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

Learning from a Recipe’s Failure

“Go sharpen my pencil, b*tch!” 

What? I wasn’t expecting that from an 11-year-old. It was my first day as a teaching assistant in East Harlem. My detailed lesson plans for the 22 sixth graders didn’t prepare me for Alvin’s behavior. 

“Don’t ever speak to me like that!” I snapped back, and sent him to the dean’s office. I was shocked but not shaken. This wasn’t the first time an obstacle confronted my careful planning.   

I vividly remember the evening of August 19, 2016: the timer beeps spitefully. Grabbing a spoon from the utensil drawer, I lean over the stove, scooping gnocchi from the bubbling water. My sister Carol twists the faucet and I hold the spoon under the cold stream. We stare at the culmination of our last hour in the kitchen. The homemade gnocchi bears an uncanny resemblance to pebbles in our driveway. According to the recipe, making gnocchi from scratch is “simple” — yet this isn’t the grand dinner I envisioned.

At age 15, I wanted to do something bigger and more meaningful than the last minute “Happy Anniversary” cards we typically made. I summoned Carol into my room and closed the door. “Let’s surprise them with a multi-course dinner!”

Sit-down meals have always been a cherished central part of our family life. Growing up in Germany, Dad ate breakfast every morning with his family, and my parents continued this tradition in our home. We begin the day with Mom’s cherry almond-butter smoothies or toast slathered with my German Opa’s homemade raspberry jam while discussing everything from weekend plans to my teaching experiences, erupting Hawaiian volcanoes or cryptocurrencies. On Sundays we prepare new dinner recipes together, but Mom cooks most other meals. For their anniversary, we thought it would be special for our parents to enjoy a homemade dinner without doing any work.

Excited about the challenge ahead, I immediately researched countless recipes and reviews. I am a “planimal” with color-coded study guides and my customized day planner. Before long, I had outlined every detail: menu selection and design, photomontage and soundtrack, decorations and shopping lists. Biking home from Stop & Shop, Carol and I wobbled across Nantucket cobblestones, handlebars laden with groceries.

Carol rode in front so I could alert her if she dropped anything. Helping Carol comes with being the older sister and inspires my passion for sharing knowledge. Long before tutoring students in the Bronx, I quizzed Carol  in Latin and Spanish and taught her the song that had helped me learn the 50 states and capitals. We still managed to belt it out during a recent hike in Denali when my parents asked us to make noise to keep away the bears. 

Tonight our parents sit outside in the dark and the mosquitoes are the only ones having a feast. The screen door slams as Mom enters. “Can I help?” she asks. We explain our mishap, and she laughs, revealing that even experienced chefs prefer to purchase some ingredients that are tricky to make, including (spoiler alert!) gnocchi.

That night, I realize that being prepared and following a recipe doesn’t always ensure a palatable outcome. This insight also serves me well when teaching. 

Unlike my gnocchi recipe, which couldn’t be salvaged after the fact, I was able to tweak my approach to teaching Alvin during my month in the classroom. I discovered that the key ingredients for curbing his disruptive behavior were establishing my authority and engaging him. Working with Alvin individually, I discovered his strong math skills and joy in presenting his answers to the class. Though still not quite a model student, his overall conduct improved dramatically. 

As for cooking, I remain undeterred by the gnocchi incident and still plan to make macarons and croissants from scratch — some day.  (626)

The author of this essay preferred to remain anonymous. She is a freshman at Pomona.

Finding Homes in Foreign Places

I crawled into the cold, damp bed and cried myself to sleep. It was the first night of my two month exchange in Bogotá, Colombia: I couldn’t wait to go home.  

Sara*! Ana! Escuela! Listos?” my host mother called down to me and my host sister Ana.

By 5:45 A.M., we were waiting by the door to leave for school. I pushed my homesickness aside, eager to begin my new adventure. Sitting in traffic, I noticed all the buildings were shades of tan, just like the complexions of the people commuting. Window gazing and chatting with Ana in Spanish became the car ride routine, until things changed.   

