***Author’s Note: Every person and event in this narrative is entirely fictional; nothing in it should, under any circumstances, be treated with any degree of seriousness.***
She is skinny, her face as thickly painted with makeup as that of a horrifying, leering clown -- by American standards, she is beautiful.
He knows nothing beyond how to play video games and post on Snapchat; his eyes are permanently glued to his shiny new iPhone, his Ds and Fs are a source of pride -- by American ideologies, he is a genius.
She is politically correct, tolerant of those who are of different ethnicities; however, her pretty mouth will not deign to learn their language or even speak words of friendship to them -- according to American politics, she is perfectly accepting.
He is an atheist, a believer in the separation of morality and life; not a sentence flies from his lips that does not contain a curse word -- according to American beliefs and values, he is a supporter of the separation of church and state.
They are advocates of nonconformity, mass-produced products of a young American generation that strictly conforms to rebellion against conservatism and intellectualism; freedom of expression is not allowed in their society and the only tradition of the old generation they still follow is the mindless worship of the American flag -- the symbol of their liberty and inherited superiority.
These are the thoughts that ran through my mind as I stared at that great symbol, looming so proudly on the dirty wall. Around me, my classmates placed their hands over their hearts in jerky, robotic gestures, their faces bland and expressionless as they intoned the words that were instilled in us even before we learned to read. I felt the weight of their stares on my back when I failed to conform, so I rushed to put my hand over my heart. But my lips seem to be fastened shut. I could not join my voice with the monotone of American youth.
For some reason, my mind incessantly returns to the day before, when I was with my friends, shopping for the newest model of the iPhone in the electronics department at Target. There, speakers blared a multitude of homogenous pop tunes, each one consisting of a beat with some famous artist singing only a slight variation of true love or grievous heartbreak. All around me, glowing images flashed across portable screens while wall-mounted TVs displayed a dizzying, ever-changing variety of scenes that merely added to the multi-sensorial cacophony.
After my friend, an American Girl, had persuaded me to listen to what she declared was “rap music; deeply meaningful and much better than that superficial pop trash” on a pair of Beats (it also sounded to me like a man rapidly cursing in an extremely nasal voice, but we both agreed that it was totally countercultural and, thus, totally great), I left her engrossed with the music and wandered through the store. I didn’t really desire to look at the plentitude of screens, but yet, I somehow found it impossible to look anywhere else.
On one TV, the President of the United States spoke at a commencement at one university or another, announcing, “Patriotism, Progress, and Prosperity for the People!” He was interrupted by a rousing cheer from the young graduates, which was quickly cut short by a commercial of a Ronald McDonald holding the infamous McDonald’s cheeseburger.
It seemed incredible how so few words, could, like the rap and pop music, be so packed full of meaning. No wonder almost every American child has wanted to be President at one time or another, if such a prestigious position consists of only the power to utter words of promise and nationalism that allude to the greatness of America -- that, and do nothing else but violate the laws of human decency. But of course, it all comes with the job.
My attention drifted to another TV, where a scantily-dressed Beyonce in a commercial for her new perfume gave the camera a sultry stare. Avoiding her televised gaze, my eyes landed on two (real) boys that looked to be brothers, who were playing an X-Box game. Neither of them seemed to even notice the other, as they were much too busy slavering over the blood and guts displayed on the screen. Other than the clicking of their controllers and the sounds of semi-automatics firing in the game, they were perfectly silent. That is, until the younger brother, who seemed to be about four, began shouting, “Die! Die! BamBamBam! Die, you bloody mother****r! I hope you bleed to death!”
For reasons I could not understand, I found this to be vaguely disconcerting, and I decided to look elsewhere. I wandered over to the screen that had displayed the perfume commercial, only to find that Beyonce had been replaced by a soldier in Afghanistan firing into a crowd of unarmed civilians. Across the screen flashed the words, “BREAKING NEWS: HEROIC AMERICAN SOLDIERS RISK IT ALL TO DEFEND OUR COUNTRY.”
It is not the looks of terror on the faces of the Middle Eastern children that troubles me the most as I now stare at the red-and-white stripes, but rather, the dead look on the face of the American soldier that is so similar to the expressionless face of the teenage boy who was playing the X-Box game. I tell myself that it must be respect for the heroic acts of the soldier that now seals my lips; thoughts of the psychological toll all the killing must take on soldiers such as him. It is no small wonder we honor them. They gave their humanity to defend America, even though the enemy was nowhere near American soil.
Someone poked me in the back. “You do realize that the f**ing pledge is over, right?” It was the American Boy, one end of the mouth on his chubby face lifted in a mocking smirk.
“Yeah, of course.” Blushing, I sat down.
American Girl leaned over the desk that separated her steat from mine, completely ignoring the nerd -- the Persona Non Grata -- that sat there. “Were you lost in thought again?” she asked me.
