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Journey to a Strong Back

by Kyle Borden

kylebordenHappy birthday, Kyle! Really? Two days after I turn 16, I feel like an old man. I am lying in a hospital bed. A nurse shorter than my younger sister injects the IV into my vein. What if I can never walk again? What happens to basketball?

“Are you ready to go night-night?” The nurse’s tone is fit to entice a two-year-old to go to bed. Her voice freaks me out, but only for a few seconds. My eyelids begin to feel like sand bags– three, two, one, out! Back surgery begins.

Ten hours later, I wake up and my body feels like a lead block. I cannot move and have no idea where I am. I look over my right shoulder and see my family.

A day later, another nurse stands where I saw my family when I woke up.

“Time to get out of bed!”  she says with excitement in her voice. Sounding like a nursery school teacher trying to move a class of kindergartners, she pushes a grandma walker towards me. “On three, you’re going to have to sit up and turn your body.” She counts to three and I try sitting up. It feels like I have a bullet lodged into my spine.

“We‘re going to take some steps today!” I can barely sit up by myself. How am I supposed to get out of bed, let alone walk? I struggle to sit up and slowly edge my way out of bed. What used to take seconds turns into a five minute process. I grab the walker and grimace as I stand. My legs are so weak that they feel like two pieces of uncooked spaghetti. One inch at a time; that’s how big my steps are. First stop is the bathroom. I turn and looked in the mirror. I haven’t seen my reflection in two days. The man in the mirror is skinny and famished. I feel like less of a person. Over the next year, I would learn a lot about myself and discover ways to conquer my flaws.

The pain started Christmas Eve of my freshman year. After a game, cramps tore through my back as if something were pulling it to the floor. The agitation continued after games; I began seeing doctors who all had different ideas. One said it was a nerve problem. No, it was a joint problem. How about a nerve and joint problem? These diagnoses went on for over a year. Not knowing what was wrong killed me. I thought I was going to have to give up basketball.

Finally, my parents took me to a surgeon. “Lift your leg.” I lifted two inches off the ground and winced. “You need surgery.” I was fifteen at the time; that was the last thing I wanted to hear.

Overcoming spondylolysis, a spine defect, changed my life. Doctors placed titanium rods into my back. After three days in the hospital, I spent the remainder of the summer indoors. Each morning started with three different painkillers– none of them worked. Steps were my worst enemy– I faced fifteen of them daily.

The only rehab for me was walking. While it was dangerous for me to walk on inclines, go up steps, or sit down too fast, being able to walk flickered some hope into my heart. I would never take another step for granted.

The words, “You need surgery,” reframed my entire life. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason in this world. This was the very beginning of a stormy rain cloud with that silver lining. My recovery process allowed me to see the world through a new lens. I would not take back what happened for the world, because then I would cease to exist. I would be someone else. Every high and every low made…me.

Kyle Borden, a 2015 graduate of The Hun School of Princeton, just began his freshman year at Franklin and Marshall College.

Propelling My Voice

by Jordan White

jordanwhiteAs the youngest in my family by eight years, I was awkward, painfully shy, and tired of being verbally overshadowed. So, at 11, I decided to make my debut at the Christmas dinner table.  

“Did you hear that Lady Gaga might actually be a man?”

Immediately, my brother took over the conversation with a story about a transgender girl from high school, while my uncle followed with a tangent about gender-neutral bathrooms. My inaugural appearance as a provocateur had failed, and my presence once again faded into the background.

My family’s dinner conversations have always been equal parts vulgar and intellectual, with topics like the Bonobo chimpanzee’s bisexual pursuits to adolescent Italian castrati. Outlandish oddities cleverly become family inside jokes. I would spend meals dreaming of my moment to provoke, taking periodic breaks to notice whichever condiment was staining my dad’s shirt. Embarrassed and discouraged by the Gaga debacle, I decided speaking was not to be my mode of self-expression.

