Monday, April 13, 2009

Congratulations Noa Bendit-Shtull!

Noa, 16, was the original inspiration for Writopia Lab... Four years later, she has won her second national gold key from Scholastic, this time, for her memoir, "Existential Applications." Please help her celebrate by reading her essay:

Existential Applications

I have a knack for applications. Egged on by my mother, who keeps “to-do” lists on Post-it notes that litter our familial existence, I shuffle off down the hall to my room to commence my duty as the offspring of two high-strung professionals who have racked up five Ivy League degrees between them. I jog back down the hall and break off a square of chocolate from the extra-dark bar that has an eternal home on the corner of the dining room table before returning to the dimly-lit refuge of my appropriately obstinate teenage existence. These are deeply ingrained rituals, a mixture of calculated procrastination and psychological preparation.

Preparation has played a vital part in my history of applications, which extends back to my mental Stone Age. My parents used to climb into my siblings’ and my beds, clambering up ladders and ducking under wooden frames, to say goodnight. My father would immediately doze off amidst a pile of balding teddy bears and one-eared rabbits. My mother, on the other hand, took the opportunity to get a head start on interview training. As we sank into blissful, eight-hour-plus, pre-high school slumber, she would ask us questions. “Do you like your mom or your dad better?” she would ask deliberately. As we struggled to respond, weighing the day’s ice creams and bedtime stories with complex rubrics, she would prompt, “This is a force choice question…” I would respond eagerly, echoing her: “This is a force choice question. I like my mom and my dad equally, but for different reasons.” Our repertoire of potential interview questions and ripostes expanded as we mastered force-choice and moved on to hypothetical questions (“As I am not the president of the United States, I refuse to speculate”).

In ninth grade, I dutifully presented myself at my mother’s desk after dinner. Her mantra, to have an “open” mind, reverberated in my head. Having an “open” mind meant accepting constructive criticism, trying new things, and never chucking applications for prestigious programs into the recycle bin. I pictured opening iron locks, shifting steel beams and titanium crossbars, inner hinges clicking mechanically. My self-diagnosed stubbornness was a barrier comparable to the stony fortresses and impenetrable enchantments that protected Hogwarts castle, relic imagery from my middle-school days.

On Wednesday afternoon—the appointment was immediately marked on my mother’s Palm Pilot—I would have an interview as part of my application to Camp Rising Sun, an international leadership program. My mother, a business communications professor, had scheduled her own appointment with me—a coaching session on self-presentation for an interview. I was instructed to shake hands firmly, with a smile. I practiced, initially extending a sheepish “dead fish,” and then acquiescing with a tighter grip. She played the role of the interviewer, and I played the confident, top-scoring, New York Times-reading, fiction-writing, extracurricular-attending, (top) college-aspiring student. “Tell me about yourself. What do you do outside of school? What are your strengths? Why are you interested in attending Camp Rising Sun?” My responses were punctuated by my mother’s reminders (“eye contact”) and her hastily swallowed critique.

The interview was presented to me as a way to distinguish myself, separate myself from the rest of the adolescent pack. I was called upon to utilize my accumulation of verbal and social skills to make some sort of impression. But to me it seemed like institutionalized cheating, sophistry. I vaguely wondered if all of the other applicants realized what the interview really was. It was an opportunity to take myself—my body of meager accomplishments, awards, and experiences—and dress it up in eloquence, charm, and a fair measure of bullshit. I was simultaneously the artist and the block of Sculpey. I molded myself to the interviewer, pressing lumps of malleable terracotta clay into the cracks and crevices of his expectations and biases.

When the interviewer, a young alum of the program, asked me about my opinions on current events, I desperately racked my brain for information. My perusals of the New York Times are generally limited to the Style, Home and Dining sections, supplemented by the occasional flip through the Metro Section. When my journalistic bible yielded nothing but an op-ed on the season’s “in” colors and a review of Village eateries, I was momentarily stymied. I imagined blurting that the only reason I sporadically attend current events club at school is for my weekly dose of salt-and-vinegar chips. Just as my contemplative hush ripened into uncomfortable silence, I had an epiphany. I launched into an explanation of my contentions concerning the immigration situation on the Mexican border. I managed heavy, deep, and insightful; I blew him away. But it didn’t feel good. I felt like a con artist.
The situation was unnerving, but totally familiar—almost generic. Generations of first-time job applicants have struggled to list their weaknesses, grasping at the ultimate ratio of modesty to honesty to self-confidence. Some fail miserably, joining the hordes of the undistinguished unemployed. Others, the lucky chosen few, catch a current under their meticulously preened wings and coast along on conscious or subconscious quasi-pretense. Is anybody every really, absolutely, truthfully qualified for any position or program or summer camp-turned-résumé filler? Am I the only one who can’t sleep at night because the world eats up my truths decked out with lies and served up with a smile and a firm handshake? Dare I speculate, Mom?
But beyond these moral quandaries, interviews and applications pose more personal, more distressing problems. Why is it so easy for me to create a version of myself that molds to any situation? Does my personality lack strong foundations? Am I just a collection of whims dumped pell-mell into a hollowly talented brain?

