Rejected College Essays: The First

This was the first college essay I wrote and probably my favorite in retrospect. Kind of wish I had submitted it.

We might as well be blindfolded. Nine of my peers and I are ushered through a maze of cubicles into a conference room.  No one remembers the way back. We take seats in chairs around a conference table. The door clicks shut, and the interrogation begins.

I spill out how we broke into a school with 80 students on the weekend and encouraged students to gossip about their schools. Someone produces a box with “classified evidence”: notes I told students to write behind the adult’s backs, reminiscent of a Burn Book.

As the adults hold the notes in their hands and read them to themselves, I blurt out when and where our group is conspiring next . They say they’re going to infiltrate.

I’ve ratted everyone out. We’re exposed.

But that was all part of the plan.

The plan to get the student voice into education, that is. After a year of negotiating, the Student Congress has finally gotten its first monthly meetings with the district administration.

Interrogation? The administration asking how our first meeting at a local high school went. Burn Book? Post it notes we had students write with their concerns. District infiltration? Inviting the administration to come listen to students at our next monthly meeting. It really wasn’t that scary.

But that’s not to say the above scene isn’t how I used to perceive the district. My interest in education reform began as a private endeavor, something I explored on my own through books and articles in a quest to discover how schools sucked.

The process of making my interest public involved a few growing pains. Freshman year, I started a secret Twitter so that I could participate in Twitter chats I had read about online. Sophomore year, I wrote my first article about the student voice. When I shared it on Facebook, I closed the tab immediately and refused to check for an hour. I never dared start a conversation with anyone in person.

The first time I spoke at a board meeting to support the founding of the Student Congress, I stumbled on my first word and confessed 10 seconds in that I was absolutely terrified. My first time on TV, everyone told me that I spoke way too fast and fidgeted too much. Every time I shared my story about how I found my refuge in math problems like how other people found their refuge in art, people gave me weird looks. Whenever we met with adults that first year, I was relieved that I didn’t have to do the bulk of the talking, because I had clearly missed some sort of social training in my 17 years. On the Student Congress trip to Austin, I constantly was unable to stop legislators and engage in a simple conversation.

But after beating myself up after these debacles, I realized that this fear of awkwardness and talking to adults was what held back so many of my peers. The same tiny things that terrified me also stopped those who didn’t speak up, and those perhaps for whom the student voice mattered the most. And until we truly slowed down and listened to everyone in the room, we would only be a congress of the most outspoken students in the district, not everyone.

And if I wanted to convince the people around me that being awkward was ok, I needed to believe it myself first.

As the weight of leading the Student Congress has shifted to me, my heart still skips multiple beats before meeting with any adult. I still sometimes don’t know the right thing to say. I stumbled on the first word of my last board meeting speech again. I still catch myself speaking too quickly sometimes. Sometimes I question if I’m the right person to do this. But reality doesn’t care if I’m the “right” person– reality cares that I am the person that is doing this, and I have no choice but to do my best.

We’ve restructured the monthly meetings for conspiring to create safe environments for sharing.  We’ve promise to keep the stories anonymous, but not the underlying issues. We only bring in the administration after the students talk to each other and build trust.

I’ve learned that listening is as much an emotional act as it is a physical one, and that everyone’s voice is equally strong, whether it’s from the student whose school doesn’t offer enough challenging courses, or from the student whose school offers so many AP courses that student are discouraged from taking classes they genuinely like to protect their GPA. The student who can barely read English and the one who has been labeled GT all his life.

And maybe, some point in the future, many years after my graduation, expressing the student voice doesn’t have to feel like enhanced interrogation.

The High School Life I Could Have Lived

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The only real tangible accomplishment after a year.

My senior year, I was an office worker for an assistant principal. For an hour each day, I helped with office tasks (read: mostly cutting ridiculous amounts of lamination for biology teachers), worked on homework,  wove paper strips,  and got a behind the scenes look at the school.

I watched a student get expelled right in front of me. (The devastation I saw on the student’s face still haunts me.) I saw the chronic class skippers befriend the office secretaries. I was in the odd situation of knowing a school administrator well without being a troublemaker. I wandered the halls twirling my hall pass and saw random kids sitting out in the halls, teachers on their off periods. I ran around the quarter mile long hallways with a stack of schedules, knocking on doors, pulling kids out of class, interrupting lectures, walking in on tests.

