“Just Read” has been selected for republication by plain china, a national literary anthology that showcases the best undergraduate writing from across the country.
When the power goes out, empty the refrigerator and put the perishables in a cooler full of ice. Assume that the bills weren’t paid and don’t ask questions. Light candles and do not speak. Time your showers, keep them short, ignore that they’re cold. When there isn’t enough food for everyone some nights, drink water to silence the hunger. Do your homework, go to bed. Take the foreclosure letters from the mail, put them in Dad’s briefcase, pretend you didn’t see them. When Mom is sad, hide the books. When Mom looks tired, hide the books. When Mom gets angry, hide the books, every time. You hide them because you know that she’ll look for them. Because you know that there is no money, but Dad bought them anyway. For you, he says. And once everything is calm again, read.
I grew up with these as my principal rules. I followed every one except for the rule about words. I wasn’t supposed to have them, read them, want them, or write them. Mom said words took you away from school, took you away from work, took you away from what you were supposed to be doing. But words were the one thing that there was always more of. Even if I had to pay for them they could feed me over and over again. Words made me forget I was hungry and words made me forget that no one was smiling. Reading was my first rebellion.
Dad was the one who taught me to say no. He comes from white trash, small town, no stoplights, and he taught me six things. One, when you get punched, it will always be from behind. Two, when you get grabbed, you pull their hair, use your elbows, your teeth, your two bare hands. Three, you don’t have to grow up to be like your parents. You are not destined to be your mother’s sadness. You were not born to be your father’s anger. Don’t you dare resign yourself to something that was never meant to belong to you. Four, you can beat them as long as you use your words. Books will teach you more than you could ever learn on your own. They can call you whatever names they want, but they can never call you stupid if you read. If you write, you can record everything you ever endured and show them what it’s like to be you. You can win, he told me, as long as you always use your words. Don’t let anyone stop you from getting out, getting away, finding a way. As long as you always use your words. Five, when the refrigerator dies, put everything fresh in a tub of ice and pray that it lasts. Six, when you don’t feel okay anymore, read.
These days I don’t have to forget the hunger or hide the books, but I still use my words. I don’t read to escape anymore; I read to learn about people who are nothing like me. I read to learn about people who will lead lives and have problems that I will never experience. Maybe it’s just another opportunity to let someone’s words make me feel whatever they so choose, make me feel something new. These days, I no longer write to tell a smart story. Instead, I write stories about people that are almost like me. Girls who hide paintings, keep secrets from their moms, find solace in silence, not speaking. Boys with arms covered in moles, knuckles laced with scars, eyelids printed with stories.
These days, I’ve learned to write poems that, unlike my stories, are almost always about me, because it’s easier to be self-centered when you’re not confined to grammatical structure. It seems so much more pretentious when I am trapped within a sentence that is intended to make sense. I use repetition, never hold back, always name names, and, in the end, feel more hurt than helped. These days I listen to every piece of writing read out loud that I can, as long as it’s read with heart. I want the words to feel like dirt under my nails and I want every moment to feel like a promise that I’m going to be okay. But these days, I still use my words as a defense. I’m still afraid to let them see that I’m weak. I’m still afraid that they’ll call me stupid. I’m still afraid that I’ll never beat them. I still use my words to try and win.
Words help, words hurt, words make sure I never forget. Because of words, I will always remember that when the refrigerator dies, put this week’s dinner on ice. When you’re hungry but there’s not enough food, drink water so you won’t feel the ache. Never give up when they get you from behind, let go and swing. Your words can be just as sharp as your nails. And when you forget all of these things, just read.
Rebecca Lambright is a high school senior from Cleveland, Ohio. She holds a National Gold Medal from the Scholastic Writing Awards, was a national finalist in the Norman Mailer High School Writing Awards, and a Kenyon Review Young Writer. Rebecca Lambright spends her time playing the violin and finding new ways to cook grilled cheese sandwiches.
Image credit: Jörg Schreier on Flickr