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The Instruments that Make Me

The Instruments that Make Me

By Sydney Kirton

WB2_9364The pulse of the drums was so powerful that even the flies dancing upon the faces of the children seemed to move with the rhythm of the hypnotic beats. Men chanted in Swahili as the women filled in the missing ranges of sounds with their high-pitched voices. I didn’t speak the language, but I felt the music and fell in love with the reality that there is always something new to feel or learn through music. I sing and play four instruments, but my musical growth continues. Yet in this moment, I understood the power of the instrumental sounds that have engaged me for as long as I can remember. I was 16 in Kenya, but the music made me feel like I was right at home.

My trip to Kenya was where I connected the dots of my musical experiences and realized their impact on me. Music has made unfamiliar places comfortable.

I was six when my mother made me take violin lessons. It was my first instrument. I did not love it or hate it, but I discovered that the violin made me feel incomplete when I was eight and played with my school orchestra. As I first heard the sound of the orchestra playing a complete piece by Vivaldi, I felt a sense of calmness. I had been so tied to the violin that I did not have a sense of the larger whole of an orchestra. The sounds of different instruments finally came together to form a complete, peaceful composition. I sat with my violin in hand and struggled to connect to my instrument. I wanted to play more roles, and merely practicing and playing the violin on its own was not as enjoyable as listening to the full orchestra. I wanted to understand different instruments. Soon after, I went into the violin room and saw kids waiting for their piano lessons. I began piano lessons that year.

My family moved many times because of Mom’s career, and music became a stabilizer through the change. In sixth grade, I left Atlanta for the Potomac School in Northern Virginia. I said goodbye to close friends and entered a middle school where I confronted bullies. However, I found an escape in learning a new instrument in sixth grade–the flute. There were rough days when I thought it would not get any better, but then came my escape– chorus and band. The hatefulness of the bullies could not compete with my love of singing and playing my flute.

In seventh grade, my teacher asked for a volunteer to learn to play the bassoon. Another instrument! My hand flew up. The bassoon helped cure my need to be every instrument. I found true love with the loud, deep, but smooth notes. Once I played it, I knew I found a home in my orchestra alongside the other basses in the band, a place where I clearly belonged. The sounds were so mesmerizing that I never wanted to leave the class or stop playing.

But it was in Kenya where I truly discovered the ability of music to bring out the best in any situation. I was a volunteer teacher at the Red Rose School in Kibera. I instantly connected with students through singing and dancing. After hours of math and reading lessons, smiles were on every face in the room when it was music time. Volunteers danced with multiple kids at one time, spinning them around.

It has been years since I was bullied and I do not plan to be a singer, bassoonist or musician professionally. But regardless of my career choice or place of residence, my attachment to music will remain just as I carried it through five school changes. I still love the bassoon, but who knows how many new instruments I might learn to play?

Sydney Kirton, a graduate of Woodward Academy, is a freshman at American University.

Climbing Life’s Ladders

Climbing Life’s Ladders

by Erich Perry Siebert

erichsiebertA burst of light blinded my eyes for a few seconds as I climbed out of the darkness of the dusty wooden attic. A soothing breeze brushed against my face as I stepped off the ladder after climbing 10 feet. It was a sunny day so clear that I could see castles in the distance just like the one where I was standing. Just as I absorbed the rich blue skies above large green hills, I turned to find two out of five people in my group removing their equipment.

As an eighth grader, I was the youngest in the delegation of People to People Student Ambassadors travelling through the United Kingdom. We scaled the ladder together for the opportunity to rappel down the wall. Two turned back. I kept going. Since then, I have drawn on the drive of that moment.

Three years later, I decided I had to exert the strength of that moment while facing the challenges of ADHD. The more I agonized through three months of therapy and four different types of medication, I realized that there was not a magic pill for me and my life completely turned around. After much thought, I decided to create an independent study on the impact of holistic well being including mental, physical, and nutritional health on the ADHD experience. I set out to actually live the study with a healthier lifestyle, involving a more plant based diet, high intensity workouts, and practiced meditation.

The creation of the plan took the level of dedication I carried through the tall, stone passage, carrying heavy nylon harnesses in my arms a few years ago. It was quite dark and the whole inside of the castle was built with solid brick. Two guiding lanterns replaced any natural light. I didn’t feel nervous, but I was very excited.

