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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 Mile in Nana’s Shoes

A Mile in Nana’s Shoes

By Niles Ellis

10309198_10204289810262428_4090038177506235581_nI slide out of bed around 5:25 a.m., the sun still preparing for a long day in the sky. It’s pitch-black, except for the faint light at the end of the corridor, which leads upstairs to Nana’s house. This illumination is my sunrise every morning. As my foot touches the cold tiled floor, I arrive at my early morning sanctuary. I turn left into the kitchen and see the little old lady cooking breakfast: delicious grits, cheesy yellow eggs, crispy, tangy veggie patties.  This daily routine brings new conversations, new stories, and more lessons.

At 13, I bring her my latest complaint: mom babies me too much by driving me to school. Nana just nods. When I finished my ranting, my grandmother asks if I want to hear a story.

“When I was a little girl, even younger than you, I used to have these flatties. My two sisters and I all had the same size shoes.”

What do shoes have to do with this?

“In those flat shoes, the three of us walked the entire three and a half miles to and from school daily. In those days, Scotland County had no busing for black students. We lived across town from the black schools. On those long, 90-degree summer-like days, we walked. Feet burning from our flatties, school clothes near ruined from sweating up a storm, but nonetheless, happy to make it to school and learn some more and happy to be alive. An opportunity not many blacks had in the South.”

I was speechless. From that day on, my grandmother’s story has always remained with me.

As a point guard, I must see the game from everyone’s angle and encourage everyone to appreciate their opportunity. Nana’s story provides the model for me to do this. In my first high school JV game, I felt like I couldn’t miss a shot, but my teammates played as if they were in the bleachers.  I looked up at the scoreboard; we were losing. One man can’t make a team. So I became a general on the court, spreading the ball around. Everyone found opportunity. We won.

Nana’s stories help me to value opportunities. When I was 16, I was nominated for People to People. I needed to raise money for this opportunity to travel across Europe with 20 other students for 20 days. By spring, after a long winter of work, I had raised the $4,000 for the trip. I did odd jobs like shoveling snow, taking out my neighbor’s trash, and created a website to sell eccentric rubber bracelets.

Everything was set to go; I was to represent America as a teenage liaison and also tour Cannes, Italy, visit the remarkable Monte Carlo, and explore Barcelona. Then a bubbling apprehension began to boil over me the closer we neared the summer. Every day I wondered if I was actually ready for this trip. I had never traveled without my parents and this would be my first trip outside the United States. I feared the language barrier and I knew nothing about the Spanish homestay family. The fact that my money and effort would be lost did not drive me to overcome my fears as much as Nana’s story.

I had to go, considering the story of that little girl in the South who only knew Florence as a city in South Carolina. I would be a kid from Brooklyn seeing parts of the world some members of my family didn’t even know existed. Without Nana’s story, my perspective would have been completely different. Sometimes, I think back on that little girl in the small town, 65 years ago. She seized her opportunity and never looked back. Well, my opportunity is coming, and I’ve learned from my mistakes. The only time I’m looking back is over my shoulder to see that little girl’s face–smiling at me.

Niles Ellis, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, is now a freshman at Vanderbilt 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.

G-Pa’s Lessons

G-Pa’s Lessons

by Tyler Mackenzie

2014-03-20-195972_10150124710702083_4149433_nI was a junior on the varsity basketball team and my minutes were decreasing to the point where I was barely in the game. I wasn’t used to that kind of playing time. I was livid. I was considering quitting the team. Then G-Pa strolled into the kitchen. A short, balding man, my grandfather stands at about 5’4 and has a chubby frame. He always wears his spectacles, dress pants and his polo button up shirt. He never wears shorts or t-shirts.

G-Pa grinned at me with his normal smirk and shouted:

“Wasssup, Big T!”

Seeing my reaction, he immediately realized I was unhappy. He pulled a stool up, and I explained what was bothering me. G-Pa had seen me play and insisted that I needed to be more aggressive in practice and in the few minutes I had on the court. “You just have to push yourself.” He also told me that life has difficulties and quitting is the worst possible way to deal with them. I guess I absorbed what G-Pa told me. A year later, I am the captain of the team.

