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Fit for Me

By Marlena Rubenstein

IMG_0414At 12, I could barely run across the gym without gasping for breath. So if someone had predicted that I would one day run 3.1 miles continuously, I would have rolled my eyes and mumbled, “Yeah, right.” That image was as plausible to me as the idea of playing “Ode to Joy” on the moon.

Back on Earth, lunch in a middle school cafeteria is hell by definition; my classmates made it worse. Carrying a plate filled with questionable-quality cafeteria food, I passed girls sitting at bare tables. As I silently scarfed down my food, I overheard nearby conversations: “Well, since I’m going to a party tomorrow, I’ll look better if I don’t eat anything today.” I opened my mouth to correct the error of their thinking…and then immediately decide to stay quiet. I knew that these girls didn’t want my input, and I wanted to avoid conflict.

I endured endless bullying throughout middle school because of my weight. The advice I always received was: “Don’t let the bullies get to you,” but in following that advice I disregarded the origin of the bullying–my size.

I cannot remember a single visit to our family pediatrician that did not include a lengthy, worried lecture about my weight; and though I agreed, I wanted someone to wave a magic wand and solve the problem for me.

In 10th grade I realized that my fairy godmother wasn’t coming, and that my health deserved my full time attention. So I flew across the country to spend six weeks in the summer at a place that helps kids like me, and I returned home forever changed.

My typical day at Wellspring began at 7am with ‘Mama’ Christine, my favorite counselor, knocking on my door. By 7:30am, we were downstairs stretching on the grass for our pre-breakfast hike. In addition to the standard goal of reaching 10,000 steps per day, we went around the circle and gave a personal goal, which had to be S.M.A.R.T.–simple, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Whether we were running laps or kickboxing, we kept moving until lights out at 10pm. Silently, we would each walk to our rooms, close the doors, and collapse on our beds.

The end-of-camp 5K was on the day before my 17th birthday; it was mandatory to complete, but campers set their own paces.

The gun boomed, and dozens of people shot down the track. I jogged slowly, my breathing in time with my footsteps. I saw those who had sprinted off slow down or stop entirely, gripping their sides and heaving. I steadily passed them all.

At the 1 mile mark, my nutritionist Mia stood at the water table where runners stalled their inevitable return to the monotony of jogging. “Looking great, Marlena! Wanna stop for some water?”

“No thanks, I’m not slowing down. See you at the finish line!” I called out over my shoulder, more determined than ever to make it to the end. I completed the 3.1 miles in 36 minutes and 50 seconds, and have never felt a stronger sense of accomplishment. This race put the sugar-free icing on the fat-free cake of my transformation at Wellspring.

I did not change my life because others said I should. I made my decision in my own way, and crossed the finish line as a new person. Every aspect of my life has changed because of the discovery of willpower that I never knew I had.

On the plane home, I worried that others wouldn’t see the new Marlena. To my delight, I was wrong. Walking through the door, my little brother enveloped me in a hug and exclaimed with genuine surprise: “Marlena, I can wrap my hands around you now!”

He would soon realize that my change in size was only the tip of the iceberg.

Marlena Rubenstein, a 2014 graduate of The Hewitt School, will be a freshman at American University in the fall.

Being Thrown and Getting Back Up

By Molly Klein

MollyGraduationpicI felt like I was at a funeral, not in English, my favorite subject. My peers grew more solemn with each of Ms. Ginsburg’s steps. I saw circles in red, angry ink bleeding on papers as she passed out the first graded essays of the semester in Honors Junior English. Laughing faces turned into frowns. It took forever for her to reach me, returning a 72 on a piece about Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness? This grade threw me as hard as my horse Braun had thrown me out of my tack.

Self Resuscitation! After falling, I have learned to get back in the saddle with a determined spirit. I grew up riding horses at New Canaan Mounted Troop, which instilled this spirit in me. I couldn’t just show up, get on a pony, ride and leave. New Canaan students must take care of the facility as well as the horses, and my training was steeped in the barn’s motto: “It is never the fault of the horse, always the rider.” That lesson was now with me in Honors Junior English: I can’t blame the teacher for my 72.

