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The Invincible Decision

The Invincible Decision

by Jordan Atkins

IMG_9186I was one of the invincibles in eighth grade. Family, friends, and fans called us the “B5”– five talented black athletes within a predominantly white community. With 31 wins and 0 losses, we reached the goal of a perfect season while dominating our opponents and inspiring excitement in our community. We could make history if we continued to play with the same level of intensity in high school. It would be the first time in our high school’s 65 years that African-Americans would comprise the entire starting lineup in any sport. Our future high school basketball careers and prospects for a state championship looked as bright as the infamous “Fab Five,” Michigan’s 1991 recruiting class. There was one problem: I knew that basketball at the next level would consume all my free time and prevent me from pursuing other interests.

Community and friends versus my own heart: At the end of freshman season, I had to choose between succumbing to the pressure of pleasing others and following my true interests. In looking back, I tapped into the courage I found when I began to negotiate the boundaries of stereotyping.  It started in sixth grade, with friends often saying: “Jordan, you’re the whitest black person I know,” referring to my proper style of speech.  These comments were hurtful, and although said jokingly, I felt the stereotyping and disrespect inherent in them. I was born in the same suburb as my friends and had experienced a strong sense of community. Yet, I realized the powerful stereotypes of race and athletes. In the beginning of eighth grade, I built up the courage to confront those making such comments, and the jokes stopped.

Months later, it hit me. If I continued basketball, I would have limited time to improve football and baseball skills, explore my interest in business outside of school, or even volunteer in mentoring programs. Working with younger kids was a passion and skill that started when I attended a small private elementary school. In third grade, I began work with preschoolers, spending half of my lunchtime reading stories to them. Eventually, I helped those in younger grades with schoolwork. I never had time to pursue this kind of volunteering once I began playing basketball at an intense level. So, before the basketball season started in my sophomore year, I made the decision to walk away from the sport.

Without the added demands of basketball, I began participating in business competitions held by the Business Professionals of America. I spent countless hours taking notes and studying fundamental accounting, banking, and finance principles. The determination to dominate at these business competitions felt similar to the tenacity with which I used to practice my shots before game day. But rather than looking for external encouragement from coaches, I became self-motivated. In my first year, I qualified for nationals.

I always loved football, and could now explore that interest. At first, I faced discouragement from future teammates, since I hadn’t played on the freshman team. But again, I stayed true to my interest and ended up starting on both offense and defense my sophomore year. I am now a team captain for the varsity team. In some ways, my role resembles my elementary school mentoring, helping younger football players maneuver the grueling demands of football and academics. I also advise them on other off-the-field issues such as taking ownership for behavior in and out of school.

Quite honestly, I do miss basketball, and think about the missed opportunity for fame and heroism. But, I do not regret my decision. When my school’s team made it to the State’s “final four” with only three of the B5 as starters, I often thought and was told, “That could’ve been me playing.” Yet every good decision comes with sacrifices.

Jordan Atkins, a freshman at the University of Michigan, is a graduate of Adlai E Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

The Barrel and the Bubble

The Barrel and the Bubble

by Jana Wilson

janawilsonIt all started in a barrel. I know that may sound a bit odd, but hear me out.

I am trapped in a bubble of people who disrespect service workers and the only thing I can do is smile in order to keep my job. Forming a smile was never work for me, until I landed a job as a hostess at an upscale steakhouse. When I arrive at work on Sundays and Mondays at 4 pm, I am alone. My face can relax as I check voicemail and confirm reservations. By 5 pm, customers arrive and I turn on the “steakhouse smile.”

I have actually mastered (and sometimes enjoy) the challenge of playing charades, but backwards. The customers cannot read my true emotions and certainly do not know about the barrel. It is one source of my strength to get through a night of smiling through rudeness and indifference.

When I was 14, my grandfather shared the story of the barrel. Affectionately known as “Gramps,” he is 96 years old and my oldest living relative. When he was five, Gramps lost both his parents, forcing him to live an impoverished life in Grenada and be independent. At 12, he stowed away in a barrel aboard a ship destined for Trinidad. Homeless and alone, Gramps sought opportunities for a more prosperous life. After decades of hard work, he met and married my grandmother, moved to New York and raised successful children. If Gramps could create a better life after leaving his homeland in a barrel, I could handle smiling in a restaurant twice a week.

“Hi, how are you? Do you have a reservation?”

“No, but we want a table anyway,” a man demands. His wife looks past me, spying for empty tables.

