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Lesson in a Walk Home in China

Lesson in a Walk Home in China

By Roland Brewster

squashchinabarbados222A powerful wave drags an elderly man out to sea. I stop playing in the sand. I race to the water, swim out, and grab his arm. Battling the tide, we finally make it back to shore. As a nine- year-old, I save a life.

The grateful man offers me a dinner, but I politely refuse. The radiant feeling flourishing in my chest is enough of a reward. This moment, while visiting Mom’s side of the family in Barbados, lives as one the most significant experiences of my life—until I step into a small, dusty classroom in Beijing.

As a sophomore, I spend a week teaching English at the Dandelion School. Entering the classroom, I face thirty beaming smiles. They stand in my honor. When I ask them to sit down, they look puzzled.

I expected dedicated students, and witnessing their hunger to learn was powerful. I asked them to name animals who shared the same first letter as their own. They sped through a five-minute exercise in a mere minute. I engaged them with my childhood animal fables. They were infatuated, taking notes and asking questions throughout my lessons. To these children, knowledge they did not possess, no matter how simple, was well worth acquiring.

Tai Feng, a Dandelion student, invited me home on the last day of class. It was a twenty-minute walk and the closer we came to his impoverished rural community, I noticed something—he knew his neighbors, from the kids playing soccer to the elders in conversation. As I sat with his family in his living room, I recognized that his community was a big part of his drive for a promising future.

This experience triggered thoughts of my detachment from my own community. Ever since I was a little boy, I felt estranged from my Harlem neighborhood. Rather than playing basketball in the warm summer sun, I preferred to read a book in the cool atmosphere of my room. This alienation only grew stronger as my few neighborhood friends attended local schools; I trekked to the Upper East Side to a school where I made very close friends.

Like the Dandelion students, I possess a hunger to learn. Yet in doing so, my estrangement from my community has grown. My commute home differs so much from Tai’s. After a bus ride, I pass strangers—groups of kids walking home or going to eat. Their faces are unfamiliar.

Experiencing Dandelion inspired me to volunteer at StreetSquash, a Harlem program that exposes youth to squash and academic enrichment. I volunteered as a math and English tutor. At StreetSquash, the drive to learn resembled what I saw at Dandelion. This desire was reinforced when Brandon, a gifted writer who struggled with his honors math homework, broke down crying after struggling on a problem for thirty minutes. His tears reflected his drive to master the material.

As I got to know Brandon and the other students, I saw that they came from different parts of Harlem and were also detached from their communities. Unlike Tai, their academic pursuits dictated that they become strangers to many of their neighbors. Like me, they were foreigners to public playgrounds. Unlike me, some became strangers to their classmates while resisting peer pressure in neighborhood schools.

How do I improve my community if detachment is a byproduct of pursuing my dreams? As a small but important step to answering that question, I’m getting to know my students at StreetSquash, developing connections that are stronger than my ties to the man whose life I saved at age nine. Even his name eludes me. If I passed him on a road in Barbados, I may not even recognize him. Maybe I should have said yes to his offer to pay for dinner. Maybe I would have acquired a lesson as powerful as what I learned during the walk home with Tai.

 

Roland Brewster, a graduate of the Dalton School, is a freshman at Yale.  

Class Clown to Class President

Class Clown to Class President

by Drew Crichlow

“Are you ready?”Drew Crichlow headshot

“Should I do it?”

Incessantly egging on my friends and warming up my audience, I ask again, “Ready …? Here we go!” As I squat, I position myself to execute my next escapade. Today’s task: exploding a juice box.

There was always something inexplicably attractive about receiving attention, so throughout my childhood, the sound of laughter was my muse. I had an appetite for approbation (clearly not from teachers, but from my peers), and nothing was more satisfying than earning the missing-tooth smiles of my immature friends.

Seated politely at their desks, my poor classmates were trying to enjoy lunch peacefully, but what is a meal without a show, I thought. And with that, I plopped onto my juice box. Unfortunately, my stunt failed; the juice simply poured out of the container without creating the mushroom cloud of beverage I had envisioned. Despite this disappointment, my friends reacted just as I had expected, jumping to evade the anticipated blast radius, screaming in disgust, and the odd few, giving me the drug I desired most: laughter. The high was incredible, but my ecstasy was short-lived. Searching for smiles, I turned to see a less-than-pleased teacher who, hearing the disruption, summoned me with a beckoning finger curl. After being reprimanded, my antics led to another level of attention I had not anticipated. She chronicled my behavior in an email to my parents. Needless to say, my juice box bomb awarded me an ill-flattering but well-fitting behavioral report reflecting the day’s escapades.

In middle school, I could no longer get away with such blatant misbehavior. Instead, I disrupted class with lackluster jokes, only provoking laughter because of their inappropriate timing. But, I was soon struck by the gravity of being the class clown: my reputation was outweighing my innocence, defining my experience as a student, and compromising my academic life, despite my intelligence. The repercussions of my behavior were no longer worth the reward of a few chuckles. This recognition defined my maturation and freed me from my self-imposed shackles; I would no longer be a slave to laughter. It was time for the next chapter in my life, one defined by academic focus and exemplary school citizenship. This chapter (entitled “Self-Improvement”), was lengthy, but by the next chapter (“New Beginnings”), I emerged as a redefined character, one whose hunger for attention and laughter evolved into a thirst for knowledge and service. The more I focused on academics, the more I enjoyed learning; the more my peers and teachers believed in me, the more I wanted to give them a reason to keep their faith.

Ironically, being a class clown may be one of best things that ever happened to me. It shaped me into the person I have become, and helped me to develop my new muse: leadership. Leadership supported my maturation, as I began to realize I could positively influence my peers. My classroom antics gave me confidence and a voice to embrace public speaking – even though at the time, it was in a negative light. Being the class clown gave me the foundation I needed to be elected class president three consecutive years, and ultimately, president of the student body. Now, I am confident enough to represent the student body as its spokesperson to school administrators and make recommendations to improve the experiences of all students at school.

The transformation from class clown to class president was not easy, but revealed my full potential: I learned that actions speak louder than words, and new actions speak louder than old ones. In truth, I still appreciate laughter. However, I now recognize there is a time and place for everything, because integrity and citizenship take precedence over laughter. So while I am more mature, I will remember my class clown episodes as a souvenir – and as a roadmap for the rest of my life.

Drew Crichlow will be a freshman at Yale in the fall and just graduated from Montclair Kimberley Academy.