Seeing The Lesson: It was an October day that felt like December at the Ridgefield Horse Show. Braun can be very sensitive to conditions in the ring, and I should have known that the wind and rain would rattle him. The course was full of jumps and sharp turns, which I forced Braun to do as if it were a perfectly calm, sunny day. Approaching the end of the course, he took off at full speed and leapt into the air, throwing me hard onto the ground. As I hobbled out of the ring, I saw my trainer’s disappointed face. She muttered the Troop motto as I led Braun to the trailer. She was right; I failed as a rider. I had not adapted my riding style to the conditions confronting Braun.

My Rules: Rather than blaming others, I live by the rule that I am most responsible for my fate. If my teacher or my horse bestow a tough lesson, it is something that I must learn. For me, disappointment is a signal that I have to take responsibility and fix whatever is going wrong in my life. Blaming others won’t help me to grow as a student, athlete or person. Some classmates spent the year complaining about Ms. Ginsburg’s tough grading. Despite temptations to join them, I was drawn to Ms. Ginsburg’s enthusiasm and knew I could be a better writer by spending my free periods with her. By the time we read The Awakening, in the spring, I was bringing home 90′s in Honors English.

Thrown Again: On the first day of my Personal Finance class I waited patiently for another girl to walk into the room, but the sea of boys continued to flow in. Our teacher told us to select a partner for creating stock portfolios, and no one would partner with me. I was left alone. I thought back to my travels through Turkey when I saw women in Burkas. The oppression was so foreign to me at the time. Now, the oppression became real. I was being treated differently because of my gender, and I was motivated even more to excel in the class full of boys. When selecting class usernames, I chose “onlygirl”. It was a proud moment when the stocks I had carefully chosen had boosted my portfolio into first place.

Final Reflection: Why was I consistently strong in Personal Finance, but slow starting in English? I started English with the confidence that I bring to the stables. Being an underdog from the beginning in Personal Finance gave me a bit of a head start in knowing I needed to gear up for the challenge. Underdog or not, I value high expectations that compel growth; so thanks Braun, and Ms. Ginsburg.

Molly Klein, a graduate of Darien High School in Darien, Connecticut, will be a freshman at Colgate in the fall.

Wrestling with Collaboration and Individualism

By Anton Kliot

UntitledI struggle against a murder of crows flying around in my belly. They grow with the calm confidence of my opponent, Alex. I can’t stop staring at him. He jumps around cooly, warming up. His smooth movements resemble the slow, calculated grace of an apex predator stalking his prey.

Well, I can jump too. I nervously hop and throw on a tough face, subconsciously (or maybe not) imitating him. However, I lack that little secret he seems to hold which bolsters his confidence. Welcome to my first high school wrestling match.

Butterflies are not new to me. I’ve played guitar in a band for years, but any stage fright I feel dissipates with a joke from my bandmates who are also close friends. When I glanced at my wrestling teammates on the bench, no one smiled. I could not rely on them to outline the match and let me fill in the gaps, as my bandmates could do with a song; the other wrestlers had their own opponents to face.

On the mat, Alex took charge; I reacted and was not aggressive enough. Alex wrote that song, and I lost that match. But that loss ignited a spark, pushing me to take command of my own life.

For years, community had been ingrained in my intellect; from the progressive schools I attended to the band I was a member of, collaboration had been key. I played in a five-member band with three guitarists. I wasn’t Alden, our lead guitarist who played like a young Chuck Berry, with psychedelic melodies and wicked solos. Nor was I Jack, overlaying chords with his golden voice. With a song’s outline in place, I added my sound. Years of playing this way taught me to value silences; to add harmonies which augmented our sound, creating a whole greater than its parts, rather than just a din. I did not have to take charge or create an entirely new song; I just had to fill the space left for me.

