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Propelling My Voice

Propelling My Voice

by Jordan White

jordanwhiteAs the youngest in my family by eight years, I was awkward, painfully shy, and tired of being verbally overshadowed. So, at 11, I decided to make my debut at the Christmas dinner table.  

“Did you hear that Lady Gaga might actually be a man?”

Immediately, my brother took over the conversation with a story about a transgender girl from high school, while my uncle followed with a tangent about gender-neutral bathrooms. My inaugural appearance as a provocateur had failed, and my presence once again faded into the background.

My family’s dinner conversations have always been equal parts vulgar and intellectual, with topics like the Bonobo chimpanzee’s bisexual pursuits to adolescent Italian castrati. Outlandish oddities cleverly become family inside jokes. I would spend meals dreaming of my moment to provoke, taking periodic breaks to notice whichever condiment was staining my dad’s shirt. Embarrassed and discouraged by the Gaga debacle, I decided speaking was not to be my mode of self-expression.

Weeks later I became a writer, thanks to our fifth-grade historical fiction project. Some chose to write about the Revolutionary War, while others ventured into the depths of Nazi Germany or Jim Crow. Sometime during the fifth draft of my Civil Rights story, I decided to produce something different. Filing through my mental bank of memories and family conversations, I chose the New York crack/AIDS epidemic of the late eighties.

I altered my story completely. Julius Jones––my proud, stoic, fictional NAACP Chairman––devolved into Julian ‘Juli’ Jameson: a hopeless, staph-infected drug addict with a mayo-stained shirt. Night after night I scanned the depths of Google’s “crack” files, even turning off Image SafeSearch to examine the faces of its victims. I took my desire for identity and applied it to Juli’s journey. As I struggled to find a voice among extroverts, he struggled to find purpose in his dingy Hell’s Kitchen tenement.

The story was a hit among teachers and peers, propelling my confidence as a student. I started writing personal essays; packed with details that I had saved in my mental notebook. In seventh grade I wrote an essay about death, and an influx of long lost memories rushed onto the paper. Rather than seeing sadness in mortality–a hospital, or a coffin, or Benta’s Funeral Home–readers saw my grandmother putting coffee in my sippy cup and telling me she suspected her neighbors were axe murderers. My English teacher suggested I submit the essay to a writing contest, telling me I deserved an audience. I ended up winning, and found my path as a student altered forever. In a school full of inventors and mathletes, writing had become my “thing;” a way to value myself beyond numerical assessment.

Today I’ve established my voice beyond just essays, but my writer’s imagination stays with me almost everywhere. People in my life sometimes become characters that I control. For example, at my uncle’s funeral last winter, my family sat silently in prayer. I made eye contact with the young thurifer shifting nervously behind the priest. I imagined that it was his first day on the job, the way only one pant leg was cuffed — he must have been rushing out of the house. I liked to think his girlfriend made him a good breakfast and said “good luck today, honey” when he left. Luck wasn’t exactly the right thing to wish to someone who was going to a funeral but then again “goodbye” would have been too morbid. I took mental note of the stained-glass windows and saved the detail for future use.

The more I write, the easier I find it to talk– about myself and the world around me, even at the dinner table. When adults mutter about the tribulations of their nine-to-fives, it is not uncommon for my mother to now interrupt, pleading for a breath of life: “Let’s liven things up. Jord, what should we talk about?”

Jordan White, a graduate of Hunter College High School, will begin her freshman year at Wesleyan in a few weeks.


Following the Crowd as an Individual

Following the Crowd as an Individual

by Matthew Gilbert


A stampede gushes my way. Teenagers jump, leap and holler. They want to get closer to the stage, but a low fence is in their way. Security guards scramble to keep everyone from rushing over it, but it’s too late. Hundreds of charging fans overpower them. In a split second decision, I choose to run with the fans to avoid being trampled. I can’t think of a better place to spend my 17th birthday than the Mad Decent Block Party, a music festival.

I’ve always loved the animation and excitement that comes with large, loud crowds. My first memory experiencing this intensity is a New York Liberty basketball game with my father when I was eight. I couldn’t get enough of the electricity generated by the screaming fans. Years later, I would experience the same rush at a Red Bulls game as I cheered, waving my “Red Flag.”

It wasn’t until my junior year sociology class that I discovered Durkheim’s theory which explains that electric feeling: collective effervescence. It’s the feeling of euphoria and social bondage large groups of people experience when acting together. Cavemen felt it chanting songs and performing rituals around fires, and they named it “God.” The emotional experience of the devout at church is similar to my feelings at a concert. I realized something else in that class–my love of sociology and my desire to explore its many applicable concepts. I am not in love with just being in a crowd. My passion is analyzing crowd behavior when the sociologist in me goes to work.

