Bridging the Distance

By: Nina Lawson

“Six feet apart please, six feet apart,” I called out as I paced down a long line of food bank recipients that wrapped around the entrance.

The weekly volunteers at a pop-up food pantry in San Francisco’s Sunset District hurried to organize the distribution boxes for the line of people waiting in the fog on this chilly morning. My bright green vest glinted in the window of every passing car. I pulled colored chalk from my mesh pocket to retouch the smudged “X’s” on the damp pavement, indicating each standing marker.

Most of the people, many of them elderly Chinese, specifically Cantonese, had been waiting for several hours. Their greetings, mannerisms, and style of dress—brightly colored, thin clothing; often knit material— reminded me of my own grandparents.  Others did little exercises as they stood in place: arm swings, toe touches. Anything rewarding to fill the time.

Finally, our supervisor held up his hand to signify five minutes. Hundreds of feet shuffled back into position. Nine o’clock. Right on schedule.

Aside from the day my mom took me to GLIDE Memorial Church to provide free meals when I was ten, I had never been to a food pantry. As a teenager growing up in an affluent part of Marin County, I was sheltered. I never struggled getting my basic needs met. Where I’m from, most families head to Lake Tahoe resorts in the middle of February for “ski week” and spend their summers traveling all over. Many of my peers study abroad, benefit from academic enrichment, and enroll in costly athletics or arts programs. From the protection of this safety bubble, it’s just a fifteen-minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge into the neighborhood where the food bank runs.

My first day on the job, five months ago, I followed everyone’s lead filling grocery bags. When a manager asked if I could be a runner, I agreed, willing to do whatever was needed. The front line was a long table topped with six food bags; my task was to quickly replace each one taken.

To be honest, I started volunteering for the community service credits. I figured I’d just do two shifts and efficiently knock them out of the way. But as the day went on, I enjoyed the work. At the end of my 4-hour shift, we’d served about 1,200 families, feeding nearly six thousand individuals. Hundreds of them had stood outside for hours. Sometimes there was no movement at all, just waiting. Some waited until noon to get food.

One morning, a small old woman hobbled up from the gate. Her hair, graying from the roots, was cut short into a bob. She wore purple leggings with a light blue, pleated sweater. Her gently wrinkled eyes lit up at my warm greeting. She could have been Nai Nai (my grandma), who was herself approaching eighty-three years old, just over five feet tall and probably weighing one hundred pounds.

“The bag is very heavy today,” I warned.

She acknowledged my words with a slight nod and began to lift it off the edge of the table. As she walked away, she gestured to acknowledge how hefty it really was and uttered a little laugh, then tottered back through the gate. I watched her cross the street and continue to trudge back up the block, clutching her bag of food until she was out of view.

How far could she walk until it became too heavy, I wondered? How far was she from home? What if she were too sick, or forgot to bring her registration card, or missed her time slot? And what would happen if the pantries ran out?

Prior to the pandemic and economic shutdown, food pantries served about one third the amount they do now.  The exponential increase is attributed to surging unemployment rates around the country. Many children, who relied on school breakfasts and lunches, were no longer in school. Furthermore, since many restaurants and hotels stopped donating, food banks—like grocery stores— have faced shortages.

Here in the Bay Area, where some of the world’s richest people live amid undistributed wealth, I’m overcome by an urge to do more. Sometimes people think their contribution means nothing, but any kind of support—giving your time or money can reach far more than you might expect. There is always another family in need. Until the problem of food insecurity is solved, it will continue on, without a foreseeable end. Don’t shy away from making your own impact.


Nina Lawson is 16 years old; she lives in Mill Valley, California.  When Nina is not writing she likes to paint and do oil pastel.  She is also a swimmer and plays water polo.

Here is her website --


Image: Extremis on Pixabay

Parlez-Vous English?

By: Lucia Zac

The next day was the same as the first, and the next, and the next. It seemed as though I was never going to be able to communicate with people again. My routine of stressfully attempting to converse with my peers went as bad as it could have gone. I couldn’t believe my eight-year-old mind was so overwhelmed with positive thoughts, joy, and excitement. My optimism fully blinded me from the fact that the little English I was taught in Argentina was not going to be enough.

I vividly remember the day I walked into the American School of Paris, keeping my chin up high, not knowing what to expect. My small hands opened the big blue door to reveal a colorful yellow, red, and blue classroom. Holding my mother’s hand on one side, and my father’s hand on the other, I quietly walked into the dark room trying not to interrupt a presentation, and sat on the small chairs surrounding the typical lower school hexagonal table.

