Reshma Yaqub, College Essay Coach  

Beautiful Examples

Read these beautiful essays by local students. These essays are shared with the kind permission of each author.
J., Maret School

Official Resume

Student                              2005 to Present

Athlete                              2006 to Present

Musician                              2006 to Present

Little Brother                         1999 to Present

Performing little brothering duties for older sisters E., 19 and C., 22. Responsibilities include, but are not limited to:

Idol Worship. My first memory of life is being three-years-old and watching C., 8, bouncing on her pogo stick in our basement. I was suddenly flooded with amazement at her skill, her grandeur, and her sheer oldness. From that day on, my idol worship extended to whatever my sisters did. They took piano lessons, so I needed to take piano lessons. They insisted on chicken nuggets for dinner every night, so I insisted on chicken nuggets for dinner every night. They wanted to dress me up in their clothes, braid my hair and parade me around the house? No problem - I was a willing human doll. They wanted to repeatedly change the rules of our patio basketball games midway, so I could never win? Couldn’t get enough of it….

Providing Baritone to E.’s Alto and C.’s Soprano. Ever since we were little, singing together, and harmonizing has been our favorite thing to do together. As the eldest, C. brought home the songs she learned in choir class, and made it her duty to teach E. and me how to sing them in rounds - where one person comes in and then the next. As we got older, E. and I reached C.’s level and our harmonies got even tighter and more complex. Recently we shared the sweetest, saddest performance of our lives together - singing our grandmother’s two favorite songs at her funeral: “The Sound of Music” and “Edelweiss.”

Amiable Companion. Over the years, we have snuggled together on the couch in our blankies, we have sledded neighborhood hills together for hours on end, and we have done our homework side by side. Whatever it is we do, it’s better when we do it together.

TV Critic. On Monday nights, everything else is off the table, except for our favorite reality tv show - The Bachelor. We debate essential questions like, “What’s going to happen with Chad and Alex?” And “Could Ben seriously love two women at once?” Whenever anything shocking happens, we scream and have to rewind and watch it again. Anytime a friend is over, we don’t let the embarrassment of our guilty pleasure get the best of us.

Competitive Foil. The Quiz Game is a longstanding family tradition, in which my dad takes turns asking us tricky questions, from the anatomy of insects to the speed of light. It gets more heated than you might expect. Another sibling tradition is seeing who can “win” each roller coaster at the amusement park that we go to every three years. You win a coaster by riding it for the first time at a younger age than the others rode it for the first time. One of my happiest moments in life was winning a monster of a coaster at age 9. I walked around all day with my chest puffed out.

Competitive Ally. At holiday gatherings, my extended family likes to break out the board games. One year, Aunt Helen made the mistake of choosing Name That Tune. The three of us screamed out every correct answer - “Kelly Clarkson!” “Justin Bieber!” “Michael Buble!” We tried not to act too smug about demolishing everyone, but we failed. Since then, we are forbidden from participating in any musical games.

Comic Timing. Big sisters are not that easy to impress. A little brother has to master dry humor, irony, and wry observations. It also helps to offer up a hilarious vine video every now and then.

Providing Empathy. Learning when to offer advice and when to just listen.

Protector. Killer of spiders. Glaring meanly at any boys who want to date C. or E.. Making sure that my sisters are safe and happy in the world.

B., St. Albans School

My grandpa leans back in his old green chair, holding his newspaper and joking with my grandma, who can’t stop cleaning no matter how clean the house is. Grandma’s in overdrive because there are two dozen family members in her house, gathered for another holiday. In the corner of the living room, one of my uncles is playing the guitar, and a five-year-old cousin is jamming on the piano. My brother and I grab our own guitars, and my dad pulls out his phone to take one of his famous selfies - with just the top of his head showing, and in this case, my left hand and guitar neck.

Every time my extended family gets together, there’s a lot of laughter. Mostly because every single person here is such a unique character. There’s the uncle who’s a techie and loves making presentations. At every family gathering, you can find him creating charts about who has to do which chores. Then there’s the uncle who has his own unique sense of fashion - including a mullet and crocs. There’s the uncle who almost never blinks. (My cousins and I try to imitate him, but we never last as long as he does). And there’s the aunt who nonchalantly tells extremely dramatic stories, like about her car flipping over, in the same tone that she talks about what happened at the grocery store.

When it comes to unique family characters, I’m no exception. My family knows my quirks inside and out, and they love me for them. They know that my true passions are creating music and tinkering with old cars. They know that I love solving problems with my hands, whether it’s taking my guitar apart to adjust its sound, replacing the entire exhaust on a car, or bringing a neighbor’s broken down lawn tractor back to life. They know that for my birthday, I ask for things like jacks and jack stands. They know that I often fall asleep with my eyes open. And that I get up before dawn on Saturday mornings so I can go to Cars And Coffee, a weekly gathering where people from all over bring their old cars to look at them and talk about them with each other. My family knows all my favorite stories - especially the one about the time my band was playing a gig at a gas station and a famous local musician stopped to get gas, then started jamming with us.

One of our favorite things to do at family gatherings is retelling old our stories. Like the time my uncle’s canoe capsized, and the first thing he did was fumble in his pocket and hold his cell phone up in the air, as he went crashing into the water. Or the time my cousin started eating her birthday candles because she thought that’s what everyone else was doing (we were just licking the frosting off them). Or the time my uncle gave my dad a prank gift of stale cupcakes. They were rewrapped and re-gifted back to him as a present from my grandparents.

Over the years our family has developed our own funny habits and rituals. It’s impossible to just hug someone here because everyone’s always inventing new and weirder ways to hug and fist bump each other. Whenever someone’s missing from a family gathering, we photoshop them into pictures from the event. We also all have strangely loud and distinct sneezes. You can tell who’s where in the house by their sneeze. And no matter what we’re doing, we all stop to say bless you.

I know how much my family loves me, when I’m with them, and also when I’m not with them. Any time I ever miss a family gathering, I get a note afterward, telling me how much I was missed. My goal is to get as few of those notes as possible.

J., Connelly School of the Holy Child

I hear the sound of my pink Razor scooter as it scrapes along the concrete. It mixes with the laughter and screams of my four siblings. Well, technically just one of them is my sibling, my brother J.. But our cousins, A., G., and L. are basically our brother and sisters too. In the middle of one of our races, G., who’s in kindergarten like me, decides, as usual, that he wants to take a nap. He pulls his scooter over into the grass and falls asleep right there on the ground.

Every good memory I have of my childhood features the five of us. There’s us eating glazed donuts until we make ourselves sick. My record is six. There’s us playing Checkers, Mother May I, and games of cops and robbers that last all day. The best is when we make up our own games, like Octopus, where one person stretches out and rolls around on a trampoline and tries to catch the rest of us, who are jumping over him.

At night we would climb into our favorite matching superhero pajamas to watch scary movie marathons together. Every summer we would pick a theme. Netflix has a surprisingly good collection of scary outer space movies! We still do the movie marathons, but sadly we’ve given up the superhero pajamas.

We are the holders of all of each other’s best childhood memories. Most of our childhood pictures show the five of us together. Many times we took long road trips together. We would play I Spy until we got tired, and then fall asleep on each other’s shoulders. Lots of our favorite memories are from going away to summer camp together, like when L. and I had our tents rained out. Or how G. and I always got the most mosquito bites at camp, no matter how much bug spray we slathered on.

Together we noticed all of life’s absurdities. Like how my mom loves healthy cooking and organic food, while my dad’s favorite thing in the world is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. We laughed at how our extended family reunions always took place on a pig farm in the middle of nowhere. We tried not to laugh at all my dad’s bad jokes, because if we laughed, he would recycle them. Our favorite was whenever we went out to dinner, he would look at the bill and ask us, “Who ordered the tax?”

We have been each other’s support system during the best times, but also during the lowest points of life. Like the three times that our grandmother got cancer, and when she eventually lost her life. It was hard on all of us in different ways, but we grieved together and we got through it together.

These four people know everything about me. They know that my favorite sport to play is tennis, but my favorite sport to watch is hockey. They know not to get me started talking about the Washington Capitals because if I do, I probably won’t stop anytime soon. They know that I love doing a crossword puzzle every day, and that my day feels incomplete if I miss one. They know that I still secretly sleep with my childhood stuffed animal, a fuzzy, white stuffed lamb named Douglas.  

I’m so lucky to have these four amazing people who make me feel completely understood and fully known. We can all be our odd, quirky selves around each other. There is nothing to hide, because we know everything about each other and we fully accept each other for who we truly are. Because of them, I feel confident and secure, not worried about what other people might think of me.

It has been such a huge gift to have grown up together, the five of us. It’s because of their love and support that I am who I am today.

S., Georgetown Day School

My hands move up and down, up and down, struggling to force life back into the elderly man dying on the floor in front of me. As I perform CPR on him, I feel the fragility of his already broken rib cage. I notice the skin on his hands, scraped back to the bone. I hear his wife, sobbing quietly in the background. Time slows until, finally, 20 minutes later, my fellow EMTs and I have to inform the man’s heartbroken wife that he is dead.

I became an EMT two years ago, because I wanted practical experience on my path towards becoming a doctor. Since then, I’ve spent over 700 hours volunteering. That includes weekly overnight shifts in the summer and weekly late night shifts during the school year. Plus 20-hour weekend duties every six weeks, year round.

I’ve experienced some surreal moments on this journey. Like the man who walked towards me so covered in blood that his blue jeans were crimson. The woman who tried to kill herself because she was so distraught after botched surgery. And the veteran with alcohol poisoning, who clung to my hand, begging me not to let go, and mumbling, “You don’t know what I’ve seen.”

But not every call is life-threatening. Some nights you get one call for constipation, followed by another for a nosebleed. Sometimes the people we treat just need a little comfort, like the lady who claimed she constantly heard symphonies in her head. She told us she called us because she was so sick of Beethoven that if she heard his Symphony No. 9 one more time, she would drop dead.

As an emergency worker, I have a window into people’s lives during their most vulnerable and intimate moments, when they’re in pain and they’re afraid. I’m entering their homes, their most private domain, when they haven’t had time to clean up or cover parts of themselves they typically keep hidden from the outside world.

Many of my calls are to the nursing home where my grandfather, who had Fragile X syndrome, spent his last days. I try to behave with each person the way I can only hope my squad behaved when they responded to him.

Alongside treating patients, I also care for family members during a crisis. I’ve learned how small gestures of comfort and kindness have a huge impact on people’s worst experiences.

I’ve learned a lot about human nature through this process. Someone who’s anxious by nature will panic. Someone who’s a caretaker by nature will try to cheer me up, even when he can barely breathe. Someone who doesn’t love his wife will stand back and drink a beer, watching her die on the floor. Crisis makes us more of who we are.

This process has also taught me a lot about myself. I’ve learned how tough I am, both physically and mentally. Tuesdays are 20 hour days for me, with school, track practice, EMT, and homework. As an EMT, it doesn’t matter if I’m exhausted or hungry. I’ve learned to put my needs aside to attend to the needs of others. I’ve also learned to work well under pressure and keep a calm demeanor, even when lives are crumbling in front of me.

I’ve learned that we are more than just our biology; we are defined by our stories and life experiences. Medicine is about so much more than a simple diagnosis, it’s about patient care, compassion, and empathy.

Perhaps most importantly, being an EMT has taught me to use my time wisely. Both on a practical daily level, with balancing my responsibilities, but also in a greater sense - it has taught me the value of time and the fragility of life. Constantly seeing people clinging to life and clinging to their loved ones has taught me how I want to live the rest of my own days.

F., Whitman High School

As the river narrows, I notice a tiny section along the bank where the water is calmer; a perfect spot for fish to lurk just below the surface. I paddle my old, leaky canoe towards it, and tie off to a sturdy branch that juts over the eddy.     

I reach into my bait bucket and pull out a handful of cow guts, letting the blood and slime drain through my fingers. I carefully wrap the intestines around my fishing hook, cast out my line and… wait.

I was six-years-old when I first learned the art and science of fishing from my father’s uncle. In the dozen years since, I’ve fished with many companions - my dad, my brother, my friends. But more often than not, like today, I fish alone.

From beneath the brim of my fishing hat - a stained, tattered safari hat that accompanies me on every expedition - I watch nearby birds wading in the shallows, competing with me for fish. I see turtles and snakes basking comfortably in the sun, until another creature gets too close; then they slide into the water and disappear.

Many of my best memories involve fishing. I was overcome with joy when I reeled in my first fish, a palometta. I once caught 19 fish in the span of three hours. By the fourth fish, I began releasing them back to the water, but I continued fishing, purely for that feeling of euphoria that fills me every time my line tightens. I’ve never experienced that feeling more strongly than when I spent an hour reeling in a 100-pound tuna from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. It was almost too great a catch. For the next week, my family ate tuna three times a day, because as a fisherman, I respect my catch too much to waste an ounce.

Being a good fisherman requires many skills. You have to understand your environment - knowing where to fish, and when it’s time to move on. You have to understand the fish themselves. To know what bait lures in which catch - guts and worms for bottom feeders and small baitfish for predatory fish with keener eyesight. And you have to understand your equipment. When to weight the line so the bait falls to the riverbed, and when to add a bobber so it floats higher. When to use a braided line versus a nylon one, and how to tie proper knots into each. And, as I’ve done more than once, you have to be able to pull hooks out of your own hand.

Being a fisherman has taught me to be methodical and adaptable. It has made me a meticulous thinker, confident in my ability to strategize. But perhaps most importantly, it has taught me patience. Fish don’t bite on our schedule.

For me, time spent waiting on the water is a meditation. I allow my mind to drift to some of the things that make me the happiest… The long hikes I take with my mom and my dog, T. My daily one-on-one basketball game with my brother. How I feel after a long day at the free health clinic where I volunteer with my dad.

I take a deep breath and inhale the scent of the air, the river, and the day’s fish. So far today I have reeled in three dorados, a satisfying catch for the four hours I’ve been out. As the noonday sun beats against me, I decide it’s time to take a rest. I reel in my line and set aside my rod. I reach for the lunch that I’ve packed - cheese, salami, bread. I make myself a sandwich and gently toss leftover bread into the river. After our hours of worthy battle, the fish deserve a rest too, and some lunch. Within seconds, I hear splashes at the surface, and one by one, the bits of bread disappear.

A., Langley High School

I pass a bag of M&M’s to my sister A., and then flip the song on our backseat speaker to California Girls. My parents’ historical fiction audiobook is blaring in the front seat. The four of us watch mile after mile pass, on our 12-hour drive from Badlands National Park to Glacier National Park. Suddenly, A. spots an eagle in the distance. We hurriedly pass around our two pairs of binoculars, and grumble about why we didn’t pack four.

Welcome to our annual family road trip. Every summer we set out for several weeks of adventure, spending each night in a new town. Months beforehand, we each make lists of where we want to go. I use two very “scientific” methods for my picks: Places with the prettiest pictures on the Department of Interior’s Instagram page. And places with cool names - like Badlands or Thor’s Hammer. After much sighing, my dad plans the most practical route for us.

Over the years, we’ve seen some amazing sights, like the towering buttes in Monument Valley, the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone, and plenty of wildlife, like bears, marmots, and bison. But the little unexpected treasures we stumble across are the ones that become our favorites - from a herd of cows blocking our path on a rural road, to a prairie dog park where the animals pop out from the ground underneath you, to a balloon art architecture exhibit in a museum supposedly dedicated to dinosaurs. We also can’t pass a guest book without signing it, whether it’s a quaint bed and breakfast or the Kelso Depot in the Mojave Desert. A. and I flip through it, amused by everyone’s comments, and call my parents over if we find someone from Japan, Germany, India, China, or Virginia - all the places that we are from.

All that togetherness in the car - often in areas without wifi or cell service - leads to a lot of talking, a lot of laughing and a lot of weirdness. We laugh at my dad for “squirreling” food from hotel breakfasts to eat in the middle of the day. And at how he loves to tell restaurants that it’s someone’s birthday, so we can get free dessert. We giggle at the weird names my mom makes up for things, like calling Yosemite’s Half Dome “the Dolphin Head,” and how she points at things with her middle finger, which is apparently normal where she grew up in Japan. We laugh at A.’s habit of ruining every tv show for us, because she can’t keep the ending to herself. Or my habits of making wishes on everything, and writing letters to myself to read five years in the future. One weirdness we all share is our obsession with our two cats. We spend half the trip talking about how much we miss them, and when we’re back in civilization, where we can receive texts, my mom reads us messages the cat sitter has sent about what T. and R. are up to.

The conversation in our car often drifts to retelling our favorite family stories. Like the road trip when we were 10, when A. and I insisted on eating McDonald's every night. It was fun at the time, but it sounds disgusting now. Or the time I dared A. to put a bead up her nose, and she ended up in the hospital. My grandpa still keeps the bead in a jar on his desk. And then there’s our favorite family story - Gotcha Day, the day when my parents adopted us.

These road trips have made my life so much richer. The only thing that could match the beauty of the sights we see is the beauty of how much we enjoy seeing them together.

B., Langley High School

I take two quick steps to the right and shoot a jumper straight into the net. ​With my entire family’s eyes on me, I know the next play is crucial. I steal the ball from my opponent and drive to the hoop. Swoosh.  Game over. My opponent, aka my twin sister E., groans - because now she’s going to be taking out the trash. In our family, who does which chore is decided by a simple basketball game­. First one to 11 wins, no questions asked.

