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Examples of
Personal Essays


Student Examples

The Classroom Next Door - KS
Losing Advantages - CS
A Tale of Two Hands - TS



Vivian, Sweet Vivian - JP
Baldness Prep - JP
Granny's Yellow Plastic Radio


Published Examples

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The Classroom Next Door

    In the classroom next door, a child rocked in a fetal position in the corner back and forth, back and forth.  A girl wearing a pink and white helmet built a tower of blocks.  Another child sat at a table with a bandanna like a dog would wear tied around her neck to catch her drool.  A boy stood in the corner banging his head against the wall. The room was noisy with squeals of laughter, joyful talk, children playing and an occasional moan.

    The room was like every other room in the school: about thirty by fifteen feet, hand drawn pictures on the walls, toys tucked in a corner, a large window overlooking the jungle gym playground outside, eager teachers and aides, and a classroom filled with young children. I continued a few steps further to enter my own classroom, only one door down.

    That was the scene I encountered eight times a day, five days a week as I passed by the room that was a constant reminder of what could go wrong in nature.  Sometimes, I would even see a boy being pulled along in a bright orange disk, reminding me of a sled used on hills in the winter.  It was his only mode of transportation because his spine could not hold him upright.

    This should have been a happy time for me with the announcement that my parents were expecting a new baby sister. For nine years, I had always wanted a little sister.   Two times before, I had faced disappointment when my brothers arrived in a space being held for her.  Instead of being caught up with the excitement of a baby sister to come, I was overwhelmed with fear.  My happiness was accompanied with a dread that she would be born with a birth defect like one of the children in the classroom next door.  As I walked into the school for the first time with my exciting news, I spotted a trail of drool along the hallway floor.  The drool had pooled in some areas and been barely visible in others, yet it was still there, and I knew where it came from.  The trail led me all but a few yards from my own classroom to the young girl with the blue eyes and blond hair with the pink bandanna around her neck.

    I applied a poker face and didn’t disclose my concerns to anyone.  But as weeks went by, my mother knew something was bothering me. I helped select my baby sister’s name and prepared for her arrival, but it was no use. Everyday that I passed by the classroom next door, I looked in at those children.  I was sure their mothers thought they would be normal, too.  My mother already had three healthy children, so perhaps our luck had run out and the odds this time were no longer in our favor.

    Nearing the nine month mark, my mother looked enormous and I knew the “big day” was knocking on our door.  The doctor wanted to have an ultra-sound to look at the baby, to check her health and growth status. My mother invited me along, and even allowed me to skip part of school to go with her.  I looked forward to getting the confirmation that I needed that my baby sister would be healthy and fine.  At the office, the doctor hooked up the ultra sound machine and showed me pictures of my little sister in my mom’s belly.  The images were blurry to me, but the doctor said she was looking healthy and right on schedule.  I could see her heart beating, her facial features, and her fists swinging back and forth.   So my fears should have been allayed; but they were not.  What I saw in the ultrasound told me that my sister had no fingers.  I saw closed fists and convinced myself that she only had the stubs of two hands.

    The day came.  I arrived home from school and my mother wasn’t there.  A babysitter announced that my parents were at the hospital.  I just sat waiting keeping everything to myself.  My stomach was in knots; I sat on the couch waiting.  Would my new baby sister need a helmet, a bandanna for drool, or even a wheelchair to navigate around? The minutes seemed like hours; the hours seemed like days.  We passed three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock, six o’clock.  At long last, the phone rang at 6:02 pm.  It was my dad.

    His voice was different than I had heard before.  “Congratulations!  You have a new baby sister!”

    “Dad, what does she look like?”   My dad spun off about her long hair, her bright blue eyes, her height and weight, but that wasn’t what I needed to know.  I blurted out, “Does she have any fingers?”

    “Yes, ten fingers and ten toes.  Why do you ask…?” I burst into tears with relief!!  My fears had only grown after I had been to the ultrasound appointment, I knew that I had not seen fingers on her closed fists; I was sure that she had none.

    My little sister is now a happy, healthy seven-year old, currently in second grade.  The anxious feelings and fear are long gone replaced by the joy of sisterhood.  But the scenes from the classroom next door still haunt me.  How much anxiety will I have someday when I am expecting a child of my own?

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Losing Advantages

The tennis match I remember most was the one I lost.  Sophomore year, I was playing number two singles for the team and we were playing Weston, our biggest tennis rival.  The winning team would win the conference.  I warmed up with my opponent, Alex, who I knew well; we were friendly because we had hit together many times before.  The day was hot, very dry.  You could see the heat rising off the court.  I knew this was going to be a challenging match for me. 