A month into the exchange, Ana’s friend approached me at a party: “Honestly, Ana hates you. You take all of her parents’ attention. She wished you never came.”  

I was confused and hurt that my host didn’t even want me in the country. I felt alone. The next car ride was silent. Walking alone to the school’s main quad, I rushed to the bathroom and hid in a stall until the first bell rang.

I dreaded lunch. Like every cliche high school movie, the cafeteria was the epitome of the social scene. Without Ana to guide me, I was the outsider, until I managed to rekindle the courage that carried me through my beginning at boarding school.. 

On my first day, I felt small: a casually-dressed scholarship student with battered suitcases surrounded by extreme wealth. My roommate, Alice, shared stories of her summer traveling through Europe while her little pug’s head stuck out of the expensive purse slung on her mother’s arm. In response, I reluctantly told her about my summer in Jersey watching Friends reruns. 

The hardest room to enter was the cafeteria. Sitting next to students in elegant dresses, I silently ate my meal. 

Every room felt foreign until I stepped into the dance studio. In shorts and a t-shirt, I was the lone black girl amongst dancers dressed in flashy leotards and tights. However, unlike other rooms, my love of dance overshadowed these differences, causing everyone in the room to sense my passion. We bonded. In this space, I found a home at and a newfound confidence that spread to every room I entered. Instead of sitting quietly in the cafeteria, I had marathon conversations filled with laughter.

And so, I searched as well for a home in the cafeteria in Colombia, trying to find my dance studio in a different country. Lingering by the salad bar, I spotted one empty seat. I walked to the table with my tray.  “Puedo sentarme aquí?” I questioned in a wavering tone.   

The students smiled, shuffling their trays to make space. I struck up a conversation in my beginner Spanish. Sensing my novice skills, the students replied slowly and switched to English when I couldn’t understand. They asked many questions about my life and I eagerly answered, excited to make friends. From then on, we not only ate lunch together, but also began hanging out after school. After I expressed my love of dance with them, they showed me Colombian dances and I introduced them to popular American dances. They also taught me Spanish songs, while I taught them American songs. We always debated about which songs were better: was the original Despacito better than Justin Bieber’s version?  

On my final day in Colombia, I dreaded leaving. As I walked past the bathroom for the last time, I was reminded of how I persevered through my lonely moments. Returning home, I couldn’t forget how powerful the simple act of empathy could be. I understood now what it felt like to be an outsider in a new place. So today, if I see anyone lingering at the salad bar a little too long, I always send them a smile, moving my tray to create space at the table.

 

The author of this essay preferred to remain anonymous. She is a freshman at Harvard.

The Unexpected Gift of Confidence from a Friend

By Jada Harris

We settle into the booth after one of our long bike rides and order our favorites: jalepeño pizza and strawberry lemonade. After the waitress brought our drinks, my best friend Carter looks up at and says, “So there’s this guy I like.”  

As Carter raved about his crush, he also expressed the challenges he faced navigating his homosexualilty in high school and reminded me of a time when I too felt out of place. I was sitting outside the worksite on my freshman service trip to Kentucky, the sun was beating down when I heard, “You’re the whitest black person I’ve ever met! This is easy for you, Jada.” I was speechless. Jack, a black crewmate and former classmate, dismissed any concerns about my adjusting to rural Kentucky by assaulting me with that cultural insult and cliché, the same joke that never triggered an authentic laugh from me, just a fake chuckle to fit in. 

I had heard similar comments before, making me crave an environment where the notion of acting like a race was unthinkable. I found this space when I was with Carter, who is white. We met at our local tennis club years ago and our friendship quickly blossomed. As we bonded over feeling out of place, our friendship became a space that eliminated ideas triggering pressures around our identities. Around Carter, I did not wonder if I was not black enough when I spoke proper English or enjoyed a country song. 

