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.

Advertisements

Letter to myself at 15

IMG_3916

Dear Fan Amy,

Hello! Yes, people still call you “Fan Amy” because of your stupid Facebook name. Don’t worry- you’ll get it fixed after you send Facebook your driving permit.

Is everything alright? High school going well for you? Okay, that was a rhetorical question. I know that you’re going through a ridiculous amount of insecurity and frustration right now. I remember all those nights where you go to sleep hoping you won’t wake up and all those nights where you don’t know why you’re awake but don’t want to go to sleep.

And oh dear the AWKWARDNESS. Your junior year, you’ll hear a police officer say that a place isn’t safe if it doesn’t feel safe. Similarly, you couldn’t be unawkward if you didn’t feel unawkward. Despite what people told you, you certainly felt awkward.

I was going to include a description of how all your failures and insecurities from freshman year got better by senior year, but I took it out. It’s three times as long as this letter, and it’s too personal for the web. Besides, I want you to become comfortable with that uncertainty, that horrible existential fear of not being enough, and to keep doing things even though they you feel out of your skin uncomfortable.

Because one day last semester, I spent 20 minutes during lunch wandering the quarter-mile halls alone because I didn’t want to talk to a teacher. And that was after an hour of working up the courage during my office period. Sound familiar? I felt just like you then, an awkward freshman with a heavy backpack not knowing where to go during lunch.

Except this was second semester senior year- literally when I should have felt on top of the school. After too much overthinking, I eventually opened the door, had that conversation, and it was worth it- it takes you to New York, you get on national television, and you meet some pretty awesome people.

But it still bothers me. What took me months of indecision, self-hatred for not simply brushing aside the inferiority complex and working harder, my friends telling me that I wasn’t one of them, an hour of talking to myself, and 20 lonely minutes in the halls, other people had decided at the beginning of the year in an instant it seemed.

In college, I won’t have the luxury of wrestling with my feelings and indecision for that long, and I’m worried about what price I’ll have to pay. It seems like you would understand, since you’re already a freshman- what are your thoughts?

Embrace the awkwardness, because it’s not going away. I love you.

-The 18 year old Amy

P.S. I’m making things sound too melodramatic. Here’s two lighthearted spoilers: 1) “Amy didn’t make the AIME” will continue to be the biggest joke in Math Club until you graduate, 2) Something called “dank memes” will make their way into conversations with your friends. You’ll have a love hate relationship with them.

The High School Life I Could Have Lived

asdf

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

14475312792_dc9bd83ce3

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:

Screenshot_2016-04-16-18-42-38

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

Screenshot_2016-04-16-18-42-47

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

um

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

speech

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.)

List of Lists: Effective Time Management

medium_8469580425

What I used to think effective time management was:

  1. Making a list of everything that one was supposed to do
  2. Blasting through every task with no breaks, in no particular order. Finishing one task meant starting the next
  3. After finishing it all, starting ahead on something else.

Things I did in pursuit of good time management:

  1. Making to do lists.
  2. Crossing off things I finished.
  3. Transferred things that I hadn’t done to the next day.
  4. Starting using a Bullet Journal.

What started happening:

  1. Since I’d rely on my list to figure out what needed to be done, everything that didn’t get put down was not done
  2. Sometimes I’d forget to transfer a task over, and it’d just never get done.
  3. If there were a bunch of small tasks (And I mean tiny– “get form signed”, “tell ____ about ____”), I’d get those done first. By getting those done first, I mean only get those done.
  4. There were tasks I’d write every day for months (literally MONTHS) that would just never get done
  5. Longer tasks would always get pushed to the end of the day – “when I could get them done faster anyways”
  6. I wouldn’t get enough sleep in pursuit of finishing more things
  7. Self perpetuating cycle

What I tried instead that worked better:

  1. Scheduling time- literally making a hour to hour schedule of what I was going to spend each hour of my day doing.
  2. Using multiple to-do lists for extracurriculars, school, personal life, and college. Transfer a few tasks into each day.
  3. (Trying to) sleep and wake up at the same time every day
  4. Setting timers for everything
  5. Making routines for: a) waking up b) after school c) before bed
  6. Google Calendaring stuff in the future (no matter how petty)
  7. Acknowledge that the environment in which you work DOES matter and that turning off WiFi DOES keep you on task

The two things that distracted me the most:

  1. Twitter/social media (That includes reading blogs on WordPress)
  2. Talking to people online.

More personal observations:

  1. Winter break is a fantastic time to try out these things. Not so much once school starts. (Morning plans currently take up an hour of my morning- am I willing to wake up an hour earlier during the school year?)
  2. Paper or digital???
  3. Before, I would generally only get the tiny things done. Now, I tend to get more big things done while leaving the smaller tasks unfinished.
  4. I need to find a better way to handle more flexibility + unexpected things
  5. How much is me actually scheduling stuff badly (aka 5 straight hours on the computer with no breaks) and how much is just me being lazy?
  6. If I stick to a schedule, it generally works…until it gets to the last 2 items– usually slow, long term stuff (COUGH COLLEGE APPS)
  7. The biggest thing that determines whether I stick to my schedule or not– whether my notebook is 1) on my desk and 2) whether it’s open to today’s schedule. Literally. The tiniest things prevent me from getting stuff done sometimes.
  8. LEARNING THIS EARLIER WOULD HAVE LITERALLY HELPED ME IN EVERY CLASS EVER.

