Posts Tagged ‘Family’

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The Barrel and the Bubble

The Barrel and the Bubble

by Jana Wilson

janawilsonIt all started in a barrel. I know that may sound a bit odd, but hear me out.

I am trapped in a bubble of people who disrespect service workers and the only thing I can do is smile in order to keep my job. Forming a smile was never work for me, until I landed a job as a hostess at an upscale steakhouse. When I arrive at work on Sundays and Mondays at 4 pm, I am alone. My face can relax as I check voicemail and confirm reservations. By 5 pm, customers arrive and I turn on the “steakhouse smile.”

I have actually mastered (and sometimes enjoy) the challenge of playing charades, but backwards. The customers cannot read my true emotions and certainly do not know about the barrel. It is one source of my strength to get through a night of smiling through rudeness and indifference.

When I was 14, my grandfather shared the story of the barrel. Affectionately known as “Gramps,” he is 96 years old and my oldest living relative. When he was five, Gramps lost both his parents, forcing him to live an impoverished life in Grenada and be independent. At 12, he stowed away in a barrel aboard a ship destined for Trinidad. Homeless and alone, Gramps sought opportunities for a more prosperous life. After decades of hard work, he met and married my grandmother, moved to New York and raised successful children. If Gramps could create a better life after leaving his homeland in a barrel, I could handle smiling in a restaurant twice a week.

“Hi, how are you? Do you have a reservation?”

“No, but we want a table anyway,” a man demands. His wife looks past me, spying for empty tables.

“Let me see what we have,” I say looking up the reservations for the evening. “I have a table.“

The man frowns and the woman barely acknowledges me. My smile continues.
I grab two menus and seat them. I feel like a robot sometimes, performing the same repetitive action with the same smile and “click-clack” noise of my heels on the floor as I walk.

The barrel and bubble influenced my participation in the LEAD Summer Business program at the University of Maryland last summer. Our team of three students developed a product to be presented to professors and business leaders. We designed an app to make shopping and meal planning easier and less expensive by providing real time access to coupons on smart phones.

During weeks of preparation, I brought the tenacity of the barrel and the discipline of the smile to the table. I calmly motivated my team to focus on the big picture to stop them from arguing over small details.

On presentation day, while awaiting my cue to enter the classroom, I am a little terrified. The assembled group politely applauds as we stride into the room. My role is to deliver a thorough presentation about our target market, competition, and advertising strategies. I conquer my fear by thinking of my grandfather stowing away in a barrel and, of course, I smile.
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Gramps’ life has taught me not to live my life hiding inside of the proverbial barrel. I can accept that failure is a possibility, but it will not prevent me from escaping the barrel and pushing forward. Fear is simply an emotion that induces a lack of confidence. It is only an idea, not a tangible thing that can stand in your way. Therefore, why let it take over?

The courage and strength that Gramps possessed to climb into the barrel and then “break out” are alive in me. Any time I am faced with an obstacle, I try to remember my fearless grandfather stowing away in the barrel and know that success is possible. His story represents hope and helps define who I am today.

Jana Wilson, a freshman at the University of Michigan, is a graduate of Morristown High School.

Lessons from Both Sides of the Family

Lessons from Both Sides of the Family

by Bijan Saboori

bijan_cameraThe plane lands at a small airport surrounded by dead yellow grass. Endless old beaten-down cars and trucks speed down the highway. I am in Istanbul. I have traveled halfway across the world for a family reunion on the Iranian side of my family. However, it is the lessons from the African-American side of my family that inspired me to embark on this adventure.

Rewind eight years. I hit the ramp hard. My bike follows, tumbling on top of me. I get up and immediately hear the laughs; they sting more than the aching in my shoulder. Everybody in the skate park saw me. I could not escape the jarring commentary on my fall.

“He can’t ride at all.”

“What a wannabe.”

“Dude, this kid blows.”

I was only nine and I loved BMX, but was just learning. A few months later at our family reunion for the other side of my family–the African American side–in Las Vegas, I told my cousin Harry that I was frustrated with the taunts and wanted to quit BMX. Harry interrupted me, “Son, I don’t see any reason for you to quit doing something you enjoy. Bijan, just because you fall down a few times and embarrass yourself doesn’t mean you just give up. That’s life…You should never give up on something you love.”