Yet, it was a long climb that seemed like it would never end from the spiraling wooden staircase to the ladder. At the top, we stopped to prepare for the trip down the wall. When my name was called to descend, I felt startled. I cautiously made my way to the rope. The closer I came to the edge, I began to feel more and more nervous. I fastened my helmet and one of the instructors opened the trapdoor from the cherry wood ceiling. A ladder fell down to us.

As I finally reached the edge of the castle, I looked down and stared 90 feet down.I could feel my heartbeat throughout my whole body. Every sense in my body kept telling me to walk away, but I couldn’t. I knew if i had made it this far, I was not quitting, no matter how terrifying it seemed.

I now see a finish line in my independent study that resembles my feeling of accomplishment at the bottom of the wall. The research involved interviewing a nutritionist, meditation coach, and a physical trainer as well as reading articles, books , and viewing documentaries. Through my new, carefully designed lifestyle, I started to notice a huge difference and a positive impact on my grades.

When I look at ADHD in the big picture, I don’t see it as a barrier anymore, I see it as a strength. In May of 2014, Forbes’ magazine published an article about the relationship between entrepreneurs and ADHD. The article described ADHD as “the entrepreneur’s superpower.” I learned that entrepreneurs with ADHD hold certain qualities that are necessary to succeed in the business world, including creativity, multitasking, risk taking, a heightened level of energy, and most importantly, resilience–the very factor that led to a successful journey down the ladder.

Erich Perry Siebert, a graduate of Frances W Parker High School, is a freshman at American University.

Lessons from Both Sides of the Family

Lessons from Both Sides of the Family

by Bijan Saboori

bijan_cameraThe plane lands at a small airport surrounded by dead yellow grass. Endless old beaten-down cars and trucks speed down the highway. I am in Istanbul. I have traveled halfway across the world for a family reunion on the Iranian side of my family. However, it is the lessons from the African-American side of my family that inspired me to embark on this adventure.

Rewind eight years. I hit the ramp hard. My bike follows, tumbling on top of me. I get up and immediately hear the laughs; they sting more than the aching in my shoulder. Everybody in the skate park saw me. I could not escape the jarring commentary on my fall.

“He can’t ride at all.”

“What a wannabe.”

“Dude, this kid blows.”

I was only nine and I loved BMX, but was just learning. A few months later at our family reunion for the other side of my family–the African American side–in Las Vegas, I told my cousin Harry that I was frustrated with the taunts and wanted to quit BMX. Harry interrupted me, “Son, I don’t see any reason for you to quit doing something you enjoy. Bijan, just because you fall down a few times and embarrass yourself doesn’t mean you just give up. That’s life…You should never give up on something you love.”

I did not quit. In fact, I practiced more. My own sense of adventure matured as I learned more about my much older cousin. I once saw him hop in and out of the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang like a kid on a jungle gym. He was 90 and could still pull it off. Harry started to tear up sitting in the cockpit, remembering how he and three other Tuskegee Airmen had won the USAF’s first Weapons Meet of 1949 to determine the title of Top Gun. However, they were barred from receiving recognition because they were black. The Air Force officially recognized their victory 46 years later.

I was glad I followed his advice when I entered my first BMX competition at age 12. I started my run down the ramp with my first trick in mind, jumping with an X-up. I hit the ramp and while in the air I crossed my arms in the form of an “x” so that the handlebars would turn 180 degrees. I quickly reversed the process before landing so I wouldn’t wipe out. After that first trick I felt more relaxed and performed simple tricks like 180s, fakies, bunny hops, manuals. I fell a few times, but nothing could replace the thrill, the rush and the challenge that I continue to experience in BMX.

I furthered my sense of adventure by taking up snowboarding the following winter as well as jumping into the world of theater, where I love working on the crew. I could not resist the adventure to travel halfway across the world to learn more about the other side of my family in Istanbul last summer. I rekindled connections with family members that I hadn’t seen in years. Since then, I have become very close to Sue, my younger cousin who lives in England. She has been coping with people’s negative reactions towards her bisexuality. We talk almost everyday on Facebook: “What they think doesn’t matter. Being yourself is a key ingredient to life. Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about who you really are and how you live your life.” The words I type on the screen to Sue echo the wisdom passed on from Cousin Harry.

