|A Rat’s Tale
By TONY GERVINO Published: July 15, 2011
I was 6 when my brother John leaned across the kitchen table and casually whispered that he had killed Santa Claus.
It was July 1973, we were living in Scarsdale, N.Y., and he was four years older than I was, although that seemed like decades. At the time, I thought that Sherlock the squirrel puppet from the TV show “The Magic Garden” was alive. My brother? He had a minibike, a pocketknife and a kohl-eyed 13-year-old girlfriend.
This is what he told me: The previous week, when he was to have been at summer camp, he traveled by train to the North Pole and shot Mr. Claus with my grandfather’s revolver. (My mother’s father, Poppy, was a New York City detective in the 1940s and ’50s.) “Nuh-uh,” I stammered. John nodded and dragged an index finger across his throat. “It was sort of an accident,” he said, gravely. “Don’t tell anyone, buddy, O.K.?” I considered the strange circumstances that would deliver an adolescent with a loaded gun to the North Pole and how a subsequent shooting could, in any way, be deemed “sort of an accident.” I also wondered what my life would be like without Santa Claus in it.
My mother, who was busy making dessert, her back to us, sensed my anguish and said, “What happened?” in a defeated voice. It didn’t sound like much of a question, and she never turned around. Within moments I told the entire story, even embellishing details of the actual shooting. (Clearly, I had my own issues.) “He shot him in the back,” I sobbed, borrowing from the plot of the “Bobby’s Hero” episode of “The Brady Bunch” that I had just watched. She turned and glared at John, and he shrugged, which was a wordless transaction between the two that I witnessed countless times during my childhood. He was, in parenting terms, a handful. She grounded him for two weeks, and he nodded, without blinking.
As he was leaving the kitchen, John looked at me and muttered, “Thanks, rat.” Without realizing it, I had miserably failed my first character test. I had told on my brother, my hero, effortlessly. Before I even had a chance to be trusted, I became untrustworthy. He was right: I was a rat. And how I learned to hate the word.
Throughout history, the term “rat” (like “weasel,” “snake” and “stool pigeon”) has represented a weakness in character. “Dirty rats” were as common in movies in the 1940s as high-waisted trousers, and there is a three-letter New York tabloid headline (“RAT!”) that needs no explanation. I wanted so badly to be cool enough to keep John’s secrets, but I was too worried that something bad would happen to him, and I would be asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?” In retrospect, my conduct was far from selfless. How bad was it? I actually aspired to be a “chicken.”
Over the next few years, as I wrestled with my conscience, there were similar tests of my loyalty that I invariably failed. John would show me his multivitamins, and I would relay to my parents that he was selling amphetamines; he whispered to me that he had married his high-school girlfriend, and I blurted that out on a car trip to Cape Cod, while he snickered in the back of the station wagon. He mentioned that he was “on the run,” and I ran right to my parents with the news. Each time I told on him, he would shake his head, and I would shrink even further not just in his eyes but also in my own.
Everything changed when I turned 15, and having resisted a family move to Florida, the two of us lived in an apartment in Armonk, N.Y., while I went to high school and he to community college. There was no authority figure to grill me, no more tests of my loyalty, and I gradually toughened up. The transformation was complete when I was caught with fireworks in a high-school bathroom. Their actual owner, a friend, was one strike away from expulsion. I stepped unto the breach and landed a few days’ suspension.
I remember my brother picking me up from the principal’s office that day. I was shaking; he was positively glowing. I have never felt better about myself.
Today my brother has a government job that we simply do not speak of. What I do know is that he often calls me at very odd hours, is fluent in several languages and has four cellphones.
But here’s the thing: even if I did know what John does for a living, I certainly wouldn’t tell a soul.
The Unathletic Department—Meghan
A blue seventh place athletic ribbon hangs from my mantel. Every day, as I walk into my living room, the award mockingly congratulates me as I smile. Ironically, the blue seventh place ribbon resembles the first place ribbon in color; so, if I just cover up the tip of the seven, I may convince myself that I championed the fourth heat. But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.
Two years ago, I joined the no-cut swim team. That winter, my coach unexpectedly assigned me to swim the 500 freestyle. After stressing for hours about swimming 20 laps in a competition, I mounted the blocks, took my mark, and swam. Around lap 14, I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself. However, as I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans, I looked up at the score board. I had finished my race in last place. In fact, I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes.
The blue for the first loser went to me.
However, as I walked back to my team, carrying the seventh place blue, listening to the splash of the new event’s swimmers, I could not help but smile. I could smile because despite my loss, life continued; the next event began. I realized that I could accept this failure, because I should not take everything in life so seriously. Why should I not laugh at the image of myself, raising my arms up in victory only to have finished last? I certainly did not challenge the school record, but that did not mean I could not enjoy the swim.
