personal, time capsule

*KD Dallas–Singin’ the SAT Blues

Karen Dillard’s College Prep–THE SAT, ACT, and college preparation company that’s been in the DFW area for more than 20 years now. A staple in the eyes and ears of the blessed children of Plano, Dallas, Colleyville, and Frisco. The ubiquitous yellow binders signify an era of intense competition in the noxious college app environment, the pervasive anxiety in middle-class circles, and the indelible socioeconomic inequality in the US that starts from the womb and ends at the grave.

It’s been around a month since the KD Dallas office closed. I started going to this location since the summer prior to freshman year. Although it seems ironic that I’ve developed such an attachment to this tiny elitist prison (Lilliputian doesn’t even begin the description of each room), I have made new friends, both peers and teachers. I’ve matured mentally here, grown up here; and learned just a bit too much about the state of standardized testing here. At this turning point, I’d like to take a wandering stroll down Memory Lane for a second or two.

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My first day is hard to remember. It all started out with the view from the picture below. The “Command Central” consists of two to three people standing at the front desk ready to help, albeit usually talking amongst themselves most of the time. (This desk seems cute in comparison to Plano’s.) On that fateful day, I coincidentally saw two of my classmates, which helped soothe my nerves. After getting set up, I headed down the hallway shown below to my first ever experience here: orientation, which took way too long for a restless middle-schooler. Workshops? Practice Tests? Classes?? Vocab “lab???” I felt even more enervated. All I could do was read each email KD sent me over and over again. I hoped for the best.

Unexpectedly, I did receive the best. That summer I started classes at KD. They were rather uneventful; however, the school year brought new friendships with the instructors and strengthened old ones with classmates from school. Sometimes after workshops, my friends and I would go to Subway, where we would laugh and talk until our parents grew antsy and picked us up.

Sophomore year came along; these are the times that I remember most clearly. I got to know more of my instructors even better and gradually began to joke around with the “command central” (i.e. front desk) workers and even directors. Waking up early Saturday mornings to eat breakfast at the nearby Einstein’s and later to attend two-hour workshops and became a part of my weekly routine.

One day, I was mindlessly working on the vocab lab, which I had already completed through once, when I bumped into one of my closest friends–surely enough, as in a chain reaction so familiar to us chem geeks (we met in freshman chemistry), more and more of my classmates started to come to KD as well (probably just part of the mold we’re subjected to in HP)! I realized that workshops were so much more bearable with friendly smiles, so we created a group text to coordinate our attack on the SAT. The hours spent in this prison (Exhibit A: grey-painted brick on the interior) turned around from near dread to delight.

(Side note: this place reeks with the stench of the classic SAT: the restrooms are decorated with erudite vocabulary words that high school students used to memorize. Glad those days are over!)

 And here we come to this day, a new leaf has turned… or more accurately, has moved twenty miles north into the heart of Texas-sized suburbia. Ever since the Dallas KD location closed, I’ve been stuck at the Plano location–a giant icebox full of teenagers on the brink of bawling out the next Biblical flood, according to one of my Dallas instructors who moved with me to Plano. (A note about the temperature: when I say it’s freezing, I mean you could store ice cream and it wouldn’t melt. In each room, the AC is cranking out a cool 60 degrees, and a ceiling fan AND sometimes a side fan are on full power. If they paid less for their energy bills, maybe we could pay less as well!) Every so often I get to see a familiar face: ANYONE from Dallas I welcome with a smile, greeting, or even a warm hug. It’s hard to find sane people in that strip mall, but we’ll deal (hopefully) until the end of this year.

To end on a positive note, I have met some amazing and über-qualified teachers, whose professional experience ranges from copy editor to mechanical engineer, some of whom have been teaching for decades now. I’ve met even more great people on my test prep journey… and perhaps a penguin here and there.

-MX

Note: Some of my favorite teachers include: the WS game lady who lowkey got fired and who I saw at Einstein’s more than once; Bryn, whom I am friends with on Snapchat and who carries a sizzling watermelon purse; York, the one and only chill teddy-bear; Donna, my lovely Southern jean-jacket wearing snail; Debby, the one with no chill whatsoever; Michael Wang, who’s lowkey intimidating 🙂

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personal, time capsule

*Sophomore Reflections

It’s been two weeks since school ended and a week of Latin summer school completed; now is a good transition–a time to reflect on what happened this last year at HP.

