Please believe me, I know the difference between a tortoise and a person. But my tortoise has influenced me more profoundly than many people.
If you asked me today what I think of labels, I’d tell you that they’re often a nightmare of brittle binaries or a daydream of extremes. But as a 10-year-old visiting the tortoise rescue agency, designation created for me an understanding of this new creature, Joseph Frederick Junior Sivitz Gellman. Marked from the moment of his adoption with the surnames of my mother and father, Joey the tortoise was indelibly labeled: Jewish feminist. But seriously, I learned that day of the power of my own contributions to someone else’s life, and someone else’s on mine.
Joey’s first contribution to my sense of the world was teaching me that it’s okay to defy stereotypes. The cartoons I watched through childhood all portrayed tortoises as painfully shy or glacially slow, but that’s not Joey. When I press my face to his terrarium he marches up until he’s level with my eyes. He pulses his neck in welcome, and I smile as tiny, twin puffs of air from his nostrils fog the glass. Once on the living room rug, his craggy claws take to the traction, and he transforms into a reptilian marathoner.
And runs on determination. If Joey could speak, his motto would be that persistence pays off. Each time he walks the length of my bedroom and approaches my door – even though it’s shut – he’s bent on reaching the other side. His head fits underneath the door, but not the rest of him, so he treadmills passionately forward until I come to his aid. His yearning inspires me.
But when my certainty wavers, Joey teaches me that it’s okay to be a dichotomy. To be an introverted extrovert, singing with friends into the night, and winding down for an hour afterward curled up with Eliot or Whitman. To have no idea whether I’ll wear a dress or a tuxedo to my senior prom. To amble through Central Park, touching each tree’s gnarled surface, but riff 32nd notes rapidly around the drums.
Joey shows me how to go offbeat too, how to go on adventures. He turns my living room rug into a jungle maze of pattern and hue to be explored for days at a time. For him, the underside of the sofa is a capacious cave, the space underneath the dining table a cathedral. He reminds me, when I get frustrated with the Lilliputian limitations of adolescence, that I needn’t wait until I’m more “established” to make meaning. I have the universe to scrawl onto a reporter-sized lined page.
Some people see their surroundings bronzed by the patina of time, or paled by political proclivities. I see my world through the glass of a terrarium, and through the soulful eyes of the most accidentally wise creature I know: my tortoise. Joseph Frederick Jr. Sivitz Gellman.
Age 17, Grade 12