However, when I was away from Carter, inner tensions surrounding race and behavior turned me into a funambulist, constantly trying to balance my behavior based on my company. This was the result of attending majority white private schools all my life. I also live in a suburb where seeing another brown face is rare and refreshing, while many of my black classmates live in predominantly black neighborhoods.

My reserved personality in combination with my discomfort in my own skin made transitioning to high school difficult. I was not sure if I should sit with the black or white kids at lunch, which clubs to join, or if I should wear sneakers or Sperry’s. Connecting with someone who also confronted societal pressure surrounding his identity assisted in my eventual growth beyond these burdens. After advising Carter not to allow limited mindsets to impact him, I started to practice what I preach. 

I worked tirelessly towards developing more self-confidence. It began with simple actions such as raising my hand in class and working to become a stronger public speaker. The next step out of the confining box of introversion came through my chapter of Jack and Jill, a national organization of African-American families. A parent advisor saw my leadership potential and encouraged me to run for teen vice president, and after some hesitation, I agreed. 

I was terrified as this was the first real speech I had given outside of school, but after winning the election, my comfort with public speaking and leading grew into a love for both, and I went on to take many other leadership positions in school and my community. Through campaigns and elections, I was challenged to focus on my strengths and the qualities that make me a great leader. My confidence grew and I became more self aware. I realized that living in the middle of two worlds has helped me develop a deep understanding of both. 

I spent years wondering whether I was more suited for the “white world” I have grown up in, or the “black world” that I am supposed to favor, but I have finally found that I am comfortable in and belong in all worlds, interacting with and uniting people of every color and background. Though I did not comprehend it at the time, Carter’s comfort with himself and his sexuality triggered my comfort with my identity and growth as a leader.  

Jada Harris, a 2019 graduate of St Ignatius in Chicago, is a freshman at Stanford.

Seeing The Adoption

By Tyler Price

Mom does her best to support the family without the dad I rarely see. College is not my thing. I’m looking for my big break as a rapper–it’s my only hope to help my mom raise my younger sister. I was working a job in interior renovation, but the discovery that I was allergic to plexiglass ended that opportunity. 

The life and perspective described above is not mine. I live far away from that reality due to an act of fate out of my control. I am a child of an adoption, and my biological brother’s life mirrors the description above.

At sixteen, I stand at the mystery door of a two-family, wooden ranch house. I look around, witnessing what my birth family sees each day in New Orleans East.

When the door opens, I see my little sister Anita for the first time. She stares at me, and keeps staring. I enter the house and see my birth mother, Rayna, sitting on the couch. She says my older brother and sister are en route. Minutes later, they arrive, and we are arrested by a spell of awkwardness that seems like hours.

Eventually, someone has a bright idea–lunch. Since we are in New Orleans, we decide on crawfish and shrimp. I ride with Anthony and Antoinette, my brother and sister. That car ride changes everything. Despite different life perspectives, our camaraderie, nurtured by the romance of a long separation coming to an end, is instant. I know it will be eternal.

I grew up an only child until the day I met my biological siblings. Afterwards, my brother, Anthony, introduced me to my home away from home – New Orleans – on several trips, while I gave him tours of Martha’s Vineyard, which he loved. Almost every weekend, we go on our phones and play Crazy Eight.

A chilling question has haunted me since I have become close to Anthony, who is a year older than me and spends most of his days writing rhymes and smoking weed. What if our places were switched and I was the brother who lacked the parents who sent him to the best schools and provided opportunities for travel to Cuba and China?

At a young age, Mom and Dad told me I was born to a teenage mother in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the adoption agency’s office making it difficult to find them.  Over a decade later, Mom (using an agency out of Boston) successfully reconnected with my birth family, and decided it was time for all of us to meet.

