Zeke Nierenberg – Personal Statement
And then Wavy Gravy said grace:
“We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories, who shove dirty clothes under the bed,
who never rinse out the tub,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who don’t like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
who squirm in church and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and
whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being…”
—Ina J. Hughs
“Before you eat this meal, think of all the energy that it took to make. Think of all the energy it will bring you throughout your day. Think of how blessed you are to have it. Please send some energy to those who don’t.”
Everyone shouts “Ahoh,” or “Amen,” or simply nods in acknowledgement.
I was an outsider until the summer of 2001. I had been diagnosed with a learning disability. I was a nearly friendless boy with no clear direction, passion, or goal. That’s when the summers with daily graces came into my life.
I was born with several neurological issues. I have prosopagnosia, or “face-blindness,” the inability to recognize faces. When I was young, I would go up to people on the street who wore the same red jacket as my father only to have them tell me, “I’m not your Daddy, kid.” Then my embarrassed mother would apologize, take my hand, and we’d move on. Academically, I was diagnosed as visual processing and sequencing disorders. Initial school testing in 1998 showed scores from the first to ninety-ninth percentiles.
That’s not all, though. In kindergarten, when other boys were learning to catch a ball, I couldn’t. I Just didn’t have enough coordination between my visual and motor skills. I didn’t have the balance to stand on one leg for more than a second. In first grade, Ihad so much difficulty telling letters apart that I repeated the year. Thankfully, with the help of countless specialists and hours of my parents’ loving time, I learned to recognize the people and to read, albeit slower than most people.
But, by the end of my third grade, I had yet to recover from the psychological damage of these disabilities. So many kids had made fun of me for so long, and called me such bad things, that all my hobbies and activities were solitary. It hurt less that way.
Then I found Camp Winnaranbow, a place where outsiders can come in.
Winnarainbow is a circus and performing arts camp in Northern California. It was founded by the hippy/clown icon, Wavy Gravy. Although the circus aspect of the camp is important and taken seriously, it is not the camp’s primary function. Camp Winnarainbow strives to create a “living environment of love, safety, and harmony.” It admits kids from many different backgrounds. Some come from foster homes, some from homeless shelters, and some from mansions. Once there, the barriers of society are thrown down.
Now, each summer, I work at Camp Winnarainbow to give others the same experience I had. Last summer, I was the coordinator of teen staff, I made sure the 27 teen staff were all doing their jobs effectively, and that we were doing everything we could to ensure the campers were having the best experience of their lives.
We make more change in a day at camp than we do in months living in the “real world.” In two weeks, we change the lives of campers; to some, we give hope, to others, just fun.
This was the first place where I was truly accepted. It’s the place that let me accept myself, too, the place that taught me to over-learn as a strategy. Camp took me from a boy who couldn’t catch to a man who can juggle, from a boy who was afraid to ride a bike to a man known for unicycling from a boy with no direction to a man with a mission: to change this world.
As I look forward to my eighth season at camp this year, I am working on methods to bring its power into the world. Over the past four years, I’ve organized musicians to hold regular fundraisers for charitable causes. We call ourselves Future Builders. I consider Future Builders to be a sort of moral CPR. We’re not helping people directly, instead we do what we can to provide financial support to people who are. It’s not enough, though.
I need to go to college.
Some people go to college because that’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s what their parents told them to do, it’s what their teachers told them to do, it’s what their society told them to do. I’m not one of those people. For me, the purpose of college is to obtain the skills I need to do the things I want to do with my life. In my high school career, I’ve done what I know how to do well: play music and organize bands. I’ve sat across the table from great men and women who have dedicated their lives to the causes they care about. In reality though, there was a lto more standing between us than a meeting table. Higher education is what allows the director of Sustainable Harvest International to manage a team that fights slash-and-burn agriculture and helps farm families live sustainably. Higher education is what lets the team at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights promote peace and education in Oakland, California. Higher education is what stands between me and my dreams.
In school, while climbing the mountain of obstacles to overcome my own flaws, I’ve begun to gain an energy I can bring to others.
Last year, after school, I worked with an organization called YES! Reading. Their mission is to help economically disadvantaged young kids learn to read. As someone whose parents broke their bank spending thousands of dollars to help me learn to read, I realized that there must be other young peole out there whose parents had even less money; they deserve the same help I got.
The girl I tutored was named Jovelia. Jovelia’s parents immigrated to the United States and don’t speak English. I don’t know if she has a learning disabilitiy, but I do know that she doesn’t have any books at home, hardly any money, and no relatives who can sit next to her on the couch and help her get through her homework. Yet, she had a wonder in her eyes, and a smile that’s infectious.
One day, Jovelia was missing from tutoring. The next week she came back and told me a story. Her cousins had been shot at, outside her home in Oakland. They weren’t hit and were fine. Hearing this made me realize, again, that there was a completely different America just five miles from my home. I will try to get Jovelia a scholarship to Camp Winnarainbow for this summer.
Having, but more importantly, overcoming learning disabilities has made me a better person. It has taught me to take a bad situation and turn it into a good one; to turn lemons into lemonade.