Overcoming odds: A Harding essay project

Mai Jer Thao
Mai Jer Thao is a Harding senior from a family of “20 or more” if you count step and half siblings. She enjoys traditional dancing and singing, believes in Shamanism and loves art. She is also afraid of butterflies. (Yes, butterflies.)
Kennedy Xiong
Kennedy Xiong is a Harding senior interested in attending the University of Minnesota once he graduates from high school. He plays tennis, loves challenges and always strives to “be the best version of myself.”
Ismael Kamara
Ismael Kamara is a Harding senior originally from Sierra Leone. He is the eldest of six and can speak four languages. A three-sport captain in football, basketball and track, Ismael enjoy anything that keeps him active and will be the first in his family to graduate from high school.
Sunny Change
Sunny Chang is a Harding senior who loves shopping, spending time on the Internet and hanging out with friends. While in high school, she has noticed a personality shift, allowing her to become someone who is “louder, talks a lot and can be funny.”

About this project

This fall, AVID seniors at Harding High School worked with instructor Cori Paulet and volunteer writing mentors Bob Franklin, Jenean Gilmer, Erin Heisler, Lynda McDonnell, Taya Sazama and Mary Turck to explore their personal stories and polish college application essays. The pilot project between ThreeSixty Journalism and two St. Paul schools on the Eastside—Harding and Johnson (in spring 2015)—is funded by the St. Paul Foundation.

Special thanks to AVID teacher Rebecca McQueen, Dr. Lucia Pawlowski, assistant professor of English at the University of St. Thomas, and Dr. Karen Rogers, professor of Special Education and Gifted Education at St. Thomas.

Making good on a miracle

Mai Jer Thao

The doctor led me into a small and quiet room. He calmly asked, “Are you sexually active?”

I hesitated and could only feel my heart pounding against my chest. I widened my eyes and stared at my feet to prevent eye contact. My hands hid under my thighs to keep me from shaking. I was afraid of what I would hear.

He paused and patiently waited for me to give him an answer. I shook my head. He had a confident look and said, “You’re pregnant.”

My ears understood the words that were coming out of his mouth, but my brain and my heart could not. Why? I did not want to accept the fact that I would soon be a wife, daughter-in-law, and most importantly, a mother.

There are many things that go through a young mother’s head. Being pregnant at 16 years of age was not what I expected. People judge, people assume, and people don’t understand. I had to suffer through the feeling of emotional pain and fear running all over my body. I was afraid of becoming a mother, a wife, and a daughter-in-law.

I was afraid of what my family would think of me. They are strong into education, so they believe that all the girls in my family should graduate from college before getting married and having kids. I did not want them to see me as a different person. I haven’t changed.

When it was time for me to reveal my secret, I thought that they would deny and disclaim me. Eventually my family accepted me, and I had never been happier in my life. The last thing I would want my family to do is to disown me as a sister and a daughter.

A few weeks after I moved in with my baby’s father and family, it was difficult to adapt. I had new chores to do, new responsibilities and new rules to learn. At 16, I had to call someone else “mom,” which felt uncomfortable. I was becoming a “housewife” and had motherly duties to accomplish. I was still only a baby. I wasn’t ready to live with another family because I felt as if I couldn’t be myself.

Going to school was difficult because I did not want to reveal my secret. It was something personal between me and my family, but it’s not easy trying to hide a growing belly. I did not want people looking at me or see them whispering things in each other’s ears about me. I remember walking to my bus at the end of the school day and an African American girl strolled by. I glanced up and saw that she was giving me the “look.” I couldn’t keep up with all the embarrassment and shame. “Life is over for me,” I thought.

I had forgotten that I was carrying a miracle within me. When my baby girl Sunshine arrived, everything changed. I didn’t want her to grow up in the hands of someone who doesn’t see knowledge and education as a gift. I knew that if I gave up on school, I would be giving up on my child. I realized that I must be mentally and physically strong in order to be a successful mother.

As time went by, I grew more confident and had the courage to go to school. I also had a loving family who supported me and still does today. Although I may have struggled through many difficulties, I will not let them prevent me from achieving my goals.

Start of a new “me”

Kennedy Xiong

“I’ll do it later. I’m not really feeling it. I’d rather play video games than do homework.”

