A Portrait

A Portrait

2022 Regional-Gold-Key-winning personal essay & memoir below by Jema D., Class IX Student

My Name

I’ve never met someone with the same name as me. There are plenty of Jemmas and Gemmas, but I’m the only Jema I know. In English, Jemma means “gem” or “precious stone”. That’s the definition my parents were thinking of when they named me. To my mother, I am a treasure; I am a precious jewel that she would do anything for. 

But Jema, my actual name, with only one ‘m,’means “good thing” in Swahili. I am not only a valuable treasure to be protected, but also a gift to be shared. My mother didn’t know this meaning of my name when she chose it. My name is an acronym. I am named after four women on my maternal side. Judith, my grandmother. Elaine and Marion, my two great grandmothers. Angella, my mom. The extra ‘m’ did not fit so it was discarded. 

I do not know any stories in which Judith, Elaine, Marion, or Angella perform spectacular acts of heroism. What I do know is that these women all love fiercely. They are the anchors of our family. Their love is a wave washing throughout my body, permeating my heart and mind, giving me warmth and courage; it is sweet, smooth, soft, and always with me. My name is saturated with love. Jema with one ‘m’ truly is a good thing, because in giving me this name, my mother ensured that I would never forget how deeply I am loved. 

When other people hear my name, they hear two m’s instead of one, when they read my name they pronounce the first syllable too sharply, so that it sticks like taffy on your tongue. Not like my sister’s name—Phia—that is always as swift and scorching as the flame she was named for. I don’t mind it when people say my name wrong, because I know that their words cannot change me. I will eternally be Jema—a loved gem, a good thing.

Windowsill Flower

I see myself in the flower, and I think it sees itself in me. The flower with pretty hair and pretty eyes like mine, with slender limbs and dainty hands like mine. It lives in a clay pot on my windowsill. It stays there, waiting. Often it is overlooked. Just a lovely flower, noticed for a second and then forgotten. 

It has a secret struggle, though. No one can see its roots running in all directions, running and screaming when they touch the solid walls of its little clay pot. The roots are begging for more space to exist in, for the flower has more to give than it has been given. All this suffering and still it stays on my windowsill, looking pretty for others to see. 

The flower never complains about its pain. It stays like a mannequin, its stem a rigid spine, keeping it upright. Its dreams, like its roots, are trapped inside a too-small pot. Stay, stay, stay, stay. It teaches. 

Sometimes, when I begin to feel my own roots running against the hard, hard walls of my own clay pot, I wish I had more space to exist in. The only space I have is the space I’ve been given—a pretty, precious thing they call me. But I need a bigger pot. I need a pot where my roots can grow beyond the safety of old clay walls into new soil—soil that might show me my purpose. It is then I remember the flower on my windowsill, one who, like me, dreams of more. One whose roots are stuck, but whose mind is free.


You can tell the difference between everyone in our family by our hands. My mother’s hands are thin and bony, and her fingers are like a spider’s legs that scurry all around making sure the rest of us are okay. My father’s hands are thick and comfortable. Good for hugging my hands during the winter so they don’t get cold. My grandma’s hands seem fragile, with green and purple veins that make them look white as a ghost, but really they are tough and reliable. My hands are soft and slender; warm and youthful in shades of pink and brown. Even so, my hands betray the vitality of their desert hues. They have been trained to behave like fine china teacups locked inside a glass cabinet—yearning to be used, but never are, for fear of being broken.

But my sister Phia’s hands are wild. They have no limits, they let her be free, as free as a bird, they are sparks of light dancing upwards from a flame, dancing upwards and never to be brought down, and never clean because she is always outside digging in the dirt, digging for buried treasure only she knows exists, her hands are rough, so rough that they scream to be held and touched and caressed, because no one can keep up with her dreaming. Sometimes I wish my hands were more like hers—fearless, impossible to protect. But my hands, too, can learn to dance and to dig, because fragile is not my only name. Underneath a skin of careful, treasured beauty, my hands are strong. They hold my dreams in their palms.