Recent Grad Receives National Recognition

Canterbury Reports
July 14, 2020

Canterbury's Nina Ijomanta '20 has won a Scholastic Art & Writing Silver Medal at the national level for a story she submitted her senior year. This is a huge honor for the recent Canterbury graduate, who will be attending Harvard College. You can view her official entry here, or read it below.

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one remain silent." - Ludwig Wittgenstein

So, like any happy child, I feared imminent death. The paranoia began around 2010, when my third-grade class and I were subject to a field trip at the Safety Village. While the program’s goal was to instruct us on fire safety, I came home with an acute fear of death-by-house-fire instead.

One of the Village’s signature exercises is to gather elementary-school students into the “Survive Alive” House to stimulate a raging house fire for them to escape from (you know, as you normally do with children).

My classmates and I nestled ourselves along the wall of the fake bedroom and chattered away between our teacher, Mrs. Hutt, quietly shushing us from the fake closet. Essentially, we were to wait for an alarm, open the door to the room once it went off, and climb down the stairs on our hands and knees, eventually making our way through the front door and out of the building. Simple.

The alarm came, the door was opened, and everyone began their clumsy crawling and thudding out the door. Everyone except me, that is. I was frozen on my hands and knees, eyes fixed on the black abyss that was supposed to be my salvation. The comfort of a light-filled room gave way to a darkness attempting to tear me away from my plastic-bedpost refuge.
In this moment, it was me and Mrs. Hutt against it all, watching the third-grade fire brigade travel into the unknown.
 
Thudthudthudthud.
She began to egg me on.
Thudthudthudthud.
I began to whimper.
Quiet.
She held my hand.
 
At the risk of sounding conceited, I have to admit that eight-year old me had a knack for launching plans on the fly. And boy, did I have an idea.

As my hand shook in hers, I quickly put my cunning strategy into action.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “You can actually go down first, if you want to.” 

Repetitions of this offer, for some reason, did not stop Mrs. Hutt from politely declining, so my shrewd plan to hide under the bed was surprisingly foiled. We left together and she closed the door behind us.

Below me were stairs I could not see, the skirmishes of eight-year-old hands and feet sliding across the landing, and, if I looked hard enough, the glow and crackle of a fire (which, as I later found out, was some spooky orange tissue paper taped above a white light and a desk fan).

I slinked back into Mrs. Hutt, who was now gently pushing and whispering for me to go down. One leg down the stairs. Take everything from stair to stair.

But what if I fall? What if something comes up to take me? My leg began to slide down the carpet steps too fast.
I broke out screaming and in tears, only managing to blubber the words, “I’m scared,” between breaths made short by a gaping pit in my stomach.

Put simply, what I felt at the time was fear and dread. The old Phobos and Demios, if you like mythology. I like thinking back to this moment, though, because it allows me to revisit the all the small pangs of fear I experienced on the stair landing. What were those sensations; how do you begin to explain ‘pangs of fear’? Can I even accurately describe nuanced emotions without spewing some generic scientific processes or jumping into vague-figurative-language-land? Can I impart the specifics of my experiences onto someone else?

The answer is no. I really can’t. No matter how hard I try, it’s impossible for me to translate the uniqueness of my sensations for someone else. My conclusion is based on a theory of language primarily conceived by philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Essentially, Wittgenstein focused on the shared nature of language--how the words we use are only have meaning if two or more people can agree on what they mean.

For example, if I decide to start calling apples ‘dorfhammers’, but don’t tell anyone, then the word ‘dorfhammer’ doesn’t actually mean anything; it doesn’t constitute as veritable language others can decipher. As it is applied to the telling of information, personal experiences and sensations can never be truly defined for what they are, as the speaker is always required use a pre-established lexicon to describe them. Even if I decide to pull a Shakespeare and create my own words and phrases, they must be put in the context of a common tongue.

I like to think about this concept in terms of color. The sky is blue, right? Of course, it is. Well, then what’s blue? How do you describe blue? We could say that it’s the sensation of scattered rays of blue light from the sun, hitting our eyes from millions of miles away, but what IS that sensation? How do I know that my blue is your blue? What if your blue is my green? What’s so fascinating is that we’ll never know. We can’t verify what other people see. There’s no way for us to get inside each other’s heads to that degree, and I wouldn’t necessarily be right in saying that you see colors the way same way I do.
Wittgenstein’s philosophy can be somewhat disheartening once you realize that you’ll never be able to understand someone at this intimate level. However, we can instead utilize his theories to exercise empathy and compassion, recognizing that, while we cannot experience life from the perspective of another person, observing as much means that we must be cognizant of how variant our life experiences are.

Mrs. Hutt, as far as I’m concerned, did not have a phobia of house fires or dark staircases and couldn't relate to my state of panic. Yet, she had empathy. She recognized that I was 8 years old and afraid of the dark and of the “fire,” and she held my hand as I made my tearful way down to the first floor. The nature of language and communication to me reflects why it is so important to be mindful that diverse experiences are forever a reality when I’m communicating with someone else. I only know what it feels like to be me, and others only know what it feels like to be themselves. 

Someone else may never experience racism as a black woman, just as I will never know how racism hits as a Latinx woman, or how severely ableism can sting, or what targeted transphobia feels like. A thought experiment is nowhere near equivalent to live the lives of everyone on Earth. If a polemic arises which unjustly targets an identity I’m not a part of, I may be offended on that group’s behalf, but I cannot assume my sentiments--how I would feel--can substitute for the individuals’ feelings, particularly those of a marginalized identity. Where we cannot speak on a matter, we must be silent and listen to those who can.