As the youngest of four children in an immigrant family, I did whatever I wanted and never gave much thought to the consequences. I especially did this in school. Homework was never done. The results? I received terrible grades and even failed my Spanish class in eighth grade. Thinking back, I’m embarrassed. If I did the work plain and simple, I would have passed the class.

Everything changed the fall of my freshman year. I was sitting on the sofa playing video games when I heard the mailman come by. To my surprise, my oldest brother Lee was home early from work. He grabbed the mail and started looking at it. I remember him saying, “Look Kennedy, your report card! Let’s have a look at what your grades are.”

I knew that I was doing badly in school, and I didn’t want Lee to see it. As he looked at my grades, he frowned.

“You need to stop being so lazy, Kennedy, or you’re going to be like me!” he said angrily. “High school is where your grades matter. You won’t get into a great college without them.”

Lee used himself as an example. In high school, he slacked off and ditched a lot of days. He graduated with the minimum requirements. He went straight to work and found a job at a bank that paid him $15 an hour. Even now, five years later, he still works at the same bank with slightly higher pay. That’s not enough to make a good living, especially when he has bills to pay and provide for the family.

Lee said in a calm voice, “I realized it far too late, Kennedy, but you can still change. If I could go back and redo the choices that I have made, I would.” I showed no emotions, but deep inside I was shaking in fear. I respect Lee as the oldest brother, and when he told me to change, I did. This was the start of a new me.

Focusing on school was like learning a whole new language. I made myself finish homework assignments and studied for all the tests. I received all A’s my freshman year. Getting good grades gave me more confidence, and the spring of my freshman year, I took a big step forward and joined the tennis team.

I started out as a rookie. I didn’t even know how to hit the ball and hold the racquet. Through my hard work and dedication, by junior year I was part of the varsity team. Now in my senior year, I am one of three captains. My coach would tell us, “When you step into the court, it’s just you and the opponent. Either you fight or get beat up. This is how life is, and you better be ready for it.” This helped me see the importance of my future more clearly. I realized that education was the only thing that can help me climb up into the world.

Lee was happy for me. “You keep doing what you’re doing right now, Kennedy,” he told me. “I don’t want to see you fall back down.”

I’ve become someone that I wouldn’t have imagined to be three years ago. It was all because of Lee who cared for me. Now I have new goals. I want to be the first in my family to graduate from college. I want to show Lee that I learned what he taught me. He made an impact on my life, and now, with my hard work and leadership, I plan to make an impact on others.

Dribbling toward a better future

Ismael Kamara

Up, down, swish. The ball flies through the net as I watch with admiration. As players run up and down the court, the squeak-squeak of their shoes against the floor rings in my ear.

Some people become fascinated by a sport. They see how amazing the professionals are and they begin to imagine themselves in their shoes. For me, this sport was basketball.

I didn’t necessarily know the fundamentals of basketball when I was younger since I was from Africa, but I was determined to learn the game. I was introduced to basketball during a staff vs. sixth graders game when I was eleven years old. Running up and down the court, dribbling a ball that was 29 inches in circumference and aiming at a rim that was about 18 inches in diameter, was very intriguing to me. Playing that day got me interested in the flow of basketball. In the summer of 2008, I convinced my mother that basketball was going to be an important aspect of my life.

I repeatedly asked her to agree to let me play. She gazed into my eyes and was filled with joy at the passion she saw there. She finally gave in, but on one condition: I had to continue to focus on my school work and not let basketball become a distraction. Feeling as jovial as a kid on Christmas morning who sees all of the gifts under the tree, I hugged my mother graciously.

The next day, she took me to the store to get some basketball shoes, shorts, a ball and a water bottle. That whole summer, I spent most of my hours dribbling, shooting and working on my skills. While I was at the recreation center, I realized how many people were talented at playing basketball. Being adamant, I told myself that I could dribble down the court quickly and shoot three pointers. I would just have to work hard to get there by watching what the other people did: How they held the ball, dribbled and shot.

When middle school basketball season came around, I tried out. I showed that not only did I have the skills, but that I also loved the game. Finally, after four full days of going through conditioning, shooting and dribbling drills, the coach told us who was on what team. When the coach said, “Ismael, go the right side of the court” where most of the eighth graders were standing, I was so happy I wanted to shout and scream right there and then. But I had to keep my cool.

When I got home, all that joy that was built up inside of me burst in front of my mom. She was so happy to see me happy that she just laughed. I not only had a major impact on the team’s scoring, rebounding and defensive statistics, but more importantly, I became someone the team trusted and believed in. All my hard work and determination made me feel like a valuable player.

