Overcoming (more) odds: A Johnson essay project

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For six weeks during the winter of 2015, juniors in AP English classes at Johnson High School in St. Paul worked with instructor Cori Paulet and 18 volunteer writing mentors to write powerful personal narratives, many of which will be used as college application essays. The pilot project is a partnership between ThreeSixty Journalism and Harding and Johnson high schools. The St. Paul Foundation is funding the project during the 2014-2015 school year.

Students in AP English classes at Johnson High School in St. Paul work with volunteer mentors this past winter on essays to be used as college applications. Photo courtesy of Lydia McDonnell.

Thanks to mentors Nicole Norfleet, Grant Moos, Jim Wabinato, Amy LaFrance, Maria Reeve, Erin Heisler, Mila Koumpilova , Don Checots, Olivia Pelham, Libor Jany, Mary Turck, Karen Boros, Molly Guthrey, Lynda McDonnell, Kathy Berdan, Bob Franklin, Taya Sayama and Denny Lien. Also, special thanks to AP English teachers Melody Nelson and Sonja Montgomery; 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.

Lessons from an Uncle’s Journey

Nelson Jose Ramos Amaya is a St. Paul Johnson junior who was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, Mexico, and moved to the U.S. in 2002. He speaks both English and Spanish, and hopes to one day do stand-up comedy or become a writer. A behind-the-desk job doesn’t appeal to him.

THE FIRST THING we noticed was his feet. They were big and dirty, the nails chipped and turning green or yellow in some parts.

"Dang, he has big, nasty feet!" I muttered to my sister. He turned around in the bed and let out a giant snore. Startled, my sister and I bolted from the room. We dived under the covers. My dad came in not much later and found us still huddled together. "That's your uncle. There's no need to be afraid. He just came from a very long journey," my dad explained.

That journey was a long dangerous journey that many Latinos take in order to get to this country. My uncle had just come from El Salvador, my country of origin. He had gotten shot at by gang members and police, had to crouch in the same position for more than 20 hours and had gone days with limited amounts of food and water. He did all that to get here and work a minimum wage job and be discriminated against.

People look at him differently. He's really smart, but here it doesn't matter because he doesn't know English. People try to step over him or take advantage of him. People make racist comments or treat him differently because of his appearance and his inability to speak English. But at least now he could send money back to El Salvador, to his family members whom he hasn't seen in 10 years.

Many Latinos go through all of this to make the lives of their families back home easier. Meanwhile, the Latino kids who are privileged to live here and receive a free education are throwing it all away. They ditch school, don't care about grades, gangbang, steal and drop out. I have even been guilty of some of these actions. Growing up here being different made us think differently than the rest.

I lived in El Salvador until I was 4 years old, when my mother and father decided to give my sister and me a better life. There was a lot of gang violence and poverty in El Salvador. People worked sun up until sun down for $5 a week. My parents had to sacrifice everything to get us here. They lost their house (which they had worked forever to be able to get), left their families and came to the U.S. not speaking the language and with little money. We came to the U.S. on December 24, 2002, and now that I'm getting close to graduating, I feel like I owe it to my parents and to all of the Latino community to be successful. To graduate and to go to college. To own a business and to help out others in need.

And I will. I know I will.

Living Her Family’s Dream

Melanie Lee is an outgoing St. Paul Johnson junior who loves playing sports. She’s been to Disney World and a Demi Lovato concert, and is a huge fan of K-Pop. She has three siblings, and her favorite food is Pho.

THE SECRET WAR. The war that separated my father from his family.

He would describe it as revolting, frightening and damaging. Its repercussions have continued long after the Vietnam War: taking away my privilege to meet my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. As a child, I would listen to my father tell stories about his experiences and how he always felt incomplete. I, too, felt like part of me was missing. Now, I’ve started putting the pieces together, working to figure out why I’m so upset, why I feel incomplete and why the thought of my relatives makes me feel guilty.

As a kid, I was clueless. My family tree consisted of my immediate family only; I didn’t understand that there were other branches. I didn’t even know the difference between Laos and Thailand.

I vividly remember how my father was talking on the phone one day. I peeked out from a wall nearby and could see my mother sitting on the couch. The look on her face gave me a sense of fear. I started to notice that something was wrong because the tone of my father's voice changed: "What!? You guys didn’t pass the exam!? What happened?”

Suddenly, the atmosphere felt empty. After listening to the whole conversation, I realized that my grandparents didn’t pass the immigration exam. My heart was shattered. Why didn’t they pass? Why can’t they come live with us? What did they ever do wrong? These questions became endless and I was hurt. I became absorbed in disappointment.