I did not quit. In fact, I practiced more. My own sense of adventure matured as I learned more about my much older cousin. I once saw him hop in and out of the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang like a kid on a jungle gym. He was 90 and could still pull it off. Harry started to tear up sitting in the cockpit, remembering how he and three other Tuskegee Airmen had won the USAF’s first Weapons Meet of 1949 to determine the title of Top Gun. However, they were barred from receiving recognition because they were black. The Air Force officially recognized their victory 46 years later.

I was glad I followed his advice when I entered my first BMX competition at age 12. I started my run down the ramp with my first trick in mind, jumping with an X-up. I hit the ramp and while in the air I crossed my arms in the form of an “x” so that the handlebars would turn 180 degrees. I quickly reversed the process before landing so I wouldn’t wipe out. After that first trick I felt more relaxed and performed simple tricks like 180s, fakies, bunny hops, manuals. I fell a few times, but nothing could replace the thrill, the rush and the challenge that I continue to experience in BMX.

I furthered my sense of adventure by taking up snowboarding the following winter as well as jumping into the world of theater, where I love working on the crew. I could not resist the adventure to travel halfway across the world to learn more about the other side of my family in Istanbul last summer. I rekindled connections with family members that I hadn’t seen in years. Since then, I have become very close to Sue, my younger cousin who lives in England. She has been coping with people’s negative reactions towards her bisexuality. We talk almost everyday on Facebook: “What they think doesn’t matter. Being yourself is a key ingredient to life. Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about who you really are and how you live your life.” The words I type on the screen to Sue echo the wisdom passed on from Cousin Harry.

Helping Sue come to terms with her identity has led to my interest in psychology. I now want to obtain the academic foundation that will allow me to help others overcome issues related to identity, depression and stress. Along the way, I can also inspire others to embrace adventures that can lead them to new passions.

Bijan Saboori, a graduate of Cleveland’s University School, is a freshman at American University.

 

An Influence that Lives Far Beyond Death

An Influence that Lives Far Beyond Death

by Sage Adams

sageadams

Dad reads the New York Times like Mom reads the Bible, carefully and with conviction. He starts relaying the matters of the world to me, never bothering to water down his language even though I am just ten years old. It is a part of his morning and becomes part of mine. I frown when reading about something called the recession. The writer of the article isn’t doing such a good job of being optimistic, something my parents always stress.

For years, Dad and I share a passion for politics, but sometimes differ on fashion. On a Thursday of my junior year, I wear shorts and a long t-shirt I tie-dyed myself. When I walk out the door that morning, he raises his eyebrows, mouth in a pinched line. After all, he works at Saks Fifth Avenue, dressing some of the men we see on CNN and MSNBC. I wave goodbye.

He must have forgiven me because we all sit down and watch an episode of Breaking Bad that night. Later, I wake up in my bed to Mom’s scream. I rush to the bathroom. Dad is on the floor and Mom weeps. 4am. I try giving him mouth to mouth to bring him back. It isn’t even hours, it’s minutes ticking by, and all I can hear is the blood rushing through my veins past my ears into my brain. All I can see is that the same couldn’t be said for my dad. I call the ambulance in a panic, for the first time ever sliding to the right of my iphone lock-screen where it reads emergency. I am not screaming but hysteria mounts and there is literally nothing I could do. Nothing we could do. This isn’t going to get better.

After his death, I struggled to find the optimism that my parents championed. I felt like my life became like that recession. I was GM yet no one could bail me out. I spent the rest of my junior year in reflection.

I remember in 2008, when my dad’s love of politics became something he only shared with me. Outside of the house he never voiced his political views. He would tell me about who came into the store that day, referencing articles we read, spinning stories about the policies they would be presenting whilst wearing the suit he picked out. My dad made politics fun for me, a father-daughter activity like riding a bike.

