Essay of the Week: A Thoughtful Voice to Suit Many Occasions, By Eliza Ross

The room descended into absolute madness. While the conversation was supposed to be about the ethical issues that plague D1 college athletics, everyone around me was yelling about who was the best basketball player in the country. Glancing around the noisy classroom, there was one obvious difference between me and my peers: I was the only girl.

I relaxed into my chair and observed my surroundings, patiently trying to figure out how to make myself heard in this classroom. But I was well prepared for the pandemonium. 

For the past two summers, I have worked at Camp Ramapo for Children, a residential summer camp for young people with social, emotional, and learning differences. To someone who isn’t a part of the Ramapo community, it seems like unorganized chaos. In reality, Ramapo just has its own rhythm. 

I met Mia during my first summer at Ramapo. She is 11 years old and suffers from severe learning differences, causing her to have intense outbursts of anger. Mia is extremely bright and kind, but can easily become distressed and downright irate. My co-counselors and I took turns following her when she ran off, keeping her off the other campers during episodes of rage, and trying to soothe her at night when she became especially unsettled. I spent two weeks giving her big smiles when she hit me, offering hugs when she screamed, and giving her all the extra attention I could garner when she became overly aggressive with her peers. Over the course of this period, Mia and I developed a connection which made her more comfortable around me. As we became closer, engaging with her became less difficult.

On the last day of camp, Mia was badgering my co-counselors, keeping them from the task of packing each campers’ belongings. I was one of the counselors responsible for entertaining campers. I approached Mia and suggested, “Let’s take a walk.” We set off slowly down the trail without speaking. Eventually, I asked her if she’d had a good time at camp. She looked up at me solemnly and said, “I love it here. I can’t wait to come back.” I smiled at her, reaching for her hand. She took mine and squeezed it as if to communicate her true sadness at leaving. We walked hand in hand back to the bunk, in contented silence. Communicating with Mia required more patience, empathy, and tenacity than I’d ever had to muster. 

In my Ethics in Sports class, I had to summon similar patience. I’d never experienced such a classroom environment, struggling to even get a word in. Suddenly, there was a lull in the shouting, and I began to speak. My male peers were surprised to hear my voice. Hesitating slightly, I said, “While universities don’t necessarily need to hand their student-athletes a paycheck, no athlete should be struggling to have their basic needs met. If the commitment of playing for a D1 sports program prohibits athletes from being able to get jobs to support themselves, the school should be making sure that the player has a place to live, food, clothing and school books, at the very least.” Everyone around me quieted down, surprised that the girl had spoken. 

In all my years as a student, I had never been “the only” in a class. The gender makeup of this group led to a distinct dynamic that was new for me. At first, I found it challenging to speak up. Beyond being less informed about the subject matter, I felt somewhat out of place. But as the course progressed, I exercised the skills that I learned at Camp Ramapo to make my voice heard. Communicating with Mia and being patient with her during arduous times molded me into a better version of myself, a version who could ultimately thrive in the all-male classroom environment. 

 

Eliza Ross, a graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, will be a freshman at the University of Chicago.