Tree Houses and Vomit-Covered Walls

We sat on the second story of the tree house. Our feet dangled over the edge as our cigarettes lit off the only light for miles. The time slipped away from us as we took as much in as possible.  A thrill, one of which didn’t come often, for me nearly ever, was staring us right in the face. If we were to get caught, our parents would never look at us the same again, but that wasn’t a worry, we would cover our tracks. I looked at my new friends, took a long hit of my cigarette, and smiled. Tonight was the night. I was nervous, and you could see it throughout my entire body. My hands shook, my lips pursed, and my laughs were uncontrollable. Someone passed me the bottle, and I drank for what would be the first and the last time.

I was different back then, almost like two opposite people shoved into one body, both fighting to be seen. I was the shy girl who went along with my conservative friends, laughed at what I knew they thought was funny, and talked about the topics that they would want to talk about. I got nearly straight A’s, listened well to my parents, and never got in trouble or even dared copy a homework assignment. Though, at the same time, I longed for adventure. I found myself looking more at the kids with lives and bad reputations than my own friends. I wanted more and more to talk to the people in my class that I knew rebelled rather than the kids that got good grades. I was the girl who needed a change, needed to break the rules to feel something, needed to drink. So, naturally, when the opportunity arose, I took it.

I sat next to a girl in English my eighth grade year. Zohreh. She was the type of girl who knew what she wanted to look like, knew who she was, and knew how to get what she wanted. I envied her. I wanted her outlook on life; to not care about what other people thought of me, to be confident. One day, as our teacher droned on and on about dependent and independent clauses, she leaned over and asked me to meet up with her and her friends later. It was never made clear to me if she could sense my second personality, or if she just thought it would be fun to bring me along for the night. Either way, I didn’t care. That night I went without even a second of hesitation.

There were five of us who met up, all of which I knew on a first name basis, none of which are really important, except Zohreh. They led me to a tree house, or more appropriately a house made around a tree. A tree house, to my knowledge, was elevated on some sort of stable, thick branches and had ladders you climbed to gain access, maybe a little door, and no legroom. This specific tree house was the complete opposite. It had two floors and was made mainly sitting on the ground. There was a big heavy door with a padlock and a bench all around the base of the first room. Mounted on the wall, a TV and an Xbox gaming system blared out some kind of confusing sounds, and posters covered the rest of the wood. I did not understand how someone had the time to build this, or why someone’s parents had supplied the money. The answers to these questions didn’t matter, because it was already built, and here is where we would drink.

Two boys came barging through the door in triumph. They had successfully, for the hundredth time it seemed, stolen alcohol from the local convenient store. Hearing this news, the fort became overwhelmed with cheers and high fives, and all the sudden I could barely breathe. At first, it was like a shock bolted through me and I was momentarily paralyzed. It was almost like I had touched an outlet, but the buzzing didn’t disappear, it stayed in a way that was unfamiliar to me. This tingling inside of me was adrenaline. I was excited and afraid, the two best feelings you can ever combine.

I’m not sure how much I drank that night, being that we all shared everything, but I’m sure it was a lot. Zohreh was experienced in this field, you could tell in the way she drank. As I poured my Coconut Parrot Bay into my two liter of Sprite to make it tolerable, she drank it straight and let it burn. We started with four fifths, I quit after two, but Zohreh, she wanted to challenge the guys. At the time it was all hoots and hollers, laughs and nods, but it became a death wish. With tears in her eyes, she finished the fourth bottle. There was no clear winner, we were all too drunk to really care and we were out of alcohol. Hours passed as we sat and laughed the night away. I’m not sure who mentioned the time first, but it became evident that we needed to pack up before the cops got called.

I’m sure we intended on gracefully entering the house and saving Zohreh’s parents the trouble of seeing us drunk, but needless to say, that didn’t happen. Someone tripped over a rug and let out a yelp while another opened the door making a loud, prolonged, squeaking sound. When we finally made it down to the basement it seemed like we were safe, like all was well. After talking for a while, Zohreh made it apparent that it was her bedtime by rolling over and passing out. The rest of us went to finish our pack of cigarettes on the back patio. About an hour later, our packs fully smoked, we decided sleep was a good idea. We headed back down the steps and stumbled upon something we will never be able to un-see.

