2018 Winner

Swasti Shree

Glenmont, NY

I grew up in Alpena, a small town in Northern Michigan. A sleepy community, it was five minutes away from the lake and three hours away from the interstate. I had moved there when I was three years old and spent all of elementary and middle school with all the same kids. We all grew up together, within the same neighborhood, and had formed a small tight-knit group.

A week before my sophomore year of high school, I learned that my dad had been transferred to a suburb of Albany, New York called Bethlehem. The announcement hit me hard; I spent a whole day in my room in silence. My life had been going so well. I was at the top of my class, my robotics team was flourishing, even qualifying for the world championship, and my friend group had never been closer. How could I leave?

Somehow, it was worked out that my mom and I would join my dad in Bethlehem after the school year was over, while my brother continued going to college. I had one last year with my small community. It felt like I had a big, red countdown clock over my head, and the numbers were counting down till I would disappear from the world I knew. Thinking about leaving hurt, and hearing my friends make plans for the summer and next school year added to the pain. For the rest of the school year, I started to retreat into myself.

The first day of summer vacation was my last day in Alpena. I went to see the sunrise over Lake Huron with my friend Shelby. The sky was a beautiful golden yellow. I sat on the edge of the pier, feet inches away from the water, and thought about how I would soon leave my little town. We shivered in our hoodies and watched the smoke from the cement plant on the horizon billow up into the sky. As the ducks ruffled their feathers and rippled the reflections in the water, I turned my face so Shelby wouldn’t see my scowl. “It’s not fair. I won’t get to see one of these again,” I said, but the incessant honking of geese on the beach quieted me.

Shelby looked at me, a slight smile on her face: “At least the closest escalator won’t be three hours away.” I only blinked away my tears in response.

Coming back to my house felt like a disaster. It was my brother’s 20th birthday, but there was no time for celebration. The movers had to pack everyone’s trinkets into cardboard boxes. I distractedly directed them through the house, letting them know what could be packed and where it needed to go. As I watched them disassemble my bookshelf, I felt a rising panic. How could I leave my childhood home and go to New York? The longer I pondered, the more numb I became.

The next several days were spent lying on a mattress on the floor of our temporary apartment, letting the heat melt my brain. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything productive. How could I? I was too busy missing Michigan, where there were sidewalks everywhere you went, and the lake was my backyard. The roads were wide and formed grids, unlike Bethlehem’s narrow, snaky tangles. Nothing could compare to Alpena.

Starting school called for a transition from lying in bed to disassociating in class. On the ride home with my mom, I would bitterly point out everything that was different. It wasn’t socially acceptable to be dressed in flannels and Carhartt jeans. I actually had homework for more than one class at a time. I didn’t recognize everyone I saw at the store or on the street. The days went by, with complaint becoming a routine.

It was the next summer when Gurdy, one of my new friends, invited me to view the sunrise with her. She took me to a scenic overlook at Thacher Park. It was gray dawn as I watched the sun rise above the horizon. We sat on the edge of a cliff, wrapped in blankets. I could see the valley extending for miles, and in the distance, mountains. The sky filled with a bright golden yellow and I was reminded of the sunrise in Alpena.

It was then that I realized that my attitude about moving had been wrong. I had been unfairly comparing Bethlehem to Alpena, when each had its own beauty.

In Bethlehem, the variety in clothing made it okay for me to try and experiment with my personal style. The pile of homework I received every day helped me with time management and studying habits. And not knowing everyone in the community meant that I had an opportunity to meet a diverse array of people whom I could learn from.

Moving has helped me progress. I am not stuck with the same image I had of myself since elementary school. Before, I wouldn’t have thought about taking photography, or actually conducting research in a lab. I wouldn’t have thought about taking part in temple festivities or hiking in the Adirondacks. None of these opportunities were available to me.

There are still things that I will never get used to, like not being right next to a lake or the extreme lack of sidewalks, but Bethlehem has given me the chance to grow. I have gained a new perspective, one where I am no longer focusing on all that I leave behind, and am instead approaching new experiences with excitement for all that can be done.

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