Since I was a toddler, my world has revolved around basketball. There’s hardly an area of my life that basketball doesn’t touch. I play, manage and coach with different teams. My sister has been my teammate for years; when we’re on the same side, we effortlessly read each other on the court. My dad, who loves the game, can’t get enough of talking to us about it. Every night he and I go for a drive. It’s our time together. And we spend it talking about the sport. How are my practices going? Have I been using the visualization techniques he taught me? Do I want to coach with him next year?

My brother, my sister and I all coach different teams in the same youth league. From our friendly pre-­game banter to the in-game intensity and the post-­game discussion, each of us looks forward to every showdown.

Something else my whole family looks forward to is the annual March Madness Tournament. In our house, the insanity encompassing this month-long college tournament is unimaginable. My family’s group text chat hits over 200 messages a day, rehashing every buzzer beater, every heartbreaking upset, and the endless bets we’ve made on every game.

My basketball teammates are also a huge part of my life. Between all the time before and after games, practices, and tournaments, it’s inevitable that a second family will form. Some of my greatest memories are from our long road trips to tournaments and our team sleepovers, affectionately known as “Prank City.” Let’s just say you don’t want to be the first one to fall asleep.

Both on the court and off, we are best friends. It doesn’t matter if you miss the game winning shot, or if you’re just having a bad day -  we have each other’s backs. My teammates’ support was especially meaningful during the hardest time of my life, after the sudden death of my uncle in 2010. At the first game that I returned to, my teammates rallied around me. Each of them wrote my uncle’s initials and the date on their basketball shoes, in homage to him. This gesture remains in my heart even six years later.

Following my uncle’s passing, basketball has become a way for me to connect to his young children, one of whom wasn’t even born when he died. I’ve coached the eldest for years, and I’m coaching the youngest this winter. My cousins often spend weekends at our home. I wake up early on Saturday mornings to teach them trick moves, and laugh when I find them waiting for me, wearing my jersey, pretending to be me.

Basketball has taught me countless lessons that have nothing to do with playing the game itself. It has taught me how to win humbly and lose gracefully. It has taught me the importance of mental strength. In my role as a coach, basketball has taught me to be a teacher and a leader. (Tip: you can get little kids to do almost anything with the promise of a Slurpee.)

I untie my sneakers, glad that, at least for this day, I’m not the one taking out the trash. But even if I had lost, it wouldn’t matter. I’m just happy for the chance to play. The basketball court may be where scores are settled, but it’s also where I am calm, content - and most importantly - completely myself.

C., Langley High School

I’m fast asleep when I feel a tiny hand knocking on my arm. I open my eyes to see my 6 a.m. alarm, also known as my five-year-old cousin, D. She wakes me every morning, eager to tell today’s knock-knock joke. I pull her into the blanket with me and reply, “Who’s there?”

D. is one of my three cousins who actually feel more like little siblings. They moved in with us after their father died suddenly from a heart attack six years ago. At the time, S. was six. K. was one. And D. wasn’t even born yet.

Everyone in my family of five dotes on the kids, but my twin sister N. and I have a special connection with the girls. Maybe it’s because of all those times in the middle of the night that we woke to their cries and stumbled to the kitchen to put together a bottle.

To most 11-year-olds, the sight of a saggy diaper spewing with a foul odor is enough to make you bolt. To N. and me, all it meant was that we needed to grab wipes and a clean diaper and change it. We couldn’t get enough of the kids. In the mornings, N. and I woke early, put them in strollers, and took them on long walks before heading to school ourselves. At night, we tucked them in by singing their favorite Gummy Bear song.

Over the years, it hasn’t been just us taking care of them. These three kids have grown into kind souls who always look for ways to care for us too. They come to every one of my basketball games, cheering and clapping louder than anyone else. They love surprising me with my favorite candy, Sour Patch Kids. I often come home to find a handmade card on my bed, with misspelled words intended to say, “I love you.” When I’m tired, they offer to read me a book. If I fall asleep at night without plugging in my phone, they’ll quietly put it on the charger.

I’ve delighted in watching the kids grow into their own unique personalities. S. is smart, funny and a great basketball player. K. is a tomboy who loves playing sports and digging for worms. D. loves to dance and dress like a princess.

I’m a different person than I would be if I hadn’t helped raise my cousins. Their sweet faces and innocent dependence on me make me a more responsible person. It’s my job to help make sure they eat their vegetables, wash their hair, and wear their seatbelts. By leading them, I’ve learned when to be strict and when to be lenient. I’ve learned that saying yes all the time isn’t easy, nor is it in anyone’s best interests. Taking care of them has given me a better understanding of, and appreciation for, my own parents.

Because the kids are watching my every move and often imitate my actions, I make better decisions. I don’t curse, break rules, or act irresponsibly. I’ve learned to surround myself with better people, because my friends are also people that the kids spend time with and look up to. Having the kids in my home has also made me closer to my whole family. Their energy and laughter bring us all together, instead of letting us retreat to our separate rooms.

Losing my uncle was a terrible tragedy. He was a friend, a shoulder, and a role model to me. I still can’t believe he’s gone. But I feel blessed that I’ve been able to help do for my cousins many of the things that he did to make my childhood great.

I feel D. tugging at my blanket. I roll towards her, tap on her arm and say, “Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?” she replies.

“Family,” I tell her. I’m here for them. And they’re here for me.

M., St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

Phil Dunphy is coaching his son Luke through messaging his crush on Facebook. “You’re in the hands of a master!” the sitcom dad proudly declares, grabbing the laptop to type the messages himself.

“That’s totally you, Dad!” my family screams, pointing at the TV screen in front of us. My dad loudly protests, but hangs his head in shame.

It’s our family’s weekly ritual, watching Modern Family together, pointing out how our lives and personalities mirror the family on our favorite show.

Dad’s an easy target because he’s got so many Phil-like behaviors. They’re both clueless, embarrassing, and “cool.” Phil keeps the rhythm in his feet and a little party in his shoulders, and so does my dad. His signature dance move is “churning the butter.” He’ll do it anytime, anywhere, and announce it for anyone who isn’t paying attention. He loves matching his neon colored clothes to his neon colored sneakers. His swagger is even friskier once he’s ready to show the world his outfit of the day. My dad loves making up nicknames for everyone. My twin brother T is T-Dog. I’m Amilli, a Lil Wayne song title. He’s “The Vacuum,” for how he inhales my mom’s cooking.

Mom couldn’t be more Claire if she tried. They’re both animated, hip, and hilarious. She stays up-to-date on my friends’ drama, and uses slang and emojis to stay trendy. She’ll send me selfies, captioned, “OMG edit this using every filter you can, and send back to me pronto, LOL!” She talks to our dog like she’s a person, positioning her upright on the couch next to her. “You look troubled today, Georgia. What’s wrong?” she’ll ask. “Okay, I’ll give you some chicken, but don’t tell.” Another favorite pastime is chasing me around the house with gross things, like a clump of dog hair or a used contact lens. I run and scream for my dad to save me, but he pretends not to hear.

T’s a Phil-in-training. He subconsciously copies my dad’s behaviors, particularly the swagger. He denies it, but Mom and I secretly videotaped them to prove it. Like Dad, T has a fascinating sense of style. He thinks clothes match if they’re assorted shades of the same color. One recent morning I asked him, in all sincerity, if it was Wacky Tacky day at school. It wasn’t. T also shares my dad’s love of food, including exotic meats from shady places. He thinks nothing of eating bison tartar from a roadside stand.

But everyone’s favorite to bust on is me. They insist I’m like Haley because I’m a typical, dramatic teenager, but also like Alex, intelligent and driven. Since I was little, I’ve been consumed by my love for animals and my desire to be a veterinarian. I’d spend all day volunteering in animal shelters if I could. I stop on the side of the road to have makeshift funerals for roadkill. My favorite pastime is snuggling with my cat, Dixie, while watching cute animal videos online. When I’m not making my friends watch slow motion videos of dogs catching Frisbees, I’m making them watch YouTube videos of Dr. Pimple Popper. I try to convince my friends to let me pop their pimples, but they run screaming.

Like the Dunphys, the Deans love each other like crazy. You can see it in the way my parents sit outside every morning, drinking coffee and staring at each other like lovesick teenagers. You can see it in the way each of us tries to make sure the others have what they need before we take what we need. And you can see it in the way we always end up snuggling on the couch, watching our favorite show, laughing hysterically at ourselves and each other.

Despite the wackiness of the Dunphy family and the Dean family, I wouldn’t trade these characters or these episodes of our lives together for anything.

C., Whitman High School

A dozen members of my extended family are in a tight huddle in my living room, our arms around each other. In the center is a glass, resting on a piece of black and gold fabric. You can feel the tension and excitement building as we prepare for our deepest ­rooted family tradition: the KBD.

Grandpa kicks off our ritual by chanting, “Here we go Steelers, here we go!” He does it three times, getting louder each time. Then he hikes a football to me, his oldest grandchild, and I spike the ball onto the hard­wood floor, doing my best Jerome Bettis impression. Then Grandpa stomps on the glass and it shatters across the black and gold Troy Polamalu jersey on the floor. Our family erupts in cheers, knowing that our Kick Butt Dance will surely bring good luck to our favorite football team, whose game is about to start on tv.

Other families might casually gather around the tv with some snacks to watch a football game. But not my family. Not when the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing.

Never mind that I live in Maryland. My mom’s family grew up in Pittsburgh. When I was born, my parents made a pact. My mom claimed me for the Steelers. My dad, who’s from New England, claimed me for the Red Sox, his baseball team.

I’m normally an even ­keeled person. I don’t get worked up about things. But that changes when the Steelers are playing. My team brings out my highest highs and my lowest lows. If they’re playing well, you’ll see me jumping, clapping and encouraging players after every play. My whole family goes crazy. Even my dog, Brady (not named after Tom, of course), who never barks, is barking. My dad, a Patriots fan, sometimes has to excuse himself to watch alone in another room.

If things aren’t going well for the Steelers, I’m in serious distress. When I was younger I had a particularly difficult time dealing with Steeler losses. The next morning I wouldn’t eat breakfast, and would leave for school without saying a single word to anyone. My mom used to pray for the Steelers to win, just so she wouldn’t have to deal with me.

But nothing can compare to Grandpa’s roller coaster of Steeler emotions. When he’s not watching with me, he calls me after every important play. We have our own coaches meetings on the phone. When we’re together, it can be more exciting to watch him than the game. He has been known to stomp out of the house, into the pouring rain, to cool off. I’ve had to take the game outside myself a couple of times. Grandpa, my sisters and I took a huge victory lap around the neighborhood after the 2009 Superbowl. Once, to help my team win, I told my sister that if they did, I would dive headfirst into the snow outside our front door, wearing my shorts. They won, and I kept my word.

In addition to the fun of watching them play, the Steelers have given me so much. When I was little and Grandpa took me to watch practices at the Steelers training camp, I would watch reporters talking to the players that I watched on tv every weekend. That plus all the years of reading and analysis and side coaching I’ve done on my team led to my interest in sports journalism. That’s why I became a sports writer last year and editor this year. Obviously I’m not a beat writer for the team yet, but I like to think of myself as just one step removed.

I watch my team like a crazed fan. And like an analytical journalist. But mostly I watch like a grandson - cheering and enjoying every second alongside my grandfather.

M., Potomac School

“How’s your zombie show going?” my brother J teases, pulling up a chair at the dinner table.

The Walking Dead is not a zombie show!” I insist for the thousandth time. “It’s about the evolution of the human condition and the process of human thoughts and behaviors in an apocalypse situation.”

To stop the debate that never ends, my dad tells us both we need haircuts. We look at each other’s (and our dad’s) prematurely balding heads and burst out laughing.

It’s another Sunday dinner at the Jones house. I’m gathered around the table with the most interesting group of people I know. There’s my dad, an author and a raving lunatic of a Caps hockey fan. There’s my mom, who teaches entrepreneurship, and who’s the sweetest, kindest person in the world. There’s J, who’s always been our family’s political analyst - until he became an official one for the Dallas Morning News. There’s my other big brother, G, an incredible athlete who just finished an internship with the Washington Redskins. Rounding us out is my sister, S, who has special needs, and the biggest smile in town.

Tonight, our dinner table is piled high with pigs in a blanket, my dad’s current food obsession. He goes through month-long food phases - last month’s was Domino’s Meatlovers pizza. Who knows what the next one will be. He works it off by running eight miles a day. There’s also a huge salad to appease my mom, who’s a nutrition fanatic. That is, except for the ten cups of coffee she drinks every day.

We go around the table, filling each other in on our day. Dad tells us about the finishing touches he’s putting on his new book about career specialization. He also shares his doom and gloom predictions about what the Caps will do next. He gets so stressed about the games that he can’t watch them live on tv. He has to follow updates online instead.

Mom tells us about an interesting idea that a student in her entrepreneurship class came up with this week. And how happy she is that a Peet’s Coffee has just opened up down the street from our house. Then Mom turns to S and marvels at her latest hairstyle. S comes up with a new one almost every day, and we all love them. S tells us how much fun she had at cheerleading practice today and that at school she’s learning how to use coins to make change.

With J at the table, the conversation turns to politics. Specifically Texas politics. When a question comes up that no one knows the answer to, everyone looks at me, because I’m the family’s designated Googler. I quickly find out the answer and J tweets it. J is so obsessed with tweeting that whenever he’s away from home too long, my parents check his Twitter feed to reassure themselves that he’s safe.

G pipes in with the latest stats on his fantasy football team. Then he launches into a story about the latest 30 For 30 sports documentary he just watched. As G tells us about his day, I notice that he’s wearing my shirt - as usual. When I finally grew to his size at the beginning of the summer, there was a major heist of my clothes ending up in his closet.

When it’s my turn, I tell my family I can barely walk after all the extra soccer practices our team is doing, because we’re preparing for the big game against our rival. And that I’m working against time with my deadlines for the school newspaper.

I notice that it’s almost 9pm, and remind everyone that The Walking Dead is on soon. They roll their eyes and laugh. As we wrap up dinner, I look around the table, feeling grateful for the people that I’ve gotten to share yet another meal with.

G., Georgetown Day School

At dinner, I make the mistake of telling my family that my friends are trying to set me up on a date for Homecoming. “What about M.??” my entire family demands. “You should ask her!” M. was my “girlfriend” in elementary school. I haven’t seen her in seven years.

My little brother, J., saves me by launching into a long story about his fantasy football league, which he’s obsessed with. Then my little sister, A., describes a family video she found today. In it, all of us are dancing to, “We Are Family.” Within minutes, we’re reenacting the decade-old video and laughing hysterically.

This is how it goes at our family dinner table. It’s where the five of us come together every night to discuss the day, but mostly to connect and laugh. We shift between serious moments and playful moments. One minute we’re talking about the Pope’s address to Congress, and the next minute we’re harassing my mom about being the only Duke basketball fan in a house of Maryland fans. Or everyone’s teasing me about cutting the sleeves off my old t-shirts, to “show off” my muscles. I insist I’m just repurposing old clothes, but they’re not buying it.

It’s a wonder my mom even gets us fed every night, since we’re such picky eaters. I’m lactose-intolerant and allergic to citrus. J. won’t touch tomatoes. And my dad wouldn’t eat mayonnaise if his life depended on it.  But, strange as it sounds, one thing we all agree on is Spam. Most people don’t trust what’s in it, but to our family it’s delicious.

Because of our nightly dinner table conversations, we know all the big and little things about each other. Like that J. concentrates best on homework when he’s surrounded by three screens running simultaneously. That my mom has run six marathons, each in under four hours - something the rest of us couldn’t do in four lifetimes. That A. spent her childhood speaking a gibberish language, in which her name was “Bean” and mine was “Gleek” - names we still use for each other today.  

But once in a while, around our familiar dinner table, I learn something that surprises me. Like that my dad, a corporate lawyer, had a wild streak in high school - one that involved several totaled cars. Or that my mom bungee jumped off the highest bridge in Africa. Or that J. knows the capital of every African country. I’m dreading the dinner when my family discovers my deepest secret: that I actually like the Titanic song, even though I make fun of A. for listening to it every day.

Ours is not a family that says, “I love you,” much - not out loud, anyway. But we show each other those words every day. My mom shows her love when she ruffles my longish hair at the dinner table, instead of reminding me to get it cut. My dad shows his love when he wakes up at 5:30am every Saturday and Sunday morning, to eat breakfast with me before I leave for my job at the bakery. J. shows his love when he moves to A.’s room in the middle of the night, whenever she has a nightmare. A. shows her love when she bakes me brownies for dessert, any time she hears me mention them. I show my love when I give A. a piggyback ride, or act like I haven’t heard that story that my dad is telling yet again over dinner - that one about his grandfather being the fire chief of New York.

No matter how long or hectic the day has been, our dinner table is a place where everyone in my family looks forward to gathering every night. It’s the place where each of us feels loved, accepted - and despite being teased mercilessly - never judged. This is where each of us knows that we truly belong.

O., Whitman High School

I’m squatting in lightning position, with just the rubber soles of my shoes making contact with the wet forest ground. A dozen fellow campers and I have been perched here for three hours, waiting for this intense hail and thunderstorm to pass, so we can climb back into our canoes and continue on our 17-day wilderness expedition. We’re used to ignoring scary weather, but this time, when lightning hit just 30 feet away on the narrow brook we were paddling, we practically leaped out of our boats.

