EXHIBITS  :  THE QUICK AND THE DULL

Here are a few student essays to help sharpen your judgment.  As you read each one, ask yourself what you learn about the writer, and whether you like the person you see.

  1. Describe the greatest challenge you have faced or expect to face.

Except for my struggle with jacks – I could never get past sixies while Leslie Ackerman whizzed through tenzies and back to onezies all in one turn – this application is the greatest challenge I’ve faced.  I’m glad you didn’t ask how I dealt with it.

I hope I’m not dodging or taking the easy way out.  It’s hard to find an honest answer to your question.  Nothing I’ve done so far could be called a “great challenge.” A minor annoyance, maybe: there was my brush with Physics, when I tried to understand the practical results of impractical problems, like where an iron all will land if thrown out of a moving car.  (When I brought up in class that I never would throw an iron ball out of a moving car, Mr. Weitz just looked at me.)  Before that came the separate trials of learning the Australian crawl and the slice backhand, the first for water survival and the second, my parents said, for social survival.  And, of course, the intensely competitive jacks. (At age nine, to be the best jacks player was also to be the most popular girl.)  All these experiences were difficult – getting anything right in tennis still seems more like a miracle – but I can’t imagine calling one of them my “greatest challenge.”

Challenge seems like it should be something bigger, and I’m not sure I’ve faced it yet.  I’ve never had to work to support my family, as my mother did when she was my age.  Unlike my older brother, I’ve never had to find an affordable apartment in New York City.  I’ve never even experienced what some of my New Jersey friends say is the greatest challenge of all – fighting the 8.00 A.M. traffic on the George Washington Bridge, unsure if they’ll ever get to school.  I live in Manhattan, which, now that I think about it, may be challenge enough for anyone.  But that’s probably not what you had in mind.

Putting together these forms for you, on the other hand, comes closer to what I think of as “challenge.”  That may be only because I want to go to Dartmouth more than I ever wanted to imitate Chris Evert Lloyd.  But part of the challenge has to do with what applying to college means – writing essays, remembering teachers and classes and sports, answering questions, all this self examination.  At least in physics problems there was always a formula to plug in.  But there are no “correct” answers, everybody keeps telling me, on the application; there’s not even a correct method, where you can get points for reaching the wrong answer the right way.  There’s only me.  It’s a serious challenge, if not a great one, to distill on four sides of blue paper the person I’ve become in seventeen years.  It’s like trying to put myself into a little jar – a jar of Justine – and yet somehow hoping that I won’t fit, that I can’t be categorized.  The whole thing makes sevenzies look easy.

  1. I usually dislike essays about how hard the process is (which is what they must get nine out of ten times in response to this question), but at least this has a warm, funny tone to it that’s appealing.  Don’t learn much about the kid, though.

  1. (This is a dumb question – part of the reason her answer is so weak.  She’s never faced, at seventeen or eighteen, a real challenge.  If she has faced one, she hasn’t got enough perspective to know it).  However – to her response:  Useless! I have no interest in her anxiety about the college process.  All I learn from this is that she’d be overcome if she ever faced a significant challenge.

  1. Too pat and attempts to be cute and humorous. Much of the essay seems addressed to the admissions committee in an overly self-conscious way.  The clever trick doesn’t work here.

  1. Breezy, savvy, lighthearted but well-written essay.

Sometimes you have to put up with a college’s essay assignment.  Although she wrote about applying – a no-no, usually – the result is a good piece.  Two admissions officers for, two against.

DESCRIBE A PERSON WHO HAS INFLUENCED YOU.

MR. SOMARY

I have always wanted to take his picture there in rehearsal, when he stands in the middle of a semicircle of upturned eyes and open mouths, grandiosely waving his endless arms as though he were swimming through the music.  At eight-thirty in the morning, when the rest of us are barely awake, Johannes Somary is at his lovable best.  The sun opposite me shines on the sopranos and altos and silhouettes his aristocratic nose, shaggy brows and frizz of hair against the window pane and the morning sky.

“Rrrroll your R’s!” he says.  Then he stomps and wiggles, bellows and whispers, puts his fingers to his chin as if in prayer and opens his blue eyes so wide they seem to leap out directly into mine, to discover that mine are closed; I am nodding asleep to the march rhythms of Handel’s Mass in Time of War. But not for long.  He goes through every conceivable contortion and exertion to energize our eighty sleepy faces.  It is as if his wild gestures could conduct electricity as well as music through the drowsy air into our voices.  Sometimes I wonder what he would do if we returned in kind, bugging our eyes out, wriggling and twisting our bodies to the music.  As it is, we continue to hold our notes too long or not long enough and we refuse to “dance” with the ¾ time.

