*Warning: The subject matter of this piece alienated my muse. If it’s enough to ruffle her feathers, it may be enough to ruffle yours. Also, a name has been changed to protect the guilty.*
Vicki is fifteen years old. She’s my best student (in terms of fluency) and she’s a cutter…at least she used to be.
This evening’s class broke late. Instead of 6 o’clock, class got out out at 9, 9 PM on a Saturday night. That should tell about some of these kids’ study habits.
After class, instead of everyone leaving, one stayed behind;
“Handsome Peter, I need help on my college essay. I have no idea what it’s talking about. I don’t know what it means and I don’t know how to write it.”
“Sure you do, Vicki. As soon as you discover your voice, you’ll know how to answer it.”
“My voice? What do you mean ‘my voice'” she asked.
“We’ll use the word ‘voice’ to describe when someone’s writing from their…”
I pointed to my heart.
“And not their…”
I pointed to my head.
“Do you understand, Vicki?”
“Yes, I…think so. But I don’t know how to write using my heart.”
“Of course you do, Vicki. When you find the right subject and you relate to it, you’ll find your voice. And when you write using your voice people will listen.”
“Why?” (It was as though she were asking the question just for the sake of it and not because she couldn’t understand what I meant or what I was referring to).
“Because people always listen when other people’s hearts talk”. I’ve found this to be true even if the listener doesn’t like to hear what’s being said.
“Well, ok. But hot dogs aren’t the right subject. I don’t relate to them. How can I find my voice and write from my heart about a hot dog?” (She’s obviously never been to a baseball game or a 4th of July barbecue).
“A hot dog?”
“Yes, a hot dog and Chicago. I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t know what what means, Vicki?”
“The question. It’s about hot dogs and Chicago.”
“Yes, it is. Here, let me show you.”
The University of Chicago’s essay question: “Chicago is famous for its hotdogs. If you were a condiment of a Chicago hot dog, which one would you be and why?”
It went on to list the ingredients:
One all beef hot dog, one poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, one dill pickle spear, sweet green pickle relish, tomato wedges, chopped onion, two sport peppers and celery salt.
“See?” she pleaded. “I don’t know what those things are.”
“You don’t know what mustard is?” I asked.
I showed her a picture on my phone.
[Google plus a VPN is great. Without a VPN, in China, Google isn’t so great. While Yahoo works, Google most often doesn’t. Every year, right around the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, Google goes down and stays down for months.]
“Now do you recognize it?” I asked.
“Okay. How about a pickle? Do you know what that is?”
“A pickle” I corrected her. Chinese can’t pronounce the “L” sound at the ends of words. It doesn’t exist in Mandarin. Part of what I teach my kids is pronunciation.
When she stopped and thought for a moment, she got it.
“Pickle?” she asked, hoping she pronounced it right.
“Very good, Vicki. Vicki, are you like a pickle?”
“I don’t know. What’s a pickle like?”
“Pickles are cucumbers soaked in a ‘brine’ or saltwater until they’re pickled.”
“Pickled?” she asked.
“You mean like salty?”
“Exactly, Vicki. Very good. Are you salty?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How about sweet? Are you sweet?”
“So, if you’re not salty and you’re not a pickle and you’re not sweet, what else aren’t you?” I pointed to the ingredients.
“I’m not sweet pickle relish?” she asked.
“Excellent, Vicki. We’re making progress.”
“No we’re not! I’m not any of those things!” she exclaimed despairingly.
Vicki is an attractive girl. She has a huge smile, bright eyes, loves to laugh, is almost as tall as I am (though I’m not very tall in the US, I am tall in China and Spain), is athletic and is the center of many a boy’s attention.
“How about a pepper, Vicki? Are you a pepper?” I asked.
“A pepper? Peppers are hot and hot means sexy, right.”
“I’m not sexy.”
“To some boys, I’m sure you are but hot can also mean something else. What does heat do, Vicki?”
“Do you burn, Vicki?”
Without flinching and without hesitating, Vicki responded: “Yes. I burn.”
“What do you mean?” I queried.
“I burn people.”
“Vicki, some people like being burned. Some people love spicy food. They love the way it burns. They can’t get enough. They keep going back to it.”
“I know” she interrupted.