 I don't remember much about the beginning of the match.  I won the first set, and I had opportunities to close out the second set.  However, I didn't convert.  Alex ended up taking it to a third set.  By this point we were both very flustered.  He fell and cut his knee and blood was pouring out.  I myself was starving.  We both rolled ahead in hopes of a victory.  By the start of the third set all the other matches were done.  The teams were tied 3-3 in matches; this match would be the deciding match. 

 I fought hard to close out this third set but Alex fought back just as hard and we came to a tiebreaker.  I remember right before the tiebreaker I looked up on the hillside next to the court, and saw a crowd of people cheering and shouting our names.  The setting sun behind them almost blinded me.  I knew my team was anxious to get home. The pressure was on for me to win and not let my team down. 

 The pressure got to me.  I put a few shots in the net and Alex hit a few nice volleys.  Quickly I went down 5-1 in the tiebreak.  Though, it seemed like the match was over, I viciously fought back to 6-5.  I was down by a point, and it was now match point.  Alex served and volleyed and I returned a forehand at his feet.  He hit a nice pickup that looped back deep at my feet.  I went for the passing shot up the line.  I hit it hard.  There was no way he would get to it.  I missed by a half an inch.  The match was over.  At the time so was the world.  All that fighting for nothing, I let my team down and possibly ruined the season. 

 The bus ride home was miserable.  No one spoke.  It wasn't until the day after when a friend said to me, "It's not your fault."  I still believed it was my fault but I felt so much better when I heard a teammate say that to me. 

 Last year, my junior year no one on the team had lost a match.  Towards the end of the season a freshman played in place of a sick player.  He ended up losing.  He walked off the court with his head down.  He said, "I'll probably be the only loss of the season." 

"Don't worry," I told him, "I've been there." 

A Tale of Two Hands

When I look at my hands, a flood of emotions and memories rush through my head. Most relate to my experiences playing football. Each cut, blister, and scar reminds me of a specific moment in time; a coming of age; a muddy field; a numb, cold grip; a surge to physical contact. 

No one would ever confuse my hands with those of a concert pianist; they clearly resemble those of a middle linebacker. Covered with blisters and calluses acquired throughout years of grueling conditioning, training, and game-time combat, their presence demonstrates that success on the playing field does not come without countless hours of preparation and hard work. Each and every blister was formed by pushing myself to new levels of performance. I have the dedication of a gladiator, and determination that drives me to succeed. I will one day make the same commitment to my calling in the real world. I would not subject my hands, body and mind to this kind of punishment if it were not for my love of the sport. 

My bruised hands serve as an emblem of my hard work, and of my desire to win. I yearn for the taste of victory. My fingers hurt. I wrap them in gauze to ease the pain. However, I must persist and proceed.   I look at my hands and vividly recall images of the past four years of my life, spent as a member of the Joel Barlow High School community. I feel the yellow number two pencil fitting between my fingers as I complete my nightly assignments, and my hands flying over the keyboard as I type papers for my journalism class. Sitting around the campfire, watching game films, eating at team spaghetti dinners, and the ritual of watching Monday Night Football games on television are all as memorable as the time I spent on the playing field with my teammates. 

I can distinctly remember the audience's hands being put together in applause as I was elected team captain for the upcoming football season. When I reflect upon these times I can never recapture, I become overwhelmed with emotion knowing that those days will slowly come to a close. 

As we mature we very routinely give up the games of our childhood to pursue the opportunities of the adult world. Although I probably will not play football in college, the drive, willingness, and perseverance embedded in my brain will never disappear. I will redirect these qualities to my studies, to acquiring school spirit, and eventually to committing myself to my family and professional life. As the hands of time march on, and the scars and cuts fade to a distant memory, I will be ready for the ensuing pilgrimage to understanding the mysteries of myself, to developing the transformation and understanding of my experienced hands. 

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Vivian, Sweet Vivian

Vivian and I first met in the front lot of Continental Motors in the spring of 1978.  I loved her immediately.  True, she had some miles on her - 67,000 - but they gave her an attractive maturity that appealed to me at twenty-two.  She was like an older woman who could guide me down the unfamiliar roadways.  Viv wasn't beautiful in the classic sense; she didn't have the sexiness of Porsche or the vavavoom of a TransAm, but her boxy Volvo hips, her no-nonsense ride, her tall, soft felt seats were beautiful to me.  She had a Swedish flag over her left rear bumper, but otherwise her body - a pastel green - was unmarked. 

