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Who are you really?
Impatient and shivering, I sat on a gray folding chair facing a sea of gray cubicles and their inhabitants, employees dressed to blend into their surroundings, while a frenzied whirlwind of anxious thoughts reminded me of my responsibilities as my worries careened and crashed against the walls of my mind, striking the bell of remembrance with great clangs that only I could hear. When I first walked into the NYC Department of Youth and Community (DYCD) building on May 7, 2011, I instantly regretted my decision to do so because not only was it at least 30 degrees cooler inside the building than outside, given the army of frigid air conditioners, but there was also a long line of nervous Ladders for Leaders participants, such as myself, already in front of me. I had to remind myself that by being accepted to NYC Ladders for Leaders, a program that offers high school and college students a seven-week summer internship with corporations and businesses in NYC, I also got the opportunity to attend pre-employment training programs in the spring and workshops in the summer that focus on work readiness, college orientation, and leadership development.
The third spring workshop required that I attend a mock interview and pretend to be a summer intern who had at least one year of college experience and who wanted a job helping with the DYCD mentor program. As I was leafing through my printed copies of information on the Human Resources field and tips on how to perform successfully at interviews, a flood of worries overtook me, for it was a school day and as my mind overflowed with all the responsibilities that awaited me when I got home, such as studying for my upcoming AP exams, studying for my Latin test, and finishing my article for journalism class, I felt overwhelmed and irritated that I had to spend my time in a cold office building preparing for a fake interview and watching the minutes on the gray wall clock above me rush by, when I could have been doing more important work at home. A woman, who, like the other employees, was dressed warmly in a business suit and appeared unaffected by the cold, approached and notified me that my mock employer was ready for my interview. Shoving my worries into the back of my head and fixing on a positive smile, I started walking towards an office room separate from the one I was in and hoped that the interview would take up only a few minutes of the little time I had. What I didn't realize at the time, however, as I stepped through a doorway into the small office, was that I wouldn't be the same person stepping through it on my way back.
A warm smile and a hearty handshake from a grandfatherly type man, who was as short as he was charismatic, greeted me on my way in. He cheerfully motioned for me to sit down in a chair facing his desk and asked to see my resume. As he read with a thoughtful expression on his face, I mentally reviewed a list of questions that I would ask about the job offer and my speech on my imaginary lifelong interest of the Human Resources field, all of which I had rehearsed multiple times beforehand.
“So tell me,” he said after placing my resume on his desk and folding his hands under his chin, “who are you?” He peered into my eyes in the same way that a gold miner would examine an unearthed discovery to see if it was valuable or not. I met his thoughtful gaze with a dumbfounded stare.
“My name is on my resume,” I stammered.
“Yes I can see that,” he replied, “but I didn't ask you for your name. I asked you what you are like as a person, what qualities you have, and what is it about you that would make me think that you are a valid candidate for this position.”
Breathing an inward sigh of relief, I began telling him my rehearsed summary of my qualities and professional conduct, but as I talked about my being determined, diligent, and having good work ethics, my words came out hollow, dull, and empty of meaning when they should have come out eloquent and impressive.
“No,” he patiently sighed, “you sound like every other applicant who has sat in that chair. Tell me what makes you different from the other candidates. Tell me why there is no other person on earth like you.” I glanced down at the pile of notes in my lap on the Human Resources department at the DYCD, knowing full well that the answer wasn't there. Flustered with how poorly I was doing at the interview, I was hesitating and stumbling over my words as I tried to process my feelings and ambitions in an articulate and impressive way. I eventually gave up and, feeling defeated, decided to stop trying so hard and simply say the words I felt with no thought as to how they sounded.
“I like reading,” was my simple reply. Applauding my three syllable sentence, my mock employer encouraged me to expand upon my love of reading. That is how I came to tell the story of how reading, writing, and words, in general, affected my life by giving me passion and purpose, a story that I rarely speak of to others for fear of being told and reminded that I might never accomplish my dreams, a story that I poured out to this kind stranger.
I told him how, growing up, every second and every minute of my time was devoted to reading, and how I could never put a book down once it was in my hand. My attachment to reading got so out of control that my teachers yelled at me to stop reading so much whenever they found me with a book in my lap during class. My father, believing that the contemporary fictional books that I read were of poor-quality, scolded me for not reading classical books. While I did, and still do, enjoy reading the classics, especially Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which I read in the seventh grade, and could see that they had richer language and more complex themes than that of modern fiction books, I saw both types of books as works of art and, therefore, equal in importance. In middle school, I loved reading poetry and writing poems, but once the soft golden light of naivety and innocence, that before colored my world in a warm hue, gave way to the criticizing blare of ambition and insecurity, I felt that the product of my writing would never reach the standards I set out for it and I always had the nagging sense in my mind that my writing was never good enough. Fast forward into high school, where my passion for literature expanded and opportunities to write became more challenging and self-rewarding. There I realized that as long as I devoted a hundred percent of my effort and time, I would always excel in any class that required writing. My best grades came from history classes, especially A.P. U.S. History where I excelled at writing long formal essays, foreign language classes where the Spanish and Latin language interested me deeply, and, of course, English classes. Journalism, without a doubt, was my favorite class, not only because I learned the importance of newspapers and how each person has a story to tell of unique and newsworthy experiences, but also because journalistic writing proved to be the most challenging form of writing for me. Similar to poetry, journalistic writing requires much meaning to be said in as few words as possible, a skill that puzzled me, a fan of Charles Dickens’ writing. By working hard, I did well in journalism and even had an article on terrorism and the NDAA bill published in the national edition of an online newspaper of articles taken from across the nation.
By now in my story, I felt a happiness that one feels when one knows that his or her life has a purpose. I told my patient listener, who was sitting across from me and looking intently at me, how I aspired to major in Journalism and Political Science and minor in Spanish and Latin at Stony Brook University. I told him how I longed to become a journalist at National Geographic and travel to various foreign countries where I would interview remarkable people, be present at life-changing events, and pick up many languages along the way. I told him how I desired to have daily adventures and incredible experiences that I would write about in a book, or two, or ten. By spilling out the yearnings of my heart, I didn't feel worried about being good enough or having unreachable dreams. For once, I felt sheer joy as I looked towards the future in that small quiet office and, for a moment, my hopes knew no doubts, my desires knew no limits, and my dreams knew no reality.
“Do you know why I asked you to tell me who you are?” said my listener gently. Feeling the weight of my responsibilities and worries emptied from my mind, I thought to myself of how confident and hopeful I felt knowing who I was and what my future will be. I nodded my head and with that the interview was over. Throwing out my notes about the Human Resources department in the trash on my way out, I stepped out of the office as a whole new person, one who realized that, in the play that was her life, she had been a stumbling character in the background, conscious of the audience, and fearful of performing poorly, and now she must step forward onto center stage, unaffected by the audience, and must act out her life fully with all her heart and with unrelenting confidence till the final curtain falls upon her.