College Essay Gallery

As you read each Uniquely U. essay, keep in mind all the steps it took each writer to arrive at his/her central self-defining moment. Then check out our longitudinal study to see what each essayist is doing now.

1. FINDING MY KARMA

“You know, when you go through any kind of difficult experience, you have a choice. I mean, you can let it break you and embitter you. Or you can take whatever you’ve experienced, whatever pain or suffering, and decide that you’re still going to have faith, your faith in God, your faith in your fellow man; that you’re still going to believe that you can make a contribution to a better life. It’s a choice. Every single day we wake up, you can choose to be cynical or hopeful. You can choose to be grateful or contemptuous. You can make all those choices. And for me, it’s not a very hard choice.” — Hillary Clinton

As a child, I was never introduced to the concept of faith. I was told that God existed and there was nothing more that I needed to know. On August 6, 1997, my nineteen- year-old sister died, the victim of a drunk driving accident. And, just like that! everything that I had ever cared about, all that had ever given me joy, seemed meaningless. What mattered to me most had always been the theater. To consider acting now? To engage in anything so frivolous as being in a play seemed to desecrate my sister’s memory. “Why did God take away my sister,” I bitterly asked my father, “Why us?” “Where has she gone? There is no answer, is there?”

To make matters worse, my parents’ solution to coping with my sister’s death seemed to me the ultimate in superstition. For the first time, they had begun to attend satsungs, prayer meetings based on an Indian religious tradition I knew nothing of. “Next time, you’re coming with us,” they decreed.

“If you really cared about me, you’d take me to a good psychiatrist instead of this Dada guy you’re suddenly so keen about,” I raged…
Instead I found myself in this place where everything was white, and the heavy scent of burning incense filled the room led and this old man in prayer robes talked and talked for hours. “Everything happens for the best,” he said. “Everything that happens, happens for a reason.” That day, I went home with an even more cynical perspective on life. When Dada spoke of death, he was not even sad.

Through much convincing from my parents I grudgingly returned to a second satsung, determined to spend the time the same way I had the week before, tuning Dada out. Then he said the words that for the first time in many months banished bitterness and made me choose to wake up hopeful.

“Life is a like a play,” he said. “There are entrances and exits. We are not always the directors of our lives. One of the only tasks you have, once you have drawn your first breath, is to sit back and watch the play. No matter what you do, you cannot make a character disappear, nor can you make one stay. When the director calls the cue to leave the stage,” he continued, “there is nothing more you can do than watch their final steps off the stage. These exits make up the story of life. As much as you yell or throw things, the fact is, it is going to happen the way it was planned. Still, there is hope. If you want to change the end of your own life drama, you can become its director. In order to run things the way we want to, we must be the directors of our own lives. With hard work and motivation, we can achieve great things. Ultimately, the ending of the play is up to us. Not until the fifth act do we understand the purpose of an event. We call this understanding of our purpose, ‘karma,’ our acting out our role in our life’s drama.”

And just like that, it all was crystal clear. My sister’s death did not mean I had to renounce my life’s true passion: theater. Just the opposite! The theater was my karma. When Dada blessed me afterwards, I could read it in his eyes.

Life is too precious to worry about trivial matters. Time is too unpredictable to put off great opportunities. The only time I have is now. I’m going to achieve all I can now. Rebelling against life won’t bring my sister back; turning against faith won’t do any good either…It was difficult, but I made my choice. And I believe that when the curtain comes down on my own Act V, that it can only be the right one.

2. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

It is strange, but I believe that my cousin’s house became a kind of heaven the summer before I started high school. For those two weeks, it was a place where schedules and obligations, even parents, were as unbinding as the rumpled shorts and ratty tee-shirt I had on tonight, the kind of place I only dreamed about as a kid, where the friends I most wanted to see on my last night—Jessica, AJ, and Christy—could just show up at the door at midnight. It was a place where even an uptight 14-year old suburban kid like me could permanently attain a sense of peace within myself.

That was all thanks to my cousin Alan. He’s always been the coolest guy. By that I mean laid-back, nonjudgmental, spontaneously friendly. It made him a magnet to everybody from the “metropolis” of Binghamton to the little farming towns of Owego and Newark Valley. Every time I would go with him to a store or movie theater, he would know somebody there. All of the guys for miles wanted to be him and all the girls wanted to be with him. That summer, he taught me how to do a lay-up and how to appreciate Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Every night, we stayed up late and played Nintendo, conversing about each other’s life like we were brothers. Even though some might find that “dorky,” the fact that Alan did it made it cool.

In my mind, I had always been the exact opposite of my cousin, especially around girls. Middle school had been a place where I was terrified over what to wear and what to say. Whereas my friends back home in Connecticut were always “busy” every Friday night, I had never had a date. And then one night that magic summer, just like that! “Alan-style,” I did. “Want to go with me to see a movie tonight with this girl, her brother, and her little sister?” he said like it was no big deal.

I barely noticed Jessica at first; it was stuff inside her house I noticed most: a broken pinball machine, mildewed furniture, and those flies! The only bright spot were the bookshelves full of all styles of literature from Homer’s Iliad to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles.

I don’t remember the movie we saw that night nearly as well as the stories Christie, AJ and Jessica told about their home-life—how their father was gay and their divorced mother lived in Syracuse. Alan took all of this in stride. Know what? So did I.

Throughout the remainder of my stay, we got together every afternoon, and Jessica was there—telling me about her favorite poets—especially the strong independent women like Maya Angelou. By the time the two weeks drew to a close, whatever had originally seemed strange about my new friends’ lives had vanished.

Now on this, our last night, here we were again. We sat on Alan’s couch watching the horror movie Children of the Corn, but for the first time in my life, I was not afraid. I realized that loneliness is the cause of fear and since just by holding someone’s hand, I’d overcome my biggest fear, I no longer had to be afraid at all.

It was a feeling of confidence, my inner “stairway to heaven” I carried with me into high school. Jessica and I are still in touch. We exchange poetry—I began to write it, too; she’s been published!

Occasionally when I evaluate it all, I think of how my cousin Alan might define the laid-back open person he played the instrumental role in my becoming. “Cool. Very, very cool!” he’d say. Then Alan-style, he’d smile.

3. OPENING DOORS

As I nervously pushed open the gym doors, the shrill, foreign voices echoed through my head, and the towering ceiling overwhelmed me. Boys of all ages were running around drenched in sweat, herding a soccer ball. “Aqui, aqui,” they cried, as the blur of their bright colored vests danced in front of my eyes. Surrounded by an orchestra of shouting, pointing, and scrambling, I felt like an outsider stepping into a battle zone. Although I had come to improve my soccer skills, I was tempted to flee. Finally, camouflaged by the yellow pinny that was given to me by the coach, I overcame some of my trepidation, and was able to cross the first threshold into their world.

