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Pokémon to Mediation

Pokémon to Mediation

By David J. Dent, Jr.

UntitledThe civil war intensified. My two teammates fired shots at one another. I buried my face in my palms, avoiding the crossfire. The battlefield was a dorm room at the California Institute of Technology two summers ago. Our mission, as students in a high school computer science program, was coding a game using the programming language, Python. We chose Lights Out, originally programmed by Steve Jobs. Yet our mission seemed impossible given the explosive arguments of my teammates, Goku and Vegeta.

Actually their names were Doris and Kim. Yet I can’t escape the memory of Goku and Vegeta fighting Majin Buu, the evil yet playful, fat, pink genie who turned people into chocolate in the action anime Dragon Ball Z. When I lifted my face to mediate the feud, I saw hints of Goku and Vegeta. If those two rivals, who hated each other, found a way to collaborate to defeat Majin Buu, then surely Doris and Kim could compromise. They merely disagreed on the way to grasp the game’s mechanics; Kim wanted help from professors while Doris demanded we code it ourselves.

I analyzed them beyond their arguments. Doris, proficient in coding, believed Kim was lazy. Unbeknownst to Doris, Kim, despite her strong math skills, struggled with coding and was thus insecure. After Doris stormed out of the room, I decided to privately teach Kim the mathematical aspects of Python. The game required two pieces of code, graphical and mathematical. As she became more confident in coding, I supervised Kim’s work on the mathematical side, while working with Doris on graphics.

The professors lauded our project. Perhaps we owe our success to those nights when I rushed home to catch anime on Toonami. Anime was the gateway to my passion for studying links between people, cultures, and ultimately, mediation. I was fascinated with the details, such as the strange “white donuts” Pokémon characters ate. When I got my first laptop, my wanderings discovered that these weird snacks were rice cakes, a Japanese delicacy. I continued diving into Japanese history and discovered inspiring figures like Oda Nobunaga, a daimyo who unified Japan in the Sengoku period.

My cross-cultural exposure went beyond cartoons to real life immersion in third grade when my family spent six months living in Rome. I attended AOSR, an international school where 50% of the students were Italian. Like me, the other half hailed from many different countries including Nigeria and Malaysia. I formed strong relationships with all classmates, learning to relate to people from different cultures by finding common ground. Little did I know, I was becoming a mediator.

My fascination with classical eras grew through visiting Castel Sant’Angelo and Paestum on field trips, and typical family tourist runs to the Colosseum and the Vatican. I returned home and began an eight-year journey in Latin in the fifth grade, drawn to the classics for explorations of how people resolved conflicts, and often comparing Japanese and Roman cultures. I would become the first to enroll when Browning later offered ancient Greek.

I realized I’m a connoisseur for the differences that make people unique when I faced the new challenge of high school. I left a coed school, which I attended since kindergarten for a much smaller boy’s school with a socially divided grade of 30 strangers. Despite my initial reticence, I felt like I was back in Rome at AOSR on the first day. I was comfortable, easily translating culture reading to social dynamics. Within weeks, I was friends with ostracized “nerds,” college-crazed “preppy” kids and Yankees-loving athletes. I rarely lift weights, but Janak, a bodybuilder who never watches anime, was my first buddy and remains one of my best friends. What I originally imagined would be a negative high school experience was rewarding and helped me to develop into the true mediator who resolved the battle at Caltech.

David J. Dent, Jr. is a graduate of The Browning School and a freshman at Northwestern University.

The World School Lens

by Forrest Sprague

I feel at home whenever I travel with my camera. I am in my living room when I capture pieces of the world with my lens.

I was homeschooled. Actually I should call it world-schooled. My mother, a former travel agent, literally turned the globe into my classroom. We spent months in Maine planning trips, studying languages and the next country to visit, making me anxious for adventures beyond Yarmouth, Maine. I have lived and studied in Guatemala, Italy, Spain, France, New York City and 43 of our 50 states.

