Great college essays
samples for students in our personal mentoring programs
Not everyone gets to see these essays. Read them from whatever perspective you’re working on.
- If you’re being a Thinker, look at the ideas and content.
- As a Storyteller, focus on the message and structure.
- And if you’re in the Writer phase, pay attention to the tone and language.
1. "I lost it when Darius peed in the girls’ cabin."
Darius had been building to this all week. This eleven year old had become my sole responsibility for the week he was at YMCA Camp Orkila, and he was systematically breaking me down. My directors had told me to focus my efforts on him for the week he was here, because as a first year counselor I could use the experience of dealing with a child like Darius. Yet in the seven years I’d been a camper here, I’d never encountered anything like him. Here was a child naturally skilled at wreaking havoc; harassing people and wildlife was an art form for Darius.
Before this week, all I’d wanted was to be a counselor. I wanted to support children and teach them to trust themselves, just as this camp supported me as a camper. I was ecstatic, and spent hours learning the best methods of managing children. But what about when your camper is fifty feet up a climbing tower and unstraps himself to taunt you? I realized that nothing I learned in the workshops had prepared me for Darius.
My drive to help others succeed was gone. After days of being positive with Darius, negative reinforcement became my best friend. It was all I could do to keep him in line.
Then, the finale. I’d been setting up for dinner when another camper told me that Darius had peed inside the girls’ cabin, and ran away to the forest. I led a four hour search party tracking him down, and spent an hour cleaning the desecrated cabin. I was broken. The hours of mental depravity had gotten to me. For those last two days, I paid as little attention to Darius as possible. We only spoke when he created problems.
When Darius got on the bus to leave, I started breathing for the first time all week. But as he boarded the bus, he said something I never expected: “Jacob, thank you for this week. I had so much fun.” That moment still feels as raw today as it did two years ago, and I still can’t put what I’m feeling into words .
No one was waiting for Darius back in Seattle. His foster parents had abandoned him while he was at camp; CPS picked him up a few hours later. I still question myself about how I acted that week. Was I justified in how I treated him? Or was I simply too frustrated to dig deeper and help him, to support him? I tell myself I was only fifteen, it was how anybody that age would handle it. Maybe that’s true. But the idea that Darius is still out there, living a life in which everyone treats him the same way, still haunts me. It will for a long time to come.
2. "I hit a boy with a bat in the second grade..."
Alzheimer’s ran in the family, and knowing that it may only be a matter of years deeply rattled my mom. She read that jigsaw puzzles could delay the presence of the disease, so we began to puzzle together.
She puzzled because she had to. I puzzled because I wanted to.
For every puzzle, there is a strategy. First, find the edge pieces. This gives it a structure, a way to begin, a way to work from the outside in. From there, find a dominant color scheme or a section that appears easiest to tackle. Pull out all the pieces that fit this microcosm and complete a puzzle within the puzzle. Continue doing this—section by section—until you see a completed picture tied together by all the challenges you just tackled. Then, start over.
Within a year of casual puzzling, puzzles took on a new meaning. I went from doing them for fun to using them to reset. I saw red less and less.
My biggest puzzle, one that took over two years to tackle, is that of my sexuality. For the year before I came out to my parents, I was jumpy, testy. Obviously not at peace, I needed something to do to keep from bursting, so I did jigsaw puzzles once, twice, three times; I finished a puzzle, gave it a look, then ripped it apart to start over. I did it faster each time. Unaware of it then, every time I finished a puzzle, I got closer to putting together the pieces of how to deal with the component of myself that did not seem to fit—the gay part.
Life is full of situations that require some movement of the pieces to achieve something workable. Every day in Calculus, I stare at the page until I can find some way to begin the problem. I will try anything until I find the right edge pieces to work towards to the answers. In soccer, I play in the center of the field and my job is to be the brain. I see the second pass before the first is made and find a way to manipulate the players and the ball to get the outcome we want. My job is mentally exhausting, but every game it’s a new puzzle—and that’s why it’s fun.
I’m tiny, I’m gay, Calculus drives me insane, but puzzles reset me. They alleviate stress and bring understanding of my world and the world around me. Audrey is doing her puzzles, let her be.
3. "Dare you doubt me? I will send you to Valhalla for your insolence!"
“Uh… okay then. Um, so uh, when was the last time you uh, saw the monster?” The prosecutor stuttered.
I smiled to myself, but the character of Beowulf stayed locked in a stony scowl. That moment of shock was what I had prepared for. I’d rehearsed, researched, and fallen into character. I settled back, comfortable at the center of this mock trial in my junior year English class.
It was then that I REALLY appreciated the SCA. The Society for Creative Anachronism is dedicated to recreating medieval history.
Translation: a bunch of Shakespeare/Lord of the Rings geeks get together in a hayfield somewhere to play dress up. Equestrian events (á la, “Knight’s Tale”), armored fighting (á la, any bad fantasy movie), and bickering over which fabric weave is more “period accurate” ensue.
My parents have been involved since the 80’s, and I’ve been going to SCA events with them for my entire life. Every event is dusty, hot, and smells like kerosene and canvas. I love it, especially the fighting. Getting geared up so I can hit people with sticks, huzzah!
As there are not very many people my age in SCA, I spend lots of time pretending to be an adult. I can sew costumes, make armor, and talk like 40 year old engineers. While lots of these weekends were more than a little bit boring, 17 years dressed as Hamlet recreating ye olden days was the best possible preparation to be Beowulf.
The SCA has a strong bardic tradition. Many will crowd around one person, illuminated by firelight, spinning stories and songs, verses and rhymes. These stories were meant to be heard and spoken, not read from books. You have to be able to feel the intensity of the words to understand Beowulf.
When everyone else in my English class was reading and bored, I heard the bards’ powerful voice, drawing me in, weaving line after line of poetry.
I was still seated, and the room was still. Nobody expected the quiet kid who liked history to burst forth with a warrior’s fury. Least of all the “prosecutor.” Standing before a Danish prince, in full Norse costume and finery, he swallowed and continued asking questions. Most were answered with angry yelling, decrying “petty justice” or boasting about Beowulf’s deeds.
I’ve never associated reading aloud with boring. For me, it’s always been about the performance, the entertainment. It’s about making small changes in body language to be larger, louder, grander—to become a warrior prince. I’ve always been able to project emotion and entertain people. And that’s exactly what I did.
I stood up, and sheepishly smiled at an applauding audience. Even Mrs. Merrell congratulated me on the performance. All the reading, rehearsing, and scowling into a mirror had paid off. I slipped out of costume and out of character quickly, but spent the rest of the day with a goofy grin plastered across my face, smiling at anyone who’d witnessed the mighty Beowulf.
4. "When I was younger, I flew."
Years have passed since I was that little girl who threw open the screen door on windy days, sprinting outside to the field behind her house. I grew older imagining myself in an office setting, clad in a newly ironed Brooks’ Brother’s oxford button up shirt tucked into a black pleated skirt. Having family members rooted in the financial world, I was engineered to believe that corporate life was the adult life. A flawless, carefully sketched path had been laid out for me to follow, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why my footsteps kept slipping outside the lines.
I still remember my first step inside a hospital for a volunteer interview and suddenly it was like all the pieces fit together. After letting go of business classes because of the lack of passion, I was exploring new opportunities. I remember drinking in my surroundings and thinking that it would be okay if I were to stay here for a long, long time. Because for the first time in what had been a while, I felt like I was home.
“Hey, can you go transport umbilical cord blood from 7-South to Main Lab?”
“We’ve got a guy with a 150 pound tumor in room 4320.”
“CODE BLUE – Surgery Pavilion!”
