a lot to do with employment. For example, you are most likely to see an older person at a career position before you will see a younger person. Older parents usually have their own home, transportation, and health insurance for the family. A stable income is very hard to maintain, even for older parents. However, older parents tend to make wiser choices to prevent these kinds of events from happening. While younger parents are trying to achieve these goals for their children, age affects this process.

On the other hand, younger parents have a harder time starting financial independence. For instance, most utility companies ask the same questions; what is your age and have you ever held a bill in your name? This question is unfair for young parents who are just starting out on their own because most of them have not, and they have to go through a lot before getting a bill in their name. Can you imagine what it’s like for them? Whereas, older parents have gone through this process, and are ready to enjoy their hard work. Another reason younger parents struggle financially is because most of them are single with one income, unlike older parents who are usually married with two incomes. Because younger parents do not have financial experience, it is hard for them to create financial stability for their children

I believe that all parents have the challenge of raising children, but younger parents have it worst. The advantages that older parents have can play a large part on how the child or children grow up. I am a young parent myself, and I wish that I had the skills and the level of experience my parents have to raise my son, but I do not and it is okay because the only thing I have to do is my best, and that is all any parent can do.

– Myra Miles, 2nd Place in Essay

V for Victory

V for Victory

Less than a minute before the bell rang, I stumbled unceremoniously and panting into the cavernous workshop. I had switched to auto-pilot, born from three years of routine, and headed to the secluded fourth floor band corridor before remembering the change in my schedule. Cursing myself for the mistake as I made the sprint down to the far comer of the basement, I really hoped that my teacher was lenient on latecomers the first day of class.

I had been defined by band. I was Kat, the band geek; quiet, awkward, mostly unknown and okay with it I had even named my sax ”Frank the Tank, Formally Known as the Sexy-maphone.” Band was where my friends were, and where I knew who I was. I had lost that. A ruinous sheet of paper, taped carelessly to a cold cinderblock wall, had shattered my definition. It had waved tauntingly at me, fluttering in the wind of passing band-mates, telling me that I had been beaten in my audition for honor band. I was not good enough to move on to the only band that was acceptable for a senior to play in. I had to give it up. After scrambling to find a class to fill the now open period, I found myself with the choice of Home Ec or Art Metal 1. I wasn’t an apron and “egg baby” kind of girl. I chose Art Metal hoping it might dull my sense of failure, and maybe even bring out the artistic side that my friends and family always said I had.

I shook off those thoughts as I took in deep breaths to calm my heavy breathing. A mix of coppery metal smell and pungent chemicals stung my lungs with each gulping breath. I looked around the room at the massive setup of tall black tables surrounding a single workstation. There was an older man sitting there with a faraway, peculiar expression on his face. His eyes landed on me as I continued my attempt at regaining my composure. With an amused grin, he nodded at an empty stool by the front before turning back to the class.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Introduction to Art Metal. My name is Mr. McGonnall. This year you will learn the basics of jewelry making while I attempt to keep all your appendages attached. Insurance for this class is already ridiculous. Sound like a plan?” He looked around the room and his gaze lingered on a few cliché trouble making types, grinning at their expressions of horror. “Moving on, I would first like to introduce you to some of the tools you will be working with.” He walked throughout the lab, pointing out and explaining tools and machinery I had not noticed before due to my late arrival. Some of it looked downright ghastly.

“He was just kidding about the appendages thing, wasn’t he?”  I whispered to the student next to me. My companion paled. “I’ll take that as a no. This should be a fun year,” I thought sarcastically as I turned my attention back to McGonnall. He held up a small question mark-shaped hand-saw, which for all I could tell was a cheese cutter.

“This,” he started, “is a jeweler’s saw. This is your god. Almost every project you make in this class will start with this little guy here. Now, the important thing to remember when cutting with this saw is this,” he held up two fingers like a peace sign. “V for Victory. The blade goes between your fingers, facing away from you, while you hold the metal with your middle and pointer finger. This is how we make sure we don’t lose a finger. We don’t lose a finger, we are victorious. Let me hear you say it.”

“V for Victory.” The class droned together.

He gave us our first project of simple geometric shapes cut from copper. My design of overlapping circles, squares, and triangles was drawn on tracing paper and taped to my square piece of copper. I braced the frame of the jeweler’s saw on the black work table with the meat of my shoulder and fastened the blade into the clamps, so when I released the pressure, the blade would pull taut. I began to slice and became mesmerized by the vibrations created when saw teeth caught as they dragged through the metal, dust coating my shirt in sparkling glory, and the bloodlike smell of copper.

With each down stroke, a jagged trail grew along the pattern, eventually freeing the design of its square confines. Like a mother with child, I nurtured my creation born from an insignificant sheet of metal. With loving strokes of a file, I reshaped ragged imperfections. Blemishes were smoothed away with the caress of sandpaper until the metal shone. I breathed life as I polished perfection into every edge and surface. I was so lost in the experience that I had not realized I was alone until McGonnall tapped my shoulder. I jumped.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to know if you were aware that the bell rang.”

