• Topic

  • School


Sample Essays

Click here to read all our essays and features on .
To sign up for our newsletter, email us at appointments@writeforthefuture.com.

The Mission that Matured with Allergies

By Dani Eisman

Happy Birthday ddani-eismanear Auri! Happy Birthday to you! Hebrew! Yom hu’ledet sameach (x5) Are you 4 are you 5 are you 6? Yay!!! Everyone else erupts with applause, shouting “yea!” but I feel like “ugh.”  I envy kids competing for the first bites of the delicious looking cake while my mom hands me my “special” non-dairy dark chocolate.

I am allergic to dairy, egg, nuts, seafood, coconut, wheat, and soy. At 18, I no longer attend classic birthday cake parties. Now I am embarrassed at dinner parties when I must refuse certain foods. However, I am thankful for my allergies for influencing a dominant interest and drive in my life–advocating for children with disabilities. While my love for children runs deeper than my allergies, my food struggles are a major source of my empathy for special needs children.

At 13, I discovered this passion with Jill, a family friend born with several physical disabilities in Los Angeles, California. She lacked muscle tone and was resuscitated two times in her first few days of life. She endured three months in the NICU with her parents hoping for her survival.

In my first few days of life, I was also in the NICU due to jaundice and weight loss. A doctor decided to take me off dairy and my symptoms disappeared. Jill, on the other hand, did not have the luck of disappearing symptoms and must work hard for her muscular ability to be on par with children her age.

My experience getting to know Jill sparked my interest to work in the special education field. Whenever she visited us in New York, we were inseparable and I looked forward to family trips to California to see her. I started my first job working for an occupational therapist. A year later, I worked as a summer intern at Parkside, a special education school. By the time I was 15, I created a babysitting service focused on children with special needs.

I have learned the first step in helping children with disabilities is forming a bond. I always find something – a tv show, a favorite sport or color. For example, I formed a relationship based on a dress with a student at Parkside, Carol. She has trouble trusting people and deflects intimacy and instruction by becoming silly, laughing uncontrollably, and running away. I told her how much I loved her blueberry blue dress when it fans out as she twirls and sings “Let it Go.” Thing is – she wears this dress, everyday. I eventually eased Carol into challenging her dress obstacle by pushing her to wear a new dress for a few hours and giving her a sticker reward if she wore a new one.

Carol’s need to wear the same dress daily to feel comfortable reminds me of my need to stay comfortable around food. There was a time when I would tell people I’m not hungry when they offered me food instead of telling them the truth. My allergies and desire to be comfortable eating helped me to understand that children with learning disabilities also simply want to be comfortable, “normal” children.

In order to cope with my food allergies, I learned to bake. Baking has been my answer to the problem of finding food outside the house. I have numerous allergy friendly cookbooks that allow me to eat great desserts without sending me to the ER. I prove to myself that my small disability is manageable. Likewise, many special needs children discover ways to manage their disabilities. It’s rewarding to help them exercise their resourcefulness, form everlasting bonds  and gain humility and empathy along the way. I want to go beyond this joy and gain more knowledge about children with learning disabilities. While my experience allows me to understand children on a deep level, I am eager to find ways to improve the special education field and make the world better for special needs children.

Dani Eisman, a freshman at New York University, is a graduate of the Robert Louis Stevenson School.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Virtues of Outfield

                    By Will Johnson

11825603_528985197253159_4785992454695724644_n-2Oh, outfield. You are viewed as the most boring position in all of sports. You resemble Cast Away, but moving is forbidden. At least Tom Hanks had his volleyball. All I have is my center fielder, to whom I occasionally flip the bird or vice versa. The boredom makes me deeply philosophical: “With no base, can there be ball?” Everyone makes fun of the one kid in t-ball who sits in the outfield blowing dandelions. The jokesters have never known the struggles of the outfield or the virtues of the position. I do.

