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Essay of the Week: A Commitment to Service Grows with a Smile and Macaroni and Cheese

By Taylor Little

“Boys, dinner’s ready.”

Mom’s voice expedites my Thanksgiving sprint. My cousins and I fall over each other, get up, and repeat the battle to be the first in line for some of Mom’s mac and cheese. Anthony, the oldest of the bunch, always wins and never waits either, nibbling his way through grace (he is a terrible Christian). By the time we say “Amen,” Anthony radiates in happiness, unaware of the table’s growing suspicion on the whereabouts of his mac and cheese.The stillness of his smile glows through the evening. There is only one other time when I saw a smile stuck in happiness because of mac and cheese.

It was Thanksgiving of 2012 and her name was Kathy. She is nine years old, thinner than normal but possesses a softness — a warmth — no wonder she loves mac and cheese. Kathy nags me, albeit pleasantly: “Where is the mac and cheese?”

“I don’t know. I guess it is coming soon”

Unsatisfied she returns.

“Excuse me Mr., where is the mac and cheese?”

I search for it several times and, failingly, face her question again:“Hello, where is the mac and cheese?”

I have been a basketball fan for years and was now surrounded by the Atlanta Hawks for a NBA Cares event. The players, like me, came to feed underprivileged children on Thanksgiving. I was excited to see the Hawks but I was riveted by Kathy and drawn to make her happy. When the food finally arrived, I was certain to make sure she received the mac and cheese. She was more starstruck by the mac and cheese than the stars from the Atlanta Hawks.

The moral pull – the stillness of the girl’s smile – has sucked me into community service like a black hole. If Dad were reading this, he would say, “it’s about time.” With a father who is president of the United Way of Atlanta, I was born into community service and may have, as a result, halfheartedly joined the serving lines at soup kitchens. I wanted to be my “own” man with my “own” path. I did not want to walk in the footsteps of Dad. But Kathy’s smile hit a chord. It shined a light. My engagement with community service from then on has not been motivated by bolstering my college application or professional resume. Through Kathy, I found the selfless faction of my identity; my own genuine interest to improve the lives of others.

I now blend community service with that other passion of mine, basketball, within my routine. Three times a week, I mentor children from the ages of eight to ten at the Boys and Girls Club in College Park, Georgia. Conveniently located right around the corner from my high school, I head over there once I am out of class to coach and referee basketball games. Every now and then, I am lucky enough to hear the winning question: “Will you play in a game with us?” That invitation makes my day. I can really bring it home with the proverbial “slam dunk” (the hoops only 8 feet). My presence on the court becomes something of a “wow factor.”

Joseph, the liveliest out of the bunch, becomes Chris Paul while I become his “Blake Griffin”, together, we are College Park’s “Lob City.” As soon as he crosses half court, he throws the ball in the vicinity of the rim with the hope that I will gently pluck it from the air and forcefully place the ball in the rim.

“Do it again,” the crowd cries.

I take every chance offered to make a positive impact on these kids. I want to inspire them to be the best people that they can be in the same way Kathy moved me. Looks like I have discovered a way to make community service a part of my life–on my own terms.

Taylor Little, a 2017 graduate of Woodward Academy, is now a freshman at Howard University.

Essay of the Week: My Sister, Too

By Benjamin Flanagan

The 13-year-old me didn’t understand rape. When I blocked a shot on the basketball court, my buddies would joke, “You just raped him.” Today I wonder how my buddies could have ever thought it was possible for a girl to enjoy being raped or something she used to gain attention–thanks, in part, to an episode of Glee.

Glee possessed something for everyone in my family–entertaining story lines for Mom, cute girls for me, and music for Susan, my younger sister. The show was no longer family fun after an episode when a cheerleader, Santana, shared the story of her rape. During the first commercial, Susan announced that she had been raped repeatedly by one of our babysitters’ teenage sons.

My mom started crying and holding my sister. I didn’t understand why she cried so much. It’s over, we can call the police and he can be put in jail. Mom acted like someone died. Susan’s not even crying so obviously it’s not a big deal, right? Did it even happen? I asked myself these questions as I got up, hugged my mom, and went to bed. Maybe my sister just wanted attention. Maybe it didn’t happen. Could it be that bad even if it did? I am ashamed of my ignorance at that time.

Mom, a single mother who worked crazy hours, often left us with a babysitter. Our big reward for being the first to finish homework was permission to watch television. Whenever Susan won and the babysitter wasn’t looking, I would snatch the remote from Susan’s hand. She would come at me full force: hitting, kicking, and biting. I was always bigger and stronger, which is why I enjoyed those fights–considered them harmless and playful.