I’ve always felt sorry for those who were left behind in Laos, but mostly I’ve felt guilty. Guilty because I am in the U.S. living a good life and I have freedom, an education, friends and family. I feel safe. I know these things don’t sound like reasons a person should feel guilty, but it’s different. Even though I've never met my father’s family, I’m still responsible for them. Whenever they're in trouble, I should be able to guide them and have a positive impact in their lives. But I can’t. The absence of my father's family leaves me with a deep sense of guilt.

It is this guilt that fuels my desire to succeed in life. As a child, all I ever did was listen to my father’s conversations with his family, but that's not enough. I’ve become determined to do well in school, study hard, keep getting straight A’s, and live my life to the fullest. Why? Because I want to do it for my father’s family, my family.

They never got the chance that I have now: the chance to live in a good environment, to get an education and to have freedom. So I’ve told myself, do not take this life for granted; make them proud. Because I am living their dream.

Finding the Right Sign 

Laura Thao is a St. Paul Johnson junior who is the middle child of five siblings. In her free time, she enjoys reading and writing her own short stories. At school, her favorite subjects are social studies and English.

IT IS STILL difficult to describe the feeling I had that day. It was cold and windy, but I hardly felt anything because I was so embarrassed that I was sweating.

That’s how it was on the first day working my new job. It wasn’t a happy time and I was not enjoying anything about it.

I was sure everyone was watching and making fun of me. The large sign I held above my head acted like a sail, catching the wind and wrestling me all over the place. I tripped over and over again as I worked to control it. The embarrassment I felt only got worse when I recognized friends walking by. I was convinced they were laughing at this crazy girl dancing around the street with this unwieldy, stupid sign.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear, but I knew that wasn’t an option. I needed this job and had to do well if I wanted to land the job I really wanted.

Quitting wasn’t the answer. Quitting wasn’t going to get me that better position. So, for three or so hours each day I went back. And each day, I fought with that sign and my emotions.

Some days were worse than others. Sometimes it was the weather, but mostly it was the feeling of failure. I would feel sorry for myself.

“What a dumb job I have,” I would think. “I’ll never get the job I want.” I became very negative.

It was during these negative times, at my very lowest, when I would hear this voice.

“Laura, what are you thinking? If you can’t master this simple job, how do you think you will ever get a more responsible job?”

Those thoughts kept me going. I knew if I quit, my friends and family would see me as a “loser,” and no one would hire a loser.

As the weather became colder, I became more emotional because sign holders only worked in the spring and fall. My job was coming to an end soon and I began to lose hope.

Until one day, about a month later, things changed. I was finally given an opportunity to train for an inside job. All that waiting and fighting with that sign paid off. “Perseverance rules!,” I thought.

Working in the store was no walk in the park, but it didn’t matter. It was much better than fighting with that sign.

Weeks, months and finally a year had passed. That’s when things changed again. The store was closing and once again I started to feel unsure about my future. I had worked so hard to get where I was and the idea of starting over didn’t make me happy.

My boss called me aside and I thought, “This is it. He’s going to tell me my job is over and let me go.”

But, instead, he asked if I would be interested in working at another store. He said that he had seen me diligently fighting that sign and was impressed with my perseverance and work ethic. He felt that I would be a good fit for a position in another store. I was ecstatic and jumped at the opportunity.

Today, I am still working, doing well in school and looking forward to college and a career. I still think about holding that sign and the lesson I learned. Persistence and hard work have allowed me to stay out of that dark hole I wanted to crawl into.

In fact, thanks to that sign, I’ve become a person who is respected by my co-workers and can appreciate the effort of hard work. That sign ended up teaching me to be strong and to keep on keeping on.

Playing through a Disability 

Calvin Duong is a junior at Johnson who has an affinity for music, writing and science alike. Having played the viola for nearly seven years, he plans on continuing, as well as being the first in his family to graduate from college.

A MUSICIAN WHO can’t hear. It’s definitely an oxymoron, right?

Yet like Beethoven himself, that’s the reality that I live with and a part of who I am. I was born partially deaf due to a birth defect that left the ear canal in my right ear too small to hear out of.

Despite that, when I saw a stringed instrument demonstration early in fifth grade, I was immediately determined to play one. I was especially drawn to the viola and its rich alto sound. I thought it looked like something fun and challenging to learn, even with my disability.