Helping Sue come to terms with her identity has led to my interest in psychology. I now want to obtain the academic foundation that will allow me to help others overcome issues related to identity, depression and stress. Along the way, I can also inspire others to embrace adventures that can lead them to new passions.

Bijan Saboori, a graduate of Cleveland’s University School, is a freshman at American University.


Good Habits Live Long

Good Habits Live Long

by Griffin Harris


My identity and story are built on passions and habits. For example, something in my mind and body prevents me from falling asleep without reading the hard copy of the front page of The New York Times every night. If necessary, I will search through the trash to fetch the paper before going to bed. I have always found comfort in the crisp creases and familiar smell of its pages.  I realized the value of this habit as a sophomore in Mr. Greenside’s history class when he asked, “Does anyone know more about John Edwards than what late night shows are currently joking about?” I immediately raised my hand, which was the only one in the air.  Mr. Greenside called on me and my understanding of the dynamics of Edwards came together in an informed response, understanding of the rise and fall of the man.  An epiphany followed this moment—the first time I saw the benefits of all those nights of reading the NYT.

I have always been a man of habits as an athlete and student. It started in fifth grade when I became more aware of my passion for history. We were studying the American Revolution and I was riveted by the social, political, religious, intellectual and economic levers that drove America to become independent.  I searched and found books and documentaries that fed my thirst for the topic and formed habits around researching and connecting the ideas behind conflict, immigration, independence and technology. I loved learning all I could through different investigative passions. My habits grew into a necessary companion to my love of history.

Passions cannot live without supporting habits. History reinforced this rule in my life. In Mr. Greenside’s class, I learned the value of refined routines as the backbone for something that excited me—understanding world events. I have been equally passionate about hockey since I was six and grew to be the accomplished player I am today by developing habits – learning the physics of how a puck moves on ice, stick angles that produce the most accurate shot and feeling my teammates positioning without seeing them.

History and current events became the hockey of my academic life around eighth grade. Friday was my favorite day—current events. From Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 to the Republican takeover of the House, I started getting to know the world as well as I knew the hockey rink by reading the paper every night.

I am reminded of the value of my addiction to the Times when I least expect it.  In my junior year I interviewed to be an intern for the International Rescue Committee, an NGO working to help political asylees and refugees rebuild their lives in America.  In explaining why I wanted the job, I drew on my awareness of global challenges and discussed immigration issues with confidence.  Just like I hit the ice with conviction, knowing I have taken my fingernail and scratched the edges of my skate blades to make sure they are sharp, I was able to tackle my interview with confidence, thanks to my nightly ritual with the Times.

As an intern, I was assigned to be a counselor for children of refugees from all over the world—Egypt, Tibet, India, Nepal, Cameroon, Guinea.  I served them well, knowing the deep roots and context of their fears.  Amr is 10 and worried about family members still in Egypt.  My job was to try to take his mind off the stories that may stir his fears, as well as to understand him and those fears.

I never know when a good habit will become the source of comfort to a 10-year-old like Amr, or lead to a great moment in class, or a strong job interview. I am certain that I will discover new passions and thus develop more habits. For now, I also know that my college roommate will learn not to throw out the trash with the day’s New York Times.

 Griffin Harris, a graduate of Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, is a freshman at American University.

Fit for Me

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 decided 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.

Saturday Mornings Like Poetry

by Ryan Shepard


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.

Hallways of Trouble and Classrooms of Success

Hallways of Trouble and Classrooms of Success

By: Jakobi Jackson

2014-05-02-PD_0151Scene One: The Hallway of Trouble. “Hey you, I heard you were talking about me, bitch!” Mya yelled. She rushed straight to Susan and punched her in the nose. A large crowd encircled them as they scratched, kicked and punched each other. By the time security arrived ten minutes later, the hands of both girls were in each others’ weaves. They were both sent to the holding room.

Scene Two: The Classroom of Success. “Oh, really then, why do you have slaves running away or committing suicide if slavery is so positive?” Frederick Douglas says to a Southern farmer. Actually, I say that to Ian, my classmate. I am Frederick Douglas and he is the farmer in a class debate in AP US History.

“Well, those slaves are ignorant and wild, which is another reason why slavery should stay, to straighten the slaves for their bad behavior,” Ian, the Southern farmer counters.

“Alright alright that’s enough Jakobi and Ian,“ says Mr. Barry, our teacher who played President Buchanan. “Good supporting ideas and interpretation. You guys had a really heated argument.”

