Category Archives: Students

Striving for a Better Life: The Story Of One of My Students

I am working with one young man, Fong, who is a Vietnamese American whose parents stowed away in a cargo ship to escape the brutal Communist regime in Vietnam in the late 1980’s. They were granted political asylum in the U.S. and are citizens. Fong is a UCLA graduate and is applying to medical school. He and I are heavy into all of his supplemental essays for various medical schools, which is giving me an opportunity to get to know him quite well. Tonight we finished his autobiography for UC San Diego medical school and I learned even more.

His father and mother’s education was interrupted due to war-torn Vietnam and they both have only an elementary school education. They also only speak a little English. However, they have always been very supportive of their two sons in whatever dreams they have had for themselves. The father works in the back a Vietnamese grocery store and his mother worked in a factory for a long time. Fong has always worked to bring in extra money for the family even by selling handmade leather goods at flea markets. This same boy graduated in the top 10% of his high school class and graduated from UCLA with top grades.

Fong epitomizes the American Dream.

He wants to work as a physician in underserved areas with immigrant populations because he says that he knows what it’s like to live in an area where medical services are a luxury. He wants to provide that extra help to those who have difficulty understanding the intricacies of medical diagnoses and treatments and to make sure they are adequately informed related to health care decisions. His own grandmother died on the operating table during a high risk medical procedure and his parents had not understood exactly how high risk it was. He believes that if he or his brother had been there to translate, then perhaps his grandmother’s death would not have come as such a terrible surprise.

I am proud to live in a country where a poor child through hard work can become a physician. That is exactly what America is all about: to provide opportunities to dig out of poverty and make positive contributions to our society.

There is no doubt this young man will see his dream come to fruition. He has developed the focus, the discipline and the good character to bring about positive change.

To his hard work I say a hearty Hear! Hear! He epitomizes the very best of our country and we all should be proud to have young people like him among us. He is already well on his way to making this a better world.

May God bless him in his efforts. He is a very good young man.


College Essay Central

This has been a heavy college essay day. I had three students for two hours each and three students (triplets) for an hour and a half meeting with their parents at Mel’s Diner. (They are from Florida and have been visiting colleges in CA). Lots of good discussion and writing going on, I must say. I am impressed with the focus and talent of these young people as they tackle the Common App and UC questions, which are not easy, I can tell you.

Also, this morning I had a funny experience. I had Michael, who is now 25 and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts here from 9 – 11 and then Shaun, 23, who is back after graduating from Boston University in Neuropsychology here from 11 – 12. I have had Michael as a student since 7th grade (he is now my writing buddy) and Shaun since he was in 4th grade (he is now working on his science fiction writing). So, I said to these two grown men as they crossed paths, “Did you guys ever meet here when you were younger?” and they both smiled and said, “Yeah, I think I remember seeing you.” I had to smile. I can remember them vividly as little boys. Who would have ever thought I’d still have the pleasure of working with them now?

On that note, I am saying good night. This gal is ready for a hot bath and a soft bed. Holy cow. A little too much work today, but at least it was satisfying.

I hope you’ve had a good day. I’ll be checking back in with you tomorrow.



Delving Deeper for Great College Essays

I have been working with students on college essays over the past few days, using shared Google docs and the telephone. It is always an interesting process and this year is no different.

Part of the fun of college essays is that we dig deep, looking for experiences that carry real heft. This is not particularly easy to get to and requires a lot of prompting:

“Have you had a particularly challenging experience?”

“How did you feel? Sad, defeated, frustrated, demoralized?”

“What did you do after you felt those feelings?”

Most students are very uncomfortable talking about themselves in this way, but this is one sure method to get down to a person’s core values.

“And then what?”

Deeper and deeper.

Many of my students laugh in the middle of this process and say, “I’m telling you things I don’t usually share with anybody.”

This is the key. The goal of the personal essay is to communicate in 650 words an essential truth about the writer’s life experience and that is never going to happen by focusing on surface experiences and emotions.

I have helped many students write their college essays over the past sixteen years. It is one of my favorite activities because it is so personal and ultimately so rewarding. I’ve watched kids with average grades and SAT scores gain admission to top schools primarily because of their superlative personal essays and I’ve seen others with excellent grades and top SAT scores get unexpected full ride merit scholarships to top universities greatly aided by their strong personal essays. More importantly, I’ve watched all of my students find that nugget of truth that sheds real light for them on their lives and their struggles and who they are deep down. That’s the best part, no matter where they end up in college.

I am lucky to have this job. I always come away with a sense that we have accomplished something that goes well beyond the college application process. We have connected on a personal level and I have witnessed a transformation as my students have pushed themselves to ask important questions about who and how they are and what they see as their purpose in this world. We would all do well to have someone from time to time asking us to probe into our psyches for those answers. I suspect we’d create a better world for others and ourselves if we did.


