Inequity in optimism distribution

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Some books make my rational side happy. Some books make my emotional side happy. Some books make neither side happy. And then there’s Paul Tough’s lastest book, Helping Children Succeed, a compilation of the latest neuroscience research on 1) why certain students who grow up with hardships succeed and 2) how those findings can be used to improve education for all at-risk children.

The entire book is available online for free. Here’s an excerpt:

Farrington concluded from the research that the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset — the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. She distilled the voluminous research on student mindset into four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom:

  1. I belong in this academic community;
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort;
  3. I can succeed at this; and
  4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington wrote, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The complication, of course, is that students who grow up in conditions of adversity are primed, in all sorts of ways, not to believe any of Farrington’s four statements when they’re sitting in math class.

Those 4 messages match the narrative that students have been constructing for years about school. They address complaints, from “we’re never going to use this in real life” to “I’m just not good at this” to “the school doesn’t care about us beyond our test scores” to “my teachers don’t have time to know about me as an individual”. This confluence of neuroscience with the true, real experiences of students, if anything, shows the importance of students sharing their stories.

And maybe that the most damning inequity in education isn’t necessarily one of resources -counselors, social workers, quality teachers, Pre-K programs, extracurriculars-  but instead one of hope, of belief- that less privileged students don’t have.  I’m constantly reminded of this Atlantic article about the stories we craft about our lives:

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

[…]

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

Life’s Stories

And this same sentiment in a blog post:

It is gratifying to believe that we are the sole operating agents of our own lives. It is uplifting to believe in stories of redemption, wherein those with nothing make the independent choice to strive and turn their lives around. It is unsettling to imagine the great fortune we have in a confluence of circumstances that is entirely outside of our control. It undermines the distinction between us and those less fortunate.

The Narrative of Privilege

I’ve been force-fed the narrative that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it. And I’d love to believe that it’s true, as it motivates me and gives me faith in the world. But more and more, I’ve become aware that this optimism in and of itself is a manifestation of privilege.

Before my high school graduation, I was talking with some of the first people I met in high school and some of the last people I would talk to: the people alphabetically next to me.

Among the red itchy fabric, (almost) all 800 graduating seniors in a high ceilinged concrete hall with dampened lights and poor ventilation, behind the scenes at one of the district’s largest graduations in Houston’s football stadium, one girl asked me: “Would you do high school the same again?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were to do it all over, would you work this hard again?”

I pause before I say: “You definitely won’t believe me when I say this, but I probably didn’t work as hard as you think.”

“Bullshit, you worked your ass off for this. Don’t tell me that you going to college for free ranked in the top 1% and that you didn’t work hard.”

And somehow, I managed to do precisely that with some remark about grade inflation. 1

What I meant, I guess, was that I didn’t work any harder than what would have been expected given my environment. You can call it privilege, or segregation, or why affirmative action exists: I was a product of all of those.

I was the student that teachers didn’t need to pay much attention to because they knew I would do well regardless. I was the student that counselors didn’t need to pay much attention to because I would definitely be going to college. I was the Asian girl who came from the magnet middle school that over-prepared its students for high school. I would be graduating from the high school that was somehow an exception from the typical comprehensive, urban school, a school that could compete with the exclusive magnet schools, the private and charter schools, the suburban schools. That I had every reason to believe that the 4 years ahead of me are, for the most part, going to be great.

And that even in the face of all science and personal experience, I still choose to have this illusion of control in my life, this almost sickening degree of optimism and faith, that in the end, it’s going to be okay, and I’m going to be okay.

And I don’t know whether to feel stupid, guilty or grateful.


  1. Actually though. When more than 70% of your AP English III class gets an “A” and when 30-40 point curves on tests are the norm in other classes, you start wondering what your grades actually mean. 

Concluding Stories from Middle School

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But how much has my handwriting really changed since 7th grade.

While I packed away my high school stuff (read: the 5% of work I deemed worth keeping) into a large plastic bin, I found some of my middle school writing- mostly academic assignments from my English classes, from a time where I cared about my school writing and knew that it would be read. Somewhere in high school, I lost that motivation. 1

But alongside those assignments (and a daily diary), I also wrote other things back then- namely, the pieces that would later become Stories from Middle School, a combination of A) true personal experiences and B) true personal experiences disguised as fiction. And four years later, all of them have been made public.

I like to think that these stories span a variety of topics. There’s a story about the guy in the year above me I stalked throughout 6th and 7th gradeThere’s 2 stories about how I enjoyed nerding out to math problems with my peers.  There’s a story about a lunch ritual I did with my friends that involved Yoplait yogurt. There’s a story that I refused to admit was about an elementary school crush (but it totally was). There’s a story about how my entire grade seemed to idolize one of my best friends and how I dealt with the resulting inferiority complex. There’s a story about my 6th grade math teacher that I must have annoyed the hell out of but gave me some odd sense of identity.

My writing notebook, a wide-ruled composition notebook from 6th grade, is still on my bookshelf. I used to handwrite stories 2 or 3 times before typing them up on a computer. First drafts were a bunch of segments that had no coherence, and crossouts, arrows, and doodles littered the pages.  Each rewrite was a chance to string together ideas until they made sense- very much the way I write nowadays.