I now became Susan’s protector. She became self destructive and my new responsibility was coming home early to hide all the knives. A year later, I lived on my own because Susan was in the psych ward and Mom moved to a hotel next door to a hospital in Westchester. Gone was conventional big brother fighting with his sister over who walks the dog. The household needed me to really grow up.

My new role influenced me on the basketball court–and off. Half time in the locker room of my first game on varsity: Nick and Osay–the two highest scorers– resemble two heavyweight boxers at weigh-in, trying to intimidate each other. We’re losing big time. Nick(6 ‘5) was red with frustration. He shoves Osay (6’3). Just as Osay was going to retaliate with a right hook, I jumped in between them. Me–the youngest and skinniest on the team– in between my heroes. I emerged from that locker room as a leader of the team and, to think, it all began with an episode of Glee.

I now watched my sister re-live the pain over and over through days of questioning by the DA. I wanted the rapist to go to jail to provide closure for my sister and family. After my sister’s rapist confessed, he never saw a day of jail– he pleaded insanity. Mom acted like she expected this to happen. Why? If you admit to a crime, shouldn’t you go to jail? I was crushed.

As a young man of color, I was prone to worrying about avoiding conflict with police officers and gang members–not rapists. Now as the brother of a rape victim, I see the impact of the brutal crime on a family and an individual. Emotions often drained my family, making normal family dinner impossible. I was the lone man of the household–never being able to understand the thoughts going through my sister’s head but trying to be there anyway. I could never ask for guidance on how to deal with the situation –I simply learned on the fly. The 13-year-old me would not have been the guy–the steady calm amongst the chaos.

Benjamin Flanagan, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, is a freshman at University at Albany, SUNY.

Essay of the Week: The Bald and Bold Moment

By Adia Fielder

This is how it began: being black in that predominantly white space, my race always felt loud to me, especially sophomore year. Black bodies were falling victim to bullets at what seemed like an hourly pace and I struggled not only with coming to terms with that, but watching others not have to do so. For all the non-black people in the room this was a blip in their radar, morose of course, but not life or death for them like it was for me. It was a kind of helplessness, akin to that which I felt freshman year when I fought the internal battle over my sexuality; the same hurt and confusion swirled within me then as I dealt with those that I knew, by definition, couldn’t understand. The only conceivable way I could see to resolve these internal struggles was with outward resistance.

Around March, I was ready for change. So I did what I needed to; I cut all of my hair off. I still stand by the assertion that it was the best decision I’ve ever made. While I am very animated by nature, the day I cut my hair felt quiet, almost serene. Looking back, it was inevitable. At such a young age I had internalized the ideal that straighter and thinner and whiter was good, that to be bold and curly was to be too much and too loud and too black all at once. And now I was ready to rectify the chemical and heat damage I had done to my hair by starting over. It was spring; when everything new grows and the winter has no choice but to bow out of its way. This was my way of pressing forward. A girl from my dorm walked in as I was finishing up. “Woah,” she said, my hair apparently more pressing than her urge to use the bathroom. “Are you cutting it all off?” I nodded, kind of embarrassed to be sharing this almost intimate moment. But then she grinned. “Cool!” she said with two thumbs up. “I bet it’ll turn out great.”

My new lack of hair offered me a kind of freedom. With everything going on politically, I felt this rising condemnation of the black body, and I wanted to combat that. My new (lack of) hair was as much resistance as the vigils and protests I attended. In addition, I now had a cloak of gender ambiguity that I hadn’t had with long hair, but enjoyed nonetheless. I didn’t look “straight” or like the conventional idea of a girl. It grounded me in a way I had not known I needed, and was the missing jigsaw piece in what I considered to be a convoluted mess of my persona. I had complete control over my appearance for that moment. I was me; queer, black, weird, and now bald. Maybe that could be enough.

I was and remain a whirlwind of all these identities, and, when I was younger, the one thing I lacked in my life was a space where I saw the intersectionality in myself reflected outwardly. However, in the last few years visibility and celebration of black hair gained enormous traction. Today, it is not uncommon to see shaved heads, long flowing dreadlocks, afros that reach toward the sun in all sorts of colors. This is now the standard of beauty against which I measure all else. I have created for myself an alternate dimension – refusal to adhere to the conventional Western ideas of what was acceptable. It is this notion that helps me press me onwards; the knowledge that I can be myself, and boldly as well.

Adia Fielder, accepted to Brown, Wesleyan and several other schools ultimately chose Northwestern, where she is now a freshman. She is a 2017 graduate of Groton.

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

Early Bird Announcement

Attention Juniors

Write for the Future’s First Early Bird Deadline for the Class of 2018 is approaching.

November 15 is the First Deadline!

For More Information:

Contact us at appointments@writeforthefuture.com

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.