It was tough to fit in with a group of boys who spoke a different language, had totally different customs, and led very different lifestyles. They had already formed close friendships with each other and I felt as if I, the “gringo,” was intruding on their territory. I kept to myself those first few long weeks until I was able to break the ice with my comic attempts to show off my new and very limited middle school Spanish vocabulary. “Que es tu nombrrrrre?” I would say, rolling my “r”s with an exaggerated accent as smiles and giggles lit up their faces. “Hablas espanol?” they would reply. “Pequito, pequito,” I would respond, to their amusement. However “little” my attempts, they were enough to successfully cross a second threshold. Why was Eugene’s mother still in Peru? I now could learn as my fluency in Spanish steadily improved, why did Oscar have to work after school whereas when I came home and had the time to relax? Why did Santiago’s brother wear two different soccer cleats? Why did some of my teammates stroll onto the field five minutes before a game and all too often not show up for practice?

Speaking the same language, I was surprised to discover, did not eliminate our differences; it actually emphasized them. As talented as my teammates were, I began to understand, they literally could not afford to take soccer as seriously as I did—not when they were needed at home to help put food on the table. To the children of parents who spoke no English and had little formal schooling, soccer could only be regarded as a game, not even as the means to capture the attention of a college coach. On the field we were a fluid unit. But off the field, our differences inevitably hindered our success. Frustrated by what, at the time, I saw as my teammates’ failure to share my seriousness of purpose, at the end of my freshman year of high school, I joined a more achievement-oriented team.

For two years, we went our separate ways—only to discover we had not really parted. This year, reunited on our high school soccer team, I discovered I had crossed yet another threshold: my former “juguettes” selected me to be captain of the team. Originally, I had come to them simply wanting to follow. Now, they had come to me, asking me to lead. Together, through our determined efforts, we won the Fairfield County championship for the first time in our school’s history.

But it wasn’t until after the last game of the season, when we all got in our cars and went home to different lives, that I could see the entire picture. On my first team, everyone was of Hispanic background. My teammates differed from me, but they were not very different from themselves. Our high school team, however, was comprised of Albanians, Italians, and Ukrainians. Ultimately, the reason why we meshed and played our best on our high school team was this: We had all crossed the ultimate threshold into a world of rarely seen universal excellence—together and as equals.

4. OF CATS, CATTINESS, AND A GOOD EDUCATION

The tag on the stuffed animal shelf in the hotel gift shop claimed it was a cat and that her name was Licorice. Being that I love runts from litters, the underdog, Canada…, I had to have her. “Please, Mom. I’ll even eat my vegetables at dinner.”

Licorice had ratty black hair that still comes off all the time and a big flat tail comparable to that of a skunk or beaver. Her fur was so long that it covered her eyes, and she had a red bow tied around her neck, that, when removed, left quite a gap of nappy, matted fur. But, perhaps the most important thing about Licorice was that she was very flat and floppy, so my new acquisition immediately became Floppy Disk Licorice, though my friends prefer to call her Roadkill.

For normal standards, I looked like a normal kid, but for New Canaan Country School, I was a freak. The girls wore Abercrombie khakis with J.Crew collared shirts and Patagonia vests the color of Easter eggs. I wore sweaters from Contempo Casuals and jeans with ribbon around the bottom. I looked much more hippie than preppie, but by seventh grade I had formed a solid group of friends, Drea, Becca, Mackenzie, Tess P., and Tess H. And then there were Gordie, Richard, David, Alex M., and Alex H., all of whom for a period of, oh, three weeks tops, became my “beaux.” I don’t exactly know why I was the first among my girl friends to interest guys, but it certainly wasn’t because I was the prettiest of the bunch. In private schools, pretty girls are about as common as No. 2 pencils. What was it then? I could keep up with the guys in a Frisbee game and I could hang out and watch a game of lacrosse, and I was naturally affectionate. In February, I took Gordie with me for a weekend of skiing. He was the only kid that was at my same level.

Now I can stand up to any kid and tell them to stop talking about me behind my back, but what was I to do about their mothers? There was a group of them who played hockey together who called themselves The Mother Puckers. After their practices, they would regroup in front of the fire in the lobby of the winter club and further warm themselves with a few rounds of rum and tonics. Many of them did not like the idea of my going away with a boy, and they started to talk.

By April, all the cattiness of the mothers hissed itself out into the open and threatened to scratch my eyes out. I was sitting outside with my best girlfriend, Drea. “Are we going to Nantucket again this summer?”

“Um, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Drea said, “According to my mom, ‘Emmy’s not a virgin.’”

My mind has blocked out what happened right after that. I remember looking around at all my other girlfriends and all of them nodding as if they had heard this, too. The next day Gordie and I met with our parents and a guidance counselor, to bring the innuendo out into the open. “There are other schools…” my mother said.

But I did not think that was the best solution. “No,” I said. “That would be running away.”

On the first day of eighth grade, I walked into Country School with a different attitude. I didn’t trust people as much, and I watched my actions closely. I was going to show those Mother Puckers! I wanted to prove that I could be weird and totally normal at the same time. On the day of the talent show in which I was scheduled to perform, I walked into school with the tips of my hair dyed hot pink…. And I still had friends, and still got good grades, and people still liked me. Could it possibly have been that the kids in my grade were starting to learn that you can’t base your judgments of a person just on their physical appearance? To top it off, my fifth grade brother came in with bright green hair.

By ninth grade I had healed from my previous wounds and truly found a place in that school. At my graduation I ended up winning an award called the Johansen Award. Nominated by my fellow students and approved by the teachers, it goes to the student who shows “Care and compassion for others, leadership, and a sense of community.”

I’ve continued to live my life in this same spirit. When I switched schools again, to a public urban high school, I faced the same “fitting in” challenges. I had finally gotten used to khakis and polo shirts; now I was back in the realm of ripped jeans and Contempo Casual sweaters. No matter what I wear or what color my hair is, I know I will always push the limits to be myself and not be brought down by rumors, my individuality, or what people say about Floppy Disk Licorice.

5. PLAN B - HIGH SCHOOL COLLEGE ESSAY & PERSONAL STATEMENT FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL

PLAN B – HIGH SCHOOL COLLEGE ESSAY
I was 11 on the brink of 12 on a family ski trip to Mammoth Mountain in California. I’d been skiing there for a couple days now and had discovered my favorite run: Cornice Bowl. The wind came over the top of the trail in such a way that it formed a large overhang of packed snow at the top. In the middle of the trail, this cliff of snow was as large as twenty feet, and it gradually got smaller as you worked towards either side of the big bowl. I’d been on this run all afternoon having a great time jumping off the three- and four-foot parts on the sides of the trail, slowly working my way towards the middle and the larger jumps. On one run in particular, I was ready to go off something a little higher, so I moved a good bit farther towards the middle of the trail, expecting maybe a five-foot drop at most. I glided back a few feet to get some momentum, dug in my poles, got a good push, and over I went. That’s when the “Oh Shit” feeling that’s common to skiers hit me. The drop was twice as far as I expected. “Keep your weight forward! Bend your knees.” When I finally hit, after what seemed like forever, my knees buckled slightly and I leaned back, but didn’t fall. Although it wasn’t pretty, I did manage to stay on my feet and continued down the slope another few turns. Then I stood and looked back up at what I’d just gone over.