Maybe my supposed interest in architecture is not founded on anything within me.

Maybe instead, it springs from years and years of compliments and encouragements that insinuated their way into my collaged persona. I used to be the artistic girl: the toddler who made the prettiest macaroni necklaces, the child who built houses for her dolls from cardboard boxes, and the teenager who attended annual origami conventions. More recently, I became the mathematician girl, the student who knew all the answers and always volunteered to explain them in multi-colored dry-erase markers on the whiteboard. All the praise and attention might have—must have—convinced me that architecture was my destiny, the perfect amalgamation of creativity and logic, custom- made by special order. Because otherwise—if my architectural ambitions were intrinsic—my application to an architecture program at the MoMA would not have felt like such a sham.

Armed with a healthy dose of chocolate, I began my MoMA application, a magnificent façade constructed from bricks of drab truth: “I am very artistic and I like to design, so a visually oriented career would suit me well. I love working with my hands and my mind to form unique ideas and creations. I want to learn how I can use these skills in a career I love.” Good, start with a clichéd answer to a clichéd question. Hackneyed, hackneyed, hackneyed. Next: After lulling the reader into a satisfactory stupor, quote. Not just any quote—quote somebody famous, somebody dead. Quote the president of the United States of America. In this case architect R. Buckminster Fuller, who conveniently expressed the sentiments characteristic of the ultimate architecture program applicant: “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty…but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Marvelous. Finally, take the opportunity to express your sincere, heartfelt, tail-wagging enthusiasm: “I want to reiterate how excited I am about this program. It sounds interesting, inspiring and fun, and I would love to take advantage of all the opportunities the MoMA has to offer.”

I didn’t lie, but I didn’t exactly tell the truth either. True, I hadn’t Googled “smart architect quotes,” and I legitimately thought the quote was cool, but I just thought the quote was cool. I wasn’t invested in architecture any more than I was invested in R. Buckminster Fuller. Maybe in some parallel universe, honesty is the norm, not just an ideal decorated, displayed on a pedestal, and then shoved into the closet to be taken out and polished on the Day of Atonement. And maybe in that universe applications that read “You know, I just thought architecture was sort of cool, because you get to build and stuff. And like, it’ll look soooo good on college applications” are standard fare in the management offices of prestigious firms. But among my peers, who score in the top percentile on standardized tests, scoring in the top percentile on sincerity just doesn’t make the cut.

With all of these worries in mind, I face the greatest challenge yet: the college application. It is perceived as the application of all applications, both a confirmation of sixteen years of labor, and a key to the real world. The stress of putting on a mask for a college application is partially alleviated by the knowledge that the schools themselves are also participating in this game of charades. Colleges try to sell themselves to their ideal students just as applicants vie for admission at their ideal institutions.

There is a definite irony behind this academic masquerade ball, even in an age when irony is as over-diagnosed as peanut allergies and ADD. And speaking of irony, I wonder: What if I sent this personal essay to colleges as part of my supplementary material? In a process that is always precarious, this essay could potentially tip me over the edge. How would colleges, who ask for the truth, respond to a sincere expression of my qualms? This essay, a rare specimen of pure me, might jeopardize my chances at collegiate Texas hold’em.

But don’t try this at home, kids! A memoir cannot and should not replace any type of application. On the other hand, they are not entirely foreign literary entities. An application, like a memoir, can be an avenue for self-discovery. If a memoir is a cheaper alternative to therapy, then an application is a personal appointment with Nietzsche. A memoir asks, “How do I feel about that?” while an application asks, “Who the hell am I?” The question isn’t rhetorical and it isn’t hypothetical; it demands a solid answer, and I can’t politic my way around it.

So far, none of the applications I have written have successfully answered that vital question. But for years, I have had an unvoiced, perhaps unacknowledged hope that my college applications will be 100% truth. I long to write an application that I can read over and over again and feel like I am reading about myself, not some unfamiliar architecture enthusiast or devoted scholar of Asiatic languages. I want an epiphany. I want to cross that one last thing off of my to-do list. But at the very least, my philosophy-induced anxiety will abate with the help of a new prescription: a dose of memoir therapy, one and a half pages daily.