So, the blue seventh place ribbon sits there, on my mantel, for the world to see. I feel no shame in that. In fact, my memorable 20 laps mean more to me than an award because over time, the blue of the seventh place ribbon fades, and I become more colorful by embracing my imperfections and gaining resilience-but not athleticism.
“The first thing that stands out about this essay is the catchy title, which effectively sets up an essay that is charmingly self-deprecating. The author goes on to use subtle humor throughout the essay to highlight one of her weaknesses but at the same time reveals how she turned what some might have considered a negative event into a positive learning experience. Not only is this essay well-written and enjoyable to read, but it reveals some important personal qualities about the author that we might not have learned about her through other components of her application. We get a glimpse of how she constructively deals with challenge and failure, which is sure to be a useful life skill she will need in the real world, starting with her four years in college.”
—Senior Assistant Director Janice Heitsenrether
Benjamin V. Bajaj '14- Simsbury High School, Simsbury, CT
The phone buzzed, the number distantly familiar. I instinctively held my breath and took the call. “Ben,” he said… “It’s John, Ben.”
I met John in the fourth grade, and ever since we have been like brothers. A year younger than me, he acted old for his age even when we were both very young. In many ways, we were opposites and maybe that’s what fueled our relationship. I wanted the freedom he had and he wanted the security I took for granted. He watched R-rated films at the age of eleven and played M-rated games throughout fifth grade. I, on the other hand, had Legos, Kumon Math, and, “The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis” (educational software for ages eight and up). My parents kept a close eye on me. Spending time with John just made them worry, especially my mother.
With high school, John’s freedom increased and he got into far worse things than “Saving Private Ryan” at the age of thirteen. It wasn’t long before he started smoking pot and with that came the urge to steal small items from convenience stores. He was constantly in trouble, yet he always knew how to handle himself. He had the confidence and the guts I wanted. Unlike him, I couldn’t lie easily, and I certainly couldn’t stay calm when being addressed by an adult when I was in trouble. He was good at playing the innocent, and he knew how to avoid getting caught. I’d say he was street smart but that implies city living. John was “cul-de-sac” smart, he knew how to manipulate the suburban culture of unlocked doors, sleepovers, wooded trails, and the perks of being the son of divorced parents.
Sophomore and junior year brought police, more drugs, and a growing dependency on cigarettes, and the start of a separation between the two of us. As we grew older, we became more distant from one another – as brothers tend to do when peer groups and polar interests reign over family ties. But still, John’s growing indifference to me, the “younger” brother, hurt. Writing this now, I realize he was protecting me. Health classes always teach you to say no, to prepare for the day when you are offered drugs. John never put me in the position of having to say “no.” He kept me out of trouble as he dove in.
By junior year, John was taken out of school and put into rehab. It was like a member of my family was taken away in the night, without discussion.
In his absence, I was able to put our relationship in perspective.
He helped me grow up. I was and still am somewhat of an uptight person, but he helped me leave my bubble and embrace the world around me. I did things with him that I would not have done on my own – air soft gunfights, midnight bike rides, fireworks in the woods, jumping off roofs into pools, crazy things. Thanks to John, I learned how to let go. I was truly the apprentice to the master of “going with the flow.” He taught me not to judge, to be confident, and to relax sometimes and just let the randomness take me away.
Ever since I met him, I have tried harder to find the good in people. When others saw John, they saw a rebellious teen and a bad influence. But bias and nerves, I realize, often cloud first impressions. Today, I reach out more and make friends easier. There is a student in my high school named Matt. When I first saw him in tenth-grade Art class, he was one of the quietest and strangest kids I’d ever met. Luckily for me, about a week into Art, I decided to talk to him, and, after a semester of talking, we became good friends. Granted I still think he is one of the strangest kids ever, but he is also one of the easiest to get along with and possibly the funniest. If it weren’t for my relationship with John, I don’t know if I would have gotten beyond my “first impression” of Matt to initiate a conversation with him.
Knowing John has had a huge impact on my life. For more than a year now, he has disappeared from view – rehab having evolved into an out-of-state school for troubled teens. Until a late afternoon this December, a part of me thought he might be dead.
"It's me Ben, John,” the voice said on the other end of the phone. "John,” I exhaled, “…I don’t know what to say, I’m just so happy you called.”
Bottom of the ninth, two outs, the Red Sox down by four. We needed a miracle. The stakes were high. I looked to my left and J, my older sister, was watching the game with the same glazed look that was surely on my face. To distract herself, J had decided to go to Fenway Park to watch the game. Suddenly the mental shield had snapped, and reality was beginning to kick in. We were both thinking about tomorrow — brain surgery.
