(Names, including mine, have been changed.)
“Hi Mrs. Kohanim, I hope you’re well. It’s been a while, but...”
SUBJECT LINE: WORK IN PROGRESS
“...we’re going to the Women’s March! It’s...” It’s all thanks to you, Mrs. K. Am I making you proud?
ATTACHMENT: TOO LARGE TO FIT IN MESSAGE
“...It’s really wild, I applied to intern and I got it! I—” I wish you’d been there to see me.
“...anyway, I’m sorry I can’t visit during school much. I...”
I miss you.
STATUS: Never sent. Never read.
“God dang it!” I shout, pushing away from the keyboard.
For the twentieth time in months, the words stick in my throat even in their pixelated form, and I’m tempted to backspace on my actions yet again.
I think guiltily back to your urge to keep in touch. You can’t know this, but those three words have spanned eight hundred and ninety-one days, dozens of gas tanks, and possibly the hardest lessons of my life. But hundreds of tests and new faces and conversations—life’s version of testing—later, I know that change isn’t necessarily distance, and unsure of exactly how to hand in my final report, I take a deep breath and start to type.
You’re fifteen, live alone, hours from your friends and family, and you’ve just found out you need to mail a check to a contest by six. You can’t drive, have never filled out a check in your life, and you frantically Google the nearest post office to find it an hour away and closing in an hour. You’re also quickly being routed by a horde of ants more organized than you’ll ever be—what do you do?
Kohanim, when I tearfully left your class for a private school hours away, my parents hoped my sister and I would be blessed with a safe environment. What we couldn’t have known is that over the course of a year, I would learn to live and thrive like a single cat lady.
We didn’t know that when Sarah got rezoned to a worse high school, when my parents decided to try to keep us together at a private school, or when your face fell in the split second before you told me I would go so, so far in life, as I asked you for a rec letter to transfer. We didn’t even know when Sarah got her rejection letter. In fact, silly little me didn’t even know until I got the call from my dad at 10 pm one July night that my mom had had a stroke—
And it was like every cliché I had ever hated became reality.
Tears, panic, a rush of flowers and realization of taking things for granted. Then the pronouncement of massive luck, a slow road to recovery, and a newly dependent relationship that quickly soured. Taking care of a disabled wife and commuting to two different schools became too much for my dad, so my family moved back home. For the rest of the year, I lived alone in an apartment near my new school.
Kohanim, I won’t lie. For a good month, I woke up dumbstruck. But you know what? On days when I thought of my family miles away, I learned to cook, to pay the bills, to stand up for myself, to ask for help, to sing off-key in an empty flat, and to find out just how much I really had. On days when everyone gawked at the strange new girl from a public school outside the city perimeter, I knew I was incredibly lucky to be here nonetheless. I learned to thrive in the face of prejudice; when the guys said crude things, I held my ground but held out to see the good in them, and my most uncomfortable class became my most welcoming family after a year of forced Harkness discussions. In fact, it’s funny, those private school quirks didn’t teach me so much as that year alone—literally—did. Kohanim, you urged us to do what we loved and forget the rest, and I did it. I sat on one-member teams, hosted three-people discussions on rape, and found the best friendships of my life through it. I had nothing to lose; more importantly, I realized I’d never had anything to lose.
Because more than anything, I learned not to fear the big decisions, since so often it’s the little things that really matter. In a world dictated disproportionately by everything from an overdramatic email to a tiny gene for strokes, I no longer feared the choices before me. Had I not been sorted into your class, shy, bookish me would never have been exposed to a fascination beyond the literature I’d always loved. Every time you pushed me until I thought my last “customized” essay had to be an unreproducible miracle, you slyly won me over to a fascination with the world that extended long past the due date; you helped me see that “literature” is all around me, and there is no facet of culture “beneath” rigorous analysis and wonder. I remember turning in a lazy poem once, made by hitting the auto-predict options on my iPhone keyboard to “make a stream-of-consciousness-reminiscent string of gibberish, both frivolous and intentional in the calculations of Apple’s algorithms, blurring the line between artist-, random-, and deterministically computer- generated art.” When you actually gave me a 99 on that, the line between your relentless analysis and our thoughtless meme-filled life vanished. In between handing me Derrida for Dummies to “jazz up” my next essay and musing on whiteboard graffiti, you taught us a new way of thinking that was simultaneously lofty and yet right around us, just like how I realized in my year alone how the truly important things happened in the millions of overlooked decisions that made up a life.
