Amherst Magazine

How Does It Feel?

image
The 440 students who make up the Class of ’12 are, by the numbers, very impressive. Their average SAT scores are 708 verbal, 706 math and 705 writing. They were part of the largest applicant pool in Amherst history—more than 7,700 applied for a spot in their class—and they were among just 1,144 admitted.

The new first-year class arrived at Amherst from 28 countries, 46 states and Washington, D.C. (The top states represented are New York, California and Massachusetts.) More than 50 percent of the first-years are on college financial aid. Thirty-nine percent identify as a students of color, 13 percent as first-generation college students.
But those statistics reveal little about the first-years who roam around campus each day. Who are they? What do they value? What have they seen? For answers to these questions, Amherst magazine turned to their college admission essays.
 
The five essays published here are different from one another in style and subject matter. But all, in some way, are about relationships—with family, with strangers, even with Bob Dylan. The students wrote the essays as high school kids in the throes of college-application anxiety. And the essays—more than just tools to gain admission to college—are glimpses into the minds of five people on the cusp of adulthood.

 

image
Ghosts

By Mable Lam ’12

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
 —From
The Principles of Psychology (1890), by William James

My dad once told me a story to prove the existence of ghosts:

“A cynical scientist scoffed at an old grandma’s belief in ghosts. Supernatural forces cannot be proven; no evidence exists. ‘Or does it?’ inquired the old grandma. ‘What shifts the leaves on branches? What pulled the apple down to Edison’s head? What do you find when you dissect the human heart?’ Certainly not love; the spirit of love exists externally.”

But scientific explanations do exist for these phenomena. Wind is caused by the acceleration of air particles from areas of higher pressure to lower pressure; gravity pulls objects of mass toward the Earth; love can be trivialized to neurotransmitting chemicals. And even by ignoring that Edison was never famous for the concept of gravity, anyone could easily discredit my dad’s story.

Yet, anyone could easily miss the point. Anyone could overlook my father’s efforts to teach me something that I could not learn in school: the belief in the human spirit. The belief in the vitality of our souls long after our physical bodies have rotted is what keeps the old appeased and the young wise. All is not lost after death. I exist because my mind decides that I exist.

Besides, there are some things I would prefer that science not explain. To name the neurotransmitters that cause sensations of love is good trivia, but to rationalize the limitless range of human emotion undermines the human spirit. The human brain may be a gray sack of neurons and tissue, but the mind is an elusive, external voice. The mind, which holds our spirits and consciences, transcends our physical mortality.

In a brief story, my father attempts to answer the ancient philosophical mind-body conundrum. Without a formal education, his active mind weaved his reflections into a metaphorical tale. Should I have broken the news that modern science dispelled his whole theory? Should I have dampened his eagerness to divulge his thoughts with his only daughter? Reason dictates that I should. But, I could never.

So, I nodded my head and smiled.

 

image
Meeting Dylan

By Romen Borsellino ’12

It was an experience that others could only dream of. I was sitting front and center at a Bob Dylan concert, where I had just given a speech. At the end of the show, I would be going backstage to meet Dylan. It could have been the best moment of my life, but there was a catch: I was there because my father was dying.

In December 2004, I was a few months into my freshman year of high school. Everything was perfect. I had a lot of friends, was acing my classes and had the interest of a girl I liked. Then one night my life changed. Hours after my brother returned home from college for Christmas break, the two of us were called into my parents’ room. “We have some very sad news,” my mom said. They told us that my father had Lou Gehrig’s disease and had only two to five years left to live.

We were an incredibly close family, and my dad was the toughest guy I knew. I could not conceive of him dying.

A year and a half later, my father, a popular and respected newspaper columnist, had largely lost his ability to eat, walk and speak. His friend, Bob Knapp, wanted to do something to lift his spirits. He had seen my dad’s high school yearbook, which described his ambition: “To meet Bob Dylan.” So Knapp hired Dylan to come to Des Moines and play a special concert in my father’s honor. It was a last meal of sorts. The thought of that concert kept my dad strong. It gave us all something to look forward to.

I was standing backstage, staring at Bob Dylan while he performed “Like a Rolling Stone,” voted the greatest song of all time. The sound technician handed me something very special: Dylan’s harmonica. When the show was over, my father’s idol approached us. This was it, the moment my dad had been dreaming of. Dylan, who is notoriously standoffish, shook his hand and said, “It’s great to meet you.” Propped up on his walker, my father opened his mouth to talk. He was probably trying to tell Dylan something he had waited his whole life to say. But he only produced a blur of unintelligible words. The illness had taken his speech. My heart raced in a panic to understand him. Here was his big chance to talk to his hero. Yet my father, who had spent his life giving voice to the voiceless, couldn’t speak. Dylan leaned in and put his ear to my father’s mouth, but he still couldn’t understand. He gave my dad a hug and signed an autograph for him. And with that, the event that had kept us all going was over.

