#Enough!

At 6:54 this morning, I walked into my school. Around 10:00, I (along with thousands of other students across the country) I walked out of the building for the National School Walkout, returning a few minutes before 11:00. I left school at 2:26 and returned home roughly thirty minutes later.

On February 14, 2018, a gunman killed three administrators and fourteen students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people who walked into their school in the morning, expecting to have a normal day, but didn’t walk out at the end of the day. Instead, they were killed in a senseless act of violence, one that unfortunately is not a rare occurrence in this country. I was lucky enough to go to school this morning, have a (relatively) normal day, and go home at the end of the day.

That won’t be the reality for all students in the United States. It hasn’t been the reality for all students in the United States. It wasn’t the reality for the students and teachers at Sandy Hook, at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at West Nickel Mines, at Frontier Middle School, at Marshall County High School, and so many other schools in the United States.

The reality that we live in is one that no student should ever have to face. The only thing a student should actually be afraid of at school is whether or not they did their homework or studied for a test. They shouldn’t be afraid for their safety and the safety of those around them.

But that is our reality. It will continue to be our reality unless we do something about it. 

That is why I walked out today. That is why I’m currently decked out in as much orange as I could find. That’s why I plan on marching on March 24th and walking out again on April 20th.

After school shootings, there’s a lot of talk and debate about gun control. Everyone offers their opinions, and they offer thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.

But talking, debating, thinking, and praying haven’t worked for us so far. Talking and debating about gun control won’t take guns out of the hands of people who don’t need to have them. Thinking about the victims and praying for them won’t bring them back.

Most students who are affected by school shootings and fighting for gun control aren’t old enough to vote. We’re children in a legal and emotional sense. While we may be children, we are not helpless. And we will not be silenced. We will continue to fight until our voices are heard and changes are made.

Enough is enough.

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WWW (Well-Written Women)

Every year, we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. The theme for this year is Press for Progress, and there’s a lot of room for progress when it comes to women everywhere. If I named every single way that we could have progress for women, we’d be here all day, so I’ll just focus on one: representation in the media, specifically for women of color and LGBTQ+ women.

In recent years, there’s been more diversity in television and movies, but with that said, we could still do a lot better. The success of movies like Get Out and Black Panther should be viewed as signs that we want to view media that actually reflects what the world looks like.

With that said, I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite “strong female leads“, so to speak.

  1. Jane Villanueva (portrayed by Gina Rodriguez), the protagonist of Jane the Virgin. Jane has been through so much in the few years that the show has been on the air, starting with being accidentally artificially inseminated. She has dreams of becoming a writer, but she never let anything that life threw at her get in the way of that dream. Not only is Jane positive and intelligent, she is like the human embodiment of the quote, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
  2. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), Disney’s first African American princess and main character of The Princess and the Frog. Tiana is intelligent and hard-working. She dreams of opening her own restaurant, but she doesn’t just sit around singing about it. Yes, Tiana does sing about her dreams, but that’s accompanied by her working hard to achieve those dreams. I think one of the most unique things about her is that she didn’t need Naveen, her prince, to reach her goals. She doesn’t need a savior, and that’s something that needs to be replicated in more Disney princesses
  3. Stella Yamada (portrayed by Hayley Kiyoko), one of the main characters of Lemonade Mouth. In a lot of ways, Stella is the driving force behind Lemonade Mouth. She’s the one who brings the band back together whenever they fight, and she’s the one who convinced them to go ahead with starting the band in the first place. She is extremely outspoken about what she believes in (and she’s even more so in the book), and does not hesitate to stand up for herself or for her friends. She’s determined to the point of being stubborn, but even so, Stella is strong.
  4. Starr Carter (to be portrayed by Amandla Stenberg), the main character of The Hate U Give. Technically, this movie hasn’t been released, but I’ve read the book several times, and there was no way I couldn’t include her. Starr sees her best friend, Khalil Harris, get shot by police during her junior year of high school. She struggles with how to use her voice in the beginning, but by the end of the novel, she finds out how to speak up for Khalil–and for herself.
  5. Adena El-Amin (portrayed by Nikohl Boosheri), a recurring character on The Bold Type. Adena is unlike any character I’ve seen on TV before. An openly lesbian, Muslim photographer, she is poised, assertive, and skilled at what she does.  She first stood out to me when she explained to one of the protagonists why she chooses to wear a hijab: Adena explained that she feels that wearing the hijab frees her from the Western expectations of what women should look like. Adena was only a recurring character in season one of The Bold Type, and I can’t wait to see what she does in the upcoming season.

There’s so many more amazing female fictional characters out there, including Callie Torres, April Kepner, Emily Fields, Olivia Benson, Isabelle Lightwood. Honestly, we’d be here all day if I went through and named all of them. And for every great fictional character, there’s a great actor behind them: of the actors on this list, Gina Rodriguez and Amandla Stenberg are two of my personal favorites.

Who are your favorite female fictional characters? Let me know in the comments!

Black Lives Matter

Before we get to into this, I would just like to clarify one thing that seems to confuse some of my classmates. The Black Lives Matter movement does not mean to say that black lives are the only lives that matter. It is not saying that your life doesn’t matter. In fact, on their website, this is how they describe the movement: “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” See, guys? Nothing in there about hating white people or police officers. (In fact, if you’ll click right here, you’ll find nine other debunked myths about Black Lives Matter). I know that it might be shocking to comprehend, but the majority of the human race can tell the difference between one bad apple and every other fruit that grows from the tree.

