2001 TLI Scholarship Essay:
What America Means to Me
First Prize Winner: Heather Imperato,
West Milford High School
Pablo Neruda once spoke of poetry arriving in search of him. It came at a certain age, though he knew not where it came from.
…but from a street I was summoned, / …abruptly from the others, / among violent fires/…my eyes were blind, / and something started in my soul, / fever or forgotten wings, / and I made my own way, / deciphering/ that fire/ and I wrote the first faint line, / … pure wisdom/ of someone who knows nothing, / … and I felt myself a pure part/ of the abyss…
This is what America has done to me. It arrived on September 11, 2001. Where it came from I do not entirely know. It shook my soul and made me stop questioning everything around me. For the first time I felt certain about something. That something was that I am an American and this is what being an American means to me.
Had I written this essay a month ago I would not have questioned my patriotism. Yet, today I feel it so strongly I must conclude that it was not what it should have been. As an early teen I began to question anything that I was told - my faith, authority, and even my country. I rebelled in my mind; I rebelled against everything that I once held as truth. I still did well in school and listened to my parents; I was not rebelling for rebellion's sake. I started to learn things that made me sick. For example I learned that Christopher Columbus was anything but a hero. It saddened me that the man I looked up to as a child had in truth been a horrific person. I never bashed my country, but suddenly I could not see it as I had when I was a child. I felt as if I had been lied to and I was angry and confused. As I grew older it was harder and harder for me to just accept things. It was not that I didn't want to, but that I had seen too much and I could not.
In many ways I distance myself from my generation. Whether it is drugs or ignorance, I have always abstained from what my generation has indulged in. Yet I can not separate myself from my generation today. My generation is selfish. We question authority, and think only in terms of how we will be affected. The problem is that we question everything but ourselves. We expect things to be handed to us. We have never waited on breadlines, dropped out of school to support our families, nor kissed our brothers goodbye as they headed off to a jungle only to return to be criticized for their duties. I would listen as my parents talked about the day president Kennedy was shot, but there was no way I could understand. I thought I understood it. I sat in history class and thought that I understood why the country was so sad on that day.
In reality it took a horrific act of hatred to wake me up. For the first time my generation has lived through a nightmare, and we will never sleep the same. I do not fully regret my ignorance. That is what being an American means to me. It means that I was able to rebel and come to terms on my own, and only then is something fully impounded in your soul. You can not force enlightenment; it must come naturally and at its own pace. Being an American means that I was able to have my own opinions. I was able to be ignorant without being persecuted. Today I accept America with all her flaws. I was missing the point; no one is flawless. There is always a flaw in the perfect diamond, and yet it is the diamond that we cherish, and I cherish America. Being an American means that for every idea you have you except that someone has an opposing idea. For every Democrat, there is a Republican. For every one that likes chocolate ice cream, there is the same amount of people that like vanilla. To be an American means that we all have opinions. It means that our democratic government prides itself on individual rights. What ignites my soul is that as different as we all are, we all share one common characteristic and that is that we are Americans. Being an American means that you can turn nothing into something, that you can speak your mind, but most of all that you can debate anything from religion to baseball, never fearing that you will be scrutinized for your beliefs.
I am seventeen and America has found me. I was once ignorant and blind until that horrible something stirred my soul and made me take back my forgotten wings. I came to these terms on my own. I looked at the blazing fire from the eyes of someone who knows nothing and when I walked through it suddenly I saw America. Suddenly I felt myself a part of her. Today America is not only where my body resides, but also where my soul chooses to stay.