No question was too small for you. You turned Post-Its on “y do we rite more about death than life” into whole walls covered in drawings and quotes on transcendentalist theory, and you’d just smile as we agonized over the fifty minutes we had to ask about it. Looking back, there was never any need to worry. The knowledge was always there, on Google or your bookshelves; your job was simply to interest us in it. Your greatest lessons weren’t the obtainment of any difficult material so much as the way your trials made me want to know more—ironically, sometimes I feel like for all your work, you’ve just made a blank slate of me all over again.
Kohanim, I remember one of your last vision boards, when we asked why Huck Finn struggles to learn “manners” while we struggled to suppress asking permission to go to the restroom. You laughed at our love of decorum, but when we flinched at how you asked us to call you by the lax “Kohanim” the way you addressed us by our surnames, I decided that I hated this decorum. I hated the back-stabbing competitiveness in my peers, but I hated more that I could understand the pressures that had driven them. I hated every time a shy and carefully-hovered childhood left me and a peer in silence, and every time I was too scared to email you because “it felt weird”—because as much as your class transformed the way I thought intellectually, plain old stiff upbringing is an experience that has molded me no less. Heck, it’s probably part of why your simple request and the ensuing year of adjustment, independence, and emotional evolution have made up the most difficult learning experience of my life.
But I’m being unfair. I’m nearing the end of our memory trip, but Kohanim, you once asked us to write a two-page memoir of our life, and I chose the moment my grandmother was seriously using her potential last words (thankfully, not really) to tell me to go to an Ivy League school. We laughed about it then, but there was a resentment and desperation to understand running under that piece. I feel terrible saying this, but that wasn’t released until I saw my grandmother’s face reflected in my mother’s on the hospital bed nearly ten years later in a twisted shot reverse shot across time. Kohanim, I’m so ashamed that after nearly two decades of domestic Sturm und Drang, it took a stroke and the kindly face of my grandmother to see that instead of resenting my mother’s expectations, I could—I do—choose to be grateful that out of everyone in my life, she has always been there to truly think I could accomplish that much. Questions of “decorum” be damned, weighing the love and suffering that went into every Amy Tan-style hope and dream my mother has placed on me, the answer is overwhelming.
Though I could resent the education of my upbringing, I have learned that gratitude is a choice, and I choose it here, and everywhere, and for everything else from which I could possibly learn.
A part of me wishes I could redo that essay (or that whole chapter of my life) for you. But after five years of Latin, I can tell you that perfection comes from the Latin perficere, to complete, and there is a beauty to be appreciated in how all the little choices of our lives and cultures come together as a whole. You always said that you never believed in a text being completely finished, and so at the risk of falling into a bunch of syllogisms, I offer that our lives are really a jumble of works in progress, and the closest we can come to perfection, then, is to embrace the edits, mistakes, the original drafts, and everything in between that make our stories whole.
Ever your student, Lee.
Jessica Lao (17) is a senior and Writing Fellow at the Westminster Schools of Atlanta. Her work has appeared in Rising Phoenix Review, Menacing Hedge, and After the Pause, and her art will be exhibited in Paris, Beijing, New York, Rio de Janeiro, and Nairobi in the coming year. Jessica has always loved the power of words to transform and to illuminate, and she hopes to pursue a future in literary criticism or nonprofit management.