E.M. Miles, 9th - Oakland, CA
It hurts. They don’t tell you that when you go to war. They’ll tell you stories about heroes dying in the heat of battle, for their comrades, for their country. They’ll tell you how honorable it is, as if the greatest thing you could ever hope for is death, and it is, I suppose, because who are you after the war ends? What purpose do you serve, when you’re home, when the bloodshed is over?
But I’m not home. I’m here, my limbs jumbled and my blood soaking into the soft, waving gold wheat. I’m here, and I can tell you that it hurts. Or, at least, my death does. I can’t speak for the soldiers who had quick, sacrificial deaths. But bleeding out, a spear still embedded in your torso, alone and soaked in your own blood?
Well. That’s bloody painful.
Ha. Bloody. Get it?
It isn’t just the getting stabbed that hurts, although that certainly doesn’t help. You can feel the blood leaving your body, feel the life getting drawn out of you as each minute passes. Your throat itches, and every breath is ragged and shuddering. You can sense every feeble, scrambling heartbeat, and it’s as if the blood your heart squeezes out and pushes through you is sucking you dry, not keeping you alive.
It’s awful, all of it. The heavy, thick feeling of the weapon inside you. The dry, aching breaths, the blood pouring from the gaping wound in your chest. The pain, it’s awful.
But the worst of it all is knowing that you are dying.
You keep sucking the air in, knowing that it will end soon, and that this breath may be your very last, that your eyes will glaze over and the dark will close in, will blot out the sun and the sky and the wheat waving gently above you.
You wait, and you know, and it doesn’t happen. You keep dragging in shaking breaths, keep feeling. Death, with his cool, dark, flowing robes, won’t come for you and ease the pain that radiates through your body.
It’s not so bad, really. I’m on my back, and I can see the sky, endless and deep and empty. I can’t see the sun, but I can feel it on my face, warm and sweet, reminding me of my father pressing a kiss to my cheek, beard rough. Soft yellow wheat stirs at the corner of my vision, gentle and making a soft shush as they twist in the breeze.
(My right leg is twisted under my left one, and my left hand rests next to my ear, fingers curled slightly. My right palm sits on my chest. The spear, the thing that will kill me, that is killing me, that is still inside of me, was forced in just under my armpit and slammed out the other side at a downward angle.)
The sky, and the grass, and the heat remind me of Fionn, and my heart aches, it aches for him to be next to me, his thin and gentle hand to be curled in mine, his dark curls haloed by the sun. At the same time, I am relieved he is not beside me, that he is home and far away from this place of blood and pain and death.
My beautiful Fionn, my most beloved, the person I adore more than anything in the world. If he were here, he would paint this field for me. The canvas would be alive under his fingers, all waving wheat and enormous blue sky and heavy, delirious sunlight.
Tears start to clog in my eyes, hot and burning. This isn’t what I wanted. I never imagined I would be here. When they came for me, for us, in their shifting, clanging armor, telling us that any boy older than eleven was to come and fight, I thought only of Fionn, of protecting him, of keeping him from the pain and fear and blood of war. I had seen the eyes of the men in town who made it home. That empty, sightless stare. They weren’t really here. Some indelible, essential part of them was forever lost to their battle. I would sooner die than lose that part of Fionn, than look into his eyes and see them dull and devoid of everything.
So I lied. I said that he couldn’t fight, that a childhood injury had rendered him unable to walk. Take me, I told the soldier, looking up at his hulking frame, his coal-black eyes and gleaming helmet. I’ll fight for you. Take me and leave him.
While the soldiers slept, Fionn gripped my arm and looked at me with such fear that I could hardly stand it. I held his face in my hands and promised I would return to him. I pressed my lips to his forehead and smoothed the tears from his cheeks and tried to convince myself that this would not be the last time I felt his warm, soft skin on my fingers.
It hurts so much. All the pain has blurred together, and I can’t distinguish any of it. Leaving Fionn. The spear in me. The blood coursing out,, drying in the sun. The hunger, the exhaustion, the fear. Dying, dying, dying. It’s intolerable.
The sky is endless, and it’s close enough for me to reach out and touch. It feels like it could swallow me up. It’s so blue, too. How did I not see how colossal and vivid it is? The sunshine feels like a blanket, weighing me onto the earth. If it weren’t there, could I lift my arm and grab hold a piece of the sky?
Everything in me is mixed up. How long have I been here? Days? Weeks? Years? Will I be here forever, a permanent fixture of this glowing field, a sad, bloody, scrambled warning of what happens when you love too much, when you wish for happiness?
