Read the President’s Writing Prize Winners’ Essays
March 30, 2012
Rev. Brian F. Linnane, S.J., Loyola’s president, interrupted three classes in January to surprise the winners of the first President’s Writing Prize, giving each a laurel wreath and a $500 check.
Take a look at the winning entries written by Lauren Hallman, ′13 (shown here with Fr. Linnane), Colleen Mitchell, ′14, and Kathryn Tafelski, ′14.
By Lauren Hallman, ′13
My senior class voted me, “Most Likely to Star on Broadway” in high school. I wasn’t “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Most Academic,” but it was gratifying to know that I was the best pretender. As graduation passed, however, I left the identity of the actor in New York and finally pursued life as a student. I perfected the ideal student persona—homework was completed as early as a week in advance, I maintained eye contact with my professors and made sure that my head was always cocked at a slight angle, lips slightly parted and eyebrows gently raised to convey interest. I bought my first pair of sweatpants so that I would really fit the part. I finally understood the magic of theater that I had read about in Shakespeare’s plays; I had put on the costume of a student and fooled myself into thinking that I had actually become one. However, halfway through second semester of freshman year, I received a shock that would cause my new identity to unravel and fray. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I am the youngest of three children who were primarily raised by my single mother. Of the three of us, I am the only one who lives within a reasonable distance of home—a distance that is the equivalent of a 12-hour train ride and several hundred dollars. I dropped everything that Wednesday and made it home by noon the next day with no intention of returning until the following Monday. Being the diligent student that I was, I had visited the office of every one of my professors, but I had always been the one with questions. This time, I repeated the story of my mother’s diagnosis five times in the span of an hour. Luckily, I had perfected my brave face two years prior while playing Susie Ward in “Babes in Arms,” because the script was beginning to wear me down and it was only the first day of my cancer year.
The rest of that school year, I forgot how to listen. I sat in class and recited survival statistics of cancer patients in my head and tried to keep up with daily doctor visits in between classes. It was impossible to learn all of the information that I needed about my mom’s condition, and yet the information I was learning was replacing everything that my professors were trying to teach me. Summer vacation was the perfect intermission because I no longer needed to pretend to be invested as a student and I could finally be nothing more than daughter and nurse.
Before her treatment even officially began, my mom developed what people affectionately refer to as “chemo-brain.” She lost her phone every single day, asked questions about appointments she had not even attended yet and there were multiple occasions where she would have missed her appointments altogether if I hadn’t had a copy of her schedule. At first, I felt as though I was always one step behind her (which made it easier to clean up after her messes and to pick up the pieces) but it left me feeling utterly unprepared. For the first time in my life, I started to have a recurring nightmare: I was alone on stage and I didn’t know my lines.
Without even realizing what was happening, I started to become a student again. It was the only role that felt safe. When she would sleep for 48 straight hours after a chemo treatment, I found that I couldn’t sleep because the house was silent as death. Once, I crept into her room at four in the morning to check that she was still breathing. I started teaching myself guitar and brushing up on Latin and Shakespeare until the birds behind my house woke up in the mornings and reminded me that normal people do things like eating breakfast and cleaning the house. I pulled more all-nighters the summer after my freshman year than I had in my first two semesters. At Mom’s appointments, I took arduous notes. I misspelled every medical term for the first month or so (and had no clue what any of them meant), but before long I had filled notebooks with semi-comprehensible instructions and information. I took better notes over the summer than I ever had in college. Between my note-taking and Mom’s obsessive Google searches, it seemed as though we knew everything we could possibly know about cancer except the one thing we were being tested on: how do you cure it?
After four surgeries, two months of chemotherapy, and a lot of uncertainty, I had no choice but to return to Loyola. Part of me selfishly wanted to escape back to my reclusive dorm life and independent studies, but part of me knew exactly how it had felt to play two roles that overlapped on every level. My first day back, I started spontaneously crying in front of my boss and my emotional state went downhill from there. I could not seem to pay attention to anyone or anything. It was not uncommon for one of my roommates to walk into my room to find me in the dark with my headphones in my ears and a blank expression in my eyes. The contrast from my early college days was startling.
