43: The Essay I Didn’t Write

43: The Essay I Didn’t Write

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

The Essay I Didn’t Write

Hope is grief’s best music.

~Author Unknown

I was an average student by all accounts. My mother thought a little better of me, but my teachers thought a little worse, so really, “average” averaged out.

Junior year was supposed to be the most important year. I was supposed to work ridiculously hard in all of my classes, be diligent about finding schools I wanted to apply to, and be well ahead of the game in studying for the ACT, the SAT, and preparing the common application. Especially the Essay.

Anyone who has applied to college in the last ten years knows why I’m capitalizing Essay. It is the X factor, the swing state of college applications. It can make a sub-par student interesting and extraordinary, it can knock the squeaky toed all-rounder out of top place because they don’t have as much potential and personality. It’s the greatest equalizer for a high school student.

Like I said, I was average—mostly because I was friends with the National Merit Scholars (all twelve from my school came primarily from my social group) and I saw them studying themselves to death and being exhausted and stressed out and none the happier. I also had a small problem with people telling me what should be important instead of letting me choose it for myself.

So I resisted. I didn’t put in the extra effort, I didn’t search for schools in my spare time. I chose to go on the optional class trip to Spain for two weeks on spring vacation instead of visiting schools and buying sweatshirts, and I was pretty smug about it.

But then the school year ended, and I was in a bit of a panic. I was completely unprepared for senior year, for applications, for the Essay, for the ACT and the SAT.

My mother, having seen this very predicament in her firstborn, was prepared. That summer she pulled out a dry erase board and handed me a pile of books to look through. As I began picking my list, she would write it on the board along with their application procedure, whether they took the SAT or the ACT, what essays I had to write, where it was, pros and cons. It was a pretty impressive board.

We began visiting schools at the end of the summer. The list ranged from Mount Holyoke (beautiful), Georgetown (my dream!), Amherst, Williams (nixed after we visited, so bleak), Sarah Lawrence (I literally cried after my interview when they grilled me on whether women’s rights were adequately represented in my recreational writing), Middlebury (loved the writing program), Gettysburg College, Wheaton (they had their own M&Ms, I was totally impressed) with so much in between. It was a whirlwind tour filled with car ride wardrobe changes into the all-important interview outfit and random little hotel rooms, and of course the ever present books detailing everything we had to know about each school.

The summer ended, I had my condensed list of applications, and half the names on the board had been erased. It was a manageable list of things, except for that essay.

Senior year started with another assembly. This one explained to us how we would have a special guidance program taking up our free period for this semester to help us through the process. I was horrified that my increasingly precious essay writing time was being taken up by guidance, but there was little I could do.

The first two weeks were a blur. Tests were scheduled, review books purchased, stress levels ratcheted up — the most important year, the final chance, had passed, and now I was coping with the aftermath, trying to scramble everything together and find something to write about that would define my life and my personality.

It was the third week of school, early on a Tuesday morning, when everything changed. After that morning, all the stress took on a suddenly different perspective, and new worry and fear clamored over the noise of which college I would go to, what essay to write. That morning, the idea of what was most important in my life radically changed.

It was September 11th, 2001.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t one of the thousands of kids that year who decided to write about 9/11. I considered it—there were a hundred different ways to approach it, to tie it in to my life, to the way everything had changed, to the perspective that it gave me.

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to write about terrorism, about fear, about my father being scheduled on a flight from D.C. to Boston that day. I refused to write about when my mother showed up at school in the middle of the day to check on me because the phones were jammed; I thought, when I saw her in the hallway, that my father must have died.

I didn’t write about the quiet in the halls as we first heard about it, and the noise thereafter, as if we were all afraid of that silence. I didn’t write any of it.

I ended up writing about a teacher who completely changed my life. She told me I was an amazing writer, and because it came from a woman who knew so much about so very many things, I believed her. She died not long after 9/11.

In a year marked by so much loss, I chose to write about her because I would carry her encouragement in my heart for the rest of my life. I didn’t write about any of the loss, the fear, the collapse of the trusted social exterior. I wrote about the hope.

~AC Gaughen

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