Weeks later I became a writer, thanks to our fifth-grade historical fiction project. Some chose to write about the Revolutionary War, while others ventured into the depths of Nazi Germany or Jim Crow. Sometime during the fifth draft of my Civil Rights story, I decided to produce something different. Filing through my mental bank of memories and family conversations, I chose the New York crack/AIDS epidemic of the late eighties.

I altered my story completely. Julius Jones––my proud, stoic, fictional NAACP Chairman––devolved into Julian ‘Juli’ Jameson: a hopeless, staph-infected drug addict with a mayo-stained shirt. Night after night I scanned the depths of Google’s “crack” files, even turning off Image SafeSearch to examine the faces of its victims. I took my desire for identity and applied it to Juli’s journey. As I struggled to find a voice among extroverts, he struggled to find purpose in his dingy Hell’s Kitchen tenement.

The story was a hit among teachers and peers, propelling my confidence as a student. I started writing personal essays; packed with details that I had saved in my mental notebook. In seventh grade I wrote an essay about death, and an influx of long lost memories rushed onto the paper. Rather than seeing sadness in mortality–a hospital, or a coffin, or Benta’s Funeral Home–readers saw my grandmother putting coffee in my sippy cup and telling me she suspected her neighbors were axe murderers. My English teacher suggested I submit the essay to a writing contest, telling me I deserved an audience. I ended up winning, and found my path as a student altered forever. In a school full of inventors and mathletes, writing had become my “thing;” a way to value myself beyond numerical assessment.

Today I’ve established my voice beyond just essays, but my writer’s imagination stays with me almost everywhere. People in my life sometimes become characters that I control. For example, at my uncle’s funeral last winter, my family sat silently in prayer. I made eye contact with the young thurifer shifting nervously behind the priest. I imagined that it was his first day on the job, the way only one pant leg was cuffed — he must have been rushing out of the house. I liked to think his girlfriend made him a good breakfast and said “good luck today, honey” when he left. Luck wasn’t exactly the right thing to wish to someone who was going to a funeral but then again “goodbye” would have been too morbid. I took mental note of the stained-glass windows and saved the detail for future use.

The more I write, the easier I find it to talk– about myself and the world around me, even at the dinner table. When adults mutter about the tribulations of their nine-to-fives, it is not uncommon for my mother to now interrupt, pleading for a breath of life: “Let’s liven things up. Jord, what should we talk about?”

Jordan White, a graduate of Hunter College High School, will begin her freshman year at Wesleyan in a few weeks.

 

My Global Gateway: Food

by Asha Hinson

ashahinson

The aroma of sweet jerk chicken and oxtails consumes my nostrils, blocking any scents of urban pollution the second I exit the 2 train. I always feel at home in Flatbush during the afternoon rush hour. I immediately see signs advertising the best beef patty or roti in Brooklyn. People line up outside little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, waiting for their favorite Caribbean delicacies–even during the winter.

If Mom picks me up at the train, we join a line and I suddenly get a lesson in cuisines and cultures of places far beyond Brooklyn. Markets sell all kinds of meats and fish, which stir my curiosity. One day we stop at a restaurant without a name on the door but with a menu displayed on the wall.

“What are doubles?” I ask Mom.

“You have had doubles before; a sandwich with two deep-fried flat breads stuffed with a chickpea curry.”

I experience the diversity of my identity through food. I easily find my mom’s Grenadian-Bajan background in cuisines on Flatbush streets. On weekends, I explore my dad’s Southern roots. Grandmother Rita came to New York from Georgia sixty years ago. When I enter her Bronx apartment, I immediately face a plate of fried chicken and collard greens over lots of laughs at old pictures and stories of Daddy’s youth. On school days, I come from a comfortable bed in a Brooklyn brownstone to a Manhattan progressive school where food becomes part of our curriculum in studying the world. Last year, my friend, Mirwat, bought Kissan jam and shared stories from her native country, India. She described classes taking place on railroad platforms or in small cabins and students walking along a bamboo bridge to commute to school.

