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Essay of the Week: Finding a Healthy Home for Rage

By Pridhvi Vegesna

“What did I do to deserve this?”

This question grips me as I enter a restaurant in India. Aromas of toasted breads, creamy curries, and fiery spices induce my senses into a state of bliss reflective of the passionate Indian spirit. I absorb the wonders which bless me, only to be interrupted by a server who asks me for my order.

The waiter is a 6 year old boy; his 1000 watt smile is radiant enough to distract anyone from the troubles of their day. But it wasn’t enough to stop me from realizing that this boy was missing an arm.

I moved to the Bay Area as a baby, travelling to my native land of India once every other year. There, the question still haunts me: “what did I do to deserve this?”

When I was 10, my Uncle and I were caught in the congested streets of Bhimavaram, Southern India when a young girl approached us. With a baby on her back, she mustered the energy to trudge to our car, where she submissively yielded her head and put forth her hands to beg for alms. Our eyes met for a second.

“Ksssshhhhh”.

My uncle rolled up the window and sighed: “eentuuku vallu mana bora tintunaru” – Telugu for “why do they bother us.” Living in India his entire life has numbed him to beggars. But I couldn’t resist: I bolted out into the streets, tapped her shoulder, and placed some money in her hand before returning to the car. That night, I went to bed proud. But, the next day, I saw the same girl, on the same corner, stuck in the same miserable state.

I gave her charity, but I couldn’t give her justice. I became livid with the system of injustice that blinded my uncle to her humanity. I couldn’t bear the thought that poverty was constant — unchanging. But most of all, I was young and was hiding from the anger that I had with myself. I felt blessed, but inadequate and this frustrated me. I didn’t know how to share the gifts of my blessings.

I was released from the burden of ire while engaged in a debate over the minimum wage. I argued that America could benefit from a hike in the minimum wage. I spent hours amassing mounds of evidence — studies which showed the beneficial impacts of increasing the minimum wage. All the hours I put in meant that I couldn’t lose to my opponent (well, at least until their last speech). He introduced evidence about an island that had its entire economy based on the fishing industry. After the government raised the minimum wage on the island, companies outsourced all the fishing jobs leaving the economy in ruins. Years after the raise in the wage, 23.8% of the population was unemployed.

Although I lost that argument, I had won as a person: I found debate and, in the process, I discovered an outlet for all the rage that lived inside of me. Sure, the activity is more theoretical than concrete, but I’ve learned that before I can bring about the change that I so deeply desire, I need to learn how to combat my problems intellectually. Fixing poverty is more complicated than raising the minimum wage and it’s definitely not as easy as getting angry with my uncle.

Whereas the reminiscence of that little girl fixated me, frustrating me all the more, I’m now able to approach situations beyond their moral pull and embrace the complexity of policy behind each issue. No longer bedridden by my same old self-induced resentment, I’ve become critical, composed, and curious with debate. And these new skills will propel me to enact change in the real world.

The question is no longer “what did I do to deserve this?” Instead, I ask, “what will I do to fix it?”

Pridhvi Vegesna, a 2017 graduate of Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, California

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Essay of the Week: Swimming Through the Love for English vs. Dyslexia

By Danielle Quick-Holmes

The smell of chlorine signaled the excitement of a new challenge lastSpring when I entered the pool: lifeguard training. A knot grew in my stomach killing that thrill of anticipation with the trainer’s first words: “Once everyone gets here we’re going to start off with our 200, under a minute and forty. ”

I searched the bleachers for a friendly face, or a nervous one similarly intimidated by the trainer’s words.  To my surprise, everyone looked totally fine; almost a little bored. One kid was slumped down on the first bench, nodding in and out of slumber, while another girl was texting in the corner. I suddenly felt extremely unprepared.

I sat anxiously on the bench while the kid who was previously passed out in the front row, suddenly woke up and jumped in the pool–exceptionally fast and confident. Am I in a little over my head? I threw the question out of my mind as I heard the trainer’s whistle blow, and on cue, sliced into the pool just like I once dove past the obstacle of dyslexia to pursue my passion for English.

