Samples of Students' Writing
(excerpt from her short story “Chaos Theory”)
Elena bolted awake at three-thirty AM covered in icy sweat, two charley horses rocketing up her calves. She fought the urge to seek the comfort of her mother, instead massaging her pain-seized legs and allowing herself to cry while poring over the pocket medical dictionary she kept tucked beneath her mattress. Elena then crept downstairs, threw up into the toilet bowl, and began preparing breakfast for herself.
At six forty-five, Elena’s mother found her feasting on a Lincoln log cabin of bacon with a scrambled-egg interior and a lawn of cocoa puffs.
“That’s quite a creation,” Janis murmured.
“I know. I’m the next Frank Gehry.”
Elena shoved four strips of bacon into her delicate mouth and chewed them methodically.
“Well, in any case,” Janis continued, “I made you another appointment with Dr. Schwartzmann for this afternoon—“
“DONE.” Elena leapt from the kitchen counter with uncharacteristic vigor, dumped her plate in the sink, and snatched up her backpack.
“Cherie, school doesn’t start until eight-thirty.”
“I know. . . I just like to sit outside Mrs. Iridio’s door and trip people as they walk in. It’s really hysterical.”
Dr. Schwartzmann cannot possibly be charging enough, thought Janis, as Elena closed the door tidily behind her.
(excerpt from her personal essay “Shields to the Soul”)
The first sunglasses I remember owning were a childish pair of circular, purple frames. Thin and ugly, they simply turned the world as I could view it a rather nasty shade of purple, like a fresh bruise. Nevertheless, I would wear them constantly and often pretend that I was exploring another planet while I adventured around my backyard, pretending birds were slagathors and squirrels were rampadans and I was on the planet Marinu.
I received those purple sunglasses when I was about four years old, as a reward for being a “big girl” at the dentist. I hadn’t actually behaved as a “big girl” would: I whimpered and cried as he stuck his hands into my mouth, probing around my precious few teeth. As a prize for not biting off one of Dr. Costello’s fingers, all of the children were offered little trinkets. Of course, every patient gets the obligatory toothbrush with some cartoon birds or hippos on the handle as well as a little box of dental floss that would probably end up being implemented as a rope of some sort in Barbie’s dream house. While we were excited for these things, to be sure, the true prizes came from the glorious three shelves right before the exit. These shelves contained a veritable treasure chest for the survivors of the dentist’s examination. There were goofy rings, spinning toys, miniscule notebooks – everything a child could want but nothing she would truly need.
During my first visit to these shelves, my eyes bounced around wildly. My little four-year-old mind almost exploded with the possibilities. After pondering which plaything would be mine, my eyes settled upon those purple frames. They were on the highest shelf, almost too high for me to see, but as the light caught the glass just right, I knew those sunglasses were to be mine.
(her poem “Nomenclature”)
Maybe if everything was exactly what it was called
I would be different.
When I would walk, a trail
of green would spring up behind me.
When I would speak, a universe
would explode into existence.
When I would write, I would see God
rise up from the pages, a swirling silver rush of the eternal . . .
Because I would echo the birth of everything –
if I was what I am called. But maybe
I will merely catch a glint of this grandeur,
put it away in a far corner of myself,
and be content with what I am.
(excerpts from her personal essay “Megan Broken Into Eights”
I took the SAT at LA High, the school I would have attended if I hadn’t run away to private education. Everyone registered for torture that Saturday morning was waiting in the hallway, and as I looked around me at the mix of black and Asian and Hispanic students waiting with their number two pencils I realized that I was the only white person in the room. I was so stunned by this fact, so confused as to why I suddenly felt so different, that I pointed it out to my best friend who was standing next to me, a girl who is taller and thinner and darker than me. As soon as I told her I wished I hadn’t, because I realized that she must feel that way every single day, and even though everyone makes a big deal about equality, and even though most people aren’t racist, that doesn’t mean they don’t notice and it doesn’t mean you can’t feel them noticing. I don’t think I could feel that every single day.
* * *
The tired and true saying states that Los Angeles is a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs. What this saying doesn’t tell you is that when you grow up swimming in a gigantic stew you come out smelling like it, feeling like there’s little bits of everyone stuck to you and that there’s more than one type of blood running through your veins. If you’d prefer, you can roll up the car windows and lock the doors, turn on the AC and let Robert Seagal from NPR fill you in on what’s happening in the world while you drive by it, never seeing anything except the traffic lights and the cars in the rearview mirror. I like to drive with the windows down and the music up, letting the city spill into my car and seep into my skin.
(the opening and closing sections of his short story “The Death of Joseph Stein”)
Joseph Stein died at two in the morning on Sunday, in an ambulance in Queens. His wife Anna had been woken by his convulsing, and by his urgent, raspy breathing, and called 911.
