Posts Tagged ‘college admissions essay’

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An Education that Starts with Morning Rhythms

An Education that Starts with Morning Rhythms

by Jordan Harris

 Jordan Harris - Class of 2014

A captivating rhythm draws me to five young boys drumming on plastic overturned buckets on the bustling streets of Downtown Chicago. I am on my daily commute to school. In one hour, I travel from a tree shaded suburban town to this rhythmic center of noise and motion. Moments that mirror my life often come alive on my commutes. For example, the drummers resemble the five siblings in the family I worked with during my first service trip to the Appalachian Mountains the summer before my sophomore year. I decide to drop money in the youngest drummers’ container and I see a joy spread across the boy’s face, reminding me of children I met on that trip.

School for me does not start in the classroom. My lessons begin the minute I leave my house. My commute now shapes my identity in ways I never imagined when I decided to attend high school in the heart of Chicago.

It starts with a 15-minute ride with Dad to the Metra Station followed by a 20-minute train ride to the heart of the city. On the train, I witness an architectural transition as buildings become higher and closer together, complimenting the fast pace enveloping everyone.

I arrive downtown and my commute continues.  I now walk the morning rush with Chicagoans of all races and classes as I head to the CTA bus stop a couple of minutes away. The world becomes larger, then smaller with this walk.  By the time I reach the bus stop, I find classmates coming from different places for the final 15-minute bus ride.

On one ride, I smell liquor on the breath of a man sitting a few rows away. He is lanky with scruffy facial hair, wearing a green army jacket, and holding a brown paper bag.  It is the week after Christmas break. Tis the season to join classmates and complain about homework loads. I describe my long paper on the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement when the smell of the man’s breath comes closer.  He then begins scolding all the kids on the bus saying: “Ya’ll kids shouldn’t be complaining about homework. I didn’t do none of my homework when I was your age and look at me now. Do that homework. Stay in school. Graduate. Make something of yourselves.”

By then, I was a seasoned commuter.  If this happened before high school, I would have felt uncomfortable in my seat and searched for another one towards the front of the bus.  Instead, I nodded at the man’s helpful advice.

Some scenes of my commute are as entertaining as a movie, yet my imagination must write the script.  I was waiting at the bus stop one morning when I saw a businessman in a full suit and tie riding by on his scooter.  Maybe he was a creative entrepreneur, or just a man trying to save money rather than taking a cab.  I could only imagine a day in his life.

I never imagined how adaptable my commute would make me.  On one cold January morning, the bus broke down.  The driver said another bus would arrive in an hour. My classmates and I decided to walk so we would not be late for school.  A brisk wind hit our faces as it became harder to see, and the cold made our noses drip and turned our faces red. Too bad the man with the brown paper bag could not see our walk through deep snow in single digit temperature weather. It showed the kind of academic commitment that might warm his heart.

My commute has strengthened my independence and adjustment to new situations. I now go downtown not only for school, but for other events as well. Thanks to my commute, I have branched beyond a suburban bubble and become more aware of myself as part of a larger community.

Jordan Harris,  a freshman at Northwestern University, is a 2014 graduate of Saint Ignatius College Prep.

 

 

The Football Way

The Football Way

by Bryce Joyner

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Whether I’m creating campaigns for Marriott to reach Generation Y, or selling solar water heaters in impoverished African villages, I view the challenges in my life as if they were playing out on an imaginary football field. Football isn’t my only sport. Yet, looking at my life, the thoughts of downs, tackles, and touchdowns parallel the narrative.

Let’s start at third down. Ball on our one-yard line. My coach signals I can initiate a cornerback blitz if I want to take the risk, or stay on my receiver and play it safe. I take the risk.

My foundation as a risk-taker was shaped as a child in Baldwin, New York. On weekends I played big games of hide-and-go-seek with my pack of friends. In finding my spots to hide, I anticipated my seeker’s motions just like I would a receiver’s routes. It looked like he was running a slant. I noticed the quarterback’s eyes, and immediately jumped into the passing lane.

“Ready or not, here I come!” My friend Brandon finds friends one by one, but where was I? My hiding spot was Mr. Emory’s backyard. He was a cranky man without children. No one would think to search there out of fear. I win that round.

1st and 10: I was in 4th grade, loving life. My utopia was on the verge of termination. “I’m going to marry Jacques. We’re moving to Ridgewood, New Jersey to live with him,” my mother tells me. I receive the handoff and fumble.