“Oh, um, no, I didn’t realize. I guess I zoned for a little bit there.” I said quietly.

“It is quite hypnotizing sometimes, isn’t it?” He said in more a statement than a question. I nodded as he smiled and examined my finished piece. “It touches some more than others, and it seems to have grabbed you like it did myself. I expect big things from you now, Miss Goodman.” He walked away. I heard him mumbling and whistling to himself from unseen comers of the workshop as I packed up my materials and scurried off to lunch.

Mr. McGonnall was a special breed: the type of teacher most students feared because it was unclear which side of the crazy/brilliant line he toed. Only those few who earned his respect knew that it was just his way to keep the troublemakers in line. He told me once that no one in their right mind would talk back to a crazy man surrounded by dangerous pointy objects. He had been quickly impressed with my dedication and almost obsessive push for perfection in every project and he pushed me harder, demanding more. He took the time to teach me more advanced techniques while encouraging me to take on multiple projects at once, knowing I could do it. I was honored by his praise and pushed myself to learn everything I possibly could from the eccentric teacher.

A few months later, I walked into the workshop towards an expansive wall of wooden drawers of various sizes, and pulled out a drawer marked with a dirty, worn strip of masking tape adorned with my scribbled name. Rifling through the jumble of scrap metal, tools, and designs doodled on bits of tracing paper, I found the plans for a new piece and made my way past the crowd of students clamoring for the best tools, back to my work station.

McGonnall’s voice cut through the din of scraping chairs and the muttering and shuffling of students. “I will be returning your last projects today. I want you all to get started on your next project right away. Make the most of the time today and the rest of the week. I won’t take any more of your time.” He made his way over to my workstation, seeing me already seated, with tools gathered, and handed me my last project with a smile on his face. ”Kat, this is a beautiful piece. It’s hard to believe this was your first attempt with wood inlay. You should think about entering a piece in the art show.”

“Thanks!” I replied. “But, I don’t know about the art show. I’m only an intro student. My work isn’t good enough.”

“You’d be surprised. You may not have the advanced techniques like the third and fourth years, but the quality is superb. That’s really what people care about, not how hard it was to make. Think about it, okay? ”

“I will. Thanks.” I said, fighting off the blush of embarrassment while turning the project over in my hands.

It was a box made from thick copper pipe, standing about three inches tall and two inches wide. The outside was covered in shallow dimples like a golf ball and had an imperfect patina to darken and accentuate the dimples, giving it a rustic look. The cover had an intricate design of red, purple, and black rare woods sanded in a domed curve, flush with the metal. It was beautiful, I had to admit.

I kept surprising myself with how well my projects turned out. My friends noticed, too, and I had a laundry list of requests for jewelry. Still, I debated with myself on whether or not my work would be good enough. I was afraid to step out of the bubble of comfort that McGonnall’s praise had created, only to find out that my work was truly terrible. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. However, not many people in beginner level art classes were asked to submit their art, so it was an honor and a compliment to be asked. Maybe Mr. McGonnall was right; I did have the quality to my work, even if it was only using basic techniques. I’d seen some of the projects that the more advanced classed had made, the craftsmanship was comparable to my own.

I decided to go for it. I wanted people to see what I was capable of, that I wasn’t shy and awkward “Band Geek Kat” anymore. I had a new definition. I had confidence that, even if my work didn’t sell, someone believed in me. I believed in me. With my newfound confidence, I submitted three pieces to the show and did not care if they sold or not. The fact that I was invited to submit a piece was an honor I was proud to accept. With McGonnall’s encouragement and the joy I felt in creating something, I found more confidence within myself than I had ever felt in the six years I had played band.

I had been so afraid that I was losing the only thing I was any good at. But in doing so, I found this talent that changed the way I look at the world. I found inspiration in nature, especially in trees, whose twisting and interweaving branches challenged me to capture and recreate. I found myself looking at trash lying on the side of the road, searching for that interestingly twisted scrap of metal to design a piece around. Every shape or silhouetted shadow sparked ideas to form. Most of all, I found a calm in the final moments of polishing a piece, when the last smudge of polishing agent was swept away and the metal shone like liquid. It became a living, moving thing in my hands, and I felt like a god. Victory indeed.