When I was six, I imitated Ken Griffey, Jr.’s swing. I joined my siblings and neighbors for home run derby in our own Wrigley Field accented with a brick-and-ivy wall in my yard. Yet, I first had an affair with baseball while I was still married to basketball, my first love. Tendonitis in my Achilles and in both patellar tendons in my knees caused a divorce seven years ago. Maybe you can call me Michael Jordan. I went from basketball to baseball, but I was actually good at baseball and not quite Mike on the court.

I played third, shortstop, second, first––“Hell, put me anywhere, Coach. Just not the outfield. Please.” Of course, Coach Reynolds assigned me to outfield when I was 11. Do not pity me. He created my path to experience a valuable life lesson: the importance of patience. In today’s world of instant gratification, patience is lost on many people in my generation, which makes that quality much more valuable. In the outfield, I stand for seemingly endless hours without the ball coming anywhere near me. When the ball finally comes, however, I am ready to make a play. Playing outfield parallels a pop quiz: you never know when it’s coming, but you always have to be ready.

I felt like I was in outfield at the Chicago Public Library last year. Our teacher gave us a month for the biggest writing assignment I’ve ever had: 10 pages, minimum, with at least 10 sources; instead of  procrastinating, I started early. Half of the sources had to be books, and I found a few books on the Treaty of Versailles in my local library. The impatient way would have been to Google a few books to get some passages to footnote. No offense, but I do not play shortstop. I chose to find the books at the larger library downtown. The Political Collapse of Europe. Perfect. Justice and Moral Regeneration: Lessons from the Treaty of Versailles and Versailles and After: 1919-1933. I wove through that maze of a library to find  KZ186.2, HC57.K4, D643.A7C9. Ah, yes––the Allies appeased Germany too much. Oh, of course––the treaty was far too harsh on the Germans. I sifted through wads of conflicting information. I made a historiography, briefly summarizing each source. Then I wrote my outline with paragraphs and subparagraphs. I thought I stopped a homerun with a catch when I created my thesis: “The Treaty of Versailles failed because it was poorly designed, compliance was not adequately monitored, and the economic realities of the time were completely misjudged.”

It was just the beginning. I had a paper to write. Writing required patience and dedication––traits derived from baseball; there was no way to get through it in just one sitting.

Outfield is not as actively exciting as the library. I sometimes do boring stuff––inspect the grass to see if the ball could take a bad hop because Hey, I still got a job to do out here. Next, this is arguably my most important job––I check out girls sitting on the opposing team’s side. I’m kidding, relax. Actually, I’m not totally kidding. I try to keep my eye on the batter, which I do pretty well. Yet, outfield gives my mind and my imagination the space to sometimes wander and always grow.  

Will Johnson, a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School, is a freshman at Indiana University.

 

Lesson in a Walk Home in China

By Roland Brewster

squashchinabarbados222A powerful wave drags an elderly man out to sea. I stop playing in the sand. I race to the water, swim out, and grab his arm. Battling the tide, we finally make it back to shore. As a nine- year-old, I save a life.

The grateful man offers me a dinner, but I politely refuse. The radiant feeling flourishing in my chest is enough of a reward. This moment, while visiting Mom’s side of the family in Barbados, lives as one the most significant experiences of my life—until I step into a small, dusty classroom in Beijing.

As a sophomore, I spend a week teaching English at the Dandelion School. Entering the classroom, I face thirty beaming smiles. They stand in my honor. When I ask them to sit down, they look puzzled.

I expected dedicated students, and witnessing their hunger to learn was powerful. I asked them to name animals who shared the same first letter as their own. They sped through a five-minute exercise in a mere minute. I engaged them with my childhood animal fables. They were infatuated, taking notes and asking questions throughout my lessons. To these children, knowledge they did not possess, no matter how simple, was well worth acquiring.