And frankly, saying “Well, all lives matter, not just black lives” in response to Black Lives Matter isn’t a valid argument. Black Lives Matter isn’t saying that black lives are the only lives that matter. All lives do matter, but not all lives are being threatened at the same rate. Black people are more likely to be victims of police brutality than white people. That’s just a fact. Saying Black Lives Matter is just a way to bring awareness to that fact, not to disregard the lives of poeple who aren’t black.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

On August 18, 1977, anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko was arrested and taken into police custody. The officers interrogated him for almost 24 hours, and they tortured and beat him over that period. Their attacks sent him into a coma. His injuries included a major head injury. On September 11, police loaded a naked and chained Biko into a Range Rover and took him to Pretoria, because there was a prison there where he could receive treatment. He succumbed to his injuries on September 12, shortly after arriving. Police said that he died as a result of a hunger strike, but his autopsy said that he’d died due to a brain hemorrhage (which was the result of his beatings).

On March 3, 1991, taxi driver Rodney King was beaten by officers of the L.A.P.D. after a high speed chase. Once the chase came to an end, King had been ordered to get out of the car. He initially refused but then complied. He resisted arrest and got physical with one of the officers, and they tased him. After that, King was beaten with a baton and kicked repeatedly. He survived this attack, but he fractured a bone in his face, broke his ankle, and suffered plenty of other bruises and lacerations. Four officers involved were tried. Three of them were acquitted by a grand jury and the jury didn’t reach a decision on the fourth. The officer’s acquittals led to a lot of protests in the LA area.

Those two examples were a long time ago. Things have gotten better, right?

No. Not even close! Come on. We have Donald Trump as our president (although that’s a rant for another time). Things have not gotten better! If anything, things have gotten worse.

On January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant was shot by a BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle. Grant died the morning after the shooting. His death later became the basis of the movie Fruitvale Station, which chronicles his actions on the day that he died (and includes actual footage of the event). Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but was released early.

Six years ago today, on February 26, 2012, seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by former neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman (who was later acquitted). Martin was walking in his dad’s neighborhood when Zimmerman spotted him and decided Martin looked suspicious. He called 911 to report this, and the dispatcher told him not to get out of his car or to approach Martin. Zimmerman ignored this, and the next thing anyone knew, the neighbors were reporting gunshots. Zimmerman had shot Martin.

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was killed after officer Daniel Pantaleo used a prohibited chokehold to restrain Garner. Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” Although he’d been tackled and restrained by several other officers, Pantaleo was the only officer charged. Pantaleo was investigated by a grand jury but he was not charged.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was unarmed, and according to some people, he had his hands up in surrender. His death led to a series of violence and protests in Ferguson. Some time after the shooting, my family and I went to Missouri to visit some other family members in St. Louis, which isn’t very far from Ferguson. A lot of the stores in Ferguson were still boarded up due to tall the protests.

On November 22, 2014, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by officers in the park as he was playing with a toy gun. A 911 caller had reported that someone was waving a gun around in the park, however, the caller also noted that the person waving the gun was most likely a juvenile and the gun was most likely fake. The officers that were involved claimed that he had reached into his waistband for the gun when the officers asked him to put up his hands. After arriving on the scene, officer Timothy Loehmann fired twice at Rice, without asking Rice to drop his weapon. There were protests in Cleveland after Rice’s death, protests which were made worse on November 25, after the decision not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown a few months prior.

On April 19, 2015, Freddie Gray died after a week-long coma, the result of a spinal cord injury he’d recieved in police custody. On April 12, 2015, Gray was arrested for possesion of an illegal blade (which actually was legal under Maryland law) and placed in a police van. The van made several stops on the way to the police station. Paramedics treated him at the station for some time before taking him to the hospital, in a coma. He died a week later in the hospital. The detectives were acquitted.

These cases I picked because I remember them all quite vividly (aside from the first two, since, you know, I wasn’t actually alive for them), but there are so many more people of color who have lost their lives in similar ways. There’s Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Robert Davis, Frank Jude, Akai Gurley, Sean Bell, Timothy Thomas, Abner Louima, and so many more.

Why does this happen so often? The job of the police is to protect and serve. (Note: obviously not all police officers are bad people. A lot of them are great. But some don’t always make the best decisions, and it’s costing people their lives.)  How is using violence to combat violence–that, in some cases, hasn’t even happened yet–protecting anyone? How is using violence serving the citizens of America? By robbing innocent people–in some cases, adolescents–of their lives? By taking people’s loved ones away from them?

And what kind of message does it send to the families of the victims when their loved ones are killed and the perpetrator are not held responsible for their actions? What kind of message does it send when the blame is placed on the victim?

It’s 2018, you guys. America has become more and more progressive throughout the years, but this is still a huge problem for us (and while this is mainly focusing on BLM, I could easily rant for just as long about “the wall” or the lack of gun control in America or the travel ban or women’s rights or LGBT rights or the rights of sexual assault survivors or the fact that Trump signed a bill allowing states to defund Planned Parenthood). Black people shouldn’t be losing their lives at the hands of police at this rate. And when they do, those police officers need to be prosecuted, and they need to do time. They shouldn’t get off scot-free for taking a life and they should not be acquitted. That’s part of the problem.

Things need to change.

We need to change. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote (in Hamilton’s “My Shot”), “Will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?”

He was referring, of course, to the American Revolution and the fight for American freedom, but it’s still relevant today.

We don’t want an endless cycle of deaths. We don’t want an endless cycle of unnecessary acquittals. We want change.

What will it take for us to get that?

 

Policy and Change

Columbine. Las Vegas. Sandy Hook. Orlando. Virginia Tech. And now, Parkland.

In 2018 alone, there have been 18 school shootings. Since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, almost 500 people have died in school shootings.

How many more students and teachers will have to die before we start to do something about gun control? Are we desensitized to these tragedies already?

I hate to say it, but it feels like we are getting desensitized, which should not be the case. Gun violence has taken the lives of 1,876 Americans in 2018 alone. Every time an incident like this happens, two things happen: people offer their thoughts and prayers to the victims’ families and people debate gun control.

But thoughts and prayers will not bring the dead back. Thoughts and prayers will not turn back time, and prevent these tragedies from happening. Neither will debates about gun control.