The Room Where I Write

The room I am sitting in has a red Persian rug, a brown leather couch, a green brocade wing back chair (plus ottoman), a green Morris chair (plus ottoman), a cane back rocking chair, an art deco blondish coffee table and a low oak table upon which rests our television set. The curtains (which are insulated blackout curtains) are peach colored and they match in color, purely by accident, a large photo we have of orangish sand and distant rock formations of somewhere in either Arizona or New Mexico. We also have an orangish antique Carrom board hanging at an angle on one wall, plus a vintage needlepoint on another. The needlepoint reads:

Give Me Time

Time for patience
For understanding too
Time to remember
Thoughtful deeds to do
Time to believe in
all fellow men
Time to perceive
The value of a friend.

The needlepoint has a clock flanked with flowers in the very middle between “…thoughtful deeds” and Time to believe…”, and there are backward and forward S shapes all around the edges. It is beautifully framed and is one of my favorite possessions.

There is another needlepoint on the far wall, plus a clock in an oak case, two pictures and a painting. There are also a couple of small tables, two lamps, a Mission Oak drop front desk plus oak desk chair, and an old round oak stool. It sounds like a lot of furniture for a relatively small room, but it all fits together nicely and gives the room a lived-in feeling. All the colors and textures work nicely together to convey warmth.

This room is right next to the kitchen and was the official diningroom before we arrived. We wanted our living room to be a television-free zone so we need a den, and this has been our den/tv room for the 21 years we’ve lived in this house. We have a big table in the living room that serves as a dining table for major events. We would need to be in there anyway since this room – our den – is on the smallish side.

When people come into this room, they often say, “Ah, it’s so cozy in here.” I agree. It’s a comfortable space in which to relax. It is also in close proximity to the kitchen, which is handy for a quick snack. There is a ceiling fan that keeps everything cool, plus a big bay window and two side windows that make it nice and light. We have a rectangular stained glass window that hangs in the bay window.

When my kids were at home, I used to see all my students in the living room. The den was part of our family space and was their domain for relaxing after school with a snack and a little tv time. But now I typically see my students in here because it’s pleasant and Ray will go upstairs if he needs family space. We have a door that can close if he is in the kitchen when I have a student. That way he gets the privacy he needs and we get the quiet we need for writing.

Because Ray and I have been antique dealers for a very long time, our home has an eclectic assortment of antique or collectible furniture and decor, all of which means something special to us. This room is no exception. I can look at every piece of furniture or needlepoint or lamp, table or picture and tell you where it came from and what the story is that goes with it. And if I can’t recall the story, then Ray can. That is just part of the deal when you buy and sell antiques. The story is almost as important as the function of the piece. In some cases, even more important.

I am happy to have such a nice space in which to write and work. I am surrounded with old and treasured possessions that help create an atmosphere that I find soothing. Plus, I have my beloved needlepoint with its reflection on time. I think this environment nurtures those who enter. I certainly hope it does since that has been my intention. It definitely nurtures me.


Learning from a Young Student’s Life Story

Today I worked with a young man who is finishing UCLA and applying to medical school. For his personal statement, he told me about his life growing up in a studio apartment with five other people while his dad worked as a bag boy at a local Asian grocery store. This boy’s grandparents and his mother had stowed away in a big freighter so they could escape the brutal Communist regime in Vietnam in the late 1980’s. His father had travelled overland through Asia to Europe and then stowed away on his own commercial freighter. It took him four years to reunite with his family in Southern CA.

I was crying before we even got to the story of this young man’s grandma sitting down every day with him after school so he could tell her what he was learning in his homework. And how she related what he was learning to her experience growing up during war times in Vietnam. She always concluded those lessons with a comment about how much better off they all were in the U.S. His grandma died four months before her grandson graduated from high school. A sadness to him that was obvious in his telling of the story of her unexpected death during surgery.

This same boy made leather bracelets and sold them at swap meets every Saturday and Sunday during the summer before he started UCLA and every weekend during his freshman and sophomore years to help pay for his education. He graduates in just a few weeks with a 3.8 grade point and an impressive MCAT score of 34.

I said to him, “If your essay makes me cry, then it’s a good essay. Remember, these poor people read hundreds of these and they want to be touched.” I can assure you this will be a seriously touching essay when we finish it on Wednesday.

I am often struck with the extreme obstacles many of my fellow human beings have faced in their lives. In many cases (as with this boy), these people have developed a deep compassion for others as a result.

I know this young man will be a fine doctor and an even better human being than most. He has a quiet calmness and a quick laugh. I felt lucky to get to spend time with him today. He helped me to remember just how fortunate my own life circumstances have been and how important it is to really listen to the experiences of others. They have much to teach and I have even more to learn.