I was 13 when my father became the Technical Director for NBC coverage of the Olympics in Beijing. My mother hired a Mandarin teacher to prepare us to travel there with my father. I fell in love with Mandarin. Perhaps it was my strong interests in music and the seeming melodic tone of the language. There were also the compelling stories of Chinese literature and history that our teacher, Zhou Li, shared. For my family, studying mandarin was merely preparation for the trip. For me, it was a passion that became more intense during our two months in China, traveling to Xi’An and Suzhou in between exploring Beijing.

A couple of years later, I became as passionate with photography as I was with Mandarin. It happened when my dad gave my mom a Nikon DSLR for Christmas in 2009. Her camera would become my new traveling partner. As I started using the camera more, I saw the world around me as the 16/9 dimensions of a photo. Soon after, I was on a two-month cross-country American road trip. From the frigid winter wonderland of Yellowstone to the windy and barren landscapes of the Grand Canyon, my friend, the camera, was with me.

The size and grandeur of the Grand Canyon amazes people but my camera failed to capture this natural wonder of the world in a way that satisfied me. It was too massive for my skills as a photographer. I ended the journey with lots of pictures that depicted small pieces of a large place. I was disappointed.

My failure to tell the story of the Grand Canyon through photography pushed me when I traveled to China for a second trip. I was 17 when I returned to Beijing for my first trip abroad without my parents.I arrived jet-lagged and a mix-up forced a two-hour wait for Xiao Chunzhi, my teacher and host. After a 45 minute, bumpy cab ride, we finally arrived at the small apartment in an old rundown government housing project. I made myself comfortable on the small futon in the alcove and fell asleep only to be continuously awakened by Xiao who was offering me food. My sick and jet-lagged body only needed sleep. However, as culture and customs dictate, Xiao’s sole mission was to feed the guest out of kindness and duty.

I saw that it sometimes takes more than mastering a language to communicate across cultures. By then, I had studied Mandarin at Bowdoin College, Hunter College and the China Institute in New York. Just as photography challenged me at the Grand Canyon, my linguistics skills faced a cultural hurdle in China. Xiao continued to poke me and point to food and I started to wonder if this trip was really a good idea.

I am so glad I did not surrender to any impulses to go home. Eventually, I picked up my camera and was at home again. I became recharged with a new mission: to integrate the amazing people I met into my pictures of architecture. I soon traveled to Guanghan, where I spent three months teaching English. In the city, I became acquainted with people who would soon become lifelong friends. I captured them next to the San Xing Dui Museum and the City Hall, two of the most famous sights in Guanghan. I expanded my photographic focus of architecture to bringing portraits of people and candid moments prominently in the shots of monuments. I now know what may have been absent from my attempts to document the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. The mission of my lens is now to augment the views of monuments, architecture and sites of the world with the beauty of humanity.

Forrest Sprague, who was home schooled, is a freshman at Pace University.

Africa in Maine

by Forest Sprague

I was 12 when I helped unite the cultures of Maine and Uganda to expand a school in that African country. My home, Portland, Maine, has a growing community of African immigrants.  My family organized a benefit concert in Portland with performances by a Ugandan youth choir. The singers spent a week in Maine and I was responsible for helping them adjust to the state. I also set up arts and crafts tables at the concert while watching the arrival of more than 1,000 eager members of the audience. A standing ovation celebrated the melodic tunes. The smiling faces of the performers and the crowd united the room. We earned $2,000 that night. I have carried the lessons and skills I acquired in the concert into several community service efforts. This concert became a fundraising model for the supporters of the school. The choir used some of the funds raised to finance on fundraising concert in New York. The additional wings have been added to the school, which serves orphans in Uganda.

Forest Sprague, who was home schooled, is a freshman at Pace University.

Escapes to Myself

by Vivek Kunnath

Fresh air! Loud cars! Big people! That man on the corner who sells ice cream!  These thoughts rushed through my infantile mind as I wove through the throngs of people that crowded the sidewalks of Singapore. I was three years old and free. I had escaped from the place where I had been interred—preschool. When nobody was looking, I slipped out of the classroom, crept down the hallway, pushed open the front door (which took a minute since I was so small) and just left.