“Hello toay aim takin aodut de sted mard,” explained the presenter, “pole an wert roud levy.” I remember looking at my parents confused, begging for answers, unable to get them. “Owoer anep pewas senau wour own” he continued as he pointed to the screen, displaying pie charts and bullet points that I was not able to read. I remember going back home and not being able to sleep, wondering how the next day, and the whole year, would turn out. Every day was the same, except I was all alone, without my parents. 

One day, we had to sit in the quiet room and write about a special anecdote. I don’t remember exactly what I picked, but with my limited linguistic abilities I was somewhat able to get my point across. Halfway through my story, I realized I didn’t know how to say “inflable” in English. Shyly walking over to the teacher’s desk, I whispered my problem to her. She was trying her best to help me for what felt like ages. Finally, instead of looking it up on Google Translate or handing me a dictionary, she made sure everyone heard the clever idea she came up with of making me ask Juan Pablo. Juan Pablo, the quirky Mexican boy with a bowl cut, dark hair, and eyes as big as tennis balls. He happened to be the only Spanish speaking person in my grade and had a huge crush on me. My third-grade self was terrified. 

I walked over to his table and bent down quietly, making sure not to disturb anyone from their writing process. Of course, my efforts were useless since the entire class was already staring. I leaned toward him, hands on my knees, and mumbled in the lowest voice possible if he knew the word for “inflable.” He did not hear a single word I said, forcing me to continue asking gradually louder and louder, making everything even more embarrassing. All twenty pairs of eyes were on me, and, after it felt like I had repeated myself one hundred times, he finally told me to use “inflatable.” Not only had he told me the wrong word in his broken Spanish, but I had also gone through all of that trouble for absolutely nothing but embarrassment.

What I wanted to say was “bouncy castle,” the most simple and obvious word.

Before leaving my familiar, comfortable home in Argentina, I was not aware of the obstacles that I would have to face. But, the moment I stepped off of my parents' cozy white bed after jumping up and down as a reaction to the big news, I became a new person. I became a citizen of the world, a passenger with no home and no final destination. And that day, in that third-grade classroom, I learned one of the biggest lessons so far. Not how to say bouncy castle, not to stay away from weird boys who have a crush on me, but instead, not to rely on anyone to help me with my struggles; to learn to face challenges all by myself. And because of that, each new obstacle was able to become just another funny anecdote.


Lucia Zac is 16 years old and lives in Singapore. Some funfacts about Lucia is that she was born in Venezuela and has lived on four continents! She loves marine biology and her favorite animals are sea turtles. 

The Ring

By: Madeleine Riskin-Kutz

When my great-grandmother S. was my age, seventeen, she left her home in Warsaw, never to see her parents again.  She went to join an older sister and brother in Paris to work as a fur seamstress.  Being allergic to fur, she’d always have red, watery eyes, as though she’d been crying, but to compensate, she had a dry sense of humor (which I know secondhand since S. was frail when I knew her and died when I was small.)

Shortly before S. left Warsaw, her family celebrated the harvest festival Sukkot that commemorates Leviticus when the Jews wander in the desert for forty years seeking shelter. Sukkot involves creating a symbolic shelter, a sukkah.  When S.’s family dismantled theirs, a man’s heavy rose-gold ring fell out.  Her religious parents, considering it a gift from God, gave it to S. to bless her journey (and perhaps also figuring the gold might come in handy).

Reaching Paris, she joined a young socialists’ organization, and later the French Communist Party.  During World War II, which took her parents’ lives, she served in the Resistance.  Unlike her parents, S. wasn’t religious and she saw the ring as neither divine gift nor source of gold but a token of her mother and pretty thing to wear. She took it to a jeweler, who made it into an elegant woman’s ring bearing a lacy letter S., keeping the gold he removed as payment.

S. wore the ring for four decades: in the Paris fur shop, at the Worker’s University where she met my great-grandfather, giving birth to my grandmother three months before the Nazis invaded Paris, hiding in the Grenoble mountains, while talking her way past the Gestapo, on the ship to America, and in her New York fur shop.  My grandmother, as a girl, never saw her mother’s hand without the ring, until the day she had my mother when S. suddenly took off the ring and put it on my grandmother’s finger.  As a girl, my mother never saw her mother’s hand without the ring. You can guess what comes next.  On the day I was born, my grandmother took off the ring and put it on my mother’s finger; I’ve never seen my mother’s hand without it.

