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Essay of the Week: A New Dad and a Dead Cat

By Sydney Stephens

A wall hits me when I walk into class–an odious aroma permeating the lab. I hesitate. So do my peers, but Ms. Wise, my anatomy and physiology teacher,  commands us to enter: “Come on in guys.”

A scalpel, pair of scissors, and a teasing needle sit atop the black lab table. A bag in the center of our tray encases a dark brown cat. Her forepaws guard her face, her hindpaws are tucked delicately beneath her thighs while her mouth remains slightly agape; if alive, she would be adorable. She reminds me of Gandalf, my neighbor’s cat who I play with when I babysit Sophie and Amanda.

I pull the cat – soaked in preservative –  out of the bag. The smell is repulsive. My three lab partners do not hide their disgust. Immediately, Emily turns her head and nose upwards. “Ughh, there is no way I’m touching that.”  

I had a similar feeling a couple of years prior when Mom began dating. “Sydney, come into the pool!”  My sister’s voice bounced off the concrete and onto the pool chair I’ve made into my private island.  

No! He decided to show up so I refused to enjoy any part of this getaway.  The “he” being Carlos, the man Mom dates. He and his daughter, Maya, tagged along on the Stephen’s Girls’ trip to Atlanta. I ignored Him, Maya and my sister, Olivia, who keeps urging me to jump in the pool. I buried my nose deeper into the book I pretended to read.

The idea of Mom dating made me feel like my dad was being replaced even though he died when I was five.  As I stared blankly into my book, my godmother’s words echoed through my mind.  “You have no idea how lucky your mother is to find a man who loves not only her, but you and your sisters as well.”

I began to feel guilty. As the oldest of three girls, I sometimes have a difficult time being immature and irrational especially when I consider the potential of my behavior rubbing off on Olivia and Lola, my other sister. I jumped into the pool for a few minutes. This big sister instinct to lead also came over me when I pulled the chemically soaked cat out of the bag and placed her on the lab tray. I looked at my lab partners to see if anyone wanted to make the first incision. Seeing hesitant faces, I grabbed the scalpel made the first cut. They looked relieved.

I found things to be bit strange at first–the cat and the new dad. (Mom married Carlos) I hadn’t lived with a man in the house for most of my life and thought he would fit the stereotype of a burping, macho man. He did not even smell and was surprisingly clean. When I picked up the cat, I was also a bit surprised at how heavy it felt in my arms. This was my first time holding a dead animal except for the snake I caught many years ago and accidentally killed by dropping a rock on it’s head.

I was actually starting to think of our cat as cute in a strange, dead-cat way. Halfway through removing the skin from the abdomen, I suggested we name our cat to make my lab partners more comfortable. We named her Philicia.

Similarly,  I became more comfortable with the presence of a man at home.  I still hold onto the memories of playing “tickle monster” with my biological dad. He would lay under a blanket “asleep” and my sisters and I would sneak up to him and run away. When he caught us, he would tickle us into loud laughter.

Mom’s marriage forced me to accept change, while still cherishing memories of my biological father. As I learned after making that first incision into Philicia, true lessons come through great challenges.

Sydney Stephens, a graduate of Providence High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, just began her freshman year at Howard University.

 

Essay of the Week: Summer Pride Grows into Action

By Tsion Syoum

For most of my classmates the word summer is a verb: summering in the Hamptons, the Berkshires or the Vineyard. My summer home is in East Africa. And it really is home.

Sitting on my grandparents’ front porch in Asmara, the blazing sun hits my face and the roasty smell of Buna, traditional Eritrean coffee, consumes my senses. A girl who looks my age, 12 at the time, drags her donkey across the road. A 1997 volkswagen lumbers by, honking at the traffic of people and their attendant animals.

The vehicle disappears into a shroud of dust. I’m reminded of the tumult in this region when I was an infant. Eritrea, a new nation bordered by Ethiopia and the Red sea in the horn of Africa, won its independence from Ethiopia in a bloody war two decades ago. Dad grew up in Ethiopia, Mom was raised in Eritrea, and they found the American Dream when they met in New York.  