And as I talked with the other office workers in my period- people I otherwise wouldn’t have approached- I heard stories about prom drama, crappy boyfriends and girlfriends, crappy teachers, stupid political debates, backstabbing friends, drugs, parties, alcohol, stories that are interesting to hear about but must be horrible to be part of. (Spoiler: Talking about drugs and alcohol loudly in an assistant principal’s office won’t get you in trouble.) In other words, stories from the high school life I never had. I was kept in the loop in these conversations, but I was clearly the innocent, nerdy, girl.

I spent my free time finishing homework due later that day, wasting time on the computer,  preparing stuff for a club,  or running around doing personal errands. Meanwhile, the other office workers complained about being bored, took walks around the school, shredded paper, played games, and occasionally last minute crammed for a quiz. I thought myself lazy for waiting until the last minute to get stuff done, but to them, I must have seemed ridiculously hardworking.

Sometimes, I wonder about the high school life I never lived- my other peers I never talked to because they weren’t in my classes, the teachers I never had and the classes I never took because they were unweighted, the administrators I had no reason to care about even though they kept the school running, the schools I hear about at school board meetings but have never visited, the experiences that made for great stories that I never had

I’m glad I met the people I met and spent my time doing the things I did in high school. Proud, even. But more and more, I’m becoming aware of the people I’ve alienated myself from already and the people I’ll alienate myself from in college. I get glimpses here and there of “alternate lives”, but I still wonder about how elitist, how out of touch, I’ll eventually become. This bothers me, nags at me, and I wish I had an solution.

That is all.

Song: Pandora has been playing in the background most of the time. The only song that I can associate this post with (or more precisely, associate with late May when I started this post, which I later broke up) is No Words by the Script. As I finish this post, I can’t bring myself to play this song as it carries too many emotions. Or rather, one emotion very strongly.

 

The Gods of High School

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Every once in a while, I hear an underclassman drop a minor comment about someone in my grade – how that person is so accomplished, or how they aspire to be him/her, or how they’re so intelligent. And even though it’s typically nothing excessive, I know the ridiculous amounts of faith and love that must go towards these people I simply see as my peers who happen to be seniors in high school.

I still remember what it was like 2 years ago, and it’s embarrassing to admit how much raw admiration I used to harbor for those in the grades above me when I was a freshman and a sophomore.

My sophomore year, at an overnight school trip, I was fan-girling (pun intended) with a fellow sophomore in our hotel room about the seniors that year. I was enamored with their intelligence, while the other girl was obsessed with their looks. I was unaware that my other two roommates, both seniors, were listening in our conversation.

Later, one of the seniors asked us, “Were you talking about how [a senior] was really cute?”

I was mortified that the seniors overheard, but I can only imagine their amusement. (They agreed with us at least, and thus, that incident didn’t dampen any of my fangirling.)

Here are some other incidents I remember in an oddly specific amounts of detail that must have left some intangible impact on me:

Freshman Year, February

My high school holds an annual event to recruit prospective freshman. It’s a huge event that attracts 800+ people, and most of the clubs at my school set up booths in the cafeteria to recruit.

My booth is right next to the Student Government booth, and I overhear the student body president talking to a newspaper reporter (Okay, maybe it’s just a parent) about how she had become more confident as a senior because of Student Government. In particular, she mentions how she couldn’t look an adult in the eye when she was talking as a freshman. Listening awkwardly on the side, this catches me by surprise.

This must just be a story about a charismatic leader who pretends to have shortcomings in order to seem more relateable. Her story can’t apply to me. She can’t understand what it’s truly like to be awkward, that paralyzing feeling of being afraid to do anything, of over-analyzing every action. Earlier in the year,  my English teacher had told her first period class that I was bad at speaking. That night, I had an 8th grader (A MIDDLE SCHOOLER) tell me to “chill out” while I was describing one of my clubs. Surely nothing like that had happened to her.

Freshman Year, February 

The first round I ever participate in at the Rice Math Tournament is a proof-based team round. 9 other team members from my school and I are locked in a lecture hall intended for 100+ students, armed with only a packet of problems, pencils, and some printer paper. We’re expected to produce a set a proofs in an hour.

And after spending 20 minutes simply trying to understand the basic concepts [see: Chicken McNugget Theorem], I finally start on the first part of the first problem- which doesn’t ask for a proof, but rather a list. I grab a sheet of paper and started listing with a friend. The club president, a second semester senior, walks over and helps us, pointing out cases we forgot to include or didn’t consider.