Two weeks into the semester, I decided that I could not stay in Maryland. My mom needed me to be home with her, and frankly, I didn’t know how to be a student anymore. When I asked one of my advisors how to go about withdrawing from the school, he asked me for permission to ask some personal questions about my decision. The most unexpected and pertinent question that this professor asked me was how my mom would feel if I gave up on my own education for her sake. The answer? She would hate herself. The selfless move that I was prepared to make was actually the most selfish thing I could have done. And so he told me to be a little selfish. He recommended that I do what made me feel safe in order to put my mom’s mind at ease. I realized that the mind-numbing depression that I had been feeling was not due to the distance I was from home, but it was a result of almost one whole year of not paying attention to my own needs. How was I supposed to be of use to anyone else when I could not even take care of myself? After that conversation with one of the first people who had asked me how I was faring, I started to pay attention. He asked his questions, and then it was finally time for me to start asking my own.
Freshman year, I had believed that I was paying attention. And yet, as the previous summer had proven, I was capable of paying much, much more. I had accrued cancer knowledge that I hoped never to need again, but that I knew I could never forget. It was a new type of learning that involved more than simply paying attention to the words that were coming out of someone’s mouth. I had to constantly be checking and crosschecking facts to see what was the most accurate, whether there was an alternate way of looking at the situation and applying what I had learned to the life of someone I deeply cared about.
In the course of my mother’s cancer treatments, I played a nurse, a scribe, a counselor, a mom, a daughter, a student and an insomniac. I was cast as the supporting role in my own life, following my mom’s lead. However, I realized that this experience had helped me to stop acting like a student and to finally become one. My mom used to tell me to stop making funny faces because my expression would eventually get stuck that way. Of course, I never believed her, but after all these years it turns out that she was right. I acted like a student and applied myself to playing the part so meticulously that I actually became one without my own cognition. I could no longer find the boundary between the mask and my own skin. I found comfort in learning everything there was to know, found solace in reading books that provided an escape, and I listened to the wisdom of a professor who told me that I owed it to myself to take my life back into my own hands. The tragic heroes in Shakespeare’s plays often find themselves relying on theater metaphors when their lives begin to fall apart. Shakespeare, like my mother, understood the prophetic nature of acting a certain way until you adopt a new identity or mask.
I am a student of Shakespeare, Loyola, and my mother. The only difference is that I didn’t fall back on a metaphor the summer my life fell apart—I fell back on myself.
The Bricks of the Heart
By Kate Tafelski, ′14
In a world of constant stimulation, it is often difficult to discern what deserves our focused attention. Is the news program about overseas war more pressing than the phone buzzing with a new text message in our hand? Is the music blaring from our earphones more interesting and stimulating than conversation with a friend as we walk to class? These are some of the small challenges we are faced with every day. We are constantly distracted by flashy ads and catchy commercials, and it is only every once in a while something sticks with us, refocusing our entire outlook on life. If we are not careful, we could miss it.
For me, this moment was sitting on my bed freshman year, reading an essay by Brian Doyle called “Joyas Voladoras” for a writing class. The last paragraph of this essay caused a physical reaction in my body with chills of shock, wonder, and amazement at the beauty of his language and ideas. Even as I reread the passage today I get the same reaction, I cannot contain my amazement. While the entire paragraph is amazing, the central idea is contained in these few sentences:
“When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words ‘I have something to tell you,’ a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.” (Doyle)
This paragraph literally scared me for the future. I am one of those people who truly believes that one person will come along one day and completely change my life. It will be a magical moment and finally my bruised heart will be repaired and all my problems will be solved. Doyle thinks this dream is childish, but then goes on to describe certain, simple moments that can bring down all the walls we have spent years building around our hearts, showing he has faith that humanity will not fail him and his hopeful heart. It is these moments that I live for, and have been forced to pay attention to ever since I was introduced to this passage.
The little moments with my family are much more treasured now that I do not see them as often—the way my little sister hugs me after she has not seen me in a while, the excited squeal she makes when she learns I am coming home soon, the way my mother’s laugh sounds, the sarcastic comments, the surprising wit of my sister, and the twinkle in my father’s eyes that immediately reveals he is lying, are all cherished and paid closer attention. The simple act of praying together before a meal is something that was done so routinely that it was automatic, now reminds me of the purpose behind the words. It is the little things that make up my family. The imperfections of us all combine to create a functioning unit that I would have no other way.