The more I learn about my roots, the more I refuse to take anything for granted. I know the struggles I could have confronted if I wasn’t the brother given the opportunities to succeed. I now find myself spending more time studying subjects I once hated. For years, I never did well in science, but after my first trip to New Orleans, I carried a can-do attitude to biology. Now, science has become one of my strongest subjects. When I was sixteen, I found a job at Stop & Shop to save and invest, and started subscribing to The Wall Street Journal.  

I am now ever more aware of the obstacles created by lack of exposure to opportunities.  I hope to use my education and privilege to create a society with more solid routes to success. Why does there have to be only one lucky brother out of the two? Why does the factor of a luck we do not control so greatly impact our possibilities?

My bond with Anthony also pushes me to look beyond our differences. I struggle to refrain from imposing my values on him while still trying to be a supportive friend and brother. Through him, I see the value of my upbringing but also have a greater respect for difference as our relationship evolves.

Tyler Price, a graduate of Beaver Country Day in a freshman at Lehigh. 

Losing the Fear to Raise My Voice

By: Anna Steinbock

The audience piled in, occupying every chair and square inch of ground. Curious teachers lined the walls, lunches in hand. Latecomers stood outdoors to listen. I sat anxiously in a chair, front and center. A relatively new place for me, considering I was once the shy, quiet girl who barely talked and cried when her mom left her side. This shyness continued until I reached a monumental moment: I got married.

Well — not technically married, but I was the bride in a play wedding at my preschool. The teacher asked for volunteers and, to everyone’s surprise, I raised my hand. A few weeks later, I walked down the aisle before parents in my white poofy dress with a confidence that I carried to middle school theater productions, where I acted, danced, and sang for audiences. I loved escaping my own skin and becoming a different person. Although I established an extroverted voice while performing, I remained somewhat silent off stage–an introvert in real life.

Like the Cinderella I once played, as I got older, I left my previous world behind. I discovered I was no longer sheltered, especially when it came to gender. On this particular  afternoon, it was so deep into the wintertime that it was already pitch black when I left school at 5 PM after choir rehearsal. I rushed a couple of avenues east to volleyball practice for my out-of-school travel team. There, my coach’s mood matched the weather. He screamed at us to continue a drill as the air burned our lungs and our movements became slow motion. My friend spiked the volleyball over the net and Coach screamed, “You hit like a girl!” 

I wanted to scream too. Yet feeling too meek to stand up to his authority, I quietly retook my position at the net. Not a year later, at Thanksgiving dinner, my older brother brought up his desire to join a fraternity. My older cousin commented with disdain about how his college’s fraternity was shut down due to a multitude of sexual assault cases. “It is so unfair,” he complained. I almost choked on my turkey, frozen in my chair and stuck between my outraged thoughts and his seniority. I kept quiet.

At that point, I had been going to the same all-girls school for eleven years. Shielded from gender-based discrimination, I grew up knowing women as strong-willed and intellectual individuals. As I became exposed to the reality of gender inequality, I joined my school’s feminism club, Women in Our World, and was elected co-president a year later. Although I had remained silent when witnessing my coach’s stereotyping and my cousin’s inability to understand the severity of sexual assaults on college campuses, I used the club as a platform  to raise my voice on gender issues. I knew to utilize this voice when a schoolwide email announced administrators would be measuring our skirt lengths with tape measures. Bewildered, I stepped back and considered the situation — I hated the idea of being reduced to a number of inches.

I organized a schoolwide lunch discussion to hear opinions on our dress code. I sat at the front of a new stage. Now, no longer quieted by authority, I used the confidence I had built from  performing to enable my voice to address authentic issues. In doing so, I created a forum for others to express their thoughts, including students from the nearby boy’s school. These opinions revealed the overwhelming outrage about the school’s attempt to control the length of our skirts. A few days later, the administration abandoned plans for measuring and I witnessed the power in abandoning silence. I saw how speaking out can produce change in the world around you, a lesson that will stay with me forever. 