We finally finish the list 10 minutes later and feel accomplished. However, another team member mentions that the president had already solved the problem before we even started working. He had simply been helping us discover the solution for ourselves. Indeed, there is another sheet on the table with a list that looks awfully like ours.

In his calm, caring,  yet somehow sarcastic, tone, the president responds: “It’s about the process of learning.

Maybe he has a point. Even though I’m upset because we could have spent that time working on other problems, we quickly realize that the rest of the packet is too challenging and give up. We spend the remaining time marveling at the chalkboards in the lecture hall and watching the club president and another guy engage in a pushup competition.

Freshman Year, May 

(Seemingly) out of the blue, a junior messages me:

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And after a spew of other idealistic things, I say this:

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Three years later, considering that students are forbidden to serve on school boards in Texas, I’ve pretty proud of where I’ve gotten.

Sophomore Year, December

The day after I finish NaBloPoMo for the first time, I start a private post on this blog gushing about some of the upperclassman. Over the next months, it evolves into a messy timestamped log of moments I noticed about people. I dare not share it, but I will acknowledge that it exists.

That is all.

Sophomore Year, March

I was sitting in the library during lunch working on English homework, when the valedictorian of the graduating class walks in. I say hi and ask him why he’s skipping the AP Biology review that day. Turns out, he needs to study for an English quiz. I’m slightly comforted by the fact that we’re both skipping something our teacher had strongly urged we attend, and that we both needed to do some last minute work for English. He, however, had gotten into Harvard a few days ago and was a low-key celebrity at the school, while I could only dream about going to college.

By some miracle, he sits down at my table, and we end up talking for the rest of the lunch period. Frankly, I don’t know whether I got anything of use out of the conversation. But what stuck with me were the pauses, the silent moments when he was thinking.  that though we had barely talked and he would be leaving off to, he really did want to give me advice. None of us got much English work done though. Whoops.

There’s more of these sorts of incidents- random, chance encounters and overheard conversations- that somehow collectively shaped my first few years of high school. No one incident made or broke my experience, but collectively, they created something very personal, something that makes me smile when I think back on it.

(Clearly, I’ve been trying to think more about college by thinking more about high school.)

The title is inspired by this post, the idea inspired by this TEDx talk

Songs: Say You Like Me, We the Kings

4 ways to make a difference in your community

21573029020_468587fe21photo credit: 2015 National Public Lands Day at Yaquina Head! via photopin (license)

The Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report a few weeks ago on reforming college admissions. One of their first suggestions was to have more students take “collective action that takes on community challenges”

But what is this “collective action”? What are these “community challenges”? And doesn’t that just mean starting a non-profit or doing a ridiculous amount of volunteer work?

Not necessarily. Volunteering isn’t bad, and American high school students make a tremendous impact on the community each year. But it’s not unique. If one person is volunteering, then certainly it’s a good thing. But the marginal utility of each additional volunteer decreases as the same places get flooded with volunteers year after year. Here are some other options.

1) Media and Journalism

Journalism is massively, massively, being undersold to high school students. The media plays one major role in the community: It keeps government and companies accountable. Without the media to expose scandals and update people on things that are happening, corruption can easily run rampant.

Think about the Jungle. Think about the role the New York Times played in releasing the Pentagon Papers. Think of all the investigative journalism that results in policy change. Think beyond the school newspaper.

I learned the basics of journalism ethics in middle school, but I know of very few student journalists who have had ethical conflicts in deciding what to write.

Journalism doesn’t just involve newspapers though. There are many ways :

  • Starting a radio show, a TV show, or a blog, and interviewing influential people. Take advantage of community radio and TV stations.
  • Publishing an op-ed in the local paper or becoming a columnist. If you can write decently well, most newspapers would love to hear a youth perspective. The challenge is in finding the right person to contact.
  • Pitching a story idea to a media outlet about an issue that needs further investigation.

A note on social media: Social media is a powerful medium, but TVs, radio stations, newspapers, have more credibility and can reach a broader audience. With social media, the best bet is to go “viral”, and viral content doesn’t always equal valuable content. (See: Buzzfeed food videos.)

2) Working with a non-profit 

Most of the largest societal issues already have non-profits devoted to them. There are tons of non-profits devoted to hunger, literacy, arts, poverty, already, and the people heading these non-profits are extremely knowledgeable about these issues. Working for a non-profit is just like working for a company, but with more flexibility. You can learn fundraising skills, marketing skills, communication skills, meet people in the community who are doing fantastic work, while learning about a social issue.

