My daughter’s AP English teacher gave his students five minutes to describe themselves in one sentence. The idea was to help his students to comprehend the power of language to communicate ideas but also to help them understand themselves while making themselves understood. Her teacher said that most people are strangers to themselves, which as I look around seems sadly true, and that the process of thinking carefully about that one descriptive sentence is a great step toward self-knowledge. It was a clever activity to kick off this class which is centered on rhetoric, and it honestly made me want to sit quietly in the back of his classroom every day, but it also made me want to think about my sentence. Describing one person in one sentence is almost impossible, but there are a few things my sentence would definitely not include.
I wouldn’t write about anything I do. Activities, jobs, hobbies, interests, and talents are certainly part of me but they are not me, and they can pass with time. I used to take photographs and make them into prints and cards but I haven’t done that in a really long time. I used to work in mortgage underwriting. I used to sing in a bunch of different languages. I used to dislike avocados and now I could eat one every day. I used to love 90s hip-hop and actually, I still love it. Everything I’ve done and liked and loved is a part of me, but they are not me, so they wouldn’t be part of my sentence.
I wouldn’t write about any relationship I have. Yes, I’m a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and teacher, and those bonds are really important to who I am, but I am not them. They have colored my life but they are not me. I’ve lost and gained people often enough over my lifetime that the picture of my people shifts with time, so if given one sentence, people can’t really be a part of it.
So if my sentence wouldn’t be anything like ‘I am a teacher’ or ‘I like to sing’, or even, ‘I am a mother who birthed and raised two babies’, what would it say? When I strip all of that stuff away, what remains? Who are we, at our very cores, when the description can contain no reference to the busy pace and environment of our everyday lives? Who am I, when it comes right down to it? And who are you?
I guess I would want to say something poetic but true, and I’d want to choose my words carefully. Encapsulating a life in just a few words is tricky business, and it’s probably an unreachable goal. Honestly, I don’t know how my daughter and her classmates came up with what they did in five minutes when I’ve been thinking about it for an hour and still am coming up short.
I am figuring it out.