Below are responses to Allegra’s latest survey questions written by a woman who has become a great friend to me in recent months. She’s supportive, she’s attentive, she’s crackerjack smart, and we just GET each other. Will I ever forget that she drew me vowel charts to help me improve my Russian pronunciation? No, I will not.
What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?
The teacher who has made the biggest impact on me is my sixth grade English teacher, Sarah. I have been privileged to have a multitude of amazing, impactful teachers, but in terms of sheer magnitude of impact there’s virtually no contest. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it happened, but over the course of my sixth grade year, Sarah invested in me and helped me find my voice in my writing. I must have been like a sponge at the time—with that attention and encouragement I just took off. Not only did her impact on me shape me academically, as I realized that I cared about school as a way to explore various passions and interests of mine, but it also shaped me personally. From there I started a practice of journaling that I’ve kept with me to this day, and I wrote constantly, from poems to nonfiction, from that point on. I got published for the first (and, thus far, only) time in eighth grade by winning a writing contest on the topic of treasured objects, in which I wrote about the journal Sarah gave me when I finished sixth grade and moved away. I even ended up going to the university I did because of this teacher. Having worked in education, we talk about how you never know what interaction you have with a student is going to be the one that sticks, so we try to be intentional about as many as possible. I clearly proved this to the extreme, because the reason I initially became interested in my university was not from a conversation Sarah had with me but from a conversation she had with another former student nearby where I was sitting. At this point I was about thirteen and still absolutely idolized Sarah. I still very much look up to her, but at the time it was far more utter idolization. Anyways, we were all working at the same summer camp, and she was talking with another former student who was on her way to Brown in the fall. From the conversation I gathered that Sarah thought rather highly of the university (which I had never heard of prior), and I ended up looking into it, liking it, and deciding I’d include it in the schools I applied to when the time came. And then I was accepted and chose to go there! Of course back in middle school I thought I was going to be an English teacher, as in the subject in school for native speakers. That evolved over time, and I ended up studying International Relations and Slavic Studies. But still somehow I’ve circled back to teaching English, just this time as a foreign language. So when I look back at the last thirteen years of my life, massive chunks of who I am and what I am doing are tied to this one teacher. And those are a lot of the best parts of me. There have been periods of months and years where Sarah and I haven’t been in much contact, but it always picks back up. I went through a hell of a summer this past year, and sure enough, there she was, reminding me I have a couch to crash on if I needed to get away from it all and spending hours on the phone with me, listening to the craziness, giving me challenging but important advice, and reminding me I’m stronger than I know. This answer is a no-brainer. As I count through the core tenets, experiences, and identity markers of who I am, I realize many would be radically different were it not for this one teacher. Perhaps some of that is simply a matter of timing—a bump in trajectory early on has the biggest impact much further down the line—but boy does it make a difference. And now nearly every week I sit down at the computer to a digital whiteboard/video conferencing system where I check in with Sarah’s daughter, nine time zones away, to tackle her schoolwork because life is funny and circular that way.
What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?
I don’t feel like I have too many years under my belt as an adult with a solid sense of what I like and dislike in terms of music, so I can’t say this will earn the “lifetime favorite” title down the road when I have more data points, but I love “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The entire album is a favorite, but I find this song epitomizes the hauntingly beautiful narrative quality of the album as a whole. It’s also dear to me in that it’s the song that catalyzed my guitar playing. I had learned a few chords at various points in my life, but it’s when I thought, “hey, here’s a song with a strumming pattern I have internalized well enough to probably not screw it up entirely,” that I picked up my roommate’s guitar and tried to make it work. It was an achingly slow and painful first attempt, but I love that I can pinpoint this hobby back to that moment and this song in particular.
Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?
In a lighthearted or decidedly “speed-datey” conversation I am always a fan of the question: “Would you rather have muffins for hands or muffins for feet?” It’s one of those fallbacks that has no moral or logical basis, but I like to see the way people think through this. Do you say feet because you hope the muffin stumps will become stale and be somewhat easy to balance on in the long run? Do you value dexterity in your fingers or do you start imagining that this question exists within a universe where the muffins regenerate and you have a lifetime snacking supply?
With closer friends, I like to ask what’s bringing joy in their lives and what is weighing on them. I do a lot of catching up with friends since I have moved so much in recent years, and I like to ask this directly because people don’t always feel the floor is open to either brag or lay out what’s difficult. But in the end that’s what I’m interested in when it comes to knowing someone and making sure they know I care about more than the cursory details of their life.
Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?
