My heart was pounding and I wondered how I could make it. Everything looked so big that I felt as though I was shrinking and wanted to go back inside and grab my mother’s hand. But I had to go on my own.
Once I started walking, the power of my legs kept me moving towards Lucy’s house. In my mind my eyes were fixed on her house, trying to block out the dangers around me. The hardest part was turning the corner, because I would no longer be able to see my house. At the end of the long street I could see her house. I began to run, knowing I would reach Lucy’s in a moment.
This was the first time I had been given permission to walk to my best friend’s house on the busy Brooklyn streets. I was eight years old. Though she lived just around the corner, and I was on a cell phone with my mother while I walked, this was a big accomplishment. It marked a moment in my growth.
Looking back, I wonder: what if I had turned back and hadn’t raced toward Lucy’s house? Would I have walked with my mother for days and weeks to come? Would that yearning to walk alone have disappeared? No, I know I would have tried again another day. I would have learned to walk to Lucy’s on my own just as I had learned to put one foot in front of the other and walk years before. I would have made this journey toward independence just the same another day because something inside me propelled me to change. Making goals, such as walking somewhere alone for the first time, and facing fears, provides growth.
Thus far, for almost every year of my life, my educational growth has been captured in the completion of yet another grade in school. Contained in each year are small social and emotional changes, such as overcoming stage fright while in a school play. But looking back, the biggest change happened during my last year of middle school, which was characterized by difficulties; I had major back surgery, my beloved grandmother died, I left my small neighborhood school to become a student at a very large public arts school, which made me a subway commuter for the first time. As you can imagine the stress level was high.
Where I live in New York City students must apply to high school. It is a long and involved, anxiety-producing process. It starts in the fall with informational sessions, auditions, interviews, and tests. For a handful of top schools the competition is fierce. Some students prepare for a specialized high school test for years; others prepare a portfolio of schoolwork or artwork.
For admission to one school, Brooklyn Technical High School, I arrived at the school campus where the exam was being held. We had to park the car and walk to the building as the traffic was heavy from many other students arriving to take the exam. The line wrapped around the building, which takes up a city block. All my competition was before me. We entered at a checkpoint where we had to show our admission tickets and leave our phones and parents behind. They herded us into a cavernous, dark auditorium where “Iron Man” played on a large screen. The movie’s violent images and sounds made my anxiety worse; I felt defeated even before we began and still had the two-and-a-half-hour test to take. After about 20 minutes, the proctors flashed lights row by row, a signal meaning it was time to get up and move to the testing room.
For admission to another school, I had to prepare and submit an art portfolio and bring it to an audition where I was required to do three drawings: a figure drawing, a still life, and a scene of New York in messy oil-pastels. Facilitators interviewed us while we worked, asking why we wanted to attend the school. After I auditioned for art, I auditioned for violin. From start to finish these auditions took a combined seven hours.
At the same time, I was preparing for my Confirmation. In my family this coming-of-age ceremony is centered around the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. I was 14, and it was time for me to declare that I wanted to be a member of the Catholic Church. Much preparation led up to this day: attending classes, working with my sponsor, and a day retreat to a Jesuit Monastery on Staten Island. The retreat was during a school day and I needed special permission to take the day off from school. It was hard to fit all this extra practice into my already busy day and I wasn’t very excited about the whole process. The classes and retreat were tedious and cut into my limited free time.
After classes we had to confess our sins to a priest. I was nervous because I had to remember a prayer and terrified to tell the priest anything I had done wrong. Everything changed when I walked into the room being used as a confessional. It was not like my first confession because this was a friendly, ordinary-looking room with sun streaming through the windows, pink carpeting, and cheerful curtains. I sat down and the priest asked what I wanted to confess. I would not let myself think because I didn’t want to tell the priest anything negative about myself. Instead I confessed something about bragging to a friend about a high test grade. To my astonishment the priest laughed and said that was not so bad as I had that right to feel proud. At that moment I felt many things: I felt the love of God, the warmth of the Jesuit community, and the kindness of the priest. After going through all the testing and interviews and auditions for high school selection, here was a place where there was no judgment, only acceptance. Here was a place that I thought would be boring and tedious, where I would be criticized for my transgressions, but instead found unconditional love. This started my growth toward maturity with strength, serenity, and confidence.
Through this emotional growth my anxiety eased and I gained the strength to accept whatever decision would come from the high school admission office. The change into a new school in the fall was going to be difficult but I would be okay. Looking back both religious and secular experiences have shaped, directed, and supported my growth. I have found that growth can come through a single enlightening moment, in the small steps taken to a friend’s house, or in overcoming a big and daunting challenge.
Eleanor is 17 years old and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is a Junior at LaGuardia High School, where she studies visual arts. She is interested in biology and works at the American Museum of Natural History. She hopes to one day be an ichthyologist.
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