In seventh grade English, I am as lonely as I felt in the bleachers at that first session of lifeguard training. Though this time my loneliness actually comes from being prepared. No one in the class but me appears to have read the chapter of Things Fall Apart. Before class, I overhear the nervous clamor between peers:

“Who read the chapter?”

“I didn’t! Did you?”

I was spared the panic. I read and loved the chapter, especially the character development of Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye.

Class starts. Ms. Georges poses a question, precisely about Nwoye and waits for hands–any hand, to rise. I shift in my seat tucking my hands under my thighs. I know the answer, but fear raising my hand may encourage Ms. Georges to choose me to read a passage. Having to stop every few seconds to half-silently sound out a word, or ask the teacher how to pronounce something is terrifying.  

A much worse feeling than not knowing, is knowing the answer but being afraid or feeling unable to respond. It was one of the central challenges of my dyslexia.

I watched her eyes dart around the classroom – -just enough time for that all too familiar knot to rise in my stomach and my throat to tighten. After a beat, she called on Sue. I missed that bullet.

Reading aloud was always taxing, especially when I struggled to pronounce words that my peers would breeze through. But reading silently, though still difficult, proved to be worth the struggle. My hunger for the stories, the meanings and lessons behind them produced a tenacity to improve, helping me overcome this seeming disability. Whether it was my work with a learning specialist or reading aloud to myself on my bed with only Misty, my cat, as my audience, I eventually became a strong reader and English is now my favorite subject.

By eighth grade, I no longer felt held back by dyslexia. Words like ‘superfluous’ no longer read as if they were French. That year in English we read The Odyssey by Homer. Whenever the teacher asked for someone to read I often volunteered even when passages were covered in complex words. I no longer feared those tongue twisters.

My last day of lifeguard training was without fear. I had swam the 200 countless times, and I knew CPR as if my life depended on it. Everyone got in the pool for the last time waiting for the trainer’s signal. The water was freezing and I could feel my heartbeat making waves in the pool, but I was ready.  He blew the whistle and I went to work. When it was all over and I got out of the pool. The trainer broke the few seconds of silence:

“Congratulations, you are now a certified lifeguard!”

Danielle Quick-Holmes, a graduate of the Grace Church School, is a freshman at Vassar

Essay of the Week: The Garden of Helena

By Helena Sanchez

“Helena, Abby just ate a rock!”

“What?”

So much for a peaceful walk in the woods with my ten campers. Add to that–a recent stomach virus caused the health center to shut down to care for the 32 sick campers and staff members.

I immediately race to Abby to prevent her from becoming number 33. She is smiling and fine. Before she has the chance to put another small pebble in her mouth, I warn her not to accept any more dares. She throws the rock away and we continue our march through the woods. I love every minute of it–minus thoughts of Abby’s digestive system.

We passed the outdoor greenhouse with growing vegetables. I see my life in that space as a garden growing with passions– children that I babysit, campers that I lead through the woods, dances that I perform and choreograph, classmates whose houses can feel like microcosms of other countries, debates with classmates and family gatherings filled with soul food and motown on one side and Dominican cuisine and bachata on the other. This is the biodiversity of my life.

Maybe I discovered my garden the first day I picked up Alex after school two years ago. I fell in love with babysitting, which evolved into a passion for working with children. From that moment on, I took the responsibility of nurturing and encouraging this 6 year old. She became a small flower in my garden.

A garden cannot thrive without a lifeline–water. My family is my water– the source of my personal growth–the center of my garden on the diverse corner of 110th street. I am also watered intellectually at Chapin, where it is comfortable to have controversial conversations about feminism or gun control sitting at lunch with friends, some I have known since kindergarten. Now, as a Peer Leader tasked with advisement ranging from academic time management to peer pressure, I am nurturing the sapling freshmen. It is a mission made for me–a natural teacher, camp counselor, leader and someone who has lived through the ups and downs of high school.

