Adults often complain about today’s kids’ entitlement and the “everyone’s a winner” mentality floating around in parenting. At the same time, they pin the blame for this on the younger generation, as if the youth were in control of the situation. In my own experience, being “awarded” a trophy for coming in last place in Pinewood Derby made me feel patronized, and did not deliver any of the intended satisfaction. Perhaps today’s parents’ smothering their children with compliments is a (sub?)conscious response to their own strict childhoods. No matter the cause, today’s kids are fundamentally different than their parents were at their age.

I managed to internalize the compliments I received as a child, whether I intended to or not. The result, however, of these years of praise did not visibly manifest until I was a freshman in high school. Partially influenced by my older friends, I began looking at colleges. As a fourteen-year-old kid, I measured my worth numerically, simultaneously subconsciously rejecting any notions that I was inferior to anyone else in my grade. After all, I always was “that smart kid” or “that one guy who gets it”. This ego did not match up with my academics, however, as I earned my first ‘B’ on a report card at the very beginning of high school. Yes, I blew the top off Pre-AP Biology, but so did ten other students in my class period alone. I should’ve come to recognize that, as a matter of fact, I am not as special as I was told.

Teamed up with CollegeProwler.com, I made a list of schools I wanted to attend based off of three criteria: a) the acceptance rate — I firmly believed that the only way I could receive the best education would be to attend the most exclusive; b) whether it was private (yes, I know I sounded snobby, but I genuinely thought the only way I, such a special kid, would succeed); and c) their ranking from the US News and World Report University Ranking. The flaws in my thought process, in hindsight, were extremely obvious. First off, I bit, hook, line and sinker, into the notion that I would receive an objectively better education from somewhere that turns away 81% of applicants or more than anywhere that accepted a larger percentage. I was special; I was smart, and I only deserved the best. Also, private college would be a bit of a stretch financially, as my parents somehow thought I was joking when I said the annual cost of attendance at Pomona College (my then-dream school) topped 60 grand. At the same time, however, I first began to doubt myself. Perhaps I could make it into a place with a 21% acceptance rate, but 15%? That’s crazy. That’s, like, six whole percentage points! In other words, I was hopelessly and utterly lost, surrounded by a plethora of misinformation and scams.

I’ll never forget the day I learned my class rank. There I sat, in my Spanish III Pre-AP class, surrounded by other “smart kids”, who read off their numbers, proudly, to everyone else in the room. “Seven.” “Nineteen.” “Ten.” “Twenty-one.” “Four.” “Eleven.” The frequency of the sound must not have registered, because I sat at home that night trying to figure out what I had just heard. I had always seen these as people as my academic equals, but really they were so much better than me!

Immediately, the phrase popped into my head: “superiority complex”. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, it is defined as “an exaggerated striving for superiority in which the individual hides their feelings of inferiority.” (Yes, I used Wikipedia. Get over it.) Though it was a stretch to describe my situation as a “complex”, the idea still fit: I never genuinely bought into the compliments I received, and as a result, I constantly felt the need to earn the title I was somewhat freely given many years earlier.

The rest of my sophomore year, I fought my addiction to CollegeProwler, and tried to refocus on the present. In a way, I became humble, because I let go of that desire to “prove” my worth and recognized the same struggle I had gone through in a few others. Today, I firmly believe there is an advertising industry catered specifically to private-schooled “smart” kids, profiting from their naivety by selling them “pre-college enrichment programs” and SAT tutorials. Honestly, I find it easily comparable to the beauty industry, as both set unrealistic standards that can only be attained by purchasing certain products. In the case of the college advertising industry, attending summer programs and participating in standardized testing workshops are marketed as gateways to prosperity (whatever that means).

 A brief sidenote: the SAT and ACT have totally failed in achieving their goals, as they serve as a way for the rich (who buy tutoring for their children) to gain an incredibly obvious advantage over the less affluent in applying to universities.