To this, Cal Newport offers a piece of unconventional yet valuable piece of advice:

“Students think they have to apply for already established positions,” Kate explained to me when we were discussing her path to innovation.

“For example, I had many friends sign up to be candy stripers at the hospital. But at a huge hospital, they’ve had lots of students work there, they have them answer the phone, they know exactly what their job will be.… There are so many student volunteers there doing the same thing, you won’t be noticed.”

Kate’s insight is sharp. A dangerous trap for a student looking to innovate is entering a community that already has clear roles for volunteers. It’s nearly impossible to stand out when your workday is confined to a rigid structure. To elaborate on Kate’s example, most hospitals have a large student volunteer program. This option might seem appealing because it’s a well-trod path including a clear application process, but as Kate noted, the hospital isn’t going to allow you a chance to innovate. The people in charge already have a useful place for students— answering phones and running errands for nurses—and see no need to change this.

-How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport

The best opportunities generally arise spontaneously, and the best chance to grab these opportunities is to be in the right place at the right time. Yet generally, most people I know who work with a non-profit, apply for the same positions and do the same volunteer roles.

Find something interesting, something unique, contact the volunteer coordinator or the president, and ask if they would like a student to help with anything.

3) Research/Service Learning

This can be entering science fair, but it doesn’t have to. What if you were the first person to test the water in Flint? What about measuring energy costs in the city? And then following advice #1 and writing something in the newspaper about it?

There’s a certain excitement and virtue of doing medical research, of doing work that is only accessible to a small elite. But it’s also exciting to do something that’s accessible to everyone but that no one has ever done because they haven’t thought about it.

Even better, what about applying what you learn in school to improve the community? There’s a growing movement in the United States for service learning. This can easily be applied to environmental classes, but the connection isn’t as clear for more academic classes. In the end, the

4) Political Activism

This is generally the thing most people choose to get involved with. And helping with a political campaign is admirable. But the true way to gain political clout is through numbers.

If you can get 5 of your friends to come to something, that’s a good start. But getting hundreds of people to rally around an issue (especially a group of disillusioned high school students)

In the words of Augustus Waters from The Fault in Our Stars:

“When you’re as charming and physically attractive as myself, it’s easy enough to win over people you meet. But getting strangers to love you… now, that’s the trick.”

This is hard. This is insanely difficult.  People are almost always going to resist doing anything because of inertia. I’ve only seen mobilizing people attempted a few times, and it’s rarely been as successful as anticipated. At least in schools, everyone’s free time is at the same time in the same place, during lunch and after school. In that sense, it’s easy to get people to join a club or come to a school event. And extra credit in a class is always a good incentive.

Trying to do this in a larger community, where people’s schedules are more scattered. If you’re still in a school, be thankful for the easy access to this community.

The Biggest Challenge

Frankly, none of these activities require as much raw effort, talent, or time as becoming a nationally recognized athlete,  musician, or scientist. Those people generally start training at an extremely young age, while the 4 things above can easily all be picked up in high school.  I think it’s still remarkably difficult for a few reasons:

  1. There’s not someone telling you what to do. If anything, it’s driven by passion and personal interest, something that can easily be swept aside by a regimented life and deadlines.
  2. These all require finding the right issue to focus on. And often times, it’s hard to find the right issue.
  3. Very few high school students are doing this, and there aren’t many role models.

There’s a certain mindset that you have to adopt, a certain persistence that one needs in order to do these things. But in the end, it’s going to be worth it.

Go out and change the world.

Dealing with inferiority complexes

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A reflection on being un-extraordinary, plus a bit of advice.

I’m a second semester senior.

Let me repeat that again. I’m a second semester senior.

I’m a second semester senior.

I’m free to not care about anything, free to say #yolo to anything and everything. And yet for some reason, I’ve begun caring more and more about certain things. Knowing that I won’t see most of my classmates in a few months means that I should be nice as possible now. (Or maybe rather, there’s no risk in starting a friendship that could end poorly.) Knowing that I’ll be leaving most of the organizations I’ve been involved with motivates me to make some sort of difference before I leave. (Or maybe rather, that I’m finally not plagued with the idea that I’m just doing everything for my college apps.)

Of the organizations I joined as a freshman, Quizbowl has been one of the few organizations I’ve stayed in. And last week, as I saw 7 new members join the team for the last time, I began thinking back to when I first joined the team as a freshman.