I have been skiing since before I can remember, two years old according to my parents. My dad, being the expert skier and certified ski instructor that he was, was my first teacher. My first experiences skiing were riding in his backpack as he went down the slopes of Snowshed at Killington. I then graduated to skiing between his legs on the bunny hills. While this was good for getting a feel for moving quickly and sliding across the slippery snow, it did nothing for my stability, which is as important as anything to skiing well. The next thing I remember doing is holding onto his pole while moving down the mountain. He would hold it straight out to the side and I would grip it in front of me to adjust my balance. Even when I began attending ski school, it was not the last he ever got to teach me. We would go out after the class had ended and practice the things I had learned, or he would show me another way of thinking about something if it hadn’t clicked for me during the day. He always has three or four different ways of explaining the same thing; one of them always worked.

I’ve always loved the rush I get when I succeed at something I’ve never done before. Previously that had always been something physical. Then two of my history teachers showed me that the rush can also happen in the classroom. There was something about Mr. Harris that you noticed as soon as you stepped into the room that demanded respect. He seemed to know everything about everything. All he taught seemed to be from memory. Then on the last day of school before Christmas vacation Mr. Harris appeared before us barefoot in a black silk Japanese robe and he had us remove our shoes as well as we watched the Seven Samurai. In addition, he had brought in his collection of Japanese artifacts including a genuine Samurai sword. It was about four feet long, with a gleaming single edged steel blade, and a double-handed grip. You could feel the time and effort and skill that had been put into making it feel so perfectly balanced. It physically linked me to a part of history that I’ve been interested in ever since – so much so that I have gone back to visit him on that day every year.

Mr. Kovacs, my Modern World History teacher sophomore year, on the other hand, was just a different kind of guy. He was loud and obnoxious almost all the time, but not in such a way that you didn’t like him. In class he would just yell and make fun of people randomly, but it was never offensive; it was just Kovacs. I looked forward to his class just because I never knew what to expect from him. We always seemed to get some learning done in between his rants on the French, or the Democrats, or Phil who sat right in front of him. His whole attitude towards life just seemed out of control, but he was perfectly in control, you never doubted that. It always surprised me when he would pull a date out of his head, or know that answer to some obscure question about history, because you would never think of him as someone who would know these things, you still always thought of him as crazy. The way he balanced his strange ways of having fun, and all the knowledge that he was able to give us was about perfect. He taught us everything we needed, and some things we didn’t, but still had a great time doing it, you could tell he loved his job.

I’ve always loved the rush I get when a risk I’ve undertaken pays off. Thanks to three great teachers teaching three very different ways, I have come to realize that the intellectual leaps I take in the future are different from but equal to any cliff I’ve ever jumped skiing. It might even mean that the biggest risk I personally undertake will be to become such a teacher, too.

PLAN B – PERSONAL STATEMENT FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL

For years I have tried to figure out the source of that quality an exceptional teacher possesses that manages to motivate me to dig deeper and surpass what I believed myself capable of. My father had “it” when he taught me to ski as soon as I could walk. By extending his pole for me to grasp as I skied beside him, he gave me the security to find my equilibrium. Coach Kurtz had had “it” when he inspired me to devote nearly 20 “full speed, full time” hours of practice each week to prepare for a 48-minute high school football game each Saturday. “Play as if it were your last,” he said. And my high school World History teacher Mr. Harris had “it” as well. I learned more about the samurai code of honor simply by holding an antique sword in my own two hands and experiencing the perfect balance it had taken 15 men nearly six months to forge, hand fold, and burnish. Such teachers make a life-altering impact: I entered college with my life mapped out. Like Coach Kurtz, I would dedicate my next four years to playing “full speed, full time” college football, and, like Mr. Harris, I would major in history so I’d have a strong foundation for teaching it like he did. Next would come my graduate degree in teaching so that I could employ the very latest methods to convey my passion for the subject. Then, I would return to high school to teach, coach and inspire high school students as I had been inspired. “Dig deeper; reach higher,” I’d tell them. “Set your goals like I did. Then meticulously map out your plan!” That was before I’d belatedly discovered the pearl of wisdom all exceptional teachers share but never think to tell you. “When Plan A goes off the rails—and it will—implement your back-up plan.” And exactly where would Plan B come from?

I had always known that my naturally loose shoulder ligaments made me susceptible to an occasional dislocated shoulder. Now, that I was regularly colliding with players brawnier than those I’d faced in high school, before the season even started, these dislocations began to occur with excruciating frequency, presenting me with a painful choice. I could give up football or undergo surgery, during which my shortened ligaments would be securely re-sutured into their sockets, one shoulder at a time. Between September of 2005 and January of 2006 I spent ten weeks in a sling, and couldn’t do so much as a single push up until around March of 2006. However, the motivation to again play football kept me going. As soon as I was able to work out again I got right back to it, I had a lot of work to do to get back to where I was the previous summer and only had about three months to do it. For the first time I understood why people didn’t like working out. When you are in shape, it’s fun, and fairly painless. When you are not, as I was for the first time in my life, it can be miserable to start. Fortunately I had a goal, and by the start of the new season, I was ready to play. Still, it was difficult to watch teammates, who had started out the year before with equal abilities, take the field on game days while I sat on the bench. Then, halfway through this second season, just as I was beginning to make a contribution, inconceivably, the dislocations began to reoccur once, twice, a third time! It was as if my ligaments had mutinied. In the spring, they would end my bid to play varsity lacrosse as well. I had assertively gone about attacking my shoulder problem that same way I did everything: full speed full time, and it hadn’t worked.

Different people handle disappointment differently. My way had been engrained in me by my three outstanding teachers. I dug deeper and refused to allow my situation to affect my performance in the classroom. It took a while for me to realize—in fact, not until I sat down and wrote this essay—that the pragmatic positivity residing at the core of all Plan B’s had already begun to define itself and me. As it happened, just one day after I cleaned out my football locker, it was my turn to deliver a major 40-minute presentation to my fellow members of Professor Toher’s sophomore research seminar on Alexander the Great. My topic was the mutiny of Alexander’s men at the Hyphasis River in India. At the time, I thought my first attempt at teaching had gone off without a hitch. I’d devoted numerous hours to researching why the soldiers’ action was not technically a mutiny, transferred the components of my crisply bulleted argument onto PowerPoint, and presented it to my class.

For a long time, I glossed over the inattentiveness my classmates had displayed as I made my case. After all, there will always be some students, even at the college level, who tune you out. On the other hand, like Mr. Harris, some college teachers did know how to bring history to life. Not only did Professor Cramsie’s in-depth lecture on Oliver Cromwell in his British Revolution, 1603-1714 course include an unforgettable aside about the long journey of Cromwell’s head had taken from the time of his execution in 1658 to its coming to a final resting place in a Cambridge University courtyard 300 years later, he made my jaw drop further when he told us that his British history professor had actually been present at the 1960 re-burial.