I lost a year and a half of my life by getting sucked into their scheme, but, in the end, I came out a better person. Up until I actually visited a college (and my college stress fell to a record low), I lived under the assumption that I was better than my peers. Now, I strive not to beat others, but rather to beat myself, as I am the determiner of my future.

I would never have admitted how selfish I was, but now I can. Yes, it’s human nature, but my overconfidence hurt my relationships with others. Now, I hope, I have conquered the compliments, and only factor myself into my self-image. But, as many therapeutic processes go, I will never really know for sure.


Stand By [Her]

The technique of narration Nathaniel Hawthorne employs, to me, is very creative. It allows Hawthorne in “The Custom House” to write a quasi-autobiography, while tying his personal beliefs, second-hand, into the revelation of the story of Hester Prynne to the reader. By way of this, and through the classic tendency of storytelling’s one-sidedness, Hawthorne imparts his views on the reader as the plot is developed; most prominently, Hawthorne stands by Hester Prynne in her adultery.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, raised in nineteenth century New England, could easily see the powerful impact of religion in the area, and he foresaw conflicts and societal questioning of the boundaries of religion and law, as well as absolute morality. Hawthorne chose the Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts — his hometown — as the setting of his discussion of sin and religion. Hester Prynne, who was rushed into marriage with someone she did not love, and from whom she was separated by an ocean, slept with Reverend Dimmesdale, her only acquaintance, once, in the New World. During her first interaction with her husband since her punishment, Hester explains that she “felt no love, nor feigned any” for him. (The Recognition). Soon thereafter, Chillingworth reveals that he has travelled across the sea to torment and punish the person with whom she had sinned, Reverend Dimmesdale. Even innocent Pearl, wholly unaware of the situation, observes a connection between Chillingworth and “the Black Man”: the devil. (Another View of Hester). Chillingworth goes on to torment Dimmesdale both physically and spiritually, solidifying his role in the novel as a purely negative character. After one such torturous interaction between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, Hawthorne describes Chillingworth’s behavior as “how Satan comports himself”. (The Leech and His Patient). In his lack of portrayal of Chillingworth’s sorrow regarding being cheated on, Hawthorne seems to be approving Hester’s adultery in this situation.

Many other themes are explored in The Scarlet Letter regarding Hester’s situation, including the hypocrisy of the townspeople (Mistress Hibbins practices witchcraft and is left undisturbed due to her husband’s prominence; the townspeople refuse to believe that Dimmesdale sinned) as well as the sheer magnitude of Hester’s punishment. This all is intentional. At the time of its publishing, the world was at a crucial divergence in the future of Western religion: would religious fundamentalism and literalism pervade society still, or would a more progressive, open approach supersede? Hawthorne, in his support of Hester Prynne’s adultery, advocates progressivism, and stresses redemption over punishment.

My Monster Mama Loves Me So

My monster mama loves me so! Let me tell you how I know. When I wake up, she tweaks my nose, tickles all my pointy toes, combs the cobwebs from my bangs, and makes sure that I brush my fangs. She gives me great big hairy hugs, bakes me cookies filled with bugs, and when I’m sick she’s twice as nice — she gives me lizard juice with ice….

Growing up as a child, I was fortunate to have parents that loved to read to me. As the mid-winter nights we spent curled up on that burgandy living room couch, huddled up under heavy blankets (caked in Golden Retriever hair), fade further into the past, and as I trudge through the protracted plots of the American literature canon alone today, I cannot help yearning for the days in which reading was not an assignment. Gone are the school nights during which I would stay up late — even past 10:00! — reading Captain Underpants on the closet floor, aided by harsh fluorescent light that could not — must not! — escape through the gaps around the door. Gone are the stacks of Magic Tree House books I absentmindedly abandoned in my playscape — apparently the tarp overhead couldn’t block out all the rain. Gone are the Scholastic book fairs. Gone are the library days, and gone are the hours spent wandering through those aisles. Gone is show and tell, the single-digit-aged kid’s literature club. To be honest, despite all the freedoms and joys I experience today, I wish I could go back. Quite frankly, I liked it better.

