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Letters About Literature National Winners 2009

National Winner, Level 3: Joshua Tiprigan

Dear Rudyard Kipling,

My dad is a six-foot tall, deep-voiced, husky eastern European rock of a man. In fact, all the men on my dad’s side of the family are a bunch of Romanian macho hunks with bulging biceps and visages as stony and solemn as a statue. Genetically, I have these same features yet, because of my mother’s influence, I am much softer on the inside. Instead of wrestling or boxing at family gatherings, like my cousins so often do, I would much rather read a book or talk to my older relatives. Although to him I seem quiet, unaggressive, or all together “unmanly,” father has consistently tried to instill a sense of being a man in me ever since I was very young. When I reached the age of twelve he began taking me to his auto body shop, which he built up from nothing as an immigrant entrepreneur. He told me this tough job would build me into a man of character. I would work hard grueling hours sanding cars and preparing them for paint. My dad also urges me lift weights to make me strong like a man. My perception of being a man has mostly been molded by how my rugged dad portrays himself. But this all changed a year ago when my mother passed away and I stumbled upon your poem, “If.”

My mother was my salvation from my father and was the one person who could understand me. If I ever got tired during my work hours at the shop I could call her to come and pick me up and she would do the impossible, reason with my father. It was my mother who instilled the love of literature and languages in me. My mother spoke six languages fluently and had thousands of books, which still sit in the attic of our house. It was in this “library” of hers that I picked up a book of poetry from a cold metal shelf and found your poem, “If.” A couple of months after my mother’s death, I wandered up the cold creaky stairs that led into the attic and shuffled through some books and found a large one that was filled with poetry. In this book, I found “If.” As I read the poem, the words printed in black ink seemed to turn to golden truths and values that burned deep into my brain and trickled down to my heart, gently caressing some wet droplets to my eyes, but I was not “man” enough to cry so I quickly blinked them away.

Ever since the death of my mother I have felt alone, as if I belong to no family. The image of a man that saw in my dad was completely shattered when I saw him break down and cry, which looked so pathetic and “unmanly” compared to his usual stoic and emotionless countenance. My grandmother blamed my father and me for causing the cancer which took my mother away in less than a month’s time after the doctor’s diagnosis. In return the blame was doubled upon my shoulders as my dad turned on me and started shouting more about things that don’t matter, yet I remained silent remembering the golden words: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you … you’ll be a Man, my Son!”

“If” reminded me to remain calm and “keep my head” because I wanted to be a man and wanted to be the one supporting my family. Throughout the struggles that quickly took over my life as well as my father’s, I remained strong while he seemed to crumble and fold under pressure. Since my mother was a stay-at-home mom, I sacrificed my ability to compete in a winter sport so that I could stay home and cook for my family and clean the house in order to try and take up the jobs that my mother was not around to do. My father saw this and our relationship has grown much stronger. He finally respects me for who I am and has told me he is proud to have a man for his son. Through this poem, I realized that to be a man is not about putting weights on a barbell but rather putting the weight of others on your back.

Your poem was so much more than just a simple list of guidelines or morals that some see it as; it really changed my life and my relationship with my dad. Because of “If,” I am able to walk with my chest pushed out like a man not because of bulging pectoral muscles but because of the heart under them.

With admiration and thanks,

Joshua Tiprigan