I began to realize that I have always been interested in the relevant parts of history and good teachers find a creative way to inject that relevance. Thinking back on my presentation, it occurred to me that there were tactics I could have incorporated into it that would have made it more engaging to my classmates: I might have introduced the example of my own struggles with my shoulder; the connection I’d made between the “mutiny” of my shoulder ligaments and the refusal of Alexander’s soldiers to press forward into India; my own coming to terms with when enough is enough. Rather than just explain the academically sanctioned research methods that had led me to a historically valid interpretation of Alexander’s mutiny, I could have invited them to volunteer thought-provoking definitions of their own.

On the other hand, I was also becoming aware, there needed to be a constructive pedagogic purpose for the information that I volunteered. Suppose ever since my playing days had prematurely ended, I’d been feeling bitter about the injustice of it all? Suppose the high school football team I helped when I came home for breaks had players on it that lacked the work ethic and the dedication I’d have if only I could play? Suppose, instead, they came late to practice, were lazy or distracted? How tempting it would be, purely out of my own personal, and therefore inappropriate, frustration, to belittle them with sarcasm and negativity? Though doing so might temporarily relieve my private pain, my issues were my own. High school coaching, like teaching, I needed to remind myself, is not about whether the student/player runs the correct play, or does well on a test. It is about teaching them to work hard and to do the right thing when you are not there to tell them to do it. If positively motivated, the stuff like punctuality would come.

One day, not that long ago, I awoke knowing the type of student I wanted to teach history to and why. Teaching disinterested students, the ones in the lower ability levels in a high school is one of the most challenging things a teacher can do on a daily basis, more challenging, perhaps, than anything I have yet to face. Yet—through my own experience with a never-ending string of dislocations, painful recovery, rehab, and relapse, and especially, with what it feels like to be left on the bench while others get to play—I know that I’ll be good at it. I thus look to graduate school to provide me with the tools and techniques to transmit to these students the most important personal lesson I myself have learned: Yes, it’s “Live as if there’s never going to be another game.” But, even more important, “Be sure to have Plan B.”

6. SELF PORTRAIT

Last week I had to peel off the caution tape I had wrapped around my journal—it was sticky and dirty.

Besides it hadn’t worked. I’d put it there because I viewed my journal as the repository of the private me: spill-overs and interminglings of my intense-est feelings in the form of sketches, collages, diary entries… In any case, the message on the black and yellow tape was clear. But that hadn’t kept Sarah from carrying it off at RISD and leaving it—where, she could not be bothered to recall. “Try to remember,” I kept begging. A few days later my friend Scott found it in the boys’ dorm. Ever since I have grown more watchful.

I’d found the caution tape in the trash after our annual church fair where my youth group had volunteered to cook. Everybody else got “hot-dogs,” while I was sent to a distant booth and told to fry the chicken. From my wistful vantage point, everyone else looked so admirably purposeful, moving hot-dogs from grill to bun, from bun to paper plate, and thence to outstretched hand. Finally, when the fair was almost over, I got to join them. Up close, the assembly line was nowhere near the perfectly functioning system it had seemed. Xxx’s hot-dogs kept dropping from her tongs. Later, at home, when I washed the sticky hot-dog/chicken residue from my hair, I thought: “Rule out ’short order cook’ as college major”…

But replacing it with what? Three months earlier, had you asked, I’d have had a different answer. That was before I returned from Taizé, the week-long retreat to France we went for winter break. Over the past three years, I had come to look forward to performing manual labor and attending its silent services three times a day. Taizé had become a place to shed suburban ”oughts” and ”shoulds.” With nowhere for my thoughts to turn but inward, I contemplated other times I’d felt equally serene: I thought about the paper slide I’d made to roll my marbles in the second grade, and the attic trunk where my mother stored it along with all my other joyful creations made before I had been identified as “gifted.” I thought about the unfinished corner in our basement that upon my return I would claim and there begin my journal, where, day after day the remainder of my junior year, without even realizing it, the fabrications that flowed from my new/old artistic meditations spread, until to my surprise I had accrued what art schools label a portfolio. Which is how I came to be at RISD.

There I gazed as an outsider at the congregation of my fellow students pronouncing to the world, “I am The Outsider.” Seen up close, as at Mayfair, the reality came as a surprise. Overnight, kids whom I knew had arrived clad normally had assumed an iconoclastic persona to conform to how an artist surely looks. My own moment of self-definition came when a jury of my classmates selected one of my drawings, a self portrait, for the final exhibition. I had come to one of the best art schools in the country without a clear sense of how or if I measured up, and earned the uncompromising validation: as an artist I can hold my own.

Looking back on the summer before my senior year, these are my reflections: …When the mercury tops 100°, I have the common sense to refrain from running (but when I plunge into an ice cold watermelon instead, I won’t have brought a knife.) …My common sense can be exhiliratingly missing when the only place to bathe is in a lake at the height of a raging thunderstorm…I have options that the former captain of the cross-country team who committed suicide this summer evidently didn’t…I have the intelligence, the talent and the vision to be an artist with as narrow or as broad a palette as I choose, and for my college education, I don’t choose art school, I choose liberal arts.

What fate awaits my journal now that I’ve shed “caution”? For the six weeks I’ve been back from RISD, I’ve kept its cover bare. What I elect to display there next may attract attention—like life’s untidy molecules drawn to “caution” tape—I’d have ducked before I’d gone to Taizé. It’s simply the next step in the creative process I now know I’m prepared to risk.

7. BIKEY

Seventh grade is an awkward stage where you are standing on the starting line of adolescence… without a driver’s license. Yet again my parents had denied me a ride into town. This either meant I would lounge around the TV all day or take some initiative and dust the cobwebs off my dusty hand-me-down bicycle. I called my close friend and neighbor Chris and asked if he would accompany me in to town. The first ride was a grueling task. Chris was in commanding possession of a Trek 8000, so I found myself struggling to keep up. That day I just shrugged; after all it was the story of my middle school career. Socially, it seemed, I was the tagalong as well, always trying to please someone in order to gain friends. Worse, I had chosen to wear sweatpants and a fleece that day and much to my dismay it rained. Cars would fly by and hit the large puddles and soak us to the marrow. The ride back was more or less the same, just downhill. When we reached home I was in a terrible mood, yet at the same time I loved being soaked in the rain and being splatter-painted with mud and getting very dirty. I had found a new passion. Soon enough, this three-mile ride became a tradition between the two of us. No matter the weather, no matter the time of year, both of us would weather soaking sweatpants, chapped lips, and being sprayed by puddles …and all for a hot chocolate or an ice cream bar.

What kept this tradition alive was the competitive nature that we both shared. We would constantly race one another, me doing the best I could with what I had. …It wasn’t until Christmas that my prayers were answered. I received a Trek 6000. I was grateful for receiving a new, more sophisticated set of wheels, but technologically my new bike still faltered in comparison. Although made by the same company, he still possessed the more dominant bicycle with Shimano titanium XTR brakes and gears. His gears created less friction, increasing the ability to shift gears faster and more efficiently. His disc brakes worked like a charm and made quick braking look like ballet. More telling, his bike was a whole two pounds lighter, which gave him more loft on jumps and more control over his movements. However, this was all I needed to give my friend a competitive race. Now that I had a decent bike, my only agenda for everyday was pushing my limits in cycling. I would be out for the whole day on my own either conquering hills on or off the road. My goal each day was to ride until my legs felt like jelly and after dismounting the bike I couldn’t walk without stumbling. I was in peak physical condition; I was always trying to test it.