 

Anna Steinbock, a 2019 graduate of the Marymount School of New York, is a freshman at Tufts. 

The Thick Connection: Baseball and Blood

By Jackson Barry

Championship game! Stands packed; 452 fans yelling at umpires and players. I gather the team in the dugout, screaming above the noise at the stadium: “Everyone doubted us. We weren’t supposed to beat the 2 seed, but we did. We are the 5 seed that can!” 

They roar in agreement, feeding off our fans. 

Two months ago, we were as far away from the championship as a little league team trying to beat the New York Yankees. It appeared we would not even make the playoffs when I stepped into the box in the final inning against our rival. It was my first time as a starter after being called up to varsity. My team was down 1. Nerves flew into my body. I tried to calm myself. I freeze framed a moment in Cuba. 

Nine months ago, two of my teammates and I traveled to Havana to meet a baseball team that we will host later in the year. Our first day on the field, Cien, one of the Cuban players, spoke to me in Spanish. “¿Estás nervioso? Necesitas relajar y necesitas divertirse. Solo juega pelota.”

Are you nervous? Relax and have fun. Just play ball.”

I let these words guide me in the batters’ box. I grip the bat and swing. “Bang!” I hit a ball up the middle and reach first base.

I am the youngest of four and bring something from each sibling to the sport. Brittany, one of my older sisters, is the optimist. My glass-half-full perspective grows into a natural part of my life from watching her. She is deaf. I have used sign language to communicate with her. So often, people predict she can’t accomplish her goals, however, she always proves the doubters wrong. When her weak left arm prevented her from skiing, she learned to snowboard, despite the disbelief of her first instructor.

With the influences of Brittany, I lead off first and take off for second, sliding in safely. On second, I channel my other older sister, Shaya. I thrive on competition. I developed this quality when I taught her how to play basketball when I was in 4th grade and she was in 7th. After only a few lessons in shooting, dribbling, and defense, she took what I taught her and competed against me like a championship was on the line. The next pitch, the catcher dropped the ball, and my competitiveness propelled me to take third.

On third, my roots and love of baseball are with me. The sport runs through my blood. At seven, I followed my brother Zach to his high school practices, witnessing Zach as captain. There, I would field ground balls and hang out with the older guys. One day, standing at shortstop during batting practice, everyone tells me to move farther away so I wouldn’t get hurt. I resist. A hot shot is hit directly at me, and I pick it clean. All the high school players applaud. Now, I refuse to lose and score the go-ahead run.

Being the youngest and newest guy on my team, I looked up to the older guys as if they were major league players themselves. Being the youngest in the family, I also knew when and how to exert myself. Initially, I was just another soldier following orders, but with their support, I outgrew that role. It was in the championship game in the classic underdog story when I materialized as the leader. I first led by example rather than giving pep talks. With our final at-bat coming up and down 1 to the best team in the league, we looked defeated. My teammates had lost belief and they needed a leader more than ever, and I stepped into the role. We became the first 5 seed in our league’s history to win the championship. We reached that place with my constant voice of possibility. 

Jackson Barry, a graduate of Redwood High School in Larkspur, California, will begin his

freshman year at UCLA next week.

Feasts of Substance

By Cameron Bell 

I called upon my inner Gordon Ramsey; I stacked ingredients on top of each other to add height to the dish. I contrasted colors and textures, even adding vibrant red and orange sauces, not just for taste, but to add pizazz to the dish. An hour cooking. A half-hour plating. Bon Appetit!  Not quite. 

I wanted to savor the beauty of the dish before eating. The plate’s center was a tower of fluffy scrambled eggs, with green onions added for a dash of color. Surrounding the eggs were four crispy bacon strips converging to form a “teepee”, adorned with three triangular pieces of toast. I had created my most artistic dish ever, but remembered the words of my grandmother, my cooking teacher from the age of 5, “Food isn’t just there to look pretty.It’s there to be eaten, enjoyed, and to bring people together.” 