Dad was proud when I became president of the Black Girls Rock! book club three years ago. He read the books with the schedule I set for the girls. The club was reading Assata, a biography on the life of the infamous Assata Shakur. Dad joked that he found us eerily similar and that I should research vacation homes in Cuba. I rolled my eyes, telling him that she was stronger and smarter than I was. My dad didn’t often cut me off. But on that day, he shook his head. “Don’t say that.”

For months after his death, I dreamed of hearing that voice sitting on the couch, with the sound of The Office in the background, with him eating pasta next to me. I wanted to tell him how my Morality and Ideology class reshaped my views on capitalism. I wanted him to see me pursue my interest in urban agriculture and off on my trips to the farm. He would never see me grow. Despite the loss, I persevered, joining a group called Growing Youth Organizers. I decided to be the change we had so desperately wanted to see in the world. Sage Adams, President, Urban farmer, Activist. My dad was someone who listened. So to honor him now, I took his advice and assumed the strength of Assata Shakur. In doing so, I embraced the roots he planted. When my father died, an activist was born.

Sage Adams, a graduate of Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, is a freshman at Howard University.

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.

 

My Global Gateway: Food

My Global Gateway: Food

by Asha Hinson

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The aroma of sweet jerk chicken and oxtails consumes my nostrils, blocking any scents of urban pollution the second I exit the 2 train. I always feel at home in Flatbush during the afternoon rush hour. I immediately see signs advertising the best beef patty or roti in Brooklyn. People line up outside little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, waiting for their favorite Caribbean delicacies–even during the winter.

If Mom picks me up at the train, we join a line and I suddenly get a lesson in cuisines and cultures of places far beyond Brooklyn. Markets sell all kinds of meats and fish, which stir my curiosity. One day we stop at a restaurant without a name on the door but with a menu displayed on the wall.

“What are doubles?” I ask Mom.

“You have had doubles before; a sandwich with two deep-fried flat breads stuffed with a chickpea curry.”

I experience the diversity of my identity through food. I easily find my mom’s Grenadian-Bajan background in cuisines on Flatbush streets. On weekends, I explore my dad’s Southern roots. Grandmother Rita came to New York from Georgia sixty years ago. When I enter her Bronx apartment, I immediately face a plate of fried chicken and collard greens over lots of laughs at old pictures and stories of Daddy’s youth. On school days, I come from a comfortable bed in a Brooklyn brownstone to a Manhattan progressive school where food becomes part of our curriculum in studying the world. Last year, my friend, Mirwat, bought Kissan jam and shared stories from her native country, India. She described classes taking place on railroad platforms or in small cabins and students walking along a bamboo bridge to commute to school.

Food also helps me strengthen my bond with my summer brothers who live in Texas. As an only child, my four younger cousins–Quentin, Marley, Maxwell, and Cameron– fill my void of not having siblings. For as long as I can remember, I have spent a chunk of every summer with them in Dallas. Over barbeque, we experience the world of rodeos. I love taking them to aquariums, pools, and their favorite, amusement parks, in between feasting on Italian Ices.

My brothers teach me to treasure the differences in people the same way I appreciate varieties in food. Yet I also understand that some divides run too deep for a meal to bring the two sides to a toast. For example, rewind to an amusement park last summer: my six-year-old cousin, Marley, stares in awe at a monstrous structure before him. As usual, I try to imagine what is running through his mind. I see the fear in his face grow as he analyzes the bright blue slide, glistening in the scorching Texas sunlight. He is excited yet frightened.

A man tall enough to play Big Bird gives Marley terse instructions. “Lay down on your back, little boy, and cross both your arms and feet! Okay?”

Marley stares upward with wide eyes fixed on the impatient slide attendant.

“Hurry up, kid, we’ve got other kids waiting. Go down already!”

Food can not bridge this gap. I wish the giant slide attendant could read the articles I devour on Autismspeaks.org. If he understood Marley’s differences, maybe he wouldn’t be so impatient. Marley is on the autism spectrum and inspires my appetite to learn as much as I can about child psychology. I draw him close, bend down, and look in his eyes.

“Marley, don’t worry, there is nothing to be afraid of, I will go to the bottom and wait for you.”

Unfortunately, Marley chose to walk away from what could have been the ride of his life. If he faces the top of the slide next summer, I will try again to inspire him to try something new as easily as I sample a different kind of fish or meat in Flatbush.