That concert was a game of musical chairs. As soon as the music stopped, the game was over. The last fun time my family was able to spend together was both exhilarating and heartbreaking. I watched my dad, a man renowned for his ability to communicate with people, unable to speak when it really mattered.

On May 27, one month after the concert, my mom, my brother and I were gathered around my father’s bed as Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” played on the stereo. A priest was standing over my dad, reading him his last rites. With Bob Dylan’s music playing softly, my dad faded away.

My connection to Dylan differs from that of my father. My father was a child of the 1960s anti-war era. Dylan, his idol, sang protest songs that energized a generation. They helped shape my father’s view of the world. My generation is also growing up while America is at war, but without anti-war idols or icons of social protest. Instead, our heroes are highly paid sports stars and high-gloss entertainers. Yet Dylan speaks to me in a personal way. When I’m in a good mood, I roll down my windows and drive around with his songs blaring. When I’m in a bad mood, the music is still blasting, only the windows are up and I’m screaming the words out. I found out only after my father’s death that he did the same thing.

It’s about a year and a half since my dad’s death. I’m with a friend and his father at a Bob Dylan concert. It is the first time I’ve seen him perform since his concert for my dad. But I’m not sitting in the front row. I’m not giving a speech before the concert. And I definitely will not meet him afterwards. Now I feel like everyone else in the crowd who is there just to hear some music. But really, I am there because of my dad, because Dylan’s music connects me to him.

I am watching Bob Dylan play the final song of the night, and it is my dad’s favorite of all time: “Like a Rolling Stone.” As Dylan gets to the chorus, I want to cry for the first time in months. The song returns me to that night backstage with my father, only this time Dylan is talking directly to me. He is asking me a very personal question: “How does it feel?” It’s as if he knows the answer.

 

image
They called me “missus”

By Yordanka Kovacheva ’12

Participating in international math competitions has given me many chances to travel abroad. One might think this is where I have found the greatest diversity, meeting people different from me and being challenged in my views. Yet it has not been at distant math competitions but at home that I have found diversity most overpowering.

Mathematics is not a field requiring much social interaction; its symbols do not depend on different cultural contexts. These are both aspects of mathematics that I love—the possibility of even a beginner to work independently and the universality of mathematical proofs. But, while math itself can be a solitary study, my pursuit of math has certainly led me to meet a variety of people. As part of the Bulgarian national math team, I often competed abroad. Having math as a common background did make it easy to approach the other competitors, and our evening conversations did go beyond the formulas from the morning competition. Being the math enthusiasts that we were, however, our conversations never strayed too far. We bonded, for instance, over our discovery that most Balkan countries still use the same ancient Soviet textbooks in math.

Where I truly found diversity was much closer to home. Bulgaria, because of its history, is a place of many nationalities. Besides the majority of Bulgarians who are Orthodox Christian, there are many Turks and Roma, most of whom are Muslim. Because these ethnic minorities are poor and isolated in communities of their own, very few of them attend Bulgarian schools, especially a mathematics high school such as mine. Thus, I first encountered ethnic diversity when I began helping at a local orphanage, where most of the children were Roma.

The children all addressed us as “missus” even though none of us was older than 18. We soon learned why: Roma girls marry when they are 13 or 14, and a woman who is older and unmarried is considered a spinster. So I found myself perceived in a way I had never considered: I was a woman who belonged to an ethnic group not to be trusted and who had failed to attract any man. My math jokes, meant to break the ice, were lost on the Roma children because most had completed only primary school and some not even fourth grade. For the first days, the only thing we discovered we had in common was our love of cats—stray for them, domesticated for me.

Ideally, I would be able to end happily—that eventually the Roma children and I bonded and now laugh about the quirks of our different cultures, and that it was our chasing two stray cats in the yard of the orphanage that made this possible. To some extent, the children and I did become friends. I am emptying my house of my old toys to give them to the children. At the same time, I realize how trusting and simple children are. I know that if the Roma children had been older, our divergent backgrounds and the circumstances in our country would have made friendship almost impossible. In Bulgaria, where the Roma live mostly in ghettos, this is the lesson I have learned about diversity. The diversity that matters most is closest to home, and is the hardest to embrace.

