One Step Ahead

My students learned what this is this week. They were impressed and intimidated.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

“Just remember, it’s not scary.

The juniors giggle nervously, fidgeting with blank-screened phones and tapping pencils on their blue journals, open to pages filled with questions. At the beginning of class, I asked them to write down as many questions that they could think of about the college application process, and about 20 minutes into it, five seniors appeared with answers.

Or at least some answers. These seniors were students of mine in Honors American Literature last year, so they arrive with smiles of nostalgia, remembering that twelve months ago they were the nervous ones, the juniors slogging through the quirky mystery of our practice college admission essay, trying to make sense of their lives and learn how to explain themselves to strangers. Today, they’re the experts, returning to a class they liked to rest on the pleasant laurels of having one more year of experience than their friends. One year, it turns out, is plenty for now.

The students of Black Forest Academy, when they graduate, remind me the old song lyric, shouted to the patrons of the bar in “Closing Time:” You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. With parents still serving overseas, many don’t have one place in North America that they call home, but unless they navigate the labyrinth of applying to European universities, for the most part they return to the place of their citizenship for college, a “return” that is sometimes as foreign as studying abroad would have been for me as a seventeen-year-old. I think of how many of my peers stayed in the greater Seattle area upon graduation, how I could look across the Ship Canal from my dorm room and spy the roof of my high school up the hill in Ballard. There is none of that here, and the juniors know it. No matter what happens, the odds are high that they’ll be moving away from Kandern, from Germany, and probably from Europe in just over a year.

The seniors tell about how they decided to apply where they did, and what eventually pulled them to one place or another. They discuss wanting to have family close by, or specific regions that have always intrigued them. One young woman was drawn by a specific program at her chosen college, which she settled on “despite” the fact that her older brother goes there, too. Many mention financial aid packages being a deciding factor, and stressed the importance of researching scholarships for international students, missionary kids, pastors’ kids, and almost every other sub-category you could imagine. The juniors are mesmerized, interrupting only long enough to ask follow-up questions or for helpful websites to be spelled out for them.

Towards the end of the presentation, I ask the visitors to think of one thing that they wish someone had told them a year ago about this process. With something between a laugh and a shrug–the gesture of someone who is tired and excited and satisfied with a busy year almost finished–one student replies:

“Just remember, it’s not scary. When I was a junior I thought that applying to college was this big, scary adult thing, and I was dreading it. But it had to be done, so I did it. And it really wasn’t that bad. It was… just normal. So don’t be too scared. Work on it, prepare, research, stress just enough, but don’t be scared.”

How important, I think to myself, how important it is to have someone just a few steps ahead of us. Growth and change are always intimidating, I realize, thinking about the milestones that used to stand in the way of being a “real adult”–milestones like driving or getting married–and the milestones that still do. There are Big, Scary Adult Steps ahead of us now, too, like buying a car and trying to find somewhere to live in the greater Seattle area. Steps like having a second child, and learning what it means to parent two kids at once with some measure of grace and wisdom (not to mention sanity).

In the midst of these steps, I am immeasurably thankful for the people a few months or years ahead of me, the ones who tell me, “You can do this. God will be there,” and then encourage me to just start, already.

My juniors are almost grown up, by many definitions. This week, it’s been truly delightful to listen to their stories, hearing them discuss how their interesting lives have shaped them into interesting people, and trying to imagine where these fascinating folks will be in a year or so. It’s hard to leave without seeing it happen, honestly, but I always knew it would be hard. And anyway, today my job isn’t to say goodbye to them, but to prepare them to say goodbye to this place, to this chapter of their lives. Today the best I can do is open the door for the one-step-ahead seniors, and let their encouragement do the work.

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College Essays

With "speed dating" interviews, students gather information for their college essays.

With “speed dating” interviews, students gather information for their college essays.

