Home » 10th Season (2022-2023) » The Redmond Prize for English Narrative: Do We Ever Grow Up?

The Redmond Prize for English Narrative: Do We Ever Grow Up?

By Linda Li, IV Form

The Redmond Prize for English Narrative: Do We Ever Grow Up?

The Redmond Prize for English Narrative, presented in memory of Henry S. Redmond, Class of 1923, is awarded to the student, who, in the judgment of the English Department, has submitted the outstanding piece of narrative during this academic year.

My mom could answer everything I asked her. She could cook anything I wanted. With one hand she lifted up boxes I couldn’t budge with all my weight. Facing ghastly creatures – spiders or worms – she never showed a sliver of fear. She always held truth, knowing what was right, and what was wrong. So I trusted her with my everything. 

At night, she sat by the window alone. Drops of water trailed her face like beads in the dark, from her red and swollen eyes. I asked her what she was doing. 

“I’m counting the stars.” 

When my dad was nowhere to be found, I asked my mom where he was.

“He’s on a business trip.”

 I woke up in the morning to find pill bottles on the floor, my mom hovering over the toilet like a frail piece of paper, my dad living in a hotel several minutes away from us, and no one to take me to school. 

But she’s my mom, perfect and strong. She will wake up in the middle of the night to make me fried rice. She tucks me in every night with a kiss on the cheek. Despite how difficult her day is, she will always pick me up from school with a smile on her face that melts away my frustration, melting away the horrendous math scores and the childish friend dramas.

It was a gradual process. I didn’t wake up one day and realize. Just as the sun dusks inch by inch, again and again, I face shattered china on the floor, pieces of tear-stained mother’s day cards shredded up, slammed doors and empty wine bottles. Eventually, she stopped being able to answer my questions, and her energy couldn’t keep up with my conversations. I learned to understand why we had to go find my dad in the middle of the night, why she relies on pills and alcohol to sleep, why I have to mind my every word and action, terrified of stepping upon a field of landmines that might trigger a string of contradictory exasperation. 

One night I see her cooking dinner in the kitchen and realize that she’s a lot shorter than I remember. A lot less knowledgeable, and a lot less strong.

I start to think that she is just like me. Maybe she is scared. Like a little porcupine, she too curls herself into a ball of spikes, covering her weakest spots with a tough, untouchable shell. 

I was eight years old when my brother went to middle school for the first time. Seeing him walk away into a crowd of tall, mature students made him seem so far away. In my memories, my brother and his friends hold absolute certitude. With their sports hoodies and hilarious inside jokes, they are a figure to be reckoned with. Night after night I tossed and turned in my bed, smiling myself to sleep dreaming about being their age, possessing that enticing power. However, four years later, when I stepped into middle school for the first time, I did not feel how I had imagined I would. I walked around with a backpack too big for me, avoiding the eyes that stared from every direction. I wore my favorite green polka-dotted skirt and a white blouse–an outfit I meticulously picked out the night before–but in the crowds of girls wearing tank tops–perfectly cut to have a sliver of their sports bras showings–and slightly washed-out ripped jeans that outlined their young curves and edges, my body just felt out of place. 

Afternoon classes are hellish after a satisfying and sunny lunch break. In a sea of complex Latin roots and long-ago words of Shakespeare, I feel my eyelids finally about to give up. Then, a familiar face peeks in through the door. The face belongs to my computer science teacher, waiting for my English teacher to gesture her over to her desk. Thinking this is just a quick exchange of words, I go back to my wanderings, but minutes later I hear weeping from the back of the classroom. My computer teacher always wears these loose, colorful, flared pants that make a “swoosh” sound everywhere she goes. I hear those “swooshes” as she paces around the back of the room, frantically grabbing tissues. The students look back one by one like little mice, cautiously curious, scared to stare for long. An odd sense of fear sweeps over me as I see someone, someone I hold respect for, someone who I thought had endless knowledge and power, break down in front of me. Her voice cracks between breaths, and her lips quiver as her heart slowly spills out onto the linoleum tiles. As my teacher sinks to the ground, as her frivolous pants melt in a puddle of color, we stop looking back at her, perhaps due to respect, perhaps because we can’t bear it. 

All these adults in my life go to school for up to 12 years, earn a living, start a family, and they call themselves “grown-ups.” That final “n” in “grown-ups” seems to give the facade that they are done growing up; they no longer need to burst into tears every time they scrape a knee or throw a fit when they are overwhelmed at work. Maybe they have matured, maybe they can’t blame their poor decisions or unexplained twisted emotions on their reckless youth anymore. 

We become a ship filled with tears, anger, and frustration. Every time there seems to be a leak, the rest of the world quickly patches it with a label marked “adulthood.” We desperately cushion our sharp edges of trauma, grief, stress, fear, anything that deems us too “weak” to navigate the waves of the world, fearing it will ruin our perfect image, obstruct our view of the shore ahead. 

At night, when she used to cradle me to sleep, my mom would gently pat my back and tell me stories of her childhood–stories of her siblings, their adventures stealing crops from the fields, and running away laughing as their parents chased them across the village. One night she accidentally left the stove on as she went out to play with her friends, and burned the whole family’s dinner. On another, she cries as she walks back home after losing a knitting match at school. Even on my worst of nights, though, I can always fall sound asleep in those stories, the edges between us dissolving as I dream.

And maybe somewhere within my mom that little girl still lives. A girl just like me, who can’t hold in her tears when someone raises their voice at her, whose palms get covered in sweat every time she has to present in front of the class, who wishes to lay in her bed all afternoon some days. Maybe even as time grew, the girl never grew. Maybe layers and layers of expectations and criticism have hidden her away from the rest of the world. However, I still go to sleep soundly knowing she will always make me fried rice. She will always tuck me in. And every time I meet her, she will always give me her brightest smile. 

Linda Li is a V Form boarding student who is currently participating in School Year Abroad in France. She was born in Nanjing, China and moved to the United States when I was 8 years old. That was also the age when I started writing in order to familiarize myself with the English language. However, this hobby subtly crept into my routines throughout my life as I constantly flew across states and countries for school. I started treating writing as less of an assignment from teachers but an outlet where I let my intangible ideas and experiences orchestrate themselves into comprehensible words. 

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