My garden moves with the grace of pirouettes and chaîné turns. TLC is the cultivation of a flourishing garden, sunlight — positive examples and encouragement from others — has been essential for me. Once, as a younger dancer, I sat cradled on the balsa floor attempting to rub away the pain after a rehearsal in pointes for the first time. It was then that Ms. Alison, my dance teacher, affectionately divulged some tricks of the trade: numbing cream before rehearsal, sticking cotton in between your toes to ease friction with the floor, and exercises to relieve the inevitable foot cramps. Her advice was vital.
I pass on the same for other young dancers as a volunteer at Dancing Dreams, assisting children with disabilities so they can live their dreams of dancing. My garden possesses the branches intertwining my love of teaching children and dance. At 16, I challenge my years of training and choreograph my first piece for 5 young dancers at different levels. I incorporate the teacher in my garden through companion planting– the sowing of seeds in a way that promotes cooperation over competition. My instructional techniques enable the dancers to feel confident and graceful on performance night.

The diversity of my garden is intertwined and feeds dynamism, that extra umph embedded in our nature. Like how on nothing but a whim and an opportunity, I flew to Elorrio, in the Basque Country, where I wasn’t yet fluent in the language, to teach English.
Other times we need the wherewithal to pause and do some life maintenance — or weeding as I like to think of it. Late nights, early mornings, and subsequent lack of sleep from juggling school, dance, and other extracurriculars take their toll but also create my sprawling ecosystem of passions and ideas living and thriving within me.

Helena Sanchez, a 2017 graduate of The Chapin School, is a freshman at Wesleyan.

Essay of the Week: Piloting to New Destinations

By Zoe Akoto

“You’re really bringing that?”

I shout from the doorway, walking into the room as my brother packs his suitcase. In his hands, he holds about twenty gingham shirts, varying only in color and Vineyard Vines purchase date.

“These are good shirts,” he says, eyes to the floor, not looking up from his packing as he stuffs the shirts into his bag.

Alex was getting ready to leave for medical school this time. I was seven years old when he first left for boarding school, and eleven when he headed off to college. Now, at fifteen, I knew the routine: the packing, the kitchen goodbyes, the final waves from the driveway.

Growing up, my big brothers, Max and Alex, were my anchors. As the only girl in my family, I was an anomaly, signalling to my parents a deviation from the parenting style to which they were accustomed. While they accommodated my variance in kind, their established style used with my brothers still lingered. You could find me on the soccer field and in ballet class, tumbling in gymnastics and wrestling with my brothers in our living room. In exploring both the interests assigned to girls and boys, I found a confidence in my breadth of abilities, existing in an in-between space that allowed me to stand alongside my brothers.

However, when they both left home for boarding school, college, and beyond, my brothers’ absences and the knowledge of them outside our small town–not their permanency in my home life–centered me. They were experiencing and coming to understand the world around them; demonstrating there was more to the world than Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Eventually I learned I could not fully engage the wider world solely from my brothers’ hand-me-down memories. By the time Alex left for medical school, I was pursuing my own dreams. Seeing the audacity of my brothers as explorers seizing new challenges inspired me to do the same. However, I did so on my own terms. I refused to go to boarding school when the opportunity arose and discovered passageways in my hometown to explore, such as a transformative position at my school’s literary magazine, Tapestry.

My journey to becoming editor of Tapestry isn’t heroic. It is not the uplifting tale of a student rising in the ranks until finally reaching the pinnacle of her high school literary career. In fact, it more closely resembles the account of a flight attendant who must take the helm of a crashing plane and narrowly but safely lands it, despite having no serious preparation or training. That’s what Tapestry was on any given day: a plane on the verge of crashing. And that’s what I was when the seniors all bailed and I, now the oldest and most experienced member, became the de facto editor-in-chief: seriously unprepared and untrained. As a junior, I was already determined to take on a bigger role with Tapestry, leading the push to collect posters and spread the word for submissions. Once we received all the submissions, the editors took lead, guiding the staff through deliberations on which pieces to put in the book and doing all the layout work to get the book together for publishing.