Tai Feng, a Dandelion student, invited me home on the last day of class. It was a twenty-minute walk and the closer we came to his impoverished rural community, I noticed something—he knew his neighbors, from the kids playing soccer to the elders in conversation. As I sat with his family in his living room, I recognized that his community was a big part of his drive for a promising future.

This experience triggered thoughts of my detachment from my own community. Ever since I was a little boy, I felt estranged from my Harlem neighborhood. Rather than playing basketball in the warm summer sun, I preferred to read a book in the cool atmosphere of my room. This alienation only grew stronger as my few neighborhood friends attended local schools; I trekked to the Upper East Side to a school where I made very close friends.

Like the Dandelion students, I possess a hunger to learn. Yet in doing so, my estrangement from my community has grown. My commute home differs so much from Tai’s. After a bus ride, I pass strangers—groups of kids walking home or going to eat. Their faces are unfamiliar.

Experiencing Dandelion inspired me to volunteer at StreetSquash, a Harlem program that exposes youth to squash and academic enrichment. I volunteered as a math and English tutor. At StreetSquash, the drive to learn resembled what I saw at Dandelion. This desire was reinforced when Brandon, a gifted writer who struggled with his honors math homework, broke down crying after struggling on a problem for thirty minutes. His tears reflected his drive to master the material.

As I got to know Brandon and the other students, I saw that they came from different parts of Harlem and were also detached from their communities. Unlike Tai, their academic pursuits dictated that they become strangers to many of their neighbors. Like me, they were foreigners to public playgrounds. Unlike me, some became strangers to their classmates while resisting peer pressure in neighborhood schools.

How do I improve my community if detachment is a byproduct of pursuing my dreams? As a small but important step to answering that question, I’m getting to know my students at StreetSquash, developing connections that are stronger than my ties to the man whose life I saved at age nine. Even his name eludes me. If I passed him on a road in Barbados, I may not even recognize him. Maybe I should have said yes to his offer to pay for dinner. Maybe I would have acquired a lesson as powerful as what I learned during the walk home with Tai.

 

Roland Brewster, a graduate of the Dalton School, is a freshman at Yale.  

Finding the Right Questions for My Own Discoveries

         By Rebecca Shaevitz

In third grade, my curious eye helped me catch a seemingly innocent, but unsettling dichotomy. All the black girls were in the step class. All the white girls were in ballet or tap. My desire to join the step class further exacerbated my confusion over this self-segregation. But I also recognized a line that I wasn’t supposed to cross. It was the first time I recognized my desire to understand complexities in my world as an innate part of my identity.

Since third grade, I’ve embraced opportunities to engage with varying perspectives and to understand difference in my world. In ninth grade, I traveled with my temple youth group to Selma, Alabama for three days to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. We met with Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist and the youngest person to march on Bloody Sunday in 1965. We marched with Joanne across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and as we reflected on the events of such a monumental day, she told us her story. She ended by saying, “As a human being, it is your responsibility to fix the world’s problems. Each of you must make a difference.” I pondered what I would have done had I been there; I hope I’d have marched alongside Joanne but I have no real way of knowing.

After these events, I once again found myself considering my place and whether or not I could be proud of my actions. I became aware that just as my New York City liberal upbringing has shaped me, those who have differing perspectives from my own were also shaped by their cultures. I grew weary of the anti-conservative rhetoric that permeated my academic environment. While I agreed with my peers’ social views, the condemnation of the other side made me feel as if I was denying myself the opportunity to understand other people. I had no expectation of assuming the perspectives of the “other” but I hoped to comprehend how their experiences had shaped them. Joanne had asked each of us to make a difference. The difference I would make, I decided, was to bridge a gap between my life and the lives of people from backgrounds far different from my own.