Zohreh lied across the tile floor, shaking uncontrollably. It was as if all the heat in her body had suddenly vanished. Puke ran down her cheek as her eyes focused in and out on the ceiling. Her hair, normally a light shade of auburn, was now shades of green, white, and yellow with vomit, crusting to the floor. The room reeked so much of puke it brought tears to our eyes. Looking around, it was a crime scene, with puke in place of blood. The rest of us stared at each other, startled and ashamed. We had left her, and if she died, it was on us. Looking back on it, sober, we should have done something, anything. We should have rushed her to the hospital or at least cleaned her up. Instead, we did nothing. In that moment, we were helpless, we were awful, and we were drunk.

~Aubrie Smith

The Spangled Pearl White Shoes

Every day, we have to make dozens of choices. Some choices, such as what to wear and what movie to watch, are simple to make. Have you ever faced the situation that you have no right to choose? If so, would you be willing to accept or deny choices other people made for you? Some of you may never regret, but some will.

Whenever I go to a shoe store and see many varieties of shoes, I always want to look for the pair that I never had the chance to own when I was a child in Taiwan. It was a pair of spangled pearl white shoes with a pink bow, which I miss deeply. Until this day, even though I often spend much time in children’s shoe stores finding the shoes for my girls, I still cannot find the exact same pair. Decades have gone by, and I am no longer a little girl. I studied hard and graduated from a prominent university with a decent degree in my country. Although I live a happy life now, married to a nice man who is an executive in a machinery company and can buy as many pairs of shoes as I want, I know that pair of spangled pearl white shoes with the pink bow that I miss deeply will never come back to my life. That pair of shoes remains an unforgettable memory from my childhood because it symbolized my resentment of growing up poor.

In my country, Taiwan, every public school student wears almost the same uniform: girls wear white shirts on top with knee-length blue pleated skirts, and boys also wear the white shirts but with short blue pants. We all need to wear the black shoes as part of the uniform; this is the policy everyone has to follow. During the beginning of each new semester, parents are busy preparing the children’s school supplies. For example, my parents would take my brother Huendun and me to shop for some new clothing for the new school year. However, we did not buy things each time because it depended on the condition of my old clothing. If the clothes were torn or ripped with a big hole and were not wearable, my parents would take us to buy new ones. If my parents said we needed new clothes, my brother and I would cheer for many days because we usually did not have new clothes to wear.

My parents were both working in an eyeglass frame factory. Their jobs were to assemble each part of frames to make eyeglasses, and their jobs did not earn them a lot of money to raise a family. I remember at the end of each month, our money was always tight. We often ate rice with only soy sauce and nothing else. We knew we may not have enough money for that month. When the new semester came, I often felt my parents would worry if they would have the extra money to buy our school supplies.

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a pair of black shoes that were really worn out and were becoming small for me, even if I tried to bend my toes. I had been wearing this old pair of shoes since I was in the second grade. My parents would always buy shoes that were a couple sizes too big for my brother and me, so we could wear them longer. Therefore, most of the shoes I wore back then were much bigger than my feet at that time. Because of the loosely fit oversized shoes, embarrassment happened to me so many times from having to go back and pick up my shoes when I ran too fast; it drew a lot of laughter from other students. Finally, I told my parents I really needed a new pair of shoes although I thought they would refuse. One night after dinner, my mom was washing dishes. The sound of water flowing down from the faucet almost made my voice inaudible. I raised my voice and said to my mom, “Ni ker yi mai yi shuang xin xie gei wo ma? Jio der na shuang chuan bu xia ler.” (Could you buy me a new pair of shoes? The old ones cannot fit me anymore.) I showed my old pair of shoes to her, but she continued to wash the dishes. I asked myself, “What if she didn’t hear me?” I was nervous that I did not speak loud enough.