Tears have reached my ears, dripping down the side of my face and sliding into the grass. I’m sorry, my love, my Fionn. I’m sorry I wished for more than we are allowed, I’m sorry I couldn’t come home to you. I was trying to keep you safe, keep you whole, keep you mine. Black spots dance before my eyes, and in them I can almost see his face, his olive skin and gray eyes and dark curls bouncing across his forehead.
The sky is so blue, so big, so close. The heat is so soft against my skin. The yellow wheat continues to sway back and forth above me. I’m so tired.
I close my eyes one last time, and then all I can see is his face, his lovely face, smiling and golden like the grass.
Loftrún Utyard, 10th - Arlington, VA
Maybe you’re twelve or thirteen, and you think- You’re in a world where if you were are at a party-
And things went south
Someone would come pick you up.
And even if it’s dark
Or the thing that happened wasn't even that bad
There’s someone on the other end of the phone
Who cares about your well-being
And they drive you home
Only asking questions if you want questions to be asked
Look out the window at all the lights and neons
And you’re so thankful
Who will come and get you.
And maybe now
You’re fifteen or sixteen
And you're at a party- or somewhere worse
Things aren’t going good at all.
And you feel the cool, solid feel of the concrete
Beneath your legs and that dress that’s a little too short-
And you get out your phone
And call for someone
To come take you home
The first one you call doesn’t even pick up
And the second one, Tells you it’s all your fault in the first place
And you don’t have any friends
Any that drive- anyways.
So you sit there
Of the adults that are coming to get you
In a different way.
M.Antonini, 11th - New York, NY
“Big cars, weapons, fast food and Big Gulp menus are frequent.”
“In general, Americans are generous, open, and friendly, but prefer their own culture.”
“The attractive lifestyle is portrayed by Hollywood and copied around the world.”
“Talk loud and have limited knowledge of the rest of the world. Unless there is a serious conflict, then they can arrive with the cavalry with Bruce Willis in command with blazing guns and save the day.”
These are just a few of the things non-Americans I spoke to noted as identifying features of America. Many of those ideas, such as an emphasis on consumerism and self-promotion are facets of American culture that many who live in the U.S. carry with pride. But do those ideals truly represent the future that America should be striving towards?
* * *
To be an American means something different to everyone. To some, it means obstinately believing that everything dubbed to be wrong within it can be excused. To others, it means wanting it to embody a set of ideals once promised and fighting for a place they see as not only possible, but ineffably urgent. Sometimes critiquing America and the systems in place within it are met with critics, people who claim to love their country unconditionally. But is it truly loving your country if the moment it is met with criticism your first instinct is to deny it, to dream for it to stay the same, to never evolve, to never include everyone? Is it truly love if it only supports the flag, but not all the people who form the country it represents?
* * *
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and announced their separation from Great Britain. It was a day of celebration with bells and band music, the genesis of a new beginning, a chance to become a nation that was different from where they had come from, free of tyranny and mistreatment. But that escape from tyranny and mistreatment only applied to some, and to different degrees. For others, it didn’t apply at all.
On July 4, 2020, after the murder of George Floyd on May 25 the same year, at the hands of a police officer, conversations spurred regarding racism in America, both institutionally and culturally. However, these conversations were not new. As many signs during protests read, “the same bell has been ringing since 1619, and now you choose to listen”. However, it is pertinent to not only condemn social justice issues but actively work to solve them. As Matthew Zapruder’s essay titled “A Poem for Harm” states, “A mere willingness to bring an explosive issue forward (especially one that does not directly affect you) is not the same as an actual acceptance or responsibility or even culpability.” For many white Americans, pretending problems don’t exist and hoping that they will going away simply through waiting, is a privilege. To them, ignoring the problem is easier than working to fix it, as ignorance does not require the consciousness that action would force them to possess: a resolute self-awareness. But just because a problem has never faced an individual personally, it does not mean that it is not a part of their country’s history. A full picture of history would include every detail about every person, event, place, and thought, and even if one of those things does not directly affect everyone, it is still a part of a collective history and therefore contributes to a collective responsibility to strive for fairness and equality.
* * *
I am a first-generation American. My mom and dad both were born and raised in Europe, Sweden and Italy, respectively, and moved to the U.S. in their teens to continue their studies. I spent summers with my grandmothers in Rome and Stockholm, learning about other cultures that shaped my parents and ultimately me. I am often struck by the people there, the spirit of joy that pervades nearly all aspects of life, how similar yet different it was than being home. It was always interesting to hear how people described America when I visited. When I was younger a lot of it was related to the commercial chains that developed in the cities, like McDonalds and Burger King, and the sheer size of American creations from cars to fridges. It often sounded like a combination of awe and bewilderment, but over the years, as I got older, it shifted to politics, to Trump, and to the immediate need for change. To many, and understandably so, watching American news was like watching a horror/reality TV show that for some reason never cut to a commercial break.