Even before I knew the ring’s tale, it meant stories to me.  While my mother read to me at bedtime, I played with the ring on her finger.  Many stories had magical, totem objects: a wardrobe, enchanted slippers, a golden compass, each a key to cross between worlds. The ring was my key to cross from reality to fiction to dreams.  We had bedtime songs as well as stories, and so, naturally associating stories and music, I was prepared to love opera, especially when Mozart’s Magic Flute offered me another totem, a flute transporting people through the medium of music to realms of dragons and giant bears. 

Musical instruments are powerful totems. My violin teacher has a Stradivarius; while annotating my score, she hands it to me to hold.  Cradling it, I think of three centuries of violinists who have held it, and picture Antonio di Stradivari in his Cremona workshop carving the scroll my string-calloused fingers now caress.  My own violin is also a time- and world-traveling totem from the Saxon workshop of the luthier Walter Georg Gütter.  It belonged to another great-grandmother, my grandfather’s mother, who played it in the 1920’s.  It slumbered in an attic for sixty years before my grandfather gave it to me for my eleventh birthday.  Playing a violin over time subtly alters its sound, so it bears the sonic imprints of its earlier owners.  My violin, like the ring, traveled across wars, continents and centuries, bringing me its resonant history.

Now that I’m older, the ring signifies something new: a family history of war, immigration, refugee-hood, survival.  Many of those I admire most have similar stories to S.. A friend’s parents escaped a war-zone; my father’s PhD student is a DACA “dreamer”; a beloved music teacher fled Soviet Uzbekistan.  Freddie Mercury, my favorite rock musician, fled religious persecution in his native Zanzibar. Recently I heard Yo-Yo Ma play Bach’s cello suites, dedicating one to those who had “suffered a loss of dignity”; I think I know what he meant.

Touching my great-grandmother’s ring, I feel a shard of the world she grew up in, different from mine with its danger and hardship, but connected.  The ring assumes new meanings with each generation; to me, it signifies the beauty of stories, histories and music that transcend generations, and the importance of maintaining human connection across time and space.

Madeleine Riskin-Kutz is 17 years old; she lives in Berkeley, California.  Fun facts about her are -- she grew up in Berkeley and Paris, is bilingual; her favorite subjects are ancient and modern languages and her goal is to become a linguist.  She has two cats named Schubert and Freddie and a dog named Lucie.

Childhood Memorized

By: Lucia Shorr

I am awakened by the sound of my own voice. At a volume just a few notches past the minimum sound barrier between my bed and the living room, my sister is watching her favorite collection of 2006 home videos. From the intervals of laughter, “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce blasting on the stereo that sat atop the fireplace, and my dad’s commentary on the quality of my cartwheels, I vividly remember the particular dance show that is triggering my sister’s giggles.

For this particular performance I commissioned my mom as lighting director, my sister as the back-up dancer, and my dad, of course, as the recorder and commentator. Before the show began, I instructed my mom to flicker the lights 10 times.  I emerged (tutu clad, pigtails tightly secured) crawling slowly, to build suspense, out of my green plastic play tube.  I waited for applause. The one-man-audience gave me a standing ovation.  Then, I began the dance I had spent hours choreographing -- three spins into the center of the carpet, followed by a cartwheel directly into a leap, forward roll onto the floor, and finally a series of dramatic arm movements that I improvised as I waited for my back-up dancer to emerge at her musical cue.  “Anna!!!!!!!” I yelled, frustrated.

I hear my raspy voice complete the call to my sister as I lie in my bed, per usual, my memorization is perfectly on time.

Annoyed that Anna did not immediately come running at my call, I continued to sit on the floor until reluctantly crawling back through the tube, still adhering to the beat. I hoped the audience would believe this was a component of the dance. Reaching the other side of the tube I stood up, no longer in performance mode, as if by crawling through the tube I was magically transported to an invisible backstage even though I was still in full sight of the audience. I stormed off into my sister’s bedroom where she was supposed to be waiting patiently to join me on stage.  At this point, I left the camera’s view and entered the room -- our muffled argument was incoherent.

Like radio static, my memory is fuzzy at this part.  But whatever I say in the room, I re-emerge dragging my co-star by both hands.

Together we sank into the tube, both angrily glaring at each other. However, as we reappeared at the other end, our faces were wiped of any and all annoyance.  Our smiles were rebirthed on both of our faces cleansed through our convenient performance entrance, now ready to complete the performance.

As the music restarts and my six-year-old self spins into the center of the carpet for the second time I think about other things I remember about being six. 

I remember that I was a fairy for Halloween: A dark fairy to be exact, with a black leotard and
sparkly black wings. I explain in the interview that my father recorded before I’d gone trick or treating that I wanted to show that “even the kindest creatures have dark sides.”