Asha Hinson, a 2015 graduate of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School, will be a freshman at Smith College in the Fall.

Middle Child Girl Power

Middle Child Girl Power

by Amanda Schnell

amandaschnellI was exhausted, frustrated, but refused to release the smile on my face. For two hours, I repeated the words “circle”, “triangle” and “square” as I stood before a classroom in a small school in the Floating Villages of Cambodia. I was overly ambitious, thinking I could move onto colors after an hour. I soon decided that the lesson plans just weren’t going to work, and instead quickly improvised. In teaching body parts, I started the class with singing and dancing. It was a crowd-pleaser. At the beginning of the class, they could not pronounce the word “toe”, but by the end we had successfully taught them every single body part in the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” tune. I owe this moment of adaptability to the way I grew up.

I am the middle child–the only girl in the family sandwiched between two brothers who love to punch each other. Growing up, Justin and Casey sometimes excluded me, forming “boys only” clubs with private jokes. I’m not looking for pity; I had my diverse collection of stuffed animals and my diary to keep me company! Looking back, though, I see that this sibling dynamic has created a strong sense of individuality and self-sufficiency in me.

I even owe the diet I love to the independent streak I formed growing up. My brothers love steak and hamburgers, but in fifth grade I was moved to take on a new diet after reading Fast Food Nation. I will never forget the description of how each animal is killed at the McDonalds slaughterhouses. I have nothing against carnivores; in fact, all my friends are meat enthusiasts. But I was so moved by what I had read that at the age of nine, I stopped eating fast food and became the only vegetarian in the family.

Being the middle child has helped shape my life in so many other ways. My little brother Casey loves getting attention from Justin, so he rarely complains even when Justin contorts him into a multitude of painful looking positions. When Casey isn’t around, Justin likes wrestling with me. Learning to fight back thickened my skin, and ultimately made me even more adaptable.

When I met my Cambodian family last summer, we naturally bonded despite the language barrier. We exchanged warm smiles and found ways to express ourselves beyond our native dialects. Every morning I would walk out of my homestay house and watch neighbors washing their clothes and bodies in the river, which was filled with trash and human waste. After hours of teaching, I looked forward to my bucket shower. The water was always cold–which was perfect after a long day in the hot and humid Floating Villages. On our trip I would continuously say “It’s not weird or gross, it’s just different,” to other students in the program who complained. I lived comfortably by these words.

I particularly enjoyed the commute to the Floating School because it was nearly an obstacle course. A boat outside the house carried us to another floating house. We then balanced from the house to canoes, which finally took us to the school. One morning I could not stop thinking about the farm animals I saw on this journey. The students grew up around chickens and cows. Why not focus a few classes on animals while teaching English? We did so and the students mastered the topic with ease.

I loved my experience in Cambodia, but was happy to return home and see Justin and Casey, my occasional adversaries and my constant motivators. Now that we are older, our relationship is changing. Justin is no longer living at home–which has strangely prompted a closer (and less violent) relationship with both of my brothers. Yet, there are still times they throw me into the couch or try to twist my arms into unimaginable positions. Of course, I fight back without hesitation!

Amanda Schnell, a 2015 graduate of Riverdale Country School, will be a freshman at the University of Michigan in the fall.

A Brother to All

A Brother to All

by Brandon Medina

brandonmedina“Would you like to hold your sister?”

Mom’s question frightened me more than the zombies in that haunted house last October. I was a six-year-old without experience holding a precious, delicate and fragile life.  I wondered: “She is so small. She is related to me?” Gabrielle. All of a sudden, I loved the name I once hated. All the ill-feeling from arguments with Mom about the baby’s name were instantly exiled. I joined the family circle of lovestruck faces. It was my awakening to responsibility and trust. After some coercion, I surrendered to the urge. I picked Gabby up. She immediately started to cry.

Since that day, my role in the family has always been clear. I was big brother to three boisterous little sisters. Instead of competing with their constant chatter, I became reserved. I was full of many ideas, but just couldn’t get any airtime. I became more comfortable as a speaker in the classroom with students I had known since kindergarten. At school, I was at home as my favorite subjects, Latin and Classics, became passions.

