‘I’m Not Crazy’

Presenting the winners of SN&R’s 2011 College Essay Contest

Maxwell Collard listens to Brahms.

Maxwell Collard listens to Brahms.


Our second College Essay Contest was a tough competition. SN&R received entries from almost every high school in the area, and essays on topics as diverse as the loss of a parent or other close family member, overcoming homelessness, struggling with sexual identity, growing up in the foster system and a devotion to mathematics.

SN&R staff writers read each essay and narrowed the field to 18 finalists. Three volunteer judges—all writers, and two teachers (see bottom)—selected our winners (anonymously, of course) from that pool. We’re proud to bestow the promised scholarships upon the winners—$2,011 for the first-place winner, $750 for the second-place winner and $250 each for our three-way-tie third-place winners.

So without further ado, here are our winners:

First place

Name: Maxwell Collard
Now attending: West Campus High School
College he’ll attend: Johns Hopkins University
Plans for study: biomedical engineering

I’m not crazy—I’m listening to Brahms

I am albino. I wear sweater-vests, loafers, and fedoras. I never leave my hand down in class. I love Georgia and Helvetica; I loathe Times and Arial. And when I listen to music, I gesticulate wildly with my arms like a spaced-out hippie. I suppose I’ve always been a little strange. I don’t try to hide it; I never have. I remember fondly the time in fourth grade when I angrily hurled my textbook because my math teacher mistakenly posited that there were 10 centimeters in an inch (when, of course, an inch truly contains precisely 2.54 centimeters). I’ve got some great stories about my little idiosyncrasies.

Here’s one:

I walk into my physics classroom for the first time. It’s empty.

For most people, this would be slightly disconcerting; the excrement-colored tile floor, the sterile white plaster walls, the piercing fluorescent lights, the scalding cold countertops, aren’t exactly designed to be homey and comfortable. But I love it. An empty classroom means possibility, intellectual stimulation … and free seating, which is the greatest blessing for me. I have bad vision, and not the stick-a-contact-on-it-and-it’s-all-better kind of bad vision; I have the no-you-can’t-drive-it’s-illegal kind of low vision, which, for lack of a better term, really bites. But I manage. The key is to be proactive about it, to not struggle silently; to demonstrate discipline and responsibility which compensates for disability.

Part of that whole being-proactive process is getting to class early to scope out good seats. At this point in my life, my method for doing this has been distilled down to a mechanical precision. The secret: minimize the distance to the white board and the projection screen. After doing some quick brain-math, I realize there is only one seat which absolutely fits the bill: the very front-left of the classroom. Perfect.

That is, until I sit down. The desk is about as stable as quicksand. It’s like driving a soapbox car down a mountain bike trail. Fantastic. In all honesty, I probably could deal with it just fine; if you keep the center of your weight in one place, the Billy Pilgrim-esque up-down-up-downs go away. But, I’m one of those mild OCD types who really notices those little bumps, the subtle high-frequency squeaking noise of gum-chewing, the rhythmic clicking of mechanical pencils and retractable pens, the minute dissonances of the school bells.

That desk bothers me.

So, I do what is the absolutely natural human thing to do: I get up, and look for a nearby desk to swap out. It isn’t a crime to find myself a good desk; no one will mind if I just swap the two desks around …

But there’s something amiss about this decision; something’s not quite sitting well. What could it be? I mean, if I swap the two desks, what’s the downside? I’ll have the nice desk, I won’t have to deal with that infernal wobble that drives me up the wall, I will have a nice, comfortable experience in physics this year!

But someone else won’t.

Ah, there it is! If I swap out my wobbly desk for another one, then that means that I am effectively inflicting that horrendous torture on someone else. I am intentionally ensuring my own comfort at my peer’s expense. I am taking away from someone else for my own gain without considering all of the consequences. It is a mistake I see time and time again.