We need to do something about gun control. Compared to other countries, United States has the highest rates of gun violence. Maybe if we spent more time keeping guns out of the hands of people who can’t be trusted with them instead of debating the merits of gun control, those numbers would be a lot lower.

That’s because gun control actually works. Say, did you hear about that mass shooting last year in Australia? No? That’s because they enacted gun control laws in 1996 following a tragic mass shooting, and they haven’t had once since. Other countries with strict gun control laws have seen similar results.

So why can’t we learn from them? Why do we continue to let our citizens die?

I don’t want to continue to see this happening. Mass shootings have been a part of my life for as long as I remember, something no child should ever have to say. I remember having to do lockdown drills more frequently after the Sandy Hook shooting, when I was in fourth grade. Shortly before the Parkland shooting (and just after the Kentucky shooting), my high school implemented a policy where teachers have to wear ID badges at all times and all classroom doors shall remain locked. On Friday afternoon, the dean of our school sent out an email saying that we’ll no longer have lockdown drills, because we’re now expected to run, hide, or fight the shooter.

I don’t want to live like this. School shootings shouldn’t be treated as if they’re just as likely as a fire. They shouldn’t be this likely to begin with. No one should have to live in fear that someone is going to kill them in one of the few places that they’re supposed to be safe. People should be able to enjoy going to clubs and festivals without having to fear for their lives.

Gun control is not a bad thing. Gun control isn’t going to ruin this country. Sitting back and letting our citizens die is going to ruin this country.

So call your representatives, tweet at Congress, tweet at the president, do whatever it is you need to do to bring awareness to this. Just don’t sit back and do nothing.

That hasn’t worked too well for us yet.

Spirit Week and Homecoming

My school celebrated Spirit Week from October 2 to October 5 of this year. I’d gotten the chance to dress up for Spirit Week at my previous school, but let me tell you something: Spirit Week at an arts school is truly amazing to witness. The students either go all out, or they do the bare minimum. (Most kids go all out.)

Monday was Maui Monday, and most of the students dressed in leis, flower crowns, and grass skirts. Each grade was judged on participation. On Monday, our class actually beat the sophomores! We got third place, which was a complete shock: we all thought we were going to be in last place. Tuesday was Twin Tuesday, and I twinned with one of my new friends: we wore black leggings, black tops, bright green tutus, and pink and white flower crowns. On Tuesday, the sophomores beat us.

Wednesday was Walt Disney Wednesday, and I dressed as Mary Poppins. My friends dressed as Belle, Elsa, Esmeralda, Lumiére (one of my favorite Disney characters!), Bill Cypher, and more. All the costumes were really creative, and they all ranged from Disney Channel costumes to Disney XD costumes to Marvel and Star Wars costumes. On Wednesday, we beat the sophomores again!

Wednesday was also the day of hallway decorating. Our class had chosen a red carpet theme, the sophomores had chosen a Broadway theme, the juniors had chosen a Wizard of Oz theme, and the seniors had chosen a Star Wars theme. As part of the decorating, we rolled out the red carpet, painted and labeled the stars for the celebrities, made the velvet ropes, and covered up the bulletin boards in the hallway with black paper.

Thursday was Color Wars Thursday, and also the day day of hallway judging, the pep rally, and the homecoming dance. Hallway judging was first thing in the morning, and before the judging occured, we put the final touches on our hallway. Since we’d selected a red carpet theme, fifteen of my classmates dressed up as celebrities from both the past and the present, ranging from Audrey Hepburn to Kodak Black. I signed up to be a paparazzo, and I interviewed both the celebrities and passing students and teachers. Our hallway turned out much better than I anticpated. We had the shortest length of hallway space (since we’re freshman) but we made the most of it. On the right side of the hallway, the celebrites were lined up, and on the right side, the paparazzi were lined up. Some of our other classmates stood on the paparazzi side, too, and acted as cheering fans. It was so much fun to do (even though it got really hot, sweaty, and loud) and it felt like it was over too soon, and I had to go to class. The officers were the only students allowed to stay and clean up.

However, when I got to Digital Media, my teacher announced that we wouldn’t start class until eight o’clock (it was seven forty at the time) so I took the opportunity to head to the bathroom and change into my class shirt for Color Wars. I was really excited for the pep rally, so it was kind of hard to sit still through Digital Media and math (my fifth period/second class that day). Luckily, due to the pep rally, we ate middle school lunch at 10:30 and our seventh period classes were cut down to forty-five minutes. I have English for seventh period, and since we’re reading Romeo and Juliet, we just continued to watch the movie, since we started that last week. Since our English teacher is also our class advisor, we briefly went over the plans for the rest of the pep rally.

We left straight from English to go to the pep rally, and I sat with my friends from class. We were all separated by class in the bleachers, and it was really cool to see all of the blocks of color. Our class color is blue, the sophomore color is green, the junior color is pink, and the senior color is orange. Almost everyone was wearing multiple accessories of their class color, and there was also a lot of face paint. I sported a dark blue “2021” across my face.

The pep rally was so much fun, but by the end of it, I thought I’d go hoarse. The first activity was Hungry Hippos, and unfortunately, our team was eliminated after the first round. But we’re not poor sports (unlike the sophomores, who were kind of obnoxious after our wins on Monday and Wednesday) so we started cheering for the juniors! (This continued for the rest of the pep rally) They cheered back in the end, and it was so cool to be a part of that. We also did Family Feud, dodgeball, an eating contest, a mini-scavenger hunt (a randomly selected student had to seek out and select students from their class without talking), and a Glee competiton. The school’s dance company performed at the very end, but they got cut off with two minutes left of their performance because we were almost out of time and they still needed to announe the results of the various competitions.

As it turned out, we tied with the sophomores for third place for hallways, which was really cool. Our red carpet (which wasn’t a literal red carpet) was totally shredded by the end of the judging, but I still thought everything looked really good. The juniors came in first place, and I totally agreed. Their hallway was really well-crafted, and they even had a dog to play Toto!