When thrown onto a wrestling mat, I realized my collaborative skills would not save me; I had to face challenges individually. Yet I found this individualistic focus did not have to clash with my collaborative habits. Instead, I transformed my life by integrating these collaborative skills with the confidence and individuality wrestling demanded.

I pursued other interests, from film and military history to running and vaulting without being defined by any one. I worked hard, becoming a straight A student, but no one would call me a nerd. A three-sport athlete, I could not be labeled a jock. I refused to let anyone else define me as Alex had that day.

I became more proactive with my teachers. Not only did my grades improve but my interests deepened. In my junior year history class, I delved into the subject as my professor, also an advisor and a friend, helped me target my studies towards my areas of interest. Assigned China for a year-long nation project, my meetings with my teacher helped focus my study on censorship of film in China. The sophistication of these censors shattered my preconceptions of this oppressive system, with my research taking me beyond the Western media’s simplistic portrayal.

By junior year, I had lost and won many matches, and gradually the crippling nerves had disappeared. Instead of sitting alone before matches, I was free to laugh and joke with teammates, mimicking my mood before a show. In last year’s tournament, I cooly began warming up, moving and stretching in ways that have become second nature for me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone staring at me. I realized it was my next opponent. I recognized his fearful gaze as the one I had once directed at Alex. With this realization I smiled, and appreciated the changes that loss two years ago had produced.

Anton Kliot, a 2014 graduate of the Dalton School, will be a freshman at Amherst in the Fall.

A Lasting Friendship with Music

By Brandon Lloyd

unnamedI saw clouds of rosin dust rising in front of my violin. We played as if there was no tomorrow and, in a way, there wasn’t, since this was Mr. Eckfeld’s last concert as conductor. The songs were an understated culmination of his tenure at White Plains High School. His years of teaching dissipated into me as I played the uptempo selections such as, Allegro, Aus Holbergs Zeit, and Walzer, conveying the merry, high points in his career. The slow, melancholy, and somber songs such as  Xyklus 3  sent another message:  “Goodbye, my dear old friends.”

Yes he was saying goodbye to us, but not to music. Neither his retirement nor aging would sever him from his love and prevent him from a pleasurable moment with his own violin. This powerful reflection came with the transformative roles of the violin and guitar in my life. They became my models of optimism—instruments of the idea that good things can evolve from tragic moments.

It started when I faced the biggest milestone in my other passion: Martial Arts. JT Torres and Pablo Popovitch, two of the world’s best Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners, were coming to my martial arts school.  I have always idolized them in the way I revere Mr. Eckfeld, and I was thrilled to step on the mat with them.  Before I knew it, I was in the mix, practicing takedowns and drills with Torres and Popovitch. It was surreal.  I was getting up after showing my partner a submission, when I felt a sudden twinge and loud pop in my knee. I crumpled to the ground writhing in pain. I couldn’t get up with excruciating pain shooting up into my leg and knee.  I have encountered gruesome injuries before, but nothing like this.

In the following days, the onslaught of bad news crippled my emotional state. My MRI showed that I had torn my left meniscus, which required surgery.  I couldn’t return to Martial Arts for at least six months. For ten years, I had never gone a week without martial arts. Six months seemed unbearable!

Music lifted me from my despair. After surgery, I had copious amounts of time for my guitar and violin. Previously, I practiced music outside of school about twice a week. After the injury, I practiced every day. I began to see the notes differently as music offered what physical therapy didn’t: a way to express myself. The instruments became extensions of myself as I got lost in the music I played. The slow, downbeat pieces laced with somber and melancholy notes perfectly reflected and described my emotional state in the first weeks after therapy.

