The Class of 2022: Our Stories
March 31, 2022
On my first day at Academy, I had one goal more prominent than the rest: to find out who I was. Admittedly, that did not come to fruition… but then again, does it ever? What I found in replacement were about 100 other girls as eager to conquer high school as I was. Instead of finding myself, I found out who they were. Their names, stories, and senses of humor. We have collectively laughed together, cried together, and grown together in immeasurable ways. In a group of girls I once considered strangers, I have found my favorite storytellers, most prominent teachers, and even some I consider my best friends.
As a class we have had an unpredictable four years. Girls have come and gone, renovations have put us in a brand new environment, and COVID-19 has taken two full years from our “normal” way of high school life – as if any of us even know what normal is anymore. Through it all, we came out stronger by leaning on one another to navigate the unprecedented hurdles we faced. To commemorate this journey, I have asked my classmates to send in their college essays: a string of words that represent who they are to create a string of essays of who we are as a class.
I am so proud of the young women I have been able to spend each day with for the past four years. We have grown together to be the strong, intelligent, and confident class we are today. Congratulations to the Class of 2022, I could not have done it without you.
My stomach feels queasy as I ride to school, so invested in my book that I refuse to look up to help my carsickness. I didn’t care how sick it made me; as long as I finished discovering the wonders of the West with Laura from “Little House on the Prairie,” or looked fearlessly at the tigers in the zoo with Madeline. I sped through the pages as if my life depended on it.
This is how I remember most mornings on my way to school throughout my childhood. From very early on, I could find no greater joy than cracking open a brand new book. Characters in books have always been so much more than just characters; they became my friends, my role models, my mentors. When they were out on a great adventure, I was there, running right next to them. When they felt sadness, or anger, or frustration, I was there, feeling it too. When I didn’t want to be in my world anymore, I joined the world of one of my favorite characters for a while, leaving everything else behind. It was my great escape, and it still is to this day. From each stage in my life, there are a few characters and stories that stand out more than the rest.
Our story begins sitting in a magic tree house with Jack and Annie in second grade. It was always so exciting to find out where we were headed next: would we travel back in time to see the dinosaurs, would we experience the sinking of the Titanic, or would we trek through the Amazon? Only the next page would reveal our destination, and these books were the first to establish a sense of imagination and creativity within me. “The Magic Tree House” series was one of my favorites because of the many places I went and experiences I had all while never leaving my room. With each new place that we discovered, I could feel the world around me transforming, as if these books were the secret key to unlocking entirely new worlds within the four walls of my room.
Suddenly I’m in middle school, and I find myself racing to climb a tree, caught in the world of “Anne of Green Gables”. I can hear Anne laughing, telling me to catch up. Joining Anne’s world was always a favorite of mine. She was so descriptive in her story-telling that it was so easy to create a vibrant setting in my head. I loved her imagination and the adventures we went on together. Her personality enthralled me and instilled in me my courageousness. Our many escapades led me to develop my fierce nature and my willingness to stand up for what I believe. She helped me learn to voice my opinions and to never back away from a challenge.
Although it is almost impossible to choose a favorite book character, Jo March from “Little Women” will always stand out in my mind. While other characters are special to me because they shaped me or taught me life lessons, reading about Jo March is like gazing into a mirror. Insecurities about my personality were shown to me in a positive and renewed light through her character. She was a mentor to me in the same way that one might have a mentor in real life, teaching me to embrace my strong sense of independence and work ethic, and to go after exactly what I want without stopping for anyone. I loved that I had discovered her story.
Through Jo’s story and others, I learn more about myself and the world around me with each book I read. I have found the most valuable parts of my personality, and I feel so lucky that my horizons will never stop expanding and that I will never run out of new books to uncover.
My first big splash came in Mexico, cliff-diving, at age nine. As my toes gripped the cool, black stones of the towering cliff, calm overtook me. I glanced at my mom on the beach below as I jumped, her worried expression contrasting my dad’s satisfied grin. The sudden explosion underneath me as I slammed into the water filled me with an impulsive excitement I’ve spent my entire life learning to channel. Symbolically, that splash of seawater was enormous, foreshadowing my life in ways no nine-year-old could predict.
Outside of vacation stunts and acting classes, my early affection for captive audiences and constant motion led to aggravating formative experiences. In 4th grade, my math teacher constantly called me out for hyperactivity following my innocent actions, like knocking over my water bottle. “Are you incapable of not distracting your peers?” she chided. Eventually, these struggles landed me in counseling where my therapist coined a term for my attention-attracting behavior: The Big Splash. My parents echoed this sentiment again and again: “Remember, Anna, keep your cool and avoid The Big Splash.” In retrospect, I felt inferior and incongruous in most settings— I was a ball of caged energy.