I brought her home and washed her, waxed and vacuumed her, carefully cleaned her windows.  Small imperfections appeared on closer examination - a small scratch on the hood, a paler green to her left rear fender, a pen-sized hole in her passenger seat - but they were the scars and freckles that made Vivian unique.  Driving around  town I was unable to resist a regal wave from her throne-like seat.  I brought Vivian to parties and to work.  Vivian and I drove friends to Boston and Vermont and at night I tucked her into my driveway  Over the years Viv became less like a new lover and more like a comfortable old friend, but I never took her for granted. 

I always made sure Vivian had the highest octane and fresh, clean oil.  I replaced Viv’s filters, brakes and belts, rotated and replaced her tires, put in new brake lights and lenses, changed the alternator, belts and batteries.  The mechanism for rolling up her left rear window was broken by an autistic kid I worked with in 1981;  I could force it closed but it never opened again.  At 120,000 miles I rebuilt Vivian’s engine and we rolled on and on together.   We vacationed on the Cape and Jersey shore and went to shows in the city.  When Viv’s odometer stopped working in 1984 at 167,000 miles, I decided not to fix it.  Why should I?  Vivian didn't need to be reminded that she was getting old. 

When Viv’s radio died, I put in a cassette that was better.  When her drivers seat began to sag, I tried to switch it with the passenger seat, but they were different sizes.  When Viv’s oil began to leak again I tried not to notice.   Vivian’s muffler was the last thing I replaced. 

By 1986, Vision's coat had faded to a yellowish green, her shocks were squeaking and her tires were bald.  She left rainbows of oil where ever she sat and trailed a flatulent gray smoke like shed  lost control of her bowels.  Fewer and fewer of our friends would ride with her.  Even I had to admit that Vivian had become an eyesore. 

That fall I took Vivian on a trip up the Hudson River to a writers’ conference.  We both knew it was a farewell tour.  Vivian struggled up every hill without complaint and steered carefully around the curvy, country roads as we admired the colors of the changing trees.  At the conference, I wrote poems to her.   At dinner, I told Vivian stories to the other writers and teachers.  At night I lead the group in singing Vivian songs.  (Okay, there was no Vivian songfest, but there should have been.)  On Sunday, we limped home and pulled into the driveway with a final exhausted gasp. 

On a gray, overcast Monday, I brought Vivian to the LaJoie Salvage Yard along the Norwalk River.  Halfway between a nursing home and a center for organ donation, it was the best place I could find.  I tucked Vivian into a corner with a view of the river, patted her worn and tattered green felt seats, rolled up her windows and locked her doors.  I paused for a minute with a hand on her roof before backing away and saying goodbye. 

Over the next few weeks, I probably drove by LaJoie Salvage a dozen times, but I never went in.  I gradually realized that I didn't want to find Vivian in pieces, or worse, find her gone.  If I didn't go back I was free to imagine her enjoying the late afternoon sun by the river.  Or in Volvo heaven; Lord knows she deserved it.  Or, my favorite, imagine Vivian in every old Volvo I drove by.  Those 240’s were built to last;  thousands were still on the road.  When I saw an old 240 at a stop light or on a highway, I could imagine a piece of Vivian inside:  a fender, a water pump, maybe that new muffler I put in.  A little piece of Vivian could still be driving some family off to vacation or taking some teenager safely to work.  I love to think Vivian’s still out there on the road she loved so much. 

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Baldness Prep

I never really paid attention to houses until I started looking for one myself.  And then that's all I saw, all the different styles, configurations, yard sizes, locations.  After I bought the house and scouted new paint colors, I shifted from seeing the whole house, to seeing the parts: the garage doors and storm windows, and the fences and shrubbery that surround it.  Then I moved on to interiors, taking a little longer when visiting a neighbor's bathroom to check out the tub placement, the type of medicine cabinet and the wall paper.  A whole world of research always lay before me to prepare me for my next purchase.  And it was usually a world I had never noticed before. 

Lately I'm noticing bald heads.  A recent recession in my hairline has drawn my attention from my father's full head of hair and toward my maternal uncle's shiny crown.  I'm not there yet, but I find myself studying the range of responses to hair loss that I never paid much attention to before ranging from the famous comb-over to the return to prominence of the shaved head.  And I'm listening more closely to all the ads for hair weaves or implants or shampoos that will clean and revitalize your scalp.  When I get there I need to be prepared. 

