In the High School Environmental Studies and Literacy class “The End of the World (As We Know It)”, students followed the COP24 climate talks, reviewed key sections of the IPCC report, and kept abreast of the dire climate news that has been coming out daily in major mainstream newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times. The students were then challenged to imagine a future in which society collapses as a result of climate change, and consider what must be done in the next few years if we are to avoid that outcome. But what if we are facing major changes? Would there be any hope left for humanity? Senior student Tia Chew explored these questions in her heartwarming short Christmas story, “Sweet Potato”.
by Tia Chew
It is snowing outside, hard I might add. It is below negative twenty degrees Celsius, even though it was bright and sunny just a few hours ago. Papa said we used to have seasons back in the day, before our climate collapsed. Four seasons to be exact: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Now, we don’t know what seasons are. All we understand is weather—weather without any particular pattern. We are forced to wear gas masks when the toxins in the air surpass the safety level. We also have emergency protocols around our community. Whenever a storm is about to hit, the watcher lets out a signal for us to take cover and secure our crops. I don’t live in a big village; we have about two hundred people, and when we reach the age of ten we are assigned jobs and groups. There is the Agricultural team, the Water Technology team, the Security and the Management teams. Each group has different uniforms that are required for the group members. Mama said we wouldn’t be living if this community wasn’t functioning. I work in the agricultural sector, and besides the ugly yellow I’ve had to wear for the past couple months, it’s been fun.
Today is Christmas, so we were all allowed to take time off for these past three days. I have been working on something special for quite a while: sweet potatoes. I harvested them yesterday when no one was looking. In my hand I held three misshaped sweet potatoes that I poured my heart into. We aren’t allowed to take the food we harvest, at least not until it has been evenly distributed between all the families.
Mama keeps a photo album in the white cupboard, and I am not allowed to touch it. I’ve spied mama flipping through it silently at night, every night. Papa is usually fast asleep by then, exhausted from working. I flipped through it one day when Mama wasn’t looking. There was a picture that has to be the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life. It is a picture of a tree with lights on it—red, blue, green and yellow blurred together—while little happy children sit in front of it gleefully. All the children have colorful boxes of all shapes and sizes. It didn’t end well, peaking at the photo album. I got whipped. Mama was very angry with me. She smacked my bottom with a stick, but she cried afterwards. I was shocked because I’ve never seen her cry. Tears came out of her eyes like fresh springs.
I asked Grandpa Marty what that picture was. He is the oldest man working on the wheat fields. He has been told that he does not have much time left because of the toxins in his body. Stage four cancer, Grandpa Marty said. I described all the shiny lights I’d never seen before, the tree and the colorful boxes. Grandpa Marty said it was what Christmas was like when he was kid; he said everybody would get presents and toys.
How many, I asked?
Dozens, Grandpa Marty said. Back then we were very bad people, consuming without a limit. Grandpa Marty said he used to eat stuffed turkey, roasted potatoes, baked beans, fresh buns, gravy, pecan pies and cherry tarts. I don’t know what half of the food is. Grandpa Marty said people ate and ate, and when they were full they threw it away.
Why? I asked in shock, I would never throw my food away; we always finish our meals and leave nothing behind.
Grandpa Marty scratched his beard and said we were once selfish and unkind.
At our house, my parents read on the couch with candles that light up their faces—faces that are cut by time, lines and creases that tell thousands of stories I am too afraid to ask about. I packed my sweet potatoes with a massive red leaf I found outside our shelter. It looks just like the boxes in the photos. Presents. I bring it from under my bed to Mama’s lap. Mama looks up at me, smiles a slight smile, then looks at Papa, who leans back and glances at me with a huge grin that looks funny accompanied by his teary eyes. Mama unwraps the box to find the sweet potatoes; she lets out a shaky breath before putting the gift aside and pulling me close. I can’t look at her face at first, but when I do she hugs me. I let out the pressure I have held inside me ever since I harvested those sweet potatoes. Mama picks me up like I am a little baby, and as I curl up in her lap, Papa leans down and plants a damp kiss on my forehead. It’s scruffy and a little painful. Mama and Papa both hold me close until I’m in an embrace so tight I can barely breathe.
“Thank you Nadia.” Papa whispers in my ear.