I remember the first goal I scored in my U6 co-ed soccer league and I was the first girl to score on our team.  My father showed the video at our Chrismukkah party that year.

I remember my first day of first grade, I wore all pink, even though I hated the color, and I had a brace on my thumb because I was a big girl, and big girls don’t suck their thumbs.

Six was a big year, but I can’t remember how any of it felt. Or maybe I just can’t hear the sounds of my memory over the music.

“Anna!!!” I yell, “turn it down”.

But as the volume sinks below the wall-breaking noise level, I still struggle to re-enter my younger body. Rather than memories, my visions of myself don’t feel like my own, more like pieces of a memorized plot from the eyes of a spectator.

I wonder if it is the glass screen of the TV that is keeping me from connecting with my younger self, or have I become disconnected from the unapologetic confidence that encapsulates the girl twirling on the screen.  


Lucia Shorr is 18 years old; she lives in New York City.  Fun Facts: Lucia was born in Taos, New Mexico before moving to NYC; she was inspired to start writing short stories after reading “Naked” by David Sedaris.



By: Nandini Kuppa-Apte

In Sanskrit, my name means daughter, one who brings joy to the family. In English, it means I’ll never stop fearing introductions. I’m mostly used to it by now - the blank stare, the apologetic smile, the “Can I call you something else instead?” - but every time a teacher starts to call roll, I can’t help it: I silently bad-mouth my parents. It’s not that I hate my name; I hate the way it looks on the attendance list, between all the Catherines and Emilys and Madisons, but I love how it sounds when someone says it right. Nandini. None-the-knee. It feels like something falling into place.

To my family, a name is a name, and they don’t understand the weird, back-and-forth relationship I have with mine. I would have turned out the same whether I was named Nandini or Natalie, so what’s the big deal? It’s a rhetorical question, but I have an answer: the names that immigrant parents give their kids matter because some, like mine, serve as constant reminders of heritage and cultural expectations for people striving to assimilate.

Your physical features, manner of speech and style of dress are all automatic indicators of how similar or different you are to other people. So is your name. In my case, though, looks, language and clothing choices were easier to adjust than the name on my birth certificate. I could wake up extra early to straighten my curly Indian hair. I could substitute the razai for the blanket, the dabba for the lunchbox. I could bury my salwar kameezes in the recesses of my closet and forget they existed. But my name - it was always there, crouched in the corner like an awkward guest, ready to announce its otherness to the whole room.

After eighth grade, I moved to a new town, and decided to tell people my name was Nina. Finally, the last piece of the perfect all-American puzzle I’d been trying to complete for years fell into place. People weren’t constantly forgetting my name or asking if they could call me something else, because Nina was familiar to them. It felt great - until parent-teacher conferences happened. It took my mom and dad the whole evening to figure out who this “Nina” my teachers kept talking about was, and when they did, they weren’t mad. Only confused. I’d spent my whole childhood putting up with the mispronunciations, correcting people, telling them they weren’t trying hard enough, and now I was giving up, just like that?

That was the day I realized why my parents had named me Nandini. It wasn’t because they were trying to turn me into some image of the perfect Indian daughter, but because they knew that was never going to happen. They knew they were raising me in America. Growing up here has set me apart from them in so many ways, from things like my accent and my clothes to my passions, my convictions, my beliefs. I needed my name to be a reminder that, for people like me, cultural identity isn’t about ditching one country for another. It’s about taking the best of both worlds, and when people disrespect that, telling them no - you can’t call me something else instead.


Nandini Kuppa-Apte is 17. She lives in Singapore.

The Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid

By: Beatriz Lindemann

The Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid


On a hot, sunny afternoon in June, I went into the forest of my family farm on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. It was very buggy and humid. There, I found something beautiful. I would never have thought that there would be orchids in the mountains of Tennessee, but there are. In fact, there are about 600 types of orchids in Tennessee. In the forest I found a Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid next to a beautiful lily. The orchid and lily were not extremely colorful. They were pretty because of the little details like the white veins in the orchid leaves. The orchid and the lily were surrounded by moss which holds moisture for them. The plants were growing right on top of the moss.


An orchid is an orchid because it does not pollinate. Pollination is when pollinators (bees, butterflies, and some hummingbirds) take pollen from one flower and transfer it to another. The orchid doesn’t recreate with pollination. On the other hand, the lily does pollinate. The plantains—that’s what the orchid I found is called—were in a shady and moist environment under a lot of forest trees. The canopy was thin enough to let sunlight reach the orchids, but thick enough not to burn it. The Downy Rattlesnake Plantain likes shady and moist areas, which explains why I found so many plants about fifteen feet from Coal Creek. It is a twenty foot wide creek which runs all year round.