2nd and ten: The challenge of adapting to Ridgewood is the next play, and it’s a long one. Ridgewood was different from Baldwin in many ways. Baldwin was ethnically diverse, while I was one of the few African-Americans in Ridgewood. Ridgewood kids listened to different music and communicated through iChat. Sports became my social savior.

3rd and two: By 15, I’m comfortable in Ridgewood. I’m a respected athlete and don’t feel racially isolated. My mom pushes me out of my comfort zone again, forcing me to apply to the Leadership Education and Development program. I caught the ball at the University of Maryland in College Park, the site of the program. LEAD was my 761 Vertical. My quarterback hit me in stride, and so did LEAD.
Our big project was creating social media strategies to attract more Generation Y customers to Marriott hotels. We spent long nights working on our presentation skills to get ready for the judges, who were actual Marriott employees. In the meantime, I took classes on marketing, supply chain management, and finance.

3rd week, Presentation day: This was the big competition that we all had come to win. I presented the competitors’ social media strategies and our main idea to enhance their app for smartphone users. I nailed it. I learned a ton about business. A good start to the drive.

1st and 10, Ball on 35-yard line: I applied for another LEAD Program, but this was in Cape Town, South Africa. My group’s assignment was to present a sales pitch to sell solar water heaters in impoverished villages. We met the entrepreneur who created these water heaters and traveled to a village where they had become an absolute necessity. This was a sad place. I witnessed two little boys playing with a handgun, running around pretending to shoot each other. When we gave our presentation days later, our professor complimented my animated sales tactics. The risk I took in making this second LEAD trip confirmed my desire to study business. My quarterback hits me for a gain of 12. We call a timeout. Our kicker comes onto the field.

He lines up. The ball is snapped. The ball goes up. I’m busy fixing my helmet and can’t tell if it went through or not. All I know is that it’s halftime. Time for us to make adjustments, just like I will in college.

Bryce Joyner is a freshman at Tufts and a graduate of Ridgewood High School.

The Life of a Commute

The Life of a Commute

by Jourdan Espeut

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When I bound out of my house to begin my 75 minute commute every morning, the neighborhood is dreary and empty. I find comfort on my tree-shaded block of well-kept row houses. Since birth, I have lived in the house Mom has called home since she arrived in Brooklyn from Panama 45 years ago.

I try to picture Mom’s stories of the good old days in East New York, as I leave my block and pass the massive housing projects in front of the bus stop. I never bother looking at the schedule. The bus comes as it pleases so I leave extra early. I crave iced coffee, but can’t find a good cup until later.

It is a speedy ride to New Lots Avenue where I catch the 3 train.

“Hey girl, whatcha readin’?” says today’s suitor, as I bury my nose in The Invisible Man.  

Like, do you even care what I’m reading? “Not interested,” I respond.

I should actually thank those guys that hound me every morning. They give me great practice in maintaining composure in challenging environments. Take the basketball games when I am greeted by snarky comments from rival cheerleaders: “Your uniforms suck.”

I ignore them just as I dismiss those baffled by my cheerleading. My friends at the Writing Center, where I was selected to serve as a tutor, argue that cheerleading is “superficial.”  I disagree and keep cheering.

A screeching halt brings me back to reality.  After a handful of stops on the 3 train, I’m onto the 4 train at Utica Avenue. The doors open with a loud bing. I’m instantly shoved in all directions. Finding a seat is like animal feeding time. Standing or sitting, I read or daydream.

I remember when Mom used to ride with me to The Little Red Schoolhouse, as my train stops in Lower Manhattan. I was one of three African American students in my grade. In those innocent days, I never felt different. I left Little Red for public middle school, where most of my classmates were black and Latino.  Many of them hated me. There was the girl who wrote “Oreo” in sharpie on my locker. I drove myself to get strong scores so I could attend a high school with students that would not equate good grades with whiteness. My hard work paid off with admission to my first choice: Eleanor Roosevelt (ELRO).

My commute now extends to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Knowing it is almost over once I reach 42nd street, I dart across the platform and squeeze myself into any space that’s left on the 6 train.

I was excited about high school.  Finally, people who won’t judge me for loving academics. Yet I went from being “too white”  in middle school to, ironically, “too black”  for many at ELRO. I endured every stereotypical black joke in the book: “If you had a superpower it’d be flying through the air with a noose around your neck.”