“My Monster Mama Loves Me So”, a personal favorite of mine, is nineteen pages long. A simple story, it is the narrator, a monster, telling the reader about why his/her/? mama loves him/her/?. Maybe it’s the illustrations that I enjoy; lush images of monster families prancing in the swamp, or vivid stills of little monsters playing beastball (baseball), or practically anything of the type can be found inside. Maybe the root of my appreciation is more abstract: perhaps, since it involves monsters, and not humans, I read it differently. All the things people think are gross — spiders, slime, etc. — are what the monsters love, and the monsters are afraid of humans. This is actually something my parents and I discussed: everyone is different in how they appear (the multifarious monsters pictured throughout the book all appear strikingly different) and in what they enjoy; it is up to the individual to assign an opinion to an object or activity. For example, “cookies filled with bugs”, to me, sound disgusting, but to someone else (in this case, a monster), they might be delicious.

Maybe it’s just a fun book.

Being legally, but not societally, a child causes odd situations. In the books I am assigned I see no illustrations; my exposure to art now comes from museums, not stories. Deep value is ascribed to philosophical masterpieces “I will not fully appreciate until I am older”. At the same time, I am not expected to read simple tales, such as “My Monster Mama Loves Me So”. And yet, I revisit my boxes and boxes of memories, setting aside mere minutes in order to travel back more than a decade.

Do I sound nostalgic?

Written by: Laura Leuck Illustrated by: Mark Buehner
Written by: Laura Leuck
Illustrated by: Mark Buehner

Spiritual Snake Oil

Would you rather have everything, or would you rather have nothing?
Ask any five-year-old this question, and 9.8625 times out of 10 you will receive a “Yes! Who wouldn’t?”


This question is not nearly that black and white. If it were, there would not be entire world religions centered around it. In essence, this is the topic Siddhartha Gautama (AKA The Buddha) pondered: if neither self-starvation nor lavish indulgence brings happiness, then does happiness exist? I’m no philosopher, but I believe, as Buddha came to believe, that happiness is best achieved when little is desired beyond that which makes life comfortable. Unfortunately, this beautifully simple worldview is nearly impossible in today’s commercialized society. Big Business ® is far less concerned with happiness than it is with turning a profit; in fact, an ad’s sole purpose is to create desire in the consumer’s heart. Sadly, since the Advertising Industry ® is so lucrative, people dedicate their whole lives to making others feel worse about themselves, compelling them to pay a price, both physical and emotional, in order to obtain their fix of happiness. For example, a handful of advertisements for New Cosmetic Grooming Products ® in the early twentieth century are the basis upon which the Unattainable Beauty Standards ® women are taught to pursue exist today. But, I digress. Somewhere in between the two — surely– happiness can be found… right?

Esteemed nineteenth century intellectual Henry David Thoreau explained happiness as saving “on the low levels [of it] to spend on the high.” In other words, trivial things, such as many consumer products, distract us from truer, less tangible forms of joy. Spending eight dollars daily on your Starbuck’s ® will not bring you anything near the indescribable combination of pride, humility, and love found in giving them a thoughtful gift.

To me, the fact that there is something called “buyer’s remorse” highlights a fundamental flaw in our society: we know that real happiness is not found in buying random crap the pursuit of items, and yet we refuse to stop buying them.

John Ciardi recognizes the fallacy of our consumerist culture, and he elegantly proposes that we continue to take part in the consumerist festivities — so long as we do not lose sight of the intangible joys of life. Too often we sell out for temporary joys, eventually feeling that terrifying sensation of missing out on some bigger goal: some realer, higher level of satisfaction. 

I am proud to say that I have integrated the teachings of multiple philosophies and religions into my own life philosophy, but I cannot say that I adhere to it well; I also cannot say that adherence to said philosophy is feasible, comfortable, convenient, fun, or any other descriptor of the type. However, I long for the day that I can look back and say, ” I might not have had everything I could’ve wanted, but, hey, at least I was happy.” 

I hope I see that day. 

I hope you do, too.



Read John Ciardi's Essay "What Is Happiness?" by clicking here.