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My First Day of School (in America)

The following (true) story of my first day of school in America inspired my college application essay.

Today was my first day of school in the United States, and boy did things start off strangely.

The first sign of trouble was the clothes my mother told me to wear (I was in the 5th grade, for the record): instead of the usual ironed dress shirt and khaki pants, I saw a colorful ensemble that I would have normally worn to a family party or Sunday mass. It might have been a yellow polo shirt and blue jeans.

The next inauspicious sign was my lunch. I was accustomed to either bringing fully loaded meals to school, complete with steak and rice, or purchasing hot plates that consisted of, you guessed it, steak and rice.

Instead, mom pointed to a wrinkled paper bag on the kitchen counter. I opened it for immediate inspection and saw a sandwich wrapped in clear plastic, a juice box and an apple.

In my country, a sandwich was considered a snack and never meant to substitute for a real meal.

"Mom, what's this?" I asked incredulously.

"That's your lunch," she muttered back, slightly annoyed as she finished preparing breakfast. "That's how they eat in America".

I remember thinking at that exact moment, "Boy, Americans don't eat very well".

Leaving for school was also a massive change as I and my sister were used to being picked up by a private school bus. Instead, my mom piled us into her Camry and drove my sister and me to our separate schools (she is 3 years older than I am). As if to solidify the idea that we were no longer in Kansas, my mother swabbed a dollop of petroleum jelly on my lips, claiming "the cold weather" would "dry them out".

We lived in Southern California.

I arrived at the elementary school relatively unscathed and I watched my mother's car speed off to head to my sister's school. It was a daily ritual for us to be late or to be running late.

There I stood in my fresh, colorful clothes, my backpack hanging off my shoulders with my right hand gripping the crinkly paper bag. In my previous life I rolled a briefcase to school and felt like a lawyer. Today, I felt like a fifth grader.

I snapped out of my self-assessment when I realized I was missing one important thing:

I had no idea where to go and I had no idea who my teacher was.

I don't actually know the reason I didn't know these things. Perhaps somebody knew but forgot to tell me. Perhaps there was no protocol for such things. But the fact remained that I stood there, facing the school's gates and literally did not know what to do next.

Now I've always been self-reliant so I put my mind to use. My strategy was to walk into the school's inner circle of rooms and simply start opening them, looking for an adult. That plan failed quickly when every room I tried was locked.

Was there no school today? Was it even a weekday? How would I contact my mother when cell phones would not be invented for the masses for another 10 years?

I revised my plan and walked around the campus until I heard faint children's voices.

I took a right turn into a gated opening and that's when I came upon the most glorious and strange sight:

Hundreds of children were running around what I would later learn is called "the blacktop". There were boys and girls co-mingling; a strange sight for someone who attended an all-boys school for the last 6 years.

The kids were playing various sports that I knew of: basketball, soccer and tag.

But there were other games being played, games I'd never seen before: pink balls bounced off massive walls, children hopping around white squares painted on the asphalt, and the worst game of all--a yellow ball chained to a metal pole in the ground. I would play that game once, get hit in the face with the ball and swore off that activity forever.

In the midst of this chaos, a loud horn blared across the scene and everyone ran with a purpose. It was at this moment that I noticed the painted numbers on the asphalt and it became clear that everyone had an assigned number to stand on.

Except me.

I still held my panic in check and walked down the rows of students until I saw groups that looked like my age. There stood a bearded man with thick rimmed glasses and I asked if he knew which class I was enrolled in. His name was Mr. Servetter.

Mr. Servetter looked at his chart and promptly said "You're here with me!" and pointed to my number: 27.

He then led us into our classroom and my bewilderment at all things American continued. This was the most colorful classroom I had ever seen, complete with cartoon posters, bright walls and even a series of neon cards pasted in the back. I would learn of this "Flip A Card" system that Mr. Servetter used for 5th grade discipline (Note: Mr. Servetter, for the record, you only asked me to flip one card that entire year after catching me playing spaceship with my pen cap).

Mr. Servetter stated "Look for your name tag on the desks and sit down when you find it."

Everyone followed suit but somehow, I failed to find my own. Eventually, everyone else was seated and I was left aimlessly walking the room, the unlucky leftover in a game of musical chairs.

"You can't find your name tag?" Mr. Servetter asked me kindly.

"No," I softly muttered.

It was at that moment that the prettiest girl in class, Yassarette, raised her hand and exclaimed, "It's right here!" pointing to the piece of cardboard in front of her.

Not only did I swear that I passed by that exact desk, but now I also had to sit in front of someone I could barely make eye contact with. The all-boys Catholic school in southeast Asia had not prepared me for this life moment.

"Idiot, idiot, idiot" were the only words running through my mind like runaway ticker tape. I HAD to vindicate myself. There were no second impressions.

I impatiently waited for my chance while Mr. Servetter launched into the lesson for the day. At some point, he asked the class a question, perhaps seeking the capital of California (forgive me Mr. Servetter, as I do not remember the actual question).

My hand rushed to the sky, clearly the first. Mr. Servetter hesitatingly asked me, the unknown in his busy morning, "Allan, do YOU know the capital of California?"

I shot up from my desk, stood proudly and puffed my chest. "Yes sir. The capital of California is Sacramento."

The entire classroom broke into massive fits of laughter and my world crumbled around me. I felt the blood rush to my face, my ears, and my vision blurred slightly.

"You don't have to stand up when you speak to me Allan," Mr. Servetter apologetically informed me.


Just two months ago, I had a classmate who decided to answer a question without leaving the comfort of his seat. I think they're still peeling him off the classroom walls.

And so the rest of the day went. The fanfare didn't stop as I stumbled more often than not. I was berated for eating on the blacktop (apparently a cardinal sin), marveled at pineapple chunks served in Styrofoam cups, and struggled to find new friends. It was tougher because everyone had attended this school for the last 4 years so their cliques had already been formed.

But as I adjusted to my new life, I racked up some victories too.

I excelled in the schoolwork as our assignments were "elementary" to me. At my previous school I was already looking through microscopes and labeling cell parts; my new school had me practicing handwriting. I landed a VERY prestigious role as the mad scientist handling a circular saw in the school's Halloween Haunted House (I'm convinced schools wouldn't be allowed to do now what we did then). I represented our class in the school wide spelling bee (I lost due to a homonym: shear vs. sheer). I even joined the student newspaper and earned the Principal's Award that year.

And most importantly, I thrived after I thought I was only meant to survive.

I still remember many of the ups and downs from that fateful day.

And yes, I still walk the other way when I see that yellow ball and metal pole.

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