Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Little Essay that Started This Big Trip

So here is the essay that I submitted for the NY Times Win a Trip Contest. Which I lost. But no matter.

I've always been acutely aware that the world is much bigger than what I know about it. When I was a little girl, I would lie in my bed and think 'I am in my bed, in my room, in my house, on Japonica Way, in Louisville, Kentucky, in the United States of America, on Earth, in the Milky Way.' I would also hold the corners of my eyes at a 45-degree angle because I wanted so desperately to be Chinese or something, anything, anyone but me. When I was eight I thought life abroad was surely nothing but glamour and glory.

But then as a freshman in high school, I sat in Mr. Carr's world civilization class pouring over National Geographic Magazine, dumbfounded as he explained why Ethiopian babies had flies all over their faces – they were too hungry to swat them away. Too hungry – an emptiness I'd never known and likely never would, thanks to the sheer luck of the draw. In Mr. Carr's classroom there occurred a tectonic shift in my thinking and I knew that I did not deserve anything I had. My life was not the life of that child in National Geographic by luck and luck alone, and for me that meant I owed that child my life.

Let's fast-forward, shall we? As 14 years speed past, the film will show you a rule-follower, a girl just a little too afraid to go against the grain. You'll see a girl who went straight to college and never changed her major, who graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a determination to open fire on the propagators of injustice in this country and others. You'll see her go to Washington, DC, and work for three years administering experimental drugs to cancer patients at the National Institutes of Health. It was an important and tenuous first step into the big, bad adult world and at 21 years of age she succumbed to 401(k) plans, bills and a comfortable life in a new city.

At age 24, she notices that the patients she treats are all white, upper-middle class, highly educated people, yet the people she lives among bear none of those credentials of privilege. She quits her safe, tidy job at the N.I.H. and goes to work in one of DC's poorest, most crack-infested neighborhoods. At first when she walks to the clinic the neighborhood men call to her, "Hey white girl! Hey snowflake!" But eventually, they call her by her name.

For three years she works with a staff of 250 people, pushing against all the barriers that have been erected to keep the homeless where most people like them – out of sight. She finds the courage to tell a young woman she has AIDS. She pours betadine on stab wounds, clamps down hard on the severed artery of a neighborhood construction worker, encourages recovering addicts to keep coming back and mourns them when they don't. She goes to the morgue to identify the body of a patient who froze to death at a bus stop, because no one else wants to assume the cost of burying him.
By age 27, she realizes that none of these wounds really heal because poverty and despair lie at the bottom of each of them, festering. She leaves DC and moves to Seattle, Washington, to
return to school, where she hopes to learn how to do more than just damage control. Press stop.

I'm 28 now, and privileged to attend the University of Washington as a graduate student in public health. Oddly, I've found that my attendance at U.W. lends new authority to my voice. I want what I say to be accurate, not just for myself or my peers or my professors, but also for the world. I know that probably sounds quaint or at least overly idealistic, but I mean it. As a public health professional I want to serve as the mouthpiece for the millions of people whose voices are muted by poverty and disease. I cannot do that without experiencing it myself.

This is my last summer before adulthood resumes. Please, take me with you to Africa. I want to see clearly.

1 comment:

Shelagh said...

You are officiallly one of my new heroes! (and your essay was better than the "winners" essays)
Here's to running around in excited little circles about the cool things you get to do with your life!