Because, the desk isn’t just the desk. It’s the spot you take when you cut into line. It’s that extra five-dollar bill you spend on your Venti vanilla Frappuccino rather than give to the ’Nam vet who lives in a tent on the corner of 19th and J. The desk isn’t just the desk, it’s a way of life; so many of us throw the wobbly one and its minor nuisances at others without considering what that means for them. The problem is, a lot of the time, the places we throw the wobbly desk are the places everyone throws the wobbly desk. We thrust our inconveniences on others, and compounded innumerable times, these inconveniences become inexorable burdens.

So I sit in my wobbly desk, shove a folded wad of paper under one of the legs, and twist around a bit looking for the best balance point. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.

Here’s another:

I feel music.

I’m not quite sure how to account for it; maybe my cochleae are somehow linked directly to my amygdalae—that is, perhaps my sense of hearing is directly connected to my processing of emotions. Whatever the reason, I feel music.

I remember performing the bass part to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony this way—by feeling. Beethoven’s Fifth, too. Truly, the vast majority of my orchestral repertoire I’ve played by heart, rather than by sight; it’s just so much easier for me. My eyes are terrible. Sheet music doesn’t look like music to me; it looks like a confounding mess of blobs. I can read music just fine—I just can’t see it. So I compensate with hours and hours of listening. And memorizing.

But the problem is, I look like a complete goof when I listen. Something compels me to move, something from within. Maybe it’s pathological, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, I flap my arms, I dance wildly, I moan eerily, whenever I listen to music. It is as though I am trying to direct the orchestra in my mind, to conduct the music in my soul, to conjure sound and feeling from the very depths of my being.

So when, one day at school, I stumble to the floor at the climax of the final movement of Brahms’ first symphony, and gaze toward the blank cement ceiling, arms outstretched … well, suffice it to say, I get a lot of strange looks. Yeah, laugh it up, people; I know I look weird.

Someone comes up to me: Man, what the f—-, you crazy!

I proudly respond: I’m not crazy—I’m listening to Brahms.

One more:

Never go to an albino convention. Thousands of blond-haired, blue-eyed people everywhere. It’s like a master race convention, some sick neo-Nazi plot disguised as a medical defect.

The other weird thing: Everyone’s antisocial. I remember well the room with all the little albino children. Hundreds of them. Blond-haired, blue-eyed. Imagine a few hundred antisocial albinos in a single room: a single bizarre, amorphous, flesh-toned blob, no part ever staying still, each part seeking to avoid every other—though rather unsuccessfully, because not a one in the bunch can see worth a darn.

It frightened me.

I remember a few of the (non-albino) adults put a few of us (albino) children into a hot tub together one night. They laughed and took photos because we all turned red. So funny, the little lobster children.

Ha ha.

Call me ungrateful or a traitor or whatever else, but it just isn’t helpful. On the one hand, you have the keynote speakers talking about society’s lack of acceptance, about how to spread tolerance, about standing up for albino rights. And then on the other hand, you have the antisocial blob and the lobster soup and the adults laughing all the while. That was the first albino convention I ever went to. It was also the last.

Here’s my strategy: I don’t care what disorder I have. I know: They say I can’t march, because my depth-perception-less eyes can’t tell how far away other people are; they say I can’t go skiing, because the sun will fry me; they say I can’t go out and play Frisbee with my friends because I’ll end up with a concussion and a third-degree sunburn. Having some conventioneer tell me that certainly doesn’t help me any.

But, you know, I’ve done all those things, so apparently somebody made a typo in the brochure.

It’s interesting: I used to loathe myself because of these differences. I look weird, and I act weird, and, despite my terrible eyes, I see things others seem not to see. It’s lonely.

But I know that if I had ducked out and cried “woe is me” like my albino brethren at the convention, or if I had succumbed to popular opinion about my music listening habits, or if I had swapped that flipping annoying desk in physics class, I probably wouldn’t be filling out this application right now. I wouldn’t be who I am.

What a waste that would have been.

Second place

Kyle Morales plants seeds of change.