Beyond crowded concerts, I look for the social forces influencing the actions of those around me.  The subway ride from Park Slope to school on the 3 train allows me to apply the concepts from class in a real world paradigm. Graffiti tags in the train tunnel compel me to question how the deindividuation of this “art” will increase crime rates. In the hallways, I notice the impact of socioeconomic status on education when comparing my public and private school friends’ SAT scores, highlighting the differences in their college preparedness. I see the irony after school, when my friends jokingly make fun of “raging feminists” for “exaggerating gender inequality,” but they don’t see the misogyny all around us as we walk through Brooklyn Museum’s featured exhibits filled exclusively with male artists. The sociological laws of group behavior affect so much of our lives that we fail to realize how little control we actually have.

However, I find freedom from social pressures by studying the forces that control behavior. Interpreting the motivation behind group behavior allows me to make decisions as an individual while remaining an active citizen of a community. True individuality can blossom when the restraints of social mores and folklores are lifted from the subconscious. As I scroll through music on iTunes, I know to not let the popularity of a song determine if I like it. Studying the “Bystander Effect” gave me the responsibility to overcome this powerful situational force and call the police when someone outside my friend’s house on Suffolk Street was attacked with a hammer. The laws of group behavior don’t hinder my individuality, but understanding them gives me the tools to fully develop myself.

I am aware of all this as I stand in front of the blazing lights, feeling the energy all around me. I have no idea who is performing, nor do I care. The only thing I can feel is the heart of the show, pulsing in time with the bass. It’s impossible to think about anything else when the music is this loud. Individual lines blur into a larger collective. As the show picks up speed, my friends flash me gleaming smiles. In this moment I know I won’t be satisfied as just a member of the crowd; I must also study its behavior.

Matthew Gilbert, a 2015 graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, will be a freshman at Wesleyan in the Fall.

Solo Outreach

by Alexandra White

Did the orphanage really exist or had I been the victim of a Ponzi scheme? My dad panicked, pacing up and down the sidewalk with a handmade sign: “Orphanage Outreach.” I felt stranded.  I had sent more than $3,000 to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. I stood waiting for a ride to take me to the place that had absorbed my efforts for two years.

After 30 minutes, a car stopped. My relief didn’t last long. A raggedy, black car with cracked windows took us on the two-hour ride to the orphanage.

I was shocked. After all the donations, the orphanage was still dilapidated. The playground was two broken swings. Huge piles of garbage sat between trees.  Later while watering plants, a little boy popped up with a dirty detergent bottle. While the other kids played, he filled it up and began to help.

“Mira (look).”  He identified each plant and showed us how to water them efficiently. His name was Ali. He said he was seven or eight and was smaller than the others but more independent. While watering, I stepped on a thorn. Ali rushed to my side, showing me where to step so that I arrived safely at the volunteer quarters. Ali’s care put me at ease.

My first day in the Dominican Republic was hectic, but my journey getting there was even crazier. It started two years ago when I saw a presentation about students doing community service in Mexico.  My mind buzzed with ways to do something similar. The passion leaked from my heart to my head and I was ready. But there was one problem: There weren’t any clubs at my school for service work in other countries. I decided to start a club and my research led me to Orphanage Outreach.

In Tenth Grade, I  shared my idea with friends. Some discouraged me:  “Why do you have to start a club. Why can’t you just join one?”

I ignored them. I was determined. I knew people wouldn’t naturally be interested in the mission, so I lured them to join by providing food at meetings. I created bylaws, appointed officers and oversaw fundraising. As president, I had two main goals for the club’s second year: to dramatically increase fundraising and to volunteer at the orphanage. In the beginning of junior year, ten people signed up for the trip! I was ecstatic.

The excitement unraveled when six people dropped out over safety concerns. “Oh come on, it’s just the Dominican Republic! We’re going to be staying in an orphanage,” I reassured them.

They looked at each other nervously: “It  would be different if we were staying in a hotel but we’re staying in an orphanage.”

Others blamed their parents. One by one, they deserted the trip until it was just Christina and I.  Soon Christina began to act strange; whenever I told her that our mothers needed to discuss the trip, her mom was always “busy. ”

By April, she told me she couldn’t go. “It’s too expensive,” she explained.  “Especially since I’m already going to Spain this summer.”

My body swelled but I suppressed my rage. I decided to go anyway and raise the money by myself. I realized that having a passion for something doesn’t make it any easier.

In June, I was teaching Ali how to read. It was not as easy as I thought. Getting him to concentrate felt as difficult as convincing my classmates to travel there. At the end of the week, I was upset that Ali’s reading didn’t improve. But then I remembered the orphanage’s motto, “poco a poco” or “little by little.” Change takes time.  Getting my classmates to come on the trip failed the first time, but if I keep working poco a poco, eventually I will get ten people. If I keep returning to the orphanage and trying to teach Ali to read, eventually I will succeed.

Alexandra White is a Freshman at Wesleyan University and a 2012 graduate of Long Island Friends.