Panning for Gold
By Anna Press
At night, before I fall asleep, I scribble a few notes for an essay in the little notebook I’m keeping for scraps of ideas. Little, because it can’t be intimidating. Spiral-bound, because I won’t be precious about it. I look at the words in loopy scrawl, handwriting I don’t like, and feel a flicker of something. The next morning, I hate it.
“No great trauma happened to me, or anything.” Jasmine sits in the spare cushioned office chair of the college guidance office. The pale purple walls are covered with flyers for upcoming school visits and information session invitations, and the bulletin boards are festooned with CUNY and SUNY pennants. Her Air Jordans just touch the floor, and she uses them to anchor herself as she sways back and forth. She shrugs at me, frank, and almost apologetic. “I mean, I’m grateful. I have a great family.”
“It doesn’t have to be about trauma or something painful,” I insist. “It can be about something simple, everyday.”
I show her my collection of model texts, successful college essays I’ve found online. I try to read her a passage or so, delicious language about a love of cooking with one’s grandmother, a paragraph from a New Yorker article about having a different personality in a second language, something silly about loving Papa John’s pizza. “What do you like to do with your time?”
Jasmine’s hands clasp her phone, and her long acrylic nails tap on the screen with nervous energy. “I mean…I don’t do anything.”
She laughs. “Come on, Miss. I like hanging out with my friends, listening to music, shopping…that’s about it.”
“What do you do when you get home from school?”
“Nothing. Nothing.” She repeats, for emphasis. “I watch Netflix.”
Her friend Nisha clicks her tongue impatiently. “Just write about why you want to be a nurse, or something.”
“Why do you want to be a nurse?” I ask.
“It’s a good job,” Jasmine says. “There’s always…a need for nurses. And the pay is good. My Mom’s a nurse, so I kinda know what it’s like.”
“So…you could write about your relationship with your Mom, and how she influenced you to be a nurse and help care for others?”
“Nah, I mean, it’s just like a stable job and the pay is good.” She fidgets with the handle of the filing cabinet where we keep old chromebooks in the office. It’s lunchtime now, but often, I’ll pull students out of class to finish the FAFSA with me, or go over an application. “I guess I’ll just do that.”
“You don’t sound excited about it.” I hesitate. I don’t want to put down the only idea she has, but it won’t exactly help her stand out. “Does nursing make you excited to learn? Or feel challenged, in a good way?”
I deflate a little. “Listen, your essay should be about you, your experiences and your growth. You want to show them—”
“I just want to get this over with.” While the computer slowly hums to life, Jasmine swipes her braids back into a ponytail and secures them with a band. Nisha snapchats a selfie beside her. Jasmine catches my eye. “Miss, I just don’t have anything to say about myself. Nothing about me is interesting. It’s okay.”
Amaya beckons to me during class and slides a copy of her resume out of her binder. “Will you look this over for me?” she whispers. I tuck it into my grade book. “Of course.”
Later in my office, we sit and go over it. I feel parental, almost. I point out careless errors—punctuation with a space before it, uncapitalized proper nouns—and things she has not been taught to notice by anyone other than a handful of teachers: that those two fonts are both serif, but they’re not the same, and something key to professionalism is consistency.
In working and relationships too, I think to myself.
Amaya asks me a question about her internship at the LGBT center, and we reword her bullet points with more dynamic language. “You’re making me sound so professional!” she laughs, and I look at her, seriously, “You are. This is a huge accomplishment.”
We have a brief eye contact battle and I win. She looks down at the screen, smiling. I want her to accept her own brilliance. She is so curious and creative, and her desire to interact with the world around her is enthralling. She could do anything with her life, and I tell her so all the time. She could work with queer kids, teach English in Japan, design video games, work in ecological conservation—all of which she feels passionately about.
She beams and takes the computer to sit at our student work area, while I turn back to my gradebook. Some time passes, and she asks, “Are you still writing your novel?”
“What?” I say, startled. I don’t talk about writing at work, almost ever. Only a few of my co-workers even know I review books sometimes.
“The one about the queer family,” she says, and I remember, vaguely, mentioning it after a long discussion she and I had about chosen family, and how she could weave that idea into her college essay.