Strike three. Ahhhhh, moaned the crowd. They had been hoping to hear the victorious “Dirty Water” by the Standells tonight, which is played after each Sox win. Instead, as if to taunt us, they blasted “Brain Stew” by Green Day. Maybe it was just my imagination.
At twelve, J was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. As a fourth grader, I knew very little about epilepsy. As a sophomore in high school, I knew too much. Over six years of frustration and frightening seizures, she had seen multiple doctors and tried what seemed like a thousand different medications; she is undoubtedly the best pill swallower in the world. Tomorrow, J was going to have a surgery that would remove the life-threatening part of her brain—the miracle. No more seizures. It was simple, right? Just a little brain surgery. She had struggled over the decision for months. Some days she was fully determined to leave her epilepsy in the past. Other days she was overwhelmed by the prospect of brain surgery. At times I felt helpless, but eventually I found my role. I prescribed humor, her first medication that did not come in a bottle.
After one particularly stressful day, I remember going up to J’s room. Both of our parents were with her, but she was in tears. “BroBro’s in the house, homies,” I said in an uncharacteristically “gangstah” voice. Everything changed. J perked up her head and soon was lost in a fit of hysterical laughter, a deserved vacation from the decision. My parents and I were just relieved to see her less overwhelmed. As the brother, it was my duty to keep a level head. I had the responsibility to keep an eye on her while keeping up with my own life.
At Fenway, it was time to part ways. My parents would accompany her to the hospital the next morning while I was at school. I knew that the next time I saw J, she would have fifty stitches on the side of her head. I also knew that she might not remember my name for weeks—or worse. The stakes were high. I hoped and trusted that she and my parents had made the right decision.
The day after the surgery, when I went to that Boston hospital one last time, J was in and out of consciousness. To be honest, she looked terrible. But when she woke up, saw me through her swollen eyes, and murmured, “the BroBro,” I couldn't help but smile. At long last, the Standells began to play.
Kimberly McCarthy, Brown University
“Here she comes again, the same as always--running in, breathless, a stack of books in her arms. She throws the books on top of me and glides onto my bench, screeching to a stop at its center. Then she gently lays her hands in position on my keys, and sighs. ‘I really shouldn't be here,’ she tells me. ‘I have chem to study, and a creative writing paper, and eighty lines of Latin, and a watercolor, and....’ She begins to play. It's my favorite, ‘The Moonlight Sonata.’ It always reminds me of her gentle and loving yet deeply passionate. Her fingers press tenderly at first as if my keys were ivory eggshells and ebony velvet. Then she is swept up in the tide of her own emotions and begins to play louder, stronger, faster, her fingers working furiously, faster and faster and then over. She caresses my keyboard, eyes closed, then gasps. ‘It’s 3:15! I'm going to be late to karate!’ She jumps up and runs out the door without so much as a glance over shoulder, but that's all right. She'll be here tomorrow--maybe not at the same time, maybe with different books, but she'll be here. She told me--no matter how hard the courses get, no matter how smothering the work becomes, no matter how little time she has, she could never give me up. It's wonderful to be loved.”
Enchanting essay which reveals the writer’s flair. It says a great deal about the student in very few, simply stated, and carefully chosen phrases. Wish there were more essays like this one to read. It demonstrates that “less” can be excellent.
I like the brevity; the whimsy; and it’s a good glimpse of who this person is and what her interests and commitments are.
This piece is beautiful. There is a wonderful expression to it, and yet it is short and to the point. One gets a good picture of the girl and her emotions.
Chase Garbarino, Duxbury, Mass.
As I slunk into my junior year AP English class, I avoided making eye contact with my teacher, Dr. Heitzman. With the brim of my baseball cap pulled down to hide my face, my first priority was to find a nice hiding spot in the back of the room. It was the first week of school, and Dr. Heitzman was handing back our essays on our summer reading assignment. I had become quite accustomed to dealing with teachers who had "had the pleasure of teaching" my ever-so-talented, brilliant, saintly, near-perfect, God-like (in fact, she might even be in the Rolodex at the White House and Vatican) sister, Leslie. Dr. Heitzman had already made the connection that I was "Leslie's brother" and assured me that she only expected half the excellence that Leslie demonstrated and that would still guarantee me a solid A.
As I was attempting to disappear into my seat, Dr. Heitzman announced to the class that a rare occurrence had taken place; someone's essay had earned an A+. Knowing it could not be mine, I slouched even further into my chair. Dr. Heitzman continued, "Sorry to disappoint the female population in the class, but this time the best essay was written by a boy." At first this meant nothing to me. However, since I was also taking AP Probability and Statistics and I realized there were only three males in the class, statistically I concluded that I had a 33 1/3 percent chance of being that guy. I sat up straight and lifted the brim of my hat above my eyes. Watching her intently, I suddenly found myself praying that her panning eyes would find me in the back of the room. As she got out of her seat and came toward my desk, my pulse quickened, and I almost fell out of my chair. She handed me my essay, requesting that I read it to the rest of the class.