There’s never a dull moment in the on-call dispatch room. I find myself sprinting once again, not across the grassy Australian fields, but the white marble steps of the University of Washington Medical Center. Empty wheelchair gliding in front, I am unstoppable. The service elevator lifts up, taking me to see the joy of a finally homebound oncology patient’s face and to the “preemies” in the NICU whose monitors beep steadily, reassuringly. It takes me to the hallways outside Operating Rooms where lack of sound is enveloped by deafening importance. The ceiling lights seem to be sublime and twinkling.
Amidst it all, Carol, a suicidal schizophrenic woman, hands me a beautiful handmade bracelet after I had sat with her and listened to her tear-filled, frantic tales.
“Thank y-y-you so much” she splutters. “You’ve been k-kinder to me than anybody h-has this entire year and it means so so m-much to m-me”.
In moments like these, the world stops for a little bit. I’m reminded of how fragile life is. I’m reminded of why I am human, of why I am here.
Like Neil deGrasse Tyson said, some people look at the sky, at the stars and feel small: because we are such a miniscule portion of the bigger picture. But he looks at the stars and feels big: because the universe is in us, our atoms came from those stars. Living life as a sixteen year old girl in a suburban town, attending a public high school, I used to feel small and irrelevant. But then I walked across the halls of a hospital, I talked to people and patients with endless stories of their own and I feel big. I feel inspired. I feel infinite.
5: "With a cup and a spoon you can do it all."
I was rafting on Idaho’s Snake River with my Boy Scout troop. I packed lightly. There was a saying I had on trips like this: the more experience I have, the less stuff I need. I would find a way to make do with what I had or didn’t have.
I thought that I had enough experience to pare my mess kit down to two items: a big plastic mug, and a cheap plastic spoon.
I didn’t bring a spoon.
I tried to bargain my way into a spoon, but it was futile. No one wants to give up their spoon. When you’re a hungry teenager a spoon is the most valuable thing you’ve got.
Boy Scouts is about learning through struggle. If you don’t have something, you suffer the consequences. You won’t forget it the next time.
I therefore did the only thing I could: I made a spoon out of duct tape. It was a terrible spoon, but it got food into my mouth all week. It was dirty and floppy, and crumbs would stick to the spots where the adhesive side of the tape was still showing. I was really proud of it.
Each time I used the spoon it got dirtier and dirtier. It couldn’t really be cleaned. It was so lacking in structure that it was more effective to drag food up the side of the mug than to use the bowl part of the spoon. Everyone was jealous. Not that I had to eat with the spoon, but just the idea of it.
In a way we were both jealous. I wanted their spoons and they wanted mine. Of course they only wanted the good parts. No one wants to sacrifice their reliable spoon, but everyone wants to be that guy who made his out of duct tape. Everyone could see the silver outside, only I could see the food particles still stuck in the crevices from breakfast.
The next summer my pursuit of adventure would take me to Chajul, Guatemala, where I would be far removed from my trivial spoon issues of the year before.
The first night at dinner my host family and I had stew as we crowded around a table clearly built for kindergarteners.
There weren’t enough spoons.
We were hungry and needed food. Everything that I knew told me that the spoons should be even more valuable here. But we didn’t argue over them, we just took turns. Was it unsanitary? Maybe, but it was life.
Whenever I look back at these two situations, I find myself considering the same question: which way was right? And to be honest, I still don’t have an answer. I never forgot my spoon again. But I don’t think that’s the point.
In scouts I was left to my own means, to make do and learn. In Guatemala they would never imagine this.
They just shared their spoons.
6. "I wanted to do something meaningful."
Every year scouts collect items for charity. While these causes are worthy, I wanted to do something important to me and not skimp out on the cardinal achievement of any scouting career. I decided to talk to veteran’s organizations and see where that could lead.
I didn’t know anyone at veteran’s organizations, so I started blind calling. Rick, from the local American Legion, got back to me and we set up a time to meet. I was nervous because he was the “Post Commander” and a veteran. I expected him to be formal and intimidating. I put on khakis and a button down shirt, expecting a professional interview.
When I arrived, Rick was wearing jeans, and I immediately felt at ease.The main feature of the Post was a bar. Rick took me to the next room and explained that the members were looking for two things. First, improved landscaping — the gravel walkway out front was getting dirty and dull. Second, the Post had lost track of which veterans were named on bricks in the memorial garden. We discussed researching each veteran and creating a database or memorial book.
It seemed weird to ask to do free work. But, I knew I was also getting something in return – an opportunity to do something that was important, visible and would last a long time. In a matter of days, I submitted my project for approval.
It’s unbelievable that a few years ago I didn’t even get a troop leadership position. Now I’m leading a complicated Eagle Project on my own. I can’t think of my growth without scouting; every layer of dirt caked onto my boots came with a lesson that I will keep with me.
That hit home during my last night at Camp Massawepie, where our troop spends two weeks every summer. Each year, every scout takes a few moments at the final campfire to say what camp and scouting means to them. We go in age order, so the speeches get more emotional as we reach scouts who aren’t coming back next year. Before I knew it, it was my turn — the last time I would speak to my troop at camp.
I’m not much of a public speaker. Everyone knew that, but I did my best. I started by joking about my poor public speaking skills. I mentioned how comfortable the old tents had become, and made the point that we would all be part of Troop 5 for the rest of our lives, and Troop 5 would be a part of us.
Eventually, the speeches ended. Everyone else was asleep as the seventh years sat around the embers of the campfire, some still crying. Our scoutmaster came over to us. I expected to be told to go to bed, as it was past bedtime. Instead, he said, “Gentleman, those were good speeches,” and joined us by the dying fire.
Soon all the adults sat down with us. They dropped their roles as guardians and talked to us like friends. We laughed a lot. We weren’t energetic ten year olds they had to keep under control anymore.
I’m not someone who gets held up on every little detail of life. I’m far from it. But when it comes to the things I care about, they need to have structure; they need to speak for themselves. Improving myself and doing what I can to help those around me are two things that I will never stop doing. For me, scouting has transcended camping, popcorn sales, and mind-boggling knots.
7. "I could hear the melodious tune in the background..."
I’m going on an adventure!
This past summer my friends and I got this crazy idea to go backpacking in the middle of nowhere for a few days. Of the four of us, I was the only one who had backpacked before and that had been four years ago.
I did my best to prepare. I went to an REI class and scoured YouTube. With our limited resources I ransacked Target and Amazon. I started this process three months prior to the trip which was about two and a half months before my friends did. Needless to say that week leading up to the trip was hectic. I didn’t really mind though, I was used to it. The spontaneity of my friends is probably what I love most about them.
I’m going on an adventure!
The scene kept replaying in my mind as we hiked up the mountain. The flowers danced in the wind and the trees waved, wishing us good luck. I imagined the mountain wasn’t just any mountain, but the Lonely Mountain and somewhere deep within its core lay The Great and Terrible Smaug atop unimaginable riches. I was Bilbo Baggins going on an adventure.
I have always loved books, so full of adventure and mystery. I can be anything I want to be. I can be a courageous hero battling a fierce dragon or a wizard attending a magical school. All my life I’ve read other people’s adventures and now finally I was going on one of my own!
I’m going on an adventure!
“Any moment,” I thought, “I’m going to collapse.” I was physically and mentally exhausted. “I can’t go on,” I thought. “No more! No more!” my legs screamed at me. Three hours of hiking uphill under the blistering sun had utterly drained me. I wanted to turn back; this wasn’t what I signed up for.
I was at my breaking point.
“Guys I need to stop,” I said. Too tired to respond they just nodded. We all flopped onto the ground trying to muster the energy to keep moving. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to be at home, in my bed, cuddled up with a book.
