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Three times a week after school I go
visit my dad. When I enter the hospital room where he has lain in a coma since
his accident, my eyes often wander to the lone golf ball my mom placed at his
bedside. Just six months ago, my father was driving a golf cart across the
street that bisects the local golf course when he was hit by a car. He suffered
severe brain injury, and the doctors have ruled out any possibility of him
waking up again. When I look at him lying in bed, frail but peaceful as if he
were asleep, it's hard not to dwell on the "what ifs": what if he
hadn't played golf that day? What if he hadn't been behind the fence when the
black Camry plowed into it? What if I still had the chance to ask all those
questions that choke me up when I see him in the hospital? I can't pretend that
I have developed enough distance from the event to draw conclusions about life,
but I am already beginning to see myself in very different terms.
Ironically, through this accident my
dad has given a chance to face reality head-on. Before the accident, my
relationship with him was warm but fraught with tension. He never seemed
satisfied with what I did and reprimanded me for every wrong step I took. He had
strong opinions about my hairstyle, clothes, friends, and--above everything
else--my academic performance. When I was not sitting at my desk in my room, he
invariably asked me why I had nothing to do and told me I should not
procrastinate. He stressed that if I missed my teenage years of studying, I
would regret it later. He didn't like me going out with my friends, so I often
ended up staying at home--I was never allowed to sleep over at other students'
homes. All I remember from my past high school years is going to school and
coming back home. I was confused by my parents' overprotective attitude, because
they emphasized independence yet never actually gave me a chance to be
In terms of career, my dad often
lectured me about which ones are acceptable and which are not. He worried
incessantly about whether I would ever get into college, and he often made me
feel as if he would never accept my choices. Rather than standing up for myself,
I simply assumed that if I studied hard, he would no longer be disappointed in
me. Although I tried hard, I never seemed to get it quite right; he always found
fault with something. As if that weren't enough, he frequently compared me to my
over-achieving older brother, asking me why I couldn't be more like him. I must
admit that at times I even questioned whether my dad really loved me. After all,
he never expressed admiration for what I did, and my attempts to impress him
were always in vain.
In retrospect, I don't think I fully
understood what he was trying to tell me. These days, when I come home to an
empty house, it strikes me just how dependent on my parents' care and support I
have been so far. Now that my dad is in the hospital and my mom is always
working, I see that I must develop the strength to stand alone one day. And, for
the very first time, I now realize that this is exactly what my dad was trying
to make me see. I understand that he had a big heart, even though he didn't
always let it show; he was trying to steer me in the right direction,
emphasizing the need to develop independence and personal strength. He was
trying to help me see the world with my own eyes, to make my own judgments and
decide for myself what I would eventually become. When my dad was still with us,
I took all of his advice the wrong way. I should not have worried so much about
living up to my parents' expectations; their only expectation of me, after all,
is that I be myself.
In mapping out my path to
achieving my independence, I know that education will allow me to build on the
foundations with which my parents have provided me. My academic interests are
still quite broad, but whereas I was once frustrated by my lack of direction, I
am now excited at the prospect of exploring several fields before focusing on a
particular area. Strangely, dealing with my father's accident has made me
believe that I can tackle just about any challenge. Most importantly, I am more
enthusiastic about my education than ever before. In embarking on my college
career, I will be carrying with me my father's last gift and greatest legacy: a
new desire to live in the present and the confidence to handle whatever the
future might bring.
I walked into the first class that I
have ever taught and confronted utter chaos. The four students in my Latin class
were engaged in a heated spitball battle. They were all following the lead of
Andrew, a tall eleven-year-old African-American boy.
Andrew turned to me and said,
"Why are we learning Latin if no one speaks it? This a waste of time."
I broke out in a cold sweat. I
thought, "How on Earth am I going to teach this kid?"
It was my first day of Summerbridge,
a nationwide collaborative of thirty-six public and private high schools. Its
goal is to foster a desire to learn in young, underprivileged students, while
also exposing college and high-school students to teaching. Since I enjoy
tutoring, I decided to apply to the program. I thought to myself, "Teaching
can't be that difficult. I can handle it." I have never been more wrong in
After what seemed like an eternity,
I ended that first class feeling as though I had accomplished nothing. Somehow I
needed to catch Andrew's attention. For the next two weeks, I tried everything
from indoor chariot races to a Roman toga party, but nothing seemed to work.
During the third week, after I had
exhausted all of my ideas, I resorted to a game that my Latin teacher had used.
A leader yells out commands in Latin and the students act out the commands. When
I asked Andrew to be the leader, I found the miracle that I had been seeking. He
thought it was great that he could order the teacher around with commands such
as "jump in place" and "touch the window." I told him that
if he asked me in Latin to do something, I would do it as long as he would do
the same. With this agreement, I could teach him new words outside the
classroom, and he could make his teacher hop on one foot in front of his
friends. Andrew eventually gained a firm grasp of Latin.
Family night occurred during the
last week of Summerbridge. We explained to the parents what we had accomplished.