The next logical step was, over the summer between middle school and high school for me to take a job working at a Cycle Center. At the bike shop I learned all the beginner mechanics assembling bike after bike after bike, until I’d built so many we had to store them away in a separate shed. Most importantly, I got to watch every stage of the Tour de France on the shop’s TV. I had the cyclist mindset and I was living in a cyclist world.

I didn’t realize that my passion had had such a profound impact on me until I returned to school after Christmas break. Somewhere, somehow, while I wasn’t looking, I realized that my own inner gears had meshed giving me my own frame and sense of balance. Socially, too, I had ceased to be the tagalong, “Bikey” the formerly dreaded nickname that my classmates at school had given me I now wore as a badge of confidence and pride like the yellow jersey from the Tour de France.

8. LEAP OF FAITH

I didn’t expect Lourdes to be so cold in July, sixty-five degrees, but I was freezing as I wheeled Claire, a thirty-eight-year-old pilgrim with Down Syndrome, down to the Grotto to experience spiritual renewal in the world-renowned waters of the shrine. I myself did not plan to enter the holy waters. Today my only job was to help Claire and five other handicapped pilgrims down to the baths. “Wimp,” she grinned and whispered, impervious to the cold, in her shorts and a T-shirt, pulling me down to her level.

At first I recoiled at her gibe, but then I remembered why I was there, not for my own benefit, but rather to help others. I laughed. Never in my nine years of gymnastics, school and youth group leadership, and, especially, my devotion to community service, had I ever been called a wimp! …

From the outside, the Grotto looks like nothing, but inside there are over twenty baths, lined with chairs. Already, at 7:30 in the morning, almost a hundred people were waiting to bathe in the healing waters. I helped split up them into groups, men on one side, women on the other. In the middle, Claire boisterously sang religious songs, to help set the mood. The one I remember in particular was “On Eagles’ Wings.”

We wound our way through various curtains and stalls, and finally to a stall where the presence of the official grotto helpers unexpectedly separated us and transformed me into a pilgrim, too. I could see the baths, a rectangle pool about six feet long and four feet across. Legs shaking I waited for my turn…and I remembered the last time my legs had shaken this badly…and the intense stress that I’d been under…

…I am 12 and sick of waiting, waiting for that moment when I felt I could do it. I wanted to have that skill, more than anything, the one that would determine at which level I could compete, the higher one if I did it, and the lower one if I chickened out. Standing on that beam, four-inches wide, solid wood covered in canvas, in my leotard and shorts, I was focused. The blue mats melted away, the noise of a springboard bouncing, girls laughing, and coaches yelling disappeared. It all appeared to happen in slow motion. My hands moved from above my head, to by my side, and back up again. My feet left the beam, and for a split second I was completely airborne. I looked back, saw the beam, and my hands reached for it. I blinked for just a second, and in that second I made contact. I felt my fingers grasp the canvas, and the rest of my body followed. My left foot hit first, and momentarily my right followed. I allowed my hands to let go of the beam and my body unfolded to an upright position. I stood, looking at the sweaty footprints I had left behind just seconds before. Heart racing, and unable to breathe, I knew I had determined my future, as a gymnast…

Now at Lourdes, the ice-cold water met my ankles. “Wimp!” I thought when I first reflexively recoiled. Seconds later the waters rushed up to my neck as I was submerged. I was caught by surprise and I could not find my breath. When I emerged from the frigid waters, there was a split second during which all stress I had ever felt on the balance beam and growing up in competitive Fairfield County, was washed away and I felt reborn into the world. Where was Claire? I wondered as soon as the shock of what I’d experienced had receded. As I spotted her among the faces of the other pilgrims, I no longer saw them as infirm men and women I was in charge of caring for, but all of us together equals in the eyes of God searching for a healing, some physical others mental.

The first leap of faith that I took when I was 12 carried me through a stress-laden gymnastics maneuver; my second leap of faith at Lourdes helped me see the world with eyes that are profoundly spiritual. I will always carry that memory with me, knowing that it’s God’s grace, not my own, that will forever help me to land on His eternal balance beam.

9. DEAN’S COFFIN

It started with just a few simple ideas and grew. It grew with the help of my fellow scouts. We helped create ideas, which turned into reality. That reality created something special—something that made us feel good about ourselves, knowing that we were helping the community.

I wanted to make an Eagle Scout project that would be remembered, and so I approached Dean Hadley, superintendent of the Schoolhouse Apartments for the elderly last May, and offered him one hundred hours of community service performed by myself and twenty fellow scouts. The apartment complex grounds were in serious need of re-landscaping: there was sand in the flowerbeds where there should have been topsoil and flowers, the entrance island had gone to seed, the shrubbery was past its prime. Worst of all was the sight of the charmless 3 x 8’ raised garden, which, due to its unmistakably ghoulish shape, everybody dubbed “Dean’s Coffin.”

Then the perfect solution for a memorable and permanent project presented itself. The grounds could use a bench. This would make the garden area more accessible and easier for the residents to enjoy the garden. We would use the wood from the “coffin” to build the bench. This part was going to be a very difficult task, since the wood was old and tough, but I was willing to try.

I had roughed out a drawing for the bench I planned to build, estimating that the process would take four days, but our scoutmaster Mr. Brown, who was as well an experienced carpenter, explained why my original plan was not a workable design.

The bench had to be strong enough to bear the weight of the people who would be sitting on it. But where to place the structural supports?

One solution would have been to put a whole wood board under all four sides of the bench to relieve the stress points. Yet that would be wasting materials, which isn’t part of being an engineer—and it’s not part of being a scout, because Scout Law says, “A scout is thrifty.” We overcame the challenge not only by reinforcing the bench’s legs with extra wood, but also by situating them at each of the four corners. This also streamlined the bench’s lines, making it more attractive.

There were also several other problems, which were overcome by creative engineering. Part of having a comfortable bench is having a slight angle to it. It seemed logical to use two separate pieces of wood to accomplish this. However, after creative thinking, we decided to have the leg and the angled part in the back of the bench be all one piece. This also contributed to its attractiveness.

While we did indeed try to be as thrifty as possible, not all of the “coffin’s” wood could be utilized. Some of it was relegated to become eventual firewood, and some was reduced to sawdust, which will eventually become humus to nurture future gardens.

For me helping build the bench was more than just my community service Eagle project; it convinced me I want to be an engineer.

The last day it rained, which created a feeling of sadness in the air amongst the scouts and myself. But it really wasn’t the rain that made us sad; it was because our work was done. Still, I certainly will never forget the look on Mr. Hadley’s face when he saw the transformation of his “coffin.” That is why I look forward to continuing to make many more equally flexible, team-oriented contributions when I get to college.

