What does it mean to be an 18-year-old girl around the world? The New York Times asked young women photographers this question. The result was “This Is 18,” a portrait of girlhood across six continents and twelve time zones.
The Times asked our program — in 150 words or less, tell us, what does (or did) it mean to you to be an 18-year-old girl? Here are the selections, which include current students from our Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Writing for Children and Young Adults genres.
dear 18 year old me,
you are absolutely terrifying and
terrified. the world is swallowing you
into instagram images, silence, and
goodbyes. you are about to move across
the country to winters and boat shoes
and an utter lack of sea salt in the
atmosphere. i hope you’d be proud of the us
we have become. your favorite color
is still red. we still cry at mother-daughter
films. you still fight for your friends, but
we’ve come to learn fighting is more like
the california sun finding an uncountable
amount of openings in the pink withering
clouds. you’re about to love a bit too much,
and scrape up the skin covering your ribs
as the earth tries to make its way into your
heart. four years later, you’ll place your hands on
your torso, grateful for all that chest
has seen you through.
There you were, lying in the backyard alone in the summertime while Mom was at work, staring at the sun through the walnut tree. You were wearing a swimsuit, as you wanted to arrive at college with a tan. Your feet were sore, as you had spent one hour every day that summer walking around Mom’s dark curtained bedroom in heels, practicing for all the fancy parties you were certain you’d soon attend. Because you didn’t attend in high school, no; in high school you drove around at night with a boy you loved, who actually loved your best friend. Through the walnut tree you saw the people you had yet to know but one day would. You saw September. And then you saw the year after that, where the boy has all but disappeared from your life, as has your tan, your certainty, and your collection of heels.
Leslie Caldwell - Existence
I am here.
A chromosomal choice. X or Y. My XX existence says I’m different, not equal, not seen. Not the real me, but the me where people ignore my raised hands.
Or the me with sun burnt skin, genetically imprinted from the African sun, that makes strangers grab their bags, my smile feared and police shoot first, and maybe ask questions later.
Or the me whose full lips and swaying hips are a siren call, a wantonness stare magnet, drawing men's salacious looks, their brazenness confident, their gestures never opposed, always welcomed. And why? Because of the me they see.
And when I protest, demand respect as a Nubian Princess.
They laugh! Call me a bitch! Chant the generic phrase society believes define my femininity, my placement in American society − she’s just an angry black girl!
That’s the 18 year old me, the world sees.
Pune Dracker - “18 is Thriller”
18 is thriller thriller night and you can still wear white socks with black penny loafers and know inside a deep venous tremor that people look different act different and are beautiful and good and you can listen to thriller thriller night and it will not touch you somewhere you don’t want to be touched yet and it will not make you touch someone else where they don’t want. And 18 may become an ad in the local paper, an artist wanting to photograph a girl 18 nude ideally a fairy in the misty marshes by the bay, on a honey summer morning and people feel beautiful when they are 18 and have not been yet been touched by someone else somewhere they don’t want. But 18 is you are too scared to call the number fairy or not.
Siyun Fang - A Person is a Reed that Loves to Contemplate
In her parents’ mind
the family would benefit more by letting her clean the reed curtain
rather than spending money to allow her to go to school
Come summer, this eighteen-year old accepts her yellowish fate
handing her illegible silhouette over to the earth
The reeds become straight and soft in her hand
leaving the village in an orderly way, walking toward markets, cities and towns
The sky is blue, cloud is white, river is limpid;
her slender body keeps stooping down
until it turns into a huge question mark
Several years later
the villagers simply scratch the surface when they retell her story
Her funeral is in the dead of winter
unmarried all her life, she doesn’t leave kids behind
Music and drumbeats are not blasted out, nobody attends the funeral—
only reeds over the slope
are still waving in the wind
Lindiwe Priscilla Jenness - Mamlindiso!
By middle age you will be a woman alone.
Deal with it.
You are the Black Sheep of the family.
Men are going to hurt you.
They will beat you and treat you like a serf.
Pay them no mind and be careful how you love.
You will become a mother but your children will not always be in your custody.
Your son will be put up for adoption.
You have no other choice.
You will be separated from your only daughter.
That’s how life goes.
Pay attention to your gpa.
It is the only thing that will save you.
Take care of your body.
They will say that you look 26 when you are 46.
There will be times when your looks are all that you have.
Don’t listen to people who say it is nothing.THIS IS AMERICA.Looks are everything.
Always honor Mama Africa because walking barefoot in her dirt as a child is really all that you have in this world.
Africa is your mother, your guide and your savior.
Remember to walk with your shoulders back and your head upright.
Be grateful for what you have.
You are a world class writer.
Make it work for you.
I love you!
Ramya Ramana - Earning My Stripes
when Spice was too packed
we ended up going to the chinese spot
by Time Square --
we spent 20 dollars on some overpriced
fried rice just to celebrate a different year
around the globe. I had just bought
my outfit from Jamaica ave -- old-gold & burgundy
striped leggings with a sequined black top. I’d say
I was looking thick and pleasing in all the right places;
single but wanted like a hit list.
After dinner, you couldn’t tell us the world was about
to change. Couldn’t tell me that in a few
months i’d be sitting next to a mother
in a hospital bed, close to death. That my
poems would take me to an inauguration and press cycles. That
I’d sit there for the whole year
wishing I could go back to a night
out, spending money I didn’t have, on subtleties,
that, was plenty.
When I think of my 18-year-old self I’m filled with so many emotions: remorse, regret, and remembrance because I was alone. I want to write my 18-year-old self words of wisdom: finish college earlier, vote, don’t make mistakes that will define your life. I can’t imagine away the roadblocks I faced or what a family or support system might have looked like.
I had no voice and now that I’ve found mine—I search for the right words.
When my 18-year-old daughter started college, I returned for the fifth time. Her 18 became “our” 18. I want to protect her from a world on fire from the heat of climate change and the hate of racial, gender, and social injustices, so I tell her I believe in her. There is no failure, nor barrier so epic it will define “our” 18 because we are not alone.
On my 18th birthday, I hid from my mother that I lit Beirut on fire with my raging youth.
That I had let out all my burning frustrations, down a stranger’s throat, of unwillingly moving to the coast, of paying for my father’s mistakes of devoting everything to empty promises from 1989, of fear dripping down my fishnet thighs—dripping, then flowing in fear of feeling so alive.
I was hoping to destroy the dance floor underneath my fiery, furious, dancing feet.
We went out to a sweet lunch where she talked to me about responsibility, and Lebanese womanhood.
She met my nauseous gaze with rehearsed words of advice, occasionally interrupted by cheeseburger and ketchup breaks.
I, in return, was sipping my chamomile, feeling hungover and terribly burnt out.
“Don’t let them take your fire,” she said, burying her canines into the sesame buns and all the goodness in between.