– Katherine Goodman, 2nd Place in Essay

The Well-Meaning Beast

The Well-Meaning Beast

Over the course of the past three decades, there has been an often-debated, ongoing ideology that seeks to prescribe a uniform level of accountability in the American education system. This has led to numerous acts of legislation that has evolved into a medieval revolution in educational standardization. The relentless and forgivingly human need to see all forms of progress measured in numbers and statistics has developed a virtually impenetrable foundation, with its massive infrastructure spanning the social and political landscape. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a bureaucratic shortcut to address a problem in need of complex reforms on all levels of educational institution, demanding a massive re-appropriation of federal funding. The most common (and most widely agreed upon) concern with NCLB is the inefficient, fragmented way it has been implemented. The specifications of mandates handed down from the federal government to the individual states are often too vague to apply without a disproportionate amount of interpretation left up to unqualified state-level bureaucrats. “All states being required to submit plans that describe their achievement standards, aligned assessments, reporting procedures, and accountability systems.” (Gardener) It is the guiding principle behind this legislation that is so woefully misguided. And today one of the largest obstacles in overcoming the Nation’s educational crisis has become thissolution.

This giant snowball that has become NCLB, found its earliest ruminations in 1981, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education was tasked to review the “data and scholarly literature on the quality of learning and teaching in the Nation’s schools.” (Gardener) Their report was released in 1983, titled A Nation at Risk. The report’s “suggestions for improvement” centered around addressing areas of educational content, level of expectation, the amount of time dedicated to studies, and, of course, the  teachers themselves. The document seemed to possess the wherewithal to anticipate where the government could positively and productively affect change, and just as importantly, where it could not. Though the approach taken by proceeding administrations in the wake of A Nation at Risk did possess the ideals found in the report, it did not in practice.

This impassioned plea for bureaucratic reform illuminated the depth and dimension of America’s foundering education system. It was riddled with alarming statistics that confirmed and further defined the problem. For example: “International comparisons of student achievement reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times…Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.”(Gardener)

Perhaps even more politically resonating, the report described the plight of our military institutions, forced to implement numerous remedial education programs to re-teach recruits the most basic curriculums, losing more financial momentum every year. The writing was most certainly on the wall, and a relentless, bipartisan political movement was born, continuously fueled by the looming specter of an intellectually decaying society, becoming so severe and malignant it threatens our national security.

The Improving America’s Schools Act of I 994 reestablished legislation introduced first by Lyndon Johnson, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of I965 that channeled federal funding to schools with a high percentage of students below the poverty line. This policy, with the addition of the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, illustrated a new way of thinking, and a new way to focus federal education funding that included all schools, not only the disenfranchised. Both pieces of legislation were part of a natural political progression toward nation-wide uniform standardization, and No Child Left Behind was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2000. This new legislation would create a new “standard of learning” and use the threat to withhold federal funding as a method of enhanced coercion.

The deepest of the many flaws in this system is that it completely bypasses comprehension, and instead forces an emphasis on application. Students become the desired vending machines for the much-coveted answers; and a generation is sent into the world with no idea how to ask questions. Teachers are literally strong­armed into teaching toward a single test, rather than using their talents to be creative and individualized in their approaches to cultivate stronger thought processes. Even the most in-depth education analysis indicates younger students learn experientially, which illustrates why creative talent should one of the most valued traits in evaluating educators.

Another flaw has to do with a student’s test-taking ability. Kinesthetic learners and those with learning disabilities often struggle with test anxiety, and suffer from lower scores despite retaining the information, something that is ironically ignored by this legislation. The opposite is also true; students who are good test takers can get satisfactory credit when they have not truly comprehended the material.

Regulations were developed in 2002 to try to take into account the metaphysical, fleeting, and intangible nature of comprehension. Legislators loosened restrictions on curriculum, but still enforced the standardized test. If the destination at the end of every school year is the same, the learning process is every bit as suffocated as it was before, students are directed toward a single test that will decide their educational future, no matter how creative the curriculum, students are still expected to regurgitate answers for the sake of answers, and nothing else.

To supply federal funding without the proviso of standardized accountability would be an alternative that can generate better results by simply allowing substantial federal oversight to monitor how the money is distributed. New financial distribution committees could be created as a conduit between state and federal lawmakers to ensure responsible and practical application. This could be used in conjunction with Lyndon Johnson’s initiative to provide additional financial aid for under-funded schools. This would be the most beneficial way to encourage productive learning using some of the tools implemented in the past.

Real comprehension can never truly be measured; we can only instill faith and confidence in the talent of our educators, to see our youth to the other side. What is sad about this fact is that the only ones who seem to know this are the educators themselves. There is another, less-discussed obstacle that stands in the way of a more progressive approach to learning. Officials with a political stake in education (with no real educating experience) want numbers and percentages to fuel campaign advertisements and speeches.

The problem with even the few seemingly effective acts of legislation set forth in the previous century is that none of them address the change in infrastructure that is so sorely needed in a modem and enlightened society. It is vitally necessary with all the challenges we face in the twenty first centuries, to utilize all of our possible resources to fuel our education system. There a several untapped resources the government leaves in the hands of organized crime syndicates that could generate biblically astronomical revenue. The Government could shrink classes, institute permanent tutoring and mentoring programs, or provide more thorough evaluations of student comprehension by attracting more candidates to fill sorely needed teaching positions. The government could afford to pay two teachers to every class of four students. The United States could have a veritable new age of enlightenment, creating a learning society that is not only accustomed to once taboo-distractions, but a society with the tools to thirst for knowledge as no generation ever dared.