Getting ahold of an instrument was my first problem. My father, who worked long hours most of the week for a hearing aid company, was the only one in our family who could drive – meaning he had to take some time off work to bring me to the program signup and concerts later on. Because of this, I was scared to talk to him about it. But if I didn't, my road to becoming a viola player would end before it began.

Gathering up my courage, I talked with him the Sunday before the signup and explained to him how, apart from a few dates, everything I'd do would be in school or at home. Even payment wouldn't be an issue since we could waive a rental fee because of our free lunch status. Once I told him everything, he was glad to support me. I had my first viola by the end of the month.

Once I actually got the instrument, practice was no issue. I loved learning all the notes up and down the strings. I rehearsed often, and by the time I was in seventh grade, I was the first chair and section leader of the violas. Being in charge of the section meant that I was expected to play articulately so that the others could follow my lead and to help out the newer members of the orchestra.

Unfortunately, being a good player and being a good leader aren't necessarily the same thing, as I found out. When playing a viola, I place the instrument next to my left ear. This means that I can hear perfectly all the little nuances of tone and intonation from my own instrument. But my other ear, the "bad" one, can't hear the sounds of other players in my section or other sections to my right.

During a rehearsal just a few days before the spring concert that year, we were practicing a piece that we usually had down pat. I let my mind drift off to other things. Before long, I was a big chunk ahead of my classmates in the viola section. It took both my own stand partner sitting next to me and another player behind me poking me gently with her bow for me to realize what I was doing.

My body radiated heat from the embarrassment I felt. However, I wouldn't give up. Instead, I made it a point to pay more attention to my stand partner whenever I played. Although I could not hear the other players as well as an average person, I could keep a closer eye on them and trust them to tell me if I did something wrong. In this way, learning viola also helped me open up socially – I didn't talk nearly as much to my partners before this occasion.

Even now, at age 16, I'm still facing obstacles in my orchestral career. I have to come home from school to care for my brother while my mom is working. Because of that, I can't participate in special concerts that are available to top players through after-school auditions, including one where students play at the Ordway, where the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra plays. It frustrates me whenever they take roll call for students who want to try out. Even though I can’t participate now, I practice the two advanced scales that are mandatory for every Ordway audition. Why? Because I know that next year, I can stay after school for activities because my brother will be old enough to stay by himself. As long as I keep working hard, I'm sure I can achieve my goal eventually.

Playing the viola has come with its fair share of challenges and lessons. Along with learning to play the instrument, I’ve also become more confident and social. I've become a better leader from my experiences as a first chair. And most of all, I learned to do something that's come to be a major part of who I am.

Finding Empathy in a Sister’s Story 

Grace Yang is a junior at Johnson. An interesting fact about her: She started singing at seven years old.

I SCREAMED, baffled by the words of my sister. Sam threw her head back and laughed at my reaction. She shoveled a spoonful of strawberry Jell-O into my mouth to silence me, and I couldn't help but start to laugh with her. I pushed her shoulder and reached for the spoon to slather some Jell-O onto her and repay the favor as we continued to sit at the bottom of the stairs and hear our voices echo.

My sister had just confessed to me that she has accepted herself as gay/lesbian.

I have always been able to sympathize with others. I’d see others hurt and cry in movies, and would cry along with them. Pity was the main thing I felt for them, but I never was able to connect their sad thoughts to myself as if they were my own, until my sister caused me to change the way I thought.

I was completely shocked. I never thought about sexuality or labels in the sixth grade. In a society of labeling everyone as heterosexual from the start, and then seeing someone I knew and having them tell me they weren't, it made me reconsider how I started to see others. In public, I would stop and think about how a random person truly felt about themselves and their hardships, and would always tell myself to never judge by the way someone looked.

Even though I was shocked, I knew that as a sister I was to completely accept her and support her. I realized that although she had changed, she still hadn't changed. She was still the older sister who made fun of me, shared a room with me and watched Disney movies with me; she had just finally found herself. I was happy to know that she trusted and loved me enough to say.

Entering the sixth grade, I had decided to go to a different school. We were often given chances to write papers about things that seemed important to us and even give short presentations. I always wrote about how same-sex marriages should be legalized. Even at a young age I realized that I shouldn’t only support my sister but everyone else who deserved their rights.

Later on, my aunts and I continued to support her. She would confide to my aunts and me about how her progression was with finding herself, but then I realized that she hadn't told my parents yet. She hid this from them for her entire childhood, until she finally got a girlfriend.

She was happy to finally be in a relationship and have someone who understood her. But as she already struggled hiding it from my parents, she struggled more with her new relationship.

