I was blessed with an excellent writing teacher my senior year of high school, although she didn’t like me at first. On the last day of class, we were allowed to ask any questions we wanted—the original AMA. One of my classmates asked Kate Tierney who had surprised her the most this semester.
amanda, she said, smiling at me, You surprised me because I thought I was going to hate you, and I don’t.
(Am I paraphrasing? A little. This was the gist of her answer.)
I am proud to share with you my literacy narrative, an essay I wrote when I was seventeen years old at the request of Kate Tierney, a teacher and person who I greatly admire and respect.
As a writer and an avid reader, the story of my literacy is the story of my life; my bilsdungroman is cached in language.
Thank you, Ms. Tierney, for all the hours you listened to me and tolerated my bullshit, and for forcing me to document the story of my literacy from my seventeen-year-old perspective. My mid-20s nostalgic poet self is over here devouring memoirs and thanking you.
For better or for worse, the following essay remains as it was on December 3, 2013.
Catholic School Girl: Overeducated and Underprepared
I am lying in bed eating spaghetti from a take-out box with meatballs as big as my fist. A little bit just got on my white comforter. I’m having a good cry about my rhetorical analysis grade and feeling inadequate. At least my symbolic life coincides well with my real one.
People have told me that I am intelligent for as long as I can remember, but the gap is beginning to close. I scored 2120 on the SAT, but it took me three tries to pass the test to get a driving permit.
At 21 months old, I began pointing out letters in the newspaper to my mother. At three years old, I could read. When I was six, I read all 56 original Nancy Drew books. I don’t remember even vague plot from a single one. I don’t even remember the characters’ names. But then, I’ve always been awful with names in literature. “The one who’s in love with Jane” is easier than Mr. Rochester. “The attractive one” and “the intelligent one” are simpler than Christian and Cyrano. I’m reading The Kite Runner right now. I can tell you what’s going on, but the names? Forget it.
My mom wanted to name me Marissa Alexandra. My dad asserts that Marissa Alexandra is a black girl’s name and consequently I am named Amanda Alice. Apparently Amanda was a white enough name for me. This demonstrates nicely the cultural context in which I was raised.
In the first grade alone, I attended three public schools and two private schools, and I was home schooled for two months.
As a third grader, I tested at an eighth grade reading level. In fifth grade, they told my parents that I had roughly the reading abilities of a high school senior or a college freshman. This seems doubtful, but regardless, my teacher would only allow me to read books at the fifth grade level because “I might have to read the higher level ones later.” That still pisses me off. As if the world’s literature was so finite that I could read everything above a fifth grade level at eleven years old. The same teacher told me my poems weren’t poetry because they didn’t rhyme.
Poets I like: Sylvia Plath, Nola Accili, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros
I was required to read six novels in middle school. White men wrote all of them.
Freshman year, my honors lit teacher helped me write my first literary analysis on My Antonia. It was on the perceived promiscuity of Lena Lingard. I just went back and re-read my paper. It’s unimpressive. I thought it was really excellent at the time; I earned a high A and she was a notoriously tough grader. It’s unoriginal and worthless three years later. Perspective. My teacher gave me the outstanding student award for her class. My class was the last she taught before she retired. I called her last year to ask for a letter of recommendation. She didn’t remember me. It sort of stung.
(It really stung.)
I attended Catholic school, and rape was something not spoken of, not in sex ed, when we were taught that chastity was the only way, not ever.
Hail Mary, full of grace…
People like “us,” wealthy, privileged, suburban teenagers — We don’t get raped. It doesn’t happen. Or, rather, it’s pushed under the rug with other undesirable things — the consensual sex none of us would have until we were married, the pot kids were smoking in the softball dugout at break, the Adderall being sold in the hallways — if people want to ignore things, they certainly will. People like “us” don’t do things like that.
The Lord is with thee.
Where was this god the night that I got raped? When I was sixteen years old and underneath a man who was under the influence, being penetrated between “please don’ts” and “no stops,” this random man forcing himself into me, into the dry space between my legs, a desert of fear, a drought of weak resistance? Where was god then?
Blessed art thou among women.