However, I stopped listening, dismissing those comments as if they came from a morning suitor. I made a diverse set of friends and jumped into writing, student government and, yes, cheerleading.

My daydream ends.  I finally get out at 77th street and it’s a breath of fresh air.  Trendy boutiques and Starbucks stand on every corner. I happily order my regular iced coffee and talk to the staff. Suddenly, I’m not traveling alone; I’m flanked by friends on each arm, and I feel confident.

Both ends of my commute produce my sense of security.  When I arrive on my block after the ride home, I see Miss Peggy, a neighbor I have known forever who loves to share books with me. Her greetings are always a reminder that where I come from is not at all negative; it has helped shape me into the resilient, driven individual I am today.

Jourdan Espeut, a graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School, is a freshman at The New School.

The Character of My Boat

The Character of My Boat

by Jack Bushell

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Boats are like movie cameras and can grow into films or stories themselves. When you think a boat’s life is over–dead, think again; its ending grows into a new beginning. Boats can have many lives, as long as their captain has a dream and a good work ethic.

A couple of years ago, I purchased my first boat ever. My mom thought it would never see the life of water again, and was fit for a dumpster. Yet I am a dreamer and a filmmaker who saw another story resting in the old wood.  At first glance on Craigslist,  I dreamed beyond two quarter-sized holes, rusty brown metal bolts and peeling dusty chips of paint. I called the owner and bargained him down from 275 to 100.  In one day, I turned it into my dream with a freshly coated white outside and a clean black line that outlined the sides of the boat like a ribbon. The inside was sky blue, meshing perfectly with the outside.  I named it Reel Time.

I know dreams do not come true without hard work like sanding Reel Time for two hours. Once ridding her of the old dry paint, I added two coats of black paint on the bottom for protective coating. This completed a rebirth and created a new life for Reel Time.

Boats and fishing have been my passions since 5th grade. My love of film unfolded when I started my school’s television station last year.  Yet I can’t always divorce my attraction to film from the sea.  Last year, my English class read The Sound of Waves, which tells the story of a boy coming of age with the dream to captain his own fishing boat. As I read, my own dreams compelled me to bring the story to life in a film.

I visualized my camera following someone on a boat rocking up and down with a fishing pole.  I dreamed of shots of the harbor and the water reflecting in the sun. The next morning, I wrote the script after finishing my scrambled eggs. A few days later, my best friend, Zack, became an actor and the star of my film. Zack had never driven a boat, so I was driving and filming at the same time with the waves bouncing the boat up and down and the wind blowing the hat off my head. After two days of shooting and two nights of editing, The Sound of Waves came to life as a four-minute film.

While I love boats, I also tell stories through film beyond the water and live much of my life away from the sea. Yet fishing and boating influence my work ethic at school and as a three-sport athlete. Boating has nurtured my patience and persistence. While I don’t win Lacrosse games by holding a fishing rod, the lessons from the sea sail with me on the field, and set a model for the rule that hard work produces results.

Reel Time can also become a big story when she hits the water. Take Independence Day 2012. The story starts with a clear blue sky–ripe for fishing on Long Island Sound. I don’t have my camera, but I directed my own slideshow in my mind. As always the water and weather are major characters in the story. At one moment, I feel the sun’s heat. Five minutes later, the sky darkens. A new scene:  I dart towards Connecticut’s shores to avoid the storm. The waves were still crashing over the front of the boat and I was still getting sprayed with salt water. Within seconds, the water formed 2-foot waves, knocking our boat around. I paused to beat out the storm until it was safe to return to dock and end this story. Certainly Reel Time will help shape many more narratives in both my life and hers.

Jack Bushell, a freshman at Emerson College, is a 2014 graduate of Redwood High School.

 

Saving the Tempo

Saving the Tempo

by Kyndall Ashe

 

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“We’re leaving.”

“Leaving?”

“Leaving.”

His voice struck me like a bullet through a wall of glass, shattering the peace I felt in the beginning of my junior year.  George was the musical arranger and de-facto leader of Tempo Tantrum, the student-led a cappella group to which we both belonged.  Now he was taking two of our strongest members away to start another group. These three were the “glue” of the group. Without them, everyone expected Tempo to collapse. But I would not let this happen on my watch.