“Kind of,” I admitted.
She smacked her glossy lips together with disapproval. “You should, like, stop doing that. Like, seriously. Thinking too deeply about anything other than makeup and relationship drama is bad, likely dangerous.”
Persona Non Grata cleared her throat loudly, and American Girl shot her a dirty look.
Luckily, I was saved from my embarrassment by our U.S. History teacher, a heavily overweight, white, retired football coach who had finished passing out worksheets and chose that moment to start a video on what appeared to be the topic of WWII.
“Pay attention, guys,” was the teacher’s droll command. Most of us called him Uncle Sam, which was a name he greatly appreciated. “This is significant material you must know on America’s heroic and noble response to foreign threats. It is knowledge that is of absolute relevance today. Any questions? Good. Remember to think critically when answering the video questions.” Upon finishing his brief speech, the elderly quarterback commenced a sort of waddle in the direction of his desk.
Persona Non Grata’s hand shot up.
Ignoring the teacher’s sigh of impatience, Persona Non Grata blurted, “Pardon me for asking, but why don’t we ever read books concerning different angles of primary and secondary sources of history and write APA-formatted essays based upon such texts? We might actually learn something that way.”
The elder American laughed aloud at the irrationality of the idea. “And do you know how many of your peers would actually read, not to mention write? Our fifth-grade level textbook is certainly sufficient reading for an 11th-grade U.S. history class, and our five-paragraph essays are plenty of writing. You’re the only one who seems to want more, for a reason none of us can comprehend.”
Indeed, the whole class was now openly glaring at the stupid, nerdy Persona Non Grata. She shrank back in her seat, temporarily defeated under the weight of our rejection. She was immutable, though.
I was pretty sure I heard her say under her breath, “Well, why do you encourage them to persist in their aliteracy* and ignorant attitude, Uncle Sam?”
Without further ado, the old man pressed the “play” button on American History.
On the screen, the narrator was a balding Ph.D named Mr. American, who introduced the show with the words, “Now we will examine America’s greatest triumph over the forces of evil and discrimination in the world.”
I glanced around. Almost half the class was already asleep; the others had pulled out their phones, their thumbs flying as they texted furiously. My eyes returned to the paper in front of me.
The narrator continued, “On December 12th, 1941, the Japanese bombed the American naval base in Pearl Harbor in what is known today as the Day of Infamy.”
I glanced at my paper. The first “question,” just like the others, was a sentence with a blank: “The Japenese bombed Peerl Habor in whats known today as _________.”
I wrote “Day of Infamy” in the blank. Decidedly, it was an intelligent question that required a deep analyzation of history.
“Thus, America entered the war for the sake of national and global defense, marching to aid her foreign allies in the war against the the domination of the villainous Axis Powers. One of America’s allies in protecting the oppressed ‘Undesirables’ and the countries threatened by Hitler’s expansion from the Nazis was the U.S.S.R. leader Stalin, who only recently had purged his people of thousands of political enemies. It was to save the lives of all those victims of the Nazis that the U.S. bombed German cities, killing approximately 600,000 German civilians.”
I quickly wrote “It was to save lives” in the blank on my paper that constituted the first part of the sentence “that US bombed Germen cities.” The American Boy next to me started to snore, but the omniscient narrator continued to speak on screen, oblivious to his disinterested audience as he pointed to a picture of the rows of corpses that lay before the smoking ruins of a city.
“This is an image of Hiroshima in Japan after the U.S. dropped the world’s first atomic bomb, thus ending World War Two. It was our courageous President Truman who is lauded for making the difficult decision to end the war in this way. As he himself nobly stated, he chose to drop bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ‘save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.’”
The narrator flashed to another picture, stating in his dispassionate monotone, “These are some of the small Japanese children who passed that day. But of course, they are not important because American lives --the lives of victors-- are the only ones that matter. Unlike Japan’s infamy, this act of Truman’s was for the great and patriotic purpose of saving human life, certainly not for power or any personal agenda. He is admired by every true American for his decision to end the war.”
When the Ph.D. narrator stopped speaking, I became aware of the soft sound of sniffling. Persona Non Grata sat with tears rolling down her cheeks, still staring at the screen as if she was unable to look away from the images of small, charred and mangled bodies there.
American Boy let out a massive snore.
“Okay,” Uncle Sam called out, “we still have some time left in the period. Pass up your responses to the critical thinking fill-in-the-blanks, and can I get some volunteers to help me pass back your democracy essays for participation points?”
Persona Non Grata wiped her eyes. “One would have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how not to pass this class,” she muttered to me.
Like everyone else, I pretended not to hear her.
“What a snob she is,” American Girl whispered. “The b***ch always acts like she’s so smart, but she ain’t the only one with brains.” She showed me her paper. “Look! I got an A plus on the ‘How Has American History Shown that Democracy Works’ essay. That should keep my 40.0 up.”
