Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taking the Challenge

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the challenge of writing a college essay and promised that I would write one myself, if only to better understand what my students face each year. It was a very tough assignment. I restricted myself to the standard 500 words, and to writing only something that I would have been aware of at age 17. For the sake of accuracy, the only concession I made to my advanced years was writing in the past tense.
 I knew it would be a lot of work for no reason, since I have no intention of applying to any schools, but I discovered more than I bargained for, and as an exercise in writing discipline and self-awareness, it was interesting...and humbling. I've had students write far better essays. But for what it's worth, here is my effort:

“There’s a dragon in the refrigerator!” My four-year-old self ran shrieking into my parents’ bedroom early one Sunday morning. The racket didn’t rouse my mother. My father opened one bleary eye and, without lifting his head from the pillow, muttered, “It’s a lobster. Dinner. Leftover.”
            My parents were party people. Rarely did they have a weekend without a party. Even weekday events were not unheard of, and some Saturday nights, they had two or three parties to attend. They were of the “greatest generation” who seemed to do nothing in half-measures, including having a good time. When they weren’t out for the evening, they entertained at home. There was a strict format to adhere to: cocktails were served one hour before dinner, careful thought was given to table seating, place cards were provided for each guest, and after-dinner coffee was served in the living room where the chairs were more comfortable.
            Their only deviation from traditional etiquette was that my brother and I were expected to be present whenever they hosted a party. We helped in the kitchen, passed hors d’oeuvres, and most importantly, talked with our guests. My parents did not employ outside help; we did all the work ourselves. If Mom and Dad were busy in the kitchen basting meat and tossing salad, my brother and I chatted with our guests. Rule #1: no guests were ever, under any circumstances, to be left unattended.
            What I learned from these evenings has been more valuable than much of my formal education. Organization was critical. Preparing dinner for ten in a kitchen the size of a breadbox is tricky and can’t be faked at the last minute. Cooking skills were mandatory. I could make a soufflĂ© by the time I was twelve. I can set a table with multiple knives, forks and spoons, eat with chopsticks, and toss around terms like amuse bouche, al dente, and mire poix.
             However, the greatest skills I acquired have nothing to do with food. My parents’ many friends ranged in social stature from a high-ranking Washington diplomat, to an illegal immigrant carpet salesman. Opinions varied dramatically. Because conversations often centered on art, literature, religious philosophies, politics and current events, I learned early to formulate and express (and sometimes modify) my views on a variety of topics.
            I listened to the adults debating the issues of the day, watched their interactions, and decided for myself who had the best rhetorical abilities, the best social talents, and even the best fashion sense. One gentleman showed up wearing pink flowered trousers, a red plaid jacket, a yellow shirt, and a green necktie. I also learned that excess alcohol consumption can have disastrous effects on otherwise intelligent people.
            These parties, which to some might seem frivolous, taught me how to walk into a room full of strangers with ease. They were an early testing ground for understanding myself and the contributions I could make. Above all, they helped hone my skills in critical thinking, communication, and human interaction.

1 comment:

Susan Bearman said...

"One gentleman showed up wearing pink flowered trousers, a red plaid jacket, a yellow shirt, and a green necktie."

What did your young self think of this outfit?

I'd let you in. Great essay.