Paying attention to the lives of other people has become very important to me. Selfishness is one of the human flaws I despise most, and by taking a genuine interest in the lives of my family and friends I try to overcome falling into the patterns of selfishness we are all subject to. I have also become more appreciative of the interest others take in my life and have come to value it as the mark of a true friend.
I believe these little moments spent with family and friends are the ones that break down the walls of our hearts Doyle describes, brick by brick. Through kindness we are opening ourselves up to the world, allowing others to see what lies within. Unfortunately this opening also leaves the heart vulnerable, exposing the soft muscle waiting for it to be pierced and bruised by the slightest injury. It is hard, learning whom to open the heart up to, to whom to trust this valuable piece of ourselves, and many of us experience what it is like when we judge incorrectly. The pain and the eventual numbness that comes with rebuilding that wall around our heart, making sure it is more secure than before, as to never be hurt again. Here is that childish dream of someone coming along to make it all better, as if this kind of injury is one that can be solved with a soft kiss of a parent. As Doyle proves, it is a myth of childhood that is shattered by the cruelties of adulthood, part of the pain of growing up.
Sometimes, paying attention can hurt. If you pay attention, you notice every sidelong smile between friends making fun of you in front of your face. You notice the subtle ways your boyfriend pulls back a little more each day, how he lets go of your hand a little too early, how he doesn’t seem as happy to see you, how his laughter is stilted and his mind somewhere else, until he finally tells you he doesn’t want you anymore. You notice the man eating lunch by himself everyday, the teacher who walks with a limp, the child whose mother sends him to school with a bag of Cheetos for lunch and no winter coat. Yes, sometimes I wish I didn’t pay attention to the world too much.
Paying attention, however, is like love. If you don’t open yourself up, you could be missing something that makes all these painful experiences worth it. You could miss the sunrise that takes your breath away or the song that brightens your day. You could miss witnessing the kindness of a stranger, offering a hand to an elderly woman or picking up trash off the church grounds. You could miss the innocent excitement of a child when his father comes home from work and the pure love a mother has for a daughter who has messed up in every possible way. You could miss the smile of the boy who sits in front of you, who just wants you to notice him.
Yes, in the end I have to agree with Doyle. While unrealistic expectations do lead to disappointment, and opening ourselves up to the world and to love can be painful, sometimes we cannot help it. We cannot help falling in love, noticing and appreciating the simple things in life; we cannot prevent the walls of our heart from crashing down. And if we are lucky, paying attention to the world around us is all worth it in the end. It is through the tearing down and building up of bricks that we become who we are, who we are meant to be, and live life how it is meant to be lived.
Focus Found on the Third Floor
By Colleen Mitchell, ′14
Earlier this semester, I found myself, as I often do, adrift in the labyrinth of stacks in the library. As I perused the musty shelves for critical analysis of Machiavelli’s The Prince for a political science paper, I found a book called Socrates Meets Machiavelli by Peter Kreeft. It was a thin, purple paperback that I could just have easily missed as noticed.
I hesitated for a moment before, intrigued, I wrestled it off the shelf—nearly hitting myself in the face in the process—and began to flip through its pages. To my delight, I found that the book contained a witty dialogue of philosophical discussion between Socrates and Machiavelli upon the death of the latter. Chuckling at Kreeft’s clever portrayal of Machiavelli, extremely peeved by Socrates’s charming ability to ask questions with incessant impertinence, I sat down in the middle of an aisle of the third floor of the Loyola/Notre Dame Library and began to read.
Nearly 45 minutes later, I was about a third of the way into the book and very, very late for a guest lecture on Roman soldiers. When I afterward explained the source of my tardiness to a Loyola professor, who rightly scolded me for my lateness, she laughed, shook her head, and promptly called me a “dork.” I have been called much worse.
For truly, I do not regret my time spent on the floor of the library or the spare minutes I spent in my dorm that week finishing Peter Kreeft’s book. Not only did I gain a better understanding of Machiavelli’s political philosophy, but I also realized something about books: they are not just cover, binding, and paper that one only needs when researching a paper topic and then can discard without a second thought. Books can unlock the idle deadbolts of the mind and reveal a vibrant yearning for contemplation.