By the time I was born, politics had ruptured my family tree. Mom is not allowed in Dad’s homeland. My own inner-battle was not in being both Eritrean and Ethiopian. It was in being both American and East African, spoiling the excitement of a field trip in 3rd grade. “Museum of Natural History, pack lunch this time!’ my classroom advisor announced.

When we broke for lunch at the museum I looked around the table as students opened up their lunch boxes, exposing Americana:  Lunchables, Mac and Cheese, and grilled cheese. My hands became sweaty. I slowly unzipped my lunch box. The smell sprung forward.  Ethiopian food: a variety of stews and pungent spices with distinctive aromas that cling to your clothes, anchored by injera, a spongy sourdough bread. I shut it immediately hoping no one detected the foreign smell, the foreigner, amongst them. It was too late.

“What is that smell!”  

“It’s disgusting.”  

My face turned red with embarrassment. This shame faded with every trip to Eritrea in the following years. By the time I returned to school in Seventh Grade, I was ready to spotlight my culture’s vibrancy and beauty. For a project on our summer experiences, I presented a video of me brewing that potent East African coffee, Buna, at my grandma’s house. The ooh’s and ah’s from attentive peers was an affirmation that I was pretty cool after all.  

My awareness of Eritrean life beyond the coffee and Summer beauty grew after I reached peace with my heritage, I became conscious of the other side of my summer country, such as two young girls, around the age of 6, asking for water one day. Heartbroken, I solemnly obliged and as I handed them my bottle of water. Guilt washed over me.I became frank with myself. How long would that water last these distant cousins of mine? An hour? A few minutes? All I had done was give them what was expendable to me and a momentary relief for them. I decided to turn this guilt into action, and to turn short-term charity into sustainable partnership.

It was the summer before freshman year. After months of research, I decided to build a well. Eritrea’s Ministry of Water helped me find a school in the small village of Sheka Wedi Bisrat where thousands of students often missed classes, or left early to walk several miles to the nearest well to pump water to take home to their families.

My goal was to raise $25,000. I created a Gofundme page, a website, a Facebook page, and an instagram account, friending everyone. I sent links to all of my family, friends and classmates.By junior year, I reached the fundraising goal. The well was built by Christmas — around the same time that I launched my current, larger-scale campaign. It is another opportunity to support a country and a people, that will always be a part of me.

Tsion Syoum, a graduate of The Chapin School, will be a freshman at Haverford College in the fall.

Essay of the Week: From “Ragdoll” to Captain of the Football Team

By Joshua Alexander Mattingly

She glanced at my nearly bald buzz cut scalp and my bony shoulders cloaked in a yellow basketball jersey. The length of the Kobe Bryant jersey I sported fit my 6’1 frame, however, the jersey was so wide I could have fit two more Josh’s inside of it — really, there was more than enough room.  She paused mid-exhale, whispering as if telling a secret: “Do you have, like, cancer or something?” I laughed even though it wasn’t funny and assured her I didn’t have “cancer or something.”

I continued to gym class, hearing my teacher bellow: “PUSH-UPS!!” He blew his whistle. An automated voice from a speaker in the gymnasium counted: “Down-Up-One.” My arms bore a disturbing resemblance to uncooked spaghetti as they quaked underneath me. “Down-Up-Two.” I weighed a mere 140 pounds, yet it felt like I was two tons. “Down-Up-Three.”  My lanky body felt so heavy that I thought I had a better chance at physically pushing the earth down than lifting myself off the floor again. I felt myself crash to the hardwood floor.

I hated my helplessness with the simple task of doing push-ups, but I was too timid to travel onto the unpaved roads of change until one surreal moment:

He lays on his back in the middle of a 4 lane intersection in the dead of night. Someone is yelling, but to the 13 year old, it sounds as if he were underwater. He squints and strains but can’t find the source of the voice. He begins to realize that his eyelids are wide open, yet he is unable to see the world around him. He clutches his face trying to reassure himself that his eyes are still in his head. He identifies the horrific sounds of wet tires slashing over asphalt near his head. He digs his fingertips into coarse pavement and begins to slide his body towards the sidewalk. Each passing second in which he is not flattened by oncoming traffic only amplifies the feeling of trepidation he holds in his stomach. His nails grind and crack as he crawls along, devoid of two of his five senses. He clenches onto the small protrusions in the asphalt feeling his fingertips tear; his palms fill with blood. Sheer terror fuels him to continue forward. The voice straps him into a stretcher. He tries to speak back and finds that in this frightening moment of his life, he no longer possesses the ability to pronounce words. His body convulses despite his will. He cannot see, hear, speak, or move. He feels trapped. As the ambulance shudders beneath him he wonders why he has been lead so close to death yet given a second chance at life. He never saw the pickup truck that hit him. He only recalls feeling his body twirling in the air and falling like a ragdoll.

Two years later, the ragdoll stands at 230lbs in front of 30 peers with eyes fixated on him waiting for his direction as football captain. ln those two years, his contentment grows in falling in love with new things: weightlifting, science and his favorite—poetry.  

The shred of lined notebook paper in his hand read: “white, empty, fold, fire, grasshopper, sour.” Dr. Moore announces to the class: “You have a list of seemingly random words. Make a sestina using them.”  He hears sighs of frustration around the classroom while he holds the paper to the light as if he were a store clerk checking if a dollar bill is real. His gaze remains stuck on the piece of paper above him. He wonders if his classmates have taken note of his goofy posture. The 15 minute class exercise grows into his love for poetry. He begins to furiously write a sestina as the art form becomes his catharsis.

Poetry produced that fulfillment I sought as a freshman lying facedown in the gym.

Joshua Alexander Mattingly, a 2017 graduate of Stuyvesant High School, will be a freshman at Fordham University in September

Essay of the Week: A Confirmation Dilemma: Judas or Not?

By Jack Hogan

Knees locked, I stood before the altar, jolted by the words of my Confirmation teacher:

“If you do not share the beliefs of the Catholic Church or have mixed thoughts about completing your Confirmation, please talk to me or one of the Fathers here immediately.”

Her high-pitched, polite, yet stern decree sent me into a moment of panic. Or was it cold feet?  At 12, I knew that, despite the crucifix around my neck, I was an agnostic. So was I also dishonest like Judas, the ex-disciple, for participating in this confirmation?

As a Hogan, I was fighting an internal battle between my sense of family and myself. I was soon ready to approach the teacher after practice when, as if on cue, my parents arrived with proud grins. I could not do it.

Not only would my parents be crestfallen, but I would disappoint my grandparents and other extended family who were travelling to New York for the ceremony that was a specific rite of passage in my family. After all, I was a Hogan– the first of my generation to face confirmation.

I grew up in religion classes -twice a week after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  I never complained. Noah’s Ark and Christ’s resurrection were more than just stories, they were once reality, the utmost truth I believed. However, as I grew intellectually in history and science, I discovered more fiction than truth in those stories; Jesus resurrecting Lazarus after he’d been dead; Jesus walking on water, or Jonah surviving inside the stomach of a fish.

However beyond that fiction lives lessons that are relevant to my life today and staples of my morality. Ultimately, my decision to be confirmed reflects the importance of family in my life and the influence of the church on my sense of right and wrong.  Whether there be truth to many of the tales in the bible, such as walking on water, raising the dead, or turning blood to wine: the lessons underlying these tales give me the courage to take the high road in a moral dilemma.

Since my First Communion, I found that major milestones of life, like confirmations, did not challenge my sense of right and wrong as much as simple, everyday experiences. My first summer job presented moments that carried me back to the lessons from the church with a test of courage that would follow me through both my years working at a private tennis court.

During my first week, a man briskly walked over to the desk, asking “Could I hop onto one of your empty courts?”  Because he was a non-member and hadn’t called the office in advance to book a court, rules required me to turn him away from the facility. Yet every court was available. Not only was he disappointed, but the company operating the courts also loses money when the courts are empty.

My coworkers, for the most part, avoided contesting this rule with my boss.  However, I’ve been lobbying against it for two years now, even though my boss’ position on the topic hasn’t changed in the slightest. I can’t divorce my persistence about this from my courage and sense of right and wrong cultivated by my religious background.