Huddled in the twilight sheets of dark rain, we try not to move our aching bodies. Each tiny motion brings a new wave of cold, like putting on jeans on a winter morning. My campmates and I keep each other’s spirits up by telling ridiculous jokes, shouting the lyrics to camp and Disney songs, and passing around a single pepperoni stick.

This might sound dramatic, but it’s not too uncommon a tale at the summer wilderness camp I’ve been attending since I was nine. Like my dad before me, I spend half the summer at Camp K., sharpening the Native American survival skills I need to succeed on longer and more challenging canoe trips throughout the Canadian wilderness. Then I spend the other half of the summer moving with my fellow campers across land and water, bringing only what we can hold in our canoes and our arms. Amenities like pillows and a change of clothes are left behind.

We move swiftly over water and through trees, with only each other, the moose, and the mosquitoes witnessing our journey. We paddle for miles each day, watching our blisters turn to calluses as the days roll on. Whereas at home, the distractions are endless, in the long days of isolation in my canoe, I learn to be content with my own thoughts.  

When rapids are not crossable or a strip of land divides a lake, we portage - carrying our canoes over land. I’ve learned to use a leather strap to hold a 90-pound canoe on my shoulders and forehead for hours, as I bushwhack a trail through the wilderness.

In the average trip day, I face more mental and physical challenges than I do in a month at home. And that’s if everything goes off without a hitch. Which it doesn’t, when nature likes to remind us who’s really in control. I’ve had winds push my canoe backwards for seven hours straight. I’ve flipped over in white water, and spent half the day rescuing my belongings and my boat. I’ve confronted a brook that should have taken ten minutes to paddle down, but because a beaver dammed up the far end, it took seven hours to drag the boat over mud. I paused half a dozen times on that trek, each time just long enough to peel leeches off my bleeding legs. When I slashed my arm on a rock and needed stitches, instead I got iodine, a Band-aid, some duct tape and a story.

Despite the intense physical hardships, there’s so much that I’ve gained on these adventures. I’ve learned how to build fires in the rain (without matches), how to parallel park a canoe on a dime, how to cook spam (glorified dog food) and make it delicious. I’ve learned to live with others in the harshest conditions and still create a community where we can depend on each other for everything. I’ve learned what my mental and physical limits are, and what they are not.

So while there might be times that I’d rather not have a 90-pound canoe strapped to my forehead, or leeches on my body, or jagged cuts, or tears streaming down my face when it is dark and our campsite is still miles away, there’s never a time that I’d rather not be the person who has done these things.

I., Connelly School of the Holy Child

It was from my father that I learned how to be myself and not worry what others think. His philosophy was to be you, however weird that may be. Whether it was doing jumping jacks to pass the time while waiting in line, eating meals with a spork (a combined spoon and fork), or blasting his favorite classical music with the windows down in the carpool line, he was never afraid to be himself.

His signature outfit was a red nylon tracksuit, with matching top and bottom. It made a swishing sound as he walked. While this embarrassed me at first, over time I began to embrace his boldness. I realized he was just so happy with his family, his career and his life, that he didn’t need the approval of others, or to fit in. Being happy was enough for him and it became enough for me too. Today, I never feel weird about the fact that I love to color, or wear shoes my friends raise their eyebrows at, or eat with a spork.

It was from my dad that I learned to love what I love, full force. My dad’s greatest love, after his family, was medicine. He was constantly yearning to learn more, and even when I was eight, he spoke to me about his findings as though I were an adult. His curiosity rubbed off on me. Like him, I began to question assumptions and always wanted to discover more.

As a cardiologist, he was passionate about healthy eating. Getting kids to eat healthy is hard, but he outsmarted me by inventing the Henry Family Potato Chip to replace my favorite snack. He sliced potatoes thin, then crisped them in the microwave. His tricky ways worked, and I still make these “chips” today.

My dad was quite the animal lover, and I became one too. He helped me “convince” my reluctant mom to fill our home with four cats, a dog and a turtle.

Nothing made my dad smile more than a good old bargain. He bragged about his $2 shirts and $10 shoes to anyone who’d listen. Now, whenever I buy something, I ask myself, “Could I find it for less at T.J. Maxx?”

Because of the way my dad loved his loves, I fully throw myself into my own - watching chick flicks with my sister, cooking Mexican food with my mom, reading, organizing, dancing and playing with my menagerie of pets.

It was from my dad that I learned how to show people that they matter. He always found time to make me homemade jewelry boxes and tickle my toes and give me huge bear hugs, because he knew these things made me feel so special. Whenever I was upset, he’d hug me and refuse to let go until I was smiling again. Watching the way he treated my mom, his friends and his patients taught me how I want to interact with the people in my life.

It was from my father’s eulogy that I learned he often referred to me as his blue-eyed baby. It was from my father’s death that I learned there’s no wrong way to grieve, and no schedule. From his death I discovered there are adults in my life who aren’t my parents, but who love me as though they are. I learned about the private losses that people around me have carried, when they came forward to comfort me and to share their own stories. But most importantly, I learned the importance of spending time with my loved ones. Now, when my mom asks me to go for a hike, I just go.

When my dad left this world, my world changed. I learned so much from his life and even though he’s not here I continue to learn from being his daughter every single day.

B., Wootton High School

I shriek and crumple to the floor, gasping through my tears. I’m lying in the fetal position when my parents burst into my room.

I meet their frightened gaze and manage to choke out the word, “Dead!” before sinking back into hysterics. Their eyes land on the book in my hand, and they realize what has happened…. My favorite book character has died.

My dad rolls his eyes and walks out. My mom, slightly more sympathetic, throws tissues at me before shutting the door.

I’ve always taken my favorite books and their characters a little more seriously than the average reader. Luckily, I have a few friends who get as attached to characters as I do. So they don’t look at me like I’m crazy when I’m skulking around the house at midnight, practicing silent movement skills from Ranger’s Apprentice. Or reenacting a telekinetic dance scene from The Darkest Minds in the middle of softball practice. Or bawling because I turned twelve without getting my own letter from Hogwarts.

I actually have books ranked by how hard they’ve made me cry. For In the Afterlight (#3), my little brother videotaped me as I ran to my room, sobbing. He later posted the video on his Snapchat story (not cool). For Clockwork Princess (#2), my eyes were still swollen shut three hours later, at dinner. For Allegiant, the reigning champion, I fell off the couch. Reactions like these are why I avoid reading a new book in public - especially near my brother. My friends still laugh about that video.

I’ve been obsessed with books as long as I can remember. I was the girl with the flashlight hidden under her pillow; the one who snuck books - not tv. Barnes & Noble is my sanctuary. Every time I enter, I visit my four favorite books and read a random page. But as often as I go there, I go to the library more. I only buy books I’ve already read from the library - the exception being a new book in a series I’ve already fallen for. Years ago, my parents wisely disconnected their credit card from my Nook.

In many ways, my attachments to characters have made me a better person. Tris Prior’s bravery inspires my own. Because of her, I always raise my hand in my class. She even moved me to conquer my greatest fear: swimming in water where fish are present. I couldn't have walked into my first travel basketball tryout without Celaena Sardothien’s words of courage: “You could rattle the stars. You could do anything, if only you dared.” (This Throne of Glass quote is now the wallpaper on my phone).

My friends know when to offer needed inspiration. Just as Celaena says, “My name is Celaena Sardothien and I will not be afraid,” it’s not uncommon for my friends to say, “Your name is B. and you will not be afraid,” before sending me up to bat in a close game. Like all girls, my friends and I fight over guys. In our case, they’re fictional guys. We’re constantly arguing over which Stewart brother is better, and whether Adam Kent is annoying or amazing. We even have our own book slang. “By the Angel” means, “That guy is so hot.” “Put me in the trash can,” means, “I’m feeling so much that I can’t express it.”

Nowadays, when my parents hear sobs through my door, they don’t even bother checking on me. They know it’s probably because Will and Jem have said goodbye, or Tris has sacrificed herself for her brother. Whether it’s tragedy or beauty moving me to tears, I pour my emotion into my pillow, reach for more tissues, and breathlessly turn the page.

B., Whitman High School

The utterly noxious, putrid stench from my shirt is unbearable. It’s so bad that my English teacher instinctively covers his nose when I approach. The cute girl sitting next to me in class looks stricken.

The only thing worse than actually wearing this disgusting shirt, which hasn’t been washed in four years, is the reason that I’m wearing it - it’s my punishment for being the lowest ranking player in my fantasy football league this week. Again.

A fantasy football league is a group of people who each “draft” our own personal roster of NFL players, then pit our “teams” against each other. Results are based on how our individual players do in their real life NFL games. My particular league consists of a dozen guys who have been best friends since kindergarten. At school and in our community, we’re known as the nice kids - the ones who’ll help you with your homework, share their lunch with you, and give you a ride to synagogue on Saturday.

But when it comes to fantasy football, we are cutthroat lunatics. Every Sunday for the 17 week NFL season, we spend 10 sacred hours watching football together. That’s 10 hours of screaming, yelling, cheering for our players, and re-enacting important plays after watching them. And that’s just game day. All season, our lunchroom conversations are dominated by trade talks, bickering, posturing and subterfuge. Our Facebook group is filled with endless debates, trash talk, and videos of our gloating and mourning. Controversial posts generate five thousand comments in a single week. That’s on top of the thousands of messages in our group text chat.

It doesn’t end there. Our poor families have learned to live with our madness, and to schedule family events around our fantasy football commitments - like having birthday parties at 8 a.m. The 12 of us also play together on a flag football team. It’s not unusual for one of us to walk off the field to check an NFL score, mid-play. We’re also on a basketball team together. We’ve forfeited numerous games that conflict with fantasy football obligations.

Even when opposing teams erupt in response, the 12 of us have each other’s backs, just like we have since we were five years old. We truly are a band of brothers. Over the years we’ve seen each other through every hardship - major illnesses, serious injuries, parents’ divorces. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from fantasy football and the friends I play it with is the utmost importance of building a solid team that you can depend on - both on the field and off.

Lest you get the wrong impression, fantasy football isn’t all fun and games. It requires an incredible amount of research, strategy and analysis. Every year I craft an agonizingly in-depth preseason report and meticulously color code my draft chart. Week after week, I deliberate over my lineup, read every last “expert” analysis on the deep internet, and weigh the benefits of tinkering with my roster versus sticking with my gut instincts.

Given the incredible amount of focus, work, and passion I devote to the game, you might expect I’d be pretty good at it. Yet in all my years of pouring blood, sweat and tears into this singular goal, I have never once won the league. Not. Even. Once.

Despite this unseemly fact, my optimism has never faded.  Every year I enter the season not just thinking that I could win, but knowing with absolute certainty that I will.  

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that in life, and in fantasy football, attitude trumps outcome. As long as I’m passionate about what I do, the journey is worth far more than the temporary feeling of accomplishment at the end. Ok, that last part’s a lie. When it comes to fantasy football it is all about winning. Take one whiff of “the shirt” and you’ll understand….

M., Marriotts Ridge High School

Everything I ever needed to know, I learned in kindergarten (the second time around). Last summer, my old kindergarten teacher hired me to work at her newly opened Montessori Academy. Technically my job description was teacher’s assistant, but over the summer it evolved to include big brother, custodian and hypnotist.

From day one, the kids could tell that while I wasn’t one of them, I also wasn’t entirely one of the grownups either. They greeted me every morning with sticky hugs, then spent the rest of the day following me around, trying to lure me into their schoolyard games.

One of our favorite games was tag. I was always “it” (without my consent). The kids took turns poking me, screaming, and running away. Another favorite was hide and seek. The objective of the game quickly became “follow Mr. M. and hide wherever he hides.”

My first week at the school, I noticed an unusually large number of playground balls on the other side of the playground fence, in a patch of poison ivy. I climbed over the fence to retrieve them. But the next day, and the day after, they were back there again. I wondered what kind of intense games the kids were playing that landed these balls over the fence so often. Until I realized that the game was, “Throw the ball over the fence so Mr. M. will get it.”

The most terrifying part of my job was to assist with the two and under daycare class. That is, until I discovered my talents as a baby whisperer. As I approached the room on my first day, I heard a baby crying hysterically. As soon as I entered, he stopped crying. He stared at me as if hypnotized, his open mouth drooling, observing my every move as if I were some sort of lollipop. For about ten minutes, he and I exchanged smiles, while the teacher repeated, “I think he likes you.” As I left to return to the kindergarten room, the boy resumed crying, and I knew where I’d be spending the rest of the day.

Another day, I was watching the two-year-olds alone, while they napped. After 40 minutes of quiet, a kid started crying. I was scared to death. I had no idea what to do. Should I run out of the room and call for help, or take matters into my own hands? I circled the boy like a shark circles its prey. Then I took a leap of faith and crouched down to rub his back.  Immediately, he stopped crying, smiled curtly, and sank his head back into his Transformers pillow.

While the kids adopted me as their big brother, the teachers adopted me as their personal errand boy. I was sent to get cups of coffee, rounds of Taco Bell, and Happy Meals for the principals’ kids. As the only male working at the school, I slowly evolved into the building custodian too. I swept floors, mopped hallways, fixed fans, and repaired soap dispensers.

Despite the unexpected grunt work, I loved working at the school. That is, except during music time. During music time, the kids danced and sang to a variety of songs, including the dreaded “Dinosaurs Dancing.” It went like this: “One and two and three. Two and three and four.” All the way up to fifty, and then back to one. It made me long for the sound of a crying baby.

You learn a great deal working as a kindergarten cop - about children, about life, and about yourself. I learned that I have a magical sleeping touch. That I operate pretty well while being exploited in a suboptimal working environment.  And most importantly, that you’re never too old to learn something in kindergarten.

C., St. Albans School

I unbuckle my seatbelt and recline back into the depths of the passenger seat. Beside me, in the driver’s seat, sits my dad, sipping coffee from the blue mug I made him.  The radio murmurs through the speakers; sometimes the news, sometimes the Beatles. We’re parked in front of school. As usual, we’re here 30 minutes early, so we can talk before the day gets away from us.

We both know there’s not much time left to talk. It was a miracle when his double lung transplant came through. But the resulting brain cancer from the post-surgical immunosuppressants is slowly killing him.

It’s in these early morning talks that my dad teaches me everything he can about how to be a man - how to live, love, create, forgive, learn, teach, inspire. Thirty minutes before school each morning adds up to a lifetime’s worth of advice.

One thing we talk about a lot is work ethic - from the classroom to the sports field. He reiterates what he’s always said as my soccer coach: Work endlessly. Preserve your honor and integrity.  

We talk about the value of analytic thought. It’s important to him that I know how to make up my own mind, especially about controversial topics.  He flips the radio to a newscast on the reduction of NASA funding. Then we discuss and debate all sides of it, so he sees that I know how.

My dad talks to me about the importance of giving back. Of being an advocate of a worthy cause, as he puts it. I’ve watched him live this in so many ways, including  always donating 10 percent of his company’s revenues to charity.

He talks to me about what it means to be the man of our house. He tells me that after he’s gone, I’ll be the one to take out the trash, unload the dishwasher, and memorize the passwords that my mom relies on him to remember. He asks me to do the things for my little sister that he won’t be here to do: help with homework, answer questions about life, play on the trampoline, and make her laugh on her birthday - April Fool’s Day.  

And we talk about joy. Joy is my dad’s thing. He’s always loved to laugh and make others laugh. He’s the guy who starts water balloon wars, who pranks his kids into believing hay bales are really hibernating cows, who “trades” endless bedtime stories for backrubs from his kids (til my mom shuts the racket down) and who bursts out laughing every time he reads Calvin and Hobbes. It’s no surprise when I learn that on one of his final nights, my dad sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night (with his portable oxygen tank in the passenger seat) to take one last joyride... the Beatles turned way too loud and the speedometer too far to the right.

Now that my dad is gone, my conversations with him continue in my thoughts. I hear his words during the final minutes of a championship soccer game, when I push my aching, sweat-drenched body to make one more sprint for the ball. I hear him when I’m match point down on the tennis court against an opponent who seems unbeatable. I hear him when I debate public policy issues in Government Club, and when I walk to the podium on Prize Day. I hear him when I launch a nonprofit to educate young people about organ donation. I hear him when I reread his Calvin and Hobbes books and one of them is so funny that I accidentally dial his cell phone number, before remembering that no one is going to answer. And I hear him when I take his cellphone number over as my own, so that if my sister ever dials it, a man who loves her will always be there to answer.

C., Holton-Arms School

We’ve just finished another typical Sunday dinner. Grandpa leans back his chair, takes a deep breath, and burps as loud as he can. Dad goes next, followed by my big brother, J., then me. Grandpa solemnly grades us on his “Belchmaster Scale.” J. is knighted “Brown Belt Belchmaster,” and I settle for meager “Apprentice.”

My mom shakes her head in disapproval, wondering where she went wrong. Grandma, who’s still madly in love with Grandpa after 50 years, tolerates his antics as long as possible. Finally, she gives him “The Look.” The one that says, “You’re going to die when we get home.” We all promptly straighten up.

Family dinners are always eventful. I participate in this tradition nightly - Sundays with my grandparents and every other night with J. and my parents. Despite our antics, our dinner table is a sacred space. It’s where we gather to share stories, problems, and especially laughter. No matter how stressful my day is, it’s reassuring to know our table will be there when I get home. And that I’ll have that hour with my family, to let go and fully be myself.