Food also helps me strengthen my bond with my summer brothers who live in Texas. As an only child, my four younger cousins–Quentin, Marley, Maxwell, and Cameron– fill my void of not having siblings. For as long as I can remember, I have spent a chunk of every summer with them in Dallas. Over barbeque, we experience the world of rodeos. I love taking them to aquariums, pools, and their favorite, amusement parks, in between feasting on Italian Ices.

My brothers teach me to treasure the differences in people the same way I appreciate varieties in food. Yet I also understand that some divides run too deep for a meal to bring the two sides to a toast. For example, rewind to an amusement park last summer: my six-year-old cousin, Marley, stares in awe at a monstrous structure before him. As usual, I try to imagine what is running through his mind. I see the fear in his face grow as he analyzes the bright blue slide, glistening in the scorching Texas sunlight. He is excited yet frightened.

A man tall enough to play Big Bird gives Marley terse instructions. “Lay down on your back, little boy, and cross both your arms and feet! Okay?”

Marley stares upward with wide eyes fixed on the impatient slide attendant.

“Hurry up, kid, we’ve got other kids waiting. Go down already!”

Food can not bridge this gap. I wish the giant slide attendant could read the articles I devour on Autismspeaks.org. If he understood Marley’s differences, maybe he wouldn’t be so impatient. Marley is on the autism spectrum and inspires my appetite to learn as much as I can about child psychology. I draw him close, bend down, and look in his eyes.

“Marley, don’t worry, there is nothing to be afraid of, I will go to the bottom and wait for you.”

Unfortunately, Marley chose to walk away from what could have been the ride of his life. If he faces the top of the slide next summer, I will try again to inspire him to try something new as easily as I sample a different kind of fish or meat in Flatbush.

Asha Hinson, a 2015 graduate of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School, will be a freshman at Smith College in the Fall.

The Summer Wind of Change

Kennedy Austin-Headshotby Kennedy Austin

The summers I knew were gone. Instead of flip flops, I wore sensible pumps. Instead of immersing my toes in the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean, I dipped my feet into adulthood.

When junior year ended, I didn’t feel that same tingly sensation of freedom and excitement. Instead I felt nervous. Ahead of me was a leadership conference, an elective summer-long math course, and an internship at South Bronx Health Clinic. All would be incredibly rich experiences moving me another step closer to my goals of combating economic inequity and a public health career. With a lump in my throat, I leapt forward, feeling eager yet anxious about how I might fit into new worlds.

My summer officially began with a train ride to Washington, D.C. Nominated by my dean, I was selected to be an AnnPower Fellow and attend the Vital Voices Leadership Forum where accomplished female leaders mentor 50 young women. My application included a plan to develop a high school course on economic inequity for privileged youth. Over the past two years I have become increasingly sensitive to inequity in my environment. Traveling around New York City, I’d gone from seeing extreme privilege to seeing people scraping by within minutes. Following Hurricane Sandy, I carried non-perishables to families stranded in public housing while replaying in my head television images of people with resources sheltering in luxury hotels. Seeing people struggle while others wined and dined made me angry. Why should different income levels afford different solutions in times of disaster?

At the Leadership Forum I talked to women from all over the world: a congresswoman from Argentina, a presidential candidate for Cameroon, and a graffiti artist who uses art to prevent domestic violence in Brazil. I encountered the go-getter lifestyle by workshopping elevator pitches, developing platforms, and networking.

The encouragement of mentors and other fellows was life-changing. I cried every day because I had never felt such empowerment. I came home with stars in my eyes looking at my passion to tackle economic inequity and health disparities. I began my internship the following week.

I made the 90-minute trek from Brooklyn to the South Bronx Health Clinic in one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. I sat for hours at a lacquered wooden desk. My job was to approach strangers and cheerily ask them to sign up for trips to the farmers’ market, Zumba classes and nutrition workshops. Some said yes and never came. Others were forthcoming, politely saying, “Oh, well, it says you can’t bring kids — necesito a llevar mi niño,” or “I have to work.” To that I smiled, though it probably looked more like a grimace, and said, “That’s a shame.”

