Each year, we issue an open casting call for high school seniors who have dared to address money, work or social class in their college application essays. From the large pile that arrived this spring, these four — about parents, small business, landscapes and the meaning a single object can convey — stood out. The fifth essay in our package appeared on The New York Times’s new Snapchat Discover, and you can view it at this link by pressing the arrow/play button.
‘The professors’ home was a telescope to how the other (more affluent) half lived’
At age 6, I remember the light filled openness of the house, how the whir of my mother’s vacuum floated from room to room. At 9, I remember how I used to lounge on the couch and watch Disney cartoons on the sideways refrigerator of a TV implanted in a small cave in the wall. At 12, I remember family photographs of the Spanish countryside hanging in every room. At 14, I remember vacuuming each foot of carpet in the massive house and folding pastel shirts fresh out of the dryer.
I loved the house. I loved the way the windows soaked the house with light, a sort of bleach against any gloom. I loved how I could always find a book or magazine on any flat surface.
But the vacuum my mother used wasn’t ours. We never paid for cable. The photographs weren’t of my family. The carpet I vacuumed I only saw once a week, and the pastel shirts I folded I never wore. The house wasn’t mine. My mother was only the cleaning lady, and I helped.
My mother and father had come as refugees almost twenty years ago from the country of Moldova. My mother worked numerous odd jobs, but once I was born she decided she needed to do something different. She put an ad in the paper advertising house cleaning, and a couple, both professors, answered. They became her first client, and their house became the bedrock of our sustenance. Economic recessions came and went, but my mother returned every Monday, Friday and occasional Sunday.
She spends her days in teal latex gloves, guiding a blue Hoover vacuum over what seems like miles of carpet. All the mirrors she’s cleaned could probably stack up to be a minor Philip Johnson skyscraper. This isn’t new for her. The vacuums and the gloves might be, but the work isn’t. In Moldova, her family grew gherkins and tomatoes. She spent countless hours kneeling in the dirt, growing her vegetables with the care that professors advise their protégés, with kindness and proactivity. Today, the fruits of her labor have been replaced with the suction of her vacuum.
The professors’ home was a telescope to how the other (more affluent) half lived. They were rarely ever home, so I saw their remnants: the lightly crinkled New York Times sprawled on the kitchen table, the overturned, half-opened books in their overflowing personal library, the TV consistently left on the National Geographic channel. I took these remnants as a celebrity-endorsed path to prosperity. I began to check out books from the school library and started reading the news religiously.
Their home was a sanctuary for my dreams. It was there I, as a glasses-wearing computer nerd, read about a mythical place called Silicon Valley in Bloomberg Businessweek magazines. It was there, as a son of immigrants, that I read about a young senator named Barack Obama, the child of an immigrant, aspiring to be the president of the United States. The life that I saw through their home showed me that an immigrant could succeed in America, too. Work could be done with one’s hands and with one’s mind. It impressed on me a sort of social capital that I knew could be used in America. The professors left me the elements to their own success, and all my life I’ve been trying to make my own reaction.
Ultimately, the suction of the vacuum is what sustains my family. The squeal of her vacuum reminds me why I have the opportunity to drive my squealing car to school. I am where I am today because my mom put an enormous amount of labor into the formula of the American Dream. It’s her blue Hoover vacuums that hold up the framework of my life. Someday, I hope my diploma can hold up the framework of hers.
‘Slowly, my mother’s gingham apron began to look more like metal armor.’
When it comes to service workers, as a society we completely disregard the manners instilled in us as toddlers.
For seventeen years, I have awoken to those workers, to clinking silverware rolled in cloth and porcelain plates removed from the oven in preparation for breakfast service. I memorized the geometry of place mats slid on metal trays, coffee cups turned downward, dirtied cloth napkins disposed on dining tables.
I knew never to wear pajamas outside in the public courtyard, and years of shushing from my mother informed me not to speak loudly in front of a guest room window. I grew up in the swaddled cacophony of morning chatter between tourists, professors, and videographers. I grew up conditioned in excessive politeness, fitted for making small talk with strangers.