The plantains do not have a stem, so the leaves are very close to the forest floor. They are about the size of the palm of an adult’s hand. The leaves are oval shaped, 3-8 centimeters long and 1.5-3 centimeters wide. They are kelly green and have white veins. In the center of all the leaves is a small bulb which is the same color as the leaves. The plantains live about three to four years. I found plantains both alone and in groups. They are called “Rattlesnake” because of the life cycle of the plant. They lose their leaves, like a snake loses it’s skin; and then they grow it back.


The Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid is native to eastern North America. It can also be found on many oceanic islands such as Australia. I found mine in Tennessee, but they can also be found elsewhere in the United States. These Plantains are endangered in some states such as Florida.


It was fascinating for me to see these beautiful native orchids. I like plants that are native because no one has planted them and they are just wild. They belong where they are. Finding native orchids is a passion of mine and I love to find orchids in the woods because discovering and researching flowers that are wild is so very interesting.


Beatriz Lindemann, 12, Miami, Florida Beatriz loves performing (Singing, Acting and Dancing).



By: Grace Stone

You’re three years old, it’s 7PM and bedtime. You pick out a pair of striped pajamas, climb under a flannel blanket and hug your worn, hand-me-down teddy bear. What book are your parents reading you tonight? Though you want to read your eye-catchingly whimsical pop-up book, both of your parents are sick of reading it each and every night. So instead, you choose Blueberries for Sal.

Now you’re seven years old and finally reading on your own. Just yesterday you were blueberry picking with mom.  She wanted to make blueberry pie for your grandma’s 82nd birthday. But there won’t be enough. All the blueberries are in your tummy. You giggle to yourself just thinking about it, but it’s silent reading time, and you’re terrified of your patronizing teacher, of her flagrant aroma of cigarette smoke and lemon cough drops breathing down your neck.  So you open up Blueberries for Sal.  You always related to Sal’s carefree attitude and especially her love for blueberries. You never really liked picking them for saving. You liked eating them right away.

Sixteen years old and college on the way. Babysitting job for some extra money on the side.  Maybe you’ll spend it on a treat for yourself; for all the effort you’ve put into each of your endeavors. No, like everything else, you’ll just save it for something in the future.

7 PM and it’s time for the three year old boy you’re responsible for to go to bed. Before you tuck him in goodnight, he wants to read a book or two, as his parents usually do. He pulls Blueberries for Sal from his bookshelf,

“Can you read me this one?” he asks.

You smile to yourself. Though you have a pile of homework waiting for you downstairs and Blueberries for Sal isn’t the shortest book, you can’t resist. You open up the first page,

“ONE day, Little Sal went with her mother to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries.”

You watch the young boy’s eyes widen and compress in concentration, taking in every precious word, each detailed picture. He carefully watches as you retell the story of Sal, how she was supposed to store all those blueberries for winter and didn’t, instead ate them as she went along. You continue on, rereading the story of the baby bear, how he does the same. Before you know it, the book is over, and you feel a twang in your stomach.  Maybe it’s the organic veggie burger waiting downstairs or maybe it’s Blueberries for Sal, you don’t know and don’t have time to know. This boy needs to go to bed and you need to start studying for your exams, complete a take home test, and read the drudgingly boring book you were assigned over the weekend. But before leaving, you can’t help but ask him,

“When you go blueberry picking with your parents, do you eat as many as Sal?”  You’re tucking him in, making sure not a centimeter of his light skin is exposed to the drafty fall air.

“Duh!” he giggles to himself, closing his eyes.

Just a few minutes later you’re sitting on the coach in their freezing cold living room.  You’re forcing yourself to read a pointless book while the family’s puppy jumps all over you like you’re a piece of dead meat, which you practically are.  You are absolutely drained from forcing your eyes open in an effort to digest the material.  You feel a tear drop down your rosy cheeks and next thing you know you’re crying. Really crying. Really, really crying. The puppy’s chocolate eyes stare at you in a plea for attention, and you know he isn’t devoting a single thought to what will happen next: the future. The sobs continue.

You think back to the blonde boy fast asleep upstairs. He didn’t even hesitate to admit he indulged in the deliciousness of blueberries, his young brain automatically focused on a concept of self-indulgence that your older brain can’t seem to grasp anymore, too caught up in the ever-present anxieties of the future. When was the last time you didn’t think about college or your upcoming test or what you’re going to do for credit in the summer and what you’re going to get your mom for her birthday in eight months? 