Still fresh off the novelty of  high school, I was eager to join the team, to continue something I had done in middle school. In some ways, it was great. I was included in on the jokes. Most people knew my name. (This was a bigger deal to me than I care to admit.) My team members and the sponsors were witty and intelligent and nerdy. Plus, there was free food.

But something else wasn’t right: my actual quizbowl ability. Week after week, I watched juniors and seniors on the team name things I had never even heard of, much less could identify. Spending 90 minutes each week listening to hundreds of questions I didn’t know the answer to was demoralizing.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that after a few months, I didn’t want to come to practices anymore. I wasn’t contributing anything to the team, and people had no reason to pay attention to me.

* * *

If this were a good story, someone else would swoop in right about now, motivate me, and I would muster up the drive and self-discipline to become a national quizbowl champion. If this were a good story and had I not won the birth lottery, this type of story might even become famous: the girl who beat all her more privileged peers.

None of that happened though, and now,  I’m still mediocre at quizbowl. End of story. Simply another failed story, a direct result of my lack of hard work…

…but is that really it? I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly was so discouraging in the first place. Was it being exposed to the genius upperclassmen? Nope,  I had seen plenty good quizbowl players in middle school and been pummeled at every math competition I went to. I had been exposed to the limits of my own intelligence early on. That didn’t explain everything.

What was different, however, was that in middle school, there were other people affirming how I felt. When my friends and I saw these “geniuses”, we could marvel at their intelligence together before throwing ourselves into studying more. But as a freshman on the quizbowl team, I was an outsider among a group of people who had already assimilated. (at least from my perspective).

When I ask people why so few stories of people overcoming tough situations exist, their response has been “some people just aren’t cut out to do well” or that everything can be accomplished with enough “grit”. My parents occasionally talk about the necessity of “chi ku” (literally: eating bitter) in order to succeed. Every work of literature I’ve read in English has had the theme “Wisdom through suffering,” to the extent that it’s become a joke.

I believe that mindset too at times: I’ve told myself: “Screw the inferiority complex. I’ll just work twice as hard and prove myself” more times than I can count. Because maybe that’s the right attitude. Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize my laziness, and maybe I’ll just have to face the uncomfortable truth that I don’t want to put the work into being a good quizbowl player.

Yet,  I can’t help but feel bad when year after year, I see the same excited students join the team each year and leave discouraged after a few practices. I see a bit too much of myself in them,  and most of them didn’t even have my exposure to middle school quizbowl. The last thing I want to blame it on is their own laziness or the lack of some innate quality.

This also makes me uncomfortable. By not doing more to help these new members, am I actively choosing to perpetuate the cycle that almost made me quit quizbowl? Am I guilty of my own crime?

I try to tell the new members “It’s okay if it’s tough. It’s always a difficult transition.”  in hopes that it will help. But I really doubt that’s enough to get them through the months it takes to realize that yes, Quizbowl  indeed only tests a finite list of topics, that yes, you can still have fun even if you’re barely answering any questions and that yes, it’s definitely worth staying.  What if they become systematically desensitized and developed a feeling of learned helplessness, like I been so close to? Until I had more friends join the team my sophomore year, I wouldn’t have had many qualms about dropping out.

* * *

It’s weird that I chose to focus on Quizbowl here–it’s been neither the most influential nor distinctive feature of high school for me, not by a long shot. But it’s something I’ve been involved with for a long time, something with easily quantifiable metrics, an activity in which I’ve felt both superior and inferior.

In fact, it’s a lot like school, though doing well in school has been an ego boost for me more often than not. What can it be like for the other half?

This weekend, I heard a former district superintendent talk about dismal literacy rates in my county. (Spoiler: two-thirds of students can’t read on grade level.)

At its heart, he said, not knowing how to read is a form of emotional abuse. Not even considering the social and economic implications of illiteracy, constantly being evaluated by your ability to take tests that you can’t even understand is emotionally devastating.

This bothers me. I didn’t grow up with parents who spoke English, I certainly wasn’t a hardworking preschooler (if that even exists), and I learned to read just fine. But for a myriad of other smaller, more subtle reasons, this isn’t a reality for the majority of my peers who grew up in the same community as me, and I can only imagine what their attitude towards school must be. 1

Ignoring that inferiority complex that we all possess in some form is just going to result in more and more insecurity, more jealousy, that constant feeling of not being good enough, or worst (and perhaps the most logical conclusion), simply not caring anymore. Affirming someone’s feelings goes a lot further than denying that they exist. We’re naturally hardwired to connect with one another, and ignoring emotional and biological feedback is rarely a good idea.