* * *
There is something to be said about loving your country, maybe even just liking it, but is it really love, if you don’t want it to change, to become better? Is it truly unpatriotic to teach kids in schools about the complete history of their country, even the bad parts? When you go the doctor, do you not tell them about your pain because you are worried that they will try to fix it? No, of course not, because you know that it needs to be fixed, because something is hurting, and it will only get worse if nothing is changed. There is nothing more revealing of a person’s love for their country than their wanting to make it better and continuously evolve. As novelist James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
* * *
Johari Osayi Idusuyi, a twenty-three year old writer and student at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, decided to attend a Trump Rally in 2015 with three friends, with the intention of listening to the Republican nominee and determining for themselves what to make of him. “We tried to take an unbiased stand,” she says, but eventually things took a drastic turn; protesters arrived at the rally inciting reactions from both the ralliers and Trump. Idusuyi notes, “I don’t think Trump handled it with grace. I thought, ‘Oh, you’re really not empathetic at all.’ That’s when the shift happened.” Unable to get up from her seat and leave due to her being placed in the stands directly behind the camera, she decided to read the book she brought with her: Citizen by Claudia Rankine. “I’m not going to waste my time listening to somebody whom I can’t respect anymore, so I started to read,” she recalls. So there she sat, peacefully reading Rankine’s book, a moving and poignantly relevant story about the reality of racism in America and the immense emotional toll it takes on black Americans. A few moments later, a couple seated behind her tapped her on the shoulder and and crassly remarked, “‘If you don’t wanna be here then leave. You didn’t even stand for the Pledge of Allegiance,’” to which Idusuyi replied, “‘Did you not just see what happened? This person disrespects women, minorities, everybody and you’re still supporting him. He’s not saying anything of substance.’”
* * *
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” declares the 1892 Pledge of Allegiance. Working towards creating liberty and justice for all is what constitutes love for a country, a love for its people. Without that hope for the future, the Pledge of Allegiance and all other American traditions cannot truly serve their purpose. If not supported by action and a willingness to affect change, these affirmations remain empty words. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “A constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.”
Anonymous, 9th - Oakland, CA
Playing house sure did not work.
I hear my parents yelling at the other room
Tears stream down my little sibling’s face.
I look at the closed door in front of me.
I ask myself,
“When will this end?”
“When will we be happy?”
“Can we be a ‘Family’?”
“When will they get along?”
“Can we have a family where everyone loves each other?”
“Can I have two parents who will never yell at each other?”
“I wonder what my siblings feel”
“I wonder if they could just stop fighting pay attention to us”
My dad spending money, gambling. My mother working hard to feed us and provide us a warm home.
Some days go good some days go bad or even more damaging.
When we visit our family we put on a bright smile. Telling them we are “fine”. I keep my mouth shut not telling my cousin that my parents fought last night. I have a hard time studying thinking about my parents.
My friends don’t even know I lie to them when I tell them, “ I love my family, we all love each other”
My siblings bear the pain with me and we keep our mouths shut tight.
Not letting out a peep on what goes in our house every day.
Our dad doesn’t even come home, he stays out there god knowing what he does.
Sometimes I could tell when he is drunk, asking my mother for money knowing we don’t have enough.
Dad driving drunk with me and my siblings back home from a party, our Aunt told us to stay but the stingy old man (my dad’s friend) wanted to go home.
Music blasting load as my dad and the man continue to drink more beers. I look over my older sister looking out the window. I look at my little brother who was 3-4 years old sleeping.
I looked down, “ If I had a phone I would call my mom, “ I say.
I look out the window, cars passing slow.
The cars pass by slow.
Cars passing by Slow.
I stay still for a moment, “ we are going fast” I say.
I shut my eyes and tighten my grip on my seat belt.
“ If we get in a car crash will the seat belt save me?”
“ what about my little brother who is sleeping?”
“My older sister who is on her phone ignoring the fact that my dad and the man are drunk”
I open my eyes and see red and blue light. I turn around and look back.
Police car. I look back at my older sister, she ignores my worried face and looks away.
My brother wakes up and starts to cry,
I start to get nauseous.
They grab my father and place him inside the police car.
My mind goes blurry.
I really don’t know what it feels like to have a happy family. My friends do know that feeling and my cousin too.
I don’t feel jealous, I don’t know why.
A plastic family.
A plastic family.
A happy life?
A plastic family.
A plastic family.
Plastic family it is.
Seeing children with a happy family makes me feel happy and sad.
Us kids are suffering if parents have a fight or won’t get along.
Plastic family it is.
Students 6th-12th Grades