My desire to connect with the “other” motivated me to travel to the South this summer on Etgar 36, an educational program which brings Jewish students to activists on all sides of major social and political issues. Discussing abortion or gun control with a Pro-Life activist or an NRA representative was difficult because these individuals were so removed from my own understanding of these issues. However, this distance made my determination to understand the other person and the other perspective much stronger. As my self-awareness grew, so did my discomfort at my limited experiences. It was difficult to look inwards and realize that just as the “other” struggles to understand me, my own experiences or lack thereof can be roadblocks to understanding them. However, while I didn’t see eye to eye with the activists, I walked away having pushed myself to engage them.

I will continue to uncover my own prejudices in the hopes of building bridges with those who are removed from my reality. My curiosity provides both a lens through which to view myself and a basis for forming relationships with others. My desire to understand the complexities of my world began in third grade at a time when I didn’t have the vocabulary to address my confusion. Today, with the help of Joanne’s message, I know that the differences I face can be overcome with an open mind and a willingness to ask difficult questions.

Rebecca Shaevitz, a 2016 graduate of The Dalton School, is a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis.

Moving Characters from Stages to Stories to Real Life


By Mark Anthony Graham

Mark Anthony stent Graham

I don’t remember my first time dancing; my friends say you can’t truly love something unless you can identify your first time engaging in the passion. I firmly disagree. I don’t remember the first time I ate pizza, and trust me, I love pizza. I don’t remember the first time I met my parents, but I love them dearly. Like pizza and my parents, dance is so integral to my life that I feel as if I’ve been moving rhythmically forever.

Before I could walk, I watched my mother and sister in African dance classes at the Harlem School of the Arts. I listened as the beat of the drums surrounded me and influenced movement.

However, it was not until I fell in love with writing in ninth grade that I understood dance as a form of storytelling. My passion for sharing stories discovered two outlets for powerful narratives that influence my life in so many ways.

Have you ever read a story so immersing that you didn’t want it to end? I write stories that I don’t want to finish. I never want to end the moments when I am locked in the creations of my characters. The only way to free myself and end the story is to start another one.

I don’t always know where my stories are going when I sit at my computer while my fingers follow my mind. My adventures on the keyboard lead me into lives so different from my own. One character, Mateo, is set on an adventure bigger than himself. He believes he saw a ghost from his past, but unknowingly pursues a quest created by a mythical goddess who wants Mateo–and Mateo alone–to save her life.

I now see that the characters I create possess value far beyond storytelling. I made this discovery this year, when I became an ethics teacher for the sixth graders in my school’s Student to Student program. In STS we explore identities, communication, conflict resolution, and other issues that haunt adolescence. As a Cisgender Man, I was intimidated by the thought of creating lesson plans on gender relations. How could I create exercises that limited my inherent male bias and would be impactful for the girls in the class? As I struggled with this question, I remembered Brenda and Rachel. I created those characters for my story, “The Right Choice,” spending hours trying to write from a girl’s perspective while developing the story.

The mindset that guided me to create Brenda and Rachel in a very natural way helped me create a lesson plan in which I would facilitate but not dominate the conversation. I gave my sixth graders the information to help them unpack the social stigmas around gender on their own.

Teaching middle schoolers and creating characters in my stories have forced me to look at life from the perspective of others. Most recently, however, dance expanded my sense of narrative by compelling me to look deeply at myself as a character. My whole perspective on telling stories changed last year through “Blood on the Leaves.”  This piece, choreographed by a classmate was an artistic expression of the Black Lives Matter movement.  This dance embodied the passion, pain, and sense of solidarity associated with the movement. Unlike Mateo, Brenda, or Rachel, the characters and story of the dance were not from my imagination, but were representations of my own life. The dance changed my sense of storytelling because I was sharing the weight that I carry around with me every day through the fluidity of dance. The sensations and emotions of the piece came naturally to me.

Narratives are eternal in my life and support my natural empathy. They force my natural inclinations to watch, listening, and observe the lives around me as my own story unfolds–whether these stories move on stage, sit in a computer screen, or inform the way I teach others.

__________________________________________________________

 

Mark Anthony Graham, a 2016 Graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, is now a freshman at Villanova.