My comfort at school unravelled when I came to the Lawrenceville School in Ninth Grade. The new environment felt as unfamiliar as that moment with Gabby.I saw many of my peers finding their own places in football, academic clubs, and the arts. They all seemed content, and I made it my mission to find my own comfortable niche at Lawrenceville as I had at my previous school.

As a sophomore, I joined Cleve House, one of six communities for male students. Since most of my fellow Clevies were athletes, I thought the best way to fit in was to squeeze into their world, so I shocked everyone by signing up for House Football. The sweltering September days felt even hotter under the shoulder-pads and helmet that weighed down my body, despite only playing as a five-second substitute all season. Clearly, I was not cut out for football but, to my surprise, my House brothers cheered me anyway. I didn’t learn how to tackle, but I did learn how to support my House.

Still, I wanted to share what I really loved with others. By junior year, I started expressing my deep interests in acting to any Cleavies willing to listen. Surprisingly, they reacted to my tales of the grand set, striking costumes, and melodious musical with warmth and interest. They came to see me perform in Oklahoma! and in small one-act plays. In return, I watched sports with my new brothers and supported them at their games. The more of me that I shared, the more comfortable I became. My crowning moment came at the end of sophomore year, when I was elected “Cleve House Fact Man:” the comical emcee of Thursday lunches.

While acting, my characters became my messengers. From a cowboy in Oklahoma to an old gardner in The Secret Garden, I expressed different parts of myself. With this comfort, I also began finding ways to share my love for Latin and Classics. When I realized that they were not widely taught in other elementary and middle schools, I raised hundreds of dollars for a Latin program to teach to Trenton middle schoolers.  Eventually, I taught my curriculum to the students.

I learned to accept others for who they are just as my housemates learned the same lesson. This realization that I could be as different as I wanted led me to other pursuits, like writing.  The standard for “good writing” at The Lawrence are high and I was a latecomer as a junior when most writers started as freshman. Yet somehow I became the most prolific staff writer of the Opinions section.

As a brother to strangers with different interests, I drew on my experiences with sisters. After all, Jillian was the athlete, Sydney was the artist, and Gabrielle was the dancer. Eventually I became myself at home and at Lawrenceville–writer, actor, brother and friend.

Brandon Medina graduated from the Lawrenceville School last week. He will be a freshman at Amherst in the fall.

The Giant Deception of a First Impression

The Giant Deception of a First Impression

by Brandon Scotland

brandon2I sat there silently, swinging my legs, watching them bounce back and forth off of the couch. I was only 5 and my lack of words and eye contact produced an eerie awkwardness as I met my first babysitter. I shocked my dad with a question: “Daddy, is she a monster?”

A monster is defined as a creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening. A five-year old doesn’t need a dictionary to know that meaning. But what must one do to be seen as a monster? Spur genocide? Ruin a life or two, perhaps?

My Mrs. Bessie did none of that. She was around 70 years old that day when I first met her. She was about 5’4″, caramel complexion, long black hair, but had only one finger on her right hand—the middle finger.

I regret those first impressions and the first moments of embarrassment when she picked up from my private school. It took only a week for her to become my best friend. She was also a loyal advocate, and a large foundation of my morality. I recall being upset one day because I knew I couldn’t finish reading a science book I enjoyed by its due date; Mrs. Bessie used the one finger she had on her right hand and re-wrote the book with pictures while I was gone that afternoon.

After four years of steady babysitting, she developed a minor, but persistent cough. My mother suggested that she see a doctor but she always politely declined with the same rationale. “If I go to the doctor, who is going to take care of Brandon?” Ironically, I would soon feel like the monster when my mother shared the news. 
“Brandon, I want you to know that Mrs. Bessie has lung cancer and she may be fine, but she might not be as well.“

I watched my life disintegrate in front of my eyes. Dumbfounded, I sat there and reminisced on past memories and the peculiar cough she wouldn’t get checked out specifically because of me. I prayed for her to be healthy again. For the first time in my privileged world of caring people, tragedy ensued and I experienced my first taste of the real world. She was hospitalized and wouldn’t eat any food at all unless I fed it to her. I came to the hospital to feed her everyday. It was hard seeing her weak while living by her motto, “don’t worry, be happy.”