I was determined to save Tempo, fighting what seemed to be the inevitable end of our group. My attitude in this situation mirrored my determination to take the most demanding courses available at my school in lieu of taking the easy route through high school. My love for math and Latin kept me on the advanced academic track in school. Now my passion for music drove me to take a leadership role in keeping Tempo alive.

I trace this passion to moment in fifth grade when I nervously stepped up to the microphone at my school’s weekly Chapel service to sing the Star Spangled Banner. The rush I felt mid-verse was a incomparable feeling. In that magical moment, I felt confident yet serene, powerful and at peace, and I knew music would mean the world to me forever.

However, I needed more than my passion for music to save my group, so I drew on my leadership skills and thought outside of the box. The group would be losing members, so I decided to consider the potential of freshmen–a group of students traditionally excluded from Sidwell’s a cappella groups– in the audition process, which I organized. Initially no one thought Tempo could compete in the world of a cappella at Sidwell with a large number freshmen members. However these words of discouragement sounded shockingly familiar. When I was new to the school as a 9th grader, I decided to run for Student Government representative despite being told that my class–comprised of mostly returning students–had a deeply rooted dynamic that would prove to be difficult to decipher in one year. I defied the advice, delivering a speech before all of my new classmates about the power a fresh voice and a new perspective could have when it came to representing the class. Winning that election was an extremely eye-opening moment.

This experience showed me that even unseasoned freshmen could be assets to keeping Tempo alive. When our three most important members left, we also lost several of our remaining junior members. The most talented upperclassmen were already taken by other groups, and we didn’t have an arranger. So I quickly organized auditions open to freshmen, discovering great untapped talent, and took on the role of arranger.

I arranged the music for our first concert, but the performance was not indicative of  the potential I saw in our group. As the year continued the group improved, and though we struggled at times to keep the rowdy freshmen focused at rehearsals, it was certainly a learning experience for my co-head and me, and in the end our group was able to survive.

Now, in my senior year, not only does Tempo survive, but it also thrives. For our first concert of the year I discovered an arrangement by Pentatonix, a group whose sound Tempo has always desired to model. Using an already-made arrangement made it so that I was able to teach my fellow members their parts in a much more timely manner, and I was able to devote more of my time to directing. Our performances are now revered for recreating the sounds of popular music with just the voices of twelve high schoolers. After our Winter concert this year, I was actually approached by George with words of praise. I even detected a hint of regret in his voice.

Tempo is now considered one of the top performing groups in our school and region. Tempo’s survival and success came from the same tenacity and self-determination that have defined me throughout my school career. I drew on my identity as a leader unafraid of a challenge, and followed my passion to truly make a difference in my school community. I certainly plan to do it again!

 

Kyndall Ashe, a freshman at Amherst is a graduate of the Sidwell Friends School.

 

Saving a Piece of a Family Portrait

Saving a Piece of a Family Portrait

By Alyssa Morgan

1452520_10201917096982408_1181538280_nIt’s raining when I go into the subway station, but snowing when I exit. When I see the flakes I immediately reach for my camera, snapping as many pictures as I can. The flurries make the air smell crisp and my breathing loud, since the snow quiets the noisy streets in New York. I shoot it all–pictures of the snow falling through the air. The snow on my jacket. The snow on cars. The snow up against tires. I’m documenting it for my younger brothers because they live in Florida and have never experienced snow.

My brothers, Justin, 11, and Joaquin, 6, live with my mother in Fort Lauderdale year-round. I spend the school year with my father and stepmother in Brooklyn, and summers with my brothers and biological mother. My biological parents do not speak to one another. Their distance and divide inspires me to work tirelessly to protect my strong bond with my brothers.

My devotion to my brothers can create challenges. I fear heights, but climbed an ancient tall wooden tower at our favorite beach two summers ago because I wanted to protect my brothers. From a distance the tower seems to stand still but up close it sways the tiniest bit on wooden legs that have weathered many hurricanes. My brothers were excited to be up high in the tower since most buildings in Florida are very close to the ground. They insist I go up with them. I feel I must since the tower is dangerous.

They race up the steps, but I tell them to go slowly with me. The first step isn’t so bad, the ground is right there, I’m safe. The next few steps have me gripping the railing as the ground falls away and the breeze picks up. I’m terrified once I feel the tower moving and I want to go back down, but I don’t want my brothers to get scared because I am. They urge me to hurry up because they want to see the view at the top. I try to go a little faster but the ground is infinitely far away and I’m terrified. The tower sways sharply and my stomach drops.