First impressions? The most conspicuous difference from freshman year to sophomore year was the addition of AP courses. I took four this year (Biology, Chemistry, Calculus, and World History), which wasn’t as bad I thought it would be. Along the way I’ve met great teachers who go beyond what is called for in order to instill a newfound understanding and appreciation of the classes they’re teaching: Mr. Sanders made sure we were awake first period by telling the most *dad* puns I’ve ever heard in my life, Ms. Leediker roasted us from the first core lab (which actually involved a titration, so it’s not exactly biology) and never stopped, Mr. Chuang burnt sugar on fire for us in Chemistry, and Dr. Wright greeted our Calc BC class with a smile every day. The teachers in my life have continued to make a difference in all of the students’ lives (including me!) and have inspired me to give back to my community as they have. I’m now interested in taking a few classes in history or linear algebra two years form now in college, even though it has nothing to do with my planned major (biophysics? biochemistry? chemistry? something like that).

Another wonderful addition to my life this past year was participating in my school’s U.S. Academic Decathlon program, endearingly referred to as “AcDec.” AcDec was another very conspicuous addition to my already-hectic schedule (I only go home at 3:30 on Fridays >__<). On top of Monday afternoon meetings that regularly go to 5, AcDec required me to read at least 1 to 2 hours a day outside of other homework from my other classes. On top of all of this, the overarching topic was “India,” something I knew next to nothing about (I probably know more about you than I did about India before this year!) However, I can say that I’ve truly enjoyed every minute absorbing more foreign culture than I could’ve ever hoped for (except Social Science: that was a pain). I also memorized a painfully-awkward speech, wrote numerous bland essays that somehow scored well, and took part in interviews with deceptively-friendly faces. The best I got out of this program so far is definitely the new friends I’ve made for a lifetime! I’ve never met such a concentrated group of smart and funny people in my life. Go Decathletes!

This was also my first full year of Student Council (last year I was stuck in Latin most of the time). Every day I looked forward to meeting with this lovely bunch, especially the freshmen (freshmen!!?! We’re supposed to avoid them like the plague, but some of them are better than what you’d think). We started and supported many projects, old and new, especially Project Purple, which seeks to reduce alcohol and drug use among the high schoolers in our community. I’m also really proud that we’ve paired up with many wonderful organizations, some of which have been started by HP alumni, including Bonton Farms, Project Starfish, and One Million 4 Anna. What I enjoyed the most was my “family,” composed of two seniors (our “moms”), one junior, two sophomores, and one freshmen. We got to eat off-campus and hang out, and I’ve never felt so carefree and relaxed. I’ll hold these memories dear to me for a lifetime!

A last note about the club with the most explosions: Applied Science Club. To be honest, initially, I was afraid the hours I spent on my cathode ray tube would be wasted, time that could have been spent on AcDec (I’m totally not a nerd..psh…). Instead, opening myself up to the club and its members have been wise choices, as I’ve gained hands-on knowledge on building my own gadgets and have had some interesting, memorable experiences.


Finally, less formal than a school organization or club, my “squads” have been there for me! I loved solidifying our bonds and making a few new friends as well–they make life in high school much better than it seems. They’re glial cells to my axons, peanut butter to my jelly, vitamin D to my calcium. Graduation was especially bittersweet, as in a few months, I won’t see some of my best friends lurking the hallways of this high school anymore. One senior said to me, “See you in the afterlife,”… I hope to see them before that!

P.S. I’ve just thought of another observation: compared to last year, even though this year’s teachers were fantastic, I still feel that I haven’t connected as much with my classmates, teachers, and courses. I distinctly remember one day in second semester of WHAP that I thought to myself, “When will I stay becoming conformable with this class? I still feel like it’s the first day of school.” Maybe it was just the unadulterated fascination with high school as a freshman last year… all I hope for next year is a renewed sense of belonging.

opinion

Fahrenheit 451: Some Burning Thoughts

For the most part, reading books for English class may be described as a chore, a redundancy, or a task to be pushed to the night before the test. Sometimes, it may not even occur at all, thanks to our trustworthy buddy Sparknotes, who still thinks themes are three-word phrases. But I read every book assigned to me, sometimes to delight, sometimes to disdain; this time, my latest book to read was Fahrenheit 451, a canon of American literature, the pièce de résistance of the acclaimed author Ray Bradbury. Thus, I have already read it two times before this year, but, as all of my English teachers say, every time one re-reads a book, one will spot something different. This time, I fell in love with Bradbury’s mastery of stringing together just the right words…

From page one I realized how delicate and poised the language is. Bradbury artfully ties together unique similes, beautiful metaphors, and engaging dialogue. I don’t drag my eyes, I prance from line to line in delight, my mind spinning around as I absorb the beauty that lies between the lines of prose; I find poetry of the imagination, paintings from my memory, sightings from my perspective.

