The Habits of an Ambassador

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By Grant Dennis

My head hurts. The pain erupts with a foreign feeling, an inability to comprehend the conversation of two men next to me on the crosstown bus. I strain to understand them. I think they are speaking Chinese. It is the worst feeling for a sixth grader like me; After all, I am the family interpreter when visiting the Dominican Republic. Even when ordering food in New York, I often hear my mother's scream:
"Grant!"
This time, I am seven when I jump up from my bed and race to the front door, finding Mom and a strange man whose face wears a small grin. Mom explains the usual; her Spanish and his English are not good enough. I begin translating my mother's words into Spanish. He listens and gives me a response, which I deliver to Mom. The order is correct.
Araceli, my Dominican babysitter for seven years from the day I was born, was the greatest gift ever. By communicating in her language everyday, Spanish actually became my first language, and I am not even Hispanic. Languages became my passion. Today If two men spoke Chinese near me, I would understand them.
In that sixth grade moment, I decided that I would take Mandarin at the first opportunity, which came in my freshman year. Mandarin is now my favorite subject.
My engagement of languages highlights two of my strongest qualities--my willingness to embrace challenges and my automatic inclination to help others. As the Spanish interpreter, I acquired the habit and feeling of joy when helping people, which grew beyond the language. In 2nd grade, I was that kid who convinced friends to stop fighting and start playing together in a matter of minutes, which helped my teacher. On the last day of school, Ms Roth assigned future jobs to everyone based on behavior that year. "Grant, you are going to be an Ambassador."
For me, Mandarin mirrors challenges like basketball. No matter how much I love the language and how hard I study, there are still moments of defeat and frustration. No matter how much I practice my jumper shot, I can not escape times like March 3rd, 2015, 6:37pm. I stare at the benches of both teams and see a contrast that triggers my sadness. My teammates are exhausted and sweating with tears pouring out of their eyes. I turn to the other bench and see huge smiles. Finally I stare at the scoreboard, showing that my team is down 10 with 30 seconds left. This is an upset. My team enters the game with the perception of being the better team. However losing, like winning, is as much a part of life as not comprehending the men on the bus or having difficulty absorbing the Chinese characters on a test. For me, learning Mandarin does not come with the ease of Spanish, which draws me to keep practicing with the level of energy I bring to basketball.
I experienced the roles of both Mandarin and Spanish in my life for the past three summers by teaching math, English and writing at the St. Aloysius program for students with learning difficulties. I faced challenges of students like Fred, a seven year old who could not grasp addition and subtraction. The teacher assigned me to him and I encountered his drooping expression at the start of our hour long individual sessions before play time. I struggled as we worked together to discover why he could not grasp the concepts. The feeling was similar to some of my moments of struggles in Mandarin. When I discovered a pattern in his difficulty in carrying over the numbers in double-digit addition, I felt like the interpreter again. I created simple exercises for him to understand the concept of what he is doing. I helped Fred similar to the way I helped Mom with that food order when I was Fred's age.

Grant Dennis, a graduate of Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, is a freshman at Lafayette College.