Luckily, 5th grade ushered the Tropicana Speech Competition into my life. Both mining my social displacement and expanding awareness of my distinct personality, I pulled out all the stops and delivered my speech “Why It’s Okay To Be Weird.” I rambled for three minutes about teachers’ uncomfortable responses to my innocent behaviors, arguing that my in-class questions and interjections should have been recognized as genuine curiosity instead of rebellion. While the topic elicited a few giggles, my teacher appreciated the sentiment and selected me as the class winner. This unfamiliar validation invigorated my sense of competition and revealed a new path. Suddenly, I wanted to win, and I wanted to do it by “being weird.”
By freshman speech and debate, I started reshaping my spotlights. I observed how judges scored based on their own personalities: stern judges favored solemn deliveries while light-hearted judges appreciated humorous presentations. If I gave a speech on gender discrimination or sexual assault, I adjusted my performance for men versus women. Basically, I “read the room” before taking the stage. My inspiration for this tactic was, of course, my domineering 4th grade teacher. I transformed from feeling powerless (from The Big Splash scrutiny) to experiencing immense control over my landings. What do you want? A swan dive? No, cannonball? Perhaps jack knife? With versatility, I customized my portrayal in the moment.
Still, I care too much about my own inspirations, both immediate (my father) and distant (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), to hoard this ability. Last year, a freshman named Chloe approached me, seeking after-school help on her poetry performance. After we dug in, I observed how she approached her speech timidly (ironic, given her enthusiasm and extroversion socially). I advised her to dial up the volume and integrate her bubbly personality into the recitation, enhancing her magnetism for the judges. Until then, I’d often viewed myself as a solo act, but no longer! I realize how 4th grade Anna truly could have benefitted from an 11th grade Anna beside her.
For much of this life, I’ve leapt into activities, performances and actual oceans without appreciating my full capacity. Now, my idiosyncrasies seem like pathways to acceptance and career opportunities. My impassioned speeches on restorative justice (though too raw for some people) could sway a courtroom. My goal by high school graduation is to inspire underclassmen with the empowering message that they must be the first to embrace their individuality. Admittedly, my parents and therapist weren’t completely wrong. After all, leaders do more than just attract attention; leaders wield attention with purpose once they have it. Real life happens after The Big Splash . . . once the actual swimming begins.
Grief is a Range of Emotions
For a while, I believed the world was against me, this belief broke me down into feeling like nothing. The two contrasting ideas about beauty and severity was not a concept I immediately grasped. It’s difficult to see the positivity when I have lost so much in my short life. It took me years to open my eyes to my own ignorance about life.
In eighth grade a friend died of a rare cancer, we were only 14, this was my first experience with loss. The day she died I was stripped of most of my childhood innocence, my wonder and obliviousness were gone. For a long time I was angry, I didn’t understand why this was happening. I felt guilty, because the last thing I said to her while she was on the ventilator was, “We will be okay. You will be okay. I love you.” I felt like I betrayed her by lying about how we would all be “just okay” when I knew we wouldn’t. I held myself accountable for something out of my control. I came to learn that I needed to forgive myself. I needed to mourn in order to heal properly. The inner battle of guilt and grief taught me to accept the obstacles I cannot control.
While my friend’s passing was very difficult, a sudden death of a family member is a lot harder to cope with. On June 26, 2021, my family was informed that my cousin was in a coma with kidney and liver failure, and had less than 2% of brain function left. The following week he was taken off his ventilator, he passed away 14 hours later. I felt numb and most times I still do. There are nights when I sleep with my black and yellow “Ranger” sweater under my pillow (he was an Army Ranger) because it reminds me that my cousin is watching over me. It’s been less than two months since he died and I still cry while thinking, talking, or writing about it. My own struggle with grief represents the struggle of accepting waves of sorrow and elation.
Part of my success is not letting my anger, sadness, and grief control my life. Writing this essay took me several days,I was in agony writing about something so raw. Yet, grief is a part of my life and it’s important for me to share. My grief is learning to not feel guilty for having good days. My grief is waking up with the understanding that it might be a hard day, and that’s okay. When my friends talk about their family and how much they love them, I get upset knowing my family will never be the same. I have learned that it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to mourn, and it’s okay to start to heal from the loss.