At the conclusion, Andrew's mom thanked me for teaching him Latin. She said,
"Andrew wanted to speak Latin with someone, so he taught his younger
My mouth fell open. I tempered my
immediate desire to utter, "Andrew did what?" I was silent for a few
seconds as I tried to regain my composure, but when I responded, I was unable to
hide my surprise.
That night I remembered a comment an
English teacher had made to me. I had asked her, "Why did you become a
She responded with a statement that
perplexed me at the time. She said, "There is nothing greater than
empowering someone with the love of knowledge." Now, I finally understood
what she meant.
When I returned to Summerbridge for
my second summer, the first words out of Andrew's mouth were, "Is there
going to be a Latin class this year?"
I close my eyes and can still hear
her, the little girl with a voice so strong and powerful we could hear her
halfway down the block. She was a Russian peasant who asked for money and in
return gave the only thing she had--her voice. I paused outside a small shop and
listened. She brought to my mind the image of Little Orphan Annie. I could not
understand the words she sang, but her voice begged for attention. It stood out
from the noises of Arbat Street, pure and impressive, like the chime of a bell.
She sang from underneath an old-style lamppost in the shadow of a building, her
arms extended and head thrown back. She was small and of unremarkable looks. Her
brown hair escaped the bun it had been pulled into, and she occasionally reached
up to remove a stray piece from her face. Her clothing I can't recall. Her
voice, on the other hand, is permanently imprinted on my mind.
I asked one of the translators about
the girl. Elaina told me that she and hundreds of others like her throughout the
former Soviet Union add to their families' income by working on the streets. The
children are unable to attend school, and their parents work fulltime. These
children know that the consequence of an unsuccessful day is no food for the
table. Similar situations occurred during the Depression in the United States,
but those American children were faceless shoeshine boys of the twenties. This
girl was real to me.
When we walked past her I gave her
money. It was not out of pity but rather out of admiration. Her smile of thanks
did not interrupt her singing. The girl watched us as we walked down the street.
I know this because when I looked back she smiled again. We shared that smile,
and I knew I would never forget her courage and inner strength. She was only a
child, yet was able to pull her own weight during these uncertain times. On the
streets of Moscow, she used her voice to help her family survive. For this
"Annie," there is no Daddy Warbucks to come to the rescue. Her
salvation will only come when Russia and its people find prosperity.
Tom Zincer succeeded in his task. My
science class's first field trip took place on a bitter cold February day in
Maine. Tom, our science teacher, led the group of relatively puzzled,
well-bundled students into the forest. I was right behind Tom, and the sound of
his red boots breaking through the thin layer of ice that covered the crusty
snow seemed to bounce off the trees and scare away the few singing birds that
had not migrated south for the winter. We stopped fourteen times during that
four-hour field trip to hear Tom ramble on about the bark of "this"
deciduous tree and the habitat that "this" coniferous tree needs to
grow. We examined animal droppings and tracks in the snow and traced a bird's
song back to its singer. This was all meaningless to me. I was cold and bored
and wanted the field trip to end.
I would later write several essays
in my journal about the fact that writing a detailed seven-page analysis of the
field trip took all the beauty out of the event. I would complain to Tom about
how boring and mundane his class was and how impossible it was to be so
"anally" observant. I argued that no field trip could ever be
enjoyable if we had to write down and later analyze the percentage of deciduous
and coniferous trees, the air temperature, the amount of snow on the ground, the
slope of the course taken, the change in temperature over the day, and a
plethora of other minutia. Basically, I was lazy. No, no. I was not lazy. I was
just not ready; I was not yet ready to become an observer.
"Sam, just trust me on this
one. You'll thank me later," Tom said at the conclusion of our meeting. I
had gone to see Tom privately in order to discuss how I could survive his class.
The minutia was killing me, and my slow death was reflected in my dismal grade.
Upon leaving that meeting, I made a personal and academic decision to develop my
observational skills, both to please my teacher and to avoid the disappointment
of another "D+."
On my next field trip, I set out
into the forest with two pencils cocked between my two ears like guns ready to
fire. My teeth were clenched with the determination to stay focused throughout
the entire field trip and write down every word that man uttered. However, I
constantly felt myself drifting, and while my mind wandered, the group advanced
significantly ahead of me, and I missed the sighting of another bird. I ran up
to the group just in time to hear Tom start his lecture about a nearby rock
formation. Instead of listening, I was asking my friend to see his Picasso-like
rendition of the bird. I, therefore, fell behind on the lecture, and so went the
endless cycle: fall behind, try to catch up, fall more behind. When it came time
to rewrite my field notes in legible form, I stared at a piece of paper that
consisted of smudged squiggly lines and eventually tears. Frustrated and
disappointed, I retreated back to my cabin to seek refuge.
I quickly got undressed and slipped
under my blanket for warmth, comfort, and most importantly protection. After I
gave myself a few minutes to calm down, I took out the wet crumbled piece of
paper from my pocket and tried to redraw a stick figure of a bird. The twelve
stick figures, representing the twelve different birds we saw, looked exactly
the same, and trying to redraw each body part of each bird to scale was so
difficult that I felt like each pen stroke was met with a ton of resistance.