Staring at my friends, my mind flashed back to the previous night. Our bellies rumbling, we spent a half hour desperately trying to turn on the stove (ravioli never tasted so good). That night the four of us crammed into one of the two-person tents and stayed up talking about nothing and everything: school, human nature, our love lives, good and evil. I remembered the first day, we sang at the top of our lungs the entire drive to the trailhead, excited to be going on our adventure.
I stood up.
This was our adventure. Every adventure has its highs and lows. What hero hasn’t experienced some sort of trial? This was our adventure, our time to make memories. When we look back we will remember how we kept going; we didn’t give up.
With renewed purpose I trudged forward. Each step one step closer to a great memory.
After another two hours of pure determination we reached the top, and my God what a view.
I whispered, “Holy cow…”
We stood atop a cliff overshadowing a deep valley. In the valley lay an iridescent lake cut in half by a spit of land.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, and it was ours.
Having memories like this is what motivates me to go out of my comfort zone and do extraordinary things. I want to look back on my life and be able to say, “What a great adventure!”
8. "No you’re wrong, Aristotle did not think that."
“Aristotle said man’s goal is to achieve happiness by learning.” I said. “Getting hit in the boxing ring doesn’t make me happy, hanging out and debating with you in the gym does.”
My mom’s side of the family is all philosophers and my dad’s side is all engineers. I have always felt very much in the middle.
Boxing and philosophy: one pushes you physically to the limit, one pushes you intellectually. You learn both ways. You can’t have engineering without philosophy, boxing without science, or music without math.
I learn by talking.
I walked into the coffeehouse and looked for him. He was sitting in a booth surrounded by papers.
“Nick, philosopher in training, how is everything?”
“Great, Grandpa, I just finished reading Nietzsche.”
He picked up my book. Flipped through every page. Looked at my notes.
“You think too modern; everything we know came from the Greeks. They are your key to philosophy, science, boxing and medicine. Read Pythagoras.”
“The guy with the geometric theorem?”
“He was a polymath, a true thinker, just like you. He could see in between subjects and truly understand their inner workings.”
I thought my grandpa was crazy but then it made sense, I think differently.
My favorite toy as a kid was my chemistry set. During a full moon I would pull out my telescope. On the walls of my room there is a copy of Douglas MacArthur on the cover of Life, congressman John Lewis in jail, a signed picture of Manny Pacquiao boxing and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in front of the Milky Way Galaxy. In the corners I have a giant stuffed beaver wearing a Viking hat and a plastic sword, pictures of me shooting my friends with nerf guns and a karaoke machine with four microphones. On the back of my car I have a painting of a bunch of ancient Greek philosophers, quotes from Immanuel Kant and Carl Sagan and a picture of the Milky Way Galaxy. Inside I have an Iron Man mask.
I asked my boxing trainer Mark a question.
Mark says “I see you like to ask questions, don’t let anyone ever beat, harass or belittle that out of you.”
He then asks, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to you in the ring?”
“I get hit, sir.”
“WRONG, you’re going to get hit a lot in your life, you better get used to it.”
“I get knocked down?”
“That’s going to happen to you at least once! Life gets hard, you’re going to get hit, get knocked down, get told you’re wrong, dumb and that you can’t do it; the only person who has control whether you fail or succeed is you.”
“I stop trying, that’s the worst thing that can happen.”
“Right!” yelled Mark.
During the Renaissance, if you wanted to be a painter you would become an apprentice to one. That painter wouldn’t be just a teacher, but a mentor; Mark’s that painter to me. When I work for him he makes me think.
“Why do you think that? How do you know they are right?” He asks.
He pushes me to think outside of the box, and see what’s really there.
Maybe that’s why I ask so many questions?
Maybe happiness is debating Aristotle in the boxing ring?
9." Being pigeon toed is the bane of my existence."
Being pigeon toed is the bane of my existence. My feet curve inward, making me a target for bad footwork. My coach, Mark, constantly corrects me. I look at my feet in the mirror and hold my ground, feeling them align. Looking intently at my reflection, I assess my body. A fighter isn’t sloppy, she is aware of every muscle. I practice a punch, look in the mirror, assess, adjust, and repeat.
During practice, I take breaks, but mentally, I never stop correcting myself. Boxing is about self-improvement; it’s about being a mentally active fighter.
I’m watching people go before me. The sparring coach shouts at me to get into the ring. I get up and sling my body over the ropes and into a corner. People sit across the ring, mostly fighters, some spectators. I feel confident in completing my last few minutes of practice. I wait for Pete to call out my opponent as I bounce off the balls of my feet, shaking out my nerves.
“Jacque. Blue Corner.” Pete said.
No one moved. I felt trapped. I see a short, French guy, solid build, sitting down in full gear off to the right of the bleachers.
He shakes his head.
“Jacque doesn’t spar girls, Pete.” Mark said.
People don’t think I box. In middle school, I moved schools and I wasn’t sure if I wanted people to know my sport. Girls my age spent time on the soccer field, on volleyball court or in the dance studio. I was in the boxing ring. If people knew, I was afraid they would think I was weird. I was young with blond hair and a short stature. Nobody pinned me as a fighter.
I stood there, alone in the corner. “Why?!” Pete yelled. “Because,” Mark started loudly, his voice filling up the entire ring. “Jacque is what we call a coward.”
Cowardice. The worst attribute a fighter can have. Cowardice implies that you’re not taking challenges. It means when you fight, you’re doing it alone. Boxing is not an individual sport, nobody is a complete fighter without the help of others. My support is immense. It comes from the people I teach, it comes from the people I spar, it comes from my coaches.
I give the people I teach the same support my peers give me. Lauren, a spunky, seven-year-old, greets me every Friday with a smile on her face. I make her do fun activities; jabs and hooks on a giant red dummy with gloves the size of her face. Women boxers are rare, so I give her the girl-on-girl support I always want when fighting. I remind her she is strong, capable, and fearless.
I also work on technique with Cyrus. A 300 pound, 6’4 biker-dude who punches hard but forgets to keep his hands up. Although he outweighs me dramatically, we push each other. I correct him on technique; he encourages me to go “one more round.”
My main goal is to show my coaches that I strive for improvement. When Jacque didn’t listen to Pete, a coach whose purpose is to improve fighters, it means he does not want help. In return, Jacque receives no support.
As I stood in the corner waiting for an opponent, then immediately after, being denied one, thoughts raced through my head. No matter how much I practiced, Jacque would not spar me; I was a girl. I would have rather fought and lost to Jacque than to not have tried at all
I think back to correcting, absorbing, and self-improving my technique. This was an instance where I needed to learn. Mark said that my learning stretches beyond fighting. In that instant I could feel myself taking in my surroundings. I was learning, adjusting, and moving on.
10. "Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel saved my life."
Just like the renaissance paintings, I create art in order to communicate something. I recently sketched a piece portraying a woman in the constant struggle between good and bad. I wanted to make an image that would show us the relationship between our Id, ego, and super ego, a theory I learned in psychology class. I created shadowy devilish figures to portray the Id, a woman to portray the Ego, and angelic figures to represent the super ego. My favorite subject in art is the human condition- motherly instinct, a child’s innocence, human wickedness, a convict’s redemption, religion and many other human characteristics are found in my art.
In the whole process of creating a piece of art, I enjoy sketching the most. I enjoy it because it is raw, it is simple but it is the foundation of the whole piece. I always ponder, “The body has to be perfect, the mouth has to be perfect, the eyes, ears, chin, hair, neck, pose, background… it all has to be perfect”.
Goose bumps form on my arms and my pupils dilate when a good idea presents itself.