I finally reach the top and the view is breathtaking, but I’m too scared to breathe. I can feel the vibrations of my brothers running around looking from all sides. The beauty makes me thankful that my brothers inspired me to conquer my fear.

“It’s time to go back down,” I tell them.

With every step down I feel more relaxed. When we are back on the ground, all my worries have disappeared.

My brothers are motivators even when they are not around. I am always carrying that camera to document memories I want to share with them. However, there was one story I couldn’t tell until I figured out the ending. In my sophomore year, I failed my first math test ever. I was devastated. I threw myself into trigonometry to set an example for my brothers. One day I could tell them how I fell off the tower in math, but climbed back to the top.

I don’t like the divide between my biological parents, but I love what the discord has inadvertently given me–my strong commitment to my relationship with my brothers. My brothers have helped develop my sense of responsibility in many ways. For example, my grades were back up in Precalculus junior year and one project required planning lives as young adults. We had to get jobs, pay taxes and bills, including student loans for college. I found a high-paying job, but my bills were high, so I decided to live in a studio to have a little extra money. My teacher loved my project. It was the most organized and responsible he’d seen: “You considered every detail.”

That’s what a big sister does, I thought.

Alyssa is a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and began her freshman year at Cornell last week.

Seeing the Game of Life Differently

Seeing the Game of Life Differently

by Blair Weintraub

unnamedAs much as I remember my first seizure, my last one was even more memorable. I was 12 and it was one of the first times my parents trusted my sister and me to be left home alone. I was curled up in my bed watching a movie when I felt the familiar tingling of my body and numbness of my tongue, and I immediately recognized what was about to happen. I tried to grab my phone, but it was too late––the numbness enveloped my body and the twitching took over. Like always, my brain was fully conscious, but lacked control.

Focus on getting help, I kept telling myself, as I spent all my energy on unsuccessfully attempting to roll off the bed to attract my sister’s attention. Breathing was harder than usual. The severity of the attack was worse than ever. My doctors had promised I was seizure-free, yet I was feeling the same fear and hopelessness I remembered too well. It felt hours had passed until my sister finally rushed to my side. She stared at me with a look of fear and confusion then grabbed my phone and called our parents, who instructed her to put a cold washcloth on my forehead and to not leave my side until they got home. She held me and whispered into my ear, telling me to focus on breathing and that everything would be okay.

I had my first seizure when I was five. Doctors eventually prescribed strong medications that made me tired and dizzy. I could only play sports leisurely. My dreams of following in my mother’s footsteps as a squash junior champion were shattered because I would be unable to train. Reading and photography became my new outlets. I sat behind my camera as I photographed the sport games I so eagerly wanted to play. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone I had epilepsy because I thought it would make me different and, at that point, different was bad.

Ironically, epilepsy helped me to appreciate my life. I had to spend many nights in hospitals with kids much sicker than I was. These kids couldn’t go to school or socialize outside the hospital. We spent most of our time playing the board game Life. Unlike the game’s characters, many wouldn’t graduate college, marry or have kids. They lived through that board game. I once shared a hospital room with Eric, a boy my age who was near death. He would do nothing but stare at the TV all day, and sometimes cry.  He would never leave his bed, which made me see the frivolity of my complaints about lack of competitive sports or late bedtimes.

I have come a long way since my last epileptic attack.  When I was 15, I was officially declared healthy and was taken off all medications. I could finally play sports competitively. Now, I see the board game Life as a constant reminder to appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to actually live.

To make up for all the school I missed battling epilepsy, and to compete against the kids who have been playing squash since they could walk, I often had to study and train twice as hard. It might be too late to have a top ten ranking, but this hasn’t discouraged me from being the best player possible. Having to face seizures and their implications as a child has made me stronger, giving me the fierceness to fight for what I want and the determination to overcome obstacles. I’m no longer embarrassed to tell people I had epilepsy. I no longer see being different as a bad thing. Whenever I feel disheartened after losing a big match or getting a bad grade, I remember the tingling feeling in my tongue, the lack of control over my body, and think about how far I’ve come since then.
Blair Weintraub, a 2014 graduate of the Brentwood College School in Vancouver, will be a freshman at Bates College in the fall.