Award-Winning Student Essay: To Hold a Hand

A student of mine, Lona Tehrani, wrote a superb college essay that deals with the transgender restroom issue that recently has gotten so much press. This essay won a regional Silver Key award from the Scholastic Artists and Writers contest, the oldest and most prestigious art and writing contest for youth in grades 7 – 12 in the United States. The western region is comprised of 8 states.

Here is the essay. I believe this speaks volumes about this issue in the most human of ways. I am posting this with the permission of Lona, who will be attending Barnard in New York City in fall, 2016.


I wanted to hide that I was Persian when I found myself drawn to Jordan, a transgender male. Even though we were both attending the Gay-Straight Alliance Network’s Advocacy and Youth Leadership Academy, I was afraid he would regard me skeptically rather than see me for myself. After all, my culture is known to be LGBTQ phobic, and Jordan, born female, was now in the transitioning process to become a male. However, I soon learned that we shared a love for bagels and chemistry, and over the two days of the conference we became friends.

As a teen I knew that being judged in high school was hard, but Jordan’s experience was exceptionally difficult. What shocked me was his humble reply when I asked what I could do to be helpful. “Just be there to hold a hand. Support makes you feel like you’re living in your own body. That you’re not a fraud.” The word fraud brought me up short. In traditional Persian culture it was, in fact, more acceptable to be a fraud regarding sexual preference and identity than to buck the status quo.

My grandparents are prime examples of the rigid mentality among Persians regarding sexual orientation. If I mention that a family friend’s son is gay, they shake their heads, rejecting that idea completely. The idea of someone they know being transgender is beyond the realm of possibility. Even with my more Americanized parents, this belief persists to the point that if one of my family members came out as gay or transgender, there is a high probability that person would be forever erased from the family. It is as if sexual preference or identity is the determining factor of a human being’s legitimacy. As much as I love my family, I am appalled by this archaic attitude. While I feel grateful that I do not have to resort to secrecy since I was born with a sexually “acceptable” identity, I cannot help but feel ashamed about all the shame.

I felt compelled after meeting Jordan to do something to increase awareness of gender identity issues. As one person, I realized I was not capable of tackling this weighty issue on a macro level. These are deep-seated biases not just in the Persian community, but also in most parts of the world. However, after a conversation with Jordan, I came upon an area that could affect a small, but meaningful change. He confided that “for safety reasons” at school he used the girl’s bathroom because when he used the boy’s, the guys “could be very aggressive.” As a result, I decided to target a problem within the problem: gender neutral restrooms.

After talking to other transgender students, various bullying organizations, and the Transgender Law Center, I decided to organize a noon-day presentation for faculty and staff at my school to address this issue. Our Head of School and the Head of Upper School attended along with many teachers and students. I could see that I was not alone in recognizing that one small change might produce greater changes over time. With the help of my school’s administration, my tiny “cause” soon became a reality. I am proud to say that Brentwood now has a gender neutral restroom in the library of our school for anyone who prefers more privacy.

Through knowing Jordan I have stopped worrying if people are automatically categorizing me simply because of my cultural background. I, like him, cannot change who I am, nor do I want to. While Jordan continues to challenge cultural pressures to be a certain way; I am learning to challenge cultural pressures to think a certain way. Though our paths are vastly different, our journey is to the same destination: our true identities.

I am now aware of the benefit of “holding a hand.” Connection. Caring. Community.

I am amazed at just how profound such a simple gesture can be.


Saying Goodbye to One of My Graduating Seniors

I just had my last session with a boy with whom I have worked since he was in middle school. He is graduating from high school in just a few weeks and going off to college. He will be going to school locally so it is highly likely that we will continue to work together some after he is there. Still, knowing that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact for me. This is still a goodbye.

This is a boy who I have watched grow, stretch and evolve into a fine student and even better person. We have met weekly for most of the past five years. He has become my friend as well as my student and now he’s grown up and is off on the next big step in his life. This is both the best and hardest part of my work: to watch with pride as my students jump into the next phase of their lives and also to recognize that change often means the end of our relationship as we have known it.

Because I work so closely with my young students and for so long, this shift always comes with a flood of tears from me. Anyone who knows me well knows that I tend to cry easily, and so it’s no surprise that saying goodbye to this boy tonight brought on the waterworks. He looked at me when I got teary and said, “Aw, Len, that is so sweet. That means so much to me.” Of course, that caused me to sniffle even more. Alas, this is me. Full of emotion, especially for those I love.

I wish my sweet Aaron the best on his upcoming journey. He is an exceptionally bright and sensitive boy with a discerning mind. I know beyond a doubt that he will do exceedingly well in this life.

One more chick out of the nest…

These goodbyes never get easier.