Yet, one small moment profoundly changed my outlook on music: the words of a physician’s assistant teaching me to care for my leg. “When you’re young you should make sure not to rush recovery and remember you won’t be able to do some of the things you can do now when you’re much older.”  The words hit me while I was practicing guitar. I won’t be able to perform some of the martial arts techniques that require substantial skill when I’m older. Yet I could play my violin and guitar for years beyond retirement, just as Mr. Eckfeld can. His talent grew with age, as I hope mine will. However, my limitations in martial arts may grow as I age.  Had the injury not happened, I may not have fully appreciated my future with music or the true meaning of Mr. Eckfeld’s last night conducting my orchestra.  It was a moment emphasizing the potential for a long future with my instruments on my own terms. I may not have a career as a musician but the instruments will always be there for me to pick up and will offer a mode of expression.

Brandon Lloyd, a graduate of White Plains High School, will be a freshman at George Washington University in September.

Seeing the Game of Life Differently

by Blair Weintraub

unnamedAs much as I remember my first seizure, my last one was even more memorable. I was 12 and it was one of the first times my parents trusted my sister and me to be left home alone. I was curled up in my bed watching a movie when I felt the familiar tingling of my body and numbness of my tongue, and I immediately recognized what was about to happen. I tried to grab my phone, but it was too late––the numbness enveloped my body and the twitching took over. Like always, my brain was fully conscious, but lacked control.

Focus on getting help, I kept telling myself, as I spent all my energy on unsuccessfully attempting to roll off the bed to attract my sister’s attention. Breathing was harder than usual. The severity of the attack was worse than ever. My doctors had promised I was seizure-free, yet I was feeling the same fear and hopelessness I remembered too well. It felt hours had passed until my sister finally rushed to my side. She stared at me with a look of fear and confusion then grabbed my phone and called our parents, who instructed her to put a cold washcloth on my forehead and to not leave my side until they got home. She held me and whispered into my ear, telling me to focus on breathing and that everything would be okay.

I had my first seizure when I was five. Doctors eventually prescribed strong medications that made me tired and dizzy. I could only play sports leisurely. My dreams of following in my mother’s footsteps as a squash junior champion were shattered because I would be unable to train. Reading and photography became my new outlets. I sat behind my camera as I photographed the sport games I so eagerly wanted to play. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone I had epilepsy because I thought it would make me different and, at that point, different was bad.

Ironically, epilepsy helped me to appreciate my life. I had to spend many nights in hospitals with kids much sicker than I was. These kids couldn’t go to school or socialize outside the hospital. We spent most of our time playing the board game Life. Unlike the game’s characters, many wouldn’t graduate college, marry or have kids. They lived through that board game. I once shared a hospital room with Eric, a boy my age who was near death. He would do nothing but stare at the TV all day, and sometimes cry.  He would never leave his bed, which made me see the frivolity of my complaints about lack of competitive sports or late bedtimes.

I have come a long way since my last epileptic attack.  When I was 15, I was officially declared healthy and was taken off all medications. I could finally play sports competitively. Now, I see the board game Life as a constant reminder to appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to actually live.

To make up for all the school I missed battling epilepsy, and to compete against the kids who have been playing squash since they could walk, I often had to study and train twice as hard. It might be too late to have a top ten ranking, but this hasn’t discouraged me from being the best player possible. Having to face seizures and their implications as a child has made me stronger, giving me the fierceness to fight for what I want and the determination to overcome obstacles. I’m no longer embarrassed to tell people I had epilepsy. I no longer see being different as a bad thing. Whenever I feel disheartened after losing a big match or getting a bad grade, I remember the tingling feeling in my tongue, the lack of control over my body, and think about how far I’ve come since then.
Blair Weintraub, a 2014 graduate of the Brentwood College School in Vancouver, will be a freshman at Bates College in the fall.

The Courtroom Comeback

by Calvin Thompson

10525096_10152156810062413_940766063_nI had always been at home with a podium in my hands, the crowd hanging on my every word. I never feared speaking in front of people until one sobering moment last year. I waltzed into Newton North High School one winter day to deliver the opening statement against my rival high school’s mock trial team, and I choked. The sweat started to collect above my lips; I could almost taste fear. My face was glazed in a salt water sheen. For the life of me, I could not utter one sentence, except  “I’m sorry…I, I can’t do this…I, I uh, need to go.”  Not the best start for my first mock trial season.