The Courtroom Comeback

The Courtroom Comeback

by Calvin Thompson

10525096_10152156810062413_940766063_nI had always been at home with a podium in my hands, the crowd hanging on my every word. I never feared speaking in front of people until one sobering moment last year. I waltzed into Newton North High School one winter day to deliver the opening statement against my rival high school’s mock trial team, and I choked. The sweat started to collect above my lips; I could almost taste fear. My face was glazed in a salt water sheen. For the life of me, I could not utter one sentence, except  “I’m sorry…I, I can’t do this…I, I uh, need to go.”  Not the best start for my first mock trial season.

My confidence hung around my ankles as I waddled out of the room. For two weeks, I questioned my answers on tests and I missed tackles in football. Even more difficult was facing my mock trial teammates. Failure was nothing new to me on the football field, but it confounded me in the courtroom because performance took on an entirely different form there. In football there is always another teammate on the field. Yet, I had to be almost entirely self-reliant in mock trial, which introduced the concept of team in a new and disorienting way.

In the past, no matter the context, a voice was never something I lacked. At eleven, I started my own Betty Crocker empire; baking then biking around the neighborhood using the gift of gab to sell my creations. Then in 8th grade, my history class faced a crisis: students completed less than 50% of the homework. At wits’ end, our teacher demanded to know why. I stood up and told her we felt disrespected. I suggested she encourage, not berate us. Immediately, she changed her teaching style. At graduation, she awarded me an Obama bobblehead as the “student most likely to occupy the White House.”

I was confounded and frustrated and it took two weeks for the sense of failure to begin to fade; only a conversation with my grandmother and the prospect of our next match roused me from my stupor. Grams reminded me that life is, in itself, a hail mary, and that feeling bad for myself and neglecting preparation would not help me score. She lost her house to a flood in 2002, and without hesitation my parents offered her a spot in our home. As a 6 year old, I could not possibly imagine what that would mean for my life, but as a 17 year old, I am beginning to understand. Inspired by her, I relentlessly prepared for my next trial. I incessantly read the witness affidavits about the murder case we were to try, and convened with my teammates to go over the most crucial information. After hours and hours of practicing and reviewing the case, I was ready to rectify my failure. Weeks after my collapse at the podium, I stepped backed into the courtroom prepared, though not overconfident as I had been before.

When called to open our case, I rose, and began to speak, knowing every contour of my address and our team’s case like the back of my hand. The words slid off my tongue effortlessly. I saw my coach in the back of the room pumping his fist in the air–a courtroom touchdown dance. I received the highest individual score of anyone in the whole match. Our team received the highest pointage in school history for a mock trial match.

My failure exposed weaknesses and my success demonstrated the necessity of preparation. I am grateful that Grams was there to witness them both. She passed on July 16, 2013, and while I wish I could ask her a million questions all over again, I will settle for the knowledge she bestowed unto me: rehearse tirelessly and adjust, since failure can strike the unprepared regardless of a strong past.

Calvin Thompson, a 2014 graduate of Brookline High School, will be a freshman at Duke in the fall.

Fights and Lessons

By Ian Batts

Two friends became enemies. Eric claimed I fouled him in a basketball game during recess. He pushed me. I pushed back. Blows followed. Everyone gathered for the first of three major experiences that taught me what is worthy of a fight.

“Mr. Phillips is coming,” yelled Derrick.

That fight ended.

We returned to our Sixth grade classroom. The teacher left the room for a minute. Eric, humiliated by the laughter of others, demonstrated the foul in front of everyone and accidentally ripped my shirt open from the breast pocket. In this competition, the victor was the one who arose least embarrassed, so nothing good would come of it. The fight resumed.

Mr. Phillips returned and saw this misguided battle for respect and ordered us to leave with him. I felt, perhaps, as empty as the very idea of competition for the purpose of diminishing others. Outside, Mr Phillips laughed and shared stories of fights with his brothers that are  “jokes of his past” today.

Months later, I saw wisdom in Mr. Phillip’s words when Eric and I were friends again and paired on a team in a math contest against the two top math students in the grade.  In preparation, Eric and I huddled most afternoons over math problems discovering trick questions to come in a contest based on knowledge, not grades. In an upset, we won and the true victory was a new understanding of competition worthy of a fight.  However, the primary memory is learning together–“learning” being the operative word. I look back on learning with my friend as a lesson demonstrating that an “A” may not necessarily mean that I had absorbed concepts any better than if I had received another grade.  After all, we defeated A+ students in math. No victory is as meaningful as learning itself.