Was this dangerous? Yes. Was it successful? Yes. But why had I escaped and walked two blocks home? Simple, to find my book on dinosaurs; a captivating volume with illustrations and facts on creatures like Velociraptors and Brontosauruses. I had just discovered the joy of reading and carried that book almost everywhere. Every time I opened the book, I felt that I was uncovering something amazing. Years later, I realized that what I felt was the thrill of learning.

It’s been a long time since that escape and my love of knowledge has only grown. I remember days in libraries—sequestered from the world, poring over volumes on all kinds of subject matter. I read fiction by such authors as Isaac Asimov and biographies of people like Nikola Tesla and Mahatma Gandhi. I buried myself in scientific texts such as Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World. By the time I was twelve, I knew more about mythology and atoms than my hometown. This isn’t surprising since I never lived in a place long enough to call it home. I was born in India and moved to Singapore when I was two. By four, I was in Pittsburgh and a few months later, Michigan. I turned eleven in Delaware and thirteen in New Jersey. At fourteen, I ended up in McLean, Virginia.

I coped with unfamiliar environments and a lack of friends by immersing myself in reading, a familiar anchor that comforted me through my loneliness. But at the same time, I hid from the world in a cocoon of books. I relied on myself rather than other people. While I became more independent, I had trouble interacting with other kids. As I grew, my independence and depth of knowledge increased but so did my isolation. Authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman gave me foreboding impressions of the world and I began to avoid crowds and conversations, afraid of being hurt, but knowing that I would have to approach them eventually.

I emerged from my shell when I discovered ways to use my knowledge to connect with others. In a brave attempt to make friends as a Freshman in high school, I joined a quick succession of after-school activities including a lonely season with the football team which ended with the coach telling me that if I didn’t “get angry” I would remain “just a bookworm in a linebacker’s body.” Through great perseverance, and some luck, I found a niche in the Diplomacy Club, a small group dedicated to discussing subjects ranging from fantasy authors to international relations. The name really had long since ceased to have meaning. Whatever reservations I may have had were overshadowed by my astonishment at the intelligence and versatility of the members themselves.

On the very first day, I walked into a heated debate on the plausibility of Faster-Than-Light travel. Somehow, I managed to jump right into the discussion and make several points relating to Einstein-Rosen Bridges and how they could be used to facilitate travel between worlds. It was the first time in a while that I had managed to actively participate in a conversation. I cracked jokes, made observations, and argued points better than I ever had before. These classmates were the first friends I made in a long time and I would make many more after that meeting.

Where once my knowledge fostered isolation, it now allows me to connect with people and actually interact. I actively participate in all my classes and hang-out with friends on a regular basis. I’m no longer an introvert but I’m still independent. It’s a long way from, yet incredibly close to, the child who ran away from school for a book.

Vivek Kunnath, a 2013 graduate of McLean High School in McLean, Va., will be a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Fall.

Lesson from a Bully

by Marquis Lockett

Death is the only word that could explain the looks on their faces. I wanted to know who died, but was too scared to ask. My father’s Acura in the garage at three o’clock on a weekday was the first clue something wasn’t right. When I walked into the house, a tension slapped me in the face as I noticed my parents’ looks of sorrow. Was it my grandparents? My sister? A close family friend? No. It was my father’s career at Johnson and Johnson that had been put to rest after nineteen years. At this moment I met my first bully: the recession.

My dad’s unemployment threw me into the ring against the heavyweight champion of America: the economy of 2009. My hometown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was the kind of community that shielded you from seeing beyond good schools, large colonial homes, and the renowned reenactment of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. I soon realized that this view of life was not free.

Instead of seeing Public Enemies in the movie theater, I relied on my friends’ descriptions of John Dillinger’s robberies. On hot summer days, I walked passed Rita’s Water Ice with an empty wallet. Worst of all, my parents could no longer afford my trip to Europe as a student ambassador.