After weeks of incessantly pitching programs, participation was low. I told my supervisor that potential clients were forced to choose work over activities and urged her to change the activity times. She refused. I had to accept that I couldn’t change her agenda because this was her job and I was just an intern. However, it didn’t defeat me or the fervor I had gained from AnnPower. I still loved speaking to patients about programs every day.

Previous summers now blur together like dream sequences. I move freely from  tightrope-walking on a college campus in between classes to manning a four-woman canoe in camp regatta, and eating Chipotle until my stomach hurt. Last summer, I didn’t frolic like I had in the past. I did not indulge myself in the ephemeral bliss of unadulterated liberty that only a child knows as vacation months. Rather, much like diving from a cliff, I plunged into the realm of career-building and risk-taking, and I grew. I put myself out there, spoke my mind, and pushed myself forward.

By summer’s end, despite their drabness, my sensible pumps had become more comfortable. So comfortable that I haven’t rushed to put my flip flops back on.

Kennedy Austin, a 2015 Graduate of the Berkeley Carroll School, will be a freshman at Wellesley College in the fall.

 

Middle Child Girl Power

by Amanda Schnell

amandaschnellI was exhausted, frustrated, but refused to release the smile on my face. For two hours, I repeated the words “circle”, “triangle” and “square” as I stood before a classroom in a small school in the Floating Villages of Cambodia. I was overly ambitious, thinking I could move onto colors after an hour. I soon decided that the lesson plans just weren’t going to work, and instead quickly improvised. In teaching body parts, I started the class with singing and dancing. It was a crowd-pleaser. At the beginning of the class, they could not pronounce the word “toe”, but by the end we had successfully taught them every single body part in the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” tune. I owe this moment of adaptability to the way I grew up.

I am the middle child–the only girl in the family sandwiched between two brothers who love to punch each other. Growing up, Justin and Casey sometimes excluded me, forming “boys only” clubs with private jokes. I’m not looking for pity; I had my diverse collection of stuffed animals and my diary to keep me company! Looking back, though, I see that this sibling dynamic has created a strong sense of individuality and self-sufficiency in me.

I even owe the diet I love to the independent streak I formed growing up. My brothers love steak and hamburgers, but in fifth grade I was moved to take on a new diet after reading Fast Food Nation. I will never forget the description of how each animal is killed at the McDonalds slaughterhouses. I have nothing against carnivores; in fact, all my friends are meat enthusiasts. But I was so moved by what I had read that at the age of nine, I stopped eating fast food and became the only vegetarian in the family.

Being the middle child has helped shape my life in so many other ways. My little brother Casey loves getting attention from Justin, so he rarely complains even when Justin contorts him into a multitude of painful looking positions. When Casey isn’t around, Justin likes wrestling with me. Learning to fight back thickened my skin, and ultimately made me even more adaptable.

When I met my Cambodian family last summer, we naturally bonded despite the language barrier. We exchanged warm smiles and found ways to express ourselves beyond our native dialects. Every morning I would walk out of my homestay house and watch neighbors washing their clothes and bodies in the river, which was filled with trash and human waste. After hours of teaching, I looked forward to my bucket shower. The water was always cold–which was perfect after a long day in the hot and humid Floating Villages. On our trip I would continuously say “It’s not weird or gross, it’s just different,” to other students in the program who complained. I lived comfortably by these words.

I particularly enjoyed the commute to the Floating School because it was nearly an obstacle course. A boat outside the house carried us to another floating house. We then balanced from the house to canoes, which finally took us to the school. One morning I could not stop thinking about the farm animals I saw on this journey. The students grew up around chickens and cows. Why not focus a few classes on animals while teaching English? We did so and the students mastered the topic with ease.

I loved my experience in Cambodia, but was happy to return home and see Justin and Casey, my occasional adversaries and my constant motivators. Now that we are older, our relationship is changing. Justin is no longer living at home–which has strangely prompted a closer (and less violent) relationship with both of my brothers. Yet, there are still times they throw me into the couch or try to twist my arms into unimaginable positions. Of course, I fight back without hesitation!