Mom’s a dietitian so we eat healthy, “food-pyramid” balanced meals. I attempt to eat everything she gives me, but I draw the line at quinoa. Grandpa refuses all vegetables. Grandma, being the sly one in the relationship, slips them into his food. Whether it’s hiding peas inside his salmon or crushing broccoli into his potatoes, she never fails to get that man his greens.

Some nights, J. and I cook. But whenever we do, Mom never fails to run down the stairs screaming, “I SMELL SOMETHING BURNING!!!!” Usually before we’ve even turned the oven on.

Food is integral to our meals, but the conversations are the cornerstone. Mom discusses her bossy boss, B. Dad encourages her to stand up to B., then starts rambling on about football or a random historical event. I beg Dad, who’s in the military, to let me and J. sleep in for once this weekend, instead of waking us up at 8am by blasting “First Call, Reveille.” He replies that if I get to the breakfast table fast, he’ll make bacon before Mom has time to make protein shakes. Then J., notorious for his quietude, drops a hilarious one-liner and we all burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Because of our dinner table conversations, my family knows every important and unimportant fact about me - and I know the same about them. They know that my friends call me the “crazy cat lady,” because I’m always taking pictures of my cats; that I love to dance, even though I’m terrible; that once I start laughing, I can’t stop.

My family dinners have filled me with much more than food. They’ve filled me with a sense of belonging and a deep appreciation of connection and sense of community. Our dinners have taught me to listen well and hold up my end of the conversation. To open up and be interested in other people’s lives. Whether it’s my friends, or the freshmen I peer counsel, I enjoy listening to people, sharing stories, and getting lost in our laughter.

My family encourages me to always be myself, to reach for my goals, and to speak up when it’s needed. This has helped me on the field, where I communicate well with my teammates and coaches. And in the classroom, where I’ve grown into a confident student who shares my opinions and listens to others. Our family dinners have molded me into my best self.

After dinner ends, Mom walks to the freezer and pulls out Edy’s chocolate ice cream. As she scoops it, she describes the protein shake she’s making us tomorrow. Dad rambles on about the artillery used in World War II, and I sit here and take it all in. This is my family, this is me.

N., Whitman High School

I was the kid with all the cicadas.

I was in kindergarten the year cicadas emerged from their 17 year hibernation. On the playground, I’d gather them in my hands, line them up along my arms, name them and trade them like baseball cards. Other girls were grossed out, but I was enthralled. I loved studying them, interpreting their sounds, inspecting their casings, and protecting the newly emerged cicadas.

Growing up, my fascination with nature kept me outdoors most of the time. I spent my afternoons hiking in the woods behind my house, tracking down frogs, skinks, slugs, snakes, snails, beetles, centipedes and whatever else I could find. In my pink, faux-snakeskin notebook, I logged everything I saw and where I saw it.

It wasn’t just the individual creatures that fascinated me, but the environments and communities that they lived in - how they interacted with each other, and the secret social societies they seemed a part of. I loved how ants have hierarchies. That once a year, hermit crabs line up, biggest to smallest, and pass their outgrown shells down the line. That turtles climb on top of each other in stacks, to get more sun.

I loved filling jars with mini ecosystems that I unearthed. I tried hard to delicately replicate each creature’s natural habitat. If there was a snail on a rock, I’d add the rock I found it on, the leech from the other side of the rock, and plenty of surrounding vegetation. I didn’t want to disturb their lives - just to coexist beside them, watching and sharing their experiences. Each jar was its own world. There were consumers and producers, and the perfect balance of organisms to sustain their little lives. It was like watching a family through the windows of their house.

But after experiencing the sudden dislocation of my parents’ divorce, I desperately wanted to avoid inflicting that on another living thing. I figured that if everything was working naturally, there was no need for me to change anything and risk being the catalyst for deconstruction. So I simply watched my little world move on its own, and in turn, I was able to accept the independent movement of the world around me.

I was patient, and nature rewarded me. One summer, a fawn was born in my backyard. For a week, it rested in the grass, 15 feet from my window. Eventually, the mother nudged her fawn to its feet, wobbling. I held my breath and pulled out my phone to record the fawn’s first steps. I watched the connection between mother and fawn take form and instinct move the fawn forward. Another time, birds nested in the rafters of our porch. As the weeks progressed, I climbed onto a table to watch the eggs hatch, and then I watched as the chicks learned to fly off the porch rail, and into the unknown. This, I thought, was life. Taking the first step, or jumping off the cliff. Everything was centered around taking a chance, and moving forward.

I’ve learned so much science in my own kitchen. As a nutritionist, my mother is constantly researching the newest scientific findings about food and sharing them with me.  We’ve been lab partners, side by side in our kitchen, experimenting with new foods on a daily basis. One thing we love doing is fermenting. It’s an incredible sight to watch our Scoby bacteria grow as we make each batch of our favorite bubbling Kombucha. Having my own Scoby proved incredibly helpful in AP Bio, when I was tested on respiration - because I had witnessed the process in my own kitchen. The frisbee-sized living Scoby on my kitchen counter constantly freaks my friends out, but I adore it. It’ll have to tide me over for the next five years, when the cicadas finally come back out to play.

L., Winston Churchill High School

Sometimes at night, when I can’t fall asleep, I FaceTime my big sister. I prop the phone up on the pillow next to me and from her bedroom, a few feet away, E. talks to me about everything and nothing until I doze off. She goes to bed later than I do, so instead of calling me if she can’t sleep, she quietly climbs into bed with me. She unknowingly hogs the covers, so I eventually wake up, see her there and move over to snuggle with her.

It’s like that with our family. My two sisters and I learned from our parents’ example to do everything we can to make sure everyone gets what they need, whenever they need it.

We go out of our way to support each other’s passions. Even though I don’t love sports, I’m always there for my little sister C.’s basketball games, tennis matches and horseback riding adventures. Even though acting isn’t my forte, I go to every single one of E.’s theater performances and vocal recitals. And they have been the biggest supporters of my dancing career. They attend every one of my performances. E. is constantly encouraging me to audition for new productions - especially ones I might consider out of reach. She also serves as my one-woman PR department. She’s always bragging about me to friends at school, showing them pictures of me dancing and inviting them to come to my performances. When she tells people I'm an amazing dancer, it makes me feel like I truly am.

Because we enjoy each other’s company and trust each other, everything we do together is fun. We go for bike rides together as often as we can, talking and laughing the whole way. When I was growing up, my whole family spent every Saturday morning biking to a nearby farmers market. My sisters and I would hold hands as we walked around the crowded market, and whenever one of us wanted to stop to sample some honey or try on a bracelet, we all stopped for as long as it took.

Together, we create our own adventures. We wake up to watch sunrises together. On snowy days, growing up, we would climb out of our kitchen window and spend the day outside, building snowmen and creating secret societies in our snow forts. E. has always been a huge fan of Harry Potter, but I’ve never been into it. One day I offered to do a movie marathon with her - 20 hours straight of every Harry Potter movie. We set our alarms for 3am the next morning, and laid out all our food in advance. We spent the whole day watching, with no breaks, and laughing at ourselves about the ridiculousness of it all.  

We always try to make life better for one another, especially if one of us is having a hard day. Whenever one of us catches a cold or isn’t feeling well, and is laying there watching tv,  the other two will come and snuggle with her. We don’t worry about catching the cold, because we know it’s probably inevitable, and when it happens, the other two will come snuggle with us.

My family means everything to me. There has never been a moment in my life when I have had a problem, or been really excited about something and not known who to share it with. The answer is always my family. They are always there to push me to be better - whether it’s to take a chance on an audition, or be bolder in conversations, or to update my closet of beloved bell-bottoms and graphic tees with clothes that they’d actually like to borrow. They comfort me. They believe in me. They love me unconditionally. And I do the same for them.

E., Connelly School of the Holy Child

I'm five years old, standing at the bottom of the slide at my neighborhood pool. I’m surrounded by 100 cheering little kids. We’re staring in awe at the seniors on our swim team, who are leading us in crazy cheers from the top of the slide, to rile us up for our swim meet. “How funky is your chicken?” they scream, and we show them just how funky our chicken is.

I’m normally the shyest, quietest kid you could ever imagine, but being in the middle of this craziness is opening even me up. Suddenly, one of the seniors calls my name and before I can recover from amazement that he even knows it, he reaches down and pulls me on up his shoulders for the next cheer. This is literally the best moment of my five years on earth. I have died and gone to swim team heaven.

My neighborhood pool is the place where I've spent every possible daylight hour of every summer since I was little. It’s the place where I learned who I wanted to be, by watching the older kids, who never seemed afraid to speak up, take chances, or be their playful, silly selves, without worrying who was looking. Their excitement about life and about our team inspired me to do what they did. I watched them swim their hardest, and so I got up earlier and earlier to practice. I watched them cheer for teammates until their voices gave out, and it made me do the same. I watched them perform crazy team stunts, like scaling a wall during a skit, making hilarious videos about our team, or breaking out into team cheers in the middle of the frozen foods section at the grocery store, and slowly I began to drop the shyness that had kept me on the sidelines of my own life. I began to see that it was ok to be playful, to say what was on my mind, and to talk to people that I didn’t know very well.

As I grew into a teenager, I started taking on leadership roles for the team. Now I was one of the people deciding what videos we would make, waking up at sunrise to hang team banners on highway overpasses before a meet, and getting in on the guys versus girls prank wars. But the most important part of my new role was doing for the younger kids what the seniors had always done for me: helping them put on their swim caps, giving them rides to meets, opening their popsicle wrappers, letting them help out behind the snack bar, and screaming their names as they swam across the pool.

This place has been so much more than just pool for me. It has been a community. It has been a family. It was the place where I got my first job, as a lifeguard. It was a place where I felt safe to speak up - where I felt heard, and where I made sure other people felt heard. It was the place where I broke out of the shell that for so long had held me inside myself. It was the place where I grew up, and became the person that I wanted to be.

Of all the responsibilities I’ve taken on over the years and all the ways I’ve grown as a person, the very best part of swim team remains riling the team up before every meet. Today I'm standing at the top of the slide, staring down at a crowd of wild little kids, and screaming at the top of my lungs, “How funky is your chicken?” As the kids are showing me just how funky their chicken is, I call out the name of a particularly shy little one, watch her eyes light up, then reach down and pull her up onto my shoulders.

B., Whitman High School

Z arrives at our front door carrying four wigs. Now that her cancer is back, my mom has invited her longtime hairdresser to come over to our house and shave her head. My mom sits on a lawn chair on our back patio. Z runs his clippers slowly over my mom’s head, and her long black curls fall on the ground. Some of her tears fall into the pile too. They are tears of sadness, and of embarrassment at being seen without her hair, and also of relief that she won’t have to watch her hair fall out slowly like she did the first time she had ovarian cancer. When Z is done, she takes a wig and puts it on her head.

I take my mom’s place in the chair and tell Z to shave my head too. My long brown curls mix in with hers on the ground. Then my dad gets his straight black hair shaved off. And finally, our loyal dog, Romeo, adds his hair to the pile as well. All of us take turns putting on the wigs, and laughing.

Cancer is rough. But when it happens twice, to your mom, it’s almost too painful to describe. Around the first time my mom was diagnosed with cancer, when I was in 8th grade, I also broke my ankle playing basketball. For six months I had to sleep in my mom’s bed with her, because her bed was the only one in the house big enough for me to keep my foot elevated.

My main goal during that time was to keep my mom’s spirits high. Every night she and I would stay up late, talking and laughing, and watching sitcoms and funny movies. Her cancer pills would make her act loopy so the conversations would always get silly. Out of nowhere, she’d say things like, “I found the clue to the immunity idol.” And then we would laugh some more.

After a year, my mom got better, and life went back to normal. But after a year and a half of remission, her cancer came back. This time I was old enough to understand more of what was happening. I was also old enough to drive, so I could shop and run errands for the family, and take more responsibility around the house. But I knew that my main job was still to keep my mom laughing, and to keep her outlook positive.

One day I had to drive my mom to chemo in the middle of a school day. I was telling her jokes as the nurse put the needle in. My mom laughed for a few seconds, but then she started crying. I waited until I got home and shut my bedroom door before I started crying too.

Cancer was tough on me. For a long time it made me depressed and angry. I never wanted to do anything but stay near my mom.

But some good things did eventually come out of this awful situation. My whole family became closer. Especially me and my mom. Now I can talk to her about anything. I also became more self sufficient and independent than a typical teenager. For example, I would cook and do laundry. Cancer also helps you find out who your friends are. When my mom was sick, my whole basketball team surprised me by wearing pink socks - in support of curing cancer - to every game.

I thought I knew my mom before. But cancer helped me get to know her so much better. I always knew she was kind, smart, sweet and funny. But now I learned that she is also a total badass. She is physically and mentally stronger than most people could ever be. She never quits, and she never gives up. I’ll never give up either, trying to put a smile on my mom’s face.

D., Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

It is hour three of an intense Chinese poker game. My parents and their friends are huddled around the dining table, some quietly plotting their strategies, others playfully debating what happened in the last round. We, their teenage kids, drift in and out of the room, grabbing food and standing behind the parents to see who will get bragging rights.

This is a typical Saturday night for my family and half a dozen other Chinese-American families that are our best friends. Ever since our parents met while walking around the neighborhood, with us in our strollers, our families have been getting together at least once a week to play Chinese poker, eat, and just spend time together. Because our parents left most of their extended families back in China, we have all adopted each other as our extended family.  

The kids in these families, who now range from age 14 to 20, are the friends I feel the most comfortable around. There is a complete sense of belonging, because we are basically each other’s brothers and sisters. Around each other, we have no filters. We walk into each other’s houses, raid each other’s fridges and doze off in each other’s beds. With my friends from school, I’m much more filtered; I’m careful not to do or say or wear the wrong thing. But with this group of friends, who refer to ourselves as “the squad,” you can’t do the wrong thing - because just being you is enough.

Just like the cast of “Friends,” the squad never has to wonder how we are going to fill an evening. We just come up with random, ridiculous things to do, whether it’s inventing a game where we have to strike weird poses and the loser gets slapped, or killing three hours playing Pictionary, while we wait for the Korean barbecue’s half priced hour at 11pm. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve also learned how to play Chinese poker, and more and more often we are allowed to play with the grownups.

Often our family gatherings turn into sleepovers for the squad. A Friday night card game might turn into a Saturday playing basketball, followed by a Saturday night card game, and then Chinese school on Sunday. (The squad is not above faking falling asleep at each other’s houses, so we won’t have to go home when our parents are done playing cards for the night.)

As much fun as it is being with my friends, it is equally fun watching my parents turn into kids with their friends. At home my parents act like grownups, with stern faces and commands to me and my sister to, “Do more math!” But when we are together with our friends, they are just as likely to be telling slightly inappropriate jokes or singing Chinese karaoke.  

Fun times aside, we all are here for each other during serious times as well, the way real family is. We rejoice in each other’s victories and mourn each other’s losses. We take responsibility for each other. If someone needs a place to spend the night due to unusual circumstances, any one of our homes is available. If one set of parents can’t make it on our group camping trip, their kids will still come with the rest of us. If I get bitten by a spider, it is just as likely to be another mom as my own who makes sure I am okay. If somebody’s grandmother dies, we all feel it.

Growing up with this extended family has defined my childhood. I cannot imagine my life without them. We have been through everything together.  As we each enter college, one by one, we have a private going away dinner - with just the squad. This time is filled with bittersweetness, because we are losing another member. But we focus on remembering the good times. We are each other’s family.

R., Landon School

My big brother P is standing at the podium, giving a eulogy for his best friend. E died suddenly from an asthma attack at summer camp. P’s voice shakes. He isn’t his normal strong self. His hair is just starting to grow back from the chemotherapy for the cancer he has spent the last six months battling.

It’s so difficult to see my brother in pain. Ever since we were little, P has been my constant companion and my role model. Unlike many brothers, P always included me in everything he did. From morning until night, we were together. We spent endless days building Lego battleships. We did silly things together like sled down our stairs. We created our own traditions, like getting up early on Christmas morning and playing cards while we waited for the sun to rise.  

Most of what we did was play sports together. Although he dominated every competition, playing against someone of greater size and strength taught me to play at a higher level than other kids my age. When we were competing, he would always want to win as badly as I did, but towards the end he would let me come back or help me by showing me, step by step, how to improve. He was the kind of brother who wanted to see me get better, not the kind who wanted to keep me beneath him.

In every sport I play, I always play the same position P did. I play quarterback for our football team because he played quarterback. Endless hours of throwing the football with him led me to throw almost exactly like him. Every time football or lacrosse season rolled around, I would love to find out what number P was wearing, because I wanted to wear the same number. We both wore number seven on practically all our jerseys.

I worked to be like P off the field too. Unlike other little brothers, I didn’t complain about wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs, because I wanted his clothes on my back. We would always have to have the same hair length because I wanted to look like him. If he wore a bracelet on his wrist, you know for sure I had one on mine.

P pushed me to be the best at everything I did, from sports to school. He encouraged me to do the right thing, even when it was hard. He would constantly tell me to go for another extra run, to make me a disciplined athlete. He taught me how to keep track of my school assignments in a planner, and to take pride in checking every single one off the list before I went to bed. Because of his influence, I never let my work pile up.

I also became a very disciplined piano player. I sometimes come across a song that I want to learn, but my fingers don’t seem to want to agree with the song. But I’ll still stick with the song until it becomes second nature. And unlike most kids my age, I don’t watch tv, play video games, or use any social media, like Facebook or Instagram, because it’s not a good use of my time.