Name: Kyle Morales
Now attending: Rio Americano High School
College he’ll attend: University of Pennsylvania
Plans for study: international affairs


Africa: not a Serengeti wonderland of lions and elephants, but a barren landscape of high grass and termite hills. Sawdust careened into my face, guided by petulant gusts of filthy air. Women walked down the dirt road, balancing buckets of water on their heads, as children ran behind in broken sandals and torn shirts. Goats and cattle clogged the streets with their moos and baas.

Days before, I’d stepped off a plane in Johannesburg, expecting to find a country rejuvenated by the World Cup and sixteen years of democratic government. As the World Cup slogan said, “It’s Ayoba Time!”—a time for celebration. But I found a harsher reality.

Before I left, friends questioned why I was traveling to South Africa to build a playground and donate six hundred soccer jerseys. They remarked, “Is there not poverty in America?” I understood their thinking; I’d be working in Africa’s richest nation while the poverty in Richmond was an hour away. But my perspective was quickly changed. In the Xhosa village of Xingxingolo (the X’s pronounced as clicks), I observed poverty unparalleled to America. Running water and cars were nonexistent. Adults were illiterate and lived in houses made of sheet metal, mud, and cow dung; many of them suffered from alcoholism. Children wandered the dusty streets alone, amid wayward goats.

Despite the dire state of their village, the children found hope in their newly constructed school. Kindergartners were not only responsible [for] their education and learning English, they also took care of siblings and household duties. These children, dressed in hand-me-down Nike shirts from long-gone UNICEF workers, represented the first generation of blacks in South Africa born into the equal-rights government which replaced apartheid.

After many hours of arduous labor, the playground was completed and the soccer equipment was donated. The school principal explained the difference the playground would make for her students. Without it, teachers encouraged students to play, but they only hid in the shadow of the concrete building. Now, students could build social skills and become leaders in a community of failing parents. The jerseys would be utilized for more than sports. Philanthropists would use the venue of soccer to address greater issues; they planned to create AIDS and clean-water clinics.

I found it odd to think that a playground and a few jerseys could make such a difference. Then, I realized the flaw in my preconceived view of Africa. I thought that the influence of Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the glory of the World Cup would be a panacea for the continent’s problems. I thought that my efforts would cause only a ripple, destined to go unnoticed. But I now understand that there’s no single solution for South Africa’s issues; there’s no proclamation or amount of money that can immediately cure decades of wrongdoing. Little efforts will slowly raise the country out of the shadow of crime, poverty, and disease.

Before the trip, I planned to enter the Peace Corps after college to “change the world” and solve problems with a single motion. While my desire to join the Peace Corps remains unchanged, my goals are different. I now know that if I can influence just a few people in one small village, the seeds of change will be planted and it will truly become “Ayoba Time.”

Third place three-way tie)

Lee Lo defies the standards.


Name: Lee Lo
Now attending: Grant Union High School
College she’ll attend: UC Davis
Plans for study: psychology

My kind of civil disobedience

It has been seventeen years, two months, two days, ten hours and twenty-eight minutes since I have been alive, and my dad still doesn’t believe that I will amount to anything more successful than a housewife. My dad’s actually a pretty simple guy; a fifty-two-year-old traditional Hmong refugee from the Secret War in Laos and, according to my culture, my “god.” The Hmong proverb goes, “Your older siblings are as your parents; your parents are as nothing lower than god.” Growing up in a harsh below-poverty community, valuing solely money, food, and culture, he’s been programmed to believe that the only places a woman belongs are under her husband and in the kitchen. And for that, maybe he’s too simple. He obediently accepts this unreasonable idea that his culture insists is right. Never once has he questioned the validity of this concept.

Then there’s me, a seventeen-year-old Hmong-American teenager with totally different values and beliefs that contradict the traditional gender roles. I, who feels proud that I can beat a good majority of my brothers in football, or that regardless of whether my dad disagrees with the necessity of my education; I am able to get better grades than my brothers do. I defy all that he stands for.