The lessons I’ve learned in the kitchen have become my recipe for life. Dress for the job you want — “People eat with their eyes too.” When I decided to run for the president of my Jack and Jill chapter, I did just that. I took the “power of presentation” seriously. I put on a suit, tie, and even completed my look with a lapel pin of the chapter crest. I dressed as if I were Barack Obama, ready to speak to a world audience. “Yes we CAM Jack and Jill” was the motto that I used in the speech that proved I was the best candidate, a speech that would inspire a host of new chapter projects. 

After I was elected president, I thought back to my breakfast dish. Did I just violate Grandy’s rule of the kitchen? Did I “just look pretty?” No, I concluded. I was elected because of the substance and flavor of my campaign, which led to a 50% increase in community service hours, and a change in the bylaws to allow more members opportunities to hold offices.

I had been so proud to show off my culinary prowess to my parents and siblings. They took pictures and claimed that “the dish was too pretty to eat.” They lied. My sister used her fork to destroy the “masterpiece.” The bacon broke, the eggs were split and the sauces were tainted. My parents and brother then followed, dividing the food recklessly onto their respective plates. At last, I caved to the peer pressure and joined in the destruction of my culinary creation. As I took my first bite, I was no longer disappointed that my dish was destroyed, but rather annoyed that I let the food get cold. I could only imagine how much better the bacon would’ve tasted if it were sizzling.  

 I have always loved food and appreciated how certain textures and flavors complement each other. This appreciation ignited my interest in cooking. Studying ingredients and their abilities to enhance each other, I saw parallels between cooking and scientific research. When I worked in a stem cell research lab a couple of summers ago,I realized cooking was like a lab experiment: if I follow the recipe, I’ll make something good. But I learned from my grandmother, that going off-recipe and adding ingredients — a dash of this, a pinch  of that — could benefit the dish as well. Similar to cooking “off recipe,” I have tried out different hobbies and experiences to make myself a better person and to see the world from new perspectives. I started out just adding engineering classes and progressed to traveling across the world, where I experienced new people and cultures. I even tried my hands at boxing, playing volleyball, applying for a trademark, and mentoring underclassmen at my school. From each experience, like different ingredients and flavors, I have broadened my lens. Anyone can follow a recipe, but a dish becomes special when it possesses an individuality that can’t easily be replicated.

————————————————————————————————

Cameron Bell, a freshman at Yale, is a graduate of Peoria High School. 

Taking a Kneel

By Zachary Love

O Say Can You See…

 I heard the song in my imagination minutes before I was about to confront it. Or, in the words of others: disrespect it.  

 Finally, the familiar call to remove caps and rise felt a little different because I was choosing to kneel. A teammate must’ve heard the rustling of my pads because he turned around and stared at me.

 “Get up,” he ordered.

 I remained knelt.

 “Get up,” he ordered again.

 I knelt for the duration of the national anthem. When someone in sports is injured, players take a knee out of respect. I was doing the same thing for those injured by police brutality.

 Afterward, another teammate rushed to me.

 “Did you hear what some parents said?”

 “No, about what?”

 “The kneel. Those parents said ‘how do we let our kids do that?’ ”

 Although some disagreed, my kneeling made the cover of the school newspaper which resulted in my ultimate goal: it sparked a school-wide conversation about the issue. Members of my school community now seemed more comfortable to share their views, and I felt that it created a more cohesive and empathetic football brotherhood. I had gone from being the only one kneeling to inspiring others on my football team to kneel or sympathize with a gesture before the games. I even received comments from teachers who had not taught me: “I respect what you’re doing… it means a lot for the community.”

I was not aspiring to become a school celebrity. I merely wanted to help my community become sensitive to issues that are consuming our nation.