My ears lose their function as I drift into happiness.
My mouth frowns when I see a flaw.
My mind melts into conversations between selves. Self-one thinks “The hair needs more substance.” Self-two thinks “the nose is not symmetrical.” Self-ten thinks “I should stop thinking to myself.”
The conversation goes on until I can no longer see a flaw. I always strive for perfection, even when I am not drawing. Just like Michelangelo, I want to create perfection.
When I was twelve years old my father died; five months later my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to escape the sadness and boredom through art, but I was not inspired.
Then an idea struck me: the computer can give me the inspiration I needed. I rushed to the computer and googled “renaissance paintings”. I found one particular image that would change my life. The Sistine Chapel appeared on the screen for the first time. I saw the center piece; it depicted Adam stretching his finger trying to touch God.
I cannot describe the feelings that overcame me when I saw it, but I can tell you for sure, I felt exhilarated. I looked at Adam; he looked humble, kind, and innocent. I looked at God; he looked wise, magnificent, and all powerful. I felt vitalized when I saw Adam reaching for God. I wanted to be as worthy as Adam. I wanted to live fully, I wanted to learn from Michelangelo and be the best I can be.
I am now a muralist. I have been given the opportunity to influence people’s days and even their emotions. I work with a team of other students. Beyond making friends and having a good time the works that we produce together comes from the soul. Creating a mural is a team effort. Many organizations give us a chance to bring beauty to this world. The most memorable establishment I worked for was an elderly home; one woman told us “We want Elvis!” Staying true to their requests I created a scene of the 1960’s musical culture. I always feel gratified when their faces shine in amazement. I feel a connection with them when I help them immortalize a personal image on the wall.
My middle name is “Kamunge”- it means light bearer in my native tongue. Through my art and actions, I wish to bring light to those who are trapped in dark times.
11. "His name was Jake."
Elegant, graceful, and mysterious, he fascinated me. Looking at Jake was like looking into a mirror. I saw the same uncertainty on his face as I did on mine. The quiet, sweet, deep brown eyes stared deep into my soul. He was adorable and I could have watched him for hours, the way he swished his tail at the flies and scratched his head on the corner of his foot.
Horses are my release.
There really was nothing like a peaceful afternoon at the barn with a lady sitting on the fence singing to her horse, the barn manager running into her tractor while riding her four wheeler, and the neighbors’ cows loose by the trailers.
Jake had a history of stomach problems so I wanted to take some precautions. I put warm water in one bucket and molasses electrolytes in the other, my mom and I bought a slow grazing box which allowed small amounts of hay out.
Gene, the barn helper was a great help, the first day after Jake had a stomach ache, we showed up to the barn to check his stall.
“Jake poop good, three big piles!”
I always felt better knowing that Gene was keeping an eye on Jake and helping us out. You cannot accomplish everything all the time and certainly not on your own. I have learned to ask for help and that you are not any less if you do so.
My horse was anti-social and afraid of everything from a dump truck to a tiny rock, he would start shaking and lift his head up so high that he looked like a giraffe. Jake was a loner, out in the pasture corner alone nibbling at some hay.
All I wanted to do was make him feel more comfortable in his surroundings since it is no fun to live in fear.
Horses communicate through body language, a bite here to move another over, or a frisking frolic to get the others to play. I would walk Jake by the other horses allowing friendly communication, but not encouraging any rude behavior. I had to stay calm in frightening situations to keep myself and Jake safe. Taking one step at a time, breaking things, just as I had been taught to do with horses.
I learned to help horses, but it was really tools that helped me: approach and retreat, leadership, practice, time, love, obstacles, and fun. He and I both realized that sometimes you have to let your guard down to see the greatness of a community. I wanted to share all that horses had to offer by helping out an autistic student, Sam, at a therapeutic center. Even though he was unable to talk, I could still tell him what the next task was, learn his favorite color, and find out what things he liked to do. The key to communicating with Sam was keeping things simple and using your hands so he had a visual to choose from. For example, “do you like dogs (left hand) or cats (right hand)?”
Once I had become accomplished in my foundation, acting as a leader and staying confident became second nature.
Jake began to see the good side to his herd mates and have faith in me. We were able to find ourselves along with a love of community. Most importantly I realized that everybody gets scared and sad, but it is all about working through the tough times to reach the next great thing life has to offer. My horse and I have become confident, social creatures. I go out of my way at school to talk to others and meet new people.
Jake is now enjoying a life of luxury in a lush green pasture…
with his two ladies.
12. "I didn’t like Andrew at first."
Unlike most people, I’ve had the same best friends since elementary school; we would roam the playground and stay away from icky girls.
In high school, I moved on to new playgrounds. They weren’t necessarily equipped with a jungle gym. The Matthews Thriftway parking lot became our new home. Surprisingly, I’m okay with that.
We make sitting in a cramped car fun. The playful banter never seems to stop, and when you say something, you can almost guarantee that someone will try to poke fun at you.
“Let’s do something.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Well then why’d you ask … ”
“Let’s go to a movie.”
“Okay well then you think of something to do.”
“I can’t … ”
“Let’s go to the carwash and roll the windows down.”
“Shut up, I’m serious.”
After 10th grade, I started to hang out with the wrong people. The girls thought they were the prettiest and the guys thought they were the toughest. They didn’t take school seriously, more focused on partying and fun than their futures. Their carefree attitudes and overall “coolness” intrigued me. Drifting away from my real friends, I found a place with these new kids.
I knew I didn’t fit in with them nor did I want to, but I didn’t do anything about it.
I wasn’t a bad kid but it didn’t matter. I didn’t spend time with these people in school, but I hung out with them on the weekends. I became no better than them in the eyes of others.
After being grounded for the third time in six months, it hit me. It just wasn’t worth it. I wanted my friends back. I wanted my parents’ trust back. I had lost the freedom teenagers long for, and for what?
Although I was nervous, rebuilding the relationships with my real friends wasn’t difficult. They knew I was regretful – I should never have left them. They seemed happy I was back, never holding it against me.
I didn’t think I knew as much about my friends as I do. Andrew hides his feelings in an attempt to not seem weak. Jack is somewhat of a “hopeless romantic” even though it’s not obvious. Stuart needs to be complimented due to his own insecurities. I sometimes take the playful jokes to heart. These aren’t flaws, it simply makes my friends and me who we are, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve argued in that parking lot. I learned it’s not so much what I do with my free time, but who I spend it with.
We plan to spend the night in the parking lot before we all go our separate ways. Kind of like one last hurrah, but by no means is this the end.
13. "The old ladies pursed their neon colored lips. "
I was sitting at the piano in the beige-soaked lobby of the Bellewood Retirement Center, nervous. My fellow members of Passion of Melodies were chatting amongst themselves in the corner while I was getting ready to perform the song I’d been practicing for weeks.
Two years ago, when my friend Vincent talked to me about starting a group that performs music for the community, I was torn. I knew it would be an amazing experience to sing for people who don’t have much to look forward to each day, but I was anxious. Performing was always a battle between my love of music and my intense stage fright.
I was afraid of something happening like in the 5th grade.
After getting a solo in the 5th grade play, I was a pretty big deal. I owned the stage and rocked my solo for the first two nights. But the third night was the most important because it was the night they recorded it onto the DVD I would cherish for the rest of my life. Halfway through my solo, a croak emerged instead of the rehearsed F note. That DVD, if it can even be found in my house, is now most likely wedged in the back of a closet.
I have been in choir for nine years now. Since that day in 5th grade, solos have been my undoing. In Vocal Jazz in 10th grade, I was faced with the task of improvising over constantly changing chords. This sure form of embarrassment is called scatting. My scatting at the beginning of the year sounded exactly like an alien trying to communicate … and failing.