I grew up in a bed and breakfast, in the sticky thickness of the hospitality industry. And for a very long time I hated it.
I was late to my own fifth birthday party in the park because a guest arrived five hours late without apology. Following a weeklong stay in which someone specially requested her room be cleaned twice a day, not once did she leave a tip for housekeeping. Small-business scammers came for a stop at the inn several times. Guests stained sheets, clogged toilets, locked themselves out of their rooms, and then demanded a discount.
There exists between service workers and their customers an inherent imbalance of power: We meet sneers with apologies. At the end of their meal, or stay, or drink, we let patrons determine how much effort their server put into their job.
For most of my life I believed my parents were intense masochists for devoting their existences to the least thankful business I know: the very business that taught me how to discern imbalances of power. Soon I recognized this stem of injustice in all sorts of everyday interactions. I came to understand how latent racism, sexism, classism and ableism structure our society — how tipping was only a synonym for “microaggression.”
I became passionate. Sometimes enraged. I stumbled upon nonprofits, foundations, and political campaigns. I canvassed for Senate candidates, phone-banked for grass-roots action groups, served as a board member for the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, reviewed grant applications for nonprofits and organized events for the nearby children’s hospital.
I devoted my time to the raw grit of helping people, and in the process I fell irrevocably in love with a new type of service: public service. At the same time, I worked midnight Black Friday retail shifts and scraped vomit off linoleum. When I brought home my first W-2, I had never seen my parents so proud.
The truth, I recently learned, was that not all service is created equal. Seeing guests scream at my parents over a late airport taxi still sickens me even as I spend hours a week as a volunteer. But I was taught all work is noble, especially the work we do for others. Slowly, my mother’s gingham apron began to look more like metal armor. I learned how to worship my parents’ gift for attentive listening, easily hearing the things guests were incapable of asking for — not sugar with their tea, but somebody to talk with while they waited for a conference call. I envied their ability to wear the role of self-assured host like a second skin, capable of tolerating any type of cruelty with a smile.
Most of all, I admired my parents’ continuous trust in humanity to not abuse their help. I realized that learning to serve people looks a lot like learning to trust them.
‘My Dell hid my privilege and my Mac hid my financial need’
The most exciting part was the laptop.
My mom grabbed the thick envelope out of my hands and read off the amenities associated with the Tang Scholarship to Phillips Academy: full tuition for all four years, a free summer trip, $20 a week for me to spend on all the Cheetos and nail polish my heart desired, and finally, a free laptop.
I had never had a computer of my own before, and to me the prospect symbolized a world of new possibilities. I was the only student from my public middle school I knew to ever go to an elite boarding school, and it felt like being invited into a selective club. My first week at Andover, dazed by its glamour and newness, I fought my way to the financial aid office to pick up the laptop; I sent my mom a photo of me grinning and clutching the cardboard box. Back in my dorm room, I pulled out my prize, a heavy but functional Dell, and marveled at its sleek edges, its astonishing speed.
But the love story of my laptop came clamoring to a halt. In the library, as I stumbled to negotiate a space to fit in, I watched my friends each pull out a MacBook. Each was paper-thin and seemingly weightless. And mine, heavy enough to hurt my back and constantly sighing like a tired dog, was distinctly out of place. My laptop, which I had thought was my ticket to the elite world of Andover, actually gave me away as the outsider I was.
For a long time, this was the crux of my Andover experience: always an outsider. When I hung out with wealthier friends, I was disoriented by how different their lives were from mine. While they spent summers in Prague or Paris, I spent mine mining the constellation of thrift stores around New Haven. The gap between full-scholarship and full-pay felt insurmountable.
But I also felt like an outsider going to meetings for the full-scholarship affinity group. My parents attended college and grew up wealthier than I did, giving me cultural capital many of my full-scholarship friends never had access to. Moreover, I’m white and could afford occasional concert tickets or sparkly earrings. The laptop, carried by all full-scholarship students and coded with hidden meanings, pivoted my friends’ understandings of me. At home, I grew up middle class, then became the privileged prep school girl. But at Andover, suddenly, I was poor. Trying to reconcile these conflicting identities, I realized how complex and mutable class is. My class is connected to my parents’ income, but it’s also rooted in cultural knowledge and objects that are charged with greater meaning.