My final moments with her were powerful and indomitable. I felt all the strength of her character flowing through me as I was called up to the podium to deliver my words at her funeral. At 10 years old, I read my poem titled “don’t worry, be happy” to a crowd of hundreds at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

She died nine years ago yet her influence is still alive. Her tenacity was my model when I started a clothing line two years ago. Her legacy accompanied me throughout the years I attended a summer enrichment program held by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Program. In the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I went to Lancaster, PA to take an accelerated Physics class through the program. In three weeks, we explored and completed the syllabus covered in the typical high school A.P. Physics class.

As my father drove close to the school on the first day of the program, I wondered if we were traveling in the right direction because of the barren surroundings. Yet I approached Lancaster like I approach all new experiences: with an open mind and the intent of meeting new people and learning something new. I owe that perspective to the influence of Mrs. Bessie.

As we arrived and began unpacking, I was stunned by the looks of some students. Had they ever seen anyone with dreadlocks before? Some had seen few African-Americans in their lifetime; others just marveled at the sneakers I was wearing. Either way, I was judged. It was awkward at first. But I maintained an open mind and would meet some of my closest friends to date. Many of these new friends shared their shock that I was such a nice and fun guy who did not view them as lame or limited because they were white with rural backgrounds.

Her legacy accompanied me to high school with one of my toughest decisions ever: to leave a private school in 11th grade for a public school. As the recession hit in 2008, my family decided the public school experience was a better option.  I remember walking into school on the first day, and being amazed at the diversity in the hallways. Initially hesitant to participate through pure shyness, I soon became more engaged than ever. I met people of all shapes, sizes, religions, and ethnicities and I wanted to meet them all; I even wanted to meet those labeled weird or odd simply because I saw their differences as distinctions and not as flaws. Leaving an overly nurturing environment was a challenge, but lessons from Mrs. Bessie gave me the ability to view the new world of public school with optimism. I expect to face many more transitions in life and, without a doubt, Mrs. Bessie will be with me through them all.

Brandon Scotland graduates from Penn State University tomorrow.

Like Uncle, Like Brother

Like Uncle, Like Brother

by AJ Zerka

zerkaAt six, Uncle Dan lost his left eye in a freak accident, which led to many surgeries. Doctors called him “Superman” because he never cried. I always felt strange calling him uncle because we’re only nine years apart. He is more like the brother I never had since I’m an only child. We have been inseparable since the time I was old enough to walk and talk. His courage in the face of challenge influences the way I handle adversity. Considering the story of my life, Dan has been, without a doubt, one of the greatest influences.

Our bonding time comes largely through travel. We both enjoy the adventure of new places, including Spain, Mexico, Florida, and California. In February, we were lost in Paris for our first trip alone. Neither of us speaks French. We were in a subway station trying to manage our way to the Eiffel Tower, and neither of us knew where to go. Finally after a joint effort, we found our way to the top of the Eiffel Tower. When we finally got to the top it was getting dark and we felt the February wind. We saw the city’s lights slowly twinkling on and laughed that a whole afternoon had gone by in our confusion.

For me, school has not produced the kind of challenges that Dan faced. His resolve inspires me; in particular, his ability to navigate school. School administrators and students treated him like an outsider because of his learning disabilities, while I am a guy that can get along with mostly anyone. He has been told “no” his whole life, whether it was school, driving, or work. Yet he has persevered. Dan has a license, and works 16 hours a day at the airport trying to realize his dream of becoming an airplane mechanic. His work ethic motivates me to push myself in school and at work. When homework assignments pile up and I feel like procrastinating, I think of him and keep going.

Dan, being very shy and quiet, doesn’t usually defend himself. This compels me to be more assertive. When we are together, I often have to step up and take a leadership role. A couple of years ago we were together in a clothing store. “Sir, can I help you find anything?” an employee asked Dan. My uncle wasn’t able to process the question quickly enough and the employee snickered at the long pause. I had to speak up. “Excuse me, what’s the problem? Not everyone has the same abilities as you. There is no need to laugh.” The clerk quickly apologized. Without expressing it, I knew Dan appreciated my actions.