10. CLOSETS

I never knew that closet doors could have so many meanings. When I was a child, I was scared of the darkness and never could sleep with the door open. I felt that the closet door held back monsters. When I became a teenager and I couldn’t go out until my room was spotless, I realized that the doors would hold back mounds of clothes and secrets. In my life, there was one closed door that was especially meaningful. Unlike the others, which held back my fears and my faults, this one held back my uniqueness, my personal perfections. And it wasn’t until that summer when I grew up that I even realized it was there, and had been there all along.

We were staying in a hotel in a little town near Venice. The family I was staying with had gotten me a ridiculously huge room in the hotel to have all by myself, something I was very unused to. As I sat in the room unpacking my suitcase it occurred to me that this was my room, and it wouldn’t make a difference. So in this newfound freedom, I did what anyone would do… I folded my clothes perfectly and went to bed at a very reasonable hour.

After the first few days of staying there, I fell into a kind of a pattern of living… and I found that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed responsibility, which I never had at my house in the US, and I found that I am my worst critic: never was a sock or piece of paper out of place while I lived in that hotel room all alone, whereas at my house in the US you were lucky if you could see the floor. I learned that I flourish under my own rule.

The day before we left the hotel I got a phone call from my mother, telling me that my dog had been put to sleep. It was heartbreaking, and even harder to go through because I was all alone. That night, while packing, I ripped through the room, grabbing my things and lunging them savagely into my suitcases thinking, “I haven’t learned anything. I’m just the same as I was before.” But when I whirled around to open the closet door, the screws came loose and the entire doorframe came crashing down on me, hitting me on the head and knocking me to the floor, stunned. I had ripped the door off the hinges. I sat there in shock and silence for several minutes, before breaking out into hysterical laughter. I sat on the bed and surveyed the scene… my suitcases with my other personal belongings stuffed into them carelessly, the door lying on the floor surrounded by chips of wood and paint and screws, looking much like a crime scene. But I noticed something out of place: inside the closet, the clothes that I hadn’t packed yet were meticulous, everything in perfect order. And I realized that no matter how crazy my life may seem to be, I can always stop, survey the scene, and catch a glimpse of my own sanity, my perfection, if you will. It may be buried, but it’s there.

It’s been two years since I grew up. And I haven’t stopped growing; I don’t think I ever will. If you look at my room now, you’ll see it’s what my mother expects: total disarray. But take a peek inside my closet, and find peace, perfect working order. I wonder if you’d believe me if I told you that these days I always sleep with the closet door open, so I can look across the room at the perfection in my life, and enjoy its presence there.

11. BENEATH THE SURFACE

Many people live two lives, the one inside their head, and the one other people see. What people see is often not a valid representation of the actual person, but rather, the cover to a very long book. The problem is that they don’t see what’s really going on. I myself was guilty of not looking. Everyone is. On the inside though, you’ll see that they are simply normal people who live normal lives, but express themselves in unique ways. Let me introduce you to three of my friends to show you what I mean.

Mark is the anti-authority. The word “no” fueled him; the phrase “you can’t” drove him. Ever since we’d met in kindergarten, we’d been on an endless journey to find fun in the craziest ways we could ever imagine. He would cause mayhem on his own, but for the most part, he enjoyed sharing his adventures with someone else. That someone else was usually me. When we got to high school and Mark choose a darker path, which quite quickly resulted in his being sent away to countless rehabs and boarding schools so that he could get his act together. It wasn’t long after his return that he again started drifting away from the G-rated life and back over to “Rated R.” When most people look at him, they see simply a lost soul who tragically went wrong somewhere and really could use some saving. Yet, look a little closer, and you’ll see that Mark has always been true to himself. Whatever he did, he did with his whole heart and didn’t really care what anyone else said. He never wanted to be anyone else, he only wanted to be himself, and he didn’t want anyone telling him otherwise. Maybe everybody has, (or should have) a friend like Mike. When situations have risen that I can remember Mark getting into trouble over, I stay away. He helped me develop a “no” list and guided me, if only in a back door way.

Pat is your token hard-core kid. With his long dark hair, black t-shirt, and ratty jeans, he’s not the kind of person you might approach on the street and ask for directions. “No one hires hard core kids; they think we steal,” he says to explain why he doesn’t have a job, but he’s not about to cut his hair. Yet, if you know him, you know something very different. “I don’t look like a gentle man, but I am,” he says. He lives to enjoy himself, not to cause trouble. In truth, he’s more apt to give you a big friendly hug. But society doesn’t see Pat’s type through open eyes. They view them through distorted filters, which block the ability to see inner beauty.

Mike is his birth name, but the business cards he made when he was twelve, read “El Rojo Hombre.” He was everything you weren’t, stood for everything you were too weak to stand for. Some days he wore Hawaiian shirts, some days he wore a Mexican poncho. He bought records in 7th grade that I’d never heard of before, and was constantly listening to something. Ahead of his time, friends with kids two years older, he’s always been in a world no one really understood. He’s taught me things I never dreamed I’d know. No one is really sure, though, whether Mike has it all together, or if he could be farther from it.

While Mike has mysteriously found the fountain of knowledge, I myself, am still evolving. But I can tell you what I’ve learned so far: that the only real difference between my “outlaw” friends and your average Abercrombie wearing kid is that self expression is situated higher on our list of priorities. In the days when I used to only glimpse my friends of today as they walked by me in the hall in a flurry of black, I thought they were lacking something. What I’ve learned is that it was not them but me who had the deficiency. I’ve gone through so many stages in my life, none even remotely close to the one I’m in now, but I believe I’ve found where I belong and have begun to satisfy my aspirations. All I want to be is me. Sure, many of my friends have tripped up and crossed the line, but thank god they did. Look at what I have learned from them. I‘ve gotten to know my hometown and the people in it very well, weeded through its evil tendencies and know I’ve come out stronger.

12. MY MOM: THE PERSON WHO HAS INFLUENCED ME MOST

I remember it as if it was yesterday. The air was cool, clean, and crisp, and the leaves on the trees were beautiful shades of reds, yellows, and oranges. I stood on the blacktop looking back at the house I grew up in, 11 Frontier Lane, a place where all of my memories from my childhood had taken place. Leaving the house I had grown to love seemed unbearable to me. I opened the car door, took in a deep breath of cold air and got into the car. Tears were trickling down my face, and all I could think of was how scary the new place I was moving to was going to be. The minute I walked into the new house I became even more upset. Nothing was set up yet, so when I talked I heard my echo, and it made me feel empty on the inside. I felt there was no way that this place was going to ever be able to replace my old house and the memories my family and I had shared.

The morning after we moved, I had to enter fifth grade at a new school, St. Cecilia Elementary School to be precise, in the middle of the year. I wasn’t worried because I had gone to a Catholic school my whole life, and I figured that with my personality, it would be easy to make friends. But it wasn’t easy. Where I had previously lived, no one cared how you dressed, where in town you lived, who you hung out with, and what kind of car your parents drove. Here it meant everything. I was mocked for wearing things like an LL Bean ski jacket, and not having my skirt short enough, not wearing high heel shoes and makeup. Over the course of the next two years, there was a noticeable decline in my grades.

