September 11th, a day of tremendous change and loss for so many in NYC and their families. Every year, the old is new again.
If you’re applying to college now, you were barely born then; or maybe you newly knew how to say plane, tower, fall, fire, help. You didn’t know how to deconstruct it, or what it really meant.
Memory is funny that way. Remember when the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up? You were definitely not alive then if you’re just applying to college now.
I was, though. In my mind, I’m again watching the disaster at blast off happen on TV, the huge TV they wheeled in to our elementary school classroom.
On our walls were block-letter ideas of the future– how we could write more clearly, add more exactly, have dreams, penmanship, and punctuation. Everyone took the same freaked out breath at once, and the sky streaked with grey.
God, that third grade teacher, Christie– (was she?) floating back to earth, detached from ship and smoke. No more report cards.
I don’t know why I imagined her landing in a pile of old math worksheets and guinea pig pellets, in the yard of some public school somewhere, some school inevitably just like mine, kids pausing their ball games and pulling each others’ bright plastic barrettes to go check out the damage.
We are still checking out the damage.
I figured, with my kid-logic, that her astronaut suit- though burnt– would provide the necessary extra padding so that she didn’t smash onto the concrete, but landed gently. Oh, to be on the earth again, oh that the tallest things fall.
After a Big Loss
Our NYC skyline shows us the tallest things fall hardest, and the net of loss yanks hard and far.
After the Challenger, I never understood why someone would go to space rather than look at a picture book about it– safety first. For weeks and years that teacher kept floating softly down.
As an adult, I understand why you’d assess risk and still choose to go. This is basically what we are doing every time we get up in the morning. That’s what you’re doing now, whatever your age.
And in some parts of the world, to leave your home is ALWAYS a risk to your life, if you even have a home to leave. Imagine that for a second, if you have’t experienced it.
Many people did not get on a plane for a long time after 9/11. The wreckage smoldered for months.
Unexpected, staggering losses happen daily– especially in POC communities– with not nearly enough outraged, shocked response on a national level. But the individual, the community, reels.
How will you write about the things you’ve lost, thus far? Big or small? Concrete or abstract? That time someone took your teddy bear– or your dignity?
That time someone took your relative’s life, or took your favorite comic from between your hands and ripped it?
How do we tally and talk about what is no longer ours, and still imagine a future?
Today is a day that marks a deep hopelessness for many, and yet spurred incredible acts of kindness, remembrance and solidarity.
Now what will you do?
Two Writing Prompts to turn change and loss into reflective essays
Colleges are looking for your ability to reflect on the particulars of your life. Here are two prompts to help you do it. They are heavies, like today, but remember that even in heaviness, lightness exists.
First, watch the Challenger fall— this is dated footage, not FB Live. Not Insta. It’s just raw television coverage, and families catapulted into a new reality. (These sudden inexplicable losses happen all the time. This dramatic one just happens to be in our cultural lexicon).
Then, write about a time things changed quickly– maybe even horribly quickly– in your own life.
From time to time I find a poem that would be a perfect college essay, as is.
Read it, and weep. William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” guts me word by word. I want to help my students make their college essays this pointed and distilled.
So let’s study this guy, a master of his form; he knows word economy. His poem unsettles. Good– who wants to settle? That’s for pre-Trump era folks.
He is a badass** writer, somehow direct but also circumspect: “Lest our mutual life get lost in the dark.” How is that for Twitter-able accuracy?
As a side note, I would also feel really cool if one of my students wrote something this devastating and accurate. (Which, by the way, they sometimes do, just that most of them aren’t famous for it yet.)
These lines have haunted me for years. They could not be more relevant.
As a buzzkill and injunction to BE WOKE, I’ll post Stafford’s last lines.
But you’re best served by reading the whole poem aloud, again and again. Better if you can read it to somebody. Maybe somebody who, like the rest of us, needs to WAKE UP ALREADY.
Light up your essay
I wanted Brown badly
I wanted to go to Brown University because all my favorite people from high school went there, many of them writers; I wanted to go to Brown because I knew there students had autonomy over course selection and I was used to picking for myself. I wanted to go to Brown because…it felt like a natural fit.
And because I drank the elitist cool-aid, sorta.
I didn’t exactly approach the process with an open mind, more like a targeted mind that was open to me getting what I wanted most…
“I can see myself there!” I said. And so said everyone else. Sometimes, everyone else’s predictions for you feel annoying. But it’s most annoying– and probably also most accurate– to imagine that all of that conviction could be irrelevant.Read More
If you don’t try, you may never understand.
My new student, J, was in his bright red basketball jersey and shorts, and he was doing his best not to shiver. Starbucks was as cold as a meat freezer.
But what he was saying warmed my mind. In the course of a short conversation, he’d already told me that as a kid he’d been pegged as “troublemaker.” Or, even worse, proving the little words matter: “THE Troublemaker.”
You wouldn’t know it now, from his composure even under the offensively strong air conditioning. But according to his teachers, he had “too much energy” and bounced around the room and, worst of all, Socrates be damned, he had too many questions.
I’m like: “Hold the sauce. How is it possible to have too many questions IN A CLASSROOM?”