The Hmong cultures refuses to accept such ridiculously liberal “Americanized” lifestyles that advocates for gender equality. In trying to be liberal, we are condemned as losing our culture, a lose-lose situation. As a child I was ridiculed for trying to be on the same level as my brothers, but from this my voice and sense of justice was born. Learning to stand up for myself and realize my true worth was difficult for me because I was constantly being told by not just my dad but my whole culture and religion that I was not on equal levels as men but way below. Since then I have harbored this secret feeling inside not wanting anyone to see the rebel that I saw within myself, the rebel in me that did not believe in what I was told to; it’s the rebel in me that refuses to knowingly commit wrongs or injustice. I became determined to prove my dad wrong by showing him what a “woman” like me can become.

My culture’s disrespect of women is the very core to my drive. I strive to be someone extraordinary, regardless of my gender. I refuse to be identified as solely a woman, because I am more than that. I refuse to allow any kind of limitation hold me back from my full potentials because I am that kind of rebel. I will continue to excel and put my best effort into my schoolwork, even as my culture questions the necessity of this; I will continue to take leadership positions, even when my culture tells me that a woman is not put out to lead, but I will continue to care for my community and those around me like my culture said I would. I am not a rebel; I am a rebel only to stand up for myself and my own beliefs and looking at all aspects in advance.

The stereotypes and discrimination won’t go away; they will continue to try to oppress people. There’s no way of escaping it, or trying to ignore that it’s there, I’ve learned that now. The struggle that I went through is nothing compared to the reality of the world, it only helps me prepare myself for life’s challenges. It’s about looking at the positive aspects of what has already happened. Regardless of my father’s and my culture’s discrimination, I will be beyond their “normal Hmong woman.” Being a rebel isn’t so bad after all, Dad.

Third place

Nickole Moore-Huntley is the culmination of her experiences.


Name: Nickole Moore-Huntley
Now attending: Da Vinci Academy in Davis
College she’ll attend: either Mills College or Sonoma State University
Plans for study: biochemistry (pre-med)

I am the one

I am the one that plays piano quietly in my room at three in the morning. I am the one that doodles in the margins of all of my papers while I think. I am the one that sparks controversial debates about political alignments in the middle of art class. I am the one whose sharp wit and sarcasm turns calm discussions upside down in laughter. I am the one who gets kicked out of girls’ bathrooms because I am not afraid to be myself. I am the one writing this piece, waiting nervously to find out “What next?” I am Nickole Moore-Huntley.

I am the one who, in eighth grade, had a sibling diagnosed with autism.

He is the little one. He is the one that brings a smile to my face no matter how bad of a day I had. He is the one that still can’t tie his shoes. He is eight years old. He is the one who challenges me to knight duels and wrestling matches in my living room. He is the one who usually wins. He is the one that makes me feel like the best big sibling in the world with his dimpled smiles. He is the one that I will take custody of should anything ever happen to my mother. He is my brother. He is Ethan.

I am the one who was with my mom when she graduated high school in 1993.

She is the one who carried me through the halls in her school. She is the one that has supported me since before I could speak. She is the one that puts our family before anything else. She is the one who cried on my shoulder when my stepfather abused her. She is the one that allowed me to evict him. She is the one that trusts me to protect our family when she is gone. She is the one that gives me the courage to be more than just a name. She is the one made of steel and fire. She is an impenetrable fortress. She is my mother. She is Sara.

I am the one wondering if I should even mention his name near the two most important people in my life.

I know of him through a check in the mail. I know of him from my monthly visit and maybe even a phone call. He is the one who doesn’t know my legal name. He is cold. He is my father.

I am the culmination of my experiences. I am a blend of the people I surround myself with. I am part Sara, and I am part Ethan. I am sarcastic. I am witty. I am strong. I am me.

Third place

Ramon Miguel R. Flores looks through a different lens.


Name: Ramon Miguel R. Flores
Now attending: Jesuit High School
College he’ll attend: Stanford University
Plans for study: biomedical engineering

I see trees of red, green roses, too

My perception of the world is not the same as everybody else’s. I come from a world of green fire trucks, purple skies, and red grass. Some say I come from the world of deficiency, but I’d rather stick with the notion that I come from the world of triumph. Though color blindness is currently a handicap that cannot be cured, I’ve overcome it in many different ways and have uncovered essential life lessons along the way.