Amanda Schnell, a 2015 graduate of Riverdale Country School, will be a freshman at the University of Michigan in the fall.

A Rough Field for Everything….Everything but Race

by Conner Chapman

connorchap

A right arm hung from a body after our linebacker picked up the opposing quarterback and slammed him on the turf. The kid’s season ended with the nearly detached arm in front of my eyes. A year later, I rushed past an offensive lineman and dove for the quarterback. I missed. When I looked down, my mangled pinky finger barely hung on my hand. A trainer popped it back in, but I was done for the night. At least I had the rest of the season.

My finger still hurts, but not enough for me to abandon the sport. I am content playing football, not because of the brutal impact on my body, but largely since the game provides a level playing field where performance–not race–matters. Moreover, strong performance in football does not produce the remarks I confront for academic achievement, which are often blatantly couched in terms of race: “Now here’s a black kid who studies.”

Football isn’t a world free of problems. Yet on game day, my school’s black and gold are the only colors that produce team loyalty. If Trayvon Martin was on my team, he would have been safer on the field of broken fingers and arms than he was in the neighborhood where he met George Zimmerman. Moreover, if Martin confronted any brutality on the field, it would have been part of a play that had nothing to do with race.

A week after the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, I was at a forum sponsored by Jack and Jill, an organization of black families. An elderly man yelled, “It was Trayvon Martin’s fault for being killed. He shouldn’t have been out at night wearing a hoodie.” I was shocked, angry and offended. This man was actually a black father of a teenager. I guess it was his way of saying “pull your pants up.”  I stood and responded. “You are wrong,” I said. “There is no way you can justify Zimmerman’s actions or Trayvon’s death.”

After reflecting on the forum, I must admit it is only realistic to expect others to judge African-Americans based on prejudices tied to race and appearance. While the man’s comment felt outrageous, he raised a valid point, whether I liked it or not. If Trayvon had been wearing a suit, would his appearance have been enough to disarm some of Zimmerman’s racism, saving Martin’s life? This question is painful and disheartening, but real.

Unfortunately, I will probably spend my whole life disproving the stereotypes inside the minds of others. I will be forced to carry myself in a clean cut way that does not promote any triggers of black male stereotypes. In doing so, I will continue to be praised as an exception with compliments that don’t feel like real compliments. Achievements of mine are so often now called remarkable because I am black. This further inspires my appreciation of football where my abilities never wear a racial stain.

On the field, the roughness of the meritocracy inherent in the game compels players to think as a team regardless of race. The tough game provides a field where 22 players find equal opportunities to perform once they are in the game. However, I refuse to rest my laurels on football and allow centuries-old stereotypes to dictate my fate. Part of my life’s mission is to destroy barriers that confine blacks to narrow opportunities.

Coming home from a big win recently, my teammates were too happy to remain quiet. We sang, rapped, and made fun of each other and the coaches in jest. It didn’t matter whether you could sing or rap and, as usual, we were a team of only two colors–black and gold. I hope to create avenues where this kind of moment–so unburdened by race– is the norm. If only I could bottle that spirit on the bus and spread it worldwide.

Conner Chapman, a graduate of Long Island’s St Anthony’s High School, will be a freshman at the University of Chicago in the fall.

Following the Crowd as an Individual

by Matthew Gilbert

mattgil-crop

A stampede gushes my way. Teenagers jump, leap and holler. They want to get closer to the stage, but a low fence is in their way. Security guards scramble to keep everyone from rushing over it, but it’s too late. Hundreds of charging fans overpower them. In a split second decision, I choose to run with the fans to avoid being trampled. I can’t think of a better place to spend my 17th birthday than the Mad Decent Block Party, a music festival.

I’ve always loved the animation and excitement that comes with large, loud crowds. My first memory experiencing this intensity is a New York Liberty basketball game with my father when I was eight. I couldn’t get enough of the electricity generated by the screaming fans. Years later, I would experience the same rush at a Red Bulls game as I cheered, waving my “Red Flag.”