You have never stopped worrying for a moment. Never. Never. Goddamn never. That word, “never” haunts you every day and all day. You will never get an A in Physics or achieve your dream career. You yearn for those “nevers” yet you never self-indulge, even for a moment, simply because you want to. You are always focused on that destination -- blueberries for pie or jam or hibernation or college. But what about blueberries for your sixteen-year-old self, right now?

I believe in Blueberries for Sal. In Sal who does not hesitate to plunk herself down in the blueberry field, consuming those blueberries in a timeless moment of glorious self-indulgence. I believe self-indulgence is the same as self-care. You need those blueberries. And so do I.

Grace Stone is 17 years old; she lives in Portland, Maine

A Letter to my Childhood Best Friend

By: Jack Michie
Dear Nate,
I wanted you to be my other half: the person I could always turn to when I faced adversity or sought affirmation, the one whose house could become my second home. Someone that I would feel no shame around. 
But, I moved away from you when I was eight years old, and I don’t even remember if I said goodbye. It’s not until now that I realize what I was missing.
When I was struggling with my identity, I felt like I had no one to confide in. Even though I had known I was gay for years, saying it to anyone else made it real. By coming to terms with my identity, I was officially letting go of that future I had been raised to desire. 
By watching movies and television, I had developed this imaginary vision that felt so real, as if it were a memory that just hadn't happened yet. My wife, with her long, brown hair tied back in a tight ponytail, carries in the barbecue I grilled for the neighbors while wearing this yellow dress covered by an apron. After setting down the platter, she takes her seat next to me and gives me a reassuring smile. Our kids are still playing in the backyard, and we are too happy in the moment to interrupt them. So we let them play and start passing the plates.
This, of course, will never happen. This is not my future. But, I let that idea of a cookie cutter life consume me because I felt like I had no one to whom I could safely tell these things. So I waited until everyone else made their assumptions before coming out.
It is easier to confirm than confound.
I didn’t have anyone there for me when I started to look at myself differently, so I learned to internalize my insecurities and take out my frustrations on my relationship with food. I felt like I had to fix myself for others because I was too weak to be comfortable in my solitude.
I would go on to trade one type of hunger for another. I craved validation, so I began to show potential friends different versions of myself. I wasted so much time building a wall, brick by brick because I thought I would feel safer hiding behind a front.
Even when that wall begins to fall, I won’t share pieces of myself with anyone because I selfishly fear that their responses will not be good enough. How can someone neatly condense all my thoughts and memories into a few words? It’s impossible to articulate a human being. It’s not fair to tell them my feelings because then I will grow to resent how they react to it. But how am I supposed to make real friends when I can’t be vulnerable?
Now, I’m not blaming you for all the damage that has been done to my mental health and social life. You’re probably dealing with your own assortment of overwhelming situations. I don’t even know if we would’ve stayed friends. But, I do know that the idea of you is infuriatingly out of reach, and it hurts.
I have a memory of us that will never happen, too: I’m behind the wheel in my mom’s old minivan. You’re riding shotgun, windows rolled down. We’re driving to Holden Beach for the weekend to stay in our families’ shared beach house. You prop your head against the seat belt and study the street signs as we pass them one by one. I look over and I realize that I feel completely in the moment. I don’t worry about the occasional silences because I’m enough for you. 
Drives with you are a platonic paradise. 
The funny thing is, I don’t know what you look like anymore. Who knows if I really miss you? I may just miss the future I will never have with you.
Your Friend, 
Jack Michie is a 16 year old from Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Worst Cowgirl in the Wild West of Words

By: Sophie Hood

Reading is easy, and reading is fun—but only for other kids. Not for you.


For you, words double, fracture, and run right off the page before you have time to

read them. You go to ocular therapy twice a week to learn how to corral words onto the

page and spend hours in a dark room staring at a beam of light. It doesn’t seem to work.