The legalization of perhaps just one of these extremely taboo industries – marijuana, narcotics, or prostitution – could transform our economic landscape. This is not the only way our government can seamlessly have the financial tools to empower our school system. Today, the government maintains publicly its commitment to church and state, yet it refuses to impose taxes on religious institutions. Unfortunately, the only practical way to implement these policies would likely have to involve succession.

The problem with a government mandate is that as soon as it enters the classroom and lays its hand on the fragile dynamic of the learning environment, it effectively poisons the well. No Child Left Behind is the most destructive piece of legislation with the most admirable of intentions; it’s like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Due to its bipartisan support, hopefully the future of our education system will not end up reminiscent of the dead mouse in Lenny’s pocket, or the young woman he suffocated in that barn.

Work Cited

United States. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform: a Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983.

– David J. Bausch, 1st Place in Essay

The Attraction of Violence

The Attraction of Violence

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is the short story of a village that annually holds a deadly lottery. Although “The Lottery” is often viewed as a condemnation on blindly following traditions, the undercurrent of grim pleasure that runs throughout the story sug­gests that the villagers are not simply sheep mindlessly trapped in some macabre drama. Instead, we see that the villagers choose to maintain the ritual, even when a couple of townspeople show some dissension. This story is a grim reminder that man is inherently evil, even in the setting of a seemingly civilized town and that gaining satisfaction from seeing others suffer is not limited to Jackson’s fictional world.

The first evidence we see that the lottery is eagerly anticipated is in the actions of the young boys. They fill their pockets with stones and make a large pile as well (Jackson 365). There is also a feeling of casualness that permeates the atmosphere of the gathering crowd. The men joke and smile, albeit quietly, and the women and girls gossip and talk amongst themselves (Jackson 365). Mr. Summers, the official in charge of the ritual, arrives in a jovial manner calling, “‘A little late today, folks'” (Jackson 365). Also, his cheerful declaration to Tessie a bit later: ‘”Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie”‘ and her answering grin implies that the ritual is not feared but welcomed (Jackson 367).

Also supporting the idea that the lottery is enjoyed is the attitude of Tessie herself. She arrives after everyone else, having forgotten the date, but once she realizes the day, she comes “‘a- running'” (Jackson 367). Ironically, she seems the most cavalier about the ritual, evidenced in her joking comment to her husband,

‘”Get up there, Bill'” (Jackson 368).Mrs. Hutchinson’s cavalier and cheerful behavior suggests that she is looking forward to the stoning. Only after her odds of being killed have risen dramatically after her husband draws the unlucky paper does she speak out against the practice. Had another family been chosen, it is probable that she would not have spoken out.

As various characters are introduced, it is implied that several villagers have lost family members to the tradition, such as the Watsons. The oldest son of this family draws instead of his father and the comment, “‘Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it,'” hints that the father was probably a victim – however, no one seems to lament his absence (Jackson 367). Even though the lottery, having been performd annually for hundreds of years, has claimed many lives, there IS no mention of those who were killed ­ no remorse or sadness. Instead, there are only two brief offhand comments made by two women:


“Seems like there’s no time at all between lotteries anymore,” Mrs. Delacroix said to Mrs. Graves in the back row.  “Seems like we got through with the last one only last week.”

“Time sure goes by fast,” Mrs. Graves said.(Jackson 368)


As A R. Coulthard points out in his essay “Jackson’s The Lottery,” there is “no genuine human community, no real bond of love” (Coulthard 226). Were the villagers reluctant to perform the ritual, it would follow that there would be sorrow for at least the one most recently killed In addition, there is only the barest hint of dissention, and that is made by the Adams family. However, their brief comments that “‘some places have already quit lotteries'” are not supported by any other villagers and are quickly rebuked by Old Man Warner (Jackson 368). This shows that the villagers truly do not want to give up their bloody ritual, even when offered a chance.

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the story comes when the Hutchinson family is required to draw amongst them­ selves to see who will be stoned to death. Not only are the parents and older children required to draw, but also little Davy Hutchinson, who is no more than a toddler (Jackson 370). Had Davy drawn the unlucky paper, it is safe to assume that the villagers would have stoned him to death. As it is, Tessie draws the paper and immediately, the horror is amplified. Mr. Summers declares “‘All right folks…let’s finish this quickly'” and Mrs. Delacroix, who had been joking and laughing with Tessie a short while before picks up “a stone so large, she had to pick it up with both hands” (Jackson 371). Even Davy is given stones to throw (Jackson 371). The fact that the villagers are able to so quickly and easily stone to death one of their own is shocking. Clearly, had they truly abhorred the practice of the lottery, there would be hesitation evident in their actions. Instead, they go about the execution with a sickening eagerness.