 

image
Burning the grass

By Luke Menard ’12

When my grandmother called our house that afternoon, I had no idea how much my plans for the summer were about to change. In an effort to restore the health of the front lawn through his traditional method of burning the grass, my grandfather had quickly lost control of the flames, setting his entire house on fire. My family traveled our regular route to my grandparents’ house, only this time, when we arrived, we saw charred, wet wood instead of the blue-gray exterior to which we were accustomed. It was then we learned that our grandfather had years ago decided not to put homeowner’s insurance on the house, and that we would have to rebuild it ourselves.

Once the smoke and ash had cleared enough to enter the house, we began our work. After putting in a full week as a landscaper at Pine Valley, a trailer park for the retired elderly, I would go to my grandparents’ house on the nights and weekends to help clear and slowly reconstruct their home. Before we could do any work on the house itself, we had to remove all of my grandparents’ waterlogged and molding possessions. We salvaged what we could and packed their entire lives into a large silver trailer in the driveway. My grandparents’ house had always been a place where my siblings and I had felt secure and loved. The basement had been converted into a play area exclusively for us; we often played “school” there, and our “tests” and “projects” covered the walls. Now, as a high school student, I was removing all of the toys, games and relics of my childhood and hurling them over my head into the colossal Dumpster in the driveway.

Without a place to live during this lengthy process, my grandparents moved into my house. While I loved them, my grandparents had always been somewhat of an enigma to me because they spoke mostly in French or with heavy accents. Living in such close quarters for a few months, however, gave me a much closer connection to and understanding of my grandparents, my grandfather in particular. As we spent more time together, I grew to appreciate his sense of humor, his kind disposition and his ideals. A few weeks after the fire, my grandfather passed away. I learned a great deal about him from others after his death. As a poor immigrant from Canada, he began working to support his family at age 12. He worked in a tire factory for 40 years and always put his family’s well-being before his own. As I worked to rebuild my grandparents’ home that summer, I continually reminded myself of the sacrifices my grandfather made throughout his life to give my family the comforts we have today. While I was not able to enjoy the summer relaxing with friends as I had planned, discarding the remnants of my childhood and building something new where they once were gave me a much more formative and rewarding experience. That summer, I learned a lot about my family and the hard work ethic that had brought us to this country and helped us prosper. I came to realize that I was not simply a product of my family’s hard work, but I was now part of that legacy.

 

image
Who’s the boss?

By Liza Schalch ’12

“My name is Liza Schalch and I am the boss of my three brothers.” That is what I printed in crayon on my poster when it was my turn to introduce myself to my second grade class. Since then, my authority has waned. I live in a house where sloth mingles with chaos. Every day the boys burst in the front door and immediately fling socks, shoes, backpacks, snacks and sports equipment onto every freshly cleaned surface. Screens light up. My brothers find computers irresistible. Even as I type this essay, they hover, waiting for the right moment to tackle my seat. Their homework is forgotten at school or suspiciously non-existent. Jacob, the firstborn, lounges like a crocodile in the basement, occasionally surfacing in search of food. Calvin and Peter, the younger two, scream, grunt and knock things over. I do not even want to discuss the condition of the bathroom.

I beg my brothers to focus. I peel them off screens like gum off pavement and toss textbooks and math worksheets in their general direction. I make color-coded “to-do” lists. They smile indulgently and go back to punching each other. I am tempted to grab my backpack and sprint to safety in my room, ignoring the low booms of violent video games and smoke creeping from the kitchen. But I cannot give up on my brothers. I see them surrounded by opportunities, by teachers and books that could open up whole new worlds for them and by parents who try doggedly to help them.

Sometimes there are glimmers of hope. Recently, the boys have been spotted with textbooks. Jacob is now a witty college freshman. Peter is a budding jazz trombonist. He is incredibly sensitive, considering that he is a 13-year-old boy. Calvin sings like an angel and makes us all laugh. A couple nights ago we heard his little falsetto voice impersonating me: “Eat more broccoli! I want you in bed by 7:30! What is that smell?!” Instead of getting mad I found myself with a big, stupid grin on my face.

Being a sister has made me who I am. I have abandoned the idea of clockwork and learned to improvise. Setbacks, like discovering hotdogs between the couch cushions, do not cause me to panic. My brothers have shown me that it is possible to conjure creativity from chaos and scrawl beautiful words in illegible handwriting. I have learned that loyalty has no limits, and that if I work hard enough, I can accomplish feats that seem impossible—like organizing my brothers. In comparison, putting together class projects is a cinch. I have become a leader. Even my brothers would admit that. Just recently I was in the kitchen dancing around with a spatula while putting away dishes. All three boys watched for a while and then joined in the kitchen utensil dance. There the four of us were, music blasting, spoons waving, and all was well.

Illustrations by Mariusz Stawarski.