Example Essay 1

            Eight years ago at the zoo, I remember my terrible fear that the sea lions would grab me into the water and each take turns biting me. Uncle Peter dared me to wave at them, but I just squeezed his hand tighter. I was frozen and silent. Knowing that I was afraid, he hugged me. I relaxed a little. I began to notice that each time he waved, the sea lions came up to the window, and each time other kids banged at the window, the sea lions swam away. Gradually I realized that the sea lions were afraid of us. So when Peter stuck out his tongue and made funny faces at them, I joined in, and that is how I stopped being afraid.

            Then we went to see the lions, and I commented that they seemed unhappy. “Well, you know, they are locked up in a cage all day. Can you imagine?” he asked.

            "I'm glad we can walk around the zoo and do what we want without anyone stopping us. What can the lions do for fun?” I asked as I watched my feet walk against the black pavement.           

            “Watch crazy girls with hot pink sun glasses!” Uncle Peter said, coming up to tickle me. I ran ahead of him. When I was about twenty yards away, he shouted, "Look!  Look! You have a twin!" I didn’t understand what he was talking about until I realized I was wearing a black and white striped outfit that matched the zebra standing in front of me. We laughed about the zebra becoming my new uncle. 

            But when I was ten we stopped having days like our day at the zoo. Peter began to walk so slowly that we couldn't go out anymore. We once joked about his stomach becoming a beer belly; soon, it had no fat on it.  He began to get little brown dots all over his body. He stumbled on some of his words—words he had taught me how to say when I was younger. My parents were afraid to tell me, so they said he had the flu. After he went to the hospital, I realized he was too sick to have the flu. Sitting by my parents' bedroom wall, listening for clues, I heard the word “AIDS.” I had never heard it before, but I found out about it at the library on my own.

            The next day, it was just Peter and I in the dismal hospital room. He gave me a half smile, but I didn’t smile back. Instead I looked straight into his brown eyes and glowered at him. “I know,” I said. 

            “You know, what?” he responded as he repositioned himself. 

            “I know what you’ve been hiding,” I said, beginning to cry. He slowly got out of bed and hugged me. It was the same hug he gave me when I was afraid that the sea lions were going to eat me. I suddenly felt safe.  There was a comfortable silence. He broke it and began to speak, but stopped as if he were also going to cry. 

            He began again. “I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t want to scare you." When he said “scare,” he said it in a formal tone, almost as though he didn’t want to scare himself. I changed the subject slightly, knowing that he didn’t want to delve into the specifics of the disease and its potential consequences. 

            I said, “I just want you to know that I will always be here for you and I want to take a part in helping you.” Silently he hugged me harder. As he held me I could hear him cry. It never occurred to me that he was capable of crying. I felt a new understanding of Uncle Peter begin to develop within me. He let go and sat back down on his bed. His wan face was now red with tears. He appeared relieved and revived. 

            He said, “If there is anything that you want to know, anything at all, I'll tell you, I promise.” At that point I was too afraid to hear. I didn’t want to know. Yet it seemed strange that something I had wanted to know about so badly suddenly seemed unimportant. 

            “Thanks,” I said, and smiled. The nurse came into the room and politely said, "Visiting hours are over."  I only heard her say that eight more times before his "visiting hours" were over forever.

            Looking back now on Uncle Peter's death, I realize that I did the best I could to help him, and that it was not my fault that he died, although it felt like it at the time. Volunteering the other day at AIDS Care, a  residential space for people with HIV who can’t afford housing, I was talking to a middle aged woman about Shelley’s Frankenstein. She said, “Sometimes I can relate to Frankenstein’s creature. We both have good intentions, but when I attempt to express them people shun me because they think I'm just some black woman infected with AIDS.” She paused, looking as though she was about to cry. There was a moment of silence, like the moment before Uncle Peter hugged me in front of the sea lions, and in the hospital. I went up and hugged her. People are often terrified of anyone who seems different from them, like sea lions or Frankenstein or even people with AIDS. The reality, however, is that they are often more afraid of us.

Example Essay 2

            When a sinister, shiny creature circled near me during my first scuba night dive, I dropped my flashlights and latched onto my dive buddy, Luke, like a leech. Our flashlight beams arced wildly across the water, alerting our dive master to turn around. We frantically put our hands to our foreheads, making a fin-like symbol (shark)! He crossed his hands over each other (no, no, no), pressed his palms down (calm down), took out his slate and wrote, "tarpon." We felt relieved and embarrassed to discover that the 40-inch long gray creature was only a harmless fish!

            I reacted immediately when I thought I saw a shark, which makes sense—in an emergency, who has time to fully analyze everything before acting?