My sensitivity to others has grown up alongside my relationship with Dan. Seeing the effects of bullying has made me more aware of my own actions and words. When I start to lose patience with someone, thoughts of my uncle often come to mind and I become more understanding.

I also witnessed my most terrifying moment in his presence. Recently, when sleeping over at my house, Dan had a seizure for the first time ever. I had never witnessed one before and was frightened. I could only imagine the worst. Considering the possibility of life without him was painful. As a lifeguard, I am certified in first aid but was too traumatized to act. Thankfully, the paramedics came and he survived. Although I was too numb to act in the moment, I have pledged to myself that I will be ready to act if anything like this happens to anyone around me in the future.

Through Dan, I have learned that compassion isn’t inherited, or taught at school, but rather something that is gained through experiences with people. My experiences with him have formed my appreciation of others and my ability to see the unique gifts of individuals.

AJ Zerka, a graduate of Ardsley High School, is a freshman at Fairfield University.

A Tale of Two Families

A Tale of Two Families

By Ryan Colella

2014-06-06-unnamedThe words “military” and “Indiana” scared me at first. I could not imagine myself in a state that felt foreign when my parents told me they were sending me, a lifelong New Yorker, to a military academy in Culver, Indiana. Eventually, the sweet words of a familiar, but foreign language, “Oofah! Cocoa Bella! Mangia!” would provide the foundation that helped turn Culver into a home.

I had heard those words every Sunday for as long as I can remember. The words signal a Sunday lunch at our grandparent’s home in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Relatives would come from all over the tri-state area to eat lunch with my grandparents. It never mattered how many people were at the table; everyone would be served and barely able to finish their meal. As soon as I arrived, I would poke my head through the door of the house, and my nose could immediately sense the pungent smell of mothballs. This rancid smell would startle most people, but to me, the odor triggered a smile and sniffs of comfort that were matched with the sounds of varied accents throughout Bensonhurst. First generation Italians were shouting in Barese, a southern Italian dialect, while the second generations were speaking in a loud, nasally Brooklyn accent. The third generations of relatives understood every word, but were only able to converse in English. Those family luncheons helped form my adaptability, which led to my inevitable acceptance of the new cultures at Culver.

My parents thought that a military school in the Midwest would broaden my perspective on life. I was alone and frightened when I arrived at Culver, enduring six weeks of new cadet training in the blistering summer heat of Indiana. However when the weather began to cool down, so did I, and my unit began to feel like my Tri-State Italian family. Yet the new family gave me something that I had never had before, brothers. I am an only child, so the idea of brotherhood seemed exotic. The memories that I had bonding with my Italian family resembled new moments with my Indiana family comprised of 17 new cadets. We not only ate every meal together, but also worked together by shining shoes and inspecting each other’s rooms to ensure that we would all be accepted into the unit.

My life had been significantly altered in a beneficial way. What I used to call soda was now considered “pop”, and what I used to refer to as cursing was now “cussing.” When I ate lunch with my grandparents every Sunday, I was exposed to only one culture. However, when I came to Culver, I ate dinner with people from Texas, Nigeria, Ohio, Indiana, Mexico, France, and Wisconsin, all at the same table. I still missed my Sunday lunches in Brooklyn, but I now realize that I discovered something just as significant in a new family that broadened my perception of the world.

As my Culver success progressed, I started to change major parts of my life. I used to be a diehard baseball fan, but I decided to put all of my focus onto one sport, which was football. Culver gave me the opportunity to be more independent, but my Italian family made me feel comfortable making this decision, which was so important and crucial to my progressing independence. The football team became another way that I built a community at Culver.

I still miss my Sunday lunches in Brooklyn, but I now realize that I discovered something just as significant in with my new family. Now, when my Brooklyn family members visit me in Culver, we always order a large pizza and feast in our hotel room together. It isn’t the same as the family meals that I cherished in Brooklyn. Yet it is a reminder of what Culver has taught me: family bonds come in many forms.

Ryan Colella is a graduate of the Culver Military Academy and will be attending Elon University in the fall.