I was so shocked that I almost tripped on my way up to the front of the room and mispronounced my own name when I began reading. Then as I began noticing the comments on the paper, they simply read, "HAHAHAHA." It was clear she thought my essay was funny. "Wait a minute, I am pretty darn funny," it dawned on me. I began reading about how The Jungle had almost convinced me, a confirmed carnivore, to join my vegetarian sister in her devotion to soy products. Surprisingly, the normally staid Dr. Heitzman began to crack up laughing. The more she laughed, the more I tried to be funny. It was at that point that I knew that I was going to try to make Dr. Heitzman laugh at everything that I did all year.
I have never worked so hard to impress a teacher. Not only would I make my essays funny, but I extended my humor to journal entries, my vocabulary definitions, my poetic analyses, my daily reports and my verbal responses. I found myself running to class sometimes to be the first in line to grab a seat in the front row so I could be there to look Dr. Heitzman in the eye. My final project of the year best demonstrates how far I went to get a laugh out of Dr. Heitzman. Each student in the class was to put on a "how to" demonstration of anything they wanted, so I decided to teach everyone how to properly apply makeup. (OK, it was a dare.) I am a basketball and soccer player, your typical "jock," so I took everyone by surprise with my project. As I began applying sparkly blue eye shadow, the better to bring out my blue eyes, I looked out into the faces of my classmates and saw a mixture of disbelief and horror. But it was worth it because Dr. Heitzman was clutching the desk to keep from falling to the floor with laughter. (And I won the bet.) It was that bet that capped off a year that changed me considerably -- a year in which a "math guy" discovered he liked to write and to read good literature and that English was his favorite class.
If only every student were lucky enough to have a Dr. Heitzman. If only every person were lucky enough to know someone who pushed, motivated, encouraged, rewarded, shaped, and inspired them, and laughed. That year I did not follow in the footsteps of my sister. That year I was Chase Garbarino, Dr. Heitzman's funniest student ever.
Joseph Libson, Princeton University
Chapter One: I become a truant
The best thing I ever did for myself was skip nine days of school in a row in the eighth grade. Actually the benedictions did not arise so much from the truancy as from the apprehension. This does not mean that I had been an axe murderer for the previous sections of my life, but rather that an unusual circumstance led to a great improvement in almost every aspect of my life.
I was getting mediocre grades (i.e., B’s and C’s) at a mediocre school. I was not taking drugs or doing anything particularly nasty, but I was being incredibly lazy. This sudden burst of lethargy that led to the nine-day truancy overcame the activation barrier that had prevented my parents from taking retaliatory measures in response to all of the smaller things that I had done. Their response was draconian; first they separated me and my brother (we are exponentially more troublesome when together). In addition to deciding to send me to another school to separate us, my parents also decided that the punishment should extend into the summer since the deed had been done late in April and the school’s punishment of nine Saturday detentions (yes, like the ones in The Breakfast Club) and disciplinary probation seemed insufficient. This sentence consisted of my taking summer courses; thus, it came to pass that I took Algebra II before ninth grade.
When I arrived at Walnut Hills, which is the best academic public school in the city, I knew no one. This temporary exile resulted in a great discovery. Since I had no one to talk to during class, I decided that I would listen to see if the teacher was saying anything interesting. Lo and behold, knowledge flowed into and through me as excellent grades flowed out. At the tender age of thirteen, I had discovered that if I listened, I would understand.
I had four straight-A quarters at Walnut Hills and transferred to St. Xavier, an even finer institution. It was closer to home and besides that my parents had heard that it was a “tough” no-nonsense school (good for discipline problems). As an additional plus, due to variances between the curricula of Walnut Hills and St. Xavier, I was able to become two years advanced in mathematics. Thus Iwas taking BC Calculus during my junior year at St. Xavier. My innovative listening theory still held at St. Xavier although more effort had to be put in to get the same grades simply because St. Xavier was a more difficult school.
Skipping nine days of school made me a better person, there is no doubt about it. Not only did my academics improve, but my devotion to athletics was enhanced to that of a religious fanatic and my sense of morals was even improved. I changed from a selfish rather unfriendly and sarcastic person into a more giving and open (but still sarcastic) individual. But, I was lucky; I got caught.
The truant manages to show the reader, in very few words, just how much perspective he has on his past experiences. His focus on “getting caught” highlights his obvious self-awareness because it is so “unadolescent” of him to see his “getting caught” and being “punished” as a catalyst to his own intellectual and personal growth of which he is so clearly proud. This anecdote had a strong impact on me because it rings true and because Joe’s tone is very sincere.