Every once in a while he launches into a boiling tirade – he “Swisses out.”  The he reverts to European discipline: “If not every person is in this room at exactly eighteen minutes past eight o’clock, there will be no concert.”  He is quintessential Swiss in other ways as well:  we must learn to speak English, not Americanese, we must not be “cool” when singing Haydn, we must get eight hours of sleep, be prompt, attentive, enunciate our consonants, and think about nothing else.  This is the law according to Somary.

It works.  His ridiculous energy and steaming rages do make us sit straighter, hold our scores higher and try a little harder.  When he pleads, “Both feet on the floor – you cannot hope to sing if you do not support yourself,” there is a second or two of shuffling and creaking as 160 legs are uncrossed.  The he spreads his own feet wide and arches his back a little, sticking out his pot belly and hitching up his belt.  He’s forever tucking in a stubborn shirt tail set free by quick tempi or forte passages.  There is a lot of child in him.  He can glower as furiously as a two-year-old when he says “Elephants have memories, people have pencils – write it down!” or he can smile so widely and coyly that I am afraid his grin will devour his ears and like Beethoven he will have to conduct from memory.

Of all my teachers, I feel the most loyalty to him because he devotes his entire self to his work.  He does more than just wheedle a Haydn Mass out of us at a sleepy hour; his endless arm is as ready to wrap itself around my shoulder with a reassuring squeeze as it is to gyrate in 4/4 time, and he gives advice and drops of Somary-wisdom as freely as musical instruction.  When he sits behind his messy desk after rehearsal and we sprawl – legs, arms, chatter, bookbags – on he couch in his comfortable office, he looks like a complacent Swiss Buddha, nodding and smiling those blue eyes at us, always there, always quirky, always inspiring to me.

  1. Send it to The New Yorker! A more wonderful piece of description I’ve never read.  The use of language and ability to convey mood is really remarkable.  I’d love to have a kid who can write like this in the class.

  1. Wonderful.  I am the 81st choir member here. I am transported to Somary’s rehearsal.

  1. Excellent.  I like the humor and descriptive quality of this essay.  Good strong crisp writing.

  1. Delightful and affectionate portrayal of choir director who inspires with his energy and commitment.  Nice, warm piece.

ANY TOPIC.

In 1979 we moved to New York.  Only then did I realize why I had spent the first twelve years of my life not fitting in.  I was in Tumalo, Oregon, literally a one-street town west of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon’s “Dry Country.”  The people of Tumalo lived there because they had always lived there.  Many of them didn’t have the imagination or means to move.

My dad, on the other hand, did have the imagination and the means.  A rebellious painter, he had fled a eastern society up-bringing for the “real-people” in Oregon and set up a studio there – a loft with white walls, wooden floors and plenty of light – where he played the guitar and painted what the townspeople called “that queer modern art.”  Everybody else wore a cowboy hat, plowed fields, trained horses and baled hay during the week; on weekends, they rode bucking broncoes.

My parents liked it there, but I knew early on that we weren’t really part of things in Tumalo.  I didn’t milk the cow until my best friend, who woke to that chore every day, showed me how.  I never did learn how to gather eggs or cream butter or ride horses, because I was too embarrassed to try something for the first time that all the other kids knew how to do from birth.  I began to wonder why we didn’t have cow to milk and horses to ride instead of books to read and oil paints and canvas to play with.

Kids need to fit in, and I did what I could.  I remember strutting desperately around the rodeo grounds in my cowboy boots and jeans, happy and dusty from the powdery earth, guzzling an Orange Crush.  In my memory I can still feel the cool lip of the bottle against my teeth and the sweet liquid.  “At least I look like a cowgirl,” I thought.  A voice crackled out of the loud speaker announcing the best barrel rider and the best calf; I went over to the arena and cheered with my friend as her father came charging out of the pen on a white Palomino, right on the tail of a small black goat.  I wanted my father to rope a goat from the horseback, knock it down to the ground, tie its four legs together faster than anybody else, then tip his Stetson to the crowd, spit some tobacco juice and cowboy-walk out of the arena.

I wanted more from my mother, too.   It took me a long time to forgive her for my lunches.  Little did she know the ordeal I went through every day with my daily cargo of ethnic foods and brown bread and organic peanut-butter sandwiches and carrots and celery; she refused to buy Wonder Bread and Twinkies.  Every day in the lunchroom at Tumalo Elementry, I threw it all away without even taking it out of the bag.

My dad just wasn’t going to be a cowboy, and my mother wasn’t a cowboy’s wife.  They were Wellesley and Princeton graduates who wanted a simple life.  But I don’t think they realized what being different did to me.  As adults, they could handle it and appreciate it.  But I was the one who didn’t have a heifer to enter in the 4-H competition.