With that, I present…

Amy’s list of self-reminders:

  1. Find pleasure in what you’re learning/doing
  2. Find private, intrinsic, quiet pleasure in what you’re learning/doing. No one can take that away from you.
  3. Practice every day.
  4. Silence the outside voices and competition
  5. You’re not the best. Don’t get cocky.
  6. You’re not the best. It’s okay.
  7. Most of the journey is going to be done on your own. Be prepared.
  8. Other people are important. Find a good support system.
  9. Other people are important. Find a good system of people to support.
  10. Worst case scenario: Things don’t go your way, and you learn a bunch in the process.
  11. It’s okay.
  12. Get enough sleep .

Anything to add?

 * * *

Reading:


  1. To be fair though, one of the first things I did after learning to read was to pull a handle on a bright red box with the words “pull”. The fire alarm. Whoops. 

Advice to Freshman

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Tonight, my school had its annual event to recruit 8th graders. I had the privilege of giving the opening remarks to an auditorium of 800 potential students and parents. My written out speech is below. (Not a transcript.)

Good evening everyone, and welcome to Bellaire High School! I’m Amy Fan, and I’m currently a senior here. Show of hands–how many of y’all have come to Bellaire before? And who’s here for their first time? Alright everyone put their hands down.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain my experience at Bellaire to an auditorium of 800 people, and I think the best way to do it is by giving advice.

My first piece of advice is: Talk to people. And this sounds simple, but let me tell you a story. When I was at Cardinal Kickoff my freshman year, this same event three years ago, I was at the booth for one of my clubs. When I was describing my club to an 8th grader, I got told: “Dude, calm down. Why do you sound so nervous?” Trust me, when you get to high school, the last thing you want happen is to have a middle school student telling you that you suck at your job.

It didn’t help that there was a Houston Chronicle reporter interviewing two students. One of them was the student body president and the NHS president AND also happened to be an amazing dancer. The other was a national level debater, incredibly eloquent, student body secretary and president of multiple clubs already. As a sophomore.

And so I was left with this paralyzing sense of fear, of uncertainty. Like, did I really belong? Was I capable of actually becoming one of these people?

This leads me to my second piece of advice: Embrace the fear. Embrace that uncertainty, in my case, embrace that awkwardness. You know how people enjoy riding roller coasters because of the fear? I began treating that sense of nervousness like riding a roller coaster.

If you’re ever debating whether to talk to someone or whether not to talk to someone, talk to them. Obviously, this applies right now, when you’re about to meet the 102 student organizations at Bellaire, but it’s pretty universal. Say hi to people in the halls. Ask your teacher the tiny question. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to someone. Personally, I never liked reaching out to adults. I’ve always talked to friends more. On the other side, if someone talks to you, listen to them. Be a good person.

Tonight, you’ll see the loudest and the proudest of Bellaire, but I think there’s something to be said for the smaller day to day things. I’m currently the speaker of the HISD Student Congress, which advocates for students having more of a say in their education since we spend over 16,000 hours in the classroom. Anyways, I hear a lot of complaints from students, from schools all over the city, good schools and not so good schools, diverse schools and not so diverse school. And what really stuck with me was “I wish adults at my school trusted the students”.

And this is something that’s intangible, but at the same time, it’s also very, very real. You can see it in: 

  • The fact that Bellaire lets 100 student organizations run around
  • The freedom we get in choosing our classes
  • The conversations between administrators and students in the halls
  • The teachers who leave their rooms open during lunch for tutorials, or just for a place to eat.

[Yes, I left this as a list, because this was the only list I thought that I’d have to reference]

I’d like to end with a piece of advice I heard once in a podcast, which is to “Pick the life path that leads to the most interesting stories.” The best stories don’t involve doing everything right the first time. They don’t involve not doing anything at all. The best stories leave something with the reader. They change the main character. They’re different and special and unique. And from my story at Bellaire, I can confidently tell you that Bellaire will give you all the resources to create an interesting story of your own.

Again, welcome to Bellaire, and now, I’d like to introduce you to our principal. Thank you.