It wasn’t until my junior year sociology class that I discovered Durkheim’s theory which explains that electric feeling: collective effervescence. It’s the feeling of euphoria and social bondage large groups of people experience when acting together. Cavemen felt it chanting songs and performing rituals around fires, and they named it “God.” The emotional experience of the devout at church is similar to my feelings at a concert. I realized something else in that class–my love of sociology and my desire to explore its many applicable concepts. I am not in love with just being in a crowd. My passion is analyzing crowd behavior when the sociologist in me goes to work.

Beyond crowded concerts, I look for the social forces influencing the actions of those around me.  The subway ride from Park Slope to school on the 3 train allows me to apply the concepts from class in a real world paradigm. Graffiti tags in the train tunnel compel me to question how the deindividuation of this “art” will increase crime rates. In the hallways, I notice the impact of socioeconomic status on education when comparing my public and private school friends’ SAT scores, highlighting the differences in their college preparedness. I see the irony after school, when my friends jokingly make fun of “raging feminists” for “exaggerating gender inequality,” but they don’t see the misogyny all around us as we walk through Brooklyn Museum’s featured exhibits filled exclusively with male artists. The sociological laws of group behavior affect so much of our lives that we fail to realize how little control we actually have.

However, I find freedom from social pressures by studying the forces that control behavior. Interpreting the motivation behind group behavior allows me to make decisions as an individual while remaining an active citizen of a community. True individuality can blossom when the restraints of social mores and folklores are lifted from the subconscious. As I scroll through music on iTunes, I know to not let the popularity of a song determine if I like it. Studying the “Bystander Effect” gave me the responsibility to overcome this powerful situational force and call the police when someone outside my friend’s house on Suffolk Street was attacked with a hammer. The laws of group behavior don’t hinder my individuality, but understanding them gives me the tools to fully develop myself.

I am aware of all this as I stand in front of the blazing lights, feeling the energy all around me. I have no idea who is performing, nor do I care. The only thing I can feel is the heart of the show, pulsing in time with the bass. It’s impossible to think about anything else when the music is this loud. Individual lines blur into a larger collective. As the show picks up speed, my friends flash me gleaming smiles. In this moment I know I won’t be satisfied as just a member of the crowd; I must also study its behavior.

Matthew Gilbert, a 2015 graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, will be a freshman at Wesleyan in the Fall.

Discovering My True American Identity

by Zoe Armstrong

“Zoe,Zoe Armstrong you can’t sit here,”  Mark said.

“Why not?”

“This is a whites only row,” he replied

It was junior year and I just wanted to find a seat at play rehearsal. I played Baroness Schraeder in my school’s production of The Sound of Music while Mark played the self-assigned role of class clown. He laughed until he saw the shock and outrage on my face.

“I meant to be funny,”  said Mark, “You shouldn’t take things so seriously.”

Eventually, he apologized and I realized he genuinely had not anticipated the impact of his joke. He had crossed a line that he did not know existed. I soon saw that an angry or irrational reaction might be as bad as the joke itself. This moment called for education in clarifying cultural misunderstandings, which became a major part of my life when my family moved to Switzerland at the beginning of my sophomore year. Mark, a white child growing up in Basel, did not have the same understanding of race as an American teenager who grew up with a cultural history that includes segregation, discrimination, and the painful struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. He actually thought that I might find some humor in his joke. In the interest of education and community, I explained calmly why I did not laugh along with him.

In that moment of my junior year, I saw the American in my sensitivities. I lived in America for the vast majority of my life, but I never thought of my country as defining or vital in my personal construction of identity. However, being a part of an international school community of people from different parts of the world does not dissolve the idea of nationality. Instead, such international diversity has a tendency to make students more aware of their native lands. As a member of an international community, each student at ISB becomes a representative of their own country, which has made me more patriotic while simultaneously helping me become more globally aware.