It is far too easy to skim in college. One tells oneself that a professor assigned too much reading or that some other item on the vast to-do list takes priority over that class’s homework. One might attempt to look the text over before eventually deciding not to make the effort and checking SparkNotes just in case the professor decides to have a pop quiz.
It is easy to read words without comprehending them. As Machiavelli disguises his true meaning in euphemism and implication, one wants to surrender to ignorance. Personally, I can “read” a whole chapter of a book and not learn a thing. With eyes trained to skip and trot across a page to ensure efficiency, I have to make a conscious effort to read something in its entirety.
It is not easy to force oneself to pay attention. One might think it is a matter of puckering up one’s nose or pulling stray hair out of the eyes. I have seen college students slap their faces, take cold showers, and order more coffees with extra shots of espresso. I can easily understand why we do this. The body is far easier to discipline than is the mind, which can run faster than any marathon runner can or carry heavier loads than a cargo ship does but often fails to sit still.
Nevertheless, a physical effort does not suffice; to pay attention fully, one must empty the mind of distraction, relax the self, and concentrate in a clear, focused way. Surely, it can be of no surprise that people, especially college students, of whom creativity and enthusiasm is constantly expected, struggle to pay attention.
When I did finally pay attention, alone on the carpeted floor of the library, I was able to engage in a text in a new way. Not scheduling and strategically allotting my time, I was no longer reading with the intention only to grasp a basic understanding of main ideas and concepts. I read Peter Kreeft’s book simply because I was interested. I flipped pages eagerly and tried to absorb every word so that they became imprinted on my mind.
Often, I fall victim to treating texts like ancient relics. Sometimes, the archaic language of an author—or more likely his translator—tricks me into believing that an author’s words no longer have any relevance. I distance myself from the words and tell myself that we are far more sophisticated in our understanding of the world. This assumption, of course, is false.
In fact, Peter Kreeft’s book was the perfect lesson. When reading, we should always approach each text the way Socrates would have, with a healthy dose of skepticism and an eagerness to understand, consider, and reflect. Just because something is printed on a page does not mean that we cannot question it. A text should be a living, breathing work with which we can converse—even if it does not reply back.
If we pay attention when reading, then we can actually learn from the great thinkers who came before us. Sometimes this involves stopping, putting the book down, and giving ourselves time to reflect quietly on an idea. It requires imagination. It requires discipline.
The best example of this sort of mental engagement that I can think of is the Gospel reading at Mass. As the priest gives the reading, my mind can sometimes roam to the altar servers fidgeting in their robes, to the baby screeching in the pew in front of mine, or to the picture of Mary hanging on the wall. By the time I focus on what the priest has to say, he has already begun his homily.
Yet, if I did truly listen and pay attention to the reading the way I should, I would discover something about God and about myself. Those moments of clarity—of discernment—forge who I am as a person. As St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.” God wants us to pay attention, but often we are led astray by our own wandering minds. Still, paying attention to texts does not need to be a chore. One often pictures diligent focus as medieval clerks scribbling away with quills by candlelight, but our view of academia does not need to be so mind-numbingly dull. When Fr. James Martin, S.J., came to campus earlier this semester, he spoke about the joys and mirth found in our faith.
One can find just as much humor in the works of Chaucer as he can in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Discernment does not mean unhappiness. Certainly, God did not create the earth for humans to exist in complete and utter misery. By paying attention, we can sense those times in which all there is to do is laugh.
Moreover, paying attention is not confined to the academic world. The ideals of cura personalis encourage us to use Ignatian discernment in all aspects of our lives. We should not only reflect on what Socrates or the Bible has to say but also what the people around us do. We should go out into the community and pay attention to the things that we normally are inclined to miss: the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, the spiritually lacking, the lonely.
Sometimes, we can even get so caught up in ourselves that we miss even blatant cries for help from the people closest to us. Yet, if we pay attention, we can discern when others need us to listen, to give advice, and to show them that we care. Moreover, we can discern what is in our own hearts if we allow ourselves simply to pay attention.