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Signs to Good Words

by Tess Jacobson  

My mother, father, andTess Jacobson brother vanished. What happens now? I lack the words to express my sorrow, my future and…  

Mid-sentence, I struggled to convey this agony. My imagination was congested. I tried to force myself into the mind of my protagonist, but couldn’t find the words. So I dropped my pencil and unfinished story. I turned to sign language. If I couldn’t write or speak the suffering, I could sign it and capture the words. With thought as the conductor, my hands obediently brought the scenario to life, forcing me to lace my feet into the shoes of the character and bring his feelings to life in the way I had imagined: authentic, yet silent. “The growing lump of panic in Collin’s throat suddenly choked him before plummeting to the pit of his stomach where it filled him with overwhelming desolation and absorbed all other traces of sentiment.” Sign gave me these words.

American Sign Language started with a casual comment from an eighth grade teacher. Visual learners tend to acquire skills in learning sign language. As a visual learner, I decided to give it a try. The more I engaged in this culture of people who, unlike me, are deaf, I couldn’t let go. So, I searched to find a way to learn this language on my own.

Sign complements another love of mine—writing. I didn’t begin writing because I was a naturally good wordsmith, but because I needed it. My imagination lusts for boundlessness and I credit my seventh grade English teacher for facilitating this discovery. She gave the class a five-minute required daily writing period with one condition: no one but the writer would see his or her scribblings.

At first, I wasn’t exactly producing masterpieces of originality. I scrawled on the pages not knowing what to write or, if I was feeling extra imaginative, I would describe the classroom. However, regardless of the topic, there was something liberating about taking part in an activity without limits or direct instructions to follow. As soon as I discovered my affinity for this independent, unrestricted expression, my imagination was released from its shackles and I produced work that compelled me to break the class rule and show my work to others.

Today I love to write—poems, essays, stories, lab reports, term papers. My fire for this art form is all inclusive. From analyzing Hollywood’s portrayal of America during the Great Depression to describing an original biology experiment on the psychological impact of color and light, I crave opportunities to speak my mind—soundlessly and tangibly. I’m enticed by most anything that makes me a better writer, which is one reason I’m drawn to sign language. Without the two, I would have been limited without ever knowing.

The words to describe the unfathomable emotional situation in my short story seemed unattainable because I had never experienced the circumstances. Sign guided me to go below the exterior of explaining “how sad” something could be and helped me extract the visceral aspect of grief, allowing me to connect with the character, and making him a part of reality—not just an imaginary sketch. Sign forced me to reach the core of what my character could have felt, not just the mere essence, giving the words the aesthetic animation that speech cannot provide. The captivating gestures embedded in sign language are almost as riveting as the feeling that comes with giving vocabulary a physically moving existence.

After these two interests integrated into my world, I realized how they capture my psyche. Sign springs a glimpse of another culture into my life, teaching me to constantly imagine and view the world from different angles. Writing empowers me to channel those interpretations into my voice as a writer. I’m not sure if I have a way with words, but I have my own way with words.

Tess Jacobson, who became a graduate of  The Trevor Day School today, will be a freshman at Tufts University in the fall.

Propelling My Voice

Propelling My Voice

by Jordan White

jordanwhiteAs the youngest in my family by eight years, I was awkward, painfully shy, and tired of being verbally overshadowed. So, at 11, I decided to make my debut at the Christmas dinner table.  

“Did you hear that Lady Gaga might actually be a man?”

Immediately, my brother took over the conversation with a story about a transgender girl from high school, while my uncle followed with a tangent about gender-neutral bathrooms. My inaugural appearance as a provocateur had failed, and my presence once again faded into the background.

My family’s dinner conversations have always been equal parts vulgar and intellectual, with topics like the Bonobo chimpanzee’s bisexual pursuits to adolescent Italian castrati. Outlandish oddities cleverly become family inside jokes. I would spend meals dreaming of my moment to provoke, taking periodic breaks to notice whichever condiment was staining my dad’s shirt. Embarrassed and discouraged by the Gaga debacle, I decided speaking was not to be my mode of self-expression.

Weeks later I became a writer, thanks to our fifth-grade historical fiction project. Some chose to write about the Revolutionary War, while others ventured into the depths of Nazi Germany or Jim Crow. Sometime during the fifth draft of my Civil Rights story, I decided to produce something different. Filing through my mental bank of memories and family conversations, I chose the New York crack/AIDS epidemic of the late eighties.

I altered my story completely. Julius Jones––my proud, stoic, fictional NAACP Chairman––devolved into Julian ‘Juli’ Jameson: a hopeless, staph-infected drug addict with a mayo-stained shirt. Night after night I scanned the depths of Google’s “crack” files, even turning off Image SafeSearch to examine the faces of its victims. I took my desire for identity and applied it to Juli’s journey. As I struggled to find a voice among extroverts, he struggled to find purpose in his dingy Hell’s Kitchen tenement.

