Who Am I, Really?: High School Students Participate in Nationwide Essay Contest

By high school English and creative writing teacher, Haley Campbell (’02)

Discovering and expressing identity is a crucial part of the human experience and a particularly pertinent theme of our adolescent years. YES! Magazine holds four personal essay contests each year, and this fall’s focus on identity offered an interesting prompt for our purposes. All sophomores, juniors, and seniors wrote a personal essay on identity, the topics ranging from exploration of ethnicities and language, to sexuality and removing the need for labels, to understanding and learning to celebrate developmental differences, to defining passions, such as dance, food, and spiritual inquiry. Every single essay offers a powerful and inspiring perspective on a unique way of exploring identity. The contest rules state that three essays can be submitted from each class, so nine essays were chosen for submission to the contest based on their vulnerability, their voice, and the compelling way they wove together storytelling and essayistic craft.

Here are excerpts from the submitted essays:

“Distorted Image” by AnMei Dasbach-Prisk

The fact that I don’t look like any of my family members never really bothered me as my mom made being adopted seem normal. She always talked openly to me about my adoption and read me books about adopted Chinese kids. She even found a book with my name in it called, AnMei’s Strange and Wondrous Journey. But there were still those awkward instances where my classmates would ask me why I looked different from my parents, and I would have to explain to them that I was adopted. The usual follow-up question was, “Do you know your real parents?” And I would think my mom and dad are my real parents. As I got older I learned to retort back, “Do you mean my biological parents?” It never burdened me as a child that I didn’t look like my parents, but it began to concern me when I became a teenager.

“Me or We?” by Rachel Burgess 

Imagine trying to figure out who you are and how you’re going to represent yourself when people can’t remember if you are that one or this one. When people begin to recall stories of you only for you to have to explain that that was not in fact you. They have the wrong twin in mind.

Despite all the challenges I have faced as a twin, in finding and being seen as myself, I still wouldn’t choose to be anything else. Twins share a special connection. You always have your person, a built-in best friend, a sister that you know will always support you, and this all rolls into one strong connection that is more than the sum of its parts. Your twin sees and loves you for who you are and values you both for your uniqueness and for your connection to them.

I realize I don’t need to choose between me and we. I see myself. My sister sees me. I am me as well as we.

“New Mexico Rain” by Braeden Will 

Summer is monsoon season in New Mexico. Every day has torrential downpour and lightning. The next day on the trail was the worst downpour of the trip. It poured so much the trails turned to rivers, and the creek swelled four feet above its usual height. On that trip the role of Chaplain’s Aide fell to me. While other leadership positions are concerned with the physical, Chaplain’s Aide takes care of the mental. I was to bear the soul of the group on my back, a soul cut open a day before.

Our home was holding a candlelight vigil for the victims. At the stroke of seven we honored them. The long day, the incredible rain, and the sincerity on the faces of everyone around me – heavy is too light of a word to describe the moment. Rain has always felt important to me. Part of me believes the soul interacts with the energy of the universe, that buzz we all feel when we experience the divine. The rain was the release, the culmination of our anguish onto the beauty of the land. Afraid and vulnerable, yet protected, I spoke my truth; I told the circle I believed the rain was God crying for us.

“God?” by Savannah Cambell 

It wasn’t really clear to me how to explain or even understand my beliefs until I talked to my grandma, who grew up very religious in the south. She explained how she doesn’t follow the Bible or church, but loves having someone to talk to in a worrisome time. She prays to God when she needs to, but God isn’t what everyone thinks he is; she has her own “God.” Once I heard this, I talked to my mom  and she explained how she believes those she loved who have passed are all looking over her as part of that higher power. From all this, I figured out my own religion based on who I am and what I need as a person. When I need to put energy out there, and I want someone or something to listen; the higher power, “God,” is there and I pray.

“Am I Really Jewish?” by Kira Kaplan 

My stomach was growling, my tights were itchy, and I was worried what all these real Jews would think of me. I was an imposter. I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t worthy. It was like I was a giant eyesore that everyone was staring at, but then the Rabbi started to sing. To my surprise I discovered I understood some of the words, my voice joining a chorus all singing “Amen!” Suddenly it didn’t matter that I had never been to temple, or that I didn’t understand Hebrew; I was talking to God. The service ended with a celebratory song, arms wrapped around one another and voices merging into one. It was then that I realized that I was one in the same with these people, that in fact, they were my people.

“Questioning my Cultural Identity” by Octavio Moreno 

I wasn’t allowed to go outside by myself at all. I remember going to my grandma’s house and playing with my cousins. It seemed normal at the time, just doing whatever I was gestured or shown how to do since I couldn’t understand Spanish. I have never had an intimate conversation with my grandma. I don’t know what she liked to do when she was my age, or why she crossed the border into America. Somehow I have come into existence through a process I have never talked about or understood. What is a “better” life when you only understand one half of who you are?

“Yeah, I’m Mexican” by Alyssa Manzur 

I get upset and annoyed when people call themselves something I believe they aren’t, even if their genetics and family history prove otherwise. I tell myself they don’t know what it’s like to grow up eating homemade tortillas, to snuggle with the infamous “Mexican blanket” that makes you overheat and sweat profusely, or to hear your grandmother’s stories of working in the fields as a child, picking fruits and vegetables alongside her parents and siblings to contribute to her family’s income.

“33 Miles to Acceptance” by Grace Timan 

When I think about my family, I see our warm Filipino household. The smell of fresh chicken adobo fills the air, I can hear the sound of my Tita yelling at a cousin to eat, but this isn’t aggression, it’s filled with love. There is an endless amount of hugs to give and feet to kiss. That’s how I grew up, Filipino family parties, but a part of me always felt unwelcomed. I’m not the full-on Filipina I want to be. I’m half white. That is something I tried to disassociate myself from for years. This half of my DNA always confused my racial identity.

“Finding My Own Me” by Ben Pearson 

Deep down inside each and every individual, there is a purpose, a lust for something. I have tried to find my own passion that brings a little bit of what I have to give into the world, and that’s what we should all do. We are only given one life to live, and the best way to spend that life is doing the things you love because love spreads. Do what you love, and you will bring purpose to yourself and happiness to others.


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