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