Mary was blessed because she was a virgin? I guess that makes sense. It’s painful to not be a virgin, a burden to bear. People say that losing it hurts for girls, but they mean during the thing, when the hymen breaks and everything feels like it’s splitting in two halves, when it feels as if there is no way he will ever fit in the small space they’ve said he’s meant to.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
For me, it hurt more afterwards, when I was crying too hard for words and he couldn’t be bothered to hold me in his arms. Where was Jesus then? When I scalded myself with hot water at 2 AM because I felt dirty and I just wanted to feel clean and pure again, a new baptism, where was he? I can completely understand why Mary’s virginity was a blessing now.
Elementary school. Seven years of Roman Catholic indoctrination. Seven years of navy oxfords and khaki shirts and mary-janes. Seven years of having no idea what mary-jane is. I’ve still never smoked pot. Is that a capstone human experience? Does it even matter? My closest friend has told me that I think too deeply and extensively sober and that my high thoughts would be absolutely unbearable. I can’t even imagine.
In middle school, my class priest spent 24 straight hours praying for me and my faith after I told him I thought animals did indeed go to heaven. This was one of the first things that turned me off of Catholicism/religion in general — Why is that such a big deal for Catholics? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with issues of this life, like genocide and the Taliban?
When I was in eighth grade, I went to a public school in a rural school district for three months. The first day I was excited. No more uniforms or religion class. I bawled hysterically the second day, and the third, and the fourth. My new history teacher mocked my progress in American history. They were to World War I. My class at private school had only gotten to Reconstruction. But maybe that’s because we actually learned things for depth, over breadth. Maybe because we weren’t allowed to use our notes to take a multiple-choice test. Maybe because we could construct five-paragraph essays.
After a few weeks, my new history teacher gave Machiavelli’s The Prince. I would be the only one to have read it in my AP European history class two years later, a sophomore in high school drinking vodka from a water bottle and drunkenly making fun of her history teacher’s teeth and his obsession with Charles de Gaulle. My theology teacher taught us that sophomore literally means “wise fool” and I was exactly that, educated and entirely ignorant. I don’t remember anything from AP Euro, save Pascal’s wager and the Protestant work ethic.
My new eighth grade science teacher watched my classmates bully me. I was ugly, fat, trying too hard. Sometimes she’d join them.
Junior year, my French teacher called me a bitch, but she’s my favorite teacher to this day — It’s just different. She’s listened to me cry about grades and boys and drama. She’s given me a new world of liaison and half said words, a diversion from years of rolled rs. I’m in love with French, maybe because I was slightly traumatized by my elementary school Spanish teacher, who liked to send us “brain messages” and was always touching my head — personal bubble.
My freshman year I went back to Catholic school equipped with a new vocabulary of cuss words and slang for private parts. I learned about pronoun-antecedent agreement, how to solve for x-squared, how to cover up a hickey, how to make my skirt seem longer when the dean was looking.
Kissing your best friend behind the English wing is awkward when his mouth tastes more like toothpaste than person. Sitting next to your best friend in algebra 2 and world history after he’s put your tongue in your mouth is awkward. It might even make learning about radical functions and Mayan culture more difficult.
(It definitely does.)
I am in Portland right now, learning a new sort of literacy, alone in my 19-year-old cousin’s apartment. It’s weird to see the remnants of our childhood scattered throughout, blankets and clothing that littered her bedroom floor a few years ago while we laid on the bed and gossiped about boys, the same art on the walls, but there are unpaid bills on the counter and an empty bedroom where her roommates were just a week ago — until they broke up and moved out, yet another burden to bear. There is a glass of chocolate milk on her nightstand that I’m certain hasn’t been touched in a week.
Is this what my life will be like in a year?
I do her dirty dishes and clean the kitchen, because the past three nights’ dinners are on the counter and it just feels terribly wrong. I can see the stress molding in the form of pepperoni pizza, Safeway’s roast chicken, spilled balsamic vinegar next to a half eaten loaf of French bread.
How do you pay a bill? College classes won’t be that hard for me, but I graduate high school in less than a year, and I know nothing important.
Things I can do:
Rationalize, simplify, multiply.
Analyze, criticize, symbolize.
Translate, conjugate, enunciate.
Hypothesize, experiment, observe.
Things I cannot do:
Write a resume.
Open a checking account.
When is that magical moment that I become an adult? When I turn 18 in a month, will I suddenly understand how life, how society, how the real world works?
And how the fuck are people my age getting married and having babies?