Dancing to the Future

                      By Sadiya Ramos                         

Sadiya RamosI race on stage for my first pose, my head facing down. I rush to the boys who lift me up and look to the audience: 62,000 people swaying. They lift their lighters as Mr. Stevie Wonder sings, shaking his dreadlocks to the sound of his music just a few feet from me: “If my eyes were to see, let them be a witness to a world that is color free.”

I have not lived in such a world as a black ballerina, but after years of hard work, I arrived at this surreal moment: performing in the Special Olympics on the same stage with Stevie Wonder.

I was just three when Mom noticed me mimicking the liturgical dance routines she  created for our Baptist church. I had the long legs, the turned out hips—but mostly the passion. Mom saw my happiness when she enrolled me in ballet programs. Yet I was always the different one. I lacked the blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin to be Aurora or Cinderella. No matter how hard I pointed my feet or how high I kicked my legs, I was placed in the back. At 11, I refused to be buried in the shadows. I wanted to shine. I started dancing like I was the only one on stage, and taking additional private lessons to strengthen my weaknesses.

Weekends with Grandma inspired me to be fearless in the face of adversity. She detailed  her five-mile walk to school in the burning sun. She struggled to keep her books tight to her chest while wiping sweat from her brow, praying that the Alabama red dirt would not stain her shoes. She could not stop counting the buses of white children speeding down the road.

At 17, she zipped up her white, silky dress and walked down the aisle to say “I do” to Granddaddy. After her first two children, my mother and uncle, she made a mother’s ultimate sacrifice—giving away her children. Fearing they would be endangered by the violence toward blacks in the South, she sent them to live in Indiana with her sister, hoping to spare them mistreatment that she encountered. Because of my grandmother, I was born in a different place. And because of where I was born,  I now have the opportunity to move ahead of the shadows.

At 17, I won the opportunity to perform at the 2015 Special Olympics. On the eve of the performance, I was restless, for my excitement robbed a couple of hours of my sleep. I woke up anxious, but also very tired. Between washing my hands next to Eva Longoria and dodging Secret Service, I was simultaneously flustered and excited. The gravity of where I would be performing settled within me. As the announcers called the names of the countries in alphabetical order, I began to pace, back and forth. I walked to a corner to stretch and then sat and meditated.  

After the performance, we exited stage right and witnessed the First Lady enter from stage left. Backstage, we began to sob with tears of passion, satisfaction, and happiness. I had never felt anything like this.  

Performing at the Special Olympics will never slip from my memory’s grip. I earned an opportunity that makes the roles I was denied seem measly. I learned that things will not come right away, even if you put your blood and sweat into them. Sometimes the struggle is generations long, as my grandmother’s story shows me. I had to wait for my time to shine. On her strong shoulders, and through my willingness to endure, my time came. When I found myself lifted in the air by my fellow dancers, to Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack of equality and harmony, I was suspended in an aspirational hope that we are getting closer to witnessing a world that is color free.  

 

Sadiya Ramos, a 2016 graduate of the Academy of the Holy Angels, will be a freshman at the Boston Conservatory in the Fall.

 

 

The ‘Dirty’ Line that Conquered A Great Fear

                            By James Ng

jamespfp

“I love it when you talk dirty.”
I want to run from the sentence my mind cannot escape: “I love it when you talk dirty.”
I went to bed replaying and dreading those words. They ruined my morning, as well. As usual, I left my house at 6:45 for the 40-minute train ride to school. I wanted the ride to last forever. I wanted first period Mandarin to go on all day. I did not want to leave second period history. Then butterflies burst from my stomach with the third period bell.
It was Dad’s fault. I did not want to take acting. He suggested I sign up, feeling the class could cure my extreme shyness.
I now find myself trapped in the first week of scenes. My assignment: William M. Hoffman’s As Is, a drama about a gay couple facing the realities of having AIDS.
My partner for the scene, Brian, is the opposite. He’s an outgoing guy who lives for the drama. He volunteers us to be first to perform.
I try to clear my mind and begin. As I recite the lines with fear of that dreaded sentence, I hide my fear. The bomb nears. I tuck in my gut and somehow find the courage to proudly say to Brian:

“God, I love it when you talk dirty.”
I quickly glance up at the class expecting lots of laughter. Other than a few slight chuckles, no one laughs. The students follow the scene seriously. I feel my peers’ growing attachment to my character and his feelings. This character-audience link helps me realize that there is nothing to be afraid of when performing. All of my pre-performance worries disappear because I finally understand that no matter how embarrassing something seems in my head, the people around me may not be laughing. In this case, the audience even seems impressed with my courage and riveted by my performance.

My shyness has always induced a fear of speaking in front of people. A few weeks before my scene, my legs shake uncontrollably and my face turns redder than a tomato. I am presenting an analysis of George Washington’s Farewell Address to my U.S. History class. I begin, take a quick peek up and see 30 pairs of eyes watching me, including the stern, dark eyes of my teacher. Fearing for my life, I immediately bury my face into the paper, reading the words instead of presenting them.

I now wish I had completed acting class before that presentation. Acting class helped me feel more comfortable in front of strangers. Throughout the semester, the class required us to be foolish and overdramatic in front of each other. Some days we were on the verge of committing suicide; on other days, we were gorillas at the zoo. After that first scene with Brian, I enjoyed the class, laughing more than I panicked. I learned to speak with, not to, the audience. The scene with Brian conveyed this belief, as we helped the class experience the same sorrow we expressed through our characters.

The summer after the class, I attended Cooper Union’s MakerSpace STEM program. Groups were required to give weekly presentations on their projects in Cooper’s Rose Auditorium. Unlike my former self, these presentations did not phase me. Sure, I felt some jitters, but I did not fear speaking to the crowd when I stepped on the stage and in front of the podium. In fact, I even took command of my group when a presentation began to go astray. I was no longer alone on stage because it no longer felt like a stage.

James Ng, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, will be a freshman at New York University in the Fall.

From an Outcast to the White House to Journalism

 

    By Isabel Dibble

934863_770853272967913_230493572501130278_n

I felt like an outcast. But my journal became my refuge.

My journal explored the challenges of moving from Chicago to Potomac in sixth grade– from a school filled with friends and a diversity of outfits to a place where “normal” wardrobes consisted of skinny jeans and Ugg boots in the winter and really short shorts and tank tops in the summer. I wrote about being a tomboy and being bullied. I remember two awful boys who stole my orange Chicago Bears’ hat off my head during recess. I chased them, while they laughed and tossed my hat back and forth. Finally bored, they dropped my hat on the ground and left.

I must thank the movie, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, for the birth of my journal. I was 10 and shy like the main character, Max. He made his dreams come true through “Sharkboy and Lava Girl.” He invented them in his journal and joined their adventure to save the planet he created. Inspired by Max, I started writing in my little black book resembling his diary.

I told stories in my journal that preserved my memories. I wrote about Chicago’s skyscrapers and chocolate croissants from Medici. My writing also included experiences with family friends from Chicago that I felt the need to document. One day in eighth grade, I was hanging out with Malia and Sasha at the White House. President Obama entered the room to say goodnight, wearing a suit with a red tie. Malia asked him why he was so dressed up so late. “I need to do a work thing,” he responded. Of course, we didn’t have any idea that he was minutes away from announcing that Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed. Realizing the magnitude of what I just experienced, my eyes were immediately opened to world events. In my journal, I described how I felt inspired to be someone who delivers stories and information with the same kind of magnitude.

Little did I know, my days of journal writing prepared me for journalism. My love of writing led me to join the newspaper staff in Tenth grade. At first, I wrote “light-hearted” stories such as movie reviews. But by junior year, my comfort level and desire to find more interesting stories grew. I enjoyed digging into mechanical problems at my school such as a broken heating system, which is still broken in my opinion.