Until then, I lived by a common American ethic: work hard and opportunities materialize. I began to question this idea until my grandparents came through at the last minute. They worked for some 120 years combined: Granddaddy as a teacher and my Granny as a U.S Postal worker. To help out, they dipped into their retirement savings and sacrificed a trip they were planning to finance mine.

I traveled to France, Greece, and Italy the summer before my sophomore year. In Italy, I spent three days with the Rossis, an Italian family. I first struggled with the language barrier when I met Arianna Rossi, the family’s teenage daughter. We discovered we both spoke Spanish and communicated through that language. In doing so, we crystallized our commonalities. We both loved hanging out with friends and both confronted the same “he said she said” teenage drama.

The Rossis’ family dinner was always first priority and I learned to “properly” eat pasta. The parents and the kids were not the only ones at the table; Arianna’s grandparents were there as well. Unfortunately, my grandparents live in California so dinner with them every night isn’t an option. However, these moments with the Rossis touched me because I owed this very experience to my grandparents. Living with the Rossis helped me see the cross cultural power of family.

When I returned home, the recession blindsided me once again. My mom announced that my father found a new job and we were moving to Boston in a month. As soon as I heard “moving” I stormed out of the room.

A month passed in a day’s worth of time and I found myself waking up in a small suburb called Hopkinton. I went from a school of more than 3,000 kids to one with barely 1,200 where “wicked” was the most popular word. I no longer heard words from my Bucks County vocabulary: “cool,” “nice,” and “ill.” I also noticed that my Philadelphia Eagles’ jersey triggered frowns in New England Patriot Nation. Once again I was experiencing culture shock but this time in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

In Italy, I learned that speaking a different language did not have to divide people. Using this thought process, football became my vehicle of assimilation into my new school. Like math, football doesn’t change geographically so I dove into the program. It was difficult going from a playoff caliber team in Bucks County to a losing one that had finished 3-8 the previous season. My days with the Rossi family gave me the confidence to search for similarities with my new teammates. I made new friends with new accents and our team improved to a 6-4 record last year. Through my battles with that bully, the recession, I have became a stronger person and learned a lesson. No matter where you are, people are people. With that knowledge, I can succeed anywhere.

Marquis Lockett is a Freshman at Morehouse College and a 2012 graduate of Hopkinton High School in Hopkinton, MA.

Nature and Engineering

by Lance Garrett

When I was a boy, nature was boring.  Or maybe I should say for much of my boyhood, I saw nature every day and it never changed in my eyes. The struggle between a crow and a sparrow was as understandable as unadulterated Pearl Poet.

Nature however would revolutionize my naive perspective.  In seventh grade, I joined  troop 119 of the Boston Minuteman Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the best decision I have made thus far in my life.  With the survival skills, the brotherhood, and heightened awareness came something else: an awakening to nature. The sparrows became champions of survival, fighting off death, the crow. The sparrow was trying its hardest to survive and so was the crow with the life and death stakes only a window away.  Nature was no longer a picture, but a play in which I had a supporting role. I, like the sparrow, was trying to do my best to survive against adversity.

In high school,  I found a new interest tied to a question, how do machines work?  When I saw a high end sports car, I saw both an art form with thousands and thousands of working parts producing enough to propel the car 253 mph despite weighing nearly a ton. That was an amazing thing to me and I decided I was going to build something like that one day. However that was only a bonus. I saw being an engineer as the most profitable option and tied to my interest in building things.