Which brings me back to the laptop: in the middle of my senior fall, my exhausted Dell broke and I couldn’t afford another. When I managed to borrow a slim Mac from my school, I felt the walls around me reorient. I hoped that now I wouldn’t have to think about the electric web of privilege and power every time I sent an email. Instead, I felt a new anxiety: I worried when I sat in the magnificent dining hall with my beautiful computer that I had lost an important part of my identity.
When I started at Andover, these constant dueling tensions felt like a trap: like I would never be comfortable anywhere. (The school sensed it too, and all full-financial aid students now receive MacBooks.) But maybe it’s the opposite of a trap. Maybe I’m culturally ambidextrous, as comfortable introducing a speaker on the stage of Andover’s century-old chapel as getting my nose pierced in a tattoo parlor in New Haven. My hyperawareness of how my Dell hid my privilege and how my Mac hid my financial need pushed me to be aware of what complicated stories were hiding behind my classmates’ seemingly simple facades. I am a full-scholarship student who benefits from cultural, socioeconomic and racial privilege: my story isn’t easy, but it’s still mine.
‘On one side of me, nature is a hobby. On the other, it is a way of life.’
I live on the edge.
I live at the place where trees curl into bushes to escape the wind. My home is the slippery place between the suburbs and stone houses and hogans.
I see the evolution of the telephone poles as I leave the reservation, having traveled with my mom for her work. The telephone poles on the reservation are crooked and tilted with wire clumsily strung between them. As I enter Flagstaff, my home, the poles begin to stand up straight. On one side of me, nature is a hobby. On the other, it is a way of life.
I live between a suburban land of plenty and a rural land of scarcity, where endless skies and pallid grass merge with apartment complexes and outdoor malls.
I balance on the edge of drought.
In the summers, when the rain doesn’t come, my father’s truck kicks dust into the air. A layer of earthy powder settles over the wildflowers and the grass. The stale ground sparks ferocious wildfires. Smoke soars into the air like a flare from a boat lost at sea. Everyone prays for rain. We fear that each drop of water is the last. We fear an invasion of the desert that stretches around Phoenix. We fear a heat that shrivels the trees, turns them to cactuses.
I exist at the epicenter of political discourse. Fierce liberalism swells against staunch conservatism in the hallways of my high school and on the streets of the downtown.
When the air is warm, the shops and restaurants open their doors. Professionals in suits mingle with musicians and artists sporting dreadlocks and ripped jeans. Together, they lament the drought, marvel at the brevity of the ski season.
I live on the edge of an urban and rural existence.
At my mother’s house, we ride bikes down paved streets. We play catch with the neighbor kids. We wage war with water guns.
At my father’s house, we haul water. We feed the horses and chickens. We chase the fox away from the chicken coop. We watch deer grazing, not ten yards away. We turn the soil in the garden. When the rain and the soil and the sun and the plants give birth to fruit, we eat it straight from the vines.
Traditional Navajo weaving and prints of Picasso’s paintings adorn the walls of both homes.
I straddle the innocence of my youth and the mystery of my adult life. That, too, is a precipice. I know I must leap into adulthood and leave the balancing act of Flagstaff life behind. Still, I belong at the place where opposites merge in a lumpy heap of beautiful contradictions. I crave the experiences only found at the edge. As I dive into adulthood, into college, I hope that I can find a new place that fosters diversity in all its forms, a new edge upon which I can learn to balance.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B4 of the New York edition with the headline: Four Essayists Who Stand Out. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
The scene is Ying Li’s office at Haverford College. Bookshelves fill a whole wall, with tomes covering everything from ancient seal carving to the most recent documenta1. After several hours, the conversation has turned to the great masters of the Yuan Dynasty. Soon I have a sticky note upon which Ying has written:
Huang Gong Wang 黃公望
Wang Meng 王蒙
Zhao Meng Fu 趙孟頫
Although I’m officially here as a writer, it’s impossible to defy Ying’s enthusiasm, and we are talking shop as fellow painters. In fact, basking in Ying’s expertise, I’m reverting to a painting student. Together we admire details of a Shen Zhou handscroll from the 15th century on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ying remarks on the varying densities of ink used to render the craggy cliffside, the Impressionist dot used to denote foliage, and the uncanny economy of, well, everything. I look and strive to learn.