On my first attempt at scatting, my teacher gave us the option of practicing with microphones. As everyone stood up to do so, it was no longer much of an option. My alien communication didn’t improve on the mic, it was just amplified to the entire class. But as we practiced over the year, I worked against my fear and lined up to scat every time.
My friends and I founded Passion of Melodies as a way to give back to the community, but I have my secret motivation. I use Passion of Melodies to get over my fear of solos.
I perform as often as I can with Passion of Melodies, sitting down at a piano or holding a guitar with my fingers and legs shaking beyond control. In front of me sit thirty or forty senior women with idealizations of their grandchildren frozen in their heads. If I can sing in front of them, I can sing in front of anyone.
I’m doing what I need to do to get better and I’ll keep working until I can get up in front of the old ladies and sing jazz, scatting and all.
14. "I would see kids panic at the sight of their own blood."
I looked up to Bryce, my patrol leader. He was incredibly independent and could even pitch a tent in the dark.
When I became a patrol leader it was a sobering feeling. I always imagined myself working with Bryce, but the only reason I was leading was because he had left. Now, there was no one to guide me. Now, I teach new scouts how to camp.
I wanted to know more, for me and my patrol members. That is why I became an EMT.
Before EMT training, I had never learned about something that I chose or was genuinely interested in before. During EMT classes, I was able to sit through long lectures easily. Even though I had to study really hard like I did in school, the incentive was different. I didn’t learn to get a good grade. I learned all of these skills because something more important than my grade was at risk. If I didn’t learn what I was supposed to, I could hurt or kill a person.
During my second shift a call came in, an eleven month old with an amputated finger. I remember thinking, “I have no idea what do with a severed finger,” I was alone in the back of ambulance; I didn’t know where I should start.
I was freaking out but wasn’t showing it because it was my first call with someone bleeding. Whenever there’s a child there’s a mother involved, sometimes hysterical. When we arrived, I saw Peter, the crew chief, standing on the curb with the baby and the mother near by. As soon as we pulled up, the mom laid down in the stretcher with the baby on her lap and we took off.
The paper towel on the baby’s finger was covered in blood. My stomach sank. Real blood, a surprising amount for a baby. The finger wasn’t completely off though, only a deep cut on the tip of the pinky, maybe 80% of the way through. I rummaged through the med bag until I found gauze and started handing it off to Peter. Then I grabbed the clipboard and started writing down all the info on the call-sheet: name, date of birth, allergies, medicine, medical history. The baby stopped crying and the mother started to calm down. My hands were still a bit shaky but they couldn’t tell because of the bumps in the road. I couldn’t let the mom notice how nervous I was, that wouldn’t help anything. I just focused on handing gauze to my partner so he could help the patient. We got to the hospital, dropped the patient off at the pediatric ward, and gave the nurse the call-sheet I filled out. It was a relief.
In the past six months since I started on the First Aid Squad, I’ve probably been on more than 50 calls. Most of the time, the injuries are minor, but people panic to the point where they can’t take care of themselves, like a woman that got a little cut on the back of her hand but insisted on going to the hospital. When I think back to the severed finger, I realize that I’m not nearly as nervous as I was last summer. Each call has has gradually taught me to keep a level head. In Boy Scouts, we trained to do first aid but never got any practical experience. I hope I never have to use my EMT training when I’m with my patrol, but if I do, I won’t need a bumpy road to disguise my nerves.
15. "Jack, I don’t know how to fly fish."
“It’s easy, it’s flicking a stick with string into water,” Jack jibed. He wanted me to help him start a fly-fishing club and teach others at school, but I had to learn first.
I told my dad the issue and he said “look for a teacher.” I scoured through every google result and found a fly fishing store nearby. I thought I might as well go and see if I can learn about the equipment. I couldn’t have had better luck. On the door was a sign displaying dates for lesson; it was like the universe had rewarded my effort to try to learn. Inside was a quirky and energetic man named Adam. He was my first teacher.
Adam brought us out to an overpass where all the brush was cleared away. “Alright cadets, take a rod, draw a line in the sand a foot away from the water, and just start messing around.”
These were the first instructions from Adam. After fifteen minutes of “playing around,” I needed help, I was getting nowhere, I was flailing like a beached whale trapped in a net. I grunted and went to ask Adam if he would teach me. “I was waiting for you to ask,” he answered.
Three hours learning and massaging worn shoulders passed before we finished. When we got to the road, Adam said, “alright masters, I hope you have fun with your future fishing because now you know everything it takes to be a fisherman.” How could only a couple of hours be all that it takes to be a fisherman? Fishing isn’t complex, and that is one reason that many enjoyed it. It’s a simple action and anyone can become a master.
Even after experiencing lessons first hand, I was still clueless about how to teach others. “Let’s just host the meetings and let it work itself out,” Jack said. We joked around for the first couple weeks but then seriously discussed it.
We enticed friends and classmates using the brilliant phrase, “come join the fly-fishing club this Friday, if you’re not hooked we will guarantee you free waffles.” Fourteen people came and everyone had a blast.
News spread far after the first meeting and a week later the members had doubled in size. It shaped into the club that I was happy with. Some were even interested in learning to use a rod, but nobody enjoyed learning about bugs, myself included. I only talked to a few others at first, but Jack guided people into discussions about what we wanted and where we were going. Jack and I were elected President and Vice-President.
After standing in the back, I was tired of being too timid, so I calmed myself and went to interact with the others. I’m glad I decided to be social and take charge because I made several friends that I will have for life and I won’t ever have to worry about fishing alone.
I remembered my first time fishing after the lessons. I looked around the clearing and Jack had waded upstream, but there wasn’t a path offshore. I peered down at the water, which appeared dark blue like standing at the edge of the deepest part of the ocean. I took a breath, readied my rod, and cast my flies softly into the water. A small smile lit my face as I relaxed and repeated the action.
Then Jack looked at everyone in the club and asked, “who knows how to fly fish?”
I smiled and raised my hand high.
16. "Every fifteen minutes we stop, whether I want to or not."
Anyone who knows me will say that I am in scouts. That could not be any further from the truth. I have seen scout groups backpacking, and it does not look like fun. They do what my dad does, constant stopping, never getting where they want to go. I want to reach the endpoint, that is the true goal, not all these little stops along the way. Dad asks me if stopping is a bad thing, we aren’t in a rush; to him those stops are the goal. My response is that I want to get to the lake to catch fish and beat him at our little competition. So I stayed away from scouts, preferring simple trips with dad over that chaos.
Each year, we take a trip and escape to nature where all is calm and I can think. Nature is where my dad has discovered geocaching. This discovery has become his obsession. I joke with him about finding more than one geocache a day, and it’s true. It has become a competition with himself, a game of trying to have the highest number he can. This year was no different than any other time I have been up the Foss river to Malachite Lake, except this time my dad decided he would launch his own geocaches.
As the trail nears the lake, it opens up to a huge meadow on the south side of a ridge, so it gets hot and dry. The far end is a massive waterfall. Looking at it drains my energy, knowing that the top is the next chance for cold water and shade.
Sometime after noon, my head cleared and we made it up after fighting through many bushes. We flopped out on the rock we had been coming back to for years, spending the rest of the day relaxing. Dad tinkered with two pieces of Tupperware and the trinkets inside he hoped would become his own geocaches, and I stood on a log, fishing as the sun set.
The next morning I wake to my dad rustling the tent saying, “water’s hot.” Simply, get up. I get breakfast, and make my way out to the rock like the years before. This morning is different; I see the most beautiful thing ever. Nothing.