I have a really hard time identifying a turning point in my life. My life has been a lot of turns, and a lot of beginnings. That sounds dramatic and overly poetic, but when there’s so much movement and so much left up in the air I am not sure which point to turn to. I’ve moved every year for the past thirteen years, and so maybe the turning point is ahead of me when I decide it’s time to take a break and settle in for a while. But I also wonder if it may be honest to say a big turning point for me was this summer, and I just haven’t walked far enough down this road to feel confident calling it a true turning point. However, if it turns out this summer was a turning point for me, it’s for this reason. I finally decided I was going to make choices for my life that would prioritize me and how I want to move forward. I dug deep and, backed by friends who spoke scary and important truths to me, found the strength to do what I wanted to do simply because I wanted to do it. So I’m not sure if this particular venture into teaching abroad will pan out, either short-term or long-term, but if this is a turning point it is one in finding the confidence and trust in myself to set and follow my own goals in life.
What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?
The word refunfuñar in Spanish is a favorite in terms of just being a fun word to say. Also it means “to grumble,” which is a good word to know when pushing beyond the basics of a language.
I also love the Russian word Tocka, that particular Russian melancholy, loneliness, or grief that’s just not quite translatable into other languages. I can be a pretty nostalgic person in general, but I like to think that the nostalgic pains I feel for my times in Russia and Belarus are separate from that General Nostalgia and are a little part of my heart that maybe approximates Tocka. I think of it when I remember walking the quiet, cool streets of St. Petersburg at 2am with the dawn already breaking, or when I recall riding a deep-Soviet-era bus puttering through the wintery forest of Belovezhkaya Pushcha, wiping the condensation from the windows to glimpse a bison out in the wild and wondering how my life ever led me to that moment.
I also love the German word Heimat. It’s another one of those words that doesn’t have a direct translation, at least in English. It means home, but in a way that is a specific to where one feels at home, not just where one comes from or how a social system might define someone’s concept of home for them. This has been particularly meaningful for me as I have quietly accepted that, at least for now, I feel at home in Germany in ways that I don’t in my home country. It affirms that feeling in me, in a way, to be in a country with a word that lets me know it’s okay to feel at home simply because it’s where I feel at home.
Also German has a word for “awaysickness,” in the same way that we (and they) have a word for “homesickness.” And the word for skunk translates to “stinkanimal.” And the word for sloth translates to “lazyanimal”! You can tell German likes to mush words together. I wanted to preserve that in how I noted them here. Okay, I’m done now. I love words.
What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?
Two friends and I were working 55-hour weeks, and with only a day or so of preparation we decided to go to Yosemite. It meant a long drive for less than 24 hours and only one night there, but it was exactly what we needed. We got out of the city, got drenched by waterfalls, used what we knew from leading children in STEAM projects to cook our foil-packed meals, and sat by a rushing river for a while because it’s what we needed to recharge in the moment. I’m a planner by nature, which you can probably tell by the fact that this really isn’t that wild of a spontaneous story, but I’m glad I said yes to that last-minute trip.
What is your favorite sound?
I’m a sucker for the sound of powerful water, whether it be the aforementioned river, rain, or the ocean of my California roots. I love the sound of unencumbered laughter. And I love the sound of light conversation going on around me. I’ve fallen asleep on multiple occasions just hanging out with friends in a cozy room as a gathering extends late into the night, happily listening to them chat while not feeling any pressure to contribute in a certain way (or, clearly, even to be awake). By now you are probably well aware that I am generally incapable of picking a single favorite anything. This will likely not change. Favorite for me is a category, rather than a single unit. I’ve constructed my own meaning for the word—that’s how reticent I am to choose a favorite anything.
What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?
My dream vacation would miss the big cities. I’d have my boyfriend and/or a good friend or two at my side, and we’d hit the “in-betweens.” We’d hike greenways or cliff walks, because the nature in new places gives you a feel for the land from the bottom up. We’d get a lot of little bites to eat to maximize the reach of our culinary intake, and we’d also eat at someone’s grandparents’ place. Because if we’re talking dream vacation, we’d be connected with people from the places we’re going to. There would be slow mornings, and there would be the calm quiet of breathing in a place late at night when everything has settled from the day that’s passed. Of course there would be some museums and historical sites, but I also love just walking the streets of a new place. This past year I traveled with my boyfriend for the first time, and I was so happy to find that the two of us could just set out for the day with a couple destinations in mind and spend the rest of the time enjoying wherever else the streets took us. Perhaps our travels will become more organized or pointed in the future, but a dream vacation of mine includes a lot of time for unscripted discovery. I’ve also always said that my two tips for visiting a new place are to go to whatever place is the tallest, to get a view of everything, and to go on some sort of bike tour or excursion. You cover more ground than by foot, but it’s more up close and personal than a hop on/hop off bus tour.
If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?
9. I think I’d become an expert in something artisanal, like baking or pottery. Both are hobbies I love, and there’s something to having a physical product as the result of expertise that I find so satisfying. But I would also be totally excited about being an expert in 20th century Soviet poetry. I’ve absolutely loved the times I’ve dived into that world, and I think I would love being an expert on that corner of the world’s writings.
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