“Let me see what we have,” I say looking up the reservations for the evening. “I have a table.“

The man frowns and the woman barely acknowledges me. My smile continues.
I grab two menus and seat them. I feel like a robot sometimes, performing the same repetitive action with the same smile and “click-clack” noise of my heels on the floor as I walk.

The barrel and bubble influenced my participation in the LEAD Summer Business program at the University of Maryland last summer. Our team of three students developed a product to be presented to professors and business leaders. We designed an app to make shopping and meal planning easier and less expensive by providing real time access to coupons on smart phones.

During weeks of preparation, I brought the tenacity of the barrel and the discipline of the smile to the table. I calmly motivated my team to focus on the big picture to stop them from arguing over small details.

On presentation day, while awaiting my cue to enter the classroom, I am a little terrified. The assembled group politely applauds as we stride into the room. My role is to deliver a thorough presentation about our target market, competition, and advertising strategies. I conquer my fear by thinking of my grandfather stowing away in a barrel and, of course, I smile.
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Gramps’ life has taught me not to live my life hiding inside of the proverbial barrel. I can accept that failure is a possibility, but it will not prevent me from escaping the barrel and pushing forward. Fear is simply an emotion that induces a lack of confidence. It is only an idea, not a tangible thing that can stand in your way. Therefore, why let it take over?

The courage and strength that Gramps possessed to climb into the barrel and then “break out” are alive in me. Any time I am faced with an obstacle, I try to remember my fearless grandfather stowing away in the barrel and know that success is possible. His story represents hope and helps define who I am today.

Jana Wilson, a freshman at the University of Michigan, is a graduate of Morristown High School.

Choose One Community

by Amanda Schnell

amandaschnellEssay #2 (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words)

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

What a recipe! An actress, three soccer players, a journalist, a football player, two dancers and a photographer–mixed together on the top floor of the 9/10 building every Wednesday. The result is thousands of dollars raised to build schools in countries that are severely uneducated. We are clearly a diverse group of classmates, yet we all have one thing in common: we believe in the right to education. We are the backbone of the Riverdale’s Pencils of Promise club. This non-for-profit organization raises money and awareness of the problems confronting education around the world. I devote myself to this community because I am aware of how important my own education has been in determining who I am and who I wish to become.

The diversity within this group of peers has taught me to appreciate different ways to approach projects, while valuing my own unique perspective. As one of the original members of the club and one of the oldest, I have taken on a position of leadership. In doing so, I have encouraged an atmosphere in which we take advantage of our diversity and everyone’s ideas are heard and valued. As a result, we have raised more than $5,000 and have also started a New York City-wide Facebook campaign. We also were leaders in organizing the charity’s teen council.

The Riverdale Pencils of Promise club has only been functioning for three years, yet we have accomplished an astonishing amount. This club is profoundly important to me because I so strongly believe in, and wish to expand, its cause.

Amanda Schnell, a graduate of the Riverdale Country School, is a freshman at the University of Michigan.

Middle Child Girl Power

Middle Child Girl Power

by Amanda Schnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Reconciliation with the A-Word

My Reconciliation with the A-Word

By Justin Schnell

2014-03-13-381066_2796593354550_1117327019_nTwo months before my Bar Mitzvah, I secretly went to my computer and googled “don’t believe in God.” I was driven to Google when I realized that I just didn’t believe in any of the ideals I was memorizing. Little did I know, there were people who called themselves Atheists. I read about them and their ideas matched my own beliefs. I didn’t share my discovery with anyone. I knew it didn’t matter. As a Schnell, I always knew that I would have to become a Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t fight my inevitable ceremony.

Both my parents had gone through the passage of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and were excited to keep the family tradition alive when I turned thirteen. I hated it. As a kid, I didn’t know what to think of the ideals I learned in Hebrew school or at synagogue. Could there really be a God? Could there be someone who controls the world and is responsible for all the poverty, wars and deaths ? If so, why celebrate such a figure?  I fought going to synagogue whenever the time came, telling my parents that I shouldn’t have to go if I don’t believe in the Jewish ideals. Of course, my dad would say “You don’t have to believe them, but you have to be there with your family.”

I never listened. I thought it was stupid. As 7th grade approached, I began studying for my Torah portion, Mishpatim, or ‘Laws’. I hated writing my speech about pointless laws. The more I read and wrote, the more I felt like that A-word.  I got through it by refusing to relate to what I would be preaching and merely memorizing all of my lines so that I didn’t have to hear all the nonsense I was studying. This decision changed my life. Looking back, I reconciled with the idea that the ceremony was an acceptance into my new community and culture and not any kind of affirmation of my beliefs about the world. Now, when I go to synagogue, I don’t sit there thinking everything is stupid. I appreciate the fact that I am surrounded by hundreds of people with the same background as I, all who are glad to be a part of the Jewish community. Come Bar Mitzvah day, I got out of bed excited, performed beautifully in front of the supportive community and joined my friends at the party afterwards, completing one of the best days of my life.