Emotionally, I mostly just remember balancing the fear of sharing my writing alongside the desire for it to be seen, especially when I got mixed feedback about my writing. My teachers usually liked my writing, but my friends didn’t. (Looking back, my friends were the honest ones.) The only compliments I ever got were that my writing had “voice” and flowed well, so much that I questioned whether that voice was even good and whether “flow” was just a generic compliment.  I was picked as one of 7 students in my grade to enter the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition, but even with extensive help from my English teacher, my piece didn’t win anything. This happened two years in a row, while my friends always got awards. Talk about feeling inferior.

I have one last story that I still don’t feel comfortable posting (or even rereading.) It’s a 10 page story- to date the longest I’ve ever written- from the end of 6th grade about how one of my friends had changed upon entering middle school. It drew a lot of judgement from my other friends and essentially marked the end of a friendship. Yikes.

What do I think of my middle school stories now? Some make me cringe, some make me laugh. Some of these stories are undoubtedly silly. And I could choose to remember middle school as a place where an idiotic me did idiotic things, under the premise that my brain wasn’t fully developed or that I was underexposed.

But on the other hand, in some of these stories, I see a raw and innocent energy, that same desire to write down ideas and experiences, that same desire to connect my life into a narrative, a less refined version of that same “voice”. These stories embodied the experiences I cared about enough to write and then to share, experiences I could proudly embrace and call my own. And given a choice, that’s how I choose to remember middle school instead, because chances are, I’ll look back on high school in much the same way. 2 3


  1. But actually, if your teacher is reading and grading 100 essays in a night, is she really reading them. 
  2. I’ve contemplated putting together a series called “Stories from High School”, but I’ve decided against it. If a story needs to be told, it’ll find its way into a post. 
  3. Reminder to self: You just graduated high school, not middle school. Stop thinking about middle school. Also, stop with the consecutive footnotes. You’re not Wikipedia. 

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

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. 

List of Lists: Effective Time Management

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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.

Essaying to College

I’m at the second meeting of the Emerging Latino Leaders with over 40 other high school students from across Houston. I am one of three non-Latino/Latinas in the room, more of a bystander than a participant. I was invited as part of the HISD Student Congress, not as one of the members identified as a potential leader.

It’s lunchtime, and my mouth is burning from eating the homemade tostadas (I had completely ignored the heaps of sour cream that people were putting on their plates), and I run out of the room to get a bottle of water. Everyone else had cheered when the meeting organizer announced the food that was being served, but I had never even heard of tostadas, and evidently, I was not prepared to handle the spice.

As I enter the room where food is being served, I bump into Carlos, the adult who had invited us.

“So what do you think of the meeting?”

“Great!”  Silence.

The Latino chief of staff to the mayor pro-temp (“the personal assistant to the vice mayor”) spoke to us that morning about the importance of being civically engaged.  He talked of the importance of low voter turnout amongst the Latino population, about the low representation of Latinos in city council, about the day to day decisions of the city governments.  I felt like I needed to say more.

“Well, I mean,” I sputter out. “This whole thing about civic engagement never really mattered to me until I joined the Student Congress. It’s not something my family ever really talked about, and it’s interesting to see so many of these issues apply to the Asian community as well.”

Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family with parents who had never voted, I had never seen the political process as one of my priorities. My entire life, I had focused on excelling within my tiny sphere of influence. I had no ambitions to ever run for political office, yet this morning, I felt like I had gotten a glimpse into the hard work that went into running the city. Little did I know, this same lack of exposure affected the Latino community as well.

Carlos and I talk about family and cultural influences in the Asian and Latino community for a few more minutes. By the time he walks away. the burn in my mouth is reduced to a dull tinge, but my mind has been sparked.

After lunch, each of us go up and talk about issues that affect us in our day to day lives. Some people talked about after-school jobs that prevented them from doing homework. Others talked about family obligations, long commutes, cooking, details that got lost in day to day life. I had never been in an environment where I could heard people talk so frankly about their issues. Even though I was surrounded by these same peers for 8 hours a day, I never heard about these struggles.

Even as just a bystander, I had known what I was getting myself into. I knew that I would be surrounded by people of a completely different culture and background, but frankly, I had expected something more…foreign.

At this point, I realized the importance of reaching outside of my bubble, of actively seeking diversity in a community.

The demographics of Houston will be the demographics of the US in 50 years. People keep emphasizing the importance of living in a global world, but I’m come to realize that it’s by digging deep into a community, sometimes just by sitting and listening to people, that people are able to understand one another. The only way to deal with a world that is speeding up is to slow down, to contextualize the problems I see within my own community, to attach to it a personal meaning. Only then can I see the universality of the issues we all face.

 

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.

Thirteen Reasons Why

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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.

More Than Me (and You)

In 2006, Katie Meyler, a 23-year old from New Jersey, got a job in Liberia teaching adult literacy. While she was there, she heard about West Point, one of the most notorious slums in the country. She started making friends with people there and, being a big kid herself, became friends with kids in the neighborhood. Over and over again, she’d ask them, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want?” And over and over again, they’d say, “We just want to go to school!

Katie posted their stories on her MySpace page, which was cool at the time, and friends and family started wiring her money. When she started sponsoring more kids in school, a lawyer friend encouraged her to start her own organization. She was afraid she wasn’t enough – smart enough, educated enough, pretty enough. But then her best friend looked her dead in the face and said, “Get over yourself. It’s not about you!” So she named the organization More Than Me.

From Teaching to Saving Lives, More Than Me

One of my favorite quotes, hands down. It combines education, the selfless spirit, and an overall fantastic organization. I learned of their story through Givology and got to interview them over social media a few months before they became Ebola fighters and amongst TIME’s people of the year.