P modeled for me how to be a great leader. Because of his influence, I’m a leader both in sports and among my friends. One of the things I lead is a regular fellowship meeting for athletes. We talk about how God can help us through adversity. This was especially helpful as I have watched both my brother and my mom battle cancer.  

It was tough to watch P give that eulogy that day in July. But everything I watch him do has always prepared me for the challenges that may be ahead. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, I’m always so proud to be his younger brother.

S., Holton-Arms School

On the stage of my childhood, there were two stars: me and my little sister, M.

When M. was born, I was a shy 3-year-old who mostly stayed by my parents’ side, quietly drawing. But from the moment my sister arrived, I turned into a one woman entertainment committee. I spent my days singing for her, dancing for her, and teaching her to play pattycake. She would watch and smile, which made me happier than anything.  

As she grew older, M. went from being my audience to being my co-star. Our childhood became like one long Broadway production. It was an endless parade of ridiculous skits and made up songs. Together we would write our own scripts and lyrics, dress up in costumes from my dance class, and create elaborate shows for our parents or for our stuffed animals.

I usually played a confident, outrageous British superstar who was the best in the world at everything she did. M. would play a growing cast of characters, from my child to an inflexible contortionist, or an old man being blown away in the wind. One day we’d be singing about SpongeBob and the next day about a boy living on a sweater. We loved recording our antics and watching them back - especially the recordings from the nights when we got so tired that we started talking in nonsense languages. We found each other hysterical. But I was still shy about showing this imaginative part of myself to my friends. When they came over, I put that part of myself away.

Like many little sisters, M. looked up to me. She admired that I was girly, in contrast to her being a tomboy. She admired that I was organized and did well in school. She admired how hard I worked to improve my mile time from 13 minutes to 8.5 minutes. She saw how hard I worked to overcome my insecurities about my body and about fitting in. But I also admired her. I especially admired how uninhibited she was around everyone - not just me. Unlike me, she didn’t care what friends or even strangers thought. She would skip in public. She would speak in a French accent or wear a mustache all day around her friends, without acknowledging it. She would purposely take and share silly selfies of herself.

Slowly I began to absorb some of her courage and confidence. One day, when three friends came over, I hesitantly invited them to create a concert with us. I was shocked that they loved it, and that they also loved that creative side of me.

After that day, I started showing more of my quirky, performer self with my friends and others. I started doing goofy voices, making silly sounds, or doing whatever else inspired me. At first my friends were surprised at watching me come out of my shell, but eventually they started joining me, and it made all our days more fun. It made me feel a lot more secure knowing that I had friends that I could finally be my full self with.

All this helped me become brave enough to start auditioning for school plays. I landed my first role as Lady Macbeth. Since then, I have played nine supporting roles and seven leading roles in plays and musicals. I have discovered that the stage is where I am my happiest and most complete self.

My favorite roles to play are those from Shakespeare. I love putting my own little creative twist into interpreting each character - whether it’s the way she moves or the way she talks. It feels so good to be able to make an audience happy. But no matter how many people are in the audience, I always scan the crowd to make sure my original inspiration, M., is watching and smiling.

A., Wootton High School

A hundred people have showed up for the first day of soccer tryouts for our school team. At the end of the grueling two hour workout, there are 80 of us left standing, gasping for air. Then the coach, a former Marine, leads us to a huge hill. It’s the hill that all the neighborhood kids use to sled down in the winter. He tells us to run up and down the hill. Sixty times.

We’re all in shock. Thirty more people quit on the spot. I’m confused about why we need to run so many hills. After all, there are no hills on a soccer field. But I’m determined to make the team, so I run the hills. After a week of tryouts, I make the team. Every day for the entire season, we run the same 60 hills after practice. Every day I do it.

In the 11 years that I’ve been playing this sport (on school teams and on my travel team) soccer has changed me - on the outside and on the inside.  Competing with high-level athletes has made me work hard on my body. I spend 15 hours a week training. I’m proud of the fact that I’m strong and that I don’t give up.

Soccer has made me a leader. Three years ago, I became the captain of my travel team. At first, I wasn’t comfortable telling my teammates what to do. But it wasn’t long before I was running warm-ups and the first half hour of practice entirely on my own.

I take my leadership role seriously. It’s my responsibility to protect my team, physically and emotionally. If another team’s players are trying to intimidate or push around my teammates - especially my smaller teammates - I don’t let it happen. I also don’t let my teammates get down on themselves. If a player seems beaten down, or if the goalie has let a few goals through, I talk to him to make sure he stays encouraged.

My growing confidence on the soccer field has spilled over into other areas of my life. In the past, I cared too much what other people thought about me. I was self-conscious about what I wore and what I said. I tried to make friends with popular kids, even though they weren’t always the nicest.

But when I became captain, I reached a turning point. Not only was I performing at a higher level, but I also stopped caring about impressing anyone except myself. I stopped second guessing myself, or dwelling on my mistakes. I stopped being scared of making presentations at school (or asking to go to the bathroom right before my turn). I stopped avoiding eye contact with people in the hallways. Most importantly, I stopped craving others’ approval.

My success in soccer made me raise my standards for myself in every area of my life. I stopped being satisfied with Bs and Cs in school. Now I’m disappointed if I don’t get an A. I stopped pretending I understood something if I didn’t, and I started going to teachers for extra help whenever I needed it.

I also raised my standards for the people I spend my time with. Now, most of my closest friends are also people who play sports at a high level. These friends help me keep my standards high because they also have high expectations for themselves. And I’ve noticed that the more confident people are, the nicer they are too.

It took me a while to figure out why my coach made us run up those hills, when there are no hills on the soccer field. I know now that he did it to make us mentally stronger.  He knew that if we could make it through the hills every day, even after a long practice, then we would become people who never give up when it matters.

J., Yorktown High School

My family is four hours into our seven hour road trip to Boston. It’s our annual Christmas visit to see my dad’s huge Italian family.  

My dad is driving. As usual, he has the radio tuned to a stand-up comedy station. He’s laughing so loud that it makes the rest of us crack up. Even though our windows are rolled up, I’m wondering if the people in other cars think we’re crazy. Even our two dogs, who are in the back of our SUV, are looking at us like we’re weird.

When my dad isn’t listening to comedy or telling jokes himself, he works from home as a graphic designer. My brother, who’s sitting next to me, is a lot like my dad: outgoing, creative, and funny. Comedy is their wheelhouse. My brother is already enrolled in a comedy workshop at school.

I, however, am more like my mom: serious, analytical and reserved. She leads a team of 130 people at her consulting firm, where she has worked for 22 years. Last year they named her “Woman of the Year.” Right now she’s sitting in the front passenger seat, trying to finish some work, so she can enjoy her vacation with us.

My dad turns down the radio, because he’s in the mood to tell some hilarious stories about our previous drives to Boston. His favorite is the one when I was seven and I wore my Red Sox jersey on the ride. When we stopped to eat lunch in New York, I refused to get out of the car. Knowing what I knew about the Red Sox / Yankees rivalry, I was afraid that Yankees fans would ridicule me. Another of his favorites is the time my great grandmother drove with us. She sat between me and my brother, and we tried to teach her how to play our Nintendo GameCube.

Just as he’s starting to tell the story about the time we had to hang my brother out the car window for a bathroom emergency, my mom gently steers the conversation to less wild memories. Her favorite stories are always about me and my brother playing together when we were little. She talks about how we preferred each other’s company over any of the other kids in the neighborhood. She talks about how I taught my brother to play football and baseball, so he could play them with me. She loves talking about our more creative moments - like when we built pillow forts, or the time we made up our own Clue game, because we didn’t have the board game. We tied hair ties on objects and people, to leave clues for each other.

The conversation in the car shifts to food, because we’re all getting hungry. “Too bad we didn’t pack any chicken and broccoli,” I say. That’s my dad’s specialty. It’s what he made when he proposed to my mom, and it’s still the dish our family revolves around. He’s also famous for his pasta sauce. That explains why our trunk is packed with ten Tupperware containers of my dad’s tomato sauce. Although our family in Boston takes pride in their own pasta sauce, they love it when he takes the baton as head chef.

Just as we finally near Fenway Park, my dad turns to my mom with a look of shock on his face. “Oh no! I forgot your bag on the porch!” Mom gives him a sharp stare as her brain processes the fallout of his colossal mistake. The car falls silent, as if someone had pressed the mute button. My mom then lets out a protracted breath and mumbles, “I saw you put it in.” My dad can’t keep a straight face any longer, and he cracks up. Now it’s my mom’s turn to try to keep a straight face, as we, the three nine-year-old children around her, dissolve into laughter.

D., Georgetown Prep

My entire body tenses up when I hear the first guttural scream. In an instant, four men lunge at me with wood boards. The first man hits me hard on my calf. Two more go for my arms. The final one aims for my skull.

When it’s over, the only sound is my breathing. Then suddenly, the room explodes with screaming, cheering, and clapping. I’ve just completed my third degree black belt test.  

The men who have hit me are my four mentors, who range from fifth to seventh degree black belts. Today’s board breaks are a demonstration of the strength, focus, and self control that they have spent 11 years teaching me. (Each black belt degree takes that many additional years to earn. The last three years have been devoted to rising from my second degree black belt to my third.) With this newest belt, I’m finally eligible to award belts to others. I could even open my own studio if I wanted.

It sounds like a scary thing to be beaten with boards, but a decade of training prepares you for this moment. For the last three years, I’ve been conditioning my mind and my body just for today’s test. My peers and I practiced by punching and kicking each other, with more and more force, until we were no longer afraid. Until I knew how to tense my body and hold my energy in all the right ways, to withstand incredible force. What could potentially be the scariest part of today’s test, the fourth board coming at my head, is doable because the temporal bone (the forehead) is the hardest bone in the body. But if you don’t tense your neck and other muscles exactly the right way, a blow like that can do serious damage.

In addition to my own training, I’ve spent the last three years teaching martial arts. I love teaching, because I’m passing on an ancient tradition, the same way it was passed to me. There is no textbook for this. My favorite days are the kids’ belt tests, because I love seeing the changing looks in their eyes as they approach their board breaks. (You don’t get to practice on boards before a test.) At first, the kids look like they’re going to throw up from fear (exactly the way I looked the first time I broke a board, when I was six). Then there’s a look of utter shock in the moment that they actually break the boards. And as soon as it’s over, they get a look of such amazing self confidence and belief in abilities they didn’t know they had. Sometimes they cheer. Sometimes they cry.

I keep all the boards I have ever broken in a box in my basement. To somebody else this may look like a pile of scrap wood. But in that box you’ll find my self confidence. You’ll find my perseverance. You’ll find every night that I’ve stayed up until 3 a.m. doing my school work, until I knew the material well enough to get an A. You’ll find the courage that has gotten me to overcome certain fears I’ve had, like a fear of heights and a fear of driving on long bridges over water. And you’ll also find respect for myself and for others. Once you’re a black belt, you’re responsible not just to yourself, but also to a centuries old tradition, and to the teachers who have passed it on to you. You never want to do anything that will embarrass yourself, your family, or your belt.

Today, when I get home, I will add these new boards to the box. And then I will start the next four years of training to earn my fourth degree black belt.

S., Stone Ridge School

Going blind has a way of making you look at the world a little differently.

In seventh grade, I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease. It’s causing my corneas to thin, and making my vision deteriorate. If no cure is found, then by the time I’m middle aged, I will be blind.

I’m not going to lie - it’s hard sometimes. I can still read regular books, but my eyes get tired faster than they used to. From morning until night, I have to wear an uncomfortable hard contact lens in my left eye, to keep my cornea stable. My depth perception and my peripheral vision aren’t great. It’s harder for me to do certain things, like play soccer or drive. In a recent sports drill, for example, we had to get the ball while calling out the color of a paper that the coach was holding up. It was very difficult, but I completed the drill.

I also have to think about the future in ways that my friends don’t. I have to think about questions like, “How will I take care of myself when I’m blind, if my parents aren’t around to help me?” And, “I plan to become an eye doctor, but how will I continue to work and support myself after I go blind?”

I’ve learned to cope with hardship without complaining. It has made me stronger, both physically and mentally. I’ve kept my condition private, because I never want anyone to feel sorry for me. My friends don’t know, and neither do most of my teachers.

But this disease hasn’t brought only darkness into my life. In many ways, it has brought light.  It has opened my eyes to how blessed I really am. I appreciate every moment and every experience, because I know my time is limited. I love every second of playing Monopoly with my brother, watching Family Feud with my mom, and going to the movies with my dad. I spend a lot of time in nature, taking walks with my dog, and truly enjoying sights other people may be too busy to notice, like flowers and sunrises. I’ve gotten into photography, because I love capturing the beauty in everyday objects and experiences, and committing them to memory for later.

My condition has also put problems and priorities into perspective. I don’t get stressed out about pimples or about someone cutting in front of me, the way people my age sometimes do. I’m not judgmental; I know that everyone has a problem, whether it’s noticeable or unnoticeable. I’m not the girl who’s going to leave you out of the group because you wore the same sweater last week. I also don’t waste time on anything that isn’t very important to me, because I know there’s a timer on my vision. I devote my time to things I love, like sports and being a volunteer EMT.

Losing my sight has pushed me to sharpen my other senses. I’m a terrific listener. I love listening to my friends. I’ve sharpened my sense of smell by spending my summers helping to teach cooking classes. I’ve sharpened my sense of touch by playing the keys on the piano and committing the shape of each key to memory. I no longer have to watch my hands when I’m playing, because I can feel which notes are the correct ones.

In the future, I know there are things I won’t be able to do, like play sports, curl up with my favorite book or watch the waves in the ocean. But I know there are many things I will still be able to do, like listen to audiobooks, play the piano, and feel the waves. One day I may not be able to see the roses; but I will still be able to smell them. And that is what I choose to focus on.

S., Whitman High School

It’s an interesting thing, not looking in the mirror for an entire month.

There were no mirrors, no phones, no showers – not even toilets – on the monthlong National Outdoor Leadership School expedition I took this summer, deep inside Wyoming’s Wind River mountain range. Without a mirror to see my surface reflection, the journey drove me to look deeper inside myself to discover who I really am.

I discovered that I’m tougher than I ever imagined. My mind and body were pushed to their limits by living completely outdoors: daily 12 hour hikes through tricky off-trail terrain; carrying all my belongings in a 50 pound backpack; high altitudes that left my breathing ragged; brutal weather conditions that left me constantly cold and wet. Yet, even when I felt like crying - even when I felt so exhausted that my vision went blurry and my legs shook violently - I managed to grit my teeth and reach deep inside myself for a strength I didn’t know I had.

Over time, physical discomforts like blisters, scrapes, bruises, bugs, and the lack of things we take for granted, like privacy and technology, stopped bothering me. I came to feel less like a privileged human being and more like an intrinsic part of the wildlife, just as subject to nature’s power as any other animal.

I discovered so much beauty in situations that initially terrified me - like hiking up steep, gravelly slopes with no traction, and hiking at high altitudes during thunderstorms. While crossing a narrow log over a raging river, I found myself so focused that I felt in tune with every single sense. I heard the water roaring all around me; I felt the slippery moss-covered log under my boots; I heard every single breath entering and leaving my body. I could even smell the crashing water. When I reached the other side, I’d never experienced such appreciation for simply existing.

I also discovered that I am a leader. The dozen members of our group took turns leading daylong hikes. Afterwards, I was elected to lead a three day group hike. There would be no adults with us; our only safety net was a button that would summon a helicopter in a ‘life-or-limb’ situation.

Over those three days, I led my group through 30 hours of incredibly difficult and hazardous off-trail hikes, featuring steep heights and high-risk river crossings. I learned the delicate arts of delegating responsibility to people in areas they excelled in, of pushing my group to accomplish our goals, and of nurturing my team with kindness and respect.    

I also learned how to balance sticking to my decisions with taking responsibility for mistakes. At one point, I’d decided to take a shortcut that led us to an impassable cliff. I promptly apologized and was amazed at how much simpler it was to move on than to attempt to defend my thought process.

There was so much opportunity for reflection on this trip. Rid of the distractions and stresses of everyday life, not only did I become more aware of my own qualities but I also developed a heightened value for the outdoors, for living simply, and for the people around me. I came to love falling asleep exhausted from exertion. I came to love aggressively taking care of myself, by drinking enough water and getting lots of sleep. I came to love lightening the load of my teammates, whether by carrying more than my share, or by rising early to make pancakes for my group. I came to love needing only one pair of shorts and a single shirt.

These were two very challenging journeys that I took this summer – the journey into the wilderness and the journey into myself. When I finally returned home and looked in the mirror, I felt proud to see the scratched, blistered, confident and accomplished woman gazing back at me.

M., Landon School

The first seizure hit in the middle of an ice hockey game. One minute I was chasing the puck with my teammates, and the next minute I was wandering alone in a corner of the rink. I heard teammates calling my name, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t respond.

A few days later, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It took surgeons at Children’s Hospital eight hours to remove the golf ball sized tumor from my right frontal lobe.

I received an overwhelming outpouring of love and support. When I got out of surgery, I discovered that my teammates and friends were planning to shave their heads too, so I wouldn’t be the only bald guy at school. I was so touched. But because I was one of the lucky ones - my tumor was benign, so I wouldn’t have to go endure chemo, radiation, and more hair loss - I told them not to. I told them my red hair would be growing back soon, so there was no need to shave theirs. But it meant so much to know that they were willing to.