I continue to lobby, not for Christ, but because of my own sense of morality nurtured by Catholicism. The Church’s statement at the conclusion of the confirmation ceremony still ring in my soul: “…the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and courage, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence…”

Those words inspired me to wear the cross given to me a decade ago at my first communion.  I have recently turned that cross in. My mother gave me her father’s lifelong talisman; his cross. I wear it not for Christ; I wear it to represent the moral compass I’ve taken from my grandfather and my family.

Jack Hogan, a graduate of the Collegiate School, was accepted Early Decision to Bucknell.

Essay of the Week: Football’s Unexpected Lesson

By Brian F Bond

“Hike”

My quarterback’s command became a magnet for butterflies in my stomach. I barely moved. It was my first time taking a hard tackle playing ‘Peewee.’  I was floored. But then my teammate pulled me up, patted me on the back, and I took a deep breath to regain my bearings. After a minute, I was raring to go again. The metaphor for life was obvious. It was one of the first of many life lessons from football.

Since I was 9, the sport became a defining part of my character, evolving into more than just a game for me. Football was the source of my drive, focus and posed the biggest test ever to my ethics and morality.

By 8th grade, football was the centerpiece of my reputation. The next step for someone in my position was to enroll at a private boys school known throughout the country as a premier football institution. I attended a friday night game on an official recruitment visit. I stood on the field with all the players, decked out in great gear, in a fan-packed stadium. It was like an SEC college game. I could already see myself in a year: lights on, people cheering and chanting. The allure was breathtaking.

Those Friday night lights flickered the next week on my tour at the school. I spent ‘a day in the life’ of a student-athlete with a freshman football player. In my guide’s history class, the teacher’s first move was to issue the detention slips. Then, he announced and passed out a pop quiz. The room simmered with tension, even animosity.

I watched awkwardly from my desk, which felt more and more like an island, as my guide struggled, often just fidgeting, staring at the blank page. Poor guy got caught off guard, I thought. But my empathy ended soon as he sat up, straining his neck to look at others’ papers for answers. He blatantly tapped the person sitting in front of him on the back multiple times signaling for answers as if they were audibles. Some demurred. Others slid their tests over towards him. A few whispered answers to him within my earshot.

“C, A, B” uttered one guy. They were not the only cheaters.

The teacher emerged down the aisle. He arrived at my guide’s desk.

“Prepared for this quiz? Because you definitely weren’t for the last ones. Not going to fail again are you?”

He chuckled knowingly, as if he knew what was going down.

This experience went against everything I learned about life. It actually contradicted the honor and values I acquired through years of playing football. Suddenly my academic life at  Montclair Kimberley Academy, where I never witnessed anything like this, looked more appealing. Lunch will be better, I thought.

At a table with a mixture of students, the football players — tall and muscular guys–stood out. They sat, turned, spoke, and even ate with chips on their shoulders. They were rude, treating others as outsiders at the table. I had watched these guys play with an expertise years beyond their actual ages. But this conduct showed me that maturity hadn’t extended to life’s playbook.

I walked away from the promise of brighter Friday night lights and discovered I was more than just a good football player. Remaining at MKA opened my possibilities to put more time into my other passions like playing the saxophone and to discover new interests like student government. All my dreams centered on the football field when standing on the sidelines with the players at the boys school. In that moment, I could not see myself in a campaign to become student body president. Yet three years later, I ran and won. Returning to MKA for high school created my path of versatility.

From that first “hike!” –I have transferred lessons from the sport to everyday life on and off the field.   

Brian F Bond, a graduate of Montclair Kimberley Academy, will be a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in the fall.

 

Essay of the Week: The Failure to Ask a Question

By Kyle Tyler Bason

I rush to the line for The Transformers attraction at Universal Studios. A fair haired boy stands next to me, facing the opposite direction. Then he turns around. I feel the sweat from my neck trickle down my spine. The Florida hot sun beams on my face and blinds me from fully reading his shirt. It feels like eternity. The awkward space between us seems to inch away farther and farther. His shirt reads “Confederate Flag” with the flag stamped right through the middle–on the day after a white gunman kills nine black worshippers at a black church in Charleston.