Years later, the lesson followed me to U.S. History. Initially I was quiet in this class, as I was always more interested in ancient eras in other parts of the world. The teacher pried open my mouth, stressing debate and discussion.  Five minutes into one class he asked me with a grin, “What was the role of the Republicans during the Gilded Age?”  My answer failed to stand his scrutiny. After a few classes of  “being grilled,” I went to his office after school to re-examine our debate. I was half-expecting a huge debate. Armed with new knowledge, I hoped for my first win. I knocked on his door and heard a welcoming shout of “Batts!” We laughed and debated far beyond class discussions and I learned.

Afterwards, I read everything to prepare for a class trial prosecuting Andrew Carnegie for “immorality and dishonesty.” I would be fighting in the classroom again–only this was a meaningful fight for truth. I represented the plaintiffs of the Homestead Steel Works. I  changed how I competed; I had matured enough to see my  purpose was to show truth rather than defeat my opponent.

As juniors, students are geared to focus on grades to suit college-friendly transcripts. History rescued me from that regimen with the wisdom that learning has multiple paths, including competition. I then added U.S. History to my passion list and found a class to be a model of a real education: a challenge and a dialogue that changes a student’s thinking and behavior.

Ian Batts will be a freshman at Harvard University in the fall, following his gap year.

A Source of Sensitivity

by Nicole Hamilton

The three of us were friends and known athletes on campus. We were talking as we stretched for the first day of relay practice, when a stranger stepped forward to join us. Her name was Taylor. I instantly saw that this freshman was intimidated. Coach asked us to go on a quick warm-up lap and my two friends continued to joke about our coach’s nerdy, velcro sneakers, as if Taylor was invisible. The girl did not even a crack a smile.  So I slowed down a little to jog next to Taylor and quietly asked, “Do you think the coach needs to get rid of his sneakers?”

And just like that, she started to laugh.

I owe that moment to Gary. He is my big brother-three years my senior and nine inches taller. Yet, in many ways I am his older sister, which makes me dread driving him to our local Best Buy. Today he is buying a new copy of Madden. Gary politely asks the cashier how his day is going and waits for him to reply. The cashier barely acknowledges the courtesy and only says, “$21.98.” I nonchalantly glance behind us and to my embarrassment, a line forms. The cashier and the people in line impatiently stare at my brother as he slowly pulls the money out of his wallet and lays the bills on the counter. When he double checks his counting, I hear audible sighs of exasperation from the woman next in line and the man next to her.

I really want to walk away from the register and pretend to admire the batteries hanging on the wall, while Gary finishes his business. He is oblivious to the impatience of people behind us and the annoyance in the cashier’s eyes. I always stay close by to make sure that he does not get cheated or answer any questions that the cashier might have. I also do not want to embarrass him by taking over his wallet. After the ordeal of handing over the last dollar, the cashier says that Gary needs another dollar. The woman once again loudly groans. I shoot her a death stare and open up my wallet, then hand the cashier a single.

Gary can’t help it. My big brother is autistic.

Gary and I attended the same school, but lived in different worlds.  Gary was known for his athletic prowess, while I am known not just for my athletic talents, but for my dedication to my school work. My combination of strong student and athlete places me in a small category known as the smart jocks. As a member of this circle, I deal with both ends of the social spectrum. I spend a majority of my school day in classes with students who are academically the strongest in our school. After school, I am with my teammates at practices, tournaments, and smoothie shops. In each crowd, I hear an arrogance that I never embrace. This makes me the one to raise an eyebrow or scold a friend who easily uses words like “stupid”  or “retard.”  As Gary’s sister, I know his pain when someone directs one of these demeaning terms his way.

Having an autistic brother has also turned me into a great listener. This skill enables me to be a strong peer mentor. After 7 years of training, I have finally attained the title of senior trainer for my school’s peer mentoring program, Natural Helpers. Students open up to me, even if I do not know them that well. All it takes is a quiet hallway and the welcome relief of a listening ear.

Gary’s autism has helped build my own inner strength. I’ve had to overcome my own embarrassment and insecurities, just like in Best Buy, in order to help him. It has also taught me to see people beyond first impressions and reputations. The gift of sensitivity has allowed me to help others by offering them support and empathy. In turn, I have learned so much about my friends, family, and often complete strangers. And I have Gary to thank for that.

Nicole Hamilton is a freshman at Georgetown and a 2013 graduate of Elwood-John H. Glenn High School.