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Best In Class

Best In ClassNational Public Radio chose five of the best college essays for a special on-air broadcast -- E-News features the essays from the two students admitted to Tufts.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.09.01] In April, millions of students decide where they will spend their college years, marking the end of a year-long application process that includes test scores, interviews and essays.

With the help of its listeners, National Public Radio compiled hundreds of the best college essays written by students around the country for a special on-air feature.

The nationally broadcast radio station chose five "exceptional essays" and invited the student authors to read them to NPR's national audience. Two of the five students -- Leah Knobler and Richard Van Ornum -- applied and were admitted to Tufts, one via early admission.

Read their essays, which NPR described as "remarkably thoughtful, revealing and well-written."

"Oh Jonah, play the piano for us!" they cried.

"No, recite the periodic table of elements instead!" Okay, so maybe nobody asked him to recite the periodic table of elements, but the fact of the matter is... he could have done it had they asked.

"Jonah, go play the piano and sing for our guests," requested my mother.

On June 5, 1999, our house was filled with relatives, friends, and other members of the "Jonah Knobler Fan Club" for my brother's graduation party. After all, he was the valedictorian. He did ace the ACT. And he was going to attend Harvard in the fall. The spotlight, as usual, was on him.

And how did I feel?

Having an older brother like mine, I often get asked, "How does it feel to be Jonah's younger sister?" Most people assume my answer will be filled with self-pity: "My life has been awful because I can never measure up to what he achieves and I will always be stuck in his shadow." But the truth is different. I genuinely respond, "Jonah is one of a kind and living with him has been an experience I wouldn't trade for anything."

Growing up with my anything-but-average brother has impacted me significantly. Just as younger siblings often look up to their older brothers or sisters, I, too, look up to Jonah. I try to emulate some of his characteristics, but I'm a distinctly different person - and proud of it.

Jonah's most obvious strength is his academic ability. I admire the effort and determination he puts into schoolwork as well as the results he achieves. Although I can never come close to his abilities, I strive to do my best in school.

However, watching Jonah focus so much of his high school career on academics has motivated me to seek a better balance in mine. I witnessed first-hand how Jonah had to win awards and contests in order to feel good about himself. I saw his disappointment and panic if he dropped below an A on any assignment.

My brother's single-minded pursuit of academic perfection left him unhappy and a little lonely. Despite his genius, he was insecure. I wanted none of this for myself. I wanted my confidence to be rooted inside, instead of from external accolades. I stepped out of his shadow and made his weaknesses into my strengths.

Living with Jonah has taught me there's more to life than the results of standardized tests and awards. I purposely sought balance in my life among academics, athletics, and friendships. I've been on two varsity sports teams (captain of one) and served on Student Council for three years while maintaining a high honor roll GPA. I work 12 hours per week and still make time for my friends.

But sometimes I find a moment in my busy schedule to daydream the following scenario: Two years have passed since Jonah's graduation party. Harvard-man is home for spring break. I'm a senior now and captain of the lacrosse team, so I invite him to the qualifying game for the state tournament. It's tied with only a few minutes remaining on the clock and I score the winning goal. The fans go wild and I feel awesome. I see Jonah rush towards the field to congratulate me. A local reporter blocks his way and I overhear his question, "Jonah, how does it feel to be Leah's older brother?"

Richard Van Ornum
[Hear Van Ornum read his essay]

When I was little, I dreamed I was flying. Each night I was up in the air, though never over the same landscape. Sometimes, in the confusion of early morning, I would wake up thinking it was true, and I'd leap off my bed, expecting to soar out of the window. Of course, I always hit the ground, but not before remembering that I had been dreaming.

I would realize that no real person could fly, and I'd collapse on the floor, crushed by the weight of my own limitations. Eventually, my dreams of flying stopped. I think I stopped dreaming completely.

After that, my earliest memory is of learning to count to one hundred. After baths my mother would perch me on the sink and dry me as I tried to make it to one hundred without a mistake. Whenever I got lost, she'd stop me and make me start all over again from the beginning. I never got bored and I never got frustrated, though I think maybe she did. I'd just keep trying until I got it right or my mother got bored.

I had to be lifted up onto the sink. An accident with a runaway truck when I was four had mangled my left leg, leaving scars that stood out, puckered white against my skin. Looking at the largest of my scars in the mirror, I imagined that it was an eagle. It wasn't fair, I thought. I had an eagle on my leg but I couldn't fly. I could hardly walk, and the crutches hurt my arms.

Years later, in Venice, I had the closest thing to a revelation I can imagine. Sitting on the rooftop of the Cathedral of San Marco, I wasn't sure what life had in store for me. I was up on a ledge, in between the winged horses that overlooked San Marco square. To the left, the Grand Canal snaked off into the sea, where the sun cast long, crimson, afternoon shadows across the city. Below me, in the square, pigeons swirled away from the children chasing them and swooped down onto a tourist who was scattering dried corn. Somewhere in the square a band was playing Frank Sinatra. It was "Fly Me to the Moon", I think.

Up on the roof of the Cathedral, it seemed to me the pieces of my life suddenly fell together. I realized that everybody is born with gifts, but we all run into obstacles. If we recognize our talents and make the best of them, we've got a fighting chance to overcome our obstacles and succeed in life. I knew what my gifts were: imagination and perseverance. And I also knew what my first obstacle had been: a runaway truck on a May morning with no compassion for pre-schoolers on a field trip.

But I knew that the obstacles weren't impossible. They could be overcome. I was proof of that, walking. That night, for the first time in years, I dreamed I was flying. I soared through the fields of Italy, through the narrow winding streets of Venice and on beyond the Grand Canal, chasing the reddening sun across the sea. I woke up sure that it was true.

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