Poetry has been my saving grace since the fifth grade. Ms. Baytops, my English teacher, showed me that I could express my affinity for tolerance and justice through poetry. As a way to de-stress, to avoid anger and negativity, I create stanzas.

“Read this one,” she says to me one day, laying a sheet of paper on my desk. It remains one of my favorites– Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise:

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

The line advances a few paces forward. Without a pen or poem ready, I feel the void while standing in line for The Transformers. Who knew that a family vacation would produce a moment that stirs my thoughts similar to that time when I first read Still I Rise?

Within minutes, we reach the front of the line. The man in red stripes ushers both of us to the front row. I make my way to my destined seat next to the boy. We look at each other in silence. The buckles lock. We cannot exit the seat; the bars in front chain me down to the seat beating against my tropical shirt.

I manage to look over and murmur the word, “Hello.”

The word trembling out of my mouth surprises him, but he does not respond. I speak louder.

“How are you?”

His face lights up with a grin.

“I’m good, how are you?”

The conversation between Jordan and me continues as the ride races off. With drops and turns, the awkwardness between us seems to dissipate. Only moments of laughter at the unexpected dips overcome our fears of each other in the moment. After minutes of happiness and excitement, the ride ends. We rise from our seats continuing our conversation as we walk towards the exit.

I fail to ask him about his shirt and do not rise to the power of Maya Angelou’s words. Establishing a brief connection across the racial divide is a rudimentary step in the struggle for unity. If I could do it all over again, I would have asked him about his shirt in light of the Charleston attack. To tackle the problems of race in American life, one must have the courage to sacrifice superficial connections for direct and frank conversations.

As a poet, I am still trying to find my place within the general narrative. When I met Jordan, I wanted to surrender to the possibility of getting along with someone who, at first sight, struck me as an enemy. I jumped over the first fear–to establish a commonality with him. Yet I failed to foster a truly open conversation about race, perhaps fearing such a conversation would have shattered the momentary appreciation for one another that we shared. It was a missed opportunity.

If given the chance to engage someone like Jordan again, I hope to exercise more courage. When the adrenaline wore off, I reached for my pen and began this poem:

The ache in my heart pushed me past my fear,
A chance to show my true-self was near
Before the buckles and engine got in gear–

It was a poem I never finished.

Kyle Tyler Bason, a graduate of the Berkshire School, will be a freshman at Syracuse University in the fall.

Essay of the Week: Hiking Through Hurricanes, Hornet’s Nests and Student Government

By Hallie Ryan

Through layers of fog, I vaguely see the solid white line and my bike’s front wheel turning. I taste sweat mixed with rain. With shaking hands, I keep to the right of the white line, avoiding the treacherous shoulder. Our group of 11 girls embarked on this 1000-mile journey four days ago, but on day two Hurricane Arthur unleashed its wrath on us. I am in the summer of my life; yet the joy and excitement I feel reminds me of spring days standing before an audience.

They have been my constants for many years: the spring campaign speeches trying to convince peers to elect me to serve them in student government positions and the summers of hiking, biking and camping with the the American Youth Foundation (AYF). Both have worked in concert to shape me and define my sense of community.

I’ll never forget my first speech. My heart raced as I walked onto the middle school auditorium stage to address the entire student body for the first time. I lost my place a few times and occasionally forgot to lift my eyes from the paper. Despite some stutters, my friends gave me a thumbs up. I exited the stage with a little skip. I won the election– destined to continue this passion.

Each spring, I became less nervous, and spoke with more confidence. Each summer, I became less afraid of spiders, and encountered new tests to my sense of loyalty, leadership and community. Sometimes I was terrified. The wind hissed while the water splattered onto the terrain on our journey biking through Nova Scotia. Erica, my friend from the first summer, turned a corner and her wheel stumbled on the gravel. Suddenly she was on the concrete underneath her bike. I slid to a stop, hopped off my bike, grabbed the first aid kit and rushed to her side. “Are you ok?” Blood poured from her knees. I reassured her and myself that we would survive this bump in the road. Minutes later, we were pedaling again.

