The Promise of a Smile

                                      By Aaron Oliver  

I wear a big smile as captain of my basketball team, while my teammates sit on the bench with towels over their slumped heads, trying to erase this game from memory. We’re losing by 45 points in the fourth quarter. The stands are nearly empty. The only fans left are players’ families, who would have left if they weren’t chauffeuring. Yet I am fired up. 

I could be upset and embarrassed, but I see this loss as an opportunity for my less experienced teammates to get minutes. So, I am the only energy in the gym: “play defense with your feet and not with your hands!” I screamed. “Yea Harry!” I yell as he grabs the rebound and flies down the floor. I am on my feet until the final buzzer rings. I run off the bench and high five all the underclassmen. “Way to close the game out.” 

So what does this mean? I trace my sense of empathy and optimism at the game to a moment when I raised that very question years ago. 

“What does this mean?”

Mom takes the phone and begins reading the article on bitcoin that I was trying to understand. Seconds later she drops the phone. “Call 911, I’m having a stroke.” For a second I hesitate. I don’t want to accept the terror of the situation; I just want it to disappear. Yet hearing the fear in her voice forces me to grab the phone. 

Just minutes ago, I rolled out of bed and headed to Mom’s room to say good morning with an interesting article. Now I watch medics carry her out on a stretcher to an ambulance that speeds away. 

Mom spent three days in the hospital and is now in good health. However, at 13, this traumatic moment shattered my innocence and left behind an enduring lesson: pessimism only compounds difficulty. By confronting the fear surrounding life’s fragility, I honed the instinct to focus on what I can control. This fueled my talent for creative problem-solving: from finding beauty, opportunity and solutions in a big loss to finding the perfect job for my dog, Parker. 

During this period, Parker’s love and happiness greeted me everytime I walked into the house. I soon realized that his personality was not only a relief for me. As I tied up Parker before entering a bakery one night, kids on the street gathered around, petting and hugging him. Watching them, it hit me that Parker’s infectious friendliness could change lives at the hospital. I decided to volunteer for The Good Dog Foundation: a group whose mission is to use the joy of dogs to improve the moods and cognitive well being of patients suffering from diseases. 

On these visits, Parker’s ability to act as a beacon of joy was evident. After we got permission from the patients, we entered their rooms and the patients’ faces lit up. Whatever hope or positivity that had been lost from the trauma that they endured was restored. 

So I return to that question: What does this mean? It means that when I’m asked: “What’s it like to have divorced parents?” I easily answer that I have evolved to embrace the change in scenery and tradition, finding comfort in two households where I can develop differently. It also means that I have a response to the question: “What’s it like to frequently battle microaggressions in a predominantly white institution?” I answer: My search to understand my experiences has been a valuable education within itself, leading me to diversity conferences in search of the tools to engage issues facing students of color. 

So again, I search for meaning and reach a conclusion. My experiences have shaped my empathy, optimism, and belief that a smile can greatly influence my outlook as long as I don’t allow it to merely sit on my face.

Aaron Oliver, a 2021 graduate of Saint Anne’s School, will be a freshman at Stanford in the Fall. 

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