The beginning of January marks the deadline for most college admissions applications. The Unversity of Virginia's first-year students may not be anxious to revisit this period, but they can anyway: A play called Voices of the Class, 2009 offers dramatizations of their application essays.
Scott Simon speaks with Nate Patten, who directed the play. Below are two monologues adapted from actual essays submitted by this year's incoming first-year class at the university.
This essay is about loss. I mean, it isn't, but it is, it's about… what's behind loss, what's through it. This isn't the sad essay.
When my father told me my mother had died, I was sitting on a swing in my aunt's backyard. I remember how I felt suddenly weak, like… what? Like my body had lost its structure, like I was physically coming apart at my joints. I fell off the swing, and my dad, he tried to pick me up but he was as weak as I was in that moment, he couldn't quite…lift me.
And don't — I mean, this isn't a sob story. Or at least, it's not supposed to be one. I'm tired of that whole genre, the whole... Hollywood thing, this obsession with death, and... and grief, especially. I mean, no one wants to be a downer. Or at least, no one wants to listen to one.
And what I'm saying is, I think... I mean, we can't escape memory, right? And those who are no longer with us live on through us. So when I tell you about my mother, it's with this sense of joy and full — uh, fullness.
My mom was always home before my father. I never liked when she walked in with her hair straight and professionally done, with that salon smell. I sometimes missed that mass of deep, red, curly, always unmanageable hair that stroked my cheeks as she leaned down to hug me.
Wait, s***, that's too cliché. I mean, I worded it badly, I made it sound all "essay" when I'm trying to... express to you the actual moment, the... the moment. I want to give you these moments to tell you my story.
There was... there was an elegance to my mother. She carried it with her, even when she was playing solitaire at the table after dinner or putting on her earrings in the morning, one after the other.
Why did I say "one after the other"? I was getting there, I had the moment, and it was unnecessary wording. Of course she put them on one after another, does anyone put on both earrings at the same time? I feel like I'd rip my earlobes right off the side of my head.
My mother was my center. When she left us, it was like a shattered vase, or a cracked egg. It was like a dandelion someone had just blown into the wind, I felt... I don't know, it changed us in ways we didn't expect. Mostly for the better, I feel, but change, like loss, is... difficult.
I started off talking about a swing in my aunt's backyard. There's another swing, at this camp where I used to go, stretched between these two huge elm trees, next to the lake. And when I say swing I don't mean like a porch swing, it was closer to a bungee jump. We had to wear a helmet when we were on it, and we'd get strapped in to the seat, and a spotter would attach a few ropes, and start pulling them, and up we'd go. And it was like that feeling as you're ascending the first hill of a roller coaster. It was slow and a little eerie, you know? And absolutely filled with dread, but also something else. I'm thirty, forty feet in the air, and then one of the ropes is released, and down I go, plummeting towards the ground and the lake, and suddenly I'm back in the sky, as simple as gravity, and as I approach the peak of the other tree, I realize that I need not fear the top, because I'm nearly there. And I no longer dread the fall that will come, because I have already survived it. So instead I look around me, and below me, at the trees, at the roofs of the cabins, and the beautiful blue-green lake reflecting them all. Reflecting me, flying through the air. And sometimes I look kind of like mom.
When my mother died, my life came crumbling down around the loss of hers, catapulting and somersaulting towards the ground. But that's not what I want to talk about. I think loss exists only in the moment before a new fullness. And when I experience the ascents of joy and accomplishment...
I don't know. There's an equilibrium to the world.
I have this habit. When I'm working on a problem set, or reading a chapter in a textbook, I always have to track my progress to the nth degree. I'm one-tenth done, one-sixth done, three-sevenths... I work in fractions, in... numerical comparisons. What I've done is measured by what I haven't done. And in the midst of the work, it's hard to see end of the work. It always seems like I've barely begun, I'm only two-ninths through, one-third through, I measure how long it's taken me to read ten pages, and I extrapolate that out and realize how long I have to go. I can't remember a time I didn't do this.
Last summer, I worked in a neuro-bio lab at the National Institutes of Health. And my day was measured the same way: I ran a sample, waited, changed the fluid, checked my e-mail, waited for incubation, or bacteria growth, drank a cup of coffee, played a game of Text Twist, more samples, checked CNN, more samples, changed the fluid, another cup of coffee. Lunch time.
And somehow, at the end of the summer, our project was complete. We now knew more about the behavior of genes in the nervous system of a developing frog embryo.
And yes, I realize... I mean, frog embryos. Incubation. It's not the cure for cancer or anything, but... I don't know, somehow all the waiting and cups of coffee and the e-mails formed together to actually produce something.
This monologue is already half-over.
And you know, we worked on such a small scale: a few genes, out of... thousands, thousands, interacting to form a living brain with millions upon millions of cells, forming millions upon millions of synapses, one living breathing creature, out of... how many? It was sobering.
I can recall my life. I can recall experiences, the amazing places I've been, the teachers and friends and family who have influenced me, the books I've read, the movies I've seen. But I can't... I have no recollection of changing, or growing. I have witnessed every moment of my life, but I've missed all the transitions. I used to be four foot three, but I have no memory of looking up from any height shorter than I am right now. The eyes through which I view my memories are not those of a child.
And I know that the person I am now must be the summation of all the people I've been. But stuck in the experience of the moment, I can't see... anything —
I have just a few sentences left, but I cannot reflect what it was like before I began.
I'm, what, one-third, or one-quarter through my life, and all I can think is that the person I am right now will never exist again, even in my mind. The choices I make at this moment will be rationalized by a forty-year-old or fifty-year-old man.
This monologue is done.