Write a college entrance essay. You will design the essay yourself, based loosely around one of these two questions:

  1. What has made you who you are?
  2. What do you care most deeply about?

College Essay assignment 2015

I’m in the library today, getting in the squats demanded by the pregnancy gurus as I bounce up and down between students, troubleshooting the intricacies of college essays. The library used to be a more daunting place. Back when library days with ninth graders meant keeping thirty fourteen-year-olds focused on one task for almost an hour, I would whirl in busy circles, closing browsers, wheeling chairs back to their original spots and answering the occasional germane question in a computer lab where every giggle echoed across the room.

Today, I’m quite aware that I’m working in somewhat idealized conditions. I have only fourteen students, and they are in the eleventh grade. What’s more, today we’re working not on high-energy literary analysis or research writing, but on the college essay. The last essay of the year, I once dreaded teaching this topic. Nothing worse, I thought, than spending the last few weeks of the year writing pragmatic prose to be read by someone else. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I chat for a while with a student writing about light switches, the difference between American and German ones. He’d suggested it as a joke a few days ago, as a topic that wouldn’t work for the college essay. “Well, I’m not sure,” I’d replied, and the rest of the class nodded in support. Most of us are familiar with the oddity of searching for a differently-shaped light switch in a darkened room, finding instead of the giant square buttons of Europe the tiny levers we remember from childhood. Buoyed by my support, he’d continued, and now was wrestling with the idea, trying to make this light switch manifesto tell more truths about him than about how one turns on the light in various countries.

A few students later, I have a similar conversation with a young woman a little further into the process, who has found a perfect metaphor for her tri-passport existence in the three types of electrical plugs used in the three different countries she calls home. She is halfway through explaining how adaptors are critical, both for electricity and for cross-cultural life. I had no idea that intercontinental electricity could provide such a wealth of imagery for my international students.

I love this essay because of the opportunity for reflection that it gives my students. Though there is a wealth of admission essay questions available, for the purposes of this assignment I’ve distilled the more specific questions into the two broad ones above.

The students seem to prefer the first question, as it lends itself better to explaining their complicated international backgrounds, an acknowledged selling point with North American universities. Yet as soon as they start writing, they realize that for the purposes of introducing themselves they cannot simply explain where they come from; they must also understand how it has shaped them.

“So, what are you writing about?” I ask the next student in the row of computers. He replies with something between a grimace and a shrug. “No really,” I persevere. “What?”

“Um, moving.”

“How are you going to write about moving?”

“I’m going to rant for a few paragraphs about how much don’t like it. And then, I don’t know, come up with some kind of lesson at the end.”

I appreciate his candor, because sometimes that’s how this process feels. I’ve talked with students still so deeply embedded in their complex realities that they’re not ready to write about it, while for others the writing process itself is part of their healing. As I’m not sure what category he belongs to, I press on, learning in eleven grades he’s attended almost as many schools.

“As much as it would probably be good for you to write that essay—maybe you should write it sometime—it’s probably not going to work for this, right?”

He nods. We talk about how the transience of his prior education led to a moment of feeling that he could finally engage here, at the last of his many schools. I leave him thinking about how to express that sense of engagement, and what it might mean to him.

For some of them, this is the first time they’ve written reflectively about themselves. I place a somewhat higher value on writing than most people, so as I walk around I’m tempted to wonder if it’s the first time they’ve even thought this way. Who knows? What I am sure of is that we all need to be writing more college essays.

What if we considered these questions—What do you care about? What has made you who you are?—at every crossroads, not just this one that marks a rite of passage into adulthood? I imagine we’d discover that what we care about has grown up with us, has expanded as we’ve seen and lived more. We’d probably realize that yes, the factors that shaped us when we were eighteen are still important, but to that list we’ve added more. Entering college, I probably wrote about being a pastor’s daughter, attending public and private school, and growing up in rural and urban Washington. That’s not my college essay anymore.

If I were graduating from high school in eleven days with our seniors, I would write about learning what it means to live in community, about an expanded definition of “home,” about the identity formed by stumbling through life in another language. I would write, in short, what I’ve been writing here for the last five years, and for four years before that on another blog. We all need reflection, because we never stop growing.

What would be in your college essay?