I know that I will be okay, eventually. I just need to remain patient with myself. The recent death of my cousin is still fresh and I am continuously healing from it. I have learned how to recognize my small successes, like waking up in the morning. I still have a lot to learn from their passing and from myself. I started to meditate and practice yoga in order to calm myself down, it has helped me in processing all my emotions. Moving forward means I have to take every day one step at a time. I cannot allow myself to retreat because of these obstacles. I will get on the other side of this and be stronger.
Every day is a new way of playing my very own game of “Survivor”. Prior to this lifestyle, I would cry before a presentation, take detours to avoid people, and find myself uncontrollably uncomfortable in ordinary, everyday life situations. My anxiety was crippling.
I then invested myself in a family favorite, CBS “Survivor”. I deeply studied each winner and their path to victory, finding small parts of myself in each one. The more I found myself fantasizing and formulating possible outcomes of high-stake situations on the show, the more I began to apply it to my own life. With each struggle, I contemplated how it could be conquered if I were on “Survivor” based on the show’s three values: Outwit, Outlast, and Outplay.
Outwit: A tornado forms in my brain as I am mid-Calculus test, searching my memory for the best way to integrate a function. In this state of frustration, my mind goes to a problem-solving situation on the island. Similar to Calculus, my path to victory consists of making the best decision for my specific problem. Stuck on u-substitution, I decided that the reverse chain rule is the way to go, and went that route. I find that my name is on the chopping block with my alliance, and I connect with the loners of the game to eventually convince them that they have a better chance if they take out my threats rather than myself. My idea appeals to the underdogs, and suddenly I have my antiderivative and have successfully made my big move of the game.
Outlast: As I enter my first ever club volleyball practice at age 12, the horror of not knowing a soul directs me to the first day on the island. I begin to put my water bottle on the other side of the gym, away from all of my teammates who already had matching bags, and I remember that keeping to myself would not further me in the game. To stay on the island, I must make the effort. I asked them basic icebreakers, like what school they attended, in an attempt to be someone they could feel comfortable around. After I let go of my terror of being a team outcast and reached out myself, my new friend, Mackenzie, invited me over to their corner of the gym, and now I have made a solid alliance that I can count on for the rest of the game.
Outplay: The words said by my volleyball coach, “Jane, you are the worst on the team,” produced a feeling identical to that of my torch being snuffed by Jeff Probst. I am suddenly in the middle of a challenge, striving to perform better than what was expected. I worked to improve, but after starting for a singular set, I was again benched. As the more athletic tribemates showed signs of doubt as we were behind, I created a new goal: bringing the team spirit. Who knew that striking my hands during an intense part of a challenge until they were almost tomato red, or screeching when a ball was in or out brought everyone more motivation to win. My tribemates pull off the immunity win, and I chant my team all the way to earning the title of regional champions. With tackling each fear, I progress through 39 days until I am now collecting my one million dollar check, as I have broken my own personal barrier of doubt and have convinced the jury that I am worthy of the title of sole survivor.
As I carefully run my fingers across the bright blue monarch butterfly sticker that lays across the bottom of my ipad faced down on my desk, the first thing that comes to mind is the memories. Memories of picking my cuticles until all that was left there was a bare space left open in my fingernail. Memories of hyperventilating while my mom struggled to soothe me. Memories of a word I can’t even manage to say out loud: anxiety. Nevertheless, it continues to be the word that helped me transform into the butterfly staring back at me, reflecting its beauty against the light of my desk lamp.
Butterflies are my safety net. They protect me from the dangers of the world I could fall into. This is why I see myself, and my life, as a butterfly. Delicate, fragile, and light are words I would use to describe myself when I felt trapped in my pessimism. Whether it was the stress of wanting to fit in, feeling compared to models on social media, feeling pressured to date, or the feelings of not belonging, my anxiety would never fail to ruin my day in under a minute. My body completely shuts down at the hand of my stressors. Why can’t I feel anything? Why do I feel so fuzzy? Why don’t I hear my friends calling out my name as they try to reassure me everything will be alright? Why don’t I believe them? Why don’t I feel so hungry? And why does it feel like I’m losing my sense of taste even when I eat a strawberry? It was never-ending, and I began to lose myself.