            For my parents, life on land is like being underwater, because they are both deaf. Even though they both know sign language, they communicate by lip reading and talking. They rarely sign, because they want to participate fully in society. Although they have taken speech lessons for decades to function better in the hearing world, the simplest interactions can still lead to misunderstandings. For instance, one afternoon my dad was in the kitchen, making his famous Italian sandwiches. Walking to my bedroom, I saw my brother fussing with his door. He said, “Can you tell dad there's something wrong with the lock?"

            I went downstairs and said, "Dad, Alex needs your help with the lock on his door.”

      He reacted as if he'd seen a shark. "Alex needs help? He's locked behind the door?!”

            My dad was already running upstairs to 'rescue' my brother before I could say, “No dad! The lock is broken!” I was frustrated, but also had to laugh, the way I laughed at myself for thinking a tarpon was a shark. Diving has helped me understand that my parents experience life as if it were a night dive all day long. They often jump to extreme conclusions without waiting for clarification, because for them, it's better to act first and clarify later.  

            Communicating, both underwater and for my parents, takes patience, persistence, creative problem solving, and a sense of humor. During an underwater naturalist certification dive, I was dead set on seeing a frogfish. When Luke and my instructor, Malin, pointed to something green, I took my regulator out and mouthed “frogfish" excitedly. They shook their heads "No." I shrugged and turned my palms up (confusion). Luke kicked his legs and arms open and closed, with water shooting him away, then took his regulator out and mouthed “Eight." I replied, "What? It’s a frogfish, right?” Finally, Luke grabbed my shoulders as if to say, "Focus." He held up eight fingers, pointed to his legs, and then did the squid-like movement. We played a full-blown game of charades until I realized it was an octopus, not a frogfish! I so badly wanted to see one that I would have thought anything was a frogfish. This experience helped me understand why lip reading for my parents can be so challenging.

            A few weeks ago, my mom saw a college guide on the counter and asked, “So what are you going to do about your furniture for college?"

            “My furniture? What do you mean, 'What am I going to do with my furniture?' What would I need?”

            My mom replied, “No Anabelle, what are you going to do for your furniture!?” She seemed convinced she had the right word.

            I thought a minute, then asked, “Mom, do you mean future? What am I going to do in the future?"  

            She replied, “Yes, yes, your furniture!” I started laughing and explained she was pronouncing it wrong; she laughed, understanding my confusion.

            Growing up in my house was like growing up underwater, where communication can be slow, strange and surprising. I have confidence that the lessons I’ve learned in silent worlds will serve me well as I swim out into my “furniture.”


Example Essay 3

“Do you have a girlfriend yet Austin?”
“I wish Javi, still not yet…”
“But you should have one by now! You're in high school!” Javier is a fifth-grade boy with black hair and glasses that I tutor most Mondays. Although my goal is helping with his schoolwork, most of the time he talks about his life or asks about mine.
“Okay Javi, we need to find the area of a rectangle. Do you remember how to find that?”
“We worked on this last week, remember? You multiply the long side and the short side.”
“Why don't you ask out the tutor over there?”
“Wait, we're finding the area of this rectangle. Focus.”
“I'll go ask her for you.”
“No, don't do that.”
“Fine...so long times short...6 x 4 = 18?”
“No Javi, 6 x 4 = 24. Remember? I've seen you do these multiplication facts before.”

 It feels as though I am more of a friend to Javier than a tutor. He forgets things easily and gets distracted frequently. That's okay though. I can relate to Javi, because in the past, I needed some help myself at the chess table...
My heart is racing as I sit to begin my first chess tournament. I've never played chess professionally, I barely know any strategies, and I'll be rushed for time because this is a blitz chess tournament. I'm scared I'll lose all my five minute games. I begin by thinking, “He's attacking my queen. I'll block it with this pawn…” This discourse in my head felt painfully slow, but I lose in eight moves. I'm shocked at what my opponent says next: “You seem new. It's really important to castle and protect your king.”
I just nod, feeling defeated. He says, "Move knights to f3 or c3 in the beginning to aim them at the center.”
“All right," I say thinking, "Why is he helping me? He just crushed me.” I'm impressed that instead of bragging about winning so quickly, he's sitting here helping me.

“Bishops are great on the  c4, or f4 squares. Aim them at knights or weak squares.”

I reply, "That helps. I haven't known what to do with bishops." I think, “Wow, this guy is incredibly nice for helping me.”
“Next it's good to castle. A safe king means an easier game for you.”
“Sounds good,” I reply.

On the bus back to school, my head is swimming as I assess my first tournament, "Loss-help, Loss, Loss, Pizza!, Loss, Loss. All my fears came true: I lost every match, yet I was stuck on my first one. When I was the 'winner,' it never occurred to me to help others like my 'benefactor' helped me. Yet as I thought about what he did, it didn't seem hard. "If that's all it takes to help somebody, thirty seconds or a minute, I could do that too" I thought.