When my grandfather talks about working hard, I listen. He was a Tuskegee airman and we spend hours discussing World War II. He sparked a lot of my interest in history and his advice has changed my life in many ways. For example, basketball and football had been at the center of my world for as long I can remember. They were always more important than school work, especially during my freshman and sophomore years. Then came G-Pa again. He wanted to know why I was taking so few advanced courses. “You are smart, and you should work as hard in your classes as you do on the basketball court.”

I took his advice and decided to take AP US History and Economics. I have had my best academic experiences ever in those classes. At first, they were very difficult. I still remember all the serious faces on my first day in AP history. I could not spend any of the period making jokes and talking to my friends. I could not pick up my Blackberry. Flirting with girls in the class had always been more important than what the teacher wrote on the board, since everything was so easy. The B+ I received in U.S history was so much more valuable than any of the A’s I received in my first two years.

I am frightened by the thought of what I would be if my grandfather had not moved in with us a couple of years ago. Ironically, I was angry when my father announced that his father, Patrick, was moving back from Guyana to our house. I was angry and selfish. I did not want to share food with a new resident of the house. Within a week, we became best friends. His greeting is always cool and warm: “Wasssup, Big T.”

I reply, “Wassup, G-Pa.”

He will most likely follow that up with a joke about how much I eat. Or he will ask me a question about history or current events. Or we will argue over football. G-Pa doesn’t understand the game as much as I do, but he still has a great time watching and cheering against what ever team I want to win. The real family fun begins when the Dallas Cowboys play the New York Giants. For some odd reason my grandfather has taken a serious liking to the Dallas Cowboys. I remember one cold November night the Cowboys and the Giants were getting ready to square off in a huge NFL battle. My grandfather sat right next to me and began his trash talking. Of course, I couldn’t just let my grandfather talk smack without any repercussions. I yelled everything I could at the screen about the Cowboys. Dallas won, but that didn’t matter. I still had fun with G-Pa.

Tyler Mackenzie, a junior at Syracuse University, is a 2011 graduate of Half Hollow Hills High School East.

The Captain’s Steps

by Ashlynn Sarubbi

Thanks to me, we begin the same step over again. This is my fifth screw up. I reach my tipping point when the captain mocks me in front of everyone:

“Because of Ashlynn, we have to start all over.”

I can take no more. I grab my bag.

“Do it on your own,” I yell at her.

I’m quitting, I tell myself. But I do not make it out of the building without reconsidering my decision. I am not a quitter. In fact, two years later, the girl that messed up the steps that day— me —becomes captain of the Academy of Mount Saint Ursula Step Team. I trace my resilience to the eve of Valentine’s Day, 2005.

I am nine years old sitting on my bed wrapping candy in colored paper when the phone rings. My mom answers and then begins to cry. She grabs her stuff and runs out of the house. It is 8:00 PM. She never leaves the house this late. She returns hours later with news: my father is dead, the victim of a fatal bullet. Instead of crying, I sit in silence in the dark. He has already missed so much. He promised me that he would make it up to me, but he would now miss the rest of my life.

My mother is a police officer. My father was an ex-convict. For as long as I can remember, Dad was always the absent parent. He was imprisoned shortly after my birth, leaving my 18-year-old mother to raise me on her own. He was not released until I was seven. I sometimes found it hard to let go of the resentment. I had grown up without a father for so long that it became normal. Months before his death, I began opening up to him, and our relationship became stronger. He stressed the importance of never giving up and not making the mistakes that he made in life. He told me he had been offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Michigan. He chose another life that landed him in jail. He convinced me to be different and to create a better path than his.

My dad’s poor decisions eventually cost him his life. However, his faults helped me learn how to become the person he dreamed I could be. In reality, he had not let me down completely as he demonstrated what my life could become if I did not follow his advice.