Summoning the courage to “Do the Right Thing” on race is not always easy when friends pressure me to do what I think is wrong. Earlier in the year, classmates defended a student that the school disciplined for racist behavior.

 “He’s going to get expelled if you don’t talk to the administration,” a friend explained.

 “It’s the school’s decision whether he gets expelled, but by no means am I going to support what he did,” I retaliated.  

 “It was just a joke though, he doesn’t deserve this, ” my friend continued.

 He was actually a friend and teammate. I was stunned to see him in photos that another friend sent me.  He took pictures with a white towel over his head and filled in his face white except for eye holes. All of the pictures contained the word “nigger” and one had Nazi symbolism. I could tell by the background that some of the images were created during a track spring training trip in which only eight members attended.

I remembered how those images shocked me. I remembered how confidently he used that word. I remembered my family’s history of fleeing the South to escape racial tension because of things he celebrated in pictures. Therefore, I wasn’t going to dismiss his actions as unharmful.

Some people I considered friends trivialized his actions and tried to shame me for not understanding. I was quite disappointed at first, believing my friends disregarded the impact on those offended by his actions.  It took quite a bit of discussion for us to understand each others’ points of view. It was difficult to stand up for my beliefs with friends who were so opposed to my position.

Fortunately, my school conducted an assembly to discuss the difficulties of dealing with friends who have done unfortunate things, and I learned that we cannot always protect friends from consequences. In the end, some of my friendships grew while others were strained.

This incident and the kneeling pushed me to focus on doing what is in the best interest of my community. When I believe in what I’m doing, most anything else is an aftereffect. Friends describe me as thoughtful and determined, but I say I am just committed to doing what I believe in without being intolerant of different views.

Zachary Love, a graduate of The Dalton School, will be a freshman at Brown in the Fall

The Freedom to be Me in France

By Zadie Stevens-Telesford

There was something liberating about being mistaken as a possible Trump supporter. Or maybe it was just being thought of as an American girl, not a black girl.

One night, after dinner with my host family and their friends in Rennes, France, the table had been cleared and the attacks on Trump began. I could have been listening to a conversation in New York City, only they were speaking French as they demonized Trump. Suddenly I realized I was in another country when one of the guests said: “Zadie is American. She might like Trump. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about him like this.” 

She was serious. The moment demonstrated the freedom that comes with lifting the weight of race from my identity. Few people in America would assume I support Trump (which I do not) because I’m black. However in France, I felt I could be whoever I wanted regardless of race. Living with this new reality awakened a sense of my past battles with race. 

During Lower School, January was a painful month – one to dread. It wasn’t the cold weather or the grey skies; it was Martin Luther King Day, which became isolating for me. I truly felt like “the only.” For the first five years of my education, I was the only black girl in my grade. Around MLK day, we sat on the mat to discuss Dr. King. The pressure of eyes zoomed in on me from every direction, as if they wanted me to take over teaching the class simply because Martin Luther King and I shared the same skin color. I wanted to disappear. Being the center of attention was not fun when it came to talking about the injustice that the ancestors of most of the people in that room may have forced upon mine. It was awkward, uncomfortable and I wanted nothing to do with Dr. King. 

 I was comfortable being the only black girl in my class as long as the subject of race was absent. I formed close friendships from the age of six when the differences in the color of our skin were insignificant. Looking back, I realized I wanted to avoid being thrown in the box as the black girl who loved King. My resistance to such a box endured, which is why being considered a Trump supporter was refreshing. 

In middle school, more black girls joined our grade and new pressures surrounding race emerged. My closeness to white classmates, who I had known for years, created eye rolls from many of the black girls. I tried to use black vernacular as a bridge to connect with my new black classmates. 

Black vernacular had been a cloud floating around me but it never seemed to make a landing in my life. I heard it on the streets of Harlem, on BET, but never from my family because they spoke with Caribbean accents. Now my acceptance among other blacks seemed dependent on an ability to code switch, saying to blacks: “girl I need some lotion, I’m ashy today” but to whites: “I am going to Duane Reade after school to get some lotion for my dry skin.”

