Brianna Robinson. I Can’t Go. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Photography Portfolio.

Last week, we introduced you to two of our 2012 Portfolio Gold winners—photographer Leo Purman and writer Emma Goldberg. We shared their creative process and presented a sample of the incredible work that they produced. In continuation of our Eyes on the Prize series, we would like you to meet our next pair of portfolio winners: Brianna Robinson and Yan Zhang.

Brianna, 17, is a photographer and a senior at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, NC. She explains that part of her work deals with the loss of her grandfather, who meant a lot to her entire family:

“The feeling of being calm and free in life and through life’s worries is what is portrayed in this portfolio. Each image can express a meaning, whether it’s good or tragic. Floating in the air symbolizes the coping with life stressors and symbolizes the happiness and good thoughts that come about.”

Yan is also 17, and attends Millard West High School in Omaha, NE. She is both a writer and an artist. Yan won a Portfolio Gold Medal for writing, but she also has a talent for drawing, painting, and making sculptures.

Like Brianna, Yan lost her grandfather and this loss—and recovering from it—echoes throughout the following personal essay. She writes, “It feels like you’ve been carrying cinder bricks on your back your entire life and now someone has cut the straps and you’ve suddenly sprouted wings. It feels like you could leap up and your heart would begin to sing.”

The Third Thing

Between living and dreaming there is a third thing. Guess it. – Antonio Machado, poet

Sitting across the linoleum table
He pushes towards me the cold coffee
It is early morning, the sun not yet up
Between living and dreaming, he asks me
What is the third thing?
As I look into the poet’s
Wide, black, dead and soft eyes
I think of many things—

It must be sleepwalking, I decide. Last quarter I learned about it in psychology class. I never sleepwalked when I was a kid, but I wished I did. It sounded so fun. To have the ability to live when you are asleep—such a talent. I have heard stories of boys crawling out of bed to play Halo in the middle of the night. I’ve heard of ham sandwiches being made, gallons of milk being drunk, laundry being done all whilst asleep. Of course, all this begins to sound like conventional fare, hardly the stuff of Jekyll and Hyde. I once read a study that said we can predict where people will be with ninety percent accuracy simply because people do the exact same boring thing every day. I guess it must be true. Even our unconscious brains know it—

How boring
I tell the poet, and take a sip of coffee
Cold, as always
He just sits and looks
With his wide, black, dead and soft eyes
You’re not wrong, he smiles
But tell me again, what is the third thing?
And pushes towards me the sugar bowl—

I have always wondered if people taste when they’re in a vegetative state. Of course we’ve all heard the story of the man who was conscious but paralyzed for forty years, and everyone thought he was brain dead, had no feelings or desires. And there are more stories—new medical technology can now trace the flicker of consciousness in an otherwise frozen form. I wonder what they think. Do they rage and weep in eternal silence, or do they rest in eternal slumber? What becomes of a mind entrapped? Does it fold in on itself, like an origami crane, and breed phantasmagorical dreams? We all risk falling into this space, this awful limbo balanced between life, death, and a dream. Maybe that is why we are afraid—

It is frightening
I say to the poet
This third thing
Do I really want to know?
Well—the poet says—
As he carefully measures out a teaspoon
The third head of Cerberus was always the worst
But in the end, it too was defeated—

I couldn’t believe it when my grandfather died. I mean I really couldn’t bring myself to believe it. He lived an ocean away, in China. I found out through the telephone, when my grandmother called with hysteria in her voice. After I put down the handset, I felt myself drifting away. It all felt like a setup somehow, like I was suddenly in the cast of a television drama or acting out the phases of a dream. He was here, alive, just three months ago. He was dead now, but there was no evidence, no images. I still can’t believe it. In my mind, his death is still a dream—and he is still living, still puttering around on that rusty bicycle, still quietly scrubbing the dishes clean, still my living, loving, wonderful grandfather—

Says the poet quietly
Death is for the dead
But the third thing is carried by the living
He slowly strokes my hand, comforting
With his wide, black, dead and soft eyes
It is time to unburden the burden, he tells me
It will make you feel better—

Have you ever been truly happy? It feels wonderful. It feels like you’ve been carrying cinder bricks on your back your entire life and now someone has cut the straps and you’ve suddenly sprouted wings. It feels like you could leap up and your heart would begin to sing. It is something like being in a dream, I suppose, but somehow you are utterly and completely alive and awake. All your senses tremble in anticipation for the next marvelous feeling. I have been truly happy exactly once in my life. This sounds too little, but being truly happy really embraces many things—it is sort of like everything good in your life flows together in a soaring crescendo. It happened on a warm, spring, sunlit day—a day I will be searching for the rest of my life—

Says the poet
He points out the window, where the sun is rising at last
As it spills over the rim of the world
Everything catches it and everything glows
The sugar bowl, the cup of coffee
The poet’s wide, dark, soft eyes
And I realize what the third thing is

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