On the growth of trees: A personal essay

Olivia Staser/Staff

I can say with utmost confidence that my time in high school was far from the best experience. I feel like there are very few people out there who can say that high school was a blast, and if they are able to, they are lucky. Needless to say, I certainly did not run with the popular crowd. In fact, during the first two years, I was bullied to the point of despair. Even after surfacing above the crushing waves of trauma, I struggled to find a place to belong within the intricately woven, hostile jungle of cliques. I remember days that were particularly painful to begin, when I would shove my book bag under the bed and crawl into my closet as soon as that 5:30 a.m. alarm rang, just in case my parents peeked in through the door to see if I had left for school. My mom used that closet to store extra blankets, so it was quite comfortable even though it was cramped. It felt like my dark but safe haven. Even after I heard my parents’ car pull out of the driveway, I lay there, curled up, wishing I had never come out of the warm womb. It felt better to be isolated from the entire world than to be isolated within it.

At school, lunch hour was my worst enemy. I barely managed to find a group of people to sit with the first three years, and even then, I always felt like a sore thumb. The girls would share their food with everyone at the table except me. They would also occasionally make inappropriate and racist jokes about me. At the time, I was too naive to know that they were laughing at me, not with me. Despite that, I knew that something was wrong, that I was not entirely welcome. I felt anachronistic at times, unable to keep up with social cues and being unbearably awkward. At one point, I just stopped talking altogether. During senior year, I was not able to find a group of lunchmates, so I went to the library to study instead of eating alone. I thought to myself, “Why did I not do this earlier?” To me, books were friendlier than people.

 It felt better to be isolated from the entire world than to be isolated within it.

I sought comfort in my teachers at times. I became close to the teachers who taught me for more than a year. One in particular taught me literature for two years. I will refer to him as Teacher X because he would often refer to students who handed in excellent work as Student X when he displayed their work as examples of what he expected from us. Teacher X had also taught my older sister when she was in high school, and when I first met him at orientation, I could immediately tell he was an intellectual who was passionate about his job. He always came to work dressed in crisp, ironed dress shirts, freshly shined shoes and neat hair. His love for poetry and drama was admirable and contagious. I was never bored in his class.

During my junior year, my loneliness reached its peak. I was unable to find adequate solace at school and at home. My dad had just started his practice as an attorney and needed all hands on deck, including my mom’s. They both worked long, stressful hours and returned long after the sun retracted its warm rays. I could not bring myself to voice my issues with them, hating the feeling of being a burden. I was glad they at least had each other at work; they have always had each other’s backs. I returned home to an empty house at the end of the cul-de-sac. The deep, dark woods in my backyard were suffocating. The sheer size of my house, with its high ceilings and dark, uncovered windows, mocked me, amplifying my insignificance. I felt like a stranger in my own house. To this day, I dislike that house. I remember sitting on the couch for hours wrapped in a thick blanket watching television. I could not move because I was scared of my own imagination. The naked tree branches outside the windows clawed at the glass eerily when the wind blew, and there were never enough lights in that damn house.

Because it was my first time experiencing such anxiety and helplessness, it was easy for me to want to quickly end my own misery. Death seemed like the easy way out. What I had not thought about, however, was the fact that the impact of my absence would not be easy for those around me. Teacher X helped me realize my worth. I do not know whether he noticed my loneliness or it was a matter of good timing, but on the day I was planning to inflict some irreversible and irreparable harm, he shared a poem with the class called “Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke:

Elegy for Jane

(My student, thrown by a horse)

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;

And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;

And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,

And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,

Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.

The shade sang with her;

The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,

And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,

Even a father could not find her:

Scraping her cheek against straw,

Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,

Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.

The sides of wet stones cannot console me,

Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,

My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.

Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

The poem reflects on a student’s death from the eyes of a teacher. I will never forget what Teacher X said to us that day: He begged us not to step into his life and one day not come back. Studying this poem may have been just a matter of following a curriculum. But I want to believe that he had intentionally selected it that day for my sake. If I have any regrets from high school, it would be not getting closer to the teacher who saved my life with just a few powerful words and influenced me to pick my current major and career path.

“Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth…” – Theodore Roethke, “Elegy for Jane”

The next year, my teacher was finally able to marry the love of his life, another man, and I could not be happier for him. I do not want this account to be a mere sob story, nor do I want to receive pity in light of its publication. This semester has been another tumultuous one for UC Berkeley: Two undergraduate students tragically died recently, one of whom was my classmate. My professor dedicated time during lecture to honor her student, and I could catch glimpses of grief and sorrow in her eyes. The other student I did not know personally, but I do know from mutual friends that he was an extremely charming, intelligent and generous individual. Seeing friends and teachers of these late students in despair truly broke my heart and caused me to reflect on my own struggles. The Berkeley community also suffered loss because of the recent fires.

During a time of such strife, it might be reassuring or comforting to remind ourselves that love is often unforeseen and unexpected but never undeserved. Whether it be in literature, in our friends or in our instructors, love can make a simple but significant appearance when we need it most. The tree in front of my apartment window in Berkeley no longer claws menacingly at the glass. Rather, the green leaves create foliage and the branches cast pleasant shadows on my lids in the morning. I am no longer afraid.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].

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