To call Ying a natural teacher, although she is, isn’t quite right. She’s a natural artist and so has dug into Yuan Dynasty painting (as well as Baroque painting, Impressionism, on and on) with the determination of someone looking for solutions to a desperate problem. Desperate problems are the hallmark of a real artist’s existence. They’re not desperate in that lives are at stake; they are desperate in that they are filled with despair. The way forward is never clear and one’s powers never up to the task. To overcome this you need spirit, which Ying has in abundance. Art is an infection of feeling, said Tolstoy.2 This leaves artists who understand the problem of teaching no choice except to cough on the students, figuratively, and hope that some of them catch the germ. The craft of art can be taught, but the art of art cannot.
In front of us, Shen Zhou’s dotty scrub floats up the ancient cliffs.
The scene is Dartmouth College. It is April 2012, and Ying is the latest in a long and distinguished line of artists in residence. (Josè Clemente Orozco, Freidl Dzubas, and Donald Judd were among the early ones.) A curiously maintained tree in the courtyard of the student center has caught Ying’s attention. A variety of willow, its trunk is less than a foot thick and stands only a dozen feet, but its leaves hang on limp branches that hang around it like a billowing hoop skirt. Ying sets up her paints on a nearby walkway and paints it over the course of a month.
Dartmouth Spring #4 (Weighty Green)
Oil on canvas
24” x 30”
© Ying Li
Courtesy of the artist and Lohin Geduld Gallery, New York.
These cascading curtains of leaves break the sunlight up into the white shards that appear in Dartmouth Spring #4 (Weighty Green). A less experienced, more conventional painter might feel inclined to put those shards in the background where they ostensibly belong. But by the tactile logic of Ying’s painting, they tumble into the viewer’s eyes. (Try this on a bright day, looking at the shapes between the leaves in a porous canopy. As your vision copes with the contrast between tree and sky, you can feel those shapes in front of your face.)
Dartmouth Spring #3 (Burst)
Oil on canvas
40” x 30”
© Ying Li
Courtesy of the artist and Lohin Geduld Gallery, New York.
That same tactile logic turns the skirt of leaves into confidently dropping brushstrokes, each a few inches thick. In Dartmouth Spring #3 (Burst) these downward gestures had begun to assert themselves, but here they form a viridian barrier. By Dartmouth Spring #5 (Green and Purple), patches of light and patches of leaves fight for territory in the foreground. Ying, sensing impending dissolution into wholesale abstraction, takes a new approach in Dartmouth Spring #6. The leaves wiggle nervously towards the ground, which is another way of looking at them, and a blend of sky and architecture asserts itself from the distance in the form of whorls and dashes.
Ying spins 180 degrees to see a construction site, every bit as full of artistic potential.
The scene is Ying’s studio at Haverford College, where she has hung the expansive walls floor-to-ceiling with work. It is recent work, the last three years at most. And the paintings are thick. Oils are applied in layers as voluminous and delicious as cake frosting. The studio easel is disappearing under prismatic barnacles. The palette is as craggy as Shen Zhou’s cliffs. Ying’s studio practice, a fire-fueled manufacturing operation, has been temporarily suspended for the sake of a photographer who is coming to document the work.
This is, in fact, one of three studios. Another is a room in her house on campus at Haverford, and a third is in a modest apartment building on 28th Street in Manhattan, a few blocks from where she lives when she isn’t required to be in Pennsylvania. In addition her career includes a long list of residencies: Vermont, Maine, Newfoundland, New Hampshire, Maryland, upstate New York, Spain. Next year, Switzerland.
Ying has arranged her life so that painting need never stop.
“In art, there is no middle way,” she says.