In France, this division of language disappeared. Being so focused on mastering French, there wasn’t a need to switch between white and black vernacular anymore because all the American students were striving to learn one common language. I was no longer worried about not sounding “white” or “black” enough. My only worry was sounding French.  

My analysis of racial identity also extended into new dimensions in France. The year I spent in Rennes showed me that I am more than my race, and provided a life where code switching was not necessary. Now, I am comfortable embracing the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and explaining what “woke” or even “ashy” means to my white friends. 

Zadie Stevens-Telesford, a 2019 graduate of The Spence School, will be a freshman at Duke, where she was accepted Early Decision.

A New Lens for Scars

By Ashley Oden

The curvature of my spine progressed from chronic to acute. It was shaped like an ‘S.’ I told myself ‘S’ is for ‘stupid’ or ‘shameful.’ For two years, twenty-two hours a day, my back was caged in cold, hard nylon. My brace was a 21st-century corset: a shell that left my back bruised, my confidence hollowed. 

I remember that scorching day six years ago, prior to my imprisonment –  before I hid from camera lenses, before my closet was flooded with plus-size shirts, before I was swallowed in shame. I mounted the guard rail with ease, unfazed by the “No Diving” sign. As others backed down, afraid, I counted to three and jumped from the bridge, free of fear.

That freedom died the summer after my freshman year as I underwent a spinal fusion surgery that screwed two steel rods into my spine. Laying in my hospital bed, I sulked about privilege lost: six years as lacrosse captain down the drain. Hours of practicing my back-handspring each week for gymnastics wasted. Summers jumping off of State Beach Bridge rendered unrealistic. 

Simple tasks I had mastered at the age of three were suddenly foreign. During recovery, I relearned how to walk and sit up in bed. The slow progress made me cold to the warmth of the friends and family who turned my house into a revolving door of paid respects. Each day felt like a new funeral for the girl who had died during surgery, the girl I would never again recognize. It was as if the State Beach Bridge had vanished as I found myself stranded, swimming in circles to find the shoreline.

I returned to school that fall to the sympathetic but hollow voices of others: “I’m sorry you went through that.” I was pierced by eyes of pity, but not embraced by eyes of understanding – I was now the girl who couldn’t run or carry a backpack, warned to keep out of the sun for its UV rays would stain my melanin permanently. It was not until I could sit in peace, free from constant pain, that I realized I was finally adjusting.

Despite my physical limitations, I soon learned photography enabled me to distort, magnify, and portray the positives of my reality. Photos served as a form of time travel, a way for the past to be remembered and the present to be escaped. My desire to manipulate my own image, to control the way others perceived my beauty, soon expanded into showcasing the beauty of others. Though initially a product of insecurity bleeding into my daily life, it transformed into a passion: capturing the best sides of others allowed me to regain the sense of control my surgeon’s scalpel stripped away.

That feeling – reclaimed autonomy – was something I knew I had to preserve and promote for younger girls about to embark upon that same lonely journey of discovery. During my junior year, I won a grant from the Lawrenceville School to make a documentary about my life with scoliosis. My fifteen minute film examines the fears, anxieties, and misconceptions of scoliosis in order to highlight girls raw scars of resilience. Though these scars are passports to our pasts, we will not let them dictate our futures. They are medals of honor, attesting to our ability to endure pain and still stand up straight. 

Today, I see the photo of that fearless 11-year-old on State Beach Bridge. She was oblivious to the difficult journey ahead and the innocence that would be stripped away. But if she could have seen our reflection in the water six years later, as we once again crashed down from the bridge, our scar no longer our captor but rather a tattoo of triumph, then she wouldn’t have had to learn the hard way that pain is fleeting and despair is temporary. 

Ashley Oden, a 2019 graduate of the The School, will be a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall.