By PAT BERRY
For Montclair Local
Years ago, as I was first devising strategies for helping students figure out what they care about — and ultimately what they should write about in their application essays — it occurred to me that if I kept hitting them with nosy questions, eventually I’d hit a nerve and an ideal topic would reveal itself.
And so, during initial meetings with clients, I focus on helping them unlock a secret. The secret may exist as a feeling, or as an experience that has stayed with them. The point is, it exists. And by helping them articulate that idea with bright language while attaching meaning to its place in their lives, all I’m doing is pointing my students toward a path, a personal narrative that will fulfill the task of applying to college.
What I rarely get to talk about is how my students’ essays impact me. How I feel reassured by their ideas, their discoveries, their confidence in the future and in themselves, the contributions they plan to make, and the sheer joy they possess. The thing is, when a student describes with bittersweet detail, how moved he is by the sacrifices his immigrant parents have made on his behalf, or crafts an elegant and funny narrative that links her favorite pastimes, playing tennis and reading math books, to her growing self-confidence — I am, frankly, gobsmacked.
I am also struck by the impulse to help others that many students embrace; giving back seems to be part of their DNA, maybe because community service has been woven into the fabric of 21st-century student life. I’m thinking, for instance, of the varsity soccer player who taught soccer drills to disabled youngsters every Saturday for two school years, and the student who devised a study of a suburban transit system that exploits low-income workers by limiting routes to their jobs. Then there’s the young activist who aims to draw more and more young people into political conversations. And the future engineer who designed and built a nature park for kids confined to wheelchairs.
The common thread among most of the students whose writing I support is that they are driven to make the world better, whether by addressing the failing infrastructures of Venezuela and China or by overcoming physical handicaps through biomedical engineering.
The students are also thinkers — sensitive to nuance and wiser to the world than I was at their age. I might help them organize their ideas and opinions and find words to describe their feelings, but the ideas and opinions and feelings already reside inside of them, and often they are profound, which gives me hope for the future.
Every year, I reread a 2007 essay by New York Times columnist Michael Winerip. It’s called “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting into Harvard”.
Winerip writes of the candidate interviewing he does as a Harvard alumnus, and how none but one of the applicants he’s interviewed over the years has been accepted. He describes how that used to upset him, but his thinking has changed. Now he finds it inspiring to converse with bright, ambitious, and hardworking students. He describes these applicants in terms that would cause any parent to beam, with words like accomplished, striving, charming. And then I tear up because I’ve reached the part where he describes walking his interviewee back to their car, where often a mom or a dad is waiting at the wheel. “’You’ve done a wonderful job — you should be very proud,’” he tells the parent.
And, he writes, he means it.
As my students hit “send” on their applications, I feel optimistic. Oh, some will get in to their top choice schools, and some won’t. Nevertheless, I am confident for them. And for the rest of us who will benefit from the people they are becoming.