This determination to succeed has transferred to other aspects of my life, such as my school work and my everyday life. There was always this perception about African American boys, that sports are all that matter to them. To me, education was of equal importance, so I was determined to prove critics wrong. My determination to become a better shooter in basketball transferred to my school work. I set myself up to be well-rounded, to show that African American boys can love sports, be intelligent and be involved in their school and community at the same time. Those judging eyes that watch me while I am in class asking questions or stepping up to lead a group make me even more determined to show that I am intelligent. I became involved in more school activities, and with my determination, I kept fighting to reach the highest goals possible, such as becoming a class representative and Homecoming king.

Basketball is a great passion of mine and while there are still more improvements to make as my high school involvement comes to an end, I must start looking toward adulthood. My love of basketball has showed me that I can do anything if I am just determined to do it. Basketball has taught me to work through obstacles and overcome challenges. It made me become an example for my fellow African American boys at school that had given up or been given up on. This determination will follow me into college if I am admitted.

Boom, boom, goes between the legs, then behind the back, a quarter spin, extends arm, shoots and … swishhhh.

Mother’s sacrifice, daughter’s debt

Sunny Chang

When I gaze into my mother’s eyes, I see happiness and my future. She is my world, my star and my universe.

My mother and I have been through many ups and downs, but I still love her. Through our disagreements, I have learned that everyone makes mistakes. But when I think of the difficult and loving decisions she has made in order to give me a future in America, I love and appreciate everything she has done.

Before coming to America, my parents escaped from Laos after the Vietnam War. For my mother, it wasn’t easy. She was pregnant with my sister and surrounded by turmoil.

BOOM! A Thai soldier threw a grenade at the Hmong people. “Get on my back!” my father yelled, making a run to the Mekong River. There were many people who didn’t make it across the river because the currents pushed against them and the icy cold water chilled them to the bone, making them weak. My parents were among many of the Hmong who sought safety in Thailand, and they eventually made it.

After four to five years in Thailand, my parents escaped the war and its aftermath and arrived in the United States. They didn’t know much about anything: Didn’t know where to go, how to survive, how to speak or understand English. Even today, my parents still struggle to understand English. Yet even though my parents weren’t educated like others, they wanted my siblings and me to have a bright future and to be successful. They wanted us to pursue our dreams.

Over the years, my mother has taught me many lessons in order to help me reach my goals. When I was young, she told me, “If you want others to respect you, you must be accountable and be of service to others.” She modeled this each and every day as she cared for our family by cooking and cleaning the house. She would always put me first if I was sick: Staying home to look after me and cook my favorite sweet, warm porridge.

Now it is my turn to return the favor. My mother made me the person I am today, and now I will do my best to take care of her. As I see my future reflected in her eyes, I envision how my success will intertwine with loving and supporting her, my dear mother.

Start of new “me”

Kennedy Xiong

“I’ll do it later. I’m not really feeling it. I’d rather play video games than do homework.”

As the youngest of four children in an immigrant family, I did whatever I wanted and never gave much thought to the consequences. I especially did this in school. Homework was never done. The results? I received terrible grades and even failed my Spanish class in eighth grade. Thinking back, I’m embarrassed. If I did the work plain and simple, I would have passed the class.

Everything changed the fall of my freshman year. I was sitting on the sofa playing video games when I heard the mailman come by. To my surprise, my oldest brother Lee was home early from work. He grabbed the mail and started looking at it. I remember him saying, “Look Kennedy, your report card! Let’s have a look at what your grades are.”

I knew that I was doing badly in school, and I didn’t want Lee to see it. As he looked at my grades, he frowned.

“You need to stop being so lazy, Kennedy, or you’re going to be like me!” he said angrily. “High school is where your grades matter. You won’t get into a great college without them.”

Lee used himself as an example. In high school, he slacked off and ditched a lot of days. He graduated with the minimum requirements. He went straight to work and found a job at a bank that paid him $15 an hour. Even now, five years later, he still works at the same bank with slightly higher pay. That’s not enough to make a good living, especially when he has bills to pay and provide for the family.

Lee said in a calm voice, “I realized it far too late, Kennedy, but you can still change. If I could go back and redo the choices that I have made, I would.” I showed no emotions, but deep inside I was shaking in fear. I respect Lee as the oldest brother, and when he told me to change, I did. This was the start of a new me.