That’s when my mom decided to home-school me. If anyone asked her about her decision she would simply reply, “I did a lot of research on it, and I think that it’s the right thing to do for Jacquelyn’s sake right now.“ Just like my peers, my alarm would go off at 6:30 a.m. to signal the start of a new day. I would help my mom get my sisters off to school, eat a healthy breakfast, and then crack down on my assignments for the day: Literature, Vocab, Entrance Exam Prep, Science, Latin, Math, and History were my core subjects. Before lunch each day we would take a four-mile walk, and then, in the afternoons, I would help my sisters with their homework. Then, for two hours, four days a week, I played stopper-sweeper on my travel soccer team. We always ate dinner at seven.

My job was to make the tomato salad, a responsibility I had thoroughly mastered. The first step to making the mouthwatering salad is to carefully select four or five tomatoes at their peak from my mother’s vegetable garden and chop them into bite size pieces. Then do the same with a clump of fresh mozzarella from Fusaro’s Italian Deli. You then add the extra virgin olive oil so it starts to collect and blend the flavor from the tomatoes juices and the bits of cheese. Next, grab a pair of special L-shaped herb-cutting scissors and cut the parsley and basil from my mother’s garden into little fragments over the bowl so they drop into the salad. You then mix it all up so more flavor will be absorbed. Last but not least, you peel back the shell of a plump clove of garlic and cut it into extremely tiny pieces on a cutting board, and then add it to the salad. Now you have a finished product, but my advice is mix it up a little more and let it sit ten to fifteen minutes before serving so it will be at its best taste-wise.

Looking around the kitchen one Thursday that spring, after a job expertly accomplished, I realized that what once had been an empty house to me, had now become full of life, and that I had developed into someone a-brim with confidence. What recipe had made that happen? What special ingredients had made me who I am today?

I realized that my mother was the gardener, who had the patience, experience and wisdom to grow tomatoes from seeds and to shelter them till they were strong enough to be on their own, had also done the same with me. This past year I had blossomed into a person who would be going to a public high school next fall, a person sturdy enough to make the varsity soccer team as a freshman, a person who had become independent and self-reliant enough to take on any challenges that came my away.

Thanks to my mom’s extraordinary ability to let me grow at my own rate, this coming fall–when the fall air is cool, clean, and crisp, and the leaves on the trees are beautiful shades of reds, yellows, and oranges–I will again be going to a new school. Its name is ___________.

13. HOTEL CALIFORNIA

One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood is of the carefree car rides I took with my dad every weekend. What I enjoyed most about this simple activity had nothing to do with any place we were driving to or from; what was so great was that for the hour or so I spent in that car, I didn’t have a care in the world.

This can be attributed to the harmonic sounds of one album in particular that filled the car as we drove: The Eagles’ Hotel California. The first time I heard the low, raspy voice of Don Henley belt out the chorus to the timeless song “Hotel California,” I was hooked. As a young kid who loved everything in excess I played this song nonstop for days on end. Part of the reason for my needing to play the song over and over is that I did not know the meaning of the lyrics. To this day I have a hard time interpreting them and, in fact, have since concluded that it does not really matter.

As if the six and a half minutes of the impressive vocals of Don Henley and the melancholy guitar riffs of Don Felder and Joe Walsh, were not enough to indelibly sear this song into my soul, it was immediately followed by the much softer, but equally moving ballad sung by Glenn Frey, “New Kid In Town.” In addition to these two top ten singles from the seventies, Hotel California also contains the powerful song “Life In The Fast Lane,” Randy Meisner’s much underrated “Try And Love Again,” and Don Henley’s poignant look at California’s materialism in “The Last Resort.” Taken as a whole, every song complements each other, making the entire album a sort of symphony.

I recently realized that The Eagles’ having put forth one of the best albums in history is not just my isolated opinion. In April, I saw them live in concert for the very first time, and realized that I am not the only one with a deep passion for this rock band. To my right was a young girl about the same age that I was when I was first introduced to The Eagles, while a few rows in front of me was a much older man who could have passed for the grandfather of an elderly member of the band, but both were enjoying the concert as much as I was. Many people there had seen The Eagles dozens of times, having been fans since their incarnation in 1972. Sitting in the darkened Madison Square Garden, it was made clear to me that this music has touched so many more people than I ever could have realized.

However, the quality of the album or its universal appeal is not what gives it a special meaning for me. Now that I am 17 years old and have more responsibilities than I could ever have dreamed of, I enviously look back at the younger version of me who could “disappear” for an hour or two and not have anything to worry about when he came back. My greatest worry at that age was whether I could stay up past nine o’clock to watch TV; I didn’t know what a grade point average was, I couldn’t pronounce summa cum laude, and college was the furthest thing from my mind. To say that my life was simpler in those days would be a tremendous understatement. But as I sit here today, about a decade later, my life couldn’t be any more different. I just recently finished, or survived, my junior year in high school, I have a job, I have a car, and I am actually applying to college, an experience that always seemed to be so distant. Fortunately, I know I will always have a special stress-free place to retreat: hearing the familiar tune to any one of the great songs on Hotel California has the power to immediately bring my mind back to when I was a child driving in the car with my dad. It is very melancholy bringing myself back to those times since I know that I will quite possibly never be that at ease again for the rest of my life; that is a very tough realization for a teenager to come to terms with, as melancholy as the mood evoked by the opening chords of “Hotel California.”

14. SE HABLA ESPAÑOL

“¿Que tal?, ¿Que pasa?, Gracias, Lo siento, bien,” are only a few of the words that rapidly echo through my ears as I wander through the narrow antique streets of Salamanca, Spain. I concentrate hard on translating my English thoughts into those of a language I have been sent here to learn. Spanish, a romance language that intrigues the mind, exercises the tongue, and makes your brain think like it is in turbo mode; is a language that I have been studying for over five years. It is a subject that I find myself interested in and yearn to master. I’m about to learn how much I have yet to learn.

One warm afternoon, a few days before I had to leave my new adjusted to home I set out to look for souvenirs that I would be able to take to my friends and family back home. An unusual store caught my eye with its beautiful hand painted sidewalk sign. When I walk through the welcoming doors I find myself in a unique realm of shimmering jewelry, beautiful leather, wind chimes, and many more creative crafts.

My eyes skim the shelves hoping something will pop out at me to purchase for my mom so far across the Atlantic. I anticipate grabbing something, purchasing it, and escaping as not to interact with the inquiring saleswoman. Although, my Spanish has improved by being immersed in a totally different culture, I do not trust myself enough to be able to communicate with the fast-speaking natives. But it is too late; she already caught me like a criminal in the spotlight.

My palms begin to sweat, my tongue twists, and I can barely respond to her measly question of “¿Come está?” She solicits a few more questions and my confidence is being restored as I slowly filter through her words so that I can comprehend the essence of what she speaks. By now the woman has identified me as an American, as if she could not tell by my American Levis blue jeans, fair skin, and blue eyes. Her speech has slowed, vocabulary reduced to that of a two-year-old, and I reflexively find myself having a fluent conversation with this gentle woman.