As for Glee, we came in fourth place (the sophomores beat us), but most of us thought that decision was unfair. The sophomores were really good, but their songs didn’t tie into their theme at all, and literally everyone else’s did. There are so many great Broadway songs they could’ve chosen, and they mainly just did pop songs. Our songs included “Billionaire”, “Imma Be”, “Applause”, “Papparazzi”, and “Hall of Fame”, the juniors included “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in their performance (and most of their songs had a recurring theme of going home), and the seniors kicked off their performace with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The seniors won overall, and I definitely agree. Their performance was great.

After the pep rally, I went back to my English classroom to get my things, told my friends goodbye, and went home to get ready for the homecoming dance. When I got to the dance, a few of my friends were waiting for me already. We waited a few minutes for two of our other friends to arrive, but the line started to get long and we decided to go inside. Eventually everyone else showed up, and we all went inside together. Everyone looked really great, and it was so fun getting to hang out with everyone. Time really flew by, too: before I knew it, it was almost eight o’clock.

Around nine-thirty, the dance started winding down, and two of my friends left. About fifteen minutes later, a friend announced that her mom was on the way, and I went outside to wait with her, and I left a few minutes later. It was the first time I hadn’t stayed at a dance until the very end, but it felt right. The night was amazing, but all good things must come to an end. All in all, I’d say that my first homecoming and Spirit Week was a success.

 

1st Day of High School!

Today, I started ninth grade at our local performing arts school. I was more than a bit nervous, seeing as I don’t know anyone and I figured I’d have a hard time getting to know people because the school starts in sixth grade, and so most people already know each other. But that turned out not to be an issue, as a third of this year’s freshman class is brand new to the building.

I woke up bright and early to catch the bus, but it didn’t come. Three buses passed by me: one was for another local high school, one was for a local middle school, and another was for my old school (the IB school). One of my friends was actually on that bus, and she waved at me.

My mom ended up driving me to school, and when I walked into the school, something occurred to me: I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go for homeroom.

I asked our dean for instructions, and luckily, it wasn’t that far from the school’s entrance. I was the last person to arrive at our homeroom, and I made friends with the girls sitting in the row with me.

During homeroom, our teacher went over our modified schedule for the day. First, we spent about half an hour in homeroom, then we got our pictures taken (one was just our regular school picture, but the other was taken in a cap and gown, which was so incredibly extra), then we went back to homerooom. (Most of the friends I made were in my homeroom since I spent the longest amount of time today with them.) After that, we went to each of our classes.

My first period is honors Civics/Econ, and my teacher for that period is really nice. I made a few new friends in that block: two were girls who were totally new to the school, like me, and a girl who’d attended for middle school (she actually ended up showing me to a few of my classes). I also found out that I’d gone to elementary school with one of my classmates, and she recognized me right away! (Not by name, of course, but she knew my face.) We didn’t do much in Civics, but we did go to our fire drill meeting spot, out on the football field, and our teacher observed that if a real fire drill had taken place, half of us would either be dead or severely burned.

My second period is physical science and my teacher for that period is quiet but focused. I recognized most of the faces in that class from sightings in the hallway or my previous classes. Once again, we didn’t really do a lot, we just went out to our fire drill spot and switched up our seats a bit.

My third period is art history, and I’m one of three people in the class who isn’t majoring in visual arts. See, I had originally planned on taking creative writing (since I’m a communication arts major on the creative writing pathway) but there wasn’t space in my schedule because I take French 2, which is only offered at one time during the day. I picked art history because I figured we wouldn’t have to draw as much, but since our teacher is the visual arts instructor, we will occasionally have to do some hands on and/or drawing related things. Still, I think I’ll live.

After that we had lunch, and the cafeteria took me by surprise. It’d been renovated over the summer, and it looks so cool! It’s really sleek and modern, and it’s amazing! There are even booths in the cafeteria, and some of the tables have charging stations. I sat with a few girls from my civics class, and lunch was pretty fun. It was a lot shorter than I expected, though.

After lunch, I had French, so (after getting turned around a bit) I headed up to my classroom. I was one of two brand new students, and there was about eight freshman. (The rest of our class is sophomores.) Our teacher was so cool, and I actually found out that she’d just met with both of my previous French teachers, and she told me that they actually gave her some ideas about games to use in class.

For my fifth period, I have algebra 1 (again), and our teacher is great. He immigrated from Nigeria when he was 27, and he’s really funny. We actually spent about fifteen minutes waiting to get into class because he teaches a middle school class before he teaches freshman. He primarily teaches sixth and seventh graders, and we’re his only freshman class. Interestingly enough, most of us have taken algebra in seventh or eighth grades (I took it last year, along with geometry) but hadn’t received credit for it.

My sixth period is health (PE in the second semester), and it’s a really small class: there’s only eleven of us, and one of those students is actually our aide (however, the aide is an upperclassman, and I have yet to meet them). Our teacher is really nice and laid-back, and he actually reminded me a bit of my previous gym teacher. He instantly knew that I was brand new to our school (he said I looked like a deer in headlights, which was less than reassuring) but he was nice about it. He said that I’d love the school, and he said that he believes it to be the best public school in the state.

After that, I have English, and our teacher is actually our freshman class advisor as well. She’s incredible, and she told us that the reason she asked to be our advisor is because she plans on retiring in 2021, and we’ll be the last class that she advises. We also briefly discussed our summer reading. We had to read two books from a list of five, and most people picked Everything, Everything and Night, which was a weird coincidence. I actually did read Everything, Everything, but my second book was Jane Austen’s Emma. 

My last period of the day is digital media and imaging one, which is the class I take for my major. There are only a few freshmen in the class (and we only had twenty-five minutes) so we just talked about what we did over the summer, and what we’ll do over the year. Then the day was over, and it was time to go home.

