Common Application Essay #1

Last year on this day, I heard some bad news and my reaction (healthy as it was) was to start writing again. I did, wholeheartedly, expecting to be “picked up” by Huffington Post or “snatched up” by a small press. Something to affirm my talents.

But that’s not a reason to write. Needing to write is a reason to write. Having good ideas to share with good people is a reason to write. Hence, no picking up, no snatching.

I’d like to say the pain of last year’s rejection has worn off. It hasn’t, especially as people I know have started traveling to IB schools and leading IB workshops. I wish them all well; they are amazing people. It’s just that I am amazing too.

Last night I ran into Brian and his mom at Target. We talked about applying for colleges and eventually wound our way around to University of Chicago’s essay questions and Common App essay prompts. I decided, right then and there near the self check-out, that that’s where I would begin writing again. They say youth is wasted on the young. Well, I think these good writing prompts are wasted on them too. I can’t imagine what my 15 year-old high school junior would say, but I know what I want to tell you as an end-of-career, 54 year old.

This is the first in a series of College App essays. Here is Common Application essay prompt #1:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

I want to tell you about my marble collection. I have a jar in every room of my house, even the bathrooms. Most of them come from an antique store in Berlin, Ohio which, most days, exists as a tourist trap for those wanting to see the Amish. I like being in Amish Country, but it’s not for their food (too bland) or way of living. Honestly, I have been so many times, I have gotten used to the things that charm others: buggies outside of a bulk foods store, black hand-sewn pants, bowl haircuts on little boys, picturesque laundry drying on the line. I go to Amish country for the rolling farms way off the beaten track. The jungle-like impatiens in a thriving garden. The nods I get from the buggy drivers because I pass slowly and carefully. And I go for marbles.

When my first girlfriend and I first went to Amish Country on the weekend before school started, I impulsively bought a jar of antique marbles for an ungodly amount of money. Forty dollars. As soon as we got to the hotel, I rolled them all out onto the white bedcover. “Look,” I said, “at these colors.” These were not like the cheap sparkled marbles you can get at Walmart. They were clearer. The glass seemed more pure. I could almost feel the hands that had held them up to the light.

That was fourteen years ago. Now there are marbles all around me. Most are antiques, but my favorites are from a company in Reno, Ohio, called Jabo. I like them, not because they are rare, but because they remind me of the earth. One batch made me think of Utah – crusty orange, sky blue and sunset gold. One run reminds me of the waters at the head of the Mississippi. Silty brown, green-blue stream color, undergrowth moss.

You might be thinking that I’m an expert in playing marbles. I am not. I think the big ones are called shooters but I have no idea what they are shooting at or why they might be shooting. There is a circle, I think. Made of string?

I collect marbles because each has its own beauty. And you have to look at each carefully, closely. Now, I know you are expecting me to pivot this essay to a metaphor: how I think each person is uniquely wondrous and we must look closely to know and understand each person. That’s what I would have done when I was 15 and I needed a college to like me and like what I have written. I don’t think about metaphors when I am looking at my marbles. I just look at the marbles. The same way that I look at the barns when I drive through Kidron or Walnut Creek. Or the way I look at leaves flipping over before a storm. Or the way I look at kindergarten print with its sloping slant and confident capital letters.

It is enough, sometimes – oft times – to just stop. Look. Appreciate. There is ample time for metaphor, turning one thing into another, connecting like ideas to experiences. There is time, and sometimes not enough time, to tend to your daily living. The rush of grocery carts, online logging in, Netflix and making beds.

And there is time to just be still. Too love colors, shapes. For you, it might be a walk in the Forest Hill Park, seeing fox on the ridge of the trail. For him, it might be a trip to the Packard Museum in Warren, running his hand across the chrome of a 1953 Clipper.

For me, it’s marbles. Untwisting the Ball Jar lid, clinking them onto the floor. Holding them up to the light, to see the way the glass seems swirled. Swirled just for me.


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