Giving up, I pushed the piece of paper back into my pocket and lay down on my
back. I saw Simon sitting in his characteristically feminine position on Ethan's
bed. Simon was sitting, facing Ethan, with his legs crossed and his right hand
casually nestled on his right kneecap, his foot twitching like the tail of a
happy dog. Ethan was lying on his side with his big black headphones cupped
around his ears, reading Faulkner. As my head swiveled, I noticed Conrad,
sleeping, as usual, with his blanket clenched tightly under his chin, with both
fists. I heard Fred and Rob discussing the pitfalls of modern education and
could see Donald's head rhythmically moving back and forth, in sync with Jimi
Hendrix. I then realized that I too was part of my environment. I realized that
I was a silent participant, and more importantly, I realized that I was an
On my next field trip, I had one
pencil nonchalantly nestled on top of my right ear. I set out with no mission in
mind and had no vengeance in my heart. I intentionally lagged behind my fellow
classmates in order to get a wider, broader perspective of the environment.
Applying what I learned in my cabin, I was able to engage all of my senses and
could attempt to take in the vastness of it all. When we returned from our field
trip, the task of doing a "rewrite" did not seem so odious, and my
pencil flew across the page like a writer who just experienced an epiphany and
wants to get his idea down before he forgets it. I drew every bird, tree, and
rock as best I could, and although they were not perfect, they were exactly what
and Interests Essay
The sun is still asleep while the
empty city streets await the morning rush hour. As in a ritual, my teammates and
I assemble into the dank, dimly-lit locker room at the Rinconada Park Pool. One
by one, we slip into our moist drag suits and then make a mad run from the
locker room through the brisk morning air to the pool, stopping only to grab a
pull-buoy and a kick-board. Coastal California cools down overnight to the high
forties. The pool is artificially warmed to seventy-nine degrees, and the clash
in temperatures creates a plethora of steam on the water's surface, casting a
scene more appropriate for a werewolf movie. Now the worst part: diving
head-first into the glacial pond. I think of friends still tucked in their warm
beds as I conclude the first warm-up laps. Meanwhile, our coach emerges through
the fog. He offers no friendly accolades, just a stream of instructions and
Thus begins another workout. 4,500
yards to go, then a quick shower and five-minute drive to school. Another 5,500
yards are on our afternoon training schedule. Tomorrow, the cycle starts all
over again. The objective is to cut our times by another 1/10th of second. The
end goal is to have that tiny difference at the end of a race that separates
success from failure, greatness from mediocrity. Somehow we accept the
pitch--otherwise, we'd still be fast asleep beneath our blankets. Yet sleep is
lost time, and in this sport time is the antagonist. Coaches spend hours in
specialized clinics, analyzing the latest research on training techniques and
experimenting with workout schedules in an attempt to unravel the secrets of
My first swimming race was when I
was ten years old and an avid hockey player. My parents, fearing that I would
get injured, redirected my athletic direction toward swimming. Three weeks into
my new swimming endeavor, I somehow persuaded my coach to let me enter the
annual age group meet. To his surprise and mine, I pulled out an "A"
time. National "Top 16" awards through the various age groups, club
records, and finally being named a National First Team All-American in the 100
Butterfly and Second Team All-American in the 200-Medley Relay cemented an
achievement in the sport. Reaching the Senior Championship meet series means the
competition includes world-class swimmers. Making finals will not be easy from
here: these 'successes' were only separated from failure by tenths of a second.
And the fine line between total commitment and tolerance continues to produce
friction. Each new level requires more weight training, longer weekend training
sessions, and more travel. Time that would normally be spent with friends is
increasingly spent in pursuit of the next swimming objective.
In the solitude of the laps, my
thoughts wander to events of greater significance. This year, my grandmother was
hit with a recurrence of cancer, this time in her lungs. A person driven by good
spirits and independence now faces a definite timeline. On the other side of the
Pacific Ocean, my grandfather in Japan also contracted the disease. His
situation has been corrected with surgery--for now, anyway. In the quest to
extend their lives, they have both exhibited a strength that surpasses the
struggles I confront both in sports and in life. Our different goals cannot be
compared, yet my swimming achievements somehow provide a vicarious sense of
victory to them. When I share my latest award or partake with them a story of a
triumph, they smile with pride as if they themselves had stood on the award
stand. I have the impression that my medals mean more to them than I will ever
Life's successes appear to come in
small increments, sometimes mere tenths of a second. A newly learned skill, a
little extra effort put on top of fanatical training routine, a good race day,
or just showing up to a workout when your body and psyche say "no" may
separate a great result from a failure. What lies in between is compromise, the
willpower to overcome the natural disposition to remain the same. I know that my
commitment to swimming carries on to other aspects of life, and I feel that
these will give me the strength to deal with very different types of challenges.
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