Coulthard argues that the lottery “fulfills a deep and horrifying need” (Coulthard 228). Is Jackson’s fictional village representative of the maliciousness that lingers in men’s hearts? In her commentary on  her story, Shirley Jackson describes some of the disturbing reactions that her story garnered. She writes that people “wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch” (Jackson 880). Unfortunately, there is evidence throughout human history that people enjoy inflicting pain or watching others suffer. The Roman arena is one of the most famous examples, where thousands of people flocked to stadiums to watch gladiators fight to the death or Christians be killed by lions. However, such bloodthirsty behavior is not limited to ancient times.

In 1961, researcher Stanley Milgram conducted experiments to see if people would willingly electrocute someone if they knew they would not get in trouble. The volunteers were told they were “teachers” and were instructed to shock the “learner” (actually a researcher) in an electric chair if the learner answered a question wrong (Ablow). U.S. News reports “In Milgram’s experiments, 82.5 percent of the participants continued administering shocks even after hearing the first cries of pain at the alleged 150-volts level” (“Researcher Finds Most Will Inflict Pain on Others If Prodded”). Doctor Keith Ablow states, “Milgram had proven that average individuals presented with rules and an authority figure to enforce them (the experimenter), would hurt other innocent people they had never met” (Ablow).

In 2008, this experiment was replicated by Professor Jerry M. Burger of Santa Clara University, who found that “70 percent also wanted to continue when they hit that same level” (“Researcher Finds Most Will Inflict Pain on Others If Prodded”). AB these startling experiments show, people are more than willing – perhaps even eager – to inflict pain on others if instructed by an authority figure. Likewise, the villagers in Jackson’s story had rules that “instructed” them to annually kill someone by a lottery. Perhaps they used tradition and rules to reconcile their horrifying behavior, but regardless, they stoned someone to death year after year and there is no evidence in the story that they truly regretted it.

The attitude of the villagers contradicts the common assumption that they are unwilling participants of the lottery. On the contrary, we find that they are agreeable to the practice and refuse to renounce it, even when learning that others have done so. Jackson’s story is shocking and appalling, but perhaps even more horrifying is that the villagers’ behavior is not entirely fictional. As Milgram’s and Burger’s experiments prove, people are not opposed to causing others pain, even possible death.  An initial reading of this story may result in disbelief that anyone could engage in such a practice, but after seeing real life accounts of human behavior, “The Lottery” suggests that there is more going on in the story than just blind acceptance. Instead, the story brings to light the dark desire within men’s hearts to gain pleasure from pain at the cost of others.

– Elizabeth Williams, 2nd Place in Essay

A Career Romance for Young Moderns

A Career Romance for Young Moderns

1. Iodine & Baby Oil

I was almost nine years old and bored out of my skin. It was the tail end of August, a time of year when everything that had been new and exciting about being out of school reeked of tedium, heat, and humidity. I lived in a freshly carved suburb of our nation’s capital with my parents and younger sister in a sprawling subdivision overrun by children’s detritus.

In the early 1970s, bikes and scooters decorated blacktop driveways, while brightly painted swing sets squatted in backyards with impunity. Homeowner associations did not exist. Uniformity was achieved through our adherence to a vague sense of community standards and a desire to be neighborly. Later, when standards were codified and enforced with strict scrutiny, the net result was a decrease in goodwill and a deflation of the idea of neighborliness. Atticus Finch could never be the president of the local HOA.

I grew up before HOAs, when balls bounced into the road just as slow moving cars turned onto improbably named streets such as Venice or Pioneer. Children occupied every bedroom of the tidy suburban homes whether they were colonials, ranches, or split-levels. New elementary schools sprung up every spring along with the season’s crop of daffodils. My parents were happily living the American dream, a single family house in a good neighborhood with a fine elementary school. But it was still August, school didn’t start for another two weeks and I was bored to tears.

By the end of summer the novelty of flinging myself off the high dive had worn off. My passion for the diving board died suddenly, about the same time I slipped off the slimy end and landed flat as a paper doll in the middle of the diving well. The height gave me plenty of time to contemplate the pool’s blue surface as it rushed towards me. I fell like a giant flying squirrel made of concrete; my arms and legs extended straight out towards all four points on the compass. I was too stunned to claw at the air. Jaws dropped among my fellow board jumpers and the resounding splat ricocheted around the tiled pool edge like a shotgun blast. My belly stung for hours. My friends laughed for days.