Once I was sprung from the hospital, the hardest part of the recovery was the stares I got in public while waiting for my hair to grow back. Instead of looking me in the eye, people looked at my head, then looked away. It made me so painfully aware of how much hair matters to make you feel normal.

Time passed as it does, and life went back to normal. My hair grew back and covered my five-inch scar. I returned to playing hockey.

I believe in putting what you can behind you, but not losing sight of what’s gained along the way.  I didn’t just get my health and my life back, I became profoundly aware that I was one of the lucky ones. Every time I went back to Children’s Hospital for a follow-up, I saw kids who weren’t as lucky. Kids whose tumors were cancerous. Who had trouble talking and walking. Who lost their hair during long periods of chemo and radiation.

Not long after, my brother’s friend L got cancer. My brother and his friends shaved their heads in solidarity. They were an army of brothers, waging war against L’s cancer together.

Fortunately, L recovered. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids who were still suffering. I decided to see if I could belatedly take my teammates up on their offer to shave their heads - but this time to raise money for Children’s Hospital, in an event called “Be Brave and Shave.”

Everyone signed-up, no questions asked. We challenged our rival hockey team, Georgetown Prep, to participate with us. Normally, there’s a huge rivalry between our teams, but this event brought us together as one.

Hundreds gathered to watch us shave at our next big game. The top fundraisers from both teams sat side by side, and were the first to get their heads shaved. A total of 65 brave people - players, coaches, teachers and fans - had their heads shaved. One of our coaches even shaved his beard, which he hadn’t done in 30 years. His grown daughter had never seen him without a beard.

I was so touched to watch my friends, who had offered to shave their heads for me, to be now doing it with me, for such a worthwhile cause. Hair, tears, and money flowed - we raised $72,000 for the hospital. Our next “Be Brave and Shave” is already scheduled, with a goal of $100,000.

Having a brain tumor wasn’t a good situation, but it had the best possible outcome. I discovered that I’m not simply a survivor - I’m someone who holds the enduring responsibility of building a bridge between those of us with luck and those of us without it.

L., Field School

In my family, whoever had the most tragic week gets to pick our Sunday night Disney movie. If your boyfriend broke up with you, you lost the race for class president, or you’re scared about leaving for sleepaway camp the next morning, then it’s your turn to choose the cartoon movie that all six of us will watch together for our family night.

At 7:30pm, we all pile onto our huge brown couch. Our golden retriever, R, picks his spot - almost always next to my mom (who is allergic to him).

I usually wedge myself between my older brother, G, who’s 18, and my younger brother, E, who’s 11. G is kind of my hero, and I’m always trying to get his attention. I’ll remember what he found funny about this particular movie last time we watched it, and I’ll quote those parts. Last year, I even started running with him just so we could hang out more. Problem is, G’s jog is like my sprint.

On the other side of me is E, trying so hard to get my attention. Since E is leaving the next morning for basketball camp, he gets to pick tonight’s movie. It’s a grand occasion for him when he announces his choice: “And the movie I choose is [drumroll]…. Megamind!”

“Excellent choice,” I say. E vies for my approval like I vie for G’s. I’m the one he comes to for everything, whether it’s to show me the presentation he’s about to give at school, or whether it’s advice on friends. He’ll even let me paint his nails just so we can hang out more. I dote on E not just because he’s the youngest, but because when he was little, he was really sick, and doctors thought he would die. I’m so proud of the survivor in him.

Lounging next to E is my older sister, A, who’s 21. Despite being polar opposites, we have an incredibly profound kinship. We take so much pleasure in making each other laugh. When she’s driving me somewhere, I’ll roll down the window and sing as loud as I can to the pedestrians, while A laughingly begs me to stop.  She loves to quote my favorite lines from funny movies to make me laugh. She’s also always been there for the hard times, like holding my hand after my friend L was killed in a car accident, and teaching me to drive even though I was terrified to get behind the wheel.

My dad is the ringleader and the jokester of the family. While we’re watching the movie, he’ll lob popcorn on each of us, to make the dog pounce on us in search of the kernels. Throughout every day, my dad and I send each other funny text messages. He’ll send me a picture of our dog and pretend that he loves the dog more than me. When he’s about to get into bed at night, I’ll sometimes hide under the covers to scare him. Then he sits on me until I surrender. When my dad recently made the huge announcement that I was the Second Funniest Person in the family, it caused a huge uproar, because my brothers and sisters each thought they should have been chosen.

Next to my dad is usually my mom. She is the sweetest, wisest, most protective person. She always knows what mood I’m in. She can tell when I’m just pretending to laugh and I actually need comfort. She gives me the best advice, whenever I don’t know what to do. Her life is devoted to making our whole family feel good, regardless of what tragedy may have happened that week. On Sunday movie nights, it brings such a smile to her face to see her whole family gathered together, laughing and enjoying each other even more than the movie.

K., Whitman High School

I’m standing barefoot in 12 inches of snow. Night has fallen in these woods. There are six of us, all family, and we’re trying to be brave against the ice that is burning our feet.

We are not stranded in the woods. My family is out here on purpose, for our annual “Barefoot Snow Contest,” one of the many crazy physical adventures that my dad is always challenging us to.

While other dads are content to watch tv with their families, my dad is an adrenaline junkie and an adventure lover. Even though he’s a responsible, self-made businessman, my dad still has all his childhood dreams of exploring canyons and rock climbing on cliffs. He’s still a kid on the inside.

My childhood was spent outside with my dad. He loved to take me and my four siblings fishing. But unlike other families, we didn’t just pick up our bait from the tackle shop. We had to lift rocks and logs to collect our own worms. The more worms we found, the longer we could fish, so we worked hard at it. We’d fish in the warm sun, and always release the fish we caught. Sometimes a fish would swallow the entire hook, but instead of letting it die, my dad would spend however much time it took to safely free the fish. I would trade a hundred days glued to the computer screen for a day of fishing with my dad.

My dad also loved hunting with me for crawdads, which are little freshwater lobster-like animals that live under rocks. One day we found the biggest one I had ever seen. My dad bribed me with a dollar to be brave enough to pick it up. It pinched me hard, but I earned my dollar.

My dad has a unique way of naming certain hardships, in a way that makes them more of a game or a challenge. When we go rock climbing, he loves to take us to his favorite “Overhang of Doom.” We wear “foot torture chambers,” which are really tight but effective rock climbing shoes.

A few summers ago, after a huge oak tree fell in our backyard, the stump was left behind, as if challenging my dad. He named the challenge “Man vs Stump,” and he took it seriously. For weeks, he and I spent countless hours swinging an ax at the extremely compact and horribly stubborn wood. We would show off our strength by seeing how much wood we could spray off the stump in the shortest amount of time, and brag about the devilish looking calluses on our hands. What started out as a chore had become a game and a time of bonding, and I was almost sad to see the stump finally reduced to pieces that we could carry off our property.

One adventure that hopefully will never end is our summertime “House of Pain.” It’s a five mile run with frequent stops for push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups, followed by an 800 meter swim. The first time I did the “House of Pain” with my dad, I wanted to cry because it was so hard. But he got me to fight through the pain and complete it. As I got better at it, it became one more way of bonding with my dad. While most kids turn to the gym to get in shape, my dad taught me that no indoor workout can compete with us working out together in nature.

Throughout all our adventures, my dad has been helping me do more than just have fun and appreciate nature. He’s also been teaching me by example how to be strong, independent, prepared, and able to take care of myself and others. He has taught me the importance of humor, the benefits of hard physical work, and the beauty of living life as a never ending adventure.

M., Whitman High School

You have to be a little crazy in the head to do what I do. Every day, I climb onto a 33 foot high, concrete diving platform, then fling myself into 18 feet of water. However, this isn’t the reckless type of crazy; it’s the bold, determined, artful kind of crazy. The kind that allows me to face my fears, feel them, and walk straight through them anyway.

I grew up terrified of heights. This wasn’t a problem when I first started diving at age nine, because those dives were only from three feet up. But as my diving career advanced to the national level, I had to face my fear of heights head on.

The first dive I ever did from the highest platform was just a simple front dive, but I stood there on the edge for a good ten minutes. I paced back and forth, contemplating everything I had heard and seen about the dangers of high diving: how much it can hurt from the pressure of hitting the water; how people have damaged their interior organs; how I’ve seen my friends get hurt badly by hitting the platform. What eventually got me off the board was thinking about a simple wooden carving that hangs above my bed. It reads: “She Believed She Could… So She Did.”

When I finally leaped from the edge, I nearly peed in terror while plummeting towards the water. However, after resurfacing, I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face. My coach applauded, but then quickly sent me back up the stairs.

There’s nothing like crushing a high dive: the sound the water makes as my hands slice into it. The feeling of gliding through the hole that my body makes in the water. The sight of bubbles closing over my feet, temporarily separating me from the surface.

Diving requires me to be in complete control of myself, both mentally and physically. Having my head at even the slightest incorrect angle or misjudging when to reach for the water can lead to serious injury. I must keep my entire body tensed up in all the right ways, but also keep my mind clear, calm, and flexible, so that I can remain fluid in midair.

Learning to be in control of my mind and emotions has greatly benefitted me, both in and out of the water. I’m no longer discouraged by failure in my life. When learning a new dive, it’s normal to fail the first few times. It’s also common to mess up a dive and then be scared to ever attempt it again. But I’ve trained myself to always get back up on the board, even after the worst smacks on the water or hits on the board. I remember one time, I was learning a front two and a half on the 10 foot springboard. On my way down, I severely scraped both of my legs against the board. Although I was bloody and bruised from ankle to shin, I climbed back up those stairs, and attempted the dive again. A few tries later, I had made that dive mine.

Diving at this level requires an intense level of commitment and grit that many people find crazy. I wake up for 5:30am practices. I spend at least three hours a day, five days a week, practicing. On top of that, my weekends are spent traveling to dive meets nationwide. It’s a lot to balance. However, no level of exhaustion or stress has ever stopped me from attending a single practice.

I am proud of the person I have become, 33 feet up in the air. Diving has made me dedicated, confident and fearless. Whether it’s diving, excelling in school, or applying to my dream college, I am the girl who believes she can... so she does.

J., Whitman High School

Cheese Club convenes in the most isolated part of the playground. Past the football field, beyond the swings, down a steep hill. This is no-man’s land, where losers loiter during recess.

I’m in 4th grade, new to the school, and the only acceptance I’ve found is among four other misfits with nowhere else to go: one whose sweatpants tuck into his socks; one small, thin, always picked last; one without eyebrows; one with long t-shirts and a surrealist sense of humor. The five of us have discovered, purely by accident, a mutual love of cheese. Don’t get me wrong. We’re hardly connoisseurs of cheese. We’re devotees of artificial, cheese-like products. Cheetos, cheese-balls, cheez-curls; all are fodder for our cheese parties, held biweekly at members’ homes.

On this fall day, Cheese Club has a special mission. We’re ratifying our constitution. “Tenets of Our Faith in Cheese” is scrawled atop a worn sheet of notebook paper; underneath are signatures collected from every teacher in the school. I sign the sheet with a flourish, to emphasize my love for all things cheesy. There’ve been rumblings that some members aren’t actually devotees of cheese, and the last thing I want is to be cast out of Cheese Club. These are people I’ve grown to love.

It will be another two years before I stop being a social pariah. I hit puberty earlier than the other boys, and suddenly I’m the tallest, strongest kid in 6th grade. I’m good at wrestling and football. I stumble into popularity.

Despite my social status, the truth is I’ve never stopped being weird. I’ve taught myself to program on a graphing calculator. I play Shogi, an obscure Japanese chess. I draw crowds to tears with my piano playing. I don’t watch sports; not even the two that I eventually play on the varsity level. I lose myself in science fiction. I think deep, unrequired thoughts about poetry. I sit in Zen gardens in the rain, on purpose.

The other truth is that I’ve never stopped loving weird people. The very reasons they’re ostracized are the reasons I love them. Weirdos tell the truth. After any performance, when everyone else claps, weirdos clap only if they liked it. Really, they’re the only ones expressing true admiration for what’s been performed.

Weirdos are much more open and willing to connect. With popular people, you have to go through endless hoops - first acquaintances, then nodding in the hallway, then friends. Then one night you walk back from a party together and reveal something serious about your lives. With weirdos, you say hey, we both like cheese, and next, here’s the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me.

Weirdos are fascinating. A beloved weirdo of mine charts every crush he’s ever had. He constructs graphs and diagrams to reflect the progression of the relationship in his mind. He’s never had an actual girlfriend.

Enforced isolation forces weirdos to spend time thinking; to develop their thoughts and views. In conversation, they spark your true thoughts. They allow you to truly express yourself, instead of moderating your opinions like you’re used to, for fear of feeling different. The conversation is better, because weirdos are comfortable being different.

Today people chant my name when I play football. I’m invited to every party. But I remain weird. The way light is simultaneously wave and particle, I occupy both spaces. I’ll never forget what it’s like to have no friends. The intense isolation tore down any pretensions I may have had about myself. It inoculated me from ever believing that I’m better than anyone else.

Some of my classmates go through entire school days without anyone but me saying “hi” to them. When popular kids ask why I talk to those people, I don’t dodge the question. I ask them, why don’t you talk to those people? That question has never been answered.

Cheese Club eventually found its glory. That spring, we wrote to a farm, and they sent our class a box full of cheese stuff - including five bracelets just for us. That day, everyone wanted to be in Cheese Club. Kids were talking to me, trying to befriend me for the first time. But I didn’t need the bracelets to know who my friends really were. They were the misfits, the outcasts - my people - the weirdos.

Z., Holton-Arms School

I reach for the toothpaste, but it isn’t there. I hunt in the medicine cabinet, and under the sink. I walk into my bedroom and look through my drawers. I finally call out for my 14 year old brother, B. “It’s in the hall closet,” he says. “Behind the towels.” He laughs and hands it to me.

B. and I have been hiding toothpaste for years. Because otherwise, our 18 year old brother, M., who is autistic, would finish the tube every day. He loves to brush his teeth, and would do so every hour if I let him. And it’s up to me to let him or not let him. Because ever since I was 11 years old, it’s been me who’s responsible for my brothers all weekend, while my mom works her shifts as a nurse. My dad isn’t around to help.

The toothpaste isn’t all B. and I hide. M. loves to take showers - long ones, ‘til all the hot water and soap are gone - three or four times a day. It makes make him so happy. But still, we have to hide the soap. And the honey (behind the green lunchbox) and the apples (under the paper towels), because M. craves sweet foods that aren’t on his diet.

It can get complicated at home. But truthfully, it’s still much simpler than going out. At home I don’t have to worry about people getting upset because M. pushed past them without saying, “Excuse me.” Or because he got too close to a stroller, to smile at a baby. He loves babies.

At home, M. is sometimes calm and quiet, almost pensive. But mostly he’s restless, in motion. He runs up and down the stairs, or jumps on our mini trampoline. I push him on the swing. B. plays basketball with him.

M. can communicate, but he can’t tell me when he’s hungry or thirsty. I have to keep him hydrated and give him snacks so he won’t throw fits or crave foods he shouldn’t eat.

Simple things make M. content. Just turn on the music and hand him a grapefruit and he's happy. He loves to play catch with me. Or snuggle up to me on the couch while I read his favorite book, Cat in the Hat, over and over. Afterwards, he’ll turn to me and say, "I love you." I cherish the times that we can actually connect and enjoy each other's company.

But sometimes it’s not peaceful. Sometimes M. has ten minute screaming fits, fifteen times a day. "KITTA! KITTA! KITTA-KITTA!" he screams, at the top of his lungs. Nothing helps.

Honestly, I have a lot of mixed feelings about my brother's situation. Sometimes I wish I could be like other kids. Kids who go out with their friends, or talk on the phone without worrying about screaming in the background. Kids whose moms take them shopping for clothes they don’t need, or a cellphone. Kids who have cake on the kitchen counter.

Sometimes I feel angry at M, sometimes at God, and sometimes at myself for the feelings that I have. M. was a normal boy until he turned two years old. When I was born. That’s when he changed. Was it because of me?

But I try to focus on the positive. Being M’s sister makes me appreciate my own ability to communicate and interact with people. Seeing him find happiness in simple things has taught me to find happiness in simple things. On the journey to find a cure for M, my family has gotten so close; we are each other's support. B. and I spend so much time joking and making each other smile. I am most myself with my family; something I know other kids truly wish they could say.  Much has been lost. But much has also been found.

S., Walter Johnson High School

It’s late Friday night. My dad and I are sprawled on the couch, living vicariously through the Food Network. Unlike my mom and my sister, my dad and I are obsessed with food - cooking it, eating it, reminiscing about it. Tonight Guy Fieri is taunting us with a special on sandwiches. Oh, how I wish smellivision existed.

The mouthwatering meatiness on the screen evokes memories of the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten - the hot Italian beef sub at Johnnie’s Beef in Chicago.

I turn to my dad and drool out loud about how great that sandwich would be right now, if only it weren’t a 10-hour drive away from our Maryland home. I am startled by the sudden strange twinkle in his eye. He’s thinking what I’m thinking.

A quick look at the calendar reveals that this is one of the rare (we’re talking maybe four times a year) weekends when neither my 13-year-old sister J nor I have any sports games or instrument lessons.  