Suddenly, I was the sole editor of the magazine and had to take the lead on each step of the process, carrying a greater amount of responsibility than I had yet to face and doing the work of a junior editor-hopeful and current editor at the same time. My upbringing prepared me though, and the confidence and flexibility I’d developed early on became vital as I strained to pull my staff together to produce Tapestry.

Now, as I prepare to board to my next destination, I hold onto the lessons I’ve learned in Kennett Square, lessons that make the foundation on which I’ll continue to observe, learn and thrive, watching from a plane window headed to destinations unknown.

Zoe Akoto, a graduate of Archmere Academy in Clayton, Delaware, is a freshman at Amherst College.

Essay of the Week: Rising After a Fall

By Michael Charles

It was the battle against the hair on his face. “If you do not walk more than one batter, I will shave my beard.”

My coach, Tom, even came to the mound in the sixth inning to jokingly remind me of his challenge. I won. He shaved the beard he loved. If only pitching, baseball, hiking and history, –the things I love– would be as easy as seeing Tom’s bare face in sixth grade.

Three years later, I walked into Pre-AP World History. “Just to let you guys know, this class will have more work and be more challenging than most the classes you guys have had prior. You have to be willing to put in the work.”

I chuckled as I had heard that speech from other teachers. History had always been my favorite subject– anything less than a A was a failure for me. However arrogance was my downfall. My ego took a hit when she plopped the test on my desk. On my first exam, I did not fail with a B or a C, but a 60.

I refused to lose. I accepted that I could not breeze through a subject just because I loved the interesting material. In addition to reviewing notes and reading chapters, I began watching documentaries and answering practice questions. My test grades surged.

Fast Forward to Summer: I am relaxing with an intense game of FIFA until my phone vibrates rapidly, almost constantly. I scroll through the incoming messages to find friends badgering me to check my AP World History score. A chill comes over me; it is the moment of truth. I log into the college board website, and pause. I click and see a simple number that means the world to me: 4.

A few weeks later, I soaked in the nature around me– the chirping birds, rustling leaves and glaring sun signaled the beginning of yet another adventure. After climbing for several hours, the end was near; the peak was in sight. Bounding towards the finish line, I slipped on a slimy rock hidden by moss and mud. My legs gave out from under me. Collapsing on the ground, I ended up on back gazing at the sun beaming through the treeline above me and felt a stream of blood flow down my shin–a quarter size gash on my knee. Teary eyed and with a limp, I dusted myself off and marched on.

My motto–get back up after a fall– continued to face tougher tests last year. I could not escape the intimidation as I watched my opponents warm up in what promised to be one of the toughest games. I knew this game would be hard fought and I welcomed this challenge. Warming up, my throws were crisp and my fielding was immaculate. In the Second Inning, the wheels fell off. With a runner on first and nobody out, the hitter corked a sharp groundball in my direction. I knew exactly what I was going to do with the ball once I caught it. I turned to fire the ball to second base, but I was missing one thing: the baseball. My teammates shouted to me to take my time and throw to first. However, panic had stole my sense of confidence. I picked up the ball and threw wildly to first, resulting in everyone being safe. I shuffled back to my position with my head down. From here, things spiralled out of control. I left the game without the big smile I wore when Tom lost his beloved beard.

I was constantly replaying that moment in my head on the bus ride. Eventually, I realized that missing the one ground ball would not define me as a player. Baseball is engaging because of the challenges of the sport. Those challenges come with the possibilities of successes and failures. I would move on from the missed ball with the lessons from history and hiking as a guide.

Michael Charles, a graduate of Valley Stream South High School, is freshman at Bates College.

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.