But, as I grow physically and mentally during my healing periods, I reflect on the beauty of life and how it can be so compelling, like a butterfly. Knowing that I am at ease with my thoughts and mind makes me feel unchained from my anxiety. I am fortunate to have a butterfly as my safety net. Seeing myself as such a tiny and beautiful insect that society may view as feeble allows me to combat others’ opinions of me. I know that, like a butterfly, I am capable of anything. As I shed my cocoon of adolescence, I remember not to let anxiety conquer my mind. Butterflies helped me live my life while also protecting me from negative thoughts, helping me grow as a confident woman. I am proud of the butterfly that I have become.
I wake up in a golf cart, in the middle of the woods, covered in mud, and when they ask me if I know what state I am in, my reply is “no.” I begin to freak out.
To lose memories is one of the most terrifying things I can imagine. To be fair, I am somewhat of an expert on the matter. As an exceedingly and quite impressively clumsy kid, I have hit my head my fair share of times. If we are getting technical, I have racked up a total of 4 concussions. As a result of these various blows to the head, I have unfortunately lost a significant amount of memories, from a 14-hour bus ride to a summer camp in Georgia (which would’ve been the correct answer to the aforementioned question if you were wondering), to an entire afternoon of flag-football practice and more. What I soon learned is that to forget parts of your life is terrifying no matter how many times it has happened before.
In addition to my fear of losing memories due to my consistent failure to stay upright, I have the additional stress of Alzheimer’s running in my family. I unfortunately watched the slow decline of my nana’s mental capacity in the five years she lived with us prior to her passing. Because of this, I also worry of a looming future in which my dad, my siblings, or even I also have our memories stolen from us by the disease.
When I reflect on why this fear of mine is so substantial, I wonder why memories are so valued in the human experience. The definition of a memory is “the faculty of the brain by which data or information is encoded, stored, and retrieved when needed. ” By this description, it seems as if to forget is the same as to lose a few data points in a spreadsheet, but this sterile description does not come close to encompassing what I view as the words true meaning. Memories are not facts, graphs, or charts like the word data evokes. In my life, I have learned that memories are the most important particles of self that a human has. Their importance is diminished by such a description. Memories are the smells, feelings and glimpses of better days; they are our pasts, kept for safekeeping in the deepest folds of our brains, molding every future choice, our entire lives.
With this definition of mine in mind, I live my life with a new purpose. I don’t set out to just make lasting memories that I wish to cherish, but formulate a tangible way to ensure I don’t lose them. I have begun to overcome my fear through my love of photography. I am always the girl at cross country meets, or dances, or anywhere else I can sneak in a camera, who is taking pictures for every one. I am my happiest when I am not only enjoying what I am doing, but I know that when the fun is over, I will have those moments to look back on for years to come. While my human mind may still fail, by taking pictures, I will have snapshots of my life that can’t be washed away as simply as a memory. I have also become incredibly interested in the scientific aspect of memories, venturing into a deeper curiosity in the sciences, specifically neurology, with the hope of one day truly understanding what memories are, and how to protect them.
My fear could easily thrust me into a life in which I am scared to take risks or to make relationships that I intend to stand the test of time, but instead, I choose to be propelled by it and make as many memories as I can. I am looking forward to my future, and to all the memories I will be able to capture in the years to come. After all, if I lose a few along the way, I guess I’ll just have to make more.
I’ve always hated camo. Looking at the material too long messes with my eyes and makes my head spin. I know it’s not the colors that make me sick because my hatred for camo doesn’t just stand for the green stuff (and because green has always been a favorite color of mine). I’m not talking about the camouflage from Bass Pro Shop that’s littered with sticks and moss that is worn to hide you from animals (although I’m not a fan of that either). My loathing also applies to the navy blue, white, and gray camo that could only make you blend into metal and the tan and beige camo that only could hide you at the beach. I’m talking about the camo that makes you stick out. The camo with the rectangular velcro patch on the right breast that reads “E. Croissant”. The camo that means “dad’s leaving again”.
My father once opened my door, threw something at me, and said, “That’s the hat I was wearing when you were born,” before promptly shutting the door and leaving me to investigate. I found myself staring at the dizzying tans and beiges of the desert camouflage my father would have worn in Kuwait, where he was deployed when I was born. Much like its owner, the hat I had caught was rough and sturdy and difficult to bend, but not impossible. As long as that hat has sat in my room, it has stood as a reminder of the fear and anxiety that I often felt when my dad was away. However, it also reminded me that I, like that hat, belong to my father and like it, I am tough and I too can weather any storm. I’m aware that, like my father, I am headstrong and, at times, downright difficult. However, I prefer to view it as determination to never give up.