Fog rolled up the valley so thick that as it sat on the lake, it was impossible to tell where water stops and fog begins. Even though I am looking at a wall of grey, it’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. In the midst of endless grey, tiny irregularities appear, little bits of swirling chaos scattered throughout the calm.
That day we hike to a neighboring lake. Along the way, I can feel my dad behind me, looking for the perfect places to hide his geocaches. For whatever reason, he never stops. It could be because he didn’t want to ruin an otherwise perfect day for me or he simply didn’t care anymore. We get to Big Heart, fog clears and the sun comes out so we start eating lunch. I look over the outlet, a massive waterfall from which I can see everything. I feel small there, yet powerful. I am surrounded by huge mountains; yet I see where the trip began.
I will never forget that trip nor any of the trips we have taken since. I am running out of time to do these things with my dad, not because he is changing, because I am. For me, that trip was a chance to hike with my dad for one of the last times. For my dad, it was a chance to hide something he loves, a geocache. He never got that chance, but he did bring his Tupperware.
17. "As much as I love garlic..."
My mom and I are making her world famous green chile pork that literally takes hours to make. Grease flies everywhere and will eventually ruining your favorite shirt and lead to unending tears.
The meat goes in a big metal pan. A ton of spices are dumped in along with many veggies to create a little heaven in a pot.
Then the worst part happens. You have to wait. Slow roasted at a low temp for many hours.
We devour the pork that night with the guest that we have over and dine like kings. The kitchen had united us together through the power of food itself and taught me to listen.
Wisdom was literally sitting on a plate for me right there at the kitchen table.
That’s the thing about the kitchen, it’s a place of learning. I’ve learned patience, how to follow instructions, how to not cut my finger open, how to converse with other people in order to avoid awkward silences, how to chiffonade stuff, how to peel garlic, how to make people angry and how to avoid it. Simply put I don’t think the kitchen gets the credit its due. When you really think about it, the kitchen is the oldest universal place in the world.
It is a blessing to have a place like this in my life. It’s as comfortable as your own bed after a long trip.
I want to make an impact on people’s life in any way possible. I want to make everything in life the best it can be.
However, you can only achieve this if you think it through. When I was 5 years old I was hungry. I was craving cereal and acted accordingly. I brought out each component of a bowl of cereal and took a deep breath. I created a checklist in my brain so that this would be the most incredible bowl ever. Cereal first, milk second, no spills. Enjoy.
It is the constant movement and growth that is special. You can take away the kitchen, but you can’t take away the memories.
The thing about the kitchen is ability to challenge yourself intellectually. You can create something entirely new out of two different things. I mean who could’ve imagined that putting some flour, eggs, and sugar together will result in a cake.
I am able to think freely in the kitchen. It has been through years of experience and noticing the little things that I am able to pour the perfect cereal to milk ratio so that I don’t have to dump any down the drain when I am finished.
It is the sense of discovery and completion that provides that sense of familiarity.
After dinner I was charged with the honorable duty of “cleaning up the mess I had helped make.” Normally after my mom or dad would say this to me I would rebuttal, but that night was different and that’s why I responded with an affirmative “Of course!”
I want to be in the kitchen as much as I can. Heck I even do my homework in there because I know other people will be always around to talk to.
The kitchen is a place where I know I will always be accepted and never judged because mistakes are constantly made there. I often struggle when I do not reach perfection, but the kitchen is a place for me to reset and be myself.
I stood there among a kitchen that looked like a tornado had gone through it and asked myself was it all worth it? Where would I be in life without a place as simple as the kitchen? Would my hands still smell like garlic in the morning?
18. “You’re giving me this banana!?”
“Yeah. Which bananas do you want?”
“Son, let me teach you how to give someone a banana!”
I didn’t know what this day would bring me. My shift started at 9:00am and people started to pour into the food bank. I grabbed two bananas and a pack of strawberries. My friend Rob reached into a cardboard container, that went up to my chin, and heaved out a massive watermelon. We handed them out and repeated the process.
The bananas were great. They were Dole bananas fresh out of the A/C unit and packed full of flavor. As people walked by I’d ecstatically yell:
“Hey! Come try a banana! They’re really good today!”
Many cracked a smile and walked over. I then handed them my two best bananas.
After a while my bin was full of undesirable mushy, brown bananas. One man asked me for a couple of them. He wanted to make banana bread. Instead of giving him two good ones from the back I gave him ten from the bin.
Near the end of our shift I could barely see Rob’s head because he was so deep into the box of watermelons. By the entrance a hefty man wearing baggy clothes was having a physical altercation with another guy. Once security broke them up he came to my station where I handed him two bananas. He glared at me and shouted, “You’re giving me this banana!?” I started uncomfortably laughing; there was nothing wrong with these bananas. Suddenly he spat out, “Son, let me teach you how to give someone a banana!” He began to speak very fast; all I could hear was gibberish. His voice amplified, would he attack me?
The whole time he was yelling at me my mind was on high alert. I could only think about how he was close to attacking that man earlier in line. I didn’t think about running away or how I would defend myself. I just tried to remain calm. All twenty people in the front area were staring at me and the time seemed to stand still. I kept waiting for someone to come back me up. No one came. I realized it was just me and this man.
I tried talking to him but his loud babble masked over my voice. All I could do was pretend to listen. Maybe giving him different bananas would calm him down. I scrambled for my two best bananas and hoped he would take the fruit and leave. He just smiled, left the bananas and slowly lumbered away. My body relaxed. Those mere four minutes he stood at my station felt like an hour. After my encounter I was told that the man had a mental illness. Knowing I had stayed calm made me feel good. If I had freaked out the situation could have ended much differently.
I never would have guessed when volunteering I would be yelled at, especially over bananas! My natural reaction to the man’s banana rage was to stay calm. I never knew this about myself. Before I would have thought I would shy away in a situation like this. Instead I realized by staying calm and being engaged he began to settle down. But in the end I figured out that emotions and moods rub off on people. When I want to calm someone down I act calm and when I want to make someone happier I put a smile on my face.
“Hey! Come try a banana! They’re really good today!”
19. "He’s 5 feet flat, with great eyesight."
Finding “baby teeth” excites his little sister Mia and I encourage her, but I’m going for the big stuff.
My extended family has spent a week “agate hunting” on the Oregon Coast for the past 20 years. We do many activities, but combing the beaches for these golden, milky rocks is more obsession than tradition.
Pacing slowly, eyes glued to the ground, we walk bent over like hunchbacks. Some dig through sand, others search the shoreline, and I wade into the water. I look for agates independently but we move together, feeling carefree breathing in the ocean air. Laughing with my family loosens me up and puts me at ease, taking my mind off the stresses of home. I’m never unhappy when I’m on the beach with my family.
We received bad news upon arriving at the beach two years ago. My grandpa needed wrist surgery and would stay home with Grandma. I was saddened by the news, but although they were gone I wasn’t going to let that ruin the trip. It was clear immediately the dynamics had changed. Instead of following my grandparents, I spent the time in suspended animation, finding excuses to be lazy. I’d always adopted my grandparents’ energetic spirit, but in their absence, I was counting the days until we left.
On the last night, I complained about having to make s’mores on the beach, a family tradition I had loved. My uncle said, “We have to do s’mores so grandma and grandpa know we had fun.” The irony that I made an effort to make it look like I had fun felt eerie, since it used to be effortlessly enjoyable. I didn’t know why going to the coast made me feel good, but without my grandparents I couldn’t feign enjoyment.
Mia always threw a fit when it was time to go home, but that year she was happy to leave.
I found just as many agates that year as any other, in fact, we had done everything the same as always. My grandparents were the only variable that was manipulated, and yet the results had completely changed.