My mom did not answer; the water continued to flow. She may not buy me a pair this year, I thought. Just when I was ready to turn around and go back to my room, I heard her say, ”Hau, wo men zhao shi jian qu xie dian.” (Fine, we will find time to go to the shoe store.) I could not believe what I heard—she finally agreed. But she told me to wait for next month when they had enough money, and she would take me to buy a new pair of shoes.

I counted day after day, and finally the big day arrived! My parents told me they would take me to the shoe store in the afternoon. I could not wait for a second; I was full of joy and cheer because I had been to the only shoe store in our small town so many times to search for my new shoes on my own. The pair in the display behind the window looked so beautiful. Whenever I went home from school, I would always detour to the shoe store to see that pair. They were beautiful pearl white shoes without too much design, and they looked neat and trim. They drew my attention immediately when I saw them the very first time, because this pair of shoes was similar to the one that my neighborhood girl had. She lived in a big house on the top of a hill with a tall fence. Nobody knew her name or what the house looked like inside. All we knew that she was a wealthy businessman’s daughter, probably the same age as me. However, I had never talked or played with her, and neither had my playmates living on the same street.
One time I saw the neighbor girl shopping at the shoe store with her mother. She was wearing a pink, puffy princess dress with this pair of white shoes. The way she dressed looked like a girl from a movie that was so elegant and unreachable. I liked what she wore. I always wished I could be born in her family and wear new clothes every day; then, I would look like her.

This pair of white shoes were the shoes she wore. This was the pair I had dreamed of for a long time, and I was really determined to get them.

When my parents brought me to the store, I went in first and told the clerk that I wanted him to bring me that pair of white shoes. He brought them to me, and when I wore the shoes, I felt I looked as elegant as the rich neighborhood girl. I thought my parents would like them, too. But my parents brought me a black pair of shoes instead and said, “Ba na shuang bai xie tuo diao, chuan zher shuang hei xie. Wo men bu huei mai na shuang bai xie.” (Take off the white ones and wear these black ones. We are not going to buy that pair of white shoes.)

“Wo wei sher mer bu ker yi mai na shuang bai xie?” (Why can I not get this white pair of shoes?) I said it out loud with all my courage. I knew my parents would ignore what I said. “Ni bu ren wei zher shuang bai xie bi jiao shi her wo ma?” (Don’t you think this pair fits me better?) But my parents said I needed to wear black shoes to school, not white shoes, and they could not afford to buy both pairs. I hated that I was born in this blue-collar family and could not have anything I wanted.

“Wo zhi xi huan zher shuang bai xie, ni men jin tian ruo bu mai gei wo, wo jio dai zai zher li zhi dao ni mai gei wo.” (I only like that white pair. If you do not buy that pair today, I will stay here until you buy it for me.) I could not believe how those daring words came out from my mouth. My parents did not say a word. They turned around and went home. I felt so embarrassed standing there. I reluctantly took off the shoes and my eyes filled with tears, and I thought, “Why can I not get that white pair of shoes? Why are my parents so cruel to me? Why was I born in this family? Why can I not be like the girl who lived in that big house? She probably has many pairs of shoes to choose from each day.” I cried on the way home. I did not care how other people looked at me. All I wanted was that pair of white shoes.

When I went home, I threw myself into the bed and cried sadly until I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up, it was dark outside and my pillow was wet with my tears. I knew I must have cried for a long time. I went downstairs to see if my parents were generous enough to buy me that pair of white shoes. However, the reality was not what I had hoped for. They did not buy me the white pair of shoes that I wanted. Instead, I saw the dull black pair of shoes lying on the table.

I still remember that silent, emotionless despair. That was what I got for fourth grade. From that day on, I knew there was no fairy tale. Not everything will happen according to our wishes. Since then, I had learned not to expect things that are beyond my control or capabilities. I do not blame my parents for not buying me that pair of shoes; I do not resent that there was no fairy tale, either. I know with all the efforts that I make, right now I am the person who can make my own choices and make a better life.

~Meiling I

This essay earned third place in the annual student contest for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

A Lesson on Privilege

We squeezed down the tight aisle with our oversized carry-ons and handbags. We walked further and further, weaving in and out of the other passengers until we finally reached seats 27B and 27C.  I was eleven years old, and it was my first time on an airplane. I felt like I was lost on the first day of school.