“Bibliography”

Readings:

  • The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
  • How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport

Blogs:

  • ZenHabits
  • Essena O’Neil’s daily plans
  • Cal Newport’s blog
  • The Prospect

Other stuff:

  • Shia LaBoeuf
  • Nike
  • Stories of people constantly talking about managing their time well. And then realizing that I had 0 idea what managing my time well ACTUALLY meant.

Thirteen Reasons Why

images
Inspired by the book by Jay Asher and a page in my notebook where I was listing incidents that genuinely hurt me. Not trying to garner pity or outrage, just understanding.

(Background information: In Thirteen Reasons Why, the main character receives a box with 13 tapes from a girl who recently committed suicide. Each tape explains a minor reason why she ultimately decided to kill herself. Yes, I’m completely fine. Just thought the concept was interesting.)

1) In 6th grade, I had an elective where we made banners and posters and stuff for school events. Some people got to make locker posters for the volleyball and basketball team members. The posters were made with special paper cutouts and hole punches and was considered a coveted job in my eyes. (Paper has and will always be near and dear to my heart.) But everytime I finished a banner and wanted to work on a locker poster, the teacher would always move me away to something else, while my friends continued making locker posters.

At the end of the semester, I finally got the chance to make one. I was drew multiple designs in my diary to perfect the layout. After I finished, the teacher complimented my poster, but instead of any genuine happy pride, I could only feel smugness at finally proving that I was worthy of making these posters.

2) In 7th grade, I submitted this piece to Scholastic (with a lot of help and edits from my English teacher.) When I didn’t win anything and all my friends won gold keys, I ended up crying on the bus ride home (with those same friends sitting next to me). Someone on a nearby bus saw my tears and made funny faces at me to make me laugh. It worked temporarily, but aside from that, I received no comfort.

3) I also tried out for the volleyball team that year. (Yes, I actually knew how to play a sport not-horribly.) Again, did not make the team, but I ended up crying at home instead and similarly received no comfort.

4) The adult sponsor who runs a youth council I’m part of doesn’t know my name. Whenever we plan events and I contribute ideas, she always attributes them to someone else whose name she does know and ignores me. This has happened multiple times for multiple events.

5) I used to do my Algebra II homework during class sometimes. Another person who sat a few seats away from me also would do their homework. When the teacher went around the class after a lecture, she would generally tell the other person “Already finished your homework huh” in a ambivalent and unsurprised tone, while I received a stern “Working ahead instead of paying attention in class again?” (I spent the rest of the year not paying attention in class to fold origami and play games on my calculator. After I finished my homework of course.)

6) When I took art in middle school, I had a teacher who would ask for people to bring their works up to her to grade them. For most people, she would glance at their paper and instantly assign a 100, but for me, she’d take an extra look, pick out something minor, and dock off a few points. It wasn’t a huge deal (a 98 opposed to a 100), but I suspected favoritism.

7) When I did robotics in elementary school, my team and I were at a competition where our score was miscalculated and resulted in us not placing in the top 3. When we protested, the people organizing the contest refused to change our score and claimed that our score wasn’t high enough to place. (I suspected racism.)

8) I did science fair with a friend in middle school. We presented separately to our teacher since we were in different periods. After I presented to my class, my teacher told the class “This project got a 100. Look at this detailed notebook” and passed around the notebook for the class to look at. I didn’t contribute to that part of the project.

9) In 8th grade, a group of people created a dictionary for the people in our grade with definitions and synonyms for each person. It was something fun and not meant to be offensive.  The first part of my definition was “Someone who is constantly overshadowed by [someone else in my grade]” and one of my synonyms was “Not Quite There”.

10) When I used to dance, one time during break there was a running joke amongst all the girls in my class. Each person was supposed to tag another person, one by one, until the joke involved everyone. When literally everyone else in the class (15+ people) had been tagged, the last person didn’t choose me and chose the teacher instead.

11) My first week of high school, my French teacher personally called me out for having too much pride. She told my parents the same thing. Eventually, I just stopped paying attention in class and memorized my verbs and vocab and supposedly learned a bunch of French. Not sure if that ruined my pride or made it even stronger.

12) When I was doing a self-reflection over the summer in hopes of finding potential college essay material, after writing close to 5 pages of thoughts, I had nothing positive to say about myself.

13) When I was visiting my middle school with a classmate freshman year, we ran into an administrator. He spent the entire time talking to my classmate and barely acknowledged me.