 Beyond rugged bike rides, there were quiet moments. The solitude of nature was soul-shaping, inspiring me to reflect on the impact I’ve had on my communities. Leadership and service require me to move through life mindful of being my best so when it is challenged, I can empower myself to work harder and stay positive.

Two years later, my efforts to live by the AYF motto, “My own self; At my very best; All the time,” guided me when I delivered my final campaign speech in the spring of my junior year. I had served as class vice president for three years and now sought to be president.

The election results came two days later. My name was not on the list. I was devastated.

In losing, I rediscovered the value of AYF. As I once survived walking through a hornet’s nest, I would move beyond this defeat. The loss confirmed that my commitment to community was the force that drove me–not the election or a title. When I saw James, the winner, I pushed disappointments aside and hugged him; a reflection of the values highlighted in The Odyssey–the 125-mile hike of endurance in AYF’s finale last summer. In the last two miles of our hike, another storm pounded us. By the time we reached the camp ground, the chorus began from some friends. “I can’t wait to go home,” and all its variations echoed. As we started to set up the tents, I drummed a rhythm with the tent stakes, and my friends joined in. Eventually, we discovered there was nothing to do but laugh and dance to the beats we created. Throughout the journey there were special moments like this that connected us all and made us an even closer community. I enjoyed every step up with my fellow hikers. At Katahdin’s peak, I reveled in hugging my peers.

 

Hallie Ryan, a graduate of Monclair Kimberlee Academy, will be a freshman at Colgate University in the fall.

Essay of the Week: Puzzles In Action

By Sadie Stern

Sadie Stern“Where’s Sadie?”

When I hear my name, I automatically know Justin is stirring up trouble in the classroom. This time, I barely see the pencil as it whizzes past my face, just grazing my hair before clattering to a stop on a nearby table. The noise captures the attention of seventeen first graders, who turn their heads as another pencil takes flight. Amidst the peals of laughter, I find Justin now lifting a chair above his head in an Atlas-esque fashion. I rush over to him and gently pull the chair away.

“What’s wrong?” I ask him.

He glances at his feet, then gestures to his math worksheet, scowling slightly, “I can’t do this.”

It was my second year as a volunteer at the GO Project, a non-profit organization that provides academic support to children in under-resourced NYC public schools. Justin arrived on his first day overflowing with energy. I became the only one who could calm him.

Why me? Perhaps the answer begins outside the elevator of my apartment building when I was Justin’s age. The lobby floors were slick with melting snow from outside. I could hear my teeth chattering and ran ahead of my family. I impatiently pressed the elevator button as a neighbor trotted in.

“Are you excited to see Santa?” she asked, brushing snow off her hat. I shook my head.
“I am celebrating Hanukkah because I am Chinese,” I told her. There was a brief look of confusion before she regained her smile, “That’s sweet.”

I was an enigma to my neighbor. She saw a Chinese girl but had no idea I was adopted by a white Jewish woman. I realized at a young age that there was something about me people could not know by just looking at me. The concept made my head spin. However, the reality of my own identity inspired my fascination in seeing the depth in those around me. I wondered if Justin could sense that inclination, if he knew I saw him as more than a troublemaker. Regardless, I was glad he decided to trust and confide in me, inadvertently becoming another puzzle for me.

I adore puzzles. As a child, I always loved sprawling across the carpet and sifting through the piles of puzzle pieces. There was nothing more rewarding than the excitement of watching the image slowly appear and the feeling of satisfaction when I finished. I was eight when my grandfather introduced me to the sudoku puzzle in the New York Times. We sat side by side at the kitchen table, mulling over the apparently endless possibilities of numbers and sequences. We worked for hours, armed with blue pens and sparkly butterfly pencils. Eventually, he would tire of the activity so I would carefully fold the page of newspaper and tuck it into my back pocket where it would stay until it was solved.

The keys to solving a puzzle, I learned, were patience, perseverance and a willingness to experiment with new things. I spent weeks employing a similar approach trying understand to Justin. Our long walks in the hallway became an outlet for him to release his energy and our seemingly trivial conversations became my window into his frame of mind. Slowly, I pieced together the puzzle of Justin. Finally, it clicked: I never saw him without his Lego figurines! They were inseparable. And so, I rewrote all of his math problems. Now instead of adding up library books or apples, Justin counted Lego figurines. Yet no one could have predicted that he would grow into such a strong math student. Similarly, no one could have predicted that a policy instituted by a Chinese communist autocrat could have created the perplexing life I know today as a Chinese girl who celebrates Hanukkah.

