PARTING SHOT: Ode to the em dash

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Lucy Siegel was an Opinion Editor for the 128th term of The Cavalier Daily. 

Courtesy Peri Colón

While my Nonna and I were sitting around the dining-room table one cool, fall evening 12 years ago, I begged her to tell me stories of her Italian childhood. Nonna added a teaspoon of honey to her cup of tea, nodding with a half-smile, tender and warm, but broken with quivering lips. As I stared eagerly into her eyes, searching for another hint, however faint, at some wrinkled memory, she confessed, “I will tell you about my first day of school in America.” She lowered her eyes and glanced at the spoon in her teacup, catching a glimpse of herself in the handle, I suppose. 

Directing her gaze back to me and softly tilting her head, my Nonna began — “The teacher told my seventh-grade English class to pull out a piece of paper for composition. I did not have any paper, so I raised my hand and asked if I could have a sheet of paper.” She paused, “Lucy, you must remember that my English was horrible. So, when I asked for a sheet of paper, it sounded like profanity. The students roared with laughter as I stood there, confused and mortified. I walked into this class with long braids, black hair, and pale skin. I looked completely different from all the other girls. I truly felt like an alien.” Before I could say a word, she cradled the warm tea in her hands and let the steam caress her face. Sixty-two years later, this moment hung on her memory. Shame filled me with its uncomfortable heat. My Nonna had become the unwanted ingredient in this melting pot we call America, and I wanted the world to know who she was, to know her real story, to give her another chance. So for her, I started writing. 

It was not until I joined The Cavalier Daily Opinion team, that I gained the confidence to listen to my voice and request that we change the current narrative to one of active listening, appreciation of the old rhetoric and respect of differences. With the strength of my words and the convictions of my new-found voice, I held on to — and still hold on to — a firmly tethered objective to fix that which is broken with my written words. 

I had not anticipated my application to become an Opinion columnist would turn into a four-year commitment to weekly articles and ultimately, late night editing and em dash inserting. But to be perfectly frank, I would not change a single one of those moments. When I stepped foot on Grounds, I did not have even the foggiest vision of my future — and I leave four years later, similarly blurry-eyed, yet far more comfortable with that uncertainty. I owe this comfort with the unknown to the paper and its staff, challenging me with every character, comma and sign-off, to address the often unnerving, yet indubitably necessary topics that are desperate for focused attention. Engaging in these hard conversations that may expose the ugly and incite opposition, all in an effort to achieve the greater good, drove me to study public policy and ultimately, find the courage to move across the country upon graduation. 

With my final opportunity to write for The Cavalier Daily, I would be remiss if I did not express my profound gratitude for each person on the paper’s staff — the work we do is important, the work we do is good, the work we do is necessary. In a world where we struggle to determine journalism’s role within the ethical fabric of American democratic society, I can look to my mentors and fellow writers on The Cavalier Daily team. I truly believe that we understand our collective responsibility to position ourselves as stewards of meaningful participation, writing with an ethics of care bent on compassion, engagement and preserving the dignity of the other. 

I walk away from this experience having had the chance to tell a story that started long before The Cavalier Daily, a quick 12 years ago over tea with my Nonna. I thank this group for giving my voice life, guiding my stories and inspiring the promise of a more understanding society.  

Lucy Siegel was an Opinion Editor for the 128th term of The Cavalier Daily. 

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