The New Girl, as we called her, was leaning over and seemed to be comparing her own paper with American Girl’s. She was an immigrant from somewhere in the Eastern half of the world, and she completely idolized American Girl.
“Wait,” she said in her thick accent. “Why does your essay match mine word for word?”
“Because I copied you.” American Girl smiled patronizingly. “Honey, you need to work smarter, not harder -- like I do. That’s the key to success in America.”
New Girl gazed at her with a combination of admiration and awe, wishing she could be like this amazing American Girl. “Can you show me how to be successful?”
“Sure thing.” Unfortunately for New Girl, though, American Girl had already lost interest in her. She was now looking at the Persona Non Grata. “Hey Nerd, what did you get on your essay? An A?”
“No.” Persona Non Grata grinned ruefully. “An F, because I provided a 12-page answer that is completely wrong by Uncle Sam’s standards. I said that democracy does not work in America, and I provided examples of its shortcomings, as proven by U.S. history. I concluded with a socialist solution, which probably drove him crazy because of how truly non-conformist it is.”
“Go***amn.” American Boy swore. “My nonconformist essay got an F because it was less than a page and he said that it was ‘illegible because of numerous errors in language,’ whatever that means.”
The Persona Non Grata looked at American Boy, who was now awake and watching a video of a person playing a video game on his phone. “You might be better off if you focused on your schoolwork instead of that game,” she commented.
“Nah.” American Boy’s eyes never left his phone as he spoke. “This game was advertised as ‘blessedly mind-numbing.’ I’ve no idea what that means, but it must mean fun, or something like that.” Still not looking up, he switched conversations. “So, American Girl, explain to me how you are going to take AP classes next year if you don’t do any of the work? I mean, neither do I, but I don’t care what classes I take.”
‘Because,” American Girl answered primly, “I want to go to UCLA after graduation.”
“And why would you want to do that?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s not because I care at all about learning.” She gave Persona Non Grata a disdainful glance and picked up her sparkly new iPhone. “I’m not crazy; I’m no nerd. No, the only thing that matters is the prestige that comes with the degree. It’s that status that means success in America. Who gives a s****t about knowledge anymore?”
“So f**ng true.” American Boy nodded absentmindedly, as his fingers shot and killed the miniature figures on his screen.
As the conversation with Persona Non Grata subsequently ended, American Girl and I began to gossip over the latest relationship drama unfolding on Snapchat (who cheated on who, that is the question!). She stared into her iPhone camera--the mirror of her life--and applied liposuction gloss.
Since the events of the next few years are entirely boring and therefore unsuitable to our taste for instant gratification, I will press the “skip” button on time; thus allowing us to jump ahead a few years to a certain riverbed in the middle of that great city where this story has been centered.
The flickering lights of TVs shed their light from the towering apartments on either side onto the riverbed, casting an artificial glow to those faces I once knew so well…..
American Girl is even thinner than she used to be. Her face, older now, is coated with grime instead of thick makeup. Her red-rimmed eyes stare emptily at the sky.
American Boy snores away, an empty beer bottle laying on top of him and rising and falling with the motion of his enormous potbelly.
American Girl’s illegitimate children sit nearby, their faces gaunt as they pore over the bright, garish advertisements in a discarded magazine, which included images of dancing Twinkies, flaming Cheetos, and pretty celebrities eating KitKats.
And the Nerd, the Social Pariah? She was there too, her pen flying on her notepad as she interviews the Americans and scribbles down what they say. Every few seconds, she pushes the glasses up on her nose in the gesture we all ridiculed her for back in high school. How strange that they aren’t above talking to her now.
“I’m going to write a satirical article on the America of today to put in my newspaper,” she tells me. “The social issues; the hidden discrimination and the poverty….Maybe we’ll finally have a chan-”
I cut her off. “How many people read your paper?”
She frowns. “No one, really. The Big-Box companies stole my base of readers when they established a YouTube channel on ‘real’ news.”
I shake my head. “Honestly, I don’t know why you try.”
“I’m better off as a journalist than they are as upstanding citizens, though. At least I have somewhere nice to go home to after this.” She gestures towards the Americans who rejected her.
I nod absentmindedly, watching as the dark, polluted water of the river flows past. Carried in its currents were pieces of trash, one of which washes up on the cement by my feet. Stooping, I see that it is a plastic beverage lid with the logo of McDonald’s emblazoned on its crushed and broken surface. Suddenly filled with a mysterious, inexpressibly raging disgust, I kick the lid and watch it fall into the poisonous depths. Then I turn back to the homeless encampment behind me, where all my aliterate American friends live.
This, I think, truly is the Great America we all believe in; the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave!
* Aliterate (noun): unwilling to read, although able to do so.