The day itself went by really quickly, and it was much better than I thought. The only thing that took a while to get used to was going back and forth from floor to floor: at my previous school, all of my classes were in two hallways, both on the same floor. Other than that, everything was great.

Fellow members of the Class of ’21, tell me about your first day of high school! Was it better than you expected? Worse? (I do hope it wasn’t terrible. If you didn’t enjoy your first day, hang in there: it’ll get better.)

 

¡Pura Vida!

Before I get started, I’d like to say that this is going to be one of the longest posts I’ve ever done, but bear with me (especially if you were on the trip: stay tuned for your shout-out at the end!).

From June 20 to June 28, 2017, I took an Education First tour with my school (along with a school group from California and a church group from Connecticut) to Costa Rica. The nine-day tour took us to three different places: San Jose (the capital city), the island of Palo Seco, and finally, Fortuna, a small town in the Arenal region.

The tour was nothing like I’d expected, and it was so surreal. Our tour guide, Andrés, packed so much into single days that there’d be days where we’d do things one morning, and by the end of the afternoon, it would feel as if it happened days ago. (Our Spanish teacher, Sra. Bryk had actually done the EF Costa Rica tour two years earlier, and she said we got so much more out of it than the other group.) Before I start talking about the trip, I’d like to say that this post is based on what I wrote down at the end of every night, and it’s as objective as possible. Still, memories are subjective, so if you were on that trip, and you remember something differently (or if you remember something I didn’t), let me know! That’s what the comment button is for.

The group from my school consisted of four ninth graders (Taylor C, Zeke, Abbie, and myself), three eighth graders, (Elizabeth, Mikala, and Kevin), two seventh graders (Trish and Marissa, who is one of my science teacher’s daughters), and one third grader (Autumn, our science teacher’s younger daughter). Also, just to be clear, I’ve arranged everyone by the grade they are going into, not the one they just came out of.

DepartingPhilly

Getting ready to leave the Philly airport! (Back Row: Sra. Bryk, Mr. Campion; Middle Row: Taylor C, Abbie, Dr. J, Elizabeth, me, Marissa, and Mikala; Bottom Row: Kevin, Zeke)

We were traveling with ten other kids: Caleigh, Evan, Nick, Leidi, and McKenzie (the Connecticut group) and Mattie, Zack, Cory, Sarah, and Stephanie (the California group). The adults traveling with us included Sra. Bryk, Dr. Johnson (two of our teachers), Mr. Campion, Mr. and Mrs. Maloney, Mr. Johnson (two parents from our school plus Dr. Johnson’s husband) Sam, Kim, (the chaperones from California), and Steve and Jess (the Connecticut chaperones).

Day One: June 20, 2017

Our day started bright and early: I got up at 4:20 so I would have enough time to get ready before we met at the airport at six. (I was the second-to-last person to arrive.)

Our first flight, from Philadelphia to Charlotte, was supposed to be on time, but it ended up being late leaving the runway, which made us worry that we’d miss our flight from Charlotte to San Jose (since that flight started boarding the moment we were due to step off the first plane).

Luckily, we didn’t miss our flight and we made it to San Jose! (Admittedly, we were very late, but we made it, okay?).

After going through customs at the San Jose airport, we met our tour guide, Andrés, and we got on a bus to our hotel.

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Our arrival in San Jose! Trish, Elizabeth, and I are the ones actually looking at the camera.

I was really nervous at first about meeting the other kids: we all were. Even though we were all sitting in the lobby together while we were waiting to get our room assignments, we weren’t really socializing with the kids from the other groups. To be fair, they didn’t socialize much with us either. I think it was a combination of nerves and fatigue since we all had to get up pretty early.

In the lobby on that first day, a few of us were talking about our ideal room assignments. (On EF Tours, there’s always three to four people per room.) I was hoping to be with Trish and Elizabeth. I was nervous that I’d have to end up rooming with strangers, but that didn’t happen. In the end, I ended up with Abbie, Taylor C, and Mikala. Trish, Marissa, and Autumn were together, and Elizabeth did actually end up with the girls from California, Mattie, Sarah, and Stephanie. Zeke, Kevin, and Nick were together, and Zack, Evan, and Cory were together. The three girls from Connecticut (Leidi, Caleigh, and McKenzie) were all together.

Still, since I was with the girls from my school, I didn’t have to socialize with the other kids until much later. Andrés, our tour director, had us meet forty-five minutes before dinner for an icebreaker. We had to introduce ourselves to someone we hadn’t yet met before (I introduced myself to McKenzie) and ask them about their grade, their school, where they were from, their interests, their favorite things, their fears going into the trip, and their commitment level towards the trip. Basically, we had to glean as much information as we could in five minutes. McKenzie and I couldn’t remember all the questions, so we made up our own to ask each other. Then we mingled with some of the other kids (aside from Elizabeth, I didn’t know them, and I’d later learn their names and where they were from). We had to share what we learned about our partners with the group, and then it was time for dinner.

 

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Telling the group what I learned about McKenzie. To the left of me is Mikala, and to the right of me is Trish. Taylor C is the one who is partially cut off.

We ate a buffet-style dinner in the restaurant across the street. The kids from the Delaware and Connecticut groups sat together at one table, and the California kids sat at the other table with the adults, with the exception of Dr. J’s husband, who sat with us. I remember sitting in between Elizabeth and Trish, and across from Evan and Kevin. That is until Abbie and Taylor C stole my seat and Trish’s seat the two of us got up for dessert. We then relocated to the other end of the table, where Marissa, Autumn, and a few of the others were sitting.

 

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Dinner on the first night! This picture, of course, was taken after we’d finished eating. It was also taken after Taylor C and Abbie stole our seats. (Clockwise from far end: Trish, Mikala, Kevin, Evan, Nick, Leidi, Caleigh, McKenzie, Zeke, Elizabeth, Taylor C, and Marissa.)

