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Jane Carroll Clayton

First Place Winner
Scholarship Essay Contest, 2015
Jane Carroll Clayton
Jefferson Central School

First place winner Jane Carroll Clayton Jefferson Central School

To Be of Use

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
- Maya Angelou

Toes curling around the peeled enamel of our sink-turned-stage, she pauses, for emphasis I'm hoping. "'To Be Of Use'. Marge Piercy." A quick exhale before the plunge, she glances toward the ceiling as if begging for its collapse, and then she's reciting.

Jane Carroll Clayton

Rebecca, smallest of the bunch, with red hair and one side shaved near bald but growing back now, like the rebellion that bought the razor in the first place. An eighth grader with the world weariness of one who has survived too much, too soon. She's quieter than the others, not as quick to laugh and even slower to open up. Rebecca who abandoned her first poem because I pushed too much, because I was careless and she, delicate. Rebecca, who I have come to think of as my mark of failure in this endeavor. Whom I couldn't reach, regardless of my love for teaching, for this job, taken on a whim that became the most important task to ever befall me, yet the one I seemed least capable of.

"I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience."

A fleeting smile here, and I can't help but think she's remembering our conversation, perhaps the only time I felt she'd been herself with me. Sitting in the gray pallor of the basement hallway, she'd turned to me and said, frank and even, "I don't think the water buffalo are patient at all. We were the ones that harnessed them; they had no choice. I think we want to think they're patient because it makes us feel less guilty." I'd responded with something not worthy of such perception. If only I could have shared with her then what she herself had taught me: that it mattered only that they were harnessed, for better or worse, to a cart that was their duty to pull. That it was they that needed to believe virtue could be created by circumstance.

It is the last day, and we have moved about it unceremoniously and maybe for the better, refusing to taint our final hours with the dread of parting. Yet as we begin our goodbyes, it seems suddenly we have left no time. There are buses to catch and each (shockingly lovely) girl is shouting a careless "I love you!"' over a shoulder already fading from memory as I chase each down for a hug or last word.

Jane Carroll Clayton

I nearly let Rebecca go, thinking she'd prefer it. But as her backpack edges around the door frame, I reconsider and call her name. She darts in confusedly, hesitant. "Rebecca! You can't disappear without a goodbye!" Although I know she could have, might have tried to.

She smiles in a way I can't read and rushes in for hug, but as I feel her about to pull away, she suddenly tightens her grip, holding on for a second longer. When she pulls back, I catch her face in my palms and try to formulate something like an apology for how I know I have failed her, a final assertion of her loveliness and character. But before I can speak, she looks me right in the eye and with that same startling frankness says simply, "Thank you--so, so much. I've looked up to you this whole time, and I just... We all keep talking about voices, but I found part of mine--because of you. I really love you. We all do."

Still reeling, I pull back and can manage only a breathless "I love you too!" as she races out the door to catch a bus that will carry her on to what I can only hope will be the happiness she deserves.

"But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real."


Jane will be attending Stanford University.