I began tackling more controversial issues that interested me. I remember holding my pen and reporter’s pad waiting for Mr. Brown, the head of the science department, to show up. I was on a mission. When he finally appeared, I asked about the excessive numbers of students seeking exemptions from exams.

“I’ve heard students brag about it,” I shared with him.

Whitman and other high schools have an average of 12 exemptions each year compared to Churchill’s 96 students exempted in one year. Why are so many Churchill students exempted? Did he care to comment?

Brown’s irritation showed in his curt responses. I was not deterred. After rolling his eyes, he refused to go on record. I then located the principal for an interview.

After my article appeared, the school decided to abolish exam exemptions. My article played a part in this new change.  

Those days of bullying are long gone and I now stand up for both myself and truth as a reporter. With the new, world-changing experiences I’ve had and writing for my school’s newspaper, I’ve shifted my focus to a broader scope of issues that I hope to tackle as an enthusiastic, aspiring journalist. My journal was my first step into writing and my first step into journalism– though definitely not my last.

 

Isabel Dibble, a graduate of Winston Churchill High School, will be a freshman at Stanford University in the Fall.

 

The Long Journey to Moments of Pride

                       By Jaren Epps

Jaren EppsMy best friend, Jason, and I sit at a table in a ballroom watching a parade of 200 high school students, all one year my senior, march to the microphone. The men wear suits and white gowns drape the women. They announce their names, the colleges they will attend, and waltz to Glory. Chills run through my spine when I see seniors that I know reach the same microphone I will approach next year. Then they become graduates of Jack and Jill, an organization of black families.

This graduation did not resemble the pictures of blackness that once made me ashamed to be black. The mere word “slavery” once frightened me. In fourth grade I covered my ears, refusing to hear class discussions on plantation whipping poles.  I also shook my head or turned off the television when I saw news stories on black criminals. I did not want to be black.

My journey beyond this shame accelerated when a strange hand grabbed me and forced a blindfold around my eyes. Thrown to the cold floor, someone ordered me to get up and I felt chains on my ankles and heavy handcuffs squeezing my wrists. “I’m here to take pictures,” I fretted to myself.  Instead, I walked with 25 young men in discomfort through a wooded area to the sands of the rivershore. I heard an elder scream: “Try doing it again and I will throw you into the river.” Someone must have peeked through the blindfold.  

After trudging through the sand in 98 degree heat in a suit for hours, I heard the crinkle of the leaves and the clink of a metal key. My cuffs dropped to the floor. “Take off your blindfold,” an elder bellowed.  Our surprise simulation of slavery ended. Lifting the fold, I saw my friend Marcus’ black shoes. I found the courage to look up. Rows of benches surrounded a bright campfire. At 14, I graduated from Blue Nile’s Rites of Passage Program, which builds character in black youth.

The program featured movies like Roots, focused on the strength of blacks through the horrors of slavery. I found myself empowered, becoming a history buff. I had been a member of Jack and Jill for years, but I never valued the organization’s alternative narrative of the black experience until I embraced my heritage. There were bigger lessons beyond race in forming friendships through both experiences.  I saw the manifestation of this when my bestfriend, Jason, crumbled into my arms sobbing a couple of years ago. At the age of two, our parents threw us in the pool together to learn how to swim. We hung on to each other, crying. Treading water, we had to sink or swim. We always joked that, despite our floaties, it felt like the worst moment of our lives. We were wrong.

I was 16 when Jason sent the text.  

(3:07) – Bro, I have some really sad news. My brother Steven passed away today.

I couldn’t believe it: the same Steven who taught me to shoot a basketball and snowboard. A Harvard Law grad. Our role model.

My pain compounded in learning Steven committed suicide. In the midst of a huge Valentine’s Day snowstorm, I left boarding school to join Jason’s family.