We went back to the hotel after dinner, and most of us just went back up to our rooms and hung with our roommates. It’d been a long day for everyone (particularly the California group, since they’d risen at 3 am to get their flights), and we were all tired.

Besides, we’d have to get up early the next morning so we could travel to the island of Palo Seco, and no one wanted to be out too late. (There was also, of course, the fact that we had to be in our rooms at 9:30 with an absolute lights-out by 10, but that rule wasn’t always in effect, as you’ll see later.) I myself was getting up at 5 to shower, and so I went to bed at eight-thirty, the first in my room to go to bed.

That’s pretty much all we did on Day One. My school stopped at the mini-market, but it’s really no different from an American one, except for the Spanish.

Day Two: June 21, 2017

Day Two started off early so that we could travel to Palo Seco. We ended up with plenty of time to spare before we were due to arrive at the hotel, so we stopped at two shops on the way. The first store was a souvenir shop, and the second was a souvenir shop/food place. At the second shop, they opened up coconuts in front of you so that you could drink directly from the coconuts. Now, I have never been a fan of coconuts, but I split one with Elizabeth, and it was amazing! I didn’t think I’d like it all that much (hence my splitting it with Elizabeth) but it was actually really good.

 

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The coconut Elizabeth and I shared, featuring Mikala’s feet and Andres’ hands!

After that, we continued our journey to Palo Seco. We stayed in the Hotel La Isla. Once we got there, we got our room keys and assignments, so that we could get settled before we took our boat tour of the mangroves we were working in. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but as we were getting settled, we were informed that the boys didn’t have two beds and a glorified powder room masquerading as a bathroom like the rest of us. (I would like to make it known that I liked La Isla, but the rooms were way too small for four people to live comfortably in. When I sat on the toilet, my feet could touch the shower floor–without stretching!). The boys’ rooms had two bedrooms, one with two bunk beds, and one with two double beds. They even had a kitchen! A kitchen! And there were only three of them to a room.

Normally, we could’ve lived with that, but the boys were kind of immature about the whole thing. Within ten minutes of arriving at La Isla, one of the groups of boys (I won’t say which group, but they know who they are) had broken one of the locks on the doors and one of the beds.

That, in a nutshell, is why teenage boys don’t deserve nice things. (No offense to you guys if you’re reading this, but we all know that you’re idiots.)

But enough about that.

After the whole room debacle, it was time for our boat tour of the mangroves, where we’d be working. In case you’re curious, the mangroves are trees that grow in brackish water. The mangrove trees (there are over 80 different mangrove species) usually are in marsh-like areas, and they are a big part of the Costa Rican ecosystem. The mangroves are home to lots of different forms of wildlife as well.

 

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A picture I took of the mangroves during the boat tour. Beautiful, right?

However, they are falling into disarray as a result of human mistreatment and natural causes like erosion, which is where we came in. Our job was to replant and restore the mangroves on our service day (which was day three). But we’re not quite there yet.

After the tour of the mangroves, we had lunch, enjoyed some free time, and then went over the basics of our service activities. We assigned groups and group roles. The main group roles were the group leaders, photographers, and journalists since everyone was allowed to try all of the jobs that we had. There were three photographers–Caleigh, Trish, and Zack–and two journalists, Mattie and myself. Our jobs were to document everything that took place on our service day: with pictures and with words.

Once we finished going through what we had to do for our service activities, we had one last thing to do: a cultural scavenger hunt. Andrés gave us a list of over 20 questions that we had to ask five locals. Some of the questions were serious (like Who is the Costa Rican president and what do you think of him?), some of the questions were funny (like How do you conquer the heart of a girl or guy?), and others were to get us to see the cultural norms of Costa Rica. (For example, we learned that breakfast is called gallo pinto, lunch is called cosado, and the most common religion is Catholicism from some of the questions.)

After the cultural scavenger hunt, we had some free time. Most of us went down to the pool, which was a lot of fun. The guys and the girls got along for a total of five minutes while we were playing Marco Polo. Then the game slowly started to end as more and more people dropped out, and we were back to fighting each other. (I will say that when I say the guys and the girls, I’m really saying the girls versus Kevin and Zeke.) Unfortunately, we had to get out because there was lightning, so we all went back to our rooms to chill before dinner.

After dinner, we had a group-wide meeting where we went over our results from the scavenger hunt. Once that meeting was over, Andrés dismissed us, but Sra. Bryk had the MYP group meet so that we could go over our reflections of the first and second days of the trip. Then we were dismissed for real so we could enjoy free time before it was time for curfew.

Day Three: June 22, 2017

On Day 3, we didn’t need to be in the mangroves until eight-thirty that morning, so breakfast was at eight. It was nice to not have to wake up incredibly early (I got up at seven-thirty). After breakfast, it was time to get to work!

However, one thing I hadn’t anticipated was that my volunteering to be a journalist might affect what I could and couldn’t do on the trip and I was a little upset.

Luckily, my fears turned out to be for naught as I still got to work. (I will admit that I spent the first half-hour walking around and just writing stuff down, and it was terrible. I’d like the record to show that I hate getting dirty, but I jumped at the chance to not have to just sit and write.)

 

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Preparing the mangroves for replanting. 

I tried almost everything once: I helped get seedlings out of the pit so we could plant them, I planted the propagules (we all had to do at least two apiece), I raked leaves, I planted seedlings, and I helped pick up debris. Our main job was to prep the mangroves for the replanting, and then to do the replanting.

Our main job was to prep the mangroves for the replanting, and then to do the replanting. I didn’t actually take part in any of the replanting that took place that afternoon because the photographers and journalists had to make up the presentation about what we did in the mangroves. Our presentation consisted of a short overview of our work, lots of pictures, and a trivia game (shout-out to team number 2 for winning!). It took us way longer than we thought it would, and so some of us missed out on getting to pick fruit for dinner. Caleigh had gone back to pick fruit since she was done with her part, and Trish and I went to get her again because we needed her help. Because of that, she and I got to pick a few starfruits, which was really fun! Then, of course, we needed to go back because we were running out of time.

