Making the Grade or Making a Difference

Trina Olsen - Ecuador


August 25, 2015

This is a slightly adapted essay I wrote during my first semester of senior year, in a class called Advanced Writing Workshop. I thought it would shed light into my reasons for pursuing a bridge year.

Walking down the fluorescently lit hallway of West High School between classes, my chest and stomach feel tight. I struggle between choosing whether to cut the day short at 7th hour and head to the Froth House where I could start my homework early on the leather couch there, listening to music and enjoying apple cider, or, to drag myself through the door of Algebra 2/Trig, a classroom abundant with students, who, including myself, are apathetic towards Algebra, math, or learning altogether.  I’m fed up with my own disinterest towards school, and I’m about ready to hurl rotten apples at the school system that seems to think students are robots who can be programmed into a monotonous life of learning about things they don’t take any interest in. I turn down the hallway and room 1123 comes into view. My heart starts to beat faster, I can feel my eyes squinting, my forehead scrunching up with anticipation of certain boredom and stress, finally letting out a huge sigh as I walk straight past the room, and out the doors of West High School. Standing at the top of the stairs between the pillars, I welcome the warm breeze and look up at the cloudless blue sky. For one happy day, I have freed myself from this chest tightening, mind numbing class.

With a nervous pang in my chest yet again, I sit on the couch in my dark, silent living room, frequently glancing at the clock on my computer screen, desperately wishing I had the time to enjoy writing this essay. Unfortunately, tonight, like many nights, I have homework and activities competing viciously for my time: I need to write a kick ass beginning paragraph for English tomorrow, but I also need to attend a meeting  for a health care program I’ve been happily involved with for the past three years. I also need to do 20 Algebra 3 problems I haven’t the slightest idea how to approach, and memorize types of volcanoes and earthquakes. I am so trapped by the heavy workload of these unengaging classes that I never have the amount of time I would ideally like to spend on the classes I do find engaging. Nor do I ever have time to enjoy the activities I do outside of school without being stressed about all my schoolwork.

During the bleak winter months, I spend nearly every school night typing and memorizing away. The weeks and assignments blur together, trapping me in a never ending cycle of work.  Every other week, I am refreshed by spending a couple hours with my fellow teen educators at PATCH (Providers and Teens Communicating for Health). The goal of PATCH is to help teens and doctors talk to each other about mental health, reproductive health, and drug use. When I’m standing at the front of a room in the U.W. Health Sciences Learning Center teaching physicians how to be better doctors, I am a powerful tool in transforming the way teenagers receive health care. I know doctors  are listening carefully to  my insights and ideas.

Wanting to make a difference at West High School, I co-created  a club called Empower Hour. Last summer, I spent many leisurely afternoons downtown  at Collectivo Coffee working on the syllabus for the club. The club’s goal is to give upperclassmen at West a refresher course in healthy relationships and sexual health. On these afternoons, my stomach never was tight with nervousness and stress; in fact; I looked forward to this work. I appreciated it because I was creating something real. The club was tangible and would create change in my community through teaching others, and would also continue to matter. I loved having the time  to create Empower Hour without the aching weight of eight other irrelevant assignments.

One day, last January, I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in another mundane class, and chose instead to loiter in my friend’s gym class- arguably also somewhat mundane, but at least a change in the routine. While in the gym, a short man I’d never seen before came over and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was taking a break from a class that day. I asked him what he was doing there. He pointed out the two kids he was helping: a smaller boy named E.J. playing basketball,  running back and forth, yelling excitedly at his teammates to pass him the ball. I  remember noticing how cute this kid was and thinking he looked- in the best way- like a baby dinosaur. The man then pointed out a tall, lean girl  playing basketball named Ayanna who had a constant smile on her face. After some small talk, the man asked if I’d be interested in TAing a special education math class. Hesitantly, I said “I mean, maybe, yeah”. To that, he stood up from his chair and I followed him, somewhat warily, through the hall. Opening the classroom door, I could feel my heart beat a little faster and nervous flutters in my stomach. Never in my life had I worked with developmentally disabled kids. The teachers smiled, welcoming me in and showing me who I could help. I forced a half smile and said to the girl counting blocks: “Hey I’m Trina, I can help you with your homework if you want”. She barely looked up but slid her paper across the table. Looking at the paper, my eyes welled up with tears. Her paper had problems on it like 2+2, “continue the pattern” and “circle the triangle”.  I was shocked and sad to see my high school peers struggling with work I’d mastered in kindergarten.  At first unsure of what  I could do  to help her understand, I had her count 2+2 on my fingers.  She wrote four on her paper. I drew a couple shapes on her sheet so she could figure out what a triangle looked like.

I kept going back, each day becoming more comfortable teaching and hanging out with these kids. I always walked out the door of that class feeling like I’d done something. It was obvious that  my being there relieved the other teachers of being needed by too many students at a time. Without fail, this was the hour of my day I smiled most.

Starting Empower Hour club, being a teen educator, and tutoring have been so energizing and rewarding. They make my eyes widen and my chest feel light. In contrast, the stale, repetitive classes marking much of my high school career have not lifted me up like these activities. I look forward to college, but the idea of entering academia only a few months after graduating high school has me wary. Things like walking on campus to lecture halls, studying nightly at libraries and getting help from professors during office hours seems too eerily similar to what I’ve already been doing for the past four years. I was in a senior year crossroad: to go straight from high school to college, or, to take a bridge year.

I am fortunate to have even found this crossroad. Most high schoolers don’t even know it exists. They become so blindsided by society’s expectations to travel straight to college, they have no clue there’s another road. While this path may be less traveled; it’s one just as worth taking.

Choosing this other, mostly unseen road,  I have decided to take a gap year. I crave the emotional engagement that comes from teaching, working for better public health outcomes, and leading these organizations. When I’m in the real world, I get to share my ideas and insights with others. I get to learn by doing, instead of learning by lectures. I get to create change and I grow emotionally by doing so. This is where I thrive. This is what imbues me with a sense of accomplishment and gratification.

Trina Olsen