“Other people, like my mom, can’t stand being burned. They run from it.”
“I know” she continued. “I burn both of them.”
“I don’t want them getting close to me. I don’t trust them.”
“Why don’t you trust them, Vicki?”
“Because why?” I insisted.
Her voice softened and as she spoke. I leaned forward, anchored my elbows into my knees and lowered my head looking at her from atop my glasses. I waited for her answer. Finally, it came…
“I used to be fat” she whispered.
I paused for a moment and then asked gently, “Are you fat anymore?”
“No…but I feel like it.” Her voice trembled. And then it began to rise: “And when people talk to me I don’t know what they want.”
“You mean you don’t know whether they like you or whether they just like the way you look?
“Vicki, that’s the curse of being beautiful.”
She looked at me surprised, almost unsure. Once she had made sense of that to her satisfaction, she carried on:
“Yes, so I burn them.”
There was a long pause and then her soft tone returned.
“And I don’t know how to eat.”
“You don’t know how to eat?”
“No, I mean, I eat too much or I don’t eat enough. Sometimes I don’t eat at all.”
“Vicki, do you vomit?”
“Vomit? What’s that?”
“Do you throw up?”
“No. I don’t throw up.”
It always surprises me that Chinese children know their phrasal verbs. “Throw up” is a phrasal verb and phrasal verbs are learned by memorization and experience, not by context. In Spain, most people weren’t familiar with many phrasal verbs. In China, many children are. I’m always impressed and surprised by it. What didn’t surprise me was what came next…
“You don’t throw up but you do cut. Don’t you?”
“I did” she let slip out. Almost immediately she caught herself.
“How did you know? You can’t see…”
She was right. There were no visible signs to betray her secret.
“I don’t have to see, Vicki. I just know.”
In my past, I’ve dated a few broken people, people broken the way I am broken, people who are perfectly imperfect. They are my people. I am one of them and I am very comfortable in their company. At least two of these broken people were cutters; one wore long sleeves to cover up her scars, the other wore short dresses to show the battles she’d been in. While her intellect was sexy, so were her scars. The “realness” of them always impressed me. They told she’d been to battle and had come out the other side. While those who didn’t know might think her scars revealed defeat, I knew better. Her scars were her Purple Hearts and her healed gouges, victory.
I’ve noticed I often feel better when, after I admit one of my issues, someone admits to one of theirs. So, with Vicki, I revealed one of my not-so-secrets, that I’m an alcoholic in recovery (something you already know but she didn’t). I also passed along some helpful information about a group of people with problems identical to hers. She scribbled quickly and furiously before finally taking a picture of what I wrote on the whiteboard.
Vicki started to wipe away her tears, then she thanked me.
I thanked her. “Vicki, thank you. Thank you for letting me in. Thank you for trusting me and thank you for letting me be of service.”
“I knew I could come to you” she said. “You love things that aren’t perfect.”
That comment caught me off guard. I’ve struggled with the flaw of perfectionism for as long as I can remember. In fact, recently, I wrote an as-of-yet-unposted piece about it.
“That’s true. But how did you know that? Did I talk about it in class?”
“You didn’t have to, Peter. I can see it. I’ve always seen it in you.”
“Vicki, you can see a lot. You can probably see a few other things too.”
“I can. I can see some other things too.”
“Can you see how to write this paper yet?” I redirected her.
“No, I can’t. I can’t write from my heart. I can’t make people listen to me.”
“Of course you can, Vicki.”
“No, I can’t” she resisted.
“Vicki, what just spoke from you? Was it your head (I pointed) or your heart (I pointed again)?”
“It was my heart.”
There was a pause before I responded.
“And what did I do?”
“Maybe, but what I mostly did was lean in. Why did I lean in, Vicki?”
“So you could…listen?” her voice raised.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t have to and neither did she. A moment later, there it was. It was what I was waiting for…
Vicki and I talked a bit more. She opened up about some other things. Mostly I just leaned and listened. Finally, she was ready to write. Before she got up, however, she asked one last thing. I could hear the fear in her voice as she worried aloud:
“Handsome Peter, you won’t tell my parents will you?”
“I won’t tell them what?”
“What I told you. What I used to do” she explained.
“What did you use to do, Vicki?”
Vicki did it again. Vicki smiled.