I would learn from a forest what being an engineer really meant. It happened when a student ambassador organization offered me a trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji at the end of my junior year.  I jumped at the opportunity. Three weeks into that trip I found myself in Cains, Australia on an old logging path in a rainforest.  The undirected chatter of my fellow ambassadors filled my ears.  I did not dislike the chatter, but when we came to the rainforest, some 90 or more miles from our hotel, nothing could take my attention away from the forest.  I started to walk slowly as I could to absorb the sound of the moment.  My distance from the group increased while the sound of the forest grew.  I stood still not to make a sound; the forest was a symphony of the most beautiful sounds.  Each bird, falling fruit, and shaking leaf was magnificent and distinguishable.  But as they came together, it was something higher than the human senses.  You saw things by hearing them.  All of this was happening at the same time, creating a scene beyond words.  But when I closed my eyes, it was even more beautiful.  The rustling of leaves revealed the forest’s depth and diversity.  The far river became a mighty thunder echoing its power across the land.  All of this was working together to create this Eden before me.  Perfect harmony. One element driving and affecting the other in real time.  I sat there in awe at such an unachievable feat by human methods. This forest, built of the ancestry of ancient seeds, 325 million years in the making, transcended all human capacity.

That complex forest was built on the struggle of those very first plants.  I want to be like those plants. I want to live my life and add my part to it.  To toil in the mud and strife in the world to provide better for the next in line. I want to make sure that my children and their own can live in the best and greatest possible world I can build for them. Becoming an engineer is the most direct way to do this–to build tomorrow.  In the forest, I realized the true role of an engineer.  Engineers create things that make tomorrow so beautiful.  Pollution gone, clean energy there, wonder machines on the way.  I want to build things that make society as beautiful as the forest, one that is without a sea level rise, and with secure and abundant energy. In this world, the next generation won’t have to worry what is going to happen in 30 years. That is the best gift I can ever give to society. That is why I want to be an engineer, to do those same things those first plants did in the forest.

Lance Garrett, accepted at The Coast Guard Academy last year,  is a 2012 graduate of McLean High School in McLean, Va.

Angel the Outsider

by Morgan Pilgrim

In the mass of brown-skinned and dark-haired children, a small speckle of bleach blond hair and vanilla latte complexion caught my eye. This little speckle was Angel, an outcast in the Nicaraguan village of Chacraseca.  While the other children played soccer, Angel sat by himself and watched. In that moment, I saw my past as an outsider and desperately wanted to help him.

I was, I still am, and I will always be Morgan: assertive, curious, outspoken, energetic.  These qualities shape me. Yet they often kept me on the outside, just as Angel’s ethnicity did him.  We were ostracized for reasons that made us…us.

My “Angel” moment came in seventh grade when I jumped from public to private school. My peers could not withstand my outspoken energy. My bright, talkative personality made it easy for me to make friends, but keeping them was difficult.  I have never been one to conform to the “norm” and many tweens do not like a blunt brainiac who says the first thing that comes to her mind. Thus, my spunky personality caused some problems in my social life. For example,  when my “friends” rushed to ostracize a peer, my lone voice defended the victim. “Who votes to kick Casey off the island?”  Every hand at the lunch table shot up except for mine. All eyes darted in my direction; I stated my case without hesitation.  “Casey didn’t do anything bad.  She just has different interests. Y’all have no right telling someone they can’t sit some place.  This is unfair. Just stop.”  My defense shocked everyone including Casey, who looked bewildered. I paid for my actions when I was the next one voted off the “island.”

What could I do?  I needed social interaction but suppressing the ball of fire that bounces inside of me would force me to explode.  I begged my mom for help, but she could only dry my tears and tell me to figure it out on my own.

I learned to channel my fire in a positive direction. Today, I frequently engage in debates with friends on technology, politics, and pop culture. During the 2008 presidential campaign, I debated the Iraq War with Eric, a staunch conservative. The debate started reserved and polite, but soon our voices escalated. When the bell rang, our classmates could not leave their seats; everyone wanted to continue watching the debate. The spectators were shocked when Eric and I stopped, gathered our things and walked out of the room together as friends, talking about our plans for the upcoming weekend.  Despite our differences, Eric and I have created a friendship based on our shared assertiveness.

That first time I met Angel, I looked into his eyes, and said one of the few Spanish words I knew: “Hola!” Immediately, a small spark ignited inside of him.  I took Angel’s hand and ran over to the soccer game.  He was apprehensive to join in but I reassured him by mouthing “Esta Bien.”  Angel’s face lit up; he ran toward the ball, jumping and screaming.  I saw a glimmer of confidence in him. Or maybe it was just the excitement of the soccer game.