I understand now what my parents wanted – the peace, the country, the howls of the coyotes at night, the absence of cocktail parties, a place where they could wear jeans and old work boots all week and didn’t have to be social and send Christmas cards to business associates. I can appreciate all that now, but I was still glad when we moved to 112th Street and Broadway in a town where my friends – like me – ate souvlaki, kasha, bagels and tofu, and where modern art has a whole museum.

  1. The best kind of autobiographical approach – one topic, well-covered, with a nice sense of perspective and atmosphere, providing a good feel for who the writer is.

  1. I like the frustrated cowgirl.  Enough spunk to make an effort and enough understanding to know why it didn’t work.  Interesting background.  She knows herself well enough to conduct a thorough college search.  She’ll land on her feet.  As long as she’s not still annoyed with her folks, she’s easy.

  1. Solid essay giving some sense of the person.  Quite helpful in assessing the candidate as a person.

  1. Elegant, mature, and insightful essay about growing up as an outsider. Wonderful!

TELL US ANYTHING YOU THINK WE SHOULD KNOW:

        I do some of my best thinking in the bathroom.  I don’t mean to embarrass anyone by talking about something so private, but it’s probably a good thing for you to know in case we begin a four year relationship in which I’ll have to do a lot of thinking.

The reason I’m going public with this announcement is that this fall I began to see I wasn’t the only one who felt inspired and peaceful in that small room where we are alone with our bodies and our thoughts.  My dad, for instance, calls it the reading room.  He thinks he’s joking, but I noticed the bathroom is actually the only place he reads now.  He says he’s just too busy to take time for luxuries like novels.  (He means in his life outside the bathroom).  My other connection was learning last year in art history class that Toulouse Lautrec, the French Painter, once wanted to hang his pictures in the Men’s room of a restaurant so they would be fully appreciated.  “It is the most contemplative moment in a man’s day,” he said.

I’ve always tried to be a good son and a good student, and so for a while I followed Dad’s example and Lautrec’s suggestion and passed time in the bathroom by reading or looking at pictures.  But that changed one day when Mom, in a cleaning frenzy, had cleared out all the magazines and books and I wound up in there alone with the tiles and the towels.  Pretty soon I got tired of reading the monograms on the face cloths and turned to the window, which looks out over a bit of lawn toward a few trees beside our house.  Seated (I promise not to be crude,) I wasn’t thinking of anything except how bored I was.  Then suddenly I was thinking of many things at once:  a good opening paragraph for my history paper, a new way to look at a chemistry problem I’d been working on, even the perfect gift for my girlfriend’s birthday, just to mention the more practical.  I also had other thoughts rushing across my mind like clouds in a windy sky: the meaning of long-forgotten conversations, sudden connections between very different ideas.  It came out of nowhere and it was exhilarating.  I felt like a philosopher.  Since then I haven’t read a word in there; I just assume the pose of Robin’s Thinker and let it happen.  I guess some of it may be just physiology (Dad says I have an “awesome metabolism”), but there’s more to it than that, a fact I learned when I once tried bringing a pad in to make some notes; it only ruined the spell.  Sometimes now I write down what I can remember afterward, and the way to do it is to do nothing.

I get the sense from news programs I’ve seen that world leaders don’t spend enough time in the bathroom, let alone do much thinking there.  Like my dad, they’re just too busy with realities to afford the luxury of pure reflection.  As a result, I don’t hear many exhilarating thoughts coming out of world leaders these days, nothing that shows much imagination or excitement.  Just the same old deadlock on the same deadly issues.  They’re always flying around the world, sending guns or warnings to one another, disrupting their digestions and never taking the time between all those briefings to sit down and make peace with their own biology, never mind with other countries.  Even when they’re home, security reasons probably prevent them from having bathrooms with much of a view.  I bet the White House even has a telephone in the bathroom.  That would be the worst.  Maybe that’s why world leaders all look so constipated, even when they smile.

I think w’d all be better off if once a day we pumped all the heads of state full of apple cider – Dad says it’s “nature’s laxative” – and locked them for twenty minutes in small rooms with a good view of some trees, or a hill, or a pond, or a bird’s nest, away from telephones and briefings and realities.  Maybe they’d think of something.

  1. In its own bizarre way this essay manages to be appealing.  Reminiscent of Russell Baker, someone smart has started with an ordinary notion and played it out effectively.  His wry sense of humor works well.

  1. This is fun.  He’s funny.  And I’d like to meet the father.  All other things being equal, I’d want him in my class and in my dorm.  Wise and funny, with an interesting perspective on things.  He’ll be conscientious without taking it all too seriously.

  1. Good expansion of humorous subject into the verities of everyday life and world events.  Some clever language here.  A case of humor and self-revelation working to good end.

  1. Sensitive, quite thoughtful.  Some potentially crude parts in their graphic quality, but sincere and genuine.  Does seem to be thinking.  Good job.