A powerful wave drags an elderly man out to sea. I stop playing in the sand. I race to the water, swim out, and grab his arm. Battling the tide, we finally make it back to shore. As a nine- year-old, I save a life.
The grateful man offers me a dinner, but I politely refuse. The radiant feeling flourishing in my chest is enough of a reward. This moment, while visiting Mom's side of the family in Barbados, lives as one the most significant experiences of my life--until I step into a small, dusty classroom in Beijing.
As a sophomore, I spend a week teaching English at the Dandelion School. Entering the classroom, I face thirty beaming smiles. They stand in my honor. When I ask them to sit down, they look puzzled.
I expected dedicated students, and witnessing their hunger to learn was powerful. I asked them to name animals who shared the same first letter as their own. They sped through a five-minute exercise in a mere minute. I engaged them with my childhood animal fables. They were infatuated, taking notes and asking questions throughout my lessons. To these children, knowledge they did not possess, no matter how simple, was well worth acquiring.
Tai Feng, a Dandelion student, invited me home on the last day of class. It was a twenty-minute walk and the closer we came to his impoverished rural community, I noticed something--he knew his neighbors, from the kids playing soccer to the elders in conversation. As I sat with his family in his living room, I recognized that his community was a big part of his drive for a promising future.
This experience triggered thoughts of my detachment from my own community. Ever since I was a little boy, I felt estranged from my Harlem neighborhood. Rather than playing basketball in the warm summer sun, I preferred to read a book in the cool atmosphere of my room. This alienation only grew stronger as my few neighborhood friends attended local schools; I trekked to the Upper East Side to a school where I made very close friends.
Like the Dandelion students, I possess a hunger to learn. Yet in doing so, my estrangement from my community has grown. My commute home differs so much from Tai's. After a bus ride, I pass strangers--groups of kids walking home or going to eat. Their faces are unfamiliar.
Experiencing Dandelion inspired me to volunteer at StreetSquash, a Harlem program that exposes youth to squash and academic enrichment. I volunteered as a math and English tutor. At StreetSquash, the drive to learn resembled what I saw at Dandelion. This desire was reinforced when Brandon, a gifted writer who struggled with his honors math homework, broke down crying after struggling on a problem for thirty minutes. His tears reflected his drive to master the material.
As I got to know Brandon and the other students, I saw that they came from different parts of Harlem and were also detached from their communities. Unlike Tai, their academic pursuits dictated that they become strangers to many of their neighbors. Like me, they were foreigners to public playgrounds. Unlike me, some became strangers to their classmates while resisting peer pressure in neighborhood schools.
How do I improve my community if detachment is a byproduct of pursuing my dreams? As a small but important step to answering that question, I'm getting to know my students at StreetSquash, developing connections that are stronger than my ties to the man whose life I saved at age nine. Even his name eludes me. If I passed him on a road in Barbados, I may not even recognize him. Maybe I should have said yes to his offer to pay for dinner. Maybe I would have acquired a lesson as powerful as what I learned during the walk home with Tai.
Roland Brewster, a graduate of the Dalton School, is a freshman at Yale.