One day, I walked in to see her crying. She sat by her bed on the floor. I was completely confused. She was one of the strongest people I knew, but here she sat, tears streaming down her face.

I kneeled down next to her and placed one arm over her shoulder and the other in my lap. Tears started to roll down my cheeks.

"It's okay, Sam, don't cry."

I could barely get those words out of my mouth since my voice shook with every breath I took. I pulled her closer and sniffled to cut through the quiet in our room.

Although she hurt in the relationship, she continued to affiliate with her girlfriend. Through the year, she became more comfortable with herself. The more comfortable she became, she started to love herself more. She decided to end the relationship and finally talk with our parents.

Although they were a bit uncomfortable, they said that they loved her and would accept her. She became more outgoing and gained self-confidence within months.

This was the first time I thought about seeing myself in her shoes. Seeing her cry and struggle changed me completely. As I kneeled alongside her, I felt the need to help others who felt the same. I spoke up about the way I felt and how things should be changed for equal rights.

I learned empathy and knowledge through Sam and her struggles. I gained friends fast with the help of not judging others and showing that I cared for their well being. Having her in my life helped me for the better, and I hope empathy has reached you also. 

Being Pushed 

Hussein Sheikh Abukar likes reading and writing in his spare time, as well as playing football and swimming. And he enjoys doing most of those things within the proximity of at least one of our 10,000 lakes here in Minnesota.

THE CRISP GRASS crunched beneath me as I collapsed, falling in and out of consciousness. As the grass clawed at my legs, I felt a trickle of blood flowing from my kneecap. My bike lay entangled with the fence as if they were wrestling.

I then realized I was hardly breathing: I had to consciously force myself to do so. I was in a state of shock, so much so that I hadn't even realized I had a gaping wound that needed attention.

Then I began to comprehend what happened: She had pushed me off my bike. Perhaps this sparked my immense distrust of adults and all those claiming they meant me no harm. I tilted my head and saw a blurry image of her rushing toward me.

"Whyyy? I was doing good. Why did you push me off?" I groaned.

"Calm down, Hussein, you're hurt. Don't move," she soothed me.

"Shut up, shut up, shut up! You were supposed to teach me, you hurt me … you did this, why do you care?" I uttered.

I felt myself drifting in and out of consciousness. My seven- year-old self tried to comprehend why my teacher would push me, putting me in harm’s way.

I don't understand why this memory kept replaying: it was over six years ago. I pedaled on. It was my third time around the lake. My legs were burning and aching. My parents’ words rang louder than my aching legs.

“I do learn from my mistakes, I don’t understand why you’re always pushing me,” I whispered to myself.

I swung my leg off my bike and stopped myself. I then proceeded to stretch myself out on the cool, wet bench. It was just the support I needed at the moment. My chest was heaving and my mind was swirling with thoughts. More of that memory flooded into my mind.

“Why is she here?” I murmured, my eyes scraping the ground and my arms folded tightly.

“Hussein, hear me out, okay, darling?” she whispered softly. I held up two fingers indicating she had two minutes to explain herself.

“Have I taught you how to pull the brakes yet?” she asked, knowing the answer.

“No,” I sharply responded.

“You know you haven’t. Are you just here to tease me ?” I asked, slightly tilting my head.

“No, I’m trying to explain to you why I pushed you off your bike. Down the hill you were riding was a street of traffic and you had no control over your bike. If I didn’t push you, you might have gotten hit by a car.”

“Liar, leave me alone, you only pushed me because you were jealous that I'm finally learning,” I spat. I felt the stitches in my leg pulling at my skin painfully.

I burst into laughter at the remembrance of what level of attitude I had back then. The cool droplets of rain tickling my forehead snapped me out of my daydream.

Thinking back to that memory made me realize she pushed me to possibly save my life. She pushed me for a good reason, even though it hurt at the time. If it wasn't for her I probably would have gotten seriously hurt. She pushed me for my own good. I tried to recall why those words were so familiar.

It suddenly snapped in my head. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling harder than I was before. Feeling the rain pouring, I could hardly see a foot in front of my face. That didn't matter, as I only lived two blocks away from the lake. Without even realizing it, as if by habit, I arrived and was knocking on the door. My mother opened the door looking sullen and surprised to be greeted by a huge grin and warm hug from me. She may not have understood why I suddenly had a change of mood and acceptance. After a long and strenuous argument about my recent grades, I had come to a realization. It only took six years, a bad memory and a few stitches.

Not all those who push you mean you harm.

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