When I began to drive, my parents became wary of my color blindness and how it may hinder my ability to see the various colors at the stop lights. Admittedly, I had a difficult time distinguishing between the green, yellow, and red lights at the intersection. However, I overcame this obstacle by viewing the position of the lights rather than the colors, with green being at the bottom, yellow at the middle, and red at the top. At nighttime, I viewed the stop lights by brightness, with green being a bright, whitish light, yellow being moderately bright, and red not being bright at all. Nowadays, I can detect the colors of the stop lights as well as anybody can and thus have transformed my so-called inability into nothing more than a mere distraction.

Ever since that episode, I’ve always wondered why I couldn’t initially tell the difference between red, green, and yellow. Could I be the person seeing the true colors while everyone else sees them incorrectly? In my biology class, I wouldn’t learn a definitive answer to this question, but I unearthed a passion that has made me strive for it. As my class studied heredity and genetics, I began to unearth an interest in researching abnormalities like my own. I began to think of science as a means to discovering more about the world rather than a tedious, memory-based subject. At the end of my junior year, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to pursue a field in biomedical engineering and hopefully, solve the question that has riddled me throughout my entire life by one day unraveling the solution to color blindness.

I’ve learned to perceive the world through a different lens and thus have a different outlook on life itself. I’m not simply a color-blind person. I’m a living manifestation of a phenomenon that has shaped our world throughout its existence. This perception, as well as the experiences and lesson that come with it, has truly fueled my desire to succeed. Whenever I’ve faced a problem with my color blindness, whether it is identifying Renaissance paintings, sorting different types of chromosomes, or distinguishing colors on traffic lights, I’ve taken it as a challenge and succeeded each time through ingenuity, resourcefulness, and perseverance. As I’ll soon embark on this new chapter of life in college, I’ll always carry on this perseverant mentality that will guide me through any adversity I may encounter throughout my pursuits as an aspiring biomedical engineer with hopes that someday, I would be instrumental in helping others overcome disabilities like my own.

Honorable mentions

Stephanie Chavez believes that things get better.


Name: Stephanie Chavez
Now attending: Grant High School
College she’ll attend: UC Davis
Plans for study: undeclared

Things are going to get better

I opened the front gate and headed inside the house. As I opened the door, I smelled the aroma of fresh-made chicken enchiladas, my favorite. I took a couple of steps into the kitchen to say hello to my parents. They were nowhere in sight, so this was my chance to grab a piece of chicken before I got in trouble by my mom. Starving, I reached over the hot pan to grab a piece of tortilla. I noticed that something was different about the house. It seemed a little too quiet. My family was usually very noisy and happy. The mood seemed like it had changed from how it always was. Something was not right. Just as I was about to put the bite in my mouth, I saw my parents’ face of sadness. I began to worry.

“What’s wrong?” I asked my mom. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand. She gave me the paper, and I slowly started to read it. Half of the words I could not understand, so I just glanced through most of it. As I was approaching the bottom of the long letter full of complicated words, FORCLOSURE was in bold print. That word I could clearly understand. I looked at my mom, then my dad. They both asked me what that word meant, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell them. “It says we have to evacuate the property in thirty days,” I said in shock as I bowed my head toward the ground as tears began to fill my eyes. When my sister arrived from school, I told her the horrible news. She began to cry. I felt tears roll down my cheeks once again. Seeing Ellie cry made me realize that this was a heartbreaking situation for the whole family. I did not know how we were going to get through this hard experience.

Now we live in an apartment. It is a big change, but it was for the better. At first when I saw that dreadful word, I thought that life wasn’t fair to us. Our home had disappeared and I could not imagine how the family was going to get past that. However, I realized that life is not just material things, but the meaning that lies beneath them. The house did not matter. What mattered were the memories that we shared together. From teaching my little sister how to ride a bike to my new baby brother arriving from the hospital. These types of memories made that house a home. The yellowish-peach color or the green grass did not have importance. Those things could be replaced. What could not be replaced were the memories. The memories would go wherever we went. I had my family with me. We could make new ones to make the apartment our new home.

