by Yana Johnson
age 14, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, Columbia, S.C.

插图: Wales

Seated in opposing rows, we faced each other like child soldiers, armed only with well-prepared notes and hastily scribbled marginalia. I recalled my teacher’s debate tips: no straw man arguments, no logical fallacies. Mrs. Hutchinson’s gray acrylics drummed the metal of her Yeti as she gave instructions that hardly anyone heard.

“Be respectful, don’t go over your time. As you all know, the topic is immigration …”

With determination like ours, there was no chance of defeat. At least, that’s the mantra my team lived by; I was less certain.

A boy who barely stood four feet tall spoke first, using words bigger than his body. Statistically speaking … hypothetically … nevertheless. Staring into an imaginary camera above Mrs. Hutchinson’s bun, he held his hands over his stomach with the feigned grandeur of a TV anchor.

Soon after his opening argument, I took the floor. Although my opponent smiled as she shook my hand, her parting palm squeeze felt vaguely threatening. Brushing it off, I banished all fear of embarrassment and spoke. I was a pied piper, enticing listeners with a melody of facts and statistics.

“Emma, your response?” Mrs. Hutchinson prompted.

“Look.” She clenched and unclenched her hands before finally holding them behind her back. “We can argue about this forever, but America is for Americans. There can be good immigrants, but they’re the exception, not the rule.”

Her words were a blanket of thorns. Worse than her words was the absolute conviction she spoke with; not a drop of uncertainty, nor an ounce of regret. I had never spoken with such certitude in my life.

“You have 20 seconds for a response,” Mrs. Hutchinson reminded me, leaning in with anticipation as if expecting me to lunge at Emma in a burst of outrage.

As a first-generation American, what Emma said simply wasn’t true. I wanted to make her re-evaluate her understanding of “American” because my Kittitian family members were just as American as my Southern family. I just wanted to say something. Anything. But that would have been an act of desperation, inviting a fate worse than death — humiliation.

I had spent my life dissociating myself from my lineage whenever convenient. With friends and peers, I blended in as an all-American Southerner who liked sweet tea and Chick-fil-A. With family, I pretended to understand sentences spoken through incomprehensible Caribbean accents and dug my nails into my palms trying not to cough up ginger beer. A cultural chameleon, I lived by way of camouflaging myself to my environment. But when one of my masquerades came under attack, which hat did I wear to speak? Would I even speak at all?

Being first-generation was something I was proud of, but as I returned to my seat having said nothing in my defense, I realized that was just a lie I told myself. I treated my heritage like contraband, to be hidden and hopefully never revealed at the wrong moment. For that, I was ashamed not of my identity, but of myself.

Buried beneath self-pity, I didn’t hear Mrs. Hutchinson declare my team the winner, and was only alerted by my teammates shaking my shoulders and chanting in celebration. Deepening my state of melancholy, I realized no one else was thinking what I was. To them, Emma’s words were a decent, albeit forgettable, argument. To me, they were salt in a wound.

We stepped in front of the desks to shake the hands of the other team. My opponent shook my hand for the second time that afternoon, just as energetically as before.

“Fun, right?” She smiled.

Wryly, I smiled back.