My confidence hung around my ankles as I waddled out of the room. For two weeks, I questioned my answers on tests and I missed tackles in football. Even more difficult was facing my mock trial teammates. Failure was nothing new to me on the football field, but it confounded me in the courtroom because performance took on an entirely different form there. In football there is always another teammate on the field. Yet, I had to be almost entirely self-reliant in mock trial, which introduced the concept of team in a new and disorienting way.

In the past, no matter the context, a voice was never something I lacked. At eleven, I started my own Betty Crocker empire; baking then biking around the neighborhood using the gift of gab to sell my creations. Then in 8th grade, my history class faced a crisis: students completed less than 50% of the homework. At wits’ end, our teacher demanded to know why. I stood up and told her we felt disrespected. I suggested she encourage, not berate us. Immediately, she changed her teaching style. At graduation, she awarded me an Obama bobblehead as the “student most likely to occupy the White House.”

I was confounded and frustrated and it took two weeks for the sense of failure to begin to fade; only a conversation with my grandmother and the prospect of our next match roused me from my stupor. Grams reminded me that life is, in itself, a hail mary, and that feeling bad for myself and neglecting preparation would not help me score. She lost her house to a flood in 2002, and without hesitation my parents offered her a spot in our home. As a 6 year old, I could not possibly imagine what that would mean for my life, but as a 17 year old, I am beginning to understand. Inspired by her, I relentlessly prepared for my next trial. I incessantly read the witness affidavits about the murder case we were to try, and convened with my teammates to go over the most crucial information. After hours and hours of practicing and reviewing the case, I was ready to rectify my failure. Weeks after my collapse at the podium, I stepped backed into the courtroom prepared, though not overconfident as I had been before.

When called to open our case, I rose, and began to speak, knowing every contour of my address and our team’s case like the back of my hand. The words slid off my tongue effortlessly. I saw my coach in the back of the room pumping his fist in the air–a courtroom touchdown dance. I received the highest individual score of anyone in the whole match. Our team received the highest pointage in school history for a mock trial match.

My failure exposed weaknesses and my success demonstrated the necessity of preparation. I am grateful that Grams was there to witness them both. She passed on July 16, 2013, and while I wish I could ask her a million questions all over again, I will settle for the knowledge she bestowed unto me: rehearse tirelessly and adjust, since failure can strike the unprepared regardless of a strong past.

Calvin Thompson, a 2014 graduate of Brookline High School, will be a freshman at Duke in the fall.

Singing in the Snow: Storms Produce Strength

by Margarita Ren

mren_dartmouth

Titanium poles and I stand on a deserted Manhattan street corner. My parents, neighbors, even taxi-drivers, are inside, freezing despite roaring generators, as they wait for the blizzard to pass. Outside, I am wet, quivering as winds whip through triple-layered socks. I’ve forgotten circulation. The sixteen-inch snow, illuminated by street-lamp glow, forges an aurulent midnight sky. Here, I am at my warmest. Though quivering in the cold, my senses are forced open to the vibrancy around me. I am galvanized and secured by the adrenaline of the unique discovery: in vulnerability lies strength.

I find similar comfort in my volunteer work in Mount Sinai’s in-patient Recreational Therapy, for the hospital is a constant storm. I’m struck with the building’s vibrato in the white walls and constantly-moving wheelchairs and stretchers. The doctors stride through collected, inspired, but the patients only wait for everything to pass.

One of them is Jamie. When we first met, she was applying fuchsia lipgloss through tired eyes. A loud pink teddy-bear sat on her windowsill exhibiting her successful entrepreneurship while the hospital’s Billboard Top Ten playlist cycled carelessly in the background.

“Last Friday Night” plays as I wheel Jamie into her room.

“Should I call your nurse?”

“I can get into bed myself.” She tries to push herself up, but falls back into the seat, crying.

“Let me find help.”