People grow strong or weak by feeding off the energy of those around them, and when my grandparents were around me, I always had extra positive energy to absorb. I never recognized the confidence I gained from hearing their words of encouragement, reminding me they were once in my shoes and survived the same challenges I face. The opportunity to vent, listen, and reflect with my grandparents was therapeutic, and without that we were just looking for rocks.
20. "The squirrel was in more trouble than we initially thought."
Jake, Ashok, and I soon discovered that we were jumping into a morally complex situation with no planning or experience. Everything we tried at first failed, the group could not work cohesively. As the pressure kept mounting, we felt we were on the verge of breaking down. We tried using a dart gun; and almost destroyed the fragile cohesiveness that held the three of us together.
“I don’t think we should be doing this.”
“I think we should rethink this, it isn’t working.”
I realized, right as Jake and Ashok said we should quit, that we had already made things worse and now we had to finish.
“No one wants to be here. No one wants to be doing this. But it has to be done.”
The words flew out of my mouth, at the same time the blurriness of the situation had focused into clarity; I gained control of my thoughts and actions and began delegating tasks to the others. What I remember most about the next instance was the calmness in my voice and how that cut through the mental noise and blurriness. We used this moment of direction and clarity to end the squirrel’s suffering.
Once it was over I was overcome with a sense of relief; as we parted ways we were all confident that everything was okay. All I could think about on the car ride home was going to sleep and moving on to tomorrow.
The next day, Ashok texted me and told me that he talked to his parents about what happened and that they said that he can never interact with me again.
A month later, as I lay in bed awake, I was still, helpless against the onslaught of emotion and memories, but what hurt most of all was the self-doubt. I could feel it eating away at my confidence at an ever-increasing rate. Then I just broke. I began to cry. I could no longer try and make sense of the questions and feelings. All I could think about was the inky blackness consuming my thoughts: What happened? Is Ashok himself upset over my actions or is it just his parents? Was this my fault? Could we have avoided all of this if we had just let things be? Was I in the wrong?
The squirrel’s funeral was a strangely beautiful and elegant ceremony despite being thrown together on such short notice. As I watched the candle teeter over the waves, the beautiful lights of downtown Seattle became the backdrop of this little makeshift raft. Little did I know that I was about to go on a rollercoaster of complex social navigation and that after all was said and done I would keep my friends, but I would also keep wondering.
21. "Red and green were my favorites."
Thirteen years later, the black water instilled doubt and fear in Nathan’s mind. I was a lifeguard at the waterfront at Jeff Lake Camp after my junior year. What do you do when a second grader has never swum in dark water before, is terrified to jump in and is sitting, basking in his own gloom, while all of his friends are in the lake and playing on the water trampolines on a bright, hot, beautiful summer day? I tried to use logic to convince him as I would any other person:
“Nathan go in the water! You’re wasting your time when you could be playing on the trampolines.”
He looked at me with his head tilted downward and muttered, “I don’t want to.”
“Come on Nathan, it’s just water.”
He rebuked my logic with a firm, “No!”
It was clear that the usual approach would not work. He was a second grader. They want what they want because they want it. There is no way to convince a second grader using logic. So I decided to make it fun. I jumped off the chair, where I have clear view over the lake, and stomped over to Nathan. A defiant smirk was on his face because he knew I was going to make him go into the water. I picked him up under the arms, held him up and shifted closer and closer to the edge of the dock:
“Do you wanna go in now? How about now?”
His smirk turned to a smile. “Wait, wait, wait—I’ll jump. put me down.”
I let him down and he ran to the end of the dock, jumped in the water and swam out to join his group playing on the water trampolines.
The yellow sunset spread out across the clouds, making a milky orange landscape in the sky I worked under. At camp, how do you make a mundane act of cleaning up oars into a fun activity to inspire your coworkers to join in and help? Our boss asked all seven guards to put away the paddles. It wouldn’t take all of us to do it, and no one would budge. So I stood up with a second wind of energy and said, “Come on Serpico, Let’s put the oars away.”
I got the bright idea of an assembly line to move the oars from the beach to the shed 50 feet away. I followed up with another instruction, “Serpy, go stand next to the bundle of paddles— I’ll wait here.”
He looked at me with a face of confusion, but proceeded to the pile of oars. I shouted over, “Alright Serpy, now throw them!”
Serpico then javelin-launched the oars through the air, and they came down to the left or right of me. I jumped and caught them all, while our boss drove by with a smirk on his face.
I was probably around Nathan’s age when I realized that if I have a positive attitude, I can still see the task at hand with angst, but can transform the activity into something else entirely — something that I am excited to do and share with others. I want to make everyone I meet feel how I felt when I was presented my cup of skittles.
22. "The sandy mud scratches the soles of my feet."
Here I was, blond-haired, blue-eyed, eight-year-old Nick, competing in the Japanese national championship sumo tournament in Tokyo.
The next three Saturdays, I was playing piano at huge venues in Tokyo, where my family and I lived for the past two years since leaving Seattle. I really didn’t know what was going on at these performances. A finely dressed stranger told me to go on stage, play, bow, and then walk off quickly. The key to this was my immunity to stage fright, a rarity among eight-year-olds.
When my piano teacher first brought a beginner’s jazz book, I was skeptical. Surprisingly, I found something euphorically fresh: emotion, purpose; a desire to play piano even when I could be having a nerf war with the neighbors.
I mastered tunes in the classical piano curriculum with simple time spent behind the keys. Wrong note? End of story. Unlike their classical counterparts, jazz songs were never perfect; that’s what drove me. In jazz, even when I played correctly (as written), there was more: valleys full of tones and patterns lurking right behind the facade of notes plastered to the page. If I could only tear back the curtain, I could gain access to and explore the endless jungle of notes and styles waiting for me to bring them into the groove.
Unlike my previous conceptions of music and life, there was no clear black or white, wrong or right, perfect or imperfect.
An infatuation for improvisation, desire for bright lights, understanding of grit, and love of collaboration has found its way into almost every aspect of my life. This past July, another high school intern and I were presenting our office remodel proposal to the entire engineering department at Boeing Tianjin, China. We spent the last month planning, budgeting, and bargaining to improve office capacity and worker productivity. Deep into our presentation the questions stopped. The packed room was silent. “You guys are wrong,” the CEO said. The room sighed. Our fate had been decided. The suspense was over. “There is absolutely quantifiable return. Doing more with less, you hit it on the head.”
A month later, I was squashed in the back corner of a sports bar in Snoqualmie, Washington, tapping drum sticks against my leg, elbows flush against the picture frames behind me. The dinner crowd stirred. I locked eyes with my guitarists, “two, three, four!” The cymbal discharged bursts of sound shrapnel. The sea of strobe lights flooded the room.
In the last month, I had recruited a new guitarist, and concocted twelve new songs, the culmination of garage-floors full of sweat and fingers full of blisters. My sticks were flying, sweat dripping, ears ringing; I was ecstatic.
Life is a performance, and jazz is an accurate metaphor to describe mine: brimming with unique challenges and performances, all requiring hard work and grit to overcome. I don’t want to play the same song for thirty years. I want to be creating and innovating. The greatest performances are never entirely pre-written. With improv, authenticity comes through, the most potent elevator of my performance. I no longer see things as wrong or right, win or lose, as did the eight-year-old boy in the sumo ring.
“Hakchoi!” the white-robed man barks. I leap forward. The crowd booms.
23. "Sunlight streamed through the gaps of the leaves"
I hate hiking. So much.
Unfortunately, I was on a hike to a nearby hilltop with my friend, Christy.
Ten minutes in: “Are we there yet?” I asked.