The bell rings and my classmates and I are going back into Scene One, the Hallway of Trouble. We may see a fight on the way. But in five minutes, we will be safe in AP Literature where we will discuss Death of a Salesman with the high level of engagement that characterized our staged debate on slavery.

My mind separates Stamford High into two schools or even two worlds: the Classroom of Success and the Hallway of Trouble. I am a full citizen of the Classroom of Success. As an African American male,  I am  a minority in this school. In all of my classes,  there are rarely more than two black students among the white and Asian majority in this school. Yet in the Hallways of trouble, I am part of the racial majority: 60 percent of the students at the school are black or Hispanic. I often feel like a foreigner in the halls and am careful not to bump into anyone or sport a facial expression that might incite someone to attack me.

There was a time when I wanted to be stereotyped as bad. In middle school and my first year in high school I always wanted to fit in the cool crew that made it to all the parties.  I even did a few things to win acceptance in that group: I wore sagging pants and disregarded my grades. I remember the moment when I truly decided that I belonged in the Classroom of Success rather than the Hallway of Trouble. I was a sophomore when I heard the cannon. “Boom.” It touched the ground blowing up soldiers on the battlefield. “We Need More Ammo,” the soldiers said in German as they ducked for cover.

I was a sophomore in a history class when we watched a documentary that explored both World War ll and the Cold War. It turned on a switch in my head that made me love history. I still can’t turn it off. I want to become a history teacher or professor. My parents had been pushing me to engage in the Classrooms of Success since I placed into top classes. They pushed me to avoid the “crabs in the bucket,” their description of the “cool” kids in the other school. However I was the one that made the decision to become a citizen of the Classroom of Success when I realized history was my passion.  Ultimately, the liveliness of the classroom drew me into that school–not my parents’ demands.

There are a total of 2,000 students at Stamford High. In my junior year, I saw how I can still easily be mistaken for a student in the Hallway Of Trouble. I misplaced the room number of the yearbook club meeting on the first meeting date.

“Hi, excuse me,” I say to a secretary in the main office

“Hi, what do you want?”  She responded with an annoyed look on her face.

“I am looking for the yearbook room, do you know the room number it would be in?”

She looks surprised. “Don’t you have class? Why are you going to the yearbook room?”

I told her I had study hall, but she refused to check the list for the room number. I wandered the halls looking in rooms for the meeting. Fortunately, I found the group and avoided any trouble in the hallway.

   The Hallway of Trouble sometimes provides the entertainment for students in the Classroom of Success. I often arrive to class early and here my classmates talking about the fight or crazy behavior they witnessed in the hallway. “Did you see that?” or “That was crazy!” Another is, “This fight was intense!”

“Wow did you see her, oh my god she is crazy.” They sometimes jokingly alter their voices in a dialect they hear in the hallway and laugh outside of the view of any members of the Hallway of Trouble. In those moments, I realize our little school may be invisible to students of the Hallway of Trouble. Unfortunately, years later, those students may wish they knew there was a school like The Classroom of Success, which is so close yet so far away from their world.

Jakobi Jackson is a graduate of Stamford High School and is currently a sophomore at American University.


Engaging Extracurriculars, Part 2

Engaging Extracurriculars, Part 2

jakobiBy Jakobi Jackson

I jump up and down to get pumped for the 500 meter freestyle. I give myself an inner pep talk. “Alright you’ve got to make it to the next Age Groups. You can do this!” My competitors’ looks of determination unnerve me. The whistle rouses me to action. “Take your mark…” “BEEP” “SPLASH.” We dive and I feel the power and agility of my practiced reflexes take control of me. I jet on top of the water. “Alright lap 15; kick it up a notch,” my inner coach tells me. Through swimming, l can express my raw emotions and empty my mind of baggage. “lap 20, I’m losing speed, faster!” I kick harder. My arms move like a propeller. I gasp for air every three strokes. “Last lap go all out,” I tell myself as I storm to the finish. My fingertips reach for the wall a moment before anyone else. I got first place! “Yes! I made the cut; I’m going to Age Groups” I say, panting for air. I endured the pain, pushed to my goal and will experience my first 13 and over Age Group Championship meet.

Jakobi Jackson is a graduate of Stamford High School and is currently a sophomore at American University.