Life will always present some kind of challenge. It will test who we are. I was being selfish when I lost my home was not like me. Material things did not matter, but to me it seemed that my house did. I learned that my family is so valuable in time of need. My family helped each other through this hard time. If we were not together, this situation would be that much harder to endure. If you work together, the hardships will feel like they have disappeared.

Throughout my life there will be hardships. I have to remember that those hardships will develop into new memories that will overcome everything that comes my way. Our understanding of what is important will help us to cherish the memories and more, rather than trying to hold on to material things and experiences. I pass by my old house once in a while on my way to my apartment after school. I stop and stare at it sometimes. It still has the same peach color that it always had. I can still see my little sister happily riding her bike on the green grass. I can also smell the chicken enchiladas that my mom used to make in that house. As I pass by that house, I think back to the day that it all happened.

“Things are going to get better,” I tell myself over and over again. It was for the best.

Nhi Vo honors her parents’ sacrifices.


Name: Nhi Vo
Now attending: West Campus High School
College she’ll attend: UC Davis
Plans for study: cellular biology

The world I come from

In November 2000, a house fire accident occurred in the village of Quang Thanh in Vietnam. The fire destroyed my family’s home, claimed my dear mother’s life, and severely burned me and two of my sisters. My father moved our family of six to the United States in order for me and my two sisters to receive free burn treatments that were not available in Vietnam. Soon after, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. As the years progressed, I became the glue which held my family together. I took care of my father until his death in November 2009, while raising my sisters, running back and forth between home and the hospital, going to school, managing our family’s finances, and receiving constant medical treatment for my burns. These experiences have shaped me into who and what I am.

When we moved to Sacramento, California, we lived in subsidized low-income housing. We often survived off of donations of food and clothing. We were supported by social workers, local community organizations, and the doctors who performed free ongoing medical treatments for our family. My father worked endless hours in menial jobs as he was determined to save every bit of money to send his daughters to college. Every toilet he scrubbed, every chemical he inhaled, every insult he endured was a sacrifice he made for our family that continues to inspire me to this day. His devotion to our family inspired my own willingness to care for my sisters when he was working or when his illness hampered his efforts. I would cook, clean, and help my sisters with their schoolwork, manage our finances, while undergoing constant medical treatments for my burns.

My parents sacrificed so much for our future. My mother shielded my sisters and me from the fire with her own body and ultimately lost her life. My father risked his life and ran into the fire to save my sisters and me. Understanding the love that my parents had for me and my sisters and witnessing the sacrifices that they made motivates me to strive harder and make something of myself. I have an epiphany that the best way I can honor my parents’ sacrifices is by getting a college education which is the step toward building a better future for my family and me. Becoming a doctor would allow me to give back all the love and kindness that has been shown to me by my parents, sisters, doctors, and counselors, social workers, and people in our community.

Through my experiences in being a burn survivor, caring for my cancer-stricken father, losing my parents, nurturing my sisters, and receiving support from many members of our community, I have seen a glimpse of a unified community. I realized my decisions can have a positive impact on the lives of others. As I apply to college, I promise to study hard and fight, to use my compassion, determination, and tenacity to make a positive contribution to our society.


The judges
SN&R invited three writers we respect to serve as our outside judges.

Valerie Fioravanti is a prize-winning fiction writer and creative writing instructor. She is the founder of Sacramento’s Stories on Stage series, now entering its third season, and a master of the art of flash fiction.

Lien Hoang is a graduate of Center High School in Antelope and a former SN&R intern, where she was awarded an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies diversity fellowship. She earned a journalism degree from Columbia University and is currently a staff reporter for The Associated Press.

Doug Herndon is the director of general education/foundation studies at the Art Institute of California. He’s a writer who has taught journalism, magazine and writing-for-publication classes, and has a long history of sending great young writers out into the world.

—Kel Munger