It will be all the way, or not at all. This is the drive that gets you from painting portraits of Chairman Mao on a forced-labor farm to doting on Leland Bell’s tuition at Parsons, learning English and picking up modernist painting chops along the way. This determination drives her paintings to ever-greater thicknesses, because the previous strata were intuited to be insufficient.
The scene is a view of a tree in Pennsylvania, not unlike Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee that made the slovenly wilderness surround it.
First Snow, Wyoming Street
Oil on canvas
28” x 22”
© Ying Li
Courtesy of the artist and Lohin Geduld Gallery, New York.
Winter is leaving. In Melting, a rosy blush appears in a sky that for now remains one with a ground of white and gray. Here and there a chilly green pushes through, swept along with drifts of silver. The tree appears as brown ruptures in the canvas. A fat blue brushstroke along the left edge appears as a welcome if slight barrier against barely relieved frigidity.
Summer is here. In Thick Summer, heaps of chartreuse grass pile up between us and the tree. The vermillion clinging to it now is heat reflecting off of chocolate-colored bark. The sky is as thick as the ground, thick with blueness, thick with storms. Turquoise and violet shadows rake over the field, cast by the tree’s neighbors. Sky, tree, field, and shadows are all ready to pour.
Summer is gone. In Leaf Walk, Red, the ground is blanketed in fall color, tomato-scarlet. Half of it remains in the tree. It is a note of honest witness, to paint a tree with leaves intact on one side and dropped on the other. It is not typically picturesque, but the fact is that the windward side goes first, and the artist has portrayed it as such. The sky is buildings coming into view, now that the verdant canopy is gone, or perhaps trees on a different path to winter, their leaves turning the color of straw. The blues and greens of summer are being pushed to the edges of the picture.
Stevens again: “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.”3
The scene is a meadow adjoining a forest in the French countryside in the early 18th century in which shepherds socialize and dance. But it’s a fictional scene, invented by Watteau. The landscape composes itself to suit the figures, who are dressed in silks too fine for the tending of sheep, ample skirts and feathered caps. This is a place I call The Country of Art. “The air one sees in the paintings of the masters is not the air one breathes,” said Degas.4 No man ever breathed the air of that country, except with his heart.
Ying is attempting to gain access to this wonderful place through the medium of monotype. The method is simple, and would likely offend a printmaking purist, but Ying has no time for such purity. Her temperament is one of urgent making. She coats a piece of cardboard with acrylic polymer. This is her plate, upon which she interprets Watteau’s The Shepherds (ca. 1717) in oils diluted with painting medium. Once printed, Ying’s vigorous marks spring off untouched white paper with particular luminosity. Like a jazz riff on a classical theme, the notes that make the Watteau so charming reappear in the print in a new form. The central couple is there, with his curling arm and her golden skirt. You can see the girl on the swing, if only as a distant memory. Each is now in the form of a stroke, or a bundle thereof, and it’s all in reverse, but it’s there.
Watteau’s Red #1
15.25” x 19.5”
© Ying Li
Courtesy of the artist and Lohin Geduld Gallery, New York.
Why do this? Because as you grow older and gain mastery, you lose living teachers and acquire deceased ones. Though the artists are dead, their works live on, sometimes for centuries, and this is the last mystery to solve: how do they do that? By dint of probing for years, trying this and that, working without relent, clues appear. One day a door opens to the Country of Art. Watteau’s meadow lies before you. In the distance stand Shen Zhou’s cliffs. Further on is Turner’s churning sea, Corot’s Italian pastures, the fruit trees of Indian miniatures, Mont Sainte-Victoire as it appeared only to Cézanne. A landscape of feeling rolls toward an endless horizon. You go through that door and never return.
Copyright © 2012 by Franklin Einspruch and the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, Haverford College. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by electronic, mechanical, or other means without the prior written permission of Franklin Einspruch, and the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, Haverford College.
1 A contemporary art event that takes place in Germany every five years.
2What is Art?, 1896. “If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.”
3 “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Harmonium, 1917.
4 Ambrose Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait, 1927.