Focusing on school was like learning a whole new language. I made myself finish homework assignments and studied for all the tests. I received all A’s my freshman year. Getting good grades gave me more confidence, and the spring of my freshman year, I took a big step forward and joined the tennis team.

I started out as a rookie. I didn’t even know how to hit the ball and hold the racquet. Through my hard work and dedication, by junior year I was part of the varsity team. Now in my senior year, I am one of three captains. My coach would tell us, “When you step into the court, it’s just you and the opponent. Either you fight or get beat up. This is how life is, and you better be ready for it.” This helped me see the importance of my future more clearly. I realized that education was the only thing that can help me climb up into the world.

Lee was happy for me. “You keep doing what you’re doing right now, Kennedy,” he told me. “I don’t want to see you fall back down.”

I’ve become someone that I wouldn’t have imagined to be three years ago. It was all because of Lee who cared for me. Now I have new goals. I want to be the first in my family to graduate from college. I want to show Lee that I learned what he taught me. He made an impact on my life, and now, with my hard work and leadership, I plan to make an impact on others.

Dribbling toward a better future

Ismael Kamara

Up, down, swish. The ball flies through the net as I watch with admiration. As players run up and down the court, the squeak-squeak of their shoes against the floor rings in my ear.

Some people become fascinated by a sport. They see how amazing the professionals are and they begin to imagine themselves in their shoes. For me, this sport was basketball.

I didn’t necessarily know the fundamentals of basketball when I was younger since I was from Africa, but I was determined to learn the game. I was introduced to basketball during a staff vs. sixth graders game when I was eleven years old. Running up and down the court, dribbling a ball that was 29 inches in circumference and aiming at a rim that was about 18 inches in diameter, was very intriguing to me. Playing that day got me interested in the flow of basketball. In the summer of 2008, I convinced my mother that basketball was going to be an important aspect of my life.

I repeatedly asked her to agree to let me play. She gazed into my eyes and was filled with joy at the passion she saw there. She finally gave in, but on one condition: I had to continue to focus on my school work and not let basketball become a distraction. Feeling as jovial as a kid on Christmas morning who sees all of the gifts under the tree, I hugged my mother graciously.

The next day, she took me to the store to get some basketball shoes, shorts, a ball and a water bottle. That whole summer, I spent most of my hours dribbling, shooting and working on my skills. While I was at the recreation center, I realized how many people were talented at playing basketball. Being adamant, I told myself that I could dribble down the court quickly and shoot three pointers. I would just have to work hard to get there by watching what the other people did: How they held the ball, dribbled and shot.

When middle school basketball season came around, I tried out. I showed that not only did I have the skills, but that I also loved the game. Finally, after four full days of going through conditioning, shooting and dribbling drills, the coach told us who was on what team. When the coach said, “Ismael, go the right side of the court” where most of the eighth graders were standing, I was so happy I wanted to shout and scream right there and then. But I had to keep my cool.

When I got home, all that joy that was built up inside of me burst in front of my mom. She was so happy to see me happy that she just laughed. I not only had a major impact on the team’s scoring, rebounding and defensive statistics, but more importantly, I became someone the team trusted and believed in. All my hard work and determination made me feel like a valuable player.

This determination to succeed has transferred to other aspects of my life, such as my school work and my everyday life. There was always this perception about African American boys, that sports are all that matter to them. To me, education was of equal importance, so I was determined to prove critics wrong. My determination to become a better shooter in basketball transferred to my school work. I set myself up to be well-rounded, to show that African American boys can love sports, be intelligent and be involved in their school and community at the same time. Those judging eyes that watch me while I am in class asking questions or stepping up to lead a group make me even more determined to show that I am intelligent. I became involved in more school activities, and with my determination, I kept fighting to reach the highest goals possible, such as becoming a class representative and Homecoming king.

Basketball is a great passion of mine and while there are still more improvements to make as my high school involvement comes to an end, I must start looking toward adulthood. My love of basketball has showed me that I can do anything if I am just determined to do it. Basketball has taught me to work through obstacles and overcome challenges. It made me become an example for my fellow African American boys at school that had given up or been given up on. This determination will follow me into college if I am admitted.

Boom, boom, goes between the legs, then behind the back, a quarter spin, extends arm, shoots and … swishhhh.

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