Miraculously, we convince my mom (who usually works 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, running her own business) and my sister that driving 10 hours for a sandwich is a good idea. Soon we are filling the car with pillows and blankets. I can’t get over the fact that my normally planning-obsessed family is spontaneously venturing out to the Midwest without stopping the mail or making arrangements to have our goldfish fed.

In the car, everyone is fully present, which is rarer than any of us would like to admit. My mom isn’t emailing invoices. J isn’t on Instagram. My dad isn’t cruising, comparing prices for bulk paper towels. I’m not obsessing about homework or my basketball team. The conversation is luxuriously unhurried. J explains in detail the subtleties of her middle school’s cafeteria seating dynamic. My mom dispenses advice about the importance of marrying a man like our dad, who will nurture our dreams - and not a man like her former fiance, who didn’t want her to get a PhD.

My dad stops for Pringles, Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish, things we don’t get to eat at home, because that’s what his beloved dad did on road trips. You learn things about people in a car that you just don’t learn in a house, no matter how long you live together. Making our way east across I-90, I learn that J writes detailed online reviews for cell phone apps. I learn that when my dad was in high school, and his father passed away, he saw his father’s ghost in the hallway one night. I learn that my mom is a direct descendant of the Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty.  Seriously? How did I not know this?

Our car finally pulls up in front of Johnnie’s at 11am. on Saturday. We tumble out, exhausted, exhilarated, and starving. We wait in a long line to order from the six item menu on the shack’s greasy wall. We carry our meaty bundles of joy to the picnic tables outside. In the car we’d made a pact that no one eats first - so I count out loud to three, and we all take our first bites simultaneously. For a long time there are no sounds, except deep groans of satisfaction. We buy four more sandwiches for our drive home, pile into the car, and eat them as slowly as we can. We have a very serious, extended discussion about what we will do when we win the lottery. And who we will tell, and who we won’t.

As we finally pull into our driveway, I still can’t believe my family spent the last 20 hours crammed in this car together to satisfy a $6 sandwich craving. This trip has taken ridiculously long. And it was over far too soon.

R., Winston Churchill High School

My grandmother calls from India to inform my mother that I am in serious danger. The astrological stars surrounding my birth date, time and place are out of alignment. Apparently noon on February 13, 1996 was a bad time to be born. My entire future hinges on me appeasing the Hindu Snake God, which currently holds my future success in its angry jaws.

A ritual cleansing must take place quickly, on Nag Panchami, an auspicious day in August, in my fifteenth year. And this remedy is available only at a temple in Kalahasti, a tiny village in southern India - literally halfway across the world from my Maryland home.

When my mother breaks the news to me, I stare at her incredulously, unsure whether this is serious or a joke. But she stands in front of me, nervous and determined. She loves me too much to let anything harm me - regardless of my protests that this threat is make believe. As I frantically question how praying to something that I am 100 percent (ok, 99 percent) certain does not exist can possibly change my future, she hands me the plane tickets. I look to my dad for some help, but he decides to maintain the peace by saying nothing. He does, however, refuse to go with us.

I remain sullen throughout the 24 hour journey to India, followed by a 10 hour drive to the village. At dawn the next morning, we walk barefoot through the village, to the temple. As part of the cleansing, I am not allowed to eat or drink for this entire day. At the temple, there are more than 100 other families of teenage boys who have arrived for similar ceremonies.

A priest takes us to a corner to begin my four hour cleansing. Next to him is a basket with a live snake in it. The priest chants prayers in a language I do not know, and instructs me to follow. He hands me various flowers and grains, and tells me to throw them into a metal bowl, and into a fire.

Afterwards, I have to stand in a series of long lines to make offerings to statues of various deities that I’m almost sure do not exist. As the ceremony finally ends, I am exhausted from the journey, sweaty from the heat, starving from my fast, and bruised from the pushing crowds.

I turn to my mom to reprimand her about this absurd trip. But as I turn to look at her, I am startled by the look of pure relief and peace on her face. It is a look that says, “My child is safe.” It’s the same look I see at home, after I grudgingly complete the minor religious rituals she occasionally asks of me: facing my bed in a certain direction; not bragging, to avoid the evil eye from jealous friends; not putting books on the floor or speaking ill of school, to avoid insulting the education god; and laying face down on the floor on the first day of every school year, to pray to the education god.    

I start to feel ashamed of the terrible fuss that I have made. My mom does everything for me. She has endured every up and down in my life with me. Every day she puts my well-being over her own. She did not drag me to this village to improve her future; she dragged herself here to improve mine. I know with 99 percent certainty that what we are doing here makes no sense. But I also know with 100 percent certainty that there’s not a single thing I wouldn’t do to bring that look of peace to my mother’s face again.

S., Wootton High School

Painfully aware of the car driving next to my mom’s SUV as we speed down I-95, I carefully wiggle out of my t-shirt and into my navy blue dress.

I’m changing in the car on the way to my first book signing, for the book my mom and I have written together. We’re an hour late, because today was my class trip to Six Flags, and the bus was delayed getting home. Not because of traffic. But because a classmate, JR, was hiding in the bus bathroom when it was time for roll call. It started as a prank, but when he realized he’d triggered a manhunt, he panicked, and froze there for an hour, rather than face our furious teachers.

“Mom, can we go home?” I beg. “I need to shower. I smell like Six Flags.”

“We really don’t have time,” she says, checking her watch and anxiously tapping the steering wheel.

Not the best communication for a mother-daughter pair that has published a guided journal to help girls and moms open up to each other. The idea grew out of a journal that I had used to write letters to my mom. I’d leave it on her nightstand for her replies. For a long time, it made it easier for us to talk about difficult things.

We arrive at the church where we’ll be speaking. I clutch the black folder that contains our speech. The one we worked on for weeks, with lines that led into each other’s, with pauses for laughter and facial cues. I’m terrified at the prospect of my first public talk, but at least I have this crutch to lean on at the podium.

We’re greeted by Jean, the woman who scheduled our speech, and who looks like she should be named Jean. She leads us to the front, where 50 pairs of mothers and daughters are waiting for our advice on how to communicate better.

“I’m sorry, you can’t use the podium, because it’s just for the pastor,” chirps Jean. “But you can stand here and lead a discussion.”  

I stare at my mom. I’m not getting up in front of all these people without my carefully planned script. “Mom?” I plead. “I can’t.”

“It’ll be fine,” Mom smiles. “Just talk about how we wrote letters to each other, and how close it brought us.”

Jean introduces us. I smile weakly at the crowd. I push my hair behind my shoulder. Then back in front. Then half in front, half behind. I clutch my folder and gaze longingly at the podium. It calls to me. “S,” it coos. “This is scary. Come. Read your speech here, just the way you wrote it.”

I look at my mom. At Jean. At the 8-year-old girl in the front row, swinging her legs, holding our book, and looking at me expectantly. At her mom, sitting next to her, smiling. This girl... This mom... They are the reason we wrote this book. To help them find words to bring them closer.

I take a deep breath. This is hardly the first step in this process that has scared me. It was scary to ask my mom to share a journal with me in the first place. It was scary to pitch it to a publisher like Chronicle Books. It was scary to see the book in Barnes & Noble and think, “God, I hope this works.”

And now, it’s scary to stand here and explain to these girls and moms what this process, and my relationship with my mom, have meant to me.

I smile at the girl in the front row. If I let what scared me dictate what I do, I never would’ve made this journal. If I froze, we never would have helped this girl and her mom.  

I have to put myself out there.

I can’t hide in the bathroom.

I put my folder down and begin to speak.

N., Landon School

I stand at the bottom of the mountain, gazing upward. The mountain is covered with a forest so thick that I can barely see 20 feet ahead of me. But there lies a secret in this lush, piney forest, and I intend to find it.

I’m here with my family, on our annual week long pilgrimage to Alsace, France; my father’s birthplace, where his family still lives. In the valley below is the tool factory that his father started. But up ahead - a 30 minute climb up this mountain - is a castle. An abandoned 16th century castle. Somehow, over these years, it has become our custom to wake at dawn to climb mountains and explore ransacked royal ruins. So far we have seen 23.

During the half hour climb, my dad explains to us - me, my mom, and my brother and sister - the history of this mountain, this castle, and the knights that once inhabited it.

It always amazes me, the details he knows about the battles, the ransacking, the dragging of cannons uphill.

After a while, my little brother runs up the path ahead, out of sight. He returns with reports of a wild boar and a fox up ahead. I run ahead with him and see a flash of red and white fur. He’s the adventurous one of the family, and he pushes me to be as well.

Inevitably, at some point in the hike, my mom pulls me aside and starts lecturing me about something - like how I should pursue some new passion or try some new activity.  Maybe it’s the altitude, but on these walks even my mom’s lectures seem less painful.

The sun starts to climb above the treeline, and the temperature rises.  This hike is strenuous, even for me - a soccer player used to running up and down a field for 90 minutes. Around the next bend, I finally catch a glimpse of the castle. Its huge arched walls are covered with ivy and history. It looks like a scene from a children’s books. Or a perfect screensaver.

I dart ahead into the castle, carefully exploring every doorway, crevice, and outlook. I climb through tunnels and crumbling staircases, up to the rooftop. I imagine putting on my armor to defend this castle, five hundred years ago. I’m sharpening my sword. I’m drawing my arrow. I’m re-enacting every drawing I’ve ever made of a castle since I was six years old.

I’m jolted back by the sound of my big sister’s voice. She’s commenting about the castle’s architecture, using words like “barrel vaults” and the “battlements.”  I’ve always loved listening to her observations about architecture and art. Because of her, I’m taking art history this year. Maybe next year I’ll be able to surprise her with a comment about “parapet barriers.”

After hours of exploration, we are hungry. My mother, being Italian, always carries piles of delicious food on her. Today, she woke up extra early to gather our food from three different places: bread from a boulangerie, cheese from a fromagerie, and ham from a charcuterie. Now, on the rooftop, we gratefully assemble our sandwiches.

As we sit and eat, my family is quiet.  We are lost in our own thoughts, but, unlike in the real world, here our thoughts are interwoven. My parents think I jump out of bed early on vacation just to see these castles. What they don’t realize is that what I secretly love even more than the sight of these castles is the feeling that I get when the five of us are here together.  In these moments, in these castles, we are closer as a family than we are anywhere else, ever. It’s here where there’s no homework. No cell phones. No distractions. Nothing but each other’s company. It is here that we feel most like a family.

R., Landon School

Everything I ever needed to know, I learned flat on my face. As a nationally ranked gymnast, I’ve landed on my head a thousand times. I usually walk away with little more than a bloody lip, but on occasion it’s been a miracle that I walked away at all.

At the 2013 National Trampoline and Tumbling Championships, I face-planted during a complex routine: a double front flip with twists, followed by a double backflip with twists. When my knee suddenly buckled, I fell face first into the webbing of the trampoline. I heard every bone in my neck crunch. It’s unclear how I escaped a broken neck, paralysis, or death. The fall was so serious that to this day, my father won’t let my mother watch the video of it.

You learn a great deal about yourself, and about life, when you’re crumpled on the floor.  Like the fact that humor helps. As I lay in a heap that day, my coach, a dedicated and compassionate former Marine, raced to my side. After determining that I was ok, Coach pointed to the cross-hatch imprint of the trampoline on my face and pronounced: “R, I don’t like my waffles at night.”  His humor pulled me from my shock, and I laughed. Most of the time, after less serious falls, he’s right there with insights like, “Well, at least your hair is ok.” Whether it’s a big deal or a not so big deal, kind humor does ease the pain.

Another crucial lesson I’ve learned is to dwell in the present. Gymnastics, like life, is mostly mental. If you replay your failures, you’ll repeat them. As much as I train my muscles, I also train my mind. Coach has taught me to meditate and to visualize success. Before I attempt a skill, I “see” myself performing it - from my own perspective, and from a bystander’s. Coach never tells me to do something unless he knows I’m physically ready. I meet him halfway by making sure my mind is ready.

I’ve even used the power of my mind to overcome my natural human reflexes. When you’re falling, it’s natural to brace yourself by sticking out your arms. In gymnastics, that’s dangerous. Through countless repetitions, I’ve trained my mind to cross my arms and roll into a fall.

Falling flat on your face impresses another important life lesson upon you: how to suck it up. If my body opens up, I wipe the blood off. If my finger dislocates, I pop it back into place. If all my toes get cut from hitting the trampoline the wrong way, I take a picture of my foot to show my friends. All these injuries have happened to me, and not one has ended a practice.

Another thing I’ve learned facedown is that you can’t rely on luck - you must rely on mastery. Coach stresses, “A skill isn’t truly yours until you’ve landed it three times in a row.”

I remember trying to learn a rudi - a one and a half twist somersault. I kept landing twice, and stumbling the third time. Three weeks (of 15 hours of weekly practices) passed before I landed that rudi three times in a row, and it became mine.

I practice a skill literally a thousand times before I do it in competition. I may learn something new in August, and not compete with it until April. My favorite quote is the Ralph Waldo Emerson one that Coach wrote on the wall of our gym: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved.”

Everyone falls flat on their face sometimes. I’m lucky to have done it more than most. Because facedown, battered and bloodied, is where I’ve discovered exactly who I am, and what values I choose to live by.

A., Whitman High School

I flip my pillow over and snuggle closer to the side of a half ton Army tank. I’ve secured a prime sleeping spot on the floor of the military aircraft that’s transporting my family from the base where we live in Germany to an undisclosed base where my dad is on a 48 hour leave for Christmas.

My mom, my brothers, and I are desperate for sleep, having just spent three nights in a military airport, in hopes that a flight may be headed our way, and that my dad’s rank may be high enough to secure us a spot. My little sister, however, is too excited to sleep tonight. I open one eye and see her rollerblading up and down the other end of the plane, winding her way around crates of ammunition.

My dad is currently serving his seventh tour in a combat zone. He’s been to Iraq, Bosnia, Turkey, Kosovo and Afghanistan in service to our country.

There are both challenges and perks to being a military kid. The biggest challenge has been growing up without my dad. He’s been away from our family for 10 of my 17 years. I spent years opening my dad’s Christmas and birthday presents via Skype, with a grainy connection, other soldiers beside him instead of me, and my mom weeping over my shoulder.

Another challenge was moving every few years. There’s always a new language to learn, a new school to attend, and new friends to make. And not knowing the answer to, “Where are you from?”  

On the plus side, I’ve become very responsible at a young age. My mom works intense hours and I run our household in my parents’ absence. I keep track of my siblings’ schedules, drive them to activities, and know whether they need the green uniform or the blue one for this week’s soccer game. When their activities require a parent volunteer, I’m it. I make dinner too, though admittedly we eat a lot of cereal.  On top of that, I have a job 16 hours a week.

I’m not afraid of things that many of my peers are. I’m not intimidated by being around new people - not even sketchy ones. On the other side of the fence of one of my elementary schools was a maximum security prison yard. I peacefully played four square within eyesight of hardened criminals. I’m not scared of things that go boom in the night - or even the night itself. That comes from growing up on bases, to the soundtrack of practice war, and to the sight of armed soldiers who made the streets safe enough for us kids to walk to the corner store for a midnight snack.  

I’m also unafraid of manual labor. I know how to paint walls and fix things – skills gathered moving from one fixer-upper military apartment to the next. I’m up for the challenge of making anyplace cozy - even former WWII barracks, with hallways the length of a bowling alley, and five toilets in each bathroom.

I guess you could say I’m not afraid of the world, or of claiming my place in it. I speak - and even dream in - multiple languages. I can read a map, and navigate the subway anywhere in the world. At 13, I was already traveling alone to visit friends that I had made and kept in other countries.

I’m blessed that there’s hardly a country in the world that doesn’t have a couch I’m welcome to rest my head on. But tonight the place my head is resting is on the cold metal floor of this aircraft. I snuggle closer to the tank that’s headed for who knows where, and fall asleep, dreaming first in German, and then in English, of the Christmas I’m about to spend with my dad.

M., Maret School

I grew up when I got my driver’s license, but not for the reasons you might think. That was the day I gained my independence to drive alone, but also lost some connection with my family.  

At first, driving alone was exciting. I would blast my Coltrane as loud as I wanted, or stop at Chipotle on the way home with friends - just because I could. I came and went as I pleased, because I didn’t have to wait for my mom to pick me up or my dad to drop me off. But eventually, I started to miss the familiar company of my family in the car.

The car has always been a place where conversations just happen. Not necessarily deep, meaningful conversations, but day to day conversations about minor details of our lives. Conversations that were meaningful in their own way, because they kept us feeling connected to each other’s whole day, every day.

On the ride home with my mom, I’d mention that I sat with R and L at lunch, and she’d reply, “I thought they weren’t friends anymore?” I’d explain that they were again, because the guy they both liked had started dating E instead. She’d tell me she saw J’s mom at the grocery store, and replay their entire conversation.

Now when I get home from school, I feel like I need a reason to mention something random, like who I sat with at lunch. It felt right as a space filler in the car, but feels too minor to mention over dinner.

When my mom would pick me up, she’d usually have my little sister in the car. It was a great way to stay up to date on her life too. It feels strange to come home after school and ask S to tell me about her day, but in the car it was normal for her to be talking about working on her double handed backspring at cheer practice. I always knew what was on her mind, and what her mood was, which helped me be a better big brother.