Individually, none of these incidents are horrible, and I brushed most of them off at the time. I had always known that I don’t come across as the friendliest person at times and that my pride comes over me at times it shouldn’t. These were just the consequences. In retrospect, many of these events could be seen differently from different perspectives, but I still suspect a degree of racism, sexism, a culture that values achievement over well being, or general favoritism.

Rejected College Essays: Nerding Out

An actual essay draft I considered submitting for an open-ended supplement but ended up scrapping.


It came in the middle of studying for my AP chemistry exam. Locked in my room the day before the exam, I had printed a pages of problems to work on as a review. My phone was beside me only as a source of music.  I had my notebook open, and I was silently working through pages of problems, occasionally looking up formulas, and writing everything I didn’t know on a sheet of butcher paper.

Oddly enough, I felt…happy. Overwhelming happy, in fact. Logically working through each problem, no one looking over my shoulder judging my every step and noticing my stupid mistakes, methodically reasoning through and checking each problem, feeling the tiny pangs of rejection and the short bursts of satisfaction. If decided to go another route, it didn’t annoyingly come back at me. If I needed a formula, I didn’t have to wait hours for a response or remind myself to make sure to follow up the next day.  In other words, nothing held me back asides from my own hard work. It was that same rush of intellectual satisfaction I got in the middle of math competitions, sans the time constraint and competitiveness.

I remembered back in middle school when doing homework alone in my room was the only thing I had to do every night. I dreaded having a textbook and a sheet of paper as my only entertainment for hours every day. (Getting a portable radio into my room was a huge deal.)

But now in high school, I missed this silent studying time. With no structured activities in my schedule (sports, band, yearbook, orchestra, a job, family obligations), I had to determine the balance of extracurricular work and school. As a result, my entire life became a cost benefit analysis, where I would consistently ask “could I spend my time any better?”

Should I spend my time writing an email, or doing my homework? Could I pay attention in class and work on another assignment at the same time? Did I know a topic well enough to do well on the test? And even if I didn’t, would the grade hit be worse than telling people about an event a day late? How much sleep did I really need to do well at x? (Too often, my sleep-deprived brain reasoned the answer to be “not much.”) Often times, Student Congress work seemed more urgent and more glamorous than sitting in front a book, and it would push aside other work that was less glamorous, more time consuming, less urgent. Namely, school work.

Even when I spent hours doing nothing, I would constantly get this nagging feeling that I was missing something and frantically figure out what it was. I began treating doing well on tests as evidence of studying too much. I know that I had formerly overlearned, but it shocked me how little studying I could get away with. Spending additional time on material solely because I enjoyed it seemed selfish, especially when I could spend that same time helping someone else. It took my last minute studying for a standardized test that hundreds of thousands of students would take to realize how much I valued my individual learning process.

In the rush of everything, I had forgotten the simple joy of learning, the very thing that I felt was missing in schools and made me interested in education reform in the first place. In 8th grade, I had spent most of my lunch doing math problems in a teacher’s room because I genuinely enjoyed it. If I was to learn anything properly, it’d have to be without the constant pressure of other things looming over me. Even if it was there, I had to strongly insist that focusing on academics was a worthy use of time.

Sure, bringing 100 students on a trip to Austin was exciting, but so was sitting with a book doing math problems. Sure, writing an amicus brief and getting national press coverage was thrilling, but so was reading drafts of the brief and struggling for several minutes to word a sentence properly. Hosting Student Congress meetings on my own was exciting, but so was figuring out a meeting format that would be both informative and engaging for students after my Cabinet had told me that they felt bored and ineffective after our meetings that first year.

That summer, alongside other things, I worked as a summer student at MD Anderson.I had no intentions of going into medicine or research, but I was curious to get a glimpse back into the academic world I had seemingly alienated.

What I found surprised me. There was no pressure to get things right the first time, as long as I had something correct to present at the end. Even though I was in front of a computer for most of the day, I had the chance to talk to the people around me. Directly asking my mentor questions in person followed by an immediate answer was in stark contrast to asking and waiting for a response via email or chat. People openly criticized other peoples’ ideas without any criticism of the person. People ate lunch in front of their computers to get more work done. No one in my department spoke English as their first language, yet when it came to explaining their project, they all spoke perfect (though accented) English and explained complicated concepts more clearly than some of my teachers. I was jealous of the people I worked with, jealous that they could spend the entire day working on a few things, jealous that they got to decide how to spend their 8 hours every day, jealous that what I only had a summer to learn, they could do all year.  Even though I knew I was enamored partially because it was my first exposure and that the novelty would most likely wear off quickly, I carefully observed everything about the environment around me and embraced my work.

As I returned to school, I began to feel this struggle again- whether to stay quiet and do my work like I had done over the summer at MDA, or to focus more on the outside world, the so-called “real world” through the Student Congress. I still cannot tell whether I’m an introvert who revels in nerding out, or the awkward extrovert who feeds off the energy of a crowd. I realize that these are not mutually exclusive, but more and more, I feel like the frantic peddler running in between two worlds that keep demanding increasing amounts of time and energy without any aim as to where I’m going. Only time can reveal where I ultimately stay.