I may never see Angel again, but I hope our small interaction helped him gain more courage to embrace his differences. It will be a struggle, but he must trudge through it and remain true to himself as I did. People may have seen me as an overly confident individual, but fortunately I did not let those views suppress this fire in my belly. I have found the place and the people that accept me for me. I hope that one day Angel finds this comfort.

Morgan Pilgrim is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2012 graduate of Long Island Lutheran High School.

Multiple Homelands or None at All?

by Ravi Popat

I have been homeless for almost 18 years. Or maybe, I should call it “homeland-less.” I am a citizen of France, was born in England, am living in the USA, and am of Indian origin. And so my opportunity or dilemma starts with my lack of a definitive home country.

I have the opportunity to make my own culture, picking and rejecting elements from the different places of my upbringing. For example, I am an Indian as I declare that my parents will never see the inside of a nursing home. I am English and American, knowing I will never exist in a caste.

I face a dilemma when I allow other forces to dictate the choices for me. I realized this when I met “John.” I was 12 years old working at my uncle’s convenience store in England. The shop was calm as usual on this Tuesday morning, with a steady trickle of men from the nearby factory coming for newspapers and cigarettes.

“Good morning John, can I get a pack of Marlboro’s as well?” asked one of his regular customers.

I looked around the shop, searching for “John.” My name is Ravi and I know my Uncle as Ramesh. Who was John? My uncle responded by happily handing his customer the pack of cigarettes. I realized that John was the name that regulars used for my uncle. I was bewildered, yet I still accepted my uncle’s Anglicized name. As I grew older, I came across more “Johns.”

John was not just a name; it was my uncle’s effort to keep his English customers comfortable with him. My first personal “John” moment was in a hostile place: the school bus on the way to Bedford. On the bus we often laughed at the latest episodes of The Simpsons. One conversation veered towards Apu, the show’s Indian shopkeeper. His arranged marriage–once a cultural staple of the Indian community–attracted my friends’ laughter. “Are you going to have an arranged marriage Ravi?” I had never really thought about the question of marriage before, but understood that saying “yes” would be totally un-John. “No way,” I replied. I was keeping my western peers comfortable.

At 13, I moved to New York. The city’s cultural diversity makes it an ideal place to be a cultural chooser. In New York, I learned to choose or reject in a way that strengthens my individuality and outgrew that “John” model, which forces one to choose names to please others and reject customs merely to fit in with peers. Rather, I choose and reject based on my view of the world. As a global cultural chooser, I am forced to think deeply about values and morality in a fresh way. I do not automatically embrace or reject something because it is Indian, American or English. I often deeply consider if something feels compatible to my taste. In doing so, I have grown to control many of the cultural influences of my identity.

My embrace of my religion challenged the “John” template. It started with a question in my English class junior year: “Do you think people look down upon you if you’re religious at Trinity?” My classmates hands flew up to answer “yes.” Why? The answers were antithetical to my sense of religion as a force of morality in my life. “Most kids at Trinity think that being religious doesn’t make logical sense, and so those who are religious are kind of seen as illogical.” For the most part, all the kids in the class felt this way. I felt cornered because I was amongst the minority; I did not agree at all. I had chosen Hinduism as my religion; my parents had left the decision up to me. To me, it seemed logical to choose this part of my family’s Indian culture, because I related to many of the principles. How could my peers think that intelligence and religion were incompatible when I myself underwent such a logical process of choosing my faith?

A year later, I stood on stage in front of my whole school in a special assembly presented by the South Asian Society about Diwali and Hinduism. The topic of my speech? The role faith and doubt play in religion. I spoke about faith in front of an audience who were dismissive of its value because I am not “John.” I no longer need to please my “customers,” although I am interested in hearing their ideas as well as mine. I try to pick the best aspects of all the cultures at my disposal, in order to create my own “homeland.”

Ravi Popat is a freshman at Tufts University and a graduate of the Trinity School in New York.