Heart of Treasure Valley

'Being willing to be open': Boise High senior finds herself through power of words

Some weekends, she goes to the moon; her father works for NASA, don’t you know? Or maybe — yeah — it’s the CIA now. On weekends, she might go to Paris to visit him. Or to Mars, or the Pentagon. Or they’ll spend the weekend together on a submarine.

When she’s not with her dad, when the moon is full, she hears the loneliness in an adolescent werewolf’s howl at the moon. Other times, with the weight of adulthood feeling heavy, she goes to the back yard —

“Where my barefoot feet stand / Rooted / In ancient ground.”

It’s kind of an inside joke, the part about going to the moon. The part about her dad is made up, too; but the rest is true. Well, maybe not about the werewolf — but for sure, the part about being bittersweet growing up.

Alex Swerdloff is a writer and a senior at Boise High School. This spring, a portfolio of her essays, fiction and poetry was given highest honors by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards: the Gold Medal Portfolio, which includes a $10,000 scholarship from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

“One of the things I love about writing (is) that you experience life from someone else’s point of view,” she says.

Among her fictional essays is a story about a young girl, coping with her father’s AIDS by making up stories, until one day the phone call comes, telling of his death. “That weekend I stayed home,” she writes.

“What happened to the moon? my friends asked. What happened to Paris?

“At night I went out into the backyard and stared up at the sky; at its unnumbered stars, distant planets, orbiting satellites. Watched the tiny blinking space stations full of other people’s fathers travel their predetermined paths.

“I didn’t want to go, I said.

“The moon is overrated, anyways.”

To clarify: Her real father is alive and well. But to further clarify: This is Alex, exploring what it’s like to be living in this world.

***

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Boise High School senior Alex Swerdloff, who works on the school newspaper, won a prestigious scholarship for her writing. "Words are the most powerful they've ever been right now," she says. "It's easy to see all the bad things that come out of the written word and the spoken word, with all the divisiveness, and hate speech — but I think it's important to also focus on the beautiful uniting power of rhetoric." Katherine Jones kjones@Idaho Statesman

Alex was always inquisitive and full of questions, but when she was younger, she was mostly too shy to ask them. Two things happened that created the poised, confident — and so very eloquent — young woman that she is today.

In sixth grade, she started writing. “And it became a way for me to express myself,” she says. “(Writing) became a way for me to build confidence and find my voice.”

Secondly, she took a class in the Socratic method of inquiry, which required each student to present a question and contribute to the subsequent discussion.

“The first time you ask (or answer) a question, that’s the worst,” she says. “And from then on, you’re like, well, I’ve already embarrassed myself and it’s not that bad, so I might as well keep doing it.”

The class fostered inquiry and curiosity — and listening, which is important all the time, but especially these days, she says.

“One of the most important starting points for having a conversation is asking questions,” she says. “Not just splurting your view, or debating with someone, but really dialoguing with them.

“Being willing to be open to whatever answer they give you.”

In her high school journalism class, she has to interview people who might have different opinions. She asks questions — and listens to the answers. “I feel like that’s been a really good exercise in empathy — (as has been) writing their views and representing them in my writing,” she says.

In her fictional writing, the notion of empathy has brought her to curious points of view. For instance, what would the transformation from human to werewolf be like for a teenager? What happens when you realize you’re a werewolf? How would it feel to try to live in two worlds? Could you? So she wrote, “The young werewolf’s guide to adolescence.”

“20. There is no place for a werewolf in a human family. You know it. You have known it for a long time, actually, but it was one of those things you tried hard not to think about. …

“27. Sometimes, once in a blue moon, you will catch yourself staring at the sky and feeling something like longing. You will remember people. Were they your parents? Your friends? It makes no difference. You miss them all the same. …

“28. … Let yourself be content with howling at the moon. For now.”

***

In the end, though — perhaps the hardest part, even — about asking questions is fear. And not just of mere embarrassment. Alex writes about “The Power of Inquiry.”

“I feared inquiry because it made me vulnerable. Asking a question revealed a part of myself I did not want other people to see: the part that doesn’t know all the answers, the part that stutters and trips over her words, the part that makes mistakes. …

“This fear of questioning went beyond the classroom — it reached into my personal life as well. I was afraid to ask questions of myself…”

And so, the essay about the werewolf actually parallels the tumult of coming out. It’s about the feelings a young lesbian might encounter as she faces the future. Desperation. Certainty, rejection, the unknown. But it’s also about the absolute necessity of being true to oneself.

“When I worked up the courage to ask these questions of myself and answer them truthfully, I gained the courage to speak up in class as well. This is how I came to believe what I do now: that asking questions is vulnerable, and it is hard …

“But we should ask them always. We need to, if we want to become fully formed human beings. …”

***

In her quest for asking questions, Alex’s faith has provided a framework. Alex’s family is Jewish, although only in heritage. “I had kind of rough first year (at Boise High) and I realized I need some sort of community other than high school,” she says. Because she wasn’t raised in the synagogue, she went through conversion classes.

“It was really cool,” she says. “It was all about reading books and asking questions and having discussions. That’s what I love about my religion — it’s all about learning more and challenging yourself.

“You can never know everything about Judaism. There’s always more to learn and more points of view to take, because everyone has a different point of view on what the Torah teaches.”

That feels good to her. “It’s a religion that’s all about justice and reforming our beliefs so they fit our modern standards of acceptance. I also felt that fit in well with my LGBT identity and just who I am as a person.”

Alex laughs. “When people hear I’m a Jewish lesbian from Idaho, they’re kind of surprised,” she says. People assume that her life is one big challenge all rolled into one. She disagrees.

“I actually like it because you have this opportunity to educate people,” she says. In other places, being Jewish might be more commonplace. “I wouldn’t have the opportunity to explain why I love my religion so much and why being gay is so important to me.”

In articulating those answers, writing helps.

***

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As part of the Humanitarian Club at Boise High School, Alex Swerdloff volunteers to work weekly with kids from Jefferson Elementary School who need extra support in English and reading. Katherine Jones kjones@Idaho Statesman

In a memoir called “Generation to Generation,” Alex reflects on the Jewish belief of recognizing and studying those who came before us; they provide a path to follow, she says.

“We recognize that, no matter how difficult our passage, others have already walked it. It is a humbling assertion — and also a comforting one. In studying the stories of our ancestors, we gain courage. They provide us with a path to follow.”

Alex likes to explore current events and people’s identities; those who are oppressed and outcasts.

“My ancestors hide in the Dewey decimal system; they are the rainbow-colored books laid out in the display case for Pride, the section marked ‘Gay/Lesbian’ in the library. …

“I find comfort in their footsteps alongside mine.”

Alex, a Rotary Scholar and in the top 10 percent of her class, will attend Wellesley College next year. She will explore poetry and fiction and journalism.

“By living my life openly and proudly, I add my pair of footprints to the ground.

“The path I have followed joins the others, and I pass my story down: l’dor vador, from generation to generation. …

“Bless my ancestors, bless me, and bless those who are to come after. …”

About the scholarship

Eight of the 11 Idaho teens selected to receive national awards from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are from the Boise School District. The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are the country's longest-running and most prestigious scholarship and recognition programs for creative students in grades 7–12. This program year, nearly 350,000 works of art and writing were submitted across the country.

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