Since moving, the idea of community has been totally redefined for me. This new definition produces greater responsibilities for me to learn about other cultures and to be open to educating people about my own. This may mean abandoning anger at a racial joke, while not entirely shrugging it off either.

When I arrived in Basel, I integrated myself quickly in the interest of becoming part of a new community. Shortly after my arrival, my classmates elected me to be a member of the group of student representatives who reported to the school’s administration. I also travelled far outside of my comfort zone to more adequately engage with Basel. I realized my private school existed in a bubble. So I joined a cheerleading team for the town’s football team to meet residents who attend other local public schools. Initially it was a challenge since I was new to the language. I often communicated with body language and occasional phrases in broken Swiss-German. Yet my teammates were welcoming and patient as I slowly grew comfortable with my German. Eventually I introduced team-building exercises to that I had learned back in the States, which not only boosted our spirit but also helped our routines run cleaner.

I have had my share of awkward moments in jumping into a foreign community. For example, when I went to lunch with my friend, Sophie.  A waitress took Sophie’s order in perfect German. I decided to show off how much German I had learned. “Gruezi! Ich möchte den Chicken Fried Rice, und können wir mehr Servietten haben?”  I asked.

The waitress replied in English: “Sure, I’ll be right back with your food.” Sophie could not stop laughing, calling my accent “obviously foreign.” I laughed, but still felt a little disappointed in the waitress’s reaction. Perhaps Mark had similar feelings in discovering that his joke was not funny but offensive.

Zoe Armstrong, a 2015 graduate of the International School of Basel, will be a freshman at Brown University in the Fall.

 

Class Clown to Class President

by Drew Crichlow

“Are you ready?”Drew Crichlow headshot

“Should I do it?”

Incessantly egging on my friends and warming up my audience, I ask again, “Ready …? Here we go!” As I squat, I position myself to execute my next escapade. Today’s task: exploding a juice box.

There was always something inexplicably attractive about receiving attention, so throughout my childhood, the sound of laughter was my muse. I had an appetite for approbation (clearly not from teachers, but from my peers), and nothing was more satisfying than earning the missing-tooth smiles of my immature friends.

Seated politely at their desks, my poor classmates were trying to enjoy lunch peacefully, but what is a meal without a show, I thought. And with that, I plopped onto my juice box. Unfortunately, my stunt failed; the juice simply poured out of the container without creating the mushroom cloud of beverage I had envisioned. Despite this disappointment, my friends reacted just as I had expected, jumping to evade the anticipated blast radius, screaming in disgust, and the odd few, giving me the drug I desired most: laughter. The high was incredible, but my ecstasy was short-lived. Searching for smiles, I turned to see a less-than-pleased teacher who, hearing the disruption, summoned me with a beckoning finger curl. After being reprimanded, my antics led to another level of attention I had not anticipated. She chronicled my behavior in an email to my parents. Needless to say, my juice box bomb awarded me an ill-flattering but well-fitting behavioral report reflecting the day’s escapades.

In middle school, I could no longer get away with such blatant misbehavior. Instead, I disrupted class with lackluster jokes, only provoking laughter because of their inappropriate timing. But, I was soon struck by the gravity of being the class clown: my reputation was outweighing my innocence, defining my experience as a student, and compromising my academic life, despite my intelligence. The repercussions of my behavior were no longer worth the reward of a few chuckles. This recognition defined my maturation and freed me from my self-imposed shackles; I would no longer be a slave to laughter. It was time for the next chapter in my life, one defined by academic focus and exemplary school citizenship. This chapter (entitled “Self-Improvement”), was lengthy, but by the next chapter (“New Beginnings”), I emerged as a redefined character, one whose hunger for attention and laughter evolved into a thirst for knowledge and service. The more I focused on academics, the more I enjoyed learning; the more my peers and teachers believed in me, the more I wanted to give them a reason to keep their faith.