The story was a hit among teachers and peers, propelling my confidence as a student. I started writing personal essays; packed with details that I had saved in my mental notebook. In seventh grade I wrote an essay about death, and an influx of long lost memories rushed onto the paper. Rather than seeing sadness in mortality–a hospital, or a coffin, or Benta’s Funeral Home–readers saw my grandmother putting coffee in my sippy cup and telling me she suspected her neighbors were axe murderers. My English teacher suggested I submit the essay to a writing contest, telling me I deserved an audience. I ended up winning, and found my path as a student altered forever. In a school full of inventors and mathletes, writing had become my “thing;” a way to value myself beyond numerical assessment.

Today I’ve established my voice beyond just essays, but my writer’s imagination stays with me almost everywhere. People in my life sometimes become characters that I control. For example, at my uncle’s funeral last winter, my family sat silently in prayer. I made eye contact with the young thurifer shifting nervously behind the priest. I imagined that it was his first day on the job, the way only one pant leg was cuffed — he must have been rushing out of the house. I liked to think his girlfriend made him a good breakfast and said “good luck today, honey” when he left. Luck wasn’t exactly the right thing to wish to someone who was going to a funeral but then again “goodbye” would have been too morbid. I took mental note of the stained-glass windows and saved the detail for future use.

The more I write, the easier I find it to talk– about myself and the world around me, even at the dinner table. When adults mutter about the tribulations of their nine-to-fives, it is not uncommon for my mother to now interrupt, pleading for a breath of life: “Let’s liven things up. Jord, what should we talk about?”

Jordan White, a graduate of Hunter College High School, will begin her freshman year at Wesleyan in a few weeks.

 

Signs to Good Words

Signs to Good Words

by Tess Jacobson  

My mother, father, andTess Jacobson brother vanished. What happens now? I lack the words to express my sorrow, my future and…  

Mid-sentence, I struggled to convey this agony. My imagination was congested. I tried to force myself into the mind of my protagonist, but couldn’t find the words. So I dropped my pencil and unfinished story. I turned to sign language. If I couldn’t write or speak the suffering, I could sign it and capture the words. With thought as the conductor, my hands obediently brought the scenario to life, forcing me to lace my feet into the shoes of the character and bring his feelings to life in the way I had imagined: authentic, yet silent. “The growing lump of panic in Collin’s throat suddenly choked him before plummeting to the pit of his stomach where it filled him with overwhelming desolation and absorbed all other traces of sentiment.” Sign gave me these words.

American Sign Language started with a casual comment from an eighth grade teacher. Visual learners tend to acquire skills in learning sign language. As a visual learner, I decided to give it a try. The more I engaged in this culture of people who, unlike me, are deaf, I couldn’t let go. So, I searched to find a way to learn this language on my own.

Sign complements another love of mine—writing. I didn’t begin writing because I was a naturally good wordsmith, but because I needed it. My imagination lusts for boundlessness and I credit my seventh grade English teacher for facilitating this discovery. She gave the class a five-minute required daily writing period with one condition: no one but the writer would see his or her scribblings.

At first, I wasn’t exactly producing masterpieces of originality. I scrawled on the pages not knowing what to write or, if I was feeling extra imaginative, I would describe the classroom. However, regardless of the topic, there was something liberating about taking part in an activity without limits or direct instructions to follow. As soon as I discovered my affinity for this independent, unrestricted expression, my imagination was released from its shackles and I produced work that compelled me to break the class rule and show my work to others.

Today I love to write—poems, essays, stories, lab reports, term papers. My fire for this art form is all inclusive. From analyzing Hollywood’s portrayal of America during the Great Depression to describing an original biology experiment on the psychological impact of color and light, I crave opportunities to speak my mind—soundlessly and tangibly. I’m enticed by most anything that makes me a better writer, which is one reason I’m drawn to sign language. Without the two, I would have been limited without ever knowing.

The words to describe the unfathomable emotional situation in my short story seemed unattainable because I had never experienced the circumstances. Sign guided me to go below the exterior of explaining “how sad” something could be and helped me extract the visceral aspect of grief, allowing me to connect with the character, and making him a part of reality—not just an imaginary sketch. Sign forced me to reach the core of what my character could have felt, not just the mere essence, giving the words the aesthetic animation that speech cannot provide. The captivating gestures embedded in sign language are almost as riveting as the feeling that comes with giving vocabulary a physically moving existence.

After these two interests integrated into my world, I realized how they capture my psyche. Sign springs a glimpse of another culture into my life, teaching me to constantly imagine and view the world from different angles. Writing empowers me to channel those interpretations into my voice as a writer. I’m not sure if I have a way with words, but I have my own way with words.

Tess Jacobson, who became a graduate of  The Trevor Day School today, will be a freshman at Tufts University in the fall.