I've always had curly even wiry hair that old women envied, saying, “What a waste.  A girl would love those curls.”  But those old women didn't realize how independent curls could be.  They didn't know about the bed head and how I had to put brush through it when it was still wet from the morning shower and hope it dried in some not too ridiculous shape.  Any brushing while dry would cause such severe frizzing that an encounter in the street with these same ladies would lead them to make the sign of the cross and backpedal quickly.  In one sense I'm prepared for hair that does what it wants, I just didn't realize that one of its options was leaving. 

I'm not optimistic enough or gullible enough to rely on the shampoos.  I also have doubts about the weaves and implants but maybe I haven't become desperate enough.  So far I just have a mildly retreating hairline, so Rogaine won't help.  So for now I'm exploring the range from a shiny-domed Michael Jordan to a carefully-coifed Zero Mostel.  I'm afraid I don't have the head shape for a complete shave.  Few white guys do.  And as much as I love denial, I know that the comb-over looks great for a few minutes each morning and then, like all great heights, has the greatest downside.  The hair-averaging strategies of growing a beard or a ponytail are out because my beard has gone too gray and I still remember the ponytail I had in high school and all the care it required.  So Im left somewhere in the middle with the Andre Agassi close-crop. 

I don't have to act yet.  Deep down I'm still hoping for a great innovation: a DNA shot or hair growing goo.  Or maybe the sudden popularity of the Friar Tuck look.  I'm just doing the research, hoping I'll have the clear-eyed judgment to know when it's time and have the courage to follow through.  It seems like a big deal now, but I'm sure once it's done, I will have moved on to shopping hearing aids and wheel chairs.  I try to take comfort in knowing I still will have something to look forward to. 

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Granny's Yellow Plastic Radio

My grandmother had a yellow plastic radio in her kitchen, with a bright red dial.  In that optimistic 50's style, it said the future would be wonderful.  Almost aerodynamic with rounded corners and plastic vents over the speaker, the radio looked like it could be launched into space. 

The dial was always tuned to the all news station.  I thought it must be pretty boring to be an adult, having to listen to the news all the time. 

Granny would stand in the kitchen washing pots and pans or boiling chicken.  She always wore a large print dress and her long, dark hair in a bun.  On top, her hair was white in a wide swath down the middle, from a stroke she had before I knew her.  The only other reminder of her illness was her stiff, slow walk.  She would support herself on the counter or walk slowly and carefully across the room, balancing precariously on her numb feet, as if on stilts. 

The radio would broadcast the news and the weather, the news and the weather, the news and the weather - fast paced and loud, in sharp contrast to her slow, measured steps. 

Through the window over the sink, the back yard dropped down to a field full of cows and a farm off in the distance.  Granny would never look up from scouring her pans.  The announcer told of the Russians' latest evil or some terrible plane crash.  Occasionally, he was interrupted by fast paced emergency music, grabbing our attention for the latest story, just in. 

After Granny moved in with us, I remember seeing that radio in our basement covered with dust in the corner, with the other things we saved from the house after Grandpa died.  Too useful to throw out, we were unable to find a place for it. 

Years later, when Granny lay in a nursing home waiting to die, unreceptive to the world, I searched for that radio.  I thought it might make a connection to her world, to our shared world, to me.  But the basement corner was empty, thrown out in some mad rush of spring cleaning. 

Instead, I sat next to her and described it.  Turning the radio dial in my mind, I wondered what news it would be broadcasting now.  But her eyes gave no hint of recognition, no flicker of remembrance.  She stared off into space. 

I tried to fill that space with a yellow plastic radio on a shiny formica counter.  Over a sink full of pots and pans, a window looked out over a field of cows and in the distance a big red barn and an old white farm house. 

I tried to paint a picture of a little boy sitting on a spotless linoleum floor watching his grandmother pull her sud-covered hand out of the hot water.  The radio spoke of Kennedy and Khrushchev, of John Glenn and Sputnik, of Mickey Mantle and fallout shelters.  I didn't look at Granny for confirmation, purposely avoiding her expressionless face, lest the picture crumble and fall. 

By her slow measured breathing, I knew she'd fallen asleep.  In the silence, I gazed one last time out the window at the green fields and the black and white dairy cows.  Sitting down by the bed, I gently squeezed Granny's hand and said goodbye.  I reached over her sleeping form, quietly turned off the radio and tiptoed out the door. 

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