Ironically, being a class clown may be one of best things that ever happened to me. It shaped me into the person I have become, and helped me to develop my new muse: leadership. Leadership supported my maturation, as I began to realize I could positively influence my peers. My classroom antics gave me confidence and a voice to embrace public speaking – even though at the time, it was in a negative light. Being the class clown gave me the foundation I needed to be elected class president three consecutive years, and ultimately, president of the student body. Now, I am confident enough to represent the student body as its spokesperson to school administrators and make recommendations to improve the experiences of all students at school.

The transformation from class clown to class president was not easy, but revealed my full potential: I learned that actions speak louder than words, and new actions speak louder than old ones. In truth, I still appreciate laughter. However, I now recognize there is a time and place for everything, because integrity and citizenship take precedence over laughter. So while I am more mature, I will remember my class clown episodes as a souvenir – and as a roadmap for the rest of my life.

Drew Crichlow will be a freshman at Yale in the fall and just graduated from Montclair Kimberley Academy.

Signs to Good Words

by Tess Jacobson  

My mother, father, andTess Jacobson brother vanished. What happens now? I lack the words to express my sorrow, my future and…  

Mid-sentence, I struggled to convey this agony. My imagination was congested. I tried to force myself into the mind of my protagonist, but couldn’t find the words. So I dropped my pencil and unfinished story. I turned to sign language. If I couldn’t write or speak the suffering, I could sign it and capture the words. With thought as the conductor, my hands obediently brought the scenario to life, forcing me to lace my feet into the shoes of the character and bring his feelings to life in the way I had imagined: authentic, yet silent. “The growing lump of panic in Collin’s throat suddenly choked him before plummeting to the pit of his stomach where it filled him with overwhelming desolation and absorbed all other traces of sentiment.” Sign gave me these words.

American Sign Language started with a casual comment from an eighth grade teacher. Visual learners tend to acquire skills in learning sign language. As a visual learner, I decided to give it a try. The more I engaged in this culture of people who, unlike me, are deaf, I couldn’t let go. So, I searched to find a way to learn this language on my own.

Sign complements another love of mine—writing. I didn’t begin writing because I was a naturally good wordsmith, but because I needed it. My imagination lusts for boundlessness and I credit my seventh grade English teacher for facilitating this discovery. She gave the class a five-minute required daily writing period with one condition: no one but the writer would see his or her scribblings.

At first, I wasn’t exactly producing masterpieces of originality. I scrawled on the pages not knowing what to write or, if I was feeling extra imaginative, I would describe the classroom. However, regardless of the topic, there was something liberating about taking part in an activity without limits or direct instructions to follow. As soon as I discovered my affinity for this independent, unrestricted expression, my imagination was released from its shackles and I produced work that compelled me to break the class rule and show my work to others.

Today I love to write—poems, essays, stories, lab reports, term papers. My fire for this art form is all inclusive. From analyzing Hollywood’s portrayal of America during the Great Depression to describing an original biology experiment on the psychological impact of color and light, I crave opportunities to speak my mind—soundlessly and tangibly. I’m enticed by most anything that makes me a better writer, which is one reason I’m drawn to sign language. Without the two, I would have been limited without ever knowing.

The words to describe the unfathomable emotional situation in my short story seemed unattainable because I had never experienced the circumstances. Sign guided me to go below the exterior of explaining “how sad” something could be and helped me extract the visceral aspect of grief, allowing me to connect with the character, and making him a part of reality—not just an imaginary sketch. Sign forced me to reach the core of what my character could have felt, not just the mere essence, giving the words the aesthetic animation that speech cannot provide. The captivating gestures embedded in sign language are almost as riveting as the feeling that comes with giving vocabulary a physically moving existence.

After these two interests integrated into my world, I realized how they capture my psyche. Sign springs a glimpse of another culture into my life, teaching me to constantly imagine and view the world from different angles. Writing empowers me to channel those interpretations into my voice as a writer. I’m not sure if I have a way with words, but I have my own way with words.

Tess Jacobson, who became a graduate of  The Trevor Day School today, will be a freshman at Tufts University in the fall.