Our presentation ended up going smoothly, and the only thing I regret is not taking the time to edit it afterward. (There were a few spelling/grammar errors I didn’t notice until we were already up in front of everyone else.)

After that, we had some more free time, and so we went to the pool once more. We went straight from the pool to dinner, and after dinner, we enjoyed some more free time. That night, most of us were feeling fine, but that would all fall apart tomorrow morning. (And for some of us, that very night.)

Day Four: June 23, 2017

Day Four marked an optional early-morning hike through the mangroves. We’d all been willing to go the night before (when we were asked about it at dinner), but from what I understand, only half of us went.

Unbeknownst to us, there was a stomach virus going around that viciously attacked the majority of us. There were only a few of us who didn’t get sick, and I envy them greatly. (I’ll be kind and spare you the gory details.) I woke up at 4:30 that morning feeling like absolute crap (no pun intended) and I wasn’t able to go back to sleep. I opted out of the hike and spent the morning sleeping. I got dressed for breakfast, but I was only able to eat a little bit.

Day Four was also the day we went to Manuel Antonio National Park. Luckily, by the time we were ready to go, I was feeling well enough to go on the trip. (From time to time throughout the trip, I’d feel sick for a few minutes, but it would pass.)

I’m glad I was feeling a lot better because the park ended up being a ton of fun. We started off by going on a walk through the park, then we stopped for lunch, and then we went to the beach! (The featured image from this post is an image of the beach in Manuel Antonio). It was so much fun getting to hang out with everyone there!We also saw so many awesome things: like a monkey eating lunch in the trees, and the flora was absolutely spectacular. Even the trees seemed a lot prettier.

 

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A shot of the trees in Manuel Antonio.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty chill, since most of us were sick, and no one wanted to overdo it. It was also our last night in Palo Seco, as we were leaving the next morning.

Day Five: June 24, 2017

On Day Five, we traveled from Palo Seco to the Arenal region. It was a long, long day, and since the bus ride was so long, Andrés had a bunch of activities planned for us that day. First, we went on a crocodile tour, which was really amazing, aside from the fact that I almost dropped my phone in the water. Oh, and the fact that we literally saw a crocodile attempting to eat a turtle! It was honestly kind of traumatizing…the turtle got away, but as one of the boys (I don’t remember who but I have a feeling it was Zeke) so eloquently pointed out, it likely didn’t get very far before it died.

After the crocodile tour, we stopped at a souvenir shop. There, we got to see the factory where they do the woodworking, and it was really cool. We also got to see some of the final products get painted.

 

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The level of detail and precision that goes into these is incredible. It’s so awesome to watch.

After that tour was over, it was back on the bus, to our final two destinations: the cultural exchange and the hot springs.

The cultural exchange consisted of a few local teens teaching us how to dance the salsa, bachata, and merengue. Some of us were better at it than others. Please, enjoy this clip of Evan dancing with one of the locals. (Sorry, buddy, but you just so happened to be the first in this video, and so you were the one turned into a GIF.)

 

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I am honestly just so glad that there’s not a video of me doing this. (And if there is, I’m glad it has yet to make an appearance.)

Most of us were terrified because the majority of us could not dance to save our lives (similarly to how the kids on our track team couldn’t plank to save their lives, myself included), but it was really fun! After I danced with one of the locals (who, bless her heat, was so patient with me despite the fact that I had two left feet), she partnered me with Mikala, who is an excellent partner. (Neither of us had any idea what the heck we were supposed to be doing, but I think we pulled it off pretty well.)

After the cultural exchange, we went to the hot springs at Baldi. The hot springs were really pretty, and it was so relaxing. It was the perfect way to unwind after such a long day. The decor was beautiful, and it wasn’t as crazy as I thought it would be. It was one of the best experiences from that whole day. The two hours or so we had there flew by so quickly! After we finished at the hot springs, we checked into our new hotel, in the town of Fortuna.

Day Six: June 25, 2017

Day Six was also a chill day. We started our day off with a canopy tour through the rainforest. Some of us (cough, Autumn, cough) were absolutely fearless. Others were terrified, but nonetheless, we all powered through and we all did it! We all survived! We went on another cultural scavenger hunt, albeit one that was a lot shorter. It was still really fun, and we got to visit the town of Fortuna. Everything was really pretty, especially the church. There was also a really great view of the volcano from our hotel.

 

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The fountain outside of the church.

After the mini-excursion through town, we had to find our own way back to the hotel so that we could eat lunch and go on the chocolate tour.

We ended up having to get a bunch of taxis to get there, as our bus broke down earlier, but other than that, the ride was uneventful. The chocolate tour was really fun: our tour guide for that was hilarious, and the chocolate was amazing. (I bought four chocolate bars, and they were all incredible!) I was sad to see the tour end: it was so much fun, and so delicious!

Day Seven: June 26, 2017

On Day Seven, we visited La Fortuna waterfall, which was so amazing I can’t think of a better adjective than “amazing” to do it justice. The sights were just breathtaking!

 

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Standing in front of La Fortuna! 

We had to go up and down about 600 steps to get there. The way down was pretty easy, but the way up was torture. The way down felt as if it were five minutes, and the way up felt like five years. It was also super steep, and the next day I was pretty sore.

Still, swimming in the waterfall itself was pretty fun, even though the water was so cold that I lost all feeling in the lower half of my body after a while. It was so clear, though, and the air felt so clean. That was one of my favorite moments from the entire trip.