“You know, I don’t have it that bad,” she mutters. “There’s metal in my legs from the crash–just–God, this place!”

She looks up. In her amber eyes, I see despondency, not fatigue. Noticing the pink teddy-bear, a symbol of her previous life as a prosperous businesswoman, perceiving the thoughtless lyrics around us, I blurt out, “We’re having a concert; you should come.”

 “Music is the universal language,” Chris Shepard, the conductor of the Dessoff Choirs, once reminded us during rehearsal.

I remember the first time I sang solo in public: open auditions for The Voice. Despite waiting six hours for this one decision, I realized that the strength in my voice couldn’t be measured by a baggy-eyed executive’s judgement. I sang, quivering in pride, not fear. Before leaving, a seasoned auditioner stopped me, expressing admiration for my courage and potential. She listened, my music resonating with her in the same way.

Jamie, however, is not listening, because Billboard beats just aren’t her music; she cannot ”dance on tabletops,” as such songs say. The hospital shouldn’t be alienating but allow for vulnerability, creating new paths to undiscovered strength. I keep that in mind while organizing the concert for patients.

The day of the performance, Jamie smiles, eyes still unfocused, shoulders draped in a crimson shawl.

I begin with the piano. I can’t stand to fly; I’m not that naive. She blinks.

I sing to Jamie, finding her voice in my notes, “Find a way to lie about a home I’ll never see.” She stares at me, eyes unclouded now. Lyrics in forte place the metal pole that crashed down and her metal femurs before her eyes. Her fuchsia lips quiver in acknowledgement: despite her display of colors, she cannot avoid her physical state.“Even heroes have the right to bleed…”

An hour later, we arrive at the last song.

“They shoot me down, but I won’t fall.”

While singing, I’m reminded of the warmth in discovery; these hospital rooms can swell like frosty street-lamp-lit skies. Being vulnerable allows me to discover this unique perception in my environment. My voice is explicit, unwavering: ”I’m bullet-proof, nothing to lose.” Jamie’s vulnerability shows her this strength that is not restricted by physicality. I see Jamie place her hands firmly on the wheelchair armrests. “I am titanium.” She straightens slowly, respiring deeply. “I am titanium.”

“Going back up?”

“Actually, I’ll stick around. Someone’s starting Monopoly, and moping around alone is getting boring,” she laughs.

Walking out the hospital afterwards, I am smiling, hood down, head uncovered to raw, glorious February air.

Margarita Ren, a 2014 graduate of Hunter College High School, will be a freshman at Dartmouth in the fall.

Who says “Asians don’t play basketball”?

by Calvin Ng

UntitledI was the only Asian freshman to make the Junior Varsity basketball team. My teammates questioned how I even became a Running Rebel. “Asians don’t play basketball.” This didn’t anger me; it just compelled me to prove myself in the sport I love. A year later, I was named captain of the team.

In the final game of our season, I look at the freshmen on the bench. Unlike me, they don’t have anything to prove due to race. Yet, there is a yearning in their eyes. They want a chance to play instead of sitting helpless in the last game.

We fall behind in the second quarter. Our starters, frustrated, argue on the court, blaming each other for missed shots. Coach Barbin calls a timeout. He yells at me–the captain–and the other starters. I cut him off and ask him to play the freshmen. His face says it all–who in their right mind would put inexperienced freshmen in a game right now?

“The starters aren’t doing well at all and we’re down by ten. There’s nothing to lose,” I reason.

He agrees and benches all the starters minus me and picks the four freshmen. This is a completely new team I’m leading now. My teammates listen and move the ball around. Despite their inexperience, they cut, set screens, and shoot well. We win the game and I see the leader in myself come alive.

For years, everyone pointed to me as a good leader–everyone but me perhaps. At my middle school graduation, I expected to win an academic award but was shocked when my name was called to the stage for the leadership award. It wasn’t until I played on a basketball team that I really saw myself as a leader, which grew out of my tenacity and devotion to the sport. The summer before I became captain, I went to Crocheron Park in Bayside, Queens daily to practice and play. I had already overcome others’ doubts about me as a player due to my race, and would play full court pickup games with the older guys. Whenever I performed poorly, I pushed myself harder in drills to get better. After this regimen, I was able to shoot further, jump higher, and dribble better.