Their housekeeper Chandra, a compact and ageless Sri Lankan woman, rushed into the room as Anna was hanging up the phone the way she would if it had been a wrong number -- calm, nonchalant.
Chandra held Joseph’s frail arm and made panicked, pleading sounds, inarticulate with fear. When the E.M.T.’s came, Chandra stayed with him (although she let go of his arm), staying close to the gurney and getting into the back of the ambulance with him. Anna remained in bed, sitting up straight.
The back of the ambulance was crowded, everything arms and blue uniforms; an I.V., swinging crazily like a witch doctor in a trance, threw manic shadows; an oxygen mask was torn seemingly out of thin air and pressed to Joseph’s twisting, gasping mouth.
Chandra huddled in a corner, shaking, watching helplessly, the lines of her shoulders pushing in toward the action in a subconscious impulse to help. She stared, without blinking, at Joseph through the crowding arms and uniforms.
And then Joseph Stein lifted his head up, and looked at her, his eyes bulging and his face pale. He shouted then, a roaring bellow up from his thin sunken chest, a noise too full and strong, as if every last bit of energy left in his body was coming out all at once.
Joseph spat blood onto the inside of the oxygen mask, fell back, and died.
* * *
When the family got back to the house, Anna was lowered slowly into her chair by a son-in-law, exhausted. Others fell into the couch, or sat in the dining room, and then on any other surface they could find. Anna’s youngest grandson walked up to Joseph’s chair, turned his back to it to sit down, and felt a wave of static up his spine. He stopped short, looked around, and then crossed the room to sit on the floor below the window, staring at the chair. One of his cousins sat looking between him and the chair, and others, noticing them, all followed their gazes. In less than a minute, everyone was silent, watching the empty chair. Anna’s middle daughter, a Manhattanite, was reminded of the eerie gap in the New York skyline; the Lao fiancé was reminded of the pale square a framed painting leaves on a wall; Anna was reminded of tan lines.
Chandra followed the two Haitians through the front door into this silence. The pair immediately saw the gap in the room, and stopped short. Chandra, with a sigh of relief, pushed past them and plopped into the chair, pulling off her shoes. There was a half-beat, and then everyone in the room went back to their conversations, trying not to look at her or at Joseph’s chair. Some of them felt sorry for her; they couldn’t bring themselves to blame her for her ineptitude in the situation.
They didn’t know that Chandra was completely aware of whose chair it was. Pushing her wide hips deeper into the seat, and curling her short legs up in front of her, Chandra imagined Joseph’s ghost moving around upstairs, stepping easily from room to room. The ghost was not the frail, limp, empty figure that had been sitting in that chair a week ago, holding his knees tightly with anxiety, lesions blooming sickly on his scalp, waiting impatiently to die. The ghost was like the body in the casket; full-cheeked, clean-skinned, hair slicked back, a hint of a smile on the edges of his thin lips.
(an excerpt from her poem “Ars Poetica In:”
Presuppose the universe hangs about you in fine threads
of burnt lace, and every pulse and joint-pull is a breaking through.
Sunset all strung up with the star clots, woods a string
of hard and bird and ancient emerald frailed into grit-green leaf.
Assume we are a woven thing – (some say our shaking mountains
show we are the drapery on some holy knee) – our woolen earth,
the whale tooth moon, this whole screaming spin. But there are wells
where trees once were – a poet can see
small spaces in the stitch, a severance of our endlessness.
(a micro-fiction entitled “Star Sifting”)
I’ve seen it all. Once, a man we didn’t know came up out of the lake in full scuba gear – James Bond or the Lock Ness Monster. We couldn’t decide which. But he pulled off his mask and mouthpiece, grinned at us, said his name was Clark. His eyes were a blazing sea color and when he spoke I thought I heard someone singing.
“Would you like to come to lunch?” I said, surprised as the words came out of my mouth. He looked at least twenty-five, and we were seventeen, Lori and I. She stared at me, eyes wide in disbelief, but her mouth curled in excitement. The wind seemed to be picking up, moving the hazy, stale air of our summer.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. My skin got warmer, the tips of my fingers tingling. “I’d like to.”
We sat in silence in the restaurant, the air buzzing. I could feel electricity waving between the three of us; it seemed like a note twanging in the air for long minutes. Lori in her flouncing self-consciousness, me dipping unsurely into cool confidence, and Clark simply existed. He radiated effortlessness in every movement.
“Do you girls like Whitman?” he asked finally.
Lori nodded vigorously. She had never read a line of poetry she didn’t have to. I remembered vaguely something about homosexuality and barbaric yawps, but couldn’t fit the two together. I shrugged.
We walked Lori home that evening, left her looking longingly at us as we shuffled down the steps, through the gate, up the street until we came to the park. He took my hand.
He didn’t say anything else, just stared at me, starlight sifting in his hair, his skin glowing silver.
Finally, he said, “You’re like a bird, a swan.”
I fell into his arms, warm and comforting.