Side thoughts/notes:

  1. 15 minutes before my speech, someone pointed out that my shirt was on backwards. Good thing they caught it before and not after.
  2. A good number of people told me that I did well afterwards, but I don’t know if they were doing it to be nice, or if they actually meant it. Before, I would obsess over this (a lot), but now, I don’t even care. If I’m getting undeserved praise, then so be it.
  3. I used to not put much preparation in a speech and then obsess for days after I finished talking, regretting that I wasn’t more prepared. Now, I realized that not that many people will remember what I say, and that unless I do really well or I do really poorly, no one’s going to care.
  4. I was totally planning on writing a 100% scripted speech, but I ended up not really following said script much. Writing everyone out was important though.
  5. Having those 15 minutes before the event started to give my speech to an empty auditorium really, really helped. I could get used to the sound of my voice. Speaking into that microphone the first time to an empty audience was scarier than delivering the actual speech to all 700 people.
  6. About the performances after my speech that generated much more energy and applause: Performance artists all have this need to be seen, this love of performing that radiates through. And it’s attractive. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: When I like a school, it’s usually because I admire the confidence and ease in which the people there carry themselves. It’s not really about the school itself. (I first noticed this while on college tours.)

Rhymes with “Fuck it List”: Paperback Exchanges + The Sugar Shop

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I doubted there was much of a small town feel to Houston.

The two most popular hangout spots for my peers are Starbucks and Chick-fil a, both walking distance from my school. The rest of that shopping complex is filled with chain retail stores. During lunch, flocks of people head off campus to grab lunch, returning with food from Chipotle, La Madeleine, Whataburger. The lines for the outside vendors are always longer than the ones in the cafeteria. There are a disproportionate number of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals who live in the neighborhood and whose students walk the halls. Despite the 60 year old school building and the few remaining pastel-colored wooden houses from the 50s, I feel like I live in a suburban neighborhood sometimes.

That’s why I was surprised to learn that there was a used book store, Paperback Exchanges, less than a 5 minute drive away from my school, at a strip mall along a confusing three-way intersection, receded from the curb and obscured by trees. The Yelp reviews mentioned the store owner by name. Puffy yellow graffiti on the window storefront advertises the used books.

But when I went to visit with a friend Friday after school, the door was locked. The sign at the front was flipped to “open”. Store hours on the door said that the store would be open until 5.

I asked an elderly lady who was peering inside.

I don’t know why the store is closed, she said. Missi never stepped out without leaving a note. Maybe she had gone to grab a sandwich since she didn’t take a lunch break. Her car wasn’t in the parking lot. She must have left in a hurry.

We nod. How long had the store been around?

At least 20 years, and Missi had been there since forever.

We introduce ourselves as high school seniors from the local public school. She immediately names her grandchildren, nieces, and in-laws who graduated there.

Finally, a tan sedan pulls up. That’s Missi’s car.

The elderly lady introduces as “potential customers” as Missi gets out of the car and unlocks the door.

You know when banks tell you that someone’s gotten into your account and they send you in a hurry? Missy says. I had to rush over to the nearest bank and check to make sure everything was alright. Oh, you kids are so lucky.

We smile at our own naivite. After some discussions about college, they let us browse the store, as they keep talking. The front of the school contains the popular releases, the newer hardcover books. I recognize titles from the Amazon bestseller list. But they seem out of place, too shiny, too new, for this bookstore.

The store itself is only three shelves wide, but very deep. Quickly, I realize that half the store is romance and…more than romantic novels, a reflection of the people who visit. There’s a small YA section in the back corner, a scattering of recent popular novels (Twilight, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alex Rider), right next to a section with classics. In the biography section, I find a signed copy of a memoir by a local politician.

As we buy a few books, I notice the business card for a nearby bakery on the counter. They used to be neighbors until the baker moved a few blocks away. We should go to the bakery and say that we sent them. We take the card, thank them, and leave.

With only an address and a map sans GPS, we drive past it the first time. It’s a standalone place behind a strip mall. A splash of new red metal furniture decorates the front.

When we walk in, Michael, the owner and baker, instantly greets us. After taking a glance at the pastries, we shuffle to the back, looking at the gifts. There are homemade fruit preserves, cigar boxes, assorted decorations, and …a basket full of stones glued to pill bottles.

They’re used for burying spare keys in the yard, Michael says. Put the key in the pill bottle, and bury the stone in the yard. No, there aren’t any stones buried in front of the store. The key is right here, you see, hanging right beside the door frame, and the owners of Paperback Exchanges and another children’s store each have a copy. If anyone ever gets locked in, we ask each other for the key. I’m usually the first the one here in the morning though.

How long has the bakery been around? I ask.