My swim buddies all bore the marks of pool veterans. Chlorine had stiffened our hair and the sun permanently overheated our brains as we sat outside day after day in the sweltering heat.  We derived our tribal identity through membership on the swim team and we wore our team suits everyday as we gathered on rickety wooden picnic tables to play cards and engage in a malicious version of tag in and around the pool compound. Our nylon suits were terminally stretched from daily wear, the colors faded from the sun and pool water chemicals. For us girls, white shoestrings tied the shoulder straps of our suits together in the back and kept our girlish chests from being exposed.  The boys had no need for shoestrings but their suits drooped and bagged low on their butts as they passed.

Card games with my fellow pool rats, so fun in June, now dissolved into the same pointless arguments every day. We shouted about points and tricks as if our lives depended on the outcome. Our twisted games of tag were executed with the same degree of organization and bloodlust as a fox hunt. Blood was always spilled; it was only a question of when and who. With practiced hands, we dipped towels in pool water and applied the dripping wrung-out tips to various scraped and trickling noses with such regularity that the adults sitting around the pool deck didn’t bother to look up from their conversations, newspapers, or discreetly covered beers. Crying and complaining were forbidden on pain of being permanently excluded from the fun.

Maybe the sun eroded our brains or the chlorine gas made us semi-stupid, but as a tribe we had our own rules and insane cus­toms. We thought umbrella shade was for babies and old people.  We wore sunglasses to make fashion statements after sunset, not to protect our eyes. The only hats we saw were baseball caps worn by farmers or truckers and because we were neither, we didn’t wear them. Sunscreen consisted of a concoction of baby oil mixed with iodine that we rubbed over our limbs in search of the perfect deep tan. The coating stained our skin and fried it. Our parents existed on the periphery of our world and never said much about our antics. It was assumed they had their own lives, separate and distinct from ours. The national obsession over health and safety hadn’t yet twisted the American psyche. It was a time when people smoked with wild abandon, seatbelts were a polite suggestion, and drunk driving was considered more comical than deadly. We all felt safe. It took decades for experts to convince us otherwise.

While my summer playmates were uniformly white and Catholic, kids from the neighborhood surrounding the swim club, I lived two neighborhoods away and pretended to be white with only marginal success. My Hispanic heritage evident in my surname and olive complexion made me stand out in an exotic way. The crisp, two-syllable Anglo-Saxon names of my friends like “Larkin” and “Wallace” had sharp and distinct sounds. My last name, “Cavazos,” combined a “v” and a “z” and sounded slurred under the best of conditions. When we compared tans by squashing our forearms together, I was always the darkest No matter how much iodine my friends poured over themselves they never tanned the way I did. They speculated about my ancestry and the fact my father never came to the pool.

I wasn’t from their neighborhood because my family had been turned down for membership by our local swim club. The official letter from the Poplar Heights Swim and Racquet Association stated they were currently full, but for a $25 deposit our name could be added to the waitlist. After Mom opened the letter, I heard her mumble to herself, then hit her network of phone friends. I took up my usual eavesdropping position at the top of the stairs while I waited for the call to go through.

“Martha, I got a letter from the pool. They’re talking about waitlist, not membership.” I imagined my mother twirling the long phone cord between her fingers.

“Four years? By then the kids will be too old.” I guessed the waitlist must be that long. Joining a pool was purely for the benefit of us kids. Mom was Lane Bryant large, did not swim and frankly did not want to put on a bathing suit, even the modest suits of the era. I had to give her credit; by joining she placed herself in an uncomfortable position. Her heavy cotton swimsuits with their reinforced zippers and front modesty panel looked hot and uncomfortable. Until my sister and I were drown-proof, she supervised us from waist-deep water in the shallow end, bobbing up and down on her toes; the baggy cotton suit pulled lower and lower over her breasts until she tugged it back in place. After we could swim, she ditched the suits for shorts and a t-shirt and joined the other mothers who gathered like crows within sight of us but out of our eavesdropping range.

The phone conversation took a change in course. I heard my mother’s voice pitch upwards. “What? Too what?” She cracked a bit on the last syllable. I perked up and held my breath to avoid missing a single word.

“Ethnic? We’re too ethnic? For God’s sake I’m whiter than Wonder Bread.” Sure, Mom was white, but my sister and I weren’t and neither was Dad. My friends informed me of this fact, not my mother.

Shortly afterwards, we joined a swim club two neighborhoods away that-cared more about generating membership revenue than the origin of our name. Years later, it dawned on me how humiliated my father must have felt. On the surface, he was a man who had provided a good life for his family: a house in the suburbs where the schools were good, summer vacations, a station wagon for my stay-at-home mom to drive. He was a home improvement salesman who paid his bills on time, worked hard, and lived a quiet life. But he couldn’t join the local swim club because he was too ethnic.