(Ed: DO AS SPANISH DIALOG )She pursues her questions; knowing not to give up when I do not understand. She proceeds to help me find a gift for my mom; I am shocked she even grasps that I am looking for a present for her. It was as if she knew my mother, because she chose jewelry that I knew would elegantly lie on my mom’s dark skin. After I select my gift, I continue the conversation. (Ed: MORE SPANISH DIALOG)

Upon exiting I had to stand still and catch my breath in utter amazement. I just had a conversation with a Spaniard. It is completely mind boggling that the two of us have actually understood one another. That small conversation breaks the barrier between two totally different people raised in two very different cultures. It taught me, as someone who does not experience great diversity, that connections can always be made, whether big or small, among people of different cultures, races, and backgrounds.

15. ON GETTING DRUNK

Last night was the first time I’ve ever been drunk. That’s not the whole story, as no single sentence ever can be, but it’s as good a place to start as any. The whole story involves a good friend of mine and the most romantic evening ever.

This friend, who I will call Matt, wanted to commemorate his four-month anniversary with his first girlfriend ever, Katie. The idea he came up with caused the girls he discussed it with to sigh, squeal, or swoon. As he was a member of a singing group, and as he was friends with several people in the group, he asked five of us to come and serenade her on a chilly fall evening after a walk through Tilley Pond Park. There was a bench overlooking the pond in town, where he would sit her down and give the five of us a signal to come rushing out and sing through the best love song in our repertoire. Afterwards, the five of us singing would sneak out quietly to go get drunk. More on that later.

As I was singing the words “Love is strong as death” from our song, I saw that it might have been for those two; Matt had the biggest grin on his face because he knew it was going perfectly and we couldn’t even see Katie’s face because she had her hands covering her it and almost sobbing with joy.

I’ve never had the urge to get a couple of people together to serenade a girl I was in a relationship with. I have no qualms about being romantic, but I do have qualms about being romantic with whomever I’m with at the current time for the sake of doing so. I had a girlfriend the year prior who was much like Katie. She was quiet, very nice, and incredibly pretty. She was also a fundamentalist Christian. I considered myself Christian, too, so I figured it would work out fine. We talked about anything freely except for “serious” conversation, which she felt our relationship was lacking and ultimately led to our breakup. This “serious” conversation was about anything from A to Z (abortion to Zion), most of which I had no real opinions on. I’m pretty liberal as Christians go, and hated to find people who had also once felt free to choose who were roped in by what a man in a robe or a little book said. It was all ludicrous, but I didn’t say that. When this girl would tell me, “You don’t have to agree with me” with regards to any subject she would bring up, I would find a way to change the subject. You can’t argue with a Christian, because all of her arguments and beliefs are written down already, and have been for thousands of years. So, that didn’t work out.

That particular evening, I was on the other end of the spectrum, with a girl telling me to come with her and get drunk and let loose for once. We weren’t in a relationship, but I think she was attempting to spark one with a single act of drunken lust and hedonism. She was in the crowd in our town that got incredibly drunk every couple of weeks for fun, and got upset when there were long dry spells of everyone’s parents being in town. As I quickly found out, beer tastes horrible, the feeling of being drunk isn’t anything spectacular, and I wasn’t going to be going out and doing it every weekend. It was a shame because we clicked so well. The difference, and this is a major one, is that her method of relaxing required getting smashed.

I’ve experienced most everything, and noticed a pattern. There are the overly moralistic people who are afraid to make decisions for and let someone else do it for them. If there are set guidelines on how to live life, there’s no need to alter anything. If you follow a recipe for a cake, you’ll get the same cake every time but you also get the same cake every time. And then there are the people who don’t know what they’re looking for and don’t feel comfortable in their own skin and try to get out constantly. It’s a very easy way to lose responsibility and not hate yourself because you don’t know who you actually are. I want to be the person who tests my limits for a set purpose: to learn about myself and my capabilities. If that involves serenading and drinking, so be it.

16. ON BECOMING A MUSICIAN

My early childhood was defined by family history to an exceptional degree. As early as I can remember, I was fascinated with old photos, family trees, and stories of my parents and grandparents growing up. With all this information, I formed my ideal life story, one which mimicked those of my ancestors whenever possible. I found it very comforting to have hundreds of years of history with which to plan my future, and never understood why grown-ups thought life was so confusing. My childhood would abound with ritual fun-having; adulthood with marriage, children, and a steady job; and old age and death would bring the kind of reverence to me that I felt towards my great-grandparents. Within this pre-determined narrative, I had developed a talent for jazz piano, both through playing and composing. Although I loved playing more than anything else, and people often used my talent to identify me, I never considered it a defining factor in my life. I never shied away from performing, but I didn’t like being labeled as “the music kid.” My life story was too fixed in my mind to be transformed by any personal accomplishments.

Then, one day, from out of nowhere, I was diagnosed with leukemia. Besides the large problem of having cancer, there were several problems that this news presented to my well-laid plans. The first one was that my grandfather B— (who gave me my middle name) had died several years before I was born after a long battle with leukemia. Given my reliance on family history for identity, I couldn’t give myself any reason that my struggle should not end the same way. I told my doctor this and he assured me that the type of leukemia that I had was different and that they would cure me. This authoritative declaration ended my fear of impending death, but at the same time served as the termination to the neat script I had clearly envisioned for my life. That this disease would exist as part of my history for long after I was cured presented a future that was scary because, for the first time in my life, it felt unknown.

While I struggled to make sense of my cancer, my precious plans were thrown out of order. For two and half years I was in and out of the hospital, and I never knew when I was going to have a needle stuck in my chest, start losing my hair, or begin to feel intense nausea and headaches from the chemotherapy. Time as I had imagined it seemed to stop, and my personal narrative surrendered to a day-to-day reality that was ever changing. It wasn’t a time of words, but of vague memories and feelings, and this forced me to live in the moment. It was at this time that I discovered the healing and emotional power of music.

When I was too sick to sit up in my hospital bed, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I would listen to music. Over time, I began to notice that certain songs were having profound emotional effects on me; one day I would get a knot in my gut from listening to Billy Holliday sing “Any Old Time,” and another day from watching the finale of the movie New Orleans where everyone sang, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” in haunting unison. When I was well enough to make my way over to the keyboard, I tried to elicit those same emotions in my own playing. As a result, I became connected to the music in a way I had never been before. The ability to live in the moment is vital to any art form, and my illness forced me to reassess the rigid timeline I had created. I came to realize that music wasn’t a skill, or a career, or a way of gaining the spotlight; it was a timeless entity, which had powers, textures, and dimensions beyond my previous comprehension. Creativity could not be explained, and it had no beginning, middle or end. All I knew was that it existed, and for me it was this mystical quality of music that was able to separate my mind from the tortures that my body was enduring. Music was also portable, and no matter what disruptions my life plans might encounter in the future, I now embraced that it was one of the few things that could provide an immutable identity.

Every musician has a time in his life when he realizes what music means to him, and, with my illness five years behind me, I now understand just how important those two-and-half years had been. Coming to terms with my identity and being able to appreciate it on its own terms was something that took many years; as well as some horrible experiences. I realize now, however, that I always was and will always be a musician.

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