Twenty minutes in: “Can we take a break?”
Thirty minutes in: “Why is hiking even interesting?”
Finally, Christy responded with a laugh, “why did you come if you don’t like it?”
I answered, “Because I would rather spend time with friends.”
Forty-five minutes in, my perspective of the hike changed. I forgot about my weariness and started exploring. Walking in nature, I could sense the mathematics behind the natural phenomena. I imagined the floor as a coordinate system, and I was following the path of a function. I felt the frequencies of each note as Christy hummed our favorite song. I heard cicadas and remembered the first time I discovered the beauty of math through a lecture about how cicadas’ life cycles are oriented around prime numbers.
I wondered, is math discovered or invented? How is it connected to nature? When Newton saw an apple drop from a tree, he had discovered gravity, not created it. Just like gravity wasn’t invented, math wasn’t invented either. Answers already existed, we just need to find them. The fact that math has always existed in nature and can describe the phenomena around us every day truly fascinates me.
“Lisa, we have a problem.”
I was lost in my thoughts, but we were also geographically lost, facing three different potential trails. After a moment of panic, I knew what to do. There had to be a solution, I just needed to discover it.
Math has taught me to keep trying with all the available tools when facing a difficult problem.
I knew that the trail ran south and recalled reading that direction can be determined through the structures and orientations of spider webs, which tend to face southwest to maximize exposure to sunlight and the amount of prey captured due to the wind direction. With that in mind, I quickly ran back to the closest web.
Spider webs are created with mathematically precise fractal patterns that enable them to spin webs in different directions with little planning. Beginning with the identification of two structural supports, one of which the spider ascends, the spider predicts the length of silk needed and uses wind to carry it to the other side. I determined which trail to take after careful inspection of the cobweb, but my friend wasn’t convinced.
Trying to discover more hints, I noticed a pattern in how the trees grew. Tree branches become thinner as they extend upwards to mitigate gravitational effects and provide more access to light for leaves. The main trunk of a tree will grow until it produces a branch, which creates two growth points, which further multiplies in a Fibonacci sequence. I glanced towards the trail I picked. The branches were all facing one direction, like they were leading me to the top as a clear signal.
Eventually, we got to the top. The view was certainly amazing, but the experience was far more valuable. The result didn’t matter the most; it was the process and discoveries that made me proud of myself.
I still hate hiking. So much.
But because of math, I managed to make hiking interesting. I love math. I am someone who can use math to have fun, who wishes to use my passion for math to solve problems, and perhaps even make the world a better place.
Standing on top of the hill, with the sun once again streaming through a perfectly structured cobweb, I realized how much math has shaped me into who I am now.
24. "He sat there, lit his cigarette, placed it on the table, and made shoes."
“Hello, Filippo! I’m the American student my teacher talked to you about,” I said in my best Italian.
I was doing the capstone project for my junior year abroad; I could choose anything to study. I chose shoemaking. My school was in Viterbo, a mid-sized city north of Rome. While there are shoemakers in Rome, I wanted to work and connect with people in the local community, to learn from first-hand experience, not YouTube.
I was in the piccolo paese (little town) of Caprarola, a short bus ride away.
Filippo and I connected immediately by talking shoes. I showed him my sketchbook filled with hand-drawn shoe designs and explained them, in my developing Italian.
Filippo, taken aback by my designs, said, “good design is the most important part of making shoes.” His voice was so deep, so wise.
I was taken aback that he liked my designs.
Cobbling is one of those “wax on, wax off” kind of professions. Filippo became my Mister Miyagi from The Karate Kid. For three weeks, every morning for three hours, I worked in his cluttered workshop.
He sat there, lit his cigarette, placed it on the table, and now we made shoes.
I watch, ask questions, and learn about the history and culture of shoemaking. Filippo cares deeply about his work. You don’t do something for your entire life if you don’t care about it.
Caprarola is a perfect example of community. Everyone loves everyone. I say ciao to the people in the café and they know who I am and I know who they are. Filippo is a cornerstone in Caprarola. In the mornings a man from the bakery up the road brings Filippo pizza bianca for lunch. The captain of the carabinieri comes into the shop with his wife. When I meet him, he is astonished an American is picking up cobbling. I quickly realize that making shoes is not only about having a great product but connecting with the place you are in.
I felt a part of this town.
At the end of our first meeting, Filippo told me, “Make a design, call me, I want to help you.” He saw that I had the passion of a shoemaker. Then he told me to wait, glanced at my feet, went to the back of his shop, and came back with a pair of lasts: my size without asking me. He grabbed two rolls of leather and said: “here you go, it’s a gift.”
I was honored that a man I had just met would do this for me.
“Are you serious? Really? Thank you!”
We said our goodbyes.
I walked up the road and sat down at a cafe. My mind was bubbling with ideas and I just drew and drew. I took the lasts out of the bag, put them on the table, and continued to sketch. As I left, an old woman in the cafe said, “excuse me, are you making shoes?” She looked at me like I was her grandson carrying on a family tradition. She was talking to me more like a family member than a stranger.
It’s weird. Right?
I didn’t understand when I got there, but after a couple of sessions with Filippo, I learned that shoemaking in Italy is dying.
My Italian friends were amazed that I took to their town and their unique tradition. A job that is strictly Italian, full of passion and history. A career that the new generation isn’t picking up. A craft famous around the world.
I answered the woman’s question, “are you making shoes?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
25. "It’s cherry red, old, and all mine."
My dinosaur of a car has a special type of comfort. My friends don’t agree. They often regret getting in.
“Why’s it so loud?”
“Is it supposed to smell like gas?”
“I don’t wanna die!”
Their discomfort doesn’t mean we won’t have fun. My car opens up new conversations and deeper relationships. They’re already overwhelmed with unfamiliarity; any conversation won’t change that. So why not have a good one?
Along with sparking unique conversations, my car also breaks down. Keeping it on the road takes work. Everytime I roll to an unplanned stop on the curb, I get the opportunity to sit back and think. I enjoy learning my car’s components. I wish I had blueprints for the whole engine, to get every part’s purpose, down to the nuts and bolts. It’s not just a mode of transportation to me. I love gripping the skinny steering wheel and feeling it shake. I don’t have an RPM gauge. I have sound and feel. I have a pedal that communicates when to shift.
I’ve always been intrigued by how things work. For my car, I like starting with a direct path into its mechanics, like when I followed the stray wire into the broken speedometer. If I’m blocking traffic, I skip the mindful approach and jump straight under the hood to get it running. I always have fun, even in a panic.
As a kid, I enjoyed creating things. I spent hours building with legos and days in the garage constructing pointless projects. I built jumps for my remote controlled car and a makeshift forge built from the cheapest things I could get from the Home Depot.
These youthful constructions would often be interrupted by a bash on the head that turned into a physical battle between me and my older brother, Josh. He’s two years older than me. Josh’s strong desire for power and my annoying sugar-fueled energy spikes caused us to clash heads a lot. I have scars to prove it.
I hated that we couldn’t get along. I wanted us to have a good relationship.
When I was in seventh grade we figured out that we could actually kill each other. We started to understand one another. In any relationship you have to know who that person is and how they see you, or at least guess. I know how Josh perceives my actions.
If I’m watching tv, do I need to have the remote? Should I click my pen when doing homework?
Can we be responsible for our relationship?
We’ve worked to become friends. We love and understand each other.
I started by building with lego bricks, then with nails, and later with conversations.
Every project has components with a purpose and different ways to fix a broken part. If my car is stuck in the middle of an intersection or I’m struggling for air while in a choke hold, then I have to dive into the problem. But I prefer to follow a wire and see where it leads.