As some of you know--and some of you don't--I'm applying to grad school for Fall of 2016. I didn't advertise this anywhere on social media for a lot of reasons. Those reasons are for a different blog that's probably going to be really dark and depressing and maybe published later today.
The purpose of this post, though, is not just to tell Squarespace that I'm still alive and using this domain, but to share one of the pieces I crafted for one of my applications. This particular school asked for a lot of different things. They wanted a Statement of Purpose, an Autobiographical Statement, and a Personal History Statement.
That's a lot of things that all sound like the same thing. And doesn't that sound like it would make it more difficult for the selection committee? And why not lump all these things together and call it an Extra Long Tell Us About Yourself Statement? (Capital Letters Are Important to Grad Schools).
But I'm bad a naming things, so I guess that's why they're reading my stuff and I'm sitting on my couch, waiting for rejection letters.
Wait. That's too dark. I promised darkness later. Shit.
Anyway, here's the autobiographical statement I ended up being the most proud of. I haven't considered dipping a toe into the lake of Creative Nonfiction since sophomore year of college, but that's where this piece would fall if I needed to give it a genre.
Without further ado:
In the fourth grade classroom at Gill Hall Elementary, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a hot April day in 1997, I sat with three adults. My parents and my teacher.
It was tense. The sweat prickled at my hairline before sliding slowly down the back of my neck. The adults were talking. Their words clipped and terse. No one was talking to me. No one was even looking at me. They were just carrying on, speaking to one another, hands folded over the papers in question. Ignoring me like I wasn’t sitting there beside them, awaiting execution.
I didn’t mean to forget to finish my math test. Or start it. I’d just gotten carried away. Numbers were so much more interesting when I could turn them into little characters and make up a story about them instead. And the story which I’d ended up writing on the back of my test was a lot more entertaining than the equations I hadn’t answered on the front, anyway.
“Emily,” Mrs. K said finally, setting her beady eyes on the accused. “Do you understand why I’ve asked your parents to be here?”
My mother and father—who couldn’t stand to be in the same room as one another normally—both focused their gaze on me. I swallowed hard. “Yes?”
“And why is that?” Mrs. K raised one of her penciled on eyebrows and pursed her lined lips.
“Because I wrote a story about the numbers on the back of my math test,” I mumbled, looking down at my hands.
I sighed with resignation. “Instead of taking my math test.”
Even to my nine year old self, this tribunal seemed rife with injustice. Did they even read the story about Seven dispelling the rumors of his cannibalism? Did no one care that he went to trial and swore under oath that he did not eat Nine as he was charged? Or how One defended him because she knew what it was like to be lonely and intimidating? And best yet, after Seven was cleared of all charged, they fell in love and walked hand in hand into the double digits together.
“Why do you think we’re disappointed, Em?” my father asked. His tone was still kind and gentle as always, but undoubtedly displeased.
“Because math is important?” It was a question. One I’d been asking since the subject had been introduced to me three years ago and immediately begun its bullying. It was a question that no one had answered.
No one answered me this time. Instead, they turned their attention back to one another and moved onto the sentencing portion of my trial. Mrs. K used words like “special” and “extra help” and “after-school programs.” Words that made the knot in my stomach twist tighter and tighter.
My mother was silent afterward as we climbed into the car and buckled our seatbelts. I waited until we pulled onto the street before I swallowed hard and glanced over at her. “Are you mad?” I asked, quietly, praying I was looking cuter than I felt.
“Yes,” she said in an even tone.
“I’m mad because I can’t believe my taxes go to paying that woman’s salary,” she gripped the steering wheel tighter. I blinked. Didn’t expect that. “What kind of idiot reads a story like that and calls a meeting to tell us she thinks there’s something wrong with you?” She shook her head and pulled over onto the shoulder. She took a deep breath and turned to me. “Look, Em,” she reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “No one is good at everything, okay? But this?” she held up my story. “You’re good at this. You’re really, really good at this.” I felt myself smiling for the first time all day. My mother smiled back and pressed a kiss to the top of my head. “Just please don’t use your math tests anymore, okay? I’ll buy you as many notebooks as you want. I just don’t want to sit through another meeting like that one.” She raised her eyebrows. “Deal?”
I grinned. “Deal.”
“We’re going to the library,” her mother decided aloud. “An imagination like yours needs to be fed.”
True to my word, I stopped writing on the back of my math tests. I still failed them, but no one had to go to any more meetings because of it. I had a building full of new teachers waiting for me to devour the lessons they had hidden between their pages.
I studied character development from Harper Lee and Thomas Mann. I learned description from the poets—Mary Oliver was my favorite, but I made time for Dickenson and Thoreau. I kept myself awake most of the summer of 2002 studying how to tingle a spine from the likes of Shelley and Danielewski. Judy Blume, Toni Morrison, and Elmore Leonard taught me the ins and outs of great dialogue.
It was only eleven years later that I found myself in the hospital, sitting beside my mother in the last week of her life. She had been asleep most of the day; the morphine dulled the pain of the cancer ravaging her body, but it also knocked her out. She did open her eyes that afternoon, though, and reached for my hand, startling me from the book I was reading at her bedside.
Her skin was yellowed with jaundice, but her eyes were the same. Green and kind and curious about what I was doing. “Who are you reading today?” she asked, her voice hoarse.
I covered her hand with mine. “Neil Gaiman.”
She managed a smile. “Get it from the library?” I nodded and swallowed down the lump in my throat. “Is there anything in that place you haven’t read?”
I brought our hands up and kissed the back of hers, squeezing our fingers together as I forced a smile. “Just the math books.”