My mother, on the other hand, has always been there for me. She grew up in poverty and was left to raise me alone. She eventually returned to college and became a police officer. My mother demonstrates the value in my father’s theory of not giving up. He didn’t live that life, but Mom displayed it brilliantly, and her model compelled me to stay on the step team that day. After all, my mother has faced many difficulties on her own. So I kept practicing those steps until I perfected them–even when it meant practicing longer and not going out with my friends. In doing so, I follow my mom who made choices that are the opposite of my dad’s. She shows me that it is possible to be strong enough to withstand even the most challenging obstacles and to stay clear of those who may be a distraction to me.

Two years ago, I was en route to leaving the building and quitting the team. Instead, I turned back, knowing that I could not be a quitter. It was not part of who I was or who I wanted to become. With the forgiveness of my coach and the team, I vowed to my teammates that I would never let them down again.

My father once told me I was a “Sarubbi” and I could be whatever I wanted to be. My big moment of triumph came last spring. I sat in a circle talking and playing around with my teammates. My coach called me to the hallway. I became very nervous. When we got to the hallway, he began a speech about what was expected of the team members and the captains. I thought I was being removed from the team. Finally, my coach announced that I had been promoted to Captain of the team.

Ashlynn Sarubbi, a 2013 graduate of Academy of Mount Saint Ursula, is a freshman at Franklin and Marshall.

 

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.  

The Gift of a Little Brother

by Arianna Francis

Little brother?  He’s a boy.  At seven, I cried and cried when I discovered the little sister I always wanted would be a boy. I already had a big brother. What could I do with a younger one? He would be useless. I couldn’t paint his nails or do his hair or dress him in my doll’s clothing.  My parents expected this melodramatic reaction. They gave me a crown shaped ring to ease the news that my hopes for a sister were as possible as the Prince selecting one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.

When he arrived home a few days after 9/11, I couldn’t put my baby brother down. His small hands, his chubby cheeks, his tiny toes, and his silky smooth skin; it was love at first cradle.

As Sage grew beyond something that fit into my arms, his influence on my life grew as well. In fact, he rescued me from a bully. She lived on my street. She played volleyball like me, she danced like me, she ran track like me and did gymnastics with me. She was the worst kind of bully. She was someone I cared about and who was close to my heart; she was my best friend, which made her piercing stares and hateful words hurt that much more. She made me doubt myself; she made me think that everything I did was wrong and the end of the world. But she also made me determined to be the best me that I could be.

My bully lived inside of me. She was the part of me that always strived and wouldn’t rest. A 95 was never enough. For years, I was under the spell of a drive pushing me to an elusive place of perfection. At four in dance,  I made sure I pointed my toes every second of each piece of ballet. In six years of gymnastics,  I did not leave any room for judges to subtract any points; however, if I lost tenths of points, I would spend the long car rides home crying.

There was one thing that could pull me away from that bully–Sage. His gentle smile, comforting back rubs and comedic ways quickly dried my tears from discontent. Sage was always there to restore the humane part of me that I often let slip away. Whenever my bully would come around, which was often, Sage was there to combat her effect on me. Sage taught me to stop being my own bully. His laugh, smile and encouragement slowly and somewhat subconsciously influenced my daily outlook. I could not resist his young, free, positive spirit and the Spongebob mentality that started his every morning; that every day would be “the best day ever.”

I became captain of my volleyball team this year and will always remember the tears that ran down my face as I sat in a circle with my teammates. I expressed that I felt like I failed as their captain after I heard that many of them were afraid to make mistakes and disappoint me. Those familiar words stung. Had my own bully influenced them? At that moment, I committed myself to making sure that each and every one of them felt special. Then the most timid player squeaked out, “Ari, you are my role model.” At this point my eyes were flooded. “I look up to you,” she continued. My tears kept coming as she continued to speak. “You always encourage me.” I could barely catch my breath. “You inspire me with your positivity.” By the end of her comments, we were all sitting in puddles of sweat and tears. We had accomplished a new type of victory in this game of life. We declared our space a bully free zone.

Arianna Francis is a freshman at Vanderbilt University and a 2013 graduate of The Ethical Culture Fieldston School.