I don’t have a big family. We’ve been scattered across the globe: the result of war, struggling economies, and divorce. And since my grandparents died, Thanksgiving at my home in Clinton, Massachusetts, is usually just my mother, brother and me sitting quietly around a table, scooping brown mush, white mush, and microwaved vegetables onto our plates, ignoring the palpable presence of those who are gone or never there. Back when they were more than just a memory, my grandparents always broke the quiet by sharing stories about New York City during the Great Depression—or the day they brought my mother home from the adoption agency. Now I just watch the candles burn in the center of the table, believing I can hear the wick gasping. Then I begin to hear my grandparents’ voices. I know they aren’t real, but their haunting timbre is too much to bear. So, stuffed with turkey and various shades of mush, I walk into the living room where our out-of-tune piano sits like a coffin. I play a basic chord progression, pressing down on the jagged keys. Then my brother leaves the table to sit next to me on the wooden bench that creaks like pews in church, and he pushes down on the root notes of my chords in a higher register, creating something bordering on harmony. My mother stays at the table and listens, scanning through memories. Some Thanksgivings she joins in and sings with us, other times she just listens from the dining room, smoking Marlboro Reds and waiting for the phone to ring, for a voice, for a family looking for those who are missing.
On Friday, I will be a guest speaker at Aspire Pacific Academy in Huntington Park. My friend, let’s call her Betty, was nice enough to ask me to participate and speak to the kids about journalism and writing. Betty informed me that I would be speaking to a mixture of the whole school, because the kids get to choose what topic they want to hear.
So, what should I say?
When I was younger, I was in the National Honor Society, and I remember we had a guest speaker come in to speak to us at our ceremony. It turned out she was my old babysitter, and honestly, I have no idea what she said, specifically, but what I remember having a huge impact on me was that she told me she traveled all over the world; she went to Japan and other parts of Asia. Sitting in that chair in Clinton, Massachusetts, in the lobby of an Elks Club, I started to see the world as a much bigger place capable of being explored.
I hope that’s what I can help some of these students with…imagining possibilities. Because the hardest thing in the world is to dream big! The hardest thing in the world is in the face of an overwhelming majority forcing you to accept your place in the world is to think you can be something special. Because in reality, being special is only held to an elite few. A small percentage of our class. And for some, feeling special or unique or important can come into conflict with so many issues: race, class, physical appearance. It’s a battle out there for so many young people; the battle has already been lost for so many older people. But younger people can still be taught to imagine.
Now, I know that sounds like highfalutin bull shit. You might even say, if you’re Joe Clifford, hippies take the back door. (Don’t worry, he says it with love.) But as a former teacher, journalist, and author, my goal is to change perspective, to force someone to look at their world and self differently, to see the world as full of possibilities. And I don’t care if that’s lofty. I don’t care if that’s difficult. What I care about is speaking my mind and leaving this world a better place than I left it.
So, when was that moment for me when I truly embraced possibility? Maybe I can tell the kids about that time in my life? It wasn’t quite at The National Honor Society meeting. I need to think a bit more about this tonight and tomorrow. Maybe it will help if you tell me some of your memories and your moments. Hopefully, that will trigger mine. So stand by for the next post. Your comments are always welcome.