Sadie Stern graduated from Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School today and will be a freshman at Brown University in the fall.

Essay of the Week: A Home Beyond Labels

By Danielle Black

“You’re a token black friend too.”

My chuckle cannot kill the awkwardness after Chris shocks me with that comment. Who expects to hear something like that at a multicultural forum for private school students? His remark is a small recognition of something that makes us ostensibly similar –both of us black students at predominantly white independent schools; both of us having friends of different races. Yet his words irk me. Or more specifically, the word “token” bothers me long after the occurrence at that snack bar.

Labels have never been my friend; neither have people who conform to them. Enter my room. I am bobbing my head to the beats of “HiiiPower”- a Kendrick Lamar song with lyrics that expose truths more provocative than the repetitive lines of Top 40 hits. In this song Lamar narrates his experiences  as a black male growing up in Compton during the 1990s, the pinnacle of modern hip-hop culture. The three “i”s in the song title stand for heart, honor, and respect. I was so eager to share my new discovery that my fingers were flying across my phone screen, “Guys, Kendrick Lamar’s latest album is amazing.” No responses? Maybe everyone was just busy. The next day my friends, all white, ostracized me for being “fake” for supporting something that was not commonplace for our social group.

It was more than a ‘Mean Girl’ experience. In hindsight, the group’s dismissal was a moment of personal liberation. If I had agreed with my friends about Lamar, I would have succumbed to Chris’ assumption of the “token black friend.” Admittedly, I was confined by the fear that my white friends would pigeonhole me through racial stereotypes if I embraced a lifestyle, yet unfamiliar to us, so akin to my African-American culture. Perhaps Lamar was my breaking point.

I have been a girl of many neighborhoods which I’ve grown to see mirror my versatility. I lived in downtown New York until my parents divorced in eighth grade when I moved to the Upper East Side with my Mom, further entrenched in a predominantly white neighborhood close to my school. The move catalyzed my hunger to explore beyond my zip code. Then last year, Dad cheered “Strivers Row!” referring to his new neighborhood of homes once owned by famous names of the Harlem Renaissance. Living in Harlem crystallized my ability to see that I could be valued without being one textbook definition of race and place.

During my first summer as a Harlemite, I walked down the steps of the Brownstone eager to explore my weekend neighborhood. I scanned the people outside on lawn chairs, turned the corner onto 145th street, and stumbled upon a table of CDs for sale. I recognized artists my parents played when I was younger like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Fugees, and Prince, all artists whose lyrics I could sing on command.

The air grew hot and sticky with the bustle of people flowing down the sidewalk. A vestige of a past time came to mind: a bumbling crowd entering and exiting my Upper East Side train stop. As the sun started to set into a Harlem night, the faces around me lit up in return. There was something spellbinding about this moment, variables that were lacking in my other neighborhoods, yet elements so familiar. People of all races and cultures bringing life to Harlem. An organic similarity pulled me into the sea of people, inciting a connection I had never recognized.

Like Harlem, I am an amalgam of experiences and cannot be reduced to a label. I did not expect to walk into such a recognition when I left home that day.  Similar to the fluidity of my homes, I orbit beyond the limited contours of labels. I belong in each place but neither define me — street numbers nor music tastes — and I am certainly not a token.

 

Danielle Black, a graduate of The Dalton School, will be a freshman at Dartmouth in the fall.