When I returned to school, my teammates saw the improvement, acknowledging me as an equal. Yet I struggled as leader of the team with the starters all season. They always played every game despite poor performances. Perhaps the true lesson in the moment I pushed for the freshman to play was directed at the starters. They never focused on the consequences of playing poorly, not seeing how their bickering affected the team. By contrast, the freshmen always looked for advice when they took bad shots. Rather than merely citing their mistakes, I offered ways they could improve as players. In doing so, I experienced what I loved most about leadership–helping anyone who wants to improve.

This central trait to my leadership–my desire to help people–continues to appear beyond basketball. I apply the lessons of leadership on the courts as a volunteer tutor at a community center. My first student, Vivian, a freshman who had difficulty in Algebra, was unsure in approaching problems, often mixing up operations when solving equations. I recognized this right away. I did not make her feel bad about her shortcomings. I looked for a solution to help her as I did with the freshmen players. I immediately created a guide sheet for her, writing all of the basic guidelines for solving equations.

In some ways I thank those who doubted my abilities as a player. They inspired me to push myself harder as a basketball player. In the process, I discovered the leader in me and realized the values of practice and tenacity. I know I will be able to apply these lessons to so many avenues in my future.

Calvin Ng, a recent Stuyvesant High School graduate, will be attending Cornell University this fall.

Saturday Mornings Like Poetry

by Ryan Shepard

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I remember when Saturday mornings were like poetry: the rainbow colored fruity pebbles sitting in my spoon, a fluffy teddy bear brilliantly named Teddy, the sounds of Ahmad Rashad previewing the day’s NBA games, and the sounds of my brother trying to play basketball, indoors. Then there was the day’s biggest gift–my own personal gentle giant whom I called Dad, author of the poem. His everlasting line was that incredibly wide grin he wore across his face. He seamlessly presented Saturday’s poetry as smooth as the feel of his casket ten years ago. Today I am evolving with the memory of the poems along with the wide grin that travelled with him everywhere. Now they guide my definitions of comfort and confidence.

Seven years after I put his casket behind me, I picked up the pen, paper and microphone that were in front of me. My talents grew as wide as my father’s grin, but on my own terms. The younger me wanted to be just like him–part of me still does. Yet I’m more artistic than he could have ever imagined. Last spring, I filled sheet after sheet of paper, exposing innermost secrets by way of poetry and music. In doing so, I came to expand my own grin. On the stage of a packed ballroom at Disney World, I performed my poem, “17 Dreams”, which takes the reader into my visions of my future. With each line, I gauged the audience’s reaction, opening myself to new vulnerabilities but also becoming more confident and comfortable with myself. My grin became a bit wider, almost like my dad’s smile way back when.

Poetic memories of my father’s Saturday grins carried me from North Plainfield Middle School lunch lines into ninth grade at Choate Rosemary Hall. I suddenly found myself amongst those born with golden spoons or even famous last names. I questioned my place among them. Nonetheless, I grew to see the value of my Saturday morning spoon even more, thanks partially to Colin Lord, a mentor and admissions director at Choate who once detected a little self-doubt in me. He said, “We wouldn’t have brought you here if we didn’t think that you could handle it.”

My talents grew, but on my own terms. I became president of the Choate Afro-Latino Student Alliance and Slam Poetry clubs. I was also named Prefect, becoming a student mentor to freshmen. As a Choate elder, I now share stories of my experiences with others, such as my first track meet as a freshman. My legs pounded against the red pavement of the track during the first race. I was nearly fifty yards ahead of my only competitor, when it hit me: I had broken into a sprint too quickly. I was that young, naive freshman who thought he could sprint 400 meters. Meter by meter, I could feel the senior runner coming up behind me, ultimately beating me by a full 50 meters. As I neared the finish line, I heard the voices of both my parents: “It’s not the end all, be all.”