You’ve been in the lowest reading group since you were old enough to notice that

teachers were splitting kids into groups. You’ve accepted that words are wild animals and

your inability to tame them will keep you in the “fun group” or the “go at your own pace

group.” You protect your little ego with the flimsy explanations adults have given you

over the years about the difference between reading speed and reading aptitude. You tell

yourself that the ocularly typical kids are no better than you are and that you’re special

for knowing the word “ocular” at all. This year, third grade, the rift between the

“advanced group” and “fun group” becomes painfully obvious. The bookshelf for

advanced kids is filled with hardback books two inches thick, with inside covers

describing complex characters, and teeming with all those words you can never seem to

catch. The fun section, on the other hand, has books made of cardboard so toddlers can

teethe on them. Your teacher gives the class five minutes to pick a book from their

respective sections to read for homework. Kids shout, holler, and fight over books. You

are not one of these kids. You stick to the back lacking the enthusiasm to even pick a

book at random. When the five minutes are almost over and most of the other students

have taken their seats, a book catches your eye: The Secret Garden, it’s glossy spine

sticking out slightly on the top shelf -- the advanced shelf. You reach up and grab it; at

the moment you aren’t fully sure why, but once you sit at your desk, it somehow feels

right. At home, you will not be rushed or distracted. You will take your time to pin every

word to the page, read them, and prove that you have the aptitude of an advanced reader.


When Mom notices The Secret Garden in your backpack after school, it feels

even more right. Your smile grows wider and wider as she tells what a good choice you

have made and that she’s glad you’re challenging yourself. After that shower of

positivity, you rush to show the book to Dad. While Mom’s opinion matters to you

greatly on many subjects, Dad is the reigning authority on reading. Nothing rivals his

love for reading except maybe your love for him, and you know he wants you to love

reading just as much as he does. While your sight has improved, your love for

reading has lagged. You blame it on the boring and simple books filled with

weakling words that are easily caught. Only runt-of-the-litter words are offered to you:

The Worst Cowgirl in the Wild West of Words. You aim to change your title when you

triumphantly drop The Secret Garden in Dad’s lap. After explaining your choice to him,

he is overjoyed. He too is glad you are taking the challenge. He asks you to analyze the

book for meaning and discuss it with him as you read through it. Your parents were far

more apathetic about the juvenile books you read in the past, and their current excitement

confirms that you made the right choice. Mom and Dad, as an almost nightly ritual, sit on the bed and read together


. They often invite you to read with them but you are usually


disruptive to their quiet reading environment when your simple books lose your

interest. That is all going to change tonight. The Secret Garden in hand, you march into

their bedroom and nestle yourself in between your parents, ready to love reading, ready to

show them that you love reading.


You flip to the creamy first page of the book, and, having skipped the introduction

so that it looks like you’ve already made progress, you look like a real reader. The spine

of the book delicately placed on your knees, you feel a shock of excitement run up your

spine. As you look down at chapter one, the words seem smaller than you’ve ever seen

before. You decide it won’t be a problem and bring the book closer to your face. Just as

the words begin to go into focus, they vanish. Your heart sinks as the words double and

dance right off the page. You look up from your book to your parents; Dad is already

immersed in his book, but Mom looks back at you and smiles. That smile motivates you,

and you return to the pages. You focus hard and the words return. You begin to read, but

as you go, it gets harder. Tilting your head to one side seems to make the words stay in

their pens. Then when that isn’t enough you close one eye, but even that one canted eye

can’t make the words take orders. All of this work has only brought you to page three.

The meager progress seems impossible. It’s humiliating. You don’t love reading. You

can’t. How could you like this?


You don’t want to tell them though. You start turning the page every once in

awhile without reading. Your dad jokes that you’re reading very quickly and asks if

you’re skimming. You freeze and say yes but that you’re going to go back to actually

reading now. You stay on that one page for a while. You then look to the side and begin

to keep track of how fast your parents turn their pages and devise a system. When Dad

turns the page, wait fifteen seconds and then turn yours. If Mom turns her page, within

those seconds start the counting over and turn your page fifteen seconds later. You are

proud of this system; it took a great deal of trial and error for no one to question your

pace. Now everything seems normal; everything is normal. Everything is perfect here

between Mom and Dad, in the warmth of their bed, reading.


My imitation of reading over time evolved into actual reading, but for years the

act of reading was still a kind of imitation. My ocular issues robbed me of discovering

my own reasons to read, so I found reasons outside of myself. Reading felt pointless, and

not reading felt shameful, which left me in a Catch 22. My drive to read was entirely

external which left me empty. I didn’t find internal motivation until I was much older and

wasn’t expecting to.


You have some free time after school, a rarity considering your sophomore year

of high school is in full swing. All you have left for homework is reading a couple

chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and you know your teacher won’t check annotations,

so it will take no time at all. With the prospect of binge-watching Buffy the

Vampire Slayer in the back of your mind, you crack the matte spine, hold the pulpy pages

in hand, and begin to read. You have a rather ugly copy of the book with extremely brittle

covers and pages poorly pasted together. The words line up for you, row by row, crystal

clear, and perfectly tame. There is no novelty in this, clarity in language has become the

norm, so the book lays like a dead thing in your lap. With each page you read to your

amazement, both you and the book come to life. You finish the pages you were assigned

and continue on in the book; with each passing word you are enveloped, entranced, and

invigorated. You find sanctuary from the stress of everyday life as Winston and Julia

find sanctuary in their apartment above the antique store. Each time you read you do it

without thinking about others. You are reading for yourself, and for the first time, you

know what reading is.