2. Soft Suburban Hands

At the end of August, days lingered like a dry cough. My younger sister and I, having worn out all decency and civility, sniped at each other with a mindless ferocity that only siblings can provoke. At breakfast I picked at a bowl of Sugar Smacks cereal and sporadically kicked Amy underneath the table. It wasn’t an even match. Too late, my shin discovered the hard leather sole of her sandals. I was barefoot.  She was only seven, but had already developed a wicked shoe obsession. For payback, I flicked soggy bits of cereal through the air with my spoon, aiming for the wall above her head.  Mom came around the corner and spotted me, mid-fling. Her quick gasp of sucked-in air inflated her like a Macy’s parade balloon. She loomed large over me and seemed to drift back and forth on an unseen breeze. I jumped to my feet, grabbed a soft yellow sponge, and rubbed the milk trails from the wall. My sister smirked and wiggled her feet admiring her shoes and reveling in my shame. I plotted my revenge from under lowered eyes.

During breaks in our bickering we assailed our mother with a chorus of, “There’s nothing to do.” Our whining didn’t move her. In fact, our complaints caused her lip to curl back, revealing several grim teeth as we trembled. We realized too late we had overplayed our hand and retribution would be swift and painful. In one motion, she swept us outside, heaved the lawn mower into a startled roar and plopped two rakes into our soft suburban hands. Mom waved her forefinger like a riot cop then turned and grasped the mower handle. She heaved the beast across the heat-scarred zoysia grass, leaving a trail of regurgitated brown grass clippings which we scraped into haphazard piles. When her back was turned, we swung our rakes wildly at each other’s legs with the teeth side outwards, determined to draw blood. We screamed ourselves hoarse arguing over who was more stupid for getting us into this mess. Hot, tired and dirty we bagged grass in a sullen silence, by morning the bags showed condensation from the warm decay. Afterwards we gingerly poked our blisters and reconsidered our strategy. Our new plan: ask to go to the library.

The library was our perfect escape. We knew it was free, a concept our mother revered. It wasn’t far from our house and we could play the education card, another quality our mother held in high esteem.  Every family worships at an altar and education was our god. The fastest way out of clearing the table or doing the dishes was to mention a staggering amount of homework, real or imagined. Bedtime was automatically pushed back if we convinced our parents the show we were watching was educational. The PBS channel was enormously popular with us after eight o’clock.

We knew the library trip was a sure thing, and my sister and I congratulated each other on our successful manipulation. It never dawned on us that a trip to the library was a small vacation for our mother too, a break in the routine, a chance to escape the monotony of child rearing and housekeeping. No, we were full of youthful pride and stupidity; we couldn’t consider her point of view. After all, she was just our mother. Only years later, when I faced endless days with my own toddler, did it occur to me how tedious motherhood could be.

3. Princess Nurse

The summer before third grade, just before I turned nine, I got hooked on a series of books about candy stripers and nurses: I found the crumbling pile of paperbacks about nurses and candy stripers tucked away in a comer of adult fiction. Their pages were yellowed and brittle with a dirty musty odor of overripe paper. I fingered them with care, afraid of separating the pages from the spine. Billed as career romances for young moderns, they were already more than twenty years old when I stumbled onto them.

I had been holed up in the back thumbing through piles of paper­ backs looking for the “good parts” when a cover caught my eye. It showed a pretty woman in a student nurse’s uniform with a darkly handsome doctor behind her, his gaze indicating either a heightened romantic interest or the instincts of a serial killer. Either way it definitely got my attention.

Within their pages the nurses were strict but kind, the doctors were always compassionate, the candy stripers were spotlessly clean and everyone who wore white was white. The stories were set in hospitals where patients never died, bled, or vomited and the wider world they lived in was exempt from violence, racism, and sexual harassment.  In other words, they were fairytales.

I loved fairytales; I couldn’t get enough of them. I read and reread all the beautiful picture books about Cinderella’s triumph over her wicked stepmother and Snow White’s care for the strange little people in the woods. I believed in Prince Charming and happily-ever-after endings. I thought the world would become mine as I twirled around a ballroom in four-inch heels and a diamond tiara. I meditated on the color and style of evening gowns and glass slippers with religious devotion. Organza or taffeta? Princess cut or A-line? These were the serious questions I contemplated for hours while staring out the car window or sitting at my desk during school.  I was true believer. If I worked hard, was kind, and had a good attitude, a prince would find me and make all my dreams come true – what a bunch of crap.

But I was nine. Vomit? Blood? Disappointment? I suspected my carefully constructed world of happy endings was a sham. I just didn’t want to know. The realization that bad things happened to people was beginning to seep into my consciousness and I didn’t like it. My family had been turned down for membership at the pool because of our race. A neighbor died of breast cancer. Little cracks were appearing in my imagined world and my reaction was to cling to fairytales.

Within the pages of my nursing romance books, the world still held only happy endings. The stories were all the same, good trumped evil, the princess (the nurse) got the prince (the doctor) but the backdrop was a hospital, not a palace. I wanted to believe in the world they portrayed. If I didn’t think about what I was reading, it was plausible that hospital patients whiled away the hours taking naps and drinking ice water from pitchers replenished by candy stripers. From my limited perspective, this made perfect sense.

