It is that time of year – personal essay time. All of my
students are in search of writing the perfect personal essay.
What is it?
The perfect essay is not something that
fits in one neatly labeled box. It is a varied as a snowflake.
No two are alike.
It is not taught in English class. It
is not formulaic. It does not evolve from a set of
instructions. It is not mimicry of other essays.
a communication of self! It is a conversation with the reader.
A good conversation goes beyond superficial chatter. The
speaker and the listener become engaged with one another. A
good conversation is a time of discovery for both. Many
admissions officers use the essay as a way to unzip the top of
a student’s head, look inside, and find something they can not
find anywhere else in the application.
application essay allows just that! It goes beyond grades,
test scores, résumés and recommendations. It is a snapshot in
words of some aspect of a student and his or her experience.
It can grow out of any moment in a life.
essay comes in all shapes and sizes. It is produced by the
best and by the least successful students. It reveals thoughts
and feelings and the skill to draw them out.
If it is a
conversation in words, then it must begin with a conversation.
The aspect of my work I love best is brainstorming with
students. Sometimes the ideas emerge easily. Sometimes it
takes repeated conversations. Often the ideas are focused on
daily lives. At times they reflect observations and concerns
about the surrounding world. Every now and then an impromptu
thought will slip out that I can probe and help nurture as the
seed of communication.
Often students are writing about
themselves for the first time. They are facing a new challenge
at a critical juncture in their lives. The perfect essay
becomes an enduring reality when both the writer and the
reader have gained an insight that is valued.
Yes, “that time of year” presents a significant
I share snippets of essays that I have collected with current
students to help them see the variety of “snowflakes” I have
observed. Let me offer a few now.
through Australia was a series of natural wonders with none of
the distractions of everyday life. This atmosphere brought out
the best in all of us. I loved the time we spent in the
Botanical Gardens. Walking around with no shoes, lying on the
grass, looking up at wise old trees is my kind of thing. But
what I really loved best was waiting with my friends for the
flying foxes to wake up and fly. They never did, but the
waiting was special in itself. During the hour that went by,
the sun was setting; we had no place we had to be; we could
just enjoy the moment. It felt like time stood still for us
and the sleeping bats.
Blake and I
were neighbors. Our houses were identical, and we were both
six years old; still, Blake and I seemed different. Initially,
I saw a child with slanted eyes, a flat nose, and a small
head; but as I carefully approached Blake, my intuition kicked
in. I knew there was something about him that distinguished
him from other small children I had met. It wasn’t his
features that announced his Down Syndrome that drew me to him;
it was a certain indefinable sweetness. From the first time we
linked hands, Blake’s features faded from my mind. I became a
big brother to him. As we spent more and more time together, I
recognized the rare quality that he possessed: unconditional
a tree hugger, a tie-myself- to-a-tree-before-cutting-it-down,
hard-core tree hugger. In order to save animals, I have tried
to sell my family on the idea that veggie meat is the way to
go. So far, I have at least been able to convince them to
consume organic products. I urge my parents to reuse because
it’s more beneficial to the environment to reuse than to
recycle. Whether it’s cleaning the beach, picking up turtles
in the middle of the road, or relocating exotics, I’m always
trying to protect the environment...
I just want to
help in some way, and preserving resources and the environment
is a good place to start. I hope I won’t have to tie myself to
a tree in order to teach others. Nevertheless, I am willing to
do whatever it takes.
fingers flew across the frets. I feverishly grabbed each
string with the tips of my fingers. It was two in the morning,
and the rest of the world was asleep. Outside of my door,
nothing was happening. The only noise I could hear was my
guitar. And that night, it began to speak to
Somewhere between D and G falls C, the first
note of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind.” Over and over, I
dedicated my entire being to playing that C. In my mind I
counted off, “1, 2… 1, 2, 3, 4.” With less than intricate
finger-picking abilities, I somehow hit the six strings like a
hurricane. A sudden beauty emerged from the awful scratches
and squeals that composed my first attempts at “Dust in the
Wind.” Harmony himself arose from my strings. I was finally
strumming with my soul…
Time caught up with itself that
night. My guitar had smoothed the turbulence and removed the
clutter that had precipitated my restiveness. Stillness and
clarity engulfed me as I unloaded my subconscious onto my
guitar. I was at peace.
A Long Way
mother has come a long way from milking goats as a child, to
living in Pennsylvania. At times she still thinks it is unreal
that she came across the border illegally with her four year
old daughter – me – and later, again, with her son. I agree
with her, it is astounding…
Still the ties to Mexico,
our family there, and our native culture are strong. Visits to
Mexico each summer have kept that special world alive. Some
moments during these visits are deeply imbedded in my
I love to be in the kitchen when the family is
there. I don’t say much at all. I just listen. I love to hear
my family laugh at the stories I now know by heart. My
abuelito enters the storytelling with a joke everybody has
already heard. My abuelita’s face and body seem to strengthen
by watching her sons and daughters, her grandchildren and
great-grand children. As time wears on and the kitchen fire
gets less luminous, I feel myself getting tired. I kiss my
family goodnight and make my way across to the room that I
share with my aunt and abuelita.
Sometimes this tiny
three-room house is filled with as many as sixteen family
members during our summer visits. I look up at the stars. The
air is cooler now, the breeze slightly blowing. And as I climb
into bed, I am thankful I have my life in Mexico, as well as
my life in America.