At home, Jason called me downstairs to play video games. In the middle of
Call of Duty, he broke down weeping in my arms. There was nothing to say. I simply embraced him for as long as he needed, hoping my silence comforted him.  

Undoubtedly, Jack and Jill and Blue Nile strengthened my character in a way that helped me through the moment of a tragic loss. While both imparted an appreciation of my culture, they also conditioned me to see beyond self and value friendship through a challenging moment, a memory that will be with Jason and I when we approach the microphone next year.

 

Jaren Epps, a graduate of The Salisbury School, will be a freshman at Morehouse College in the Fall.

 

Finding a Place Like Home in Havana

By Alex Eisman

alex e

I felt like I was on Mars, yet I was only 90 minutes south of Miami. I was a 15-year-old in Havana, two years before the United States restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Decaying buildings and streets resembled a ghost town, but people — not to mention intimidating anti-American propaganda — were everywhere. It was scary. However, once I arrived at Havana’s El Patronato Synagogue, I relaxed. The Director greeted me with a hug in front of a particle board filled with photos of Jewish-Cuban families.
“Bienvenido a mi casa.”
“Gracias.” Flustered that I could not communicate with her any further, I turned to the translator. “Please thank her for this incredible hospitality.”
She led me into the dining hall, pointing to a wall and speaking rapidly in Spanish. The translator said, “This is where we plan to hang your paintings.”
I had been invited to display six large abstract biblical canvases. My path to this moment started with an eye-catching infomercial and my everlasting persistence. At the headstrong age of six, I had become fixated with an infomercial of a middle-aged woman painting flowers. It looked so cool. I, too, wanted to paint pretty flowers. I managed to wear down my mother to take me to buy a how-to book, brushes, paints and canvases. Within a few days, my first flower appeared on my canvas.
I soon began developing my own style as an artist. My artistic style has since evolved with my observations of life as a series of shapes, forms and colors that lead to meanings, narratives, and journeys. My work has developed into explorations of the human body in multimedia.
Six of my paintings interpreting the biblical story of Joseph and Pharaoh hung at my brother’s Bar-Mitzvah a few years ago. A Jewish-Cuban artist saw them and exclaimed: “You must show in Cuba.”
I immediately said yes. Again, I wore my parents down. It was far more difficult to persuade them to allow me to make this trip than it was to convince them to buy art supplies years ago.
“Cuba? No!”
Still, I researched ways to obtain a visa, identified possible places to stay and finally convinced my own synagogue to sponsor the trip. Six months later, I entered El Patronato for the opening of my exhibit, feeling a wave of humidity. The air conditioner was broken but this did not diminish the enthusiasm of the audience of one-hundred. I was humbled by the crowd’s many questions.
“What does it mean to have your paintings displayed in a synagogue?”
Sweat poured down my face as I thought about that first question. I forgot my prepared answer, but I knew the experience was bringing me closer to my Jewish heritage. I was an agnostic in an atheist country discussing Judaism and the Bible. I walked into the synagogue as a stranger and left several hours later as though I had been there all my life.
I returned to New York and expanded my art into teaching. For the past two summers, I have volunteered to teach art to underprivileged children.
“Today we are going to be drawing sunflowers,” I said to my students.
I walked around, offering assistance. Then I stopped at Steven. He had drawn a man and a dinosaur fighting over a flower. “Steven, what do we have here?”
“The dinosaur grew the flower, and the man came, and . . .” He continued his story for another minute. It was incredible. He followed my model and directions to create his own direction, his own narrative.
“Continue, Steven!”
I push my students to develop the mentality not just to think outside of the box, but to create a completely new box. As a largely self-taught artist, I embody this mentality. Perhaps that is why I can feel at home in a place that feels like another planet.

Alex Eisman graduated from the Children’s Professional School last month and will attend University of Miami, where she was accepted Early Decision.