To this day, I do not call myself an Atheist. I am a Jew who questions his religion’s ideals, but understands the importance of being a part of a community with a rich culture. I push my younger brother to read what he is preaching in synagogue and help him with his Torah portion so that one day, he will be a part of the same community. Had I refused this initiation, I wouldn’t be a member of the Jewish community. Everyone needs to feel at home somewhere, be a part of something bigger than yourself, and more importantly, have a community that acts as your second family.

Justin Schnell is a graduate of The Dalton School and is currently a freshman at The University of Michigan.

My School Within a School

by Justin Schnell

I refuse to go to the School of Tears and Tutors–that overwhelmingly large school within my school. I have friends in Tears and Tutors and I do not resent my classmates who are enrolled there. In fact, I estimate that 75 percent of the students at my high school attend Tears and Tutors. However I live by a different ethic, which stresses teamwork and authentic learning. This has inadvertently turned me into a leader in the small and alternative school that exist in the shadows of Tears and Tutors. I  have named that school Teamwork Over Tutors, or TOT.

There are 15 of us in TOT. We are athletes who challenge the norm of jocks because of our strong intellectual cores. The lessons and ethics we have learned through sports guide the ethos of TOT. We do not have tutors for any subject but rely on each other for academic support. For example, I love physics and I will drop anything to help a fellow TOT student in that subject. Alvin loves English and he stays up for hours with me on the phone, helping me refine my ideas before I begin a literary critique.  My TOT classmate and friend, Jason, and I work well together both on the court and in the physics room. Last January, we worked on a project observing the shapes of different planets’ orbits based on the mass of the other planet it was orbiting. This experiment required a lot of outside research. We discovered an application called Orbital that models different sized planets and their orbits based on certain components. I created different examples of planets for us to observe while Jason wrote down his observations and compared each trial. By the end of the project, we had 10-15 examples that supported our thesis. We received an A, but the grade did not matter as much as the efficiency of the team effort. This is the beauty of Teamwork Over Tutors.

While students of TOT rely on each other, students in Tears and Tutors depend on tutors and experts to help lift their grades. They have at least one tutor–if not more–to help pour lessons into their minds. In Tears and Tutors students may forget a major lesson after a test. That’s okay in their school; they are more consumed with grades than learning.

I remember the day I realized my school was really comprised of two different types of students and decided to divide my school into two. It was history class during my junior year. Our teacher returned a test and I saw a classmate who received an 85 begin to sob. She pulled out her cell phone as she left the class and called her mother. She cried into the phone and said she needed a new tutor. Around that time, it seemed that roughly 75 percent of Dalton students have tutors. I wondered why I never had a tutor and why I had never called home crying over an 85. I realized then that I valued learning over grades and teamwork over tutoring.

In the school of Teamwork over Tutors, my role is the glue of the team. I keep us focused on our school within the school. I love taking the leadership role in our group and suggesting who should do what based on everyone’s strengths. Our success comes from my ability to instill a mindset that learning can be accomplished as a team and not just an individual.

Our educational model is actually ingrained in the founding of Dalton and the expressed values of the school. At Dalton’s lower school, TOT values were stressed with the recognition of the progressive education values of Helen Parkhurst, the school’s founder. She was a progressive educational thinker at the turn of the last century who embraced the philosophies of John Dewey. His ideas are congruent with team learning. By middle school, those values were fading at my school among my classmates. Yet, I found the sense of team learning that was common in the lower school classroom on the middle school basketball court. In fact, I became friends with most TOT students through organized sports, which began in 7th grade.

I have been conditioned for TOT through my experiences in athletics. Basketball was once just something fun, but now, it is the force that anchors my academics. In practice, you learn to work as one with your teammates, overcoming difficulties and prospering together. In physics class, your classmates make up your team in doing a group project. When you are doing an experiment, you are relying on your peers to work with you in an efficient way. On the basketball court it is the trust, organization, and effort of all 5 players on the court that leads to success. In the classroom, an organized team can produce the strongest moments of discovery and introduce students to broader perspectives than their own. Through TOT, I have learned that Teamwork is a true asset in any lesson. Whether you are an athlete, musician, or dancer, if you apply the lessons of teamwork from those talents to your academic life, you will receive a true education.

Justin Schnell will be a freshman at the University of Michigan in September and is a 2013 graduate of The Dalton School.