That hat was often a comfort to me when I saw the splotchy, ugly camouflage folded on the countertop, waiting to be packed into a suitcase and shipped to whatever military base my father was called to this time. When my mother stood alone at school ceremonies or when my grandfather would escort me to a father-daughter dance, inevitably I’d be asked “Where is your dad?” My explanation was always met with a chorus of “Thank him for his service” and “You must be so proud.” But in those moments, I didn’t feel proud. I felt alone. When he was away, I’d stare at a picture of him in which he was standing in a jungle somewhere. I tried to ignore the mesh of green and mud brown that disguised him into the trees behind him. I’d ask myself: “Why can’t we just be a normal family?” However, what developed from that abnormal family was an independence that allowed me to try new things, even when I knew I’d have to face it alone. That’s how I found out I loved the stage, that’s how I realized I didn’t need a friend to try out for the lacrosse team with me, and that’s how I learned that I could be my own person, even when I was scared to be.
I also learned that life isn’t always fair. I saw my father have to leave his family whenever duty called. I saw my father grapple with replaying images of atrocities from all over the world. I saw my father struggle through the death of the men he fought beside. But more importantly, I saw my father persevere. I learned that life is what you make it and no matter what, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to keep walking. I’d love to continue walking with you and the opportunities your school provides. As long as it doesn’t involve camo.
I am unafraid to connect with new faces because my most enriching friendships have sprouted from an unscripted “Hey, I’m (my name)!”
I open the gym doors to a cacophony: stands packed with pink t-shirts, swirling neon face paint, and head-to-toe body glitter. The “Spike and Splash” sign tacked to the wall hasn’t changed since my first time attending in 6th grade. Now a sophomore, I revel in my school’s enthusiasm for this annual volleyball and swim tournament and breast cancer fundraiser.
As I shout, “GO JAAGS!” at the top of my lungs, I glance up. In a corner of the bleachers, two girls stand together, wide-eyed. I recall being an overwhelmed freshman; I wish someone had thrown me a lifeline. Over the clamor, I shout, “Hey, I’m (my name)!”
After a blur of conversation, I realize this is a moment I don’t want to forget. “Can we take a photo together?” I excitedly plead. My camera fills with three faces. I, on the left, sport a painted pink ribbon on my cheek and jostled ponytail. Sofia, on the right, squats to fit her tall, tan self into frame. Sydney flashes her braces at my phone from the middle. Click, I document the beginning of a friendship that began with one simple hello.
Almost every day after, I bump into Sydney in the halls. “Hi cutie! How’s freshman year treating you?” Stepping out of the river of students, she sighs, “It’s a little stressful, but I’m super excited to make a marshmallow catapult in Physics!” We laugh as I show her a video of my pitiful launch last year.
Sofia and I sit in the front at a Speech and Debate meeting. “Okay, so the acronyms are really confusing,” I explain. “OO, OI, and POI are very different categories that sound nearly the same!” The November tournament gives us a chance to tackle performance anxiety together. I show Sofia how my fellow dancers de-stress, shaking their limbs as if all nervousness would fly off with them.
By December, Sydney and Sofia are “my freshies.” At least, that’s what I tell my closest friends about these freshmen that I have adopted. Even in the most unexpected places, like the edge of the Winter Formal dance floor, I run to my freshies, nearly tripping in heels and a floor-length blue gown. I am shouting at them over a crowd once again: “YOU TWO LOOK STUNNING! HOW’S YOUR FIRST FORMAL?” We sing, we dance, we smile at my phone once again. Click: another memento.
My freshies are suddenly sophomores, and we’re navigating a school year defined by COVID-19. Our conversations at school-wide events are replaced by Sydney’s masked smile as we walk to her next class— regardless of how far mine is— and by checking in with Sofia as long as the 10-minute passing period allows. As January’s speech tournament approaches, I rehearse and guide underclassmen through performance prep. No inch of Sofia’s Google Doc is free of annotations by the time I am done with it. Yellow highlights. Click. Black underlines. Click. “(my name) commented: ‘I LOVE THIS SOOO MUCH, it’s a call to action which is crucial in a persuasive speech.’” Click, click. This time it’s not a camera shutter, but typing on a keyboard, that records another memory of our friendship.
“Our lives are living and breathing stories, full of intricate detail and strong characters and plot twists that we could never see coming.” I never expected that my freshie would teach me more than I could impart to her, but those words from her script remind me daily to cherish the value of our conversations, of our shared laughs, and of all the little memories in between.
In college, I will continue to reach out to strangers— I know that my best stories are the ones that start with a simple hello, and a “Hey, I’m (my name)!”