I sat only one seat away from the window, and my mom sat just across the aisle. We got comfortable in our seats, and I stared at the clock, counting down the minutes. Fifteen minutes until departure, next stop Disney World. As I waited impatiently, I hoped the seat next to me would remain empty so I could get a perfect view out the window. Seconds later, I saw a tall man walking down the aisle towards us, looking for his seat. He was an older, olive-skinned man, with a long, curly beard and glasses. He was skinny and dressed in a dark blue button-up shirt, light brown pants, and a hat of rich silk and bright colors.

I was bummed when I saw him smile and heard him say, “I believe this is seat 27A.”

“Sure is,” I said as I got up to let him in. I glanced over at my mother and saw her muscles tense. The grin on her face turned from happy to uncomfortable. As the man settled in his seat, she stared at him bitterly, and stood up straight.

“I need you to trade seats with me right now,” she said.

Confused, I told her no. “I want to be by the window,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t argue. You can have the window seat on the way back home. Just get in my seat,” she said as she pointed to her aisle seat next to a young white woman listening to her iPod.

“I don’t understand why I can’t just sit here,” I pestered. “Come on Mom, calm down.”

Then, she became visibly angry. “You’re going to sit there,” she said pointing. “If you don’t want to sit there, we can get off the plane.”

I sat in disbelief, and still didn’t understand why she was being so disrespectful.

Minutes later, she took me to the back of the airplane near the bathroom. “That man looked dangerous,” she explained. “I took your seat to keep you safe.”

She wasn’t making sense. What made him dangerous? His beard? His glasses? The hat? He looked friendly, but I accepted her answer and her seat next to the apparently “safe” white woman.

At eleven years old, I was oblivious to the racism displayed in front of me. For a majority of my life, I had been unaware that this happens too often, even in our post-Civil Rights world that is filled with citizens of various races and cultures.

While living in the culturally diverse city of Saginaw, I was taught at a young age to lock the car doors when driving by any “colored” person and to hold my money a little tighter when standing near them in a store line. My mother and I kept our distance from the black groups at the shopping mall because they were “dangerous.” It was as if anything that wasn’t white wasn’t clean. They were tainted, like a rusty penny on the ground that isn’t worth spending. The darkness of their skin was an irreversible flaw that sentenced them to a life of ridicule.

As doors are held open and locked behind me for my protection, I understand what it means to be privileged in America because of my race. It means that this land is my ensured opportunity, and with a little hard work, I am guaranteed success. There are jobs that I reject because they might make my skin dirty, jobs that I save in my back pocket, and jobs that I work because I can afford the degree. As I stand neck deep in opportunity, I understand what White Privilege means. The benefit of the doubt is my birthright, and I am treated with respect. I have all of these privileges that I did not earn, but rather was born with.

I have never had to fight for rights or for equality. I have never had to watch for cops out of the corner of my eye, and I am able to hide behind my skin if I am a suspect. I have never been guilty until proven innocent. I am able to walk through airport security without harassment, as others need to have their privacy invaded just to set foot on a plane. I can’t say I’ve been in their shoes, but I do realize that this injustice exists. I realize that it is immoral, and I realize that it needs to end.

It is those who have the privilege that deny its existence. As a child, I was taught in school that we asked the Native Americans to leave nicely, that slavery ended along with racism and that we are all equal now. We are often blindfolded with the excuses. It’s not our fault; it’s theirs. If we were there, it would have been different. It wasn’t us; it was them. We are polite; they need to keep their distance. We’re not racist; we promise. We’re not racist; we’re patriotic. We’re not racist; you just look like a terrorist. We’re not racist; we’re protecting our children. We’re not racist; we believe in freedom.

We need to believe in freedom for those who don’t look like us, too, by doing more than accepting our privilege and ignoring those without it. It doesn’t have to be this way; we can all be privileged Americans, no need for color categorization. We can all be born with a right to freedom and equality. We can erase the terms “White Privileged American,” “African American,” “Asian American,” “Arabic American,” and simply be Americans.

~Tiffany Sember

This essay earned an honorable mention in Delta’s local competition for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.