From the Classroom to the Courtroom, WFTF Alum Pursues Justice with Journalism

By John O’Donoghue and Bernard Mokam


HANNAHKLIOT123-240x300.pnglllShe shadowed the Wiccan witches of Rogers Park,  joined television reporters in San Antonio courtrooms, translated Eastern medicine to a Western audience, studied abroad in “the land down under,” conquered the Windy City, and found her passion for criminal justice while investigating the case of a
Florida man who may have spent the last four decades on death row for a murder he did not commit. This is the trajectory of Write for the Future and soon-to-be Northwestern Medill School of Journalism alum Hannah Kliot. Now that Hannah’s college years face their moment of pomp & circumstance, she’s excited about the unknown to follow. “I’m still really keeping my options open,” she says. “But I think, in a weird way, journalism kind of introduced me to law as well….So I am looking to do either investigative journalism that’s kind of exposing injustice…working with a broadcast outlet with investigative journalism or with working on the actual legal side of things. I think they’re both really interesting and…my college experience has really brought out my interest in both of those.”

Hannah applied early decision to Northwestern four years ago when the world felt like a different place. A few days after hitting send on her college application, she turned 18 just in time “to vote for Barack Obama and his legacy.” Four years later, Hannah’s trying on her cap and gown, President Obama has become an ordinary citizen, and the United States is a place ripe for the kind of journalism she admires and practices. She is “disheartened” by President Trump’s denigration of the press, but feels “empowered” seeing “journalists and citizens alike getting together to prove him wrong…We didn’t see this coming because journalists weren’t looking at everyone in America. We weren’t telling everyone’s story.” Hannah promises to take the road not taken to “places where people’s stories aren’t always told” and cast a spotlight on them.

She values Northwestern for giving her so many opportunities to experiment with storytelling. For Hannah, Wildcat country was also “a good school” that struck a diverse balance between work and play. “You just have people with such a variety of interests,” she says,  “I have friends who are engineers. I have friends who are at Medill. I have friends who are actors… I have friends in the social policy school. So you get such an amalgamation of people, who have such different interests and I really love that.”

That diverse, strong community and contagious school spirit erupts across campus on a Wildcat gameday and in the classroom every day of the semester. While she picked NU for its brilliant academic reputation, she wasn’t sure which classroom was for her and enrolled both undecided. “I knew I was interested in writing, and obviously I had worked with [WFTF], and I really liked telling human stories and a lot of different people and telling their stories,” she says.  “So right away I started taking some journalism classes.” The storytelling nature of journalism made it a natural fit, and the prestigious Medill Journalism School welcomed her talents. Describing the arc of her progress as a writer, she said her writing was thought-provoking but “used to be all over the place.” With great instruction from the Dalton School in New York City, “vision-shaping” guidance from WFTF during her college admissions process, and the rigorous coursework Medill offers, Hannah now “reflects a lot more personally” and considers her ultimate goal in writing a piece before she even sets her fingers to the keyboard. She “gets to the point” and knows how to get it across. What she didn’t know was that she would stumble into a different form of storytelling: broadcast journalism. Using the video, photography, and sound skills she learned in early journalism courses, Hannah concentrated her energies into broadcast journalism, discovering both a new passion and a powerful tool to tell human stories.

As Hannah looks forward to the road after college, she looks back for direction. She honed her journalistic skill set while enrolled in a Medill residency program in San Antonio, where she met hard nightly news deadlines and covered the court system like a real reporter. Those skills mesh well with her passion for criminal justice, which she credits to Medill’s Justice Project, the NU program which gives journalism students a behind-the-scenes look at the legal process. Through this program she worked to exonerate Tommy Ziegler, a Florida man on death row, by learning from all the players — from lawyers and ballistics experts to DNA scientists and convicts — and was exposed to the staggering injustices inherent to the justice system. She conducted an investigation that unearthed crucial, overlooked details in Ziegler’s case alongside a team of her classmates, graduate students, and faculty members. Together, Hannah and her team trawled through decades-old records, interviewed experts and witnesses, and pieced together hundreds of details into a project that culminated in a captivating long-form capstone of the case published under the title Death Denied.

Her work on the Justice Project is just the beginning. She is eager to launch a career with a mission of exposing injustice. So don’t be surprised to find this tenacious WFTF alum beating down doors with the questions that matter.

 

Here is a link to Hannah’s investigative work:

http://www.medilljusticeproject.org/2016/06/13/death-denied-3/

 

Here are links to her College Admissions Essays:

Why Northwestern?

 

http://www.writeforthefuture.com/cultural-combo-b…-and-bat-mitzvah/