In school, I began noticing when students said, "Why is this math problem so hard?" If

they were nearby, I would ask if they needed any help; if so, I'd help them. I only started with people nearby, but these encounters showed me that helping people doesn't need to be a chore or a big dramatic gesture. Helping people in little ways can be just as effective. Now that I am working with someone who doesn't know 'the rules of the game' like I didn't, I understand how to help. So I may not be turning Javier into the next genius, but I am motivating him to persist even if he gets things wrong. The small action is all that counts. Because of my many losses and my benefactor, I learned that all it takes to help people is one small push in the right direction.

Example Essay 4

Like most second graders, I was extremely excited about lunch. I quickly got into line and was quite pleased with my spot. But then a boy named Ford jumped to the head of the line. This made me angry, so I promptly reported it. Ford was sent to the back, but on his way, he shoved me backward, grabbed my shirt, yanked me forward and said the cruelest thing I had ever heard: “You’re retarded just like your deaf parents.”

            My mind filled with feelings I had never felt so intensely before: aggression, fear, shame, sadness, vengeance. The walls closed in. Sound faded. My hands felt hot, my eyes dead, my lungs constricted. Then everything froze. I couldn’t feel. My fist rose, and swung. The next sound was the cracking of my knuckles on his face. He spun. He fell. My frozen glare never left him. Then it all came rushing back. Sound returned, my heart rate slowed, and I was ashamed. I had sunk down to his level. So I did the only thing my brain could think to do: I said, “I'm sorry.” In that moment, I went from knowing that I shouldn’t act in anger, to knowing how degrading it feels to do it, and I never chose to react to ignorance about my parents in that way again. 

            After that, I understood that I would grow up differently because of my parents, but I was excited. Sure there would be some injustice, but I knew who I was. I knew that those kids who said my parents “have no concept of grammar” will never understand just how amazing and funny they really are.

In some ways, my life is a perpetual game of “Who’s On First.” When I was nine, on the way home from watching Jurassic Park II with my parents and grandparents, I was upset because my favorite character wasn’t in the second movie. I asked, “Mom, what happened to Ian?”

My mom replied vehemently, “Alien? Absolutely not! You’re way too young to see that movie!”

My dad: “Earthquake! Where was there an earthquake? I better call Uncle Marty to see if he’s okay!”

My mom was confused. “What are you talking about? Where was there an earthquake?”

Dad shrugged, “I don’t know, you said ‘earthquake’!”

Mom shook her head. “No, I said ‘Alien’.”

My dad put his hand on my shoulder reassuringly. “Oh, those aren’t real, don’t worry.”

My mom said, “No, the movie!”

Dad replied, “Oh, I didn’t like that movie, Lost in Space is better.”

I was excited. “You like Lost in Space?”

My dad was excited. “You got second place?”  And so it went…a typical conversation in my family.

No doubt, sometimes it’s exasperating. But I usually choose to see the humor and enjoy it. Instead of getting insanely frustrated, everyone’s along for the ride—misunderstandings lead to new topics and old topics are left behind. I think this contributes to my openness to new ideas and the free-form way I think. I never did get to find out what happened to Ian. He was abducted by aliens, stuck in an earthquake, and Lost in Space, but that’s okay, because in my family the adventure is more important than the answer.

Despite the fact that my parents are deaf, they don’t hang back from talking, worrying that they didn’t hear correctly. They jump into the conversation, even if they did mishear you. It’s not uncommon for my mom to go crazy about a mishearing that was nowhere near what I was talking about. It’s frustrating but funny at the same time, and it taught me to always dive right into life. When it’s time to act, I can do it.

When I was in eighth grade, our next-door neighbor’s middle-school sons were sitting on top of our fence, making fun of my little sister. Like any other mother in that situation, my mom was upset and wanted to contact the boys’ mother right away. Since my mom can’t use the phone, I made the call, thinking that their mother would be compassionate and apologize. She said, "Put your mother on the phone.” I politely explained why that wasn’t possible. Her response: “Put your mother on the phone!” I continued to explain that my mother is deaf, and she continued to insist I put her on the phone. Finally the spirit of my mother took over me. I told her, “I’m going to get to the point. Your sons cannot and will not harass my sister any longer. The second I see them get on top of our fence, I'm calling the police and filing charges for trespassing.” The next sound I heard was what could be described as a gasp; then the line went dead. Her sons haven’t teased my sister since.

Even though I was proud of myself for being assertive, I do have some fears: will I seem too harsh, or will people mistake assertiveness for arrogance? I guess with any form of communication, there’s always the possibility of being misunderstood. As long as I have faith in my intentions, just as my parents do in theirs, I’ll keep diving in head first, ready for the next adventure.