The young heroine of the nursing series was Cherry Ames. She possessed tried and true American qualities I could relate to. She was intelligent enough to pursue a career, she was persistent even when obstacles were placed in her way, and she worked hard. But there were portions of those fairytales that puzzled me and caused me to have second thoughts. Cherry’s world was markedly different from mine. She reflected society’s expectations of young, white, middle-class women of the 1950s. She was groomed to perfection in a crisp white apron and a pert white cap; she was conscientious to a fault and avoided all monkey business. She adhered to the hospital’s strict hierarchical structure with reverence.

My life was different from Cherry’s. In her world there were few people of color. All the nurses and doctors were white; a walk on the wild side was an Italian pathologist who spoke with an accent. The inevitable Negro housekeeper who worked on the pediatric ward and loved children was the only representation of any color besides white. Her cheerful demeanor struck Cherry as a wonderful personality trait but I cringed.

I was growing up in the 1970s, and my fairytales were about to collide with reality. Society was changing rapidly and cultural expectations about race, women’s status, and even dress codes were evolving away from the mores of the 1950s.

On the first day of third grade I walked into my classroom saddled with an unpronounceable last name, dressed like a dork, and completely lacking in a cheerful disposition. Inexplicably, two weeks before school started, my mother decided to sew matching outfits for my sister and me. Despite my fervent prayers, she finished them just in time for our first day of school.  They weren’t just bad – they were frightfully hideous.  Mom pieced and cut yards of neon blue plaid material to make two identical dresses with matching ponchos.  The pièce de résistance was heavy gold fringe outlining the ponchos giving them a theatrical flair. My sister and I looked like we bad just ridden in from Peru on the back of a llama.

The bus ride to school was a nightmare. Matching home­ made outfits were the kiss of death by kid world standards, and the hoots and taunts had been loud and typically unimaginative. All the other girls wore either shorts or jeans; certainly nothing home­ made. The bulk of the poncho made holding onto my school sup­ plies difficult. I managed to find my desk and slouched behind it, the perfect vision of a home economic project gone wrong.   I scratched at the tight new elastic holding up the ugly white knee socks which completed my mortification. When roll was called, I knew the teacher had reached my name by the way she paused before hacking it to bits.                .

“Ca-VAY-zoss?” My third grade teacher, Ms. Phillips as she preferred to be called, scanned the room searching for someone who looked foreign.   I squirmed in my seat, trying to use the desk as camouflage as I raised my band.  The poncho slipped up my arm towards my neck and I pushed it away from my face. Politely,   I pronounced my name, but in my eagerness to please, I said it too slowly and too loudly as if I were speaking to a memory­ impaired senior citizen instead of my young teacher who wore a leather vest with tassels that screamed, “I’m groovy, man!”

I was nervous. I wanted to make a good impression. She smiled thinly as the scent of my desperation lingered in the air.  She smelled it and re-crossed legs that were visible to mid-thigh. It was the first wave of the miniskirt revolution and this was a bold fashion statement for the classroom.  My hands were slick with sweat. My neediness disgusted us both.

“Where are you from?”  She scanned my outfit and raised one eyebrow.

I did not understand the meaning behind the question. In my zeal to demonstrate my quickness and cooperation, I blurted out, “Falls Church, Virginia.”

She frowned and tried again. “What country are you from?”

I was puzzled. I completely forgot the idiotic outfit I was wearing. The answer seemed obvious to me. My reply was given in the form of a question because I had no idea why she was asking. “The United States?”

My classmates erupted in laughter.  Even the kid from India chuckled, and I wasn’t sure he spoke English.

Ms. Phillips turned red but not as red as I did. In one short exchange, I whizzed past teacher’s pet status in a free-fall dive and dropped immediately to the lowest caste, classroom pariah, without understanding why or how I got there.  Social skills were never my strong point. I stuck to my books. It was safer.

There was nothing in my nursing romance novels to prepare me for my first encounter with Ms. Phillips. In those stories, women were always addressed by the title “Miss” or “Mrs.” They did not wear miniskirts.  In fact, proper clothing was an issue they commented on constantly. In my candy striper book, a teenager named Bonnie carefully considered the appearance of the candy striper uniform before agreeing to fill out an application:  She eyed Nancy’s crisp uniform.  It was cute. With her small waist, the full skirt would be very attractive. Other female characters were complimented for being well-dressed.  Mrs. Brent, very trim in a summer weight navy blue suit, her abundant hair confined in a shiny chignon, tapped the edge of the lectern.

I studied Ms. Phillips, her long hair parted in the middle, her self-proclaimed Ms., her fringed vest, her miniskirt. Times had changed.  Cherry’s world could not coexist with Ms. Phillips’. I assumed my slouched position and wondered which world I belonged to, where would I end up.

– Ann Cavazos Chen, 1st Place in Essay