Sophie is 17 and lives in California.

Achieving Excellence

By: Evelyn Hsu


Everyone thinks of my neighborhood as a quiet place with the grassy expanse of nearby Rainbow Park and the shiny new schools. Perfectly trimmed cherry blossom trees and flowering bushes grow around every house. The homes are mostly new, some large or small, all painted in a variety of tan colors. Here, the traffic comes from the neighbors going to or from work, or driving kids to school, or picking them up from after-school activities. It is a neighborhood full of practical cars, like Toyotas, Hondas, and Mazdas. It is a neighborhood full of child prodigies: pianists, flutists, Science Olympiad winners, American Invitational Mathematics Examination qualifiers, tennis champions, ballerinas, national golf champions.My adult neighbors work mostly in Silicon Valley, all of them computer hardware or software engineers.

In my neighborhood, people like to walk their dogs after dinner when there is still light. I often see their dogs yanking the leash, forcing the owners to run after them. On holidays, I smell grills roasting hot dogs, steaks, and chicken. At Christmas Time, everyone puts up decorations and flashing lights, attempting to outdo their neighbors. One house had five speakers playing “Jingle Bells” twenty-four seven. Noise in my neighborhood is constant: I often hear the plunk of basketballs, the banging of piano keys, or the screaming of angry babies.

In this town, strange things happen. People drive by my house with twenty cameras on the tops of their cars, each camera pointed in a different direction. What are they doing? Who knows. Google cars drive themselves while their passengers nap. Down the sidewalk, people ride homemade personal transportation systems, the likes of which have never been seen before—half-bicycle-half-motorcycle or half-Segway-half-motorcycle. People stroll by wearing virtual reality glasses, but how do they see where they are going?

This is, after all, Silicon Valley. All of these attributes of my neighborhood are readily observable to anyone.

What people don't observe in my neighborhood is that all the children are miserable.

They wake up at four in the morning and stay awake every night after midnight. From my room on the second floor of my house, I can always see the little desk lamps in their rooms and the other children bent over their desks. Like me, they are always scribbling on pieces of paper or typing away on their computers. How do I know they are not texting their friends? Because we all get As. We don’t want to disappoint our parents. We don’t want to make them mad. From the minute we kids get home from school, we have maybe twenty minutes to look at our phones, grab a bowl of instant noodles, and then the drudgery begins.

For instance, just the other day I studied for a test on the surface area and volume of a twenty-dimensional composite figure. Let me preface that by saying I am only ten years old. This figure is essentially an object with boxes shooting out of it and tunnels running through it. My job was to figure out the surface area of this nonsense. It was killing my brain cells. I kept telling my teacher that we needed to work on inventing solar-powered clothing or tiny wires that can go in our ears to create music and block out other people’s voices. But she didn’t listen and instead rewarded me with twenty-pages of additional math worksheets. She called me “milk gone bad,” whatever that means.

One day, my history teacher Mr. Miller said, “Create three hundred index cards on famous explorers.” I raised my hand and asked, “What if I can’t find three hundred explorers to
write about?” Mr. Miller looked at me with a harsh, icy stare, rolled his eyes, and said, “Get your act together, Beatrice.”

“My name’s Allison,” I replied.

On the way home I thought about getting my act together. I thought about all the ways I could get my act together, like breaking my arm so I wouldn’t have to write. Or breaking my leg so I wouldn’t have to run two miles, do 30 burpees, 40 pushups, and 40 sit-ups everyday in boot camp in school. Even when it’s raining. I thought about packing my bags, emptying my older sister’s piggy bank, and escaping to Hawaii, where I would spend my days training in hula dancing and drinking beverages from a pineapple with an umbrella.

But I keep telling myself that this will all be worth it in the end. That someday I will find purpose in translating Latin passages even though Latin is a dead language. That someday I may find a person on a street corner who is lost and speaks only Latin. That someday I will be forced to recite the states and their capitals or face death. That someday I will know why I had to dissect a baby pig, why I had to learn the Dewey decimal system, the periodic table, and why I should never start a sentence with “Because.” For now, all I know is that the children are miserable.


Evelyn Hsu is 12 years old. She lives in San Jose, California.