A long time, but I only recently moved in to this location. Do we see the fridge there? When I first moved in, I didn’t know how to adjust the temperature. Once, I heard a loud BANG in this building. Turns out a can of coke exploded all over the fridge. But now the temperature is under control.

And did we see these decorated sugar cookies? I always make a few extras because some of them always don’t turn out well, and I display them here. These were for twins, but they didn’t have names yet, so I just put “Baby A” and “Baby B”. There were so many more cookies earlier today, but they all sold out. There’s still a few sugar cookies, lemon bars, biscotti, oatmeal raisin cookies, pies, scones, and other desserts left.

I buy a dessert, and Lucian buys a slice of pecan pie.

Oh there’s an oddly shaped slice of the pecan pie left. I had a slice myself for breakfast, and there’s a weirdly shaped slice left, he says as he places an entire quarter of the pie into the box. I try to hide my surprise.

As he rings up our order, I scramble for leftover change, trying to determine the exact amount for tax.

“$3.50”

I could add tax, he said, but it’s easier to assume that tax is included. Plus, I’m not sure how the machine works.

Another pleasant surprise. We grab napkins (bright red ones, like the tables and chairs) and forks. As we step out, Michael tells us that he sells cakes as well, if we ever need them. And please, we should take a business card.

We smile, say we already got them from the bookstore, and walk out. I’m still in marvel at the huge slice of pie.

Next, we head to the nearby park across from the neighborhood library, eat our freshly-bought pastries, and read our books until the sun shines through the trees into our faces as it sets.

A true account, though there were many liberties taken with speech, hence the lack of quotation marks. For more information about the bakery and the used bookstore, check out The Sugar Shop’s website and Paperback Exchanges on Yelp

Octagons and Parabolas

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Today was a pretty exciting day in terms of math-y origami (In terms of everything else, not so much.)

Left: Octagonal tato I  am using as thank you notes. Spent this afternoon folding a writing, but still not done.

RIght: Parabola approximations. Got to school 15 minutes earlier than normal this morning to present a potential math IA topic to my teacher. After my first idea failed, I decided to focus on approximating the area under a parabola using tangent lines that can be easily generated with origami.

45 Thoughts During Every Board Meeting

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Inspired by the 4.5 long board meeting tonight.

  1. Finally here after the horrendous traffic again.
  2. Hmm the news stations are here. Maybe something interesting is happening.
  3. I wonder what all these adults are here to support today.
  4. Is it too early to walk into the room already?
  5. I don’t know anyone out here. I guess I’ll pretend like I’m waiting for someone.
  6. It looks like other people are going in. I guess I’ll go in too.
  7. How does security here work again?
  8. Where do I sit?
  9. *scans room looking for familiar faces*
  10. Should I be looking for people I know?
  11. Should I talk to that person? Nah they look like they’re busy
  12. Wait they’re not busy anymore.
  13. Did I just talk to that adult awkwardly?
  14. Nope. Nope. Not thinking about that.
  15. Would it be weird to sit down here?
  16. Wait everyone else is still talking.
  17. Should I stand back up and keep talking to people?
  18. Why do I actually know 0 about interacting with adults?
  19. I wonder what the other students think about these board meetings. Oh wait. I’m the only student that’s here every time.
  20. How long are these introductions and recognitions going to take?
  21. Finally onto agenda items. Oh wait general comments from trustees.
  22. Wow these people are busy.
  23. Ok, now agenda items.
  24. What’s this flurry of items they’re voting on?
  25. Would it be impolite to pull out homework right now?
  26. What about now?
  27. Ok I’ll look like an studious student now *pulls out homework*
  28. Oh yeah THAT item is on the agenda this time.
  29. That’s a good point from a speaker
  30. Oh wait. That’s also good point from another speaker.
  31. How long has this meeting been going on?
  32. HEY LOOK A STUDENT. *runs out and tracks them down*
  33. I guess homework can wait. This is worth listening to.
  34. Wow each trustee has pretty insightful comments.
  35. Why aren’t there more students here to listen? Oh right because board meetings take up like 3+ hours and aren’t actually relevant to student life 90% of the time.
  36. What’s being voted on again?
  37. Wait…so did they vote for it or against it? What was the actual measure?
  38. The politics is intense.
  39. Hearing of the citizens time.
  40. Ack complaint.
  41. Yay compliment.
  42. Is it over???
  43. Time to talk to more adults.
  44. Wow there’s not that many people left at the end. Guess I can go.
  45. I’m tired. But that was interesting.