My dad’s grin, smile, voice, presence and spirit are still powerful forces in my life. My reality opposes all the studies that suggest I am lucky to be a part of the 4% of boarding school students who are African-American and not the nearly one million blacks who are incarcerated. These figures are mere background chatter to me. My father taught me well; his influence has weakened and trumped those studies. My goal now, above anything else, is to continue to grow into my own person and solidify my own incredible grin.

Ryan Shepard, a recent Choate Rosemary Hall graduate, will be attending American University this fall.

Tragedy and Treasures

by Allegra Neely-Wilson

Allegra Neely-Wilson photo

A magical Christmas starts with a pair of socks. At 12, I see only one gift on Dad’s dining room table. I unwrap it and find a pair of red and green socks. While trying them on, my right foot feels the scratch of a piece of paper. First secret code: 332. Dad has created a Christmas scavenger hunt. I travel the house, finding clues beneath pillows, under my bed and on page 332 of a book. A Harry Potter DVD is stuffed behind couch cushions, books hide in cabinets, and a soccer ball waits in the backyard. Dad and I spend the afternoon eating popcorn, watching movies, and drinking hot chocolate.

A year later, another hunt begins, reshaping my life. The day starts with a normal Eighth Grade morning. I wake up 10 minutes after my alarm, quickly dress and eat my bowl of oatmeal. A feeling grows in the back of my mind that something is wrong. At school, I am surrounded by friends and pretend everything is okay, though I can not shake that mysterious feeling of anxiety. I follow my usual route home. At my apartment, I am both eager and hesitant to enter, as I know something unexpected is behind those doors. I slowly build the courage to open the door and find Mom. Just by looking at her face I know my worst fear has come true. Dad has died of a heart attack. My life grows into a treasure hunt to capture Dad’s sense of adventure and optimism on my own.

The summer after his death, I begin a five day canoeing trip on the Connecticut River. Like me, most of my fellow campers had never canoed. The sun set upon our arrival at the first campsite. We raced against the coming darkness, unpacking canoes and unloading our belongings and food. I was starved, exhausted, and happy as we set up tents and cooked. My adrenaline turned the night into a challenge and opportunity, which I attacked with a smile as if I was searching for something in Dad’s backyard. Adventure!

Our ribs only saw ten minutes of fire. After the first bite, I relied on heavy sauce to cure my hunger rather than raw ribs. I fell asleep seconds after entering my sleeping bag but awakened by the rapid sounds of “pitter-patter” and a rush of water. We forgot to put the rain shield on the tents. Puddles grew. I jumped into action, quickly packing as much as I could to prevent things from getting even wetter. Shelter? I raced to the bathroom. Others followed. Huddled together near the stalls with our soaking wet clothes, supplies and sleeping bags, we cooked our eggs and ate them with un-toasted English muffins. Moments later, we loaded the canoes and continued down the river with the rain. The trip’s rough beginning meant things would only get better. Optimism!

I visited Dad on weekends in Long Island. His itchy grass was a nice change from the cement of Manhattan, where I lived with Mom during the week. Dad was handy. Instead of buying me a soccer goal for my tenth birthday, my present was making one with him. He often oversaw the lighting for shows at small theaters. It’s no wonder I never desired to audition for my school’s production of Cabaret. Instead, I built props for the show and loved it.

I have tried hard not to lose Dad, which inspires my engagement of new interests like there is no tomorrow, from feeling the rush and sweat of the final minutes of a tied game to the most intense part of a Bach cello suite. My camera explores different views of the world and my hands mold ceramic gifts for friends. In doing it all, I find parts of Dad in who I am becoming, and create my own personal treasure hunt to continue discovering myself.

Allegra Neely-Wilson, a member of the Class of 2014 at the Brearley School, will be a freshman at Connecticut College in the fall.