Day Eight: June 27, 2017

Day Eight was our last full day. We got up early to make the journey back to San Jose. One of my favorite moments from this day was actually pretty early in the day, when our (other) bus broke down. We would be stopped for a while, so we hooked up Caleigh’s phone to Evan’s speaker and had a mini-dance party on the stopped bus. I can’t speak for everyone else, but as happy as that moment was, it also made me pretty sad, knowing that this was our last full day to spend with each other.

The party bus lasted until we got a new bus. Then we settled into the old bus routine of doing one of these things: sleeping, eating, listening to music, reading, or listening to Andrés talk about the historical or cultural aspects of a certain landmark or town.

Around lunchtime, we made our way to the coffee plantation. We had lunch before going on our tour of the plantation. It was so great to see, and I also learned a lot: for example, for light roast coffee, the beans are roasted for fifteen minutes. For dark roast coffee, it’s twenty minutes, and medium roast coffee is roasted for seventeen minutes. Also, I learned that bad things will ensue if you mix an already exuberant eight-year-old and free coffee samples.

After the coffee tour, we headed to the hotel in San Jose. We had a few hours of free time before we had to get ready for the final dinner. The dinner itself was really nice, and after we finished eating, we went outside as we had time to kill before the folkloric dancing. So, we stood around talking, goofing off, and taking pictures. After a while of this, it was time for the dancing! So we all found seats to watch them. Towards the end of their routine, the dancers grabbed some people from the audience to come up and dance with them. From our group, they grabbed Evan, Elizabeth, and Nick.

 

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Elizabeth, Nick, and Evan with some of the dancers.

Once they finished, there was a dance floor downstairs and they were playing some American dance songs, so we all went down and danced until it was time for us all to go. It was so much fun just getting to let loose with everyone for one last time. Normally, I’d be nostalgic on a night like that, but on the last night, I just felt really happy for all the memories that I’d made with everyone.

We went to bed almost as soon as we got back, as our next day started pretty early.

Day Nine: June 28, 2017

We rose at 4:30 am since we had to be at the airport three hours before our flights. We ate breakfast at the hotel’s Denny’s, and then we left San Jose. Once we got to the airport, we said goodbye to Andrés and went through security.

All three groups were on the same flight to Miami. The California kids’ flight left first, then the Connecticut kids’ flight, and then our flight was the last to leave, around nine o’clock that night. We spent most of the day in the airport, playing cards, taking pictures, charging our phones, and buying snacks to get rid of our colones (or just because we missed American food).  Saying goodbye to everyone was way harder than I thought: I’m going to miss them all so much! It was also hard to say goodbye to the other freshman in our group, knowing that we’re all going to different schools once the school year starts.

 Highlights and Favorite Moments: 

  • Running into the Connecticut group literally five minutes after we’d say goodbye to them. It was crazy. We finally thought the last time we’d see them was when they left to board their flight. Then, we got transferred to their gate and discovered their flight had been pushed back.
  • Somehow managing to go through at least three buses in nine days. I literally cannot keep up at this point.
  • Making jokes about dying constantly while on the zipline, only to regret it later when we were on the bus and we started smelling gas (it was just an issue with the radiator, but can you blame us for being kind of freaked out?)
  • Staying up until 11 with Abbie, Taylor, and Mikala, and being so loud that we woke up Elizabeth, who was in the next room
  • Having a Hamilton jam session with Abbie and Mikala, driving Taylor insane
  • Spending three days trying to wash sand out of my hair (thanks, Abbie)
  • Taking a walk on the beach in Palo Seco
  • Nick becoming Mother Teresa
  • Zeke, Taylor, and Elizabeth flossing (not flossing their teeth, I’m referring to the dance move)
  • Naming all of the new buses we got

 

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The moment where Nick became Mother Teresa…

There are so many more memories I can think of, but I don’t want to keep you here all day. I’ve already kept you here long enough.

Finally, I do have something to say to my fellow travelers, if any of them are reading this: Hi guys. Those nine days were nothing but fun, and that’s partly because of Andrés and all the fun stuff he had for us to do, but that’s also because of you guys, too. All of you were so amazing to be around, and I’m glad that I got the chance to meet you all. I’ll seriously miss you all so much!

Taylor, Abbie, and Mikala: you guys were great roommates! Thanks for all the times we spent staying up laughing. I’m glad I got to room with you guys: I feel like we really bonded over the course of the trip! Mikala, thanks for putting up with my downright dangerous sleeping: I’m sorry I kept hitting you!

Caleigh, Leidi, and McKenzie: You guys were all so sweet to me! Thanks for being so easy to talk to, and so much fun to be around! I’ll miss you three so much!

Elizabeth: My favorite child. I’ll miss you so much next year. Always stay true to yourself no matter what everyone says. 

Mattie, Sarah, and Stephanie: Thank you for being great roommates to Elizabeth, and for being so sweet to the rest of us! And Mattie, I love your creativity and your meticulous note-taking. You three were awesome!

Nick and Evan: You guys were fabulous! Nick, thanks for being a great friend to Elizabeth (and to me!), and for being such an easy guy to be around–you have a great sense of humor. Evan, thank you so much for your kind words and advice about entering high school. It really did mean a lot to me.

Trish: I had so much fun with you on this trip! I’ll miss sitting with you at breakfast every morning. Thanks for being a great friend. 

Marissa: Try not to break down any more buses, okay? I’ll see you next year: try not to destroy anything! 

Autumn: No matter what, always keep asking questions and being the first volunteer. You’ll do great things if you do. 

Zeke and Kevin: I still think that you two are idiots, but I mean it in the most affectionate way. (And no, Zeke, not that kind of affectionate.) I hate to say it…but…I might even miss you guys next year. Don’t quote me on that.

Zack and Cory, the work you guys did on the slideshow was phenomenal! Thank you for all you did, and for being so much fun to work with. 

I wish each and every one of you the best, and I hope you enjoy not just the rest of your summer, but your upcoming school year as well. Please, keep in touch. I’d love to hear from you guys.