“Oh,” I touch my hair, embarrassed. “I completely forgot I mentioned that.” And I feel strange for having done so. My brain diverts to unprofessional, but I don’t think it is, necessarily, to tell students about the things you care about. Especially in my role, as a College and Career Readiness teacher. I’m supposed to help students find their passion, carve out their path.
I realize she’s waiting for me to respond and I laugh a little. “Sort of. I think about it a lot, but I haven’t really had time to make myself work on it. You know,” and I gesture around vaguely. “You guys are my priority.”
“Aw,” she says, and makes a face at me. “Well you should. You should make time for it.”
“I know,” I sigh, and feel chastised, a little hypocritical. “When did you get so wise?”
My depression affects my writing and my writing affects my depression. For the last few days, I have written about a hundred words per day—and the day before that, I went to listen to an author talk, a woman my own age with two novels out, one in particular a book I wish I could have written. I took notes throughout the talk, as I often do, and read them over to a friend.
“I’ve never heard an author so unapologetically say, I write about young people because that’s what I know.” I remark. “And to say, I don’t think I’m particularly creative, with no shame, no self-deprecation.”
She sips her iced chai. We’re sitting in the cactus garden of my favorite coffee shop. A cereus spiralis swirls ten feet tall directly in front of us, changing direction every few feet.
“I mean, she filled the building. I got there forty minutes early and was sitting so far to the back on the second floor that I couldn’t see her or the interviewer.”
I read her some of my notes from the talk: unstable balances of shifting power, relationships that are almost, but not quite right. Our jam, I laugh.
I tell my therapist about the talk too, and after listening to me describe and process the experience, she says casually, “So, how does it make you feel to see that there are so many other people interested in the kinds of things you like to write about?”
I blush at that. She keeps me on my toes. In my mind, I think, But I’m not like her. And I don’t really know why I feel that way.
Jasmine’s words come to mind over the weekend when I’m sprawled across the couch in leggings and an oversized sweatshirt, the clothes I slept in. It’s now three in the afternoon. I can tell myself I’m watching “The Americans” to study the writing, but I’m also not writing and just letting the day dribble away while I click through episodes on Amazon Prime. A surge of guilt flickers through me, for not writing, for supporting Amazon, for not inspiring Jasmine.
No great trauma happened to me.
I don’t have anything to say about myself.
Nothing about me is interesting.
They ricochet through my brain, superballs hurled down a hallway as if it were a pinball machine.
I consider myself a better editor and a better teacher of writing, than a writer. Given enough time, I can pull a beautiful essay out of any student. I think, often, about learning about the California gold rush in fourth grade, hearing: a piece of gold the size of a pea can be stretched into a wire two miles long. Who knows if that’s true. But I feel like I can do that with students most of the time; it’s the most delicious feeling, helping them unearth this tiny shining nugget of themselves and spin it, thread-thin, into something from which they can weave a whole story.
A new ball bounces into the ruckus. I failed her. I failed her.
Jasmine got her essay over with and submitted her applications without me. I was speechless when she told me, and worried to myself in the office. Did she proofread for homophones? Did she remember to always capitalize the pronoun I? Did she make sure there were no spaces before her commas? I know how she writes.
I turn back to “The Americans,” but not even Keri Russell’s beauty can distract me now. Nothing about me is interesting. I am like an out-of-luck prospector, panning for gold. The bright specks I spot from time to time are just water glinting on dirt.
Jasmine goes to a good community college. Amaya doesn’t enroll anywhere. They both visit me in the fall; Jasmine all a flutter with conversation about her classes, Amaya with a new haircut and plans to go into activism. My heart bursts with pride and worry and hope.
I make lists, concepts for stories I’d like to write, characters I can’t seem to shake, memories I’d like to explore in an essay. Each one feels like a strike-out, like a heavy tin pan full of gritty dirt and nothing else. Anything can glimmer in the water when the light hits it just right, and each time, my breath catches in my throat with anticipation until I’m out of breath. I can only keep at it, every day, sifting.
Anna Press is a queer writer and teacher (12th grade English - the dream!). Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and their dachshunds. Her work appears or is forthcoming in perhappened, Daily Drunk Mag, Kissing Dynamite Poetry's print anthology Lift Every Voice, The Hellebore, and Emerge Lit Mag. Talk to her on Twitter @annaepress.