My dad always drove me to school in the mornings. We’d talk about things that men talk about - whether I should’ve passed or run on that third down play at the 18-yard line in the last football game, or getting the family tickets for my upcoming music gig at the Kennedy Center, or that time when he taught me to spearfish.

Because my dad works so much, it was usually during our car rides that we made plans to do things together over the weekend - like play sports or invite friends over to play our instruments together. Now we have to seek each other out to make plans, and we do it less.   

Nowadays my dad’s schedule and mine don’t allow for lots of casual conversation, and I miss that. One of us is gone before the other wakes up, and dinner is just half an hour before we all go our separate ways - me to homework or practice, and him to do paperwork or repair something in the house.

This year I started asking my dad to drive me to my football games on Saturday nights. I could have driven myself, but I missed having him with me on those rides, pumping me up for the game. He doesn’t know that’s why I asked - he thinks it’s just a logistics thing.

I like the feeling of independence and growing up, but at the same time I want it to slow down, so I can spend more time with my family talking about things meaningful to us, yet purposeless to others. As I move on to this new road to independence, and enjoy being in the driver’s seat of my life, I will still miss the view - and the soundtrack - from the passenger seat.

C., BCC High School

I scrape off the metal baking pan as best as I can, and lift it up onto the stack of clean pans. After a few hours I tell the bakery owners I’m done. My pay for the day is a few pesos and a bag of day old bread. I am four years old.

My job in the bakery is a welcome respite from how I spend most of my time - walking around our little Colombian town with my mom and two older sisters, searching through trash for items we can sell.

At night we return to the tin shack that is our home. There’s no electricity or plumbing. Sometimes we get kicked out of the shack, and we live in cardboard boxes.  

My mom has an illness that makes her behavior unpredictable. I don’t know what it is. But she seems to love her kids, and wants to take care of us. Still, we’re often left to roam the streets alone.

One day, when I’m five, the police come. I’m taken to an orphanage and told that my mom can’t take care of me. A year later I’m moved to another orphanage, and find my sisters there.  

Living in an orphanage is easier than living in the streets. There is nearly enough to eat. It is safe. I make friends, and we spend our days playing soccer. Sixteen of us sleep in each room, but at least we have our own beds. We take turns doing chores to keep the orphanage clean. I wash clothes by scrubbing them against a cement slab.

There are two showers for 50 kids; I wake at 4:00am to get in line for the one with hot water. We go to school, but no one makes us do homework, because no one really expects us to amount to anything.   

Some of the kids try to run away to find their families, so the gates to the orphanage are kept locked. Some kids who live here are babies that belong to older kids who live here.

When I’m 11, an organization called KidSave, which finds homes for orphans, invites me to visit America. It turns out that a couple wants to adopt me. I’m sad to leave my sisters, but they seem happy for my opportunity. When I leave Colombia in April, 2006, I change my name from Guillermo to C.

The couple is kind. My new dad speaks a little Spanish, and he reads Harry Potter to me in Spanish. My new mom speaks no Spanish, but she cooks Colombian foods to comfort me.

It takes me a while to adjust, but they are good adjustments. Like having my own room. Wearing new clothes that fit. Having more than one pair of shoes. Having more than enough food. And getting so much attention from my parents, who do expect me to amount to something.

I am able to stay in touch with my sisters. Their lives are harder than mine, and it makes me sad because I can’t do anything to help them. They’ve aged out of the orphanage, and live on their own. They’ve asked my mom to live with them, but she says no.

When I’m 16, I visit my sisters. They take me to visit my mom. I’m shocked when we arrive at a dump. I see a short, skinny, dirty woman emerge from a tent made of sticks and plastic bags. My sisters tell her, “This is Guillermo!” but she doesn’t remember me.

We take her to lunch, and there she says she remembers me. She pulls out a handkerchief full of coins, and jokes that she will leave her fortune to me. When it is time to go, I hug my mom and take her picture.

Finally she says goodbye to Guillermo, and so do I. I fly home and return to my life as C.

I., National Cathedral School

I’m nestled in the overstuffed brown chair in my den. In my lap is my camera - the journal I turn to when I need to be reminded. When I need some perspective. When I need to refocus. There are over a thousand photographs saved in my camera, but just a handful that I’m consistently drawn back to.

The first is of Sparkle, who works in the oncology ward at Georgetown University Hospital, where I volunteered for two summers. Sparkle is neither a physician nor a nurse. She’s a secretary; an uneducated single mother who you might think has little to offer. However, Sparkle is the reason the patients there feel human.

Physicians enter patients’ rooms and describe their diagnoses in complex medical terms. Sparkle follows and listens to their fears and stories. She talks to them about their kids and their favorite sports teams. In the midst of their confusion, she makes them feel seen and heard. In my favorite picture, Sparkle is standing in Mrs. Lee’s doorway, bringing her a warm blanket, a large Robeks smoothie, and her favorite old Earth, Wind, and Fire album.

I remember Sparkle every time I’m in a position to put someone at ease. When approached by a younger girl in my Peer Group, or an underclassman on my soccer team, I stop to listen, understand, and empathize. Instead of imposing my judgment, I step into the role of advocate and mentor; someone she can look to in a moment of uncertainty. I’m no longer Bella, the intimidating senior. I’m Bells, her peer leader and friend.

Another one of my favorite pictures was taken on the banks of the C&O canal. It’s of an elderly couple; their arms wrapped around one another. Her head rests on his shoulder. I became friendly with Helena and Joseph. They told me about their life, their love, and losing their son to a war. They advised me, “Enjoy a loved one’s company while it lasts, as you never know when it might be gone.” Amidst their pain, they continue to laugh together, cry together, and hope together.

I look at this picture whenever I need to be reminded that things aren’t that bad. Yes, I’ve lost people in my family. Yes, I’ve endured a serious illness. But there are so many loved ones who depend on my strength, and who let me depend on theirs.

Perhaps the most important picture in my camera is the one of Larry - a homeless man who sits on a bucket on a DC street corner. I pass him on my afternoon run. Larry wears a faded pink Vineyard Vines hat, and he smells of old fish. But he is always smiling. And he makes everyone who passes by smile, when he tells them how beautiful they look, and serenades them with “We are Family,” by Sister Edge. Although forgotten by his family and plagued with mental illness, Larry always smiles; he always hopes.

Being a witness to Larry’s life has taught me that happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a means of traveling. Yes, some days are a struggle. But when I look at Larry’s picture, I’m instantly brought back to reality.

These photos of Sparkle, Helena, Joseph and Larry are snapshots in time, not just of the subject, but also of the photographer who takes them. Looking back at them floods me with the emotions I felt when I took them. I don’t print these photos and I’ve never shown them to anyone - that would be the equivalent of publicizing pages of my diary.

The pictures remind me of what I know: that we all have something to offer. That we must offer it to one another. And that, even on days when it feels like there is little reason for me to smile, I can be the one reason someone else has to smile.

H., Wootton High School

It’s 4am. I know what running footsteps in the hallway mean. My brother J, a year younger than me, is having another seizure. I jump out of bed and rush to his room. J is lying on his side, convulsing. My parents are next to him, speaking in soothing tones.

I hover in the background, in my flannel snowflake pajamas. Next to me is my younger sister, M, in her cupcake pajama bottoms and white t-shirt. My parents take turns reassuring J, and us, that everything will be ok.   

A minute or two later, J starts to regain consciousness. My mom lays down next to him in bed. My dad begins his usual “gross humor and burping to make J laugh, so we know he’s ok” routine. After a round of sarcastic jokes and big belches, J chuckles.

I let out the breath I am holding. The sound of J’s laughter means we are safe. He’s back, quickly this time. It’s not always so fast. Sometimes we hover here in his football-themed bedroom for a long time. Even when the seizure is done, he’s too dazed to answer a simple question like, “Who won the Superbowl?”

Sometimes it’s bad enough that we have to call an ambulance. We’ve learned to ask them to keep the sirens off, so the whole neighborhood doesn’t get woken up. Once, when J began turning blue, we couldn’t even wait for the ambulance; my sister had to run through the snow barefoot, to get the doctor who lives next door.

But tonight J is ok. We all hang out around his bed for a while, exhausted, but needing each other to feel better. It sucks that J has to go through this. That he has to suffer the way he does. But he is so brave. Even though, like every little brother, he annoys me all day, I have come to admire how brave he is in the middle of the night. Of the nearly 100 seizures he has endured since that first one six years ago, I have only seen him cry once.

When morning comes, J always wants to get up and go to school, no matter how rough the night was. He once told me that it helps him get his mind off the epilepsy; to feel normal, instead of like a sick person. Over time, my brother has opened up to me about his seizures, more than he has opened up to anyone else. He has told me what they feel like, and how scared he gets. Talking to me about such a hard subject has made it easier for him to open up to me about less difficult, but still tricky, subjects that he might not want to talk to our parents about. He tells me a lot now, about what’s going on in school, and with his friends.

We are all lingering in J’s room for a few minutes before heading back to our own beds. It’s a weird feeling. It’s not fun that this happens, but at the same time, it’s fun to be here with each other at this weird hour. Nobody is in a rush, hurrying off for work or school, or to make dinner or do homework. We’re not stressed or scheduled, the way we are during the day. We’re all just very present.

Even though I hate that this happens to our family, I also feel sorry for families who don’t get to spend time together at 4am; who don’t get this reminder of how much they love and depend on each other. We’re all so relieved that J is ok, which means that for one more day, our whole family is ok. My dad burps. I laugh, and walk back to bed.

S., Holton-Arms School

My grandfather was a gifted artist; a creator of beautiful portraits. As a kid, I’d sneak into his study and hide his paintbrushes, so he would have to stop working and play cards with me instead; and he gladly did.

I was H.’s youngest granddaughter, and, he made me believe, his greatest contribution to the world. I am who I am because of what my grandfather saw in me.

He made me believe that, like him, I had an unshakable inner strength. He spent his career in the Iranian secret service. After the Revolution, he was jailed for five years by the new regime. Afterwards, he rebuilt his life as an artist. We were the same, he always said - there was nothing I couldn’t overcome with my determination.

My grandfather made me believe that I was responsible and trustworthy. When I was little, and we traveled together, he put me in charge of holding his passport. Whenever we went out to eat, he asked me to order for him, and to sign for his credit card. He would ask me to choose his clothes and shoes for all of the events we attended. He made me believe that I was as fashionable as he was. At 70, he looked like a 50-year-old movie star.

H. noticed and admired everything about me. He complimented my cooking, my style, my humor, and my personality. He even adored my quirks: that I loved to go-kart at high speed, that I appeared so relaxed even during a tense tennis match, and that I was addicted to pink bubblegum. He always complimented my smile, even when I had buckteeth and braces.  He made me believe, like every girl should, that I was beautiful.

My grandfather made me believe that all my dreams were real and achievable. When my parents pointed out what was realistic, he pointed out what was possible.

In his eyes, I was a gifted photographer, pianist and tennis player. On days when I didn’t feel like practicing the piano, he sat next to me and gently encouraged me through it. He was always trying to shape me into being the best person that I could be. As a kid, I wasn’t as naturally affectionate as my brother was. But my grandfather encouraged me to hug my brother often, until eventually it became second nature.

Through his example, my grandfather taught me how to treat people. H was incredibly kind to his family and friends. He especially showered his wife, his daughter, his daughter-in-law, and his granddaughters with respect and adoration. He told me that this was how I should be treated by any man in the future. He promised that when that man finally did show up, it was he, my grandfather, who would walk me down the aisle.

Sadly, my grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia, leaving that walk down the aisle the only promise he ever made to me that he couldn’t fulfill.

H. spent years battling the painful illness, and although leukemia dominated his body, it never dominated his thoughts. I never saw him without a smile on his face, even when an infection on his tongue made him lose 40 pounds in two weeks. Unfortunately, after a sudden decline, my grandfather died, the day after my 15th birthday. That day, I lost my best friend.

Many of my grandfather’s paintings still hang in our house; some finished, some unfinished. He also left me his paintbrushes, the ones I used to hide. I am who I am because of what his artist’s eyes saw and nurtured in me. He painted a beautiful image of who I am and what my future looks like. My grandfather made me believe that I was truly his greatest masterpiece; a piece of art that he left unfinished, and that it’s now up to me to complete.

R., St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

When my friends call me, “Old Man S,” I take it as a compliment. Sometimes they’re joking about my interests, and other times about my appearance. Admittedly, I dress like an old-timer. Even when I’m lounging around, you’ll typically find me wearing khaki pants, a button down shirt, leather slip-on shoes and a watch. I comb my hair and part it to the right.

I do old man stuff, like tend to my own garden. Every day and I water and care for my tomatoes, carrots, peppers, strawberries and the Redwood I planted four years ago. Then again, organic and sustainable farming is making a comeback, so this might actually be viewed as the most “modern” part of me.

I love tinkering with cars. Old engines, to be specific. I am the only one of my friends who drives stick. I’ve always loved any car with a manual transmission. It lets you feel the road when you are driving. I’m not crazy about the wave of new “intelligent,” electric, and self driving cars. What happens if internal combustion engines get driven away? Where will the fun in driving go?

I collect antiques, a passion I share with my dad. One of my greatest treasures is a Civil War sword that hangs above my bed. The four foot long sword has a brass handle and a steel blade. I scored it for $60 at a roadside antique shop, on a college road trip with my dad. My bedroom furniture is also all from a bygone era. The headboard on my 1850s cherry wood sleigh bed is carved to resemble the F-hole of a violin. I also have a matching desk, dresser and mirror. They all have stories and character. Unfortunately, my room isn’t usually the place that my friends pick to hang out.

Although I get along well with my peers, I get along just as well with older people - and sometimes I’m even more relaxed around them, because of our shared interests. I visit my grandparents several times a week. I help them with their garden and chores. I enjoy listening to their stories, about an era when people worked alongside each other, instead of with machines. When people stayed married even when things got tough. When business was done with a handshake. When hardship wasn’t considered “unfair”; it was just a normal part of life. When buying things used was nothing to be ashamed of, because things last when you take care of them.

I get chills when my grandma talks about passing her 1921 Steinway Concert Grand piano, with its ivory keyboard, down to me. An ivory keyboard? You just don’t find that anymore. Nowadays they are made of wood and plastic.

I credit my grandfather, Papa Guy, with teaching me how to be a man. He is the one who has taught me what it means to sacrifice for your family, the importance of manners, a good handshake, the value of embracing other opinions and cultures, how to fish from and care for his 40-year-old fishing boat, and perhaps most importantly, how to suck it up when you don’t get what you want.

One of the greatest compliments I ever got was when my grandfather’s 70-something friend said I really fit in with their crowd. Unlike many of my friends, I don’t struggle with my identity. I am “Old Man S.” I’m proud of the fact that I am authentic. I am earnest. I am a good friend. I like being myself. And I look forward to seeing how I ripen as I age.

R., St. Albans School

This is not a story about overcoming a huge obstacle; though I have done that. Nor is it a story about leading a team to victory; though I’ve done that too. This is, rather, a simple story of gratitude. A story of how a boy became a man, and who deserves the credit.

Dear Mom,

As I finish high school, and prepare to leave for college, it seems like a good time to say thank you. Thank you for spending these 18 years showing me that what I think matters, that what I love matters, and that who I am matters.

You taught me to love learning. Before I was old enough for preschool, you created our own “home school.” You taught me how to subtract, using a bag of M&Ms. You taught me about shapes by pointing them out in paintings at the National Gallery of Art. When you saw how much I loved to draw, you painted the living room with chalkboard paint. When, at eight, I was curious about ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, you spent months reading me The Iliad and The Odyssey over breakfast.

You taught me about science with one of those kits that let us watch caterpillars growing into butterflies. Then you taught me about compassion when one of the butterflies got sick, and you endlessly nursed it.

You taught me the value of my time and effort. My friends watched endless TV, then got the toys from the commercials. You taught me that rewards are earned by working hard. I had to use a star chart to earn my privileges. While my friends hung out on weekends, you led me and my brother and sister on all day field trips on our bikes. There wasn’t a monument or landmark in DC that I didn’t know inside out by the time I was ten.

Thank you for teaching me that it’s ok - and even awesome - to be different. On Halloween, I loved being the only kid with a homemade dinosaur costume. On the downside, I was also the only kid with carrots and grapes for snack, instead of Pop Tarts and Cheetos. As I’ve grown older, I’ve never needed to conform. I like the fact that other might kids wear normal socks, but I wear funky ones with cool sayings on them, like “No Pressure, No Diamonds.”You taught me that being different means you’re being yourself. And if you’re not being yourself, then who are you? Just someone trapped inside a costume, trying to hide your true identity.

My first love was sports, but you taught me to equally appreciate art, music, and community service. So while I was playing on multiple sports teams, I was also taking photography classes, and instrument lessons, and boxing toiletries for homeless people. While it surprises people that a football team captain also plays the saxophone in the orchestra, I enjoy saying that I do both.

Thank you for teaching me to recognize my weaknesses and to embrace them as opportunities to improve myself. A few years ago, when I was struggling in a class, and too embarrassed to risk raising my hand, in case I had the wrong answer, you made me see that I was unnecessarily standing on the sidelines of my own life. You helped me recognize that everyone has weak spots. But that successful people are ones who recognize their flaws and work incessantly to improve on them.  

Mom, no matter how old I get or how far I travel from home, I will always cherish the childhood you gave me. It was so important to you to be an unbelievable mother, and you were. I will do my best to always make you proud.



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