Some examples:

“This book has pores. It has features… You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion… So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless” (79).

“The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy disks, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it into chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire” (88).

“Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius. Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles came through the front door and vanished into the volcano’s mouth with martinis in their hands. Montag stopped eating. They were like a monstrous crystal chandelier tinkling in a thousand chimes, he was their Cheshire cat smiles burning through the walls of the house” (89).

“[T]he old man would go on with this talking and this talking, drop by drop, stone by stone, flake by flake… [H]e would not be Montag any more, this old man told him, assured him, promised him. He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, after everything had mixed and simmered and worked away in silence, there would be neither fire nor water, but wine… And one day he would look back upon the fool and know the fool” (99).

“There was a crash like the falling parts of a dream fashioned out of warped glass, mirrors, and crystal prisms. Montag drifted about as if still another incomprehensible storm had turned him” (108).

“It [the house] bedded itself down in sleepy pink-gray cinders and a smoke plume blew over it, rising and waving slowly back and forth in the sky… the great tents of the circus had slumped into charcoal and rubble and the show was well over” (111).

“Montag caught it with a bloom of fire, a single wondrous blossom that curled in petals of yellow and blue and orange” (114).

Also invigorating were the connections I made with myself and my world; the dystopian society lacking in any depth at all, seems too close to home. In the fictional setting of the novel, Americans no longer read any print material; instead, housewives fill their time with interacting with their “parlor families,” displayed on all four screens in its own room. Cacophonic and vapid, the parlors allow not an iota of thought, for it’s simply responding to the prompt given. Likewise in today’s society, we have become more vacuous, constantly focusing on the newest cat video or latest meme to break through.
Instead of pondering, thinking, wondering, we are tweeting, snapping, and browsing. Sooner or later, we may become like the insipid simpletons found in F451, a scary thought to behold.

 

personal

Alaska ’16

This past April, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Alaska for USAD Nationals. Although the competition itself was also exciting (I met fellow decathletes from around the world, all of whom were very nice), the few days we spent before and after the actual testing days were most invigorating.

“The Last Frontier:” Right from arrival, I could feel the majestic land living up to this state nickname. I first noticed that my cell signal was provided by GCI, a company unique to Alaska, and not the typical T-Mobile (however, sometimes T-Mobile showed instead). Second, there are operating Blockbusters in Alaska! In 2016!!!

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The afternoon after our arrival, our team took a “wilderness trip” to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. As the age-old adage goes, the journey is more important than the destination; it definitely applied to this trip! The breathtaking Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm (named as such when one of Captain Cook’s fellow explorers was disappointed in the dead end and decided to turn again) kept me awake–monstrous mountains jutting right out of the ocean spanning miles, further than the eye can behold, a fierce rain slamming against our poorly-dressed bodies, the deadly coolness and stillness lingering in the air–brought out a distinct first impression of Alaska.

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Guiding us was Kevin, a very knowledgeable Wisconsinite (albeit without the adorable accent that typically accompanies), who definitely treated us kinder than the weather! (Fun fact: Prior to guiding tours, he was a German teacher.) From him I learned that the murkiness of the waters wasn’t from light effects or typical sediment, but rather from a special glacial silt that inhabits the Cook Inlet and its many arms and sells for high prices due to its cosmetic effects. He also told us about the best restaurants in Anchorage, including the Moose’s Tooth, Simon Seaforts, and Crow’s Nest, the restaurant on top of Hotel Captain Cook that used to be the only establishment in the area to require a dress code. The drive was fun and informative, a combination the world needs more of. Even though the sun was not to be seen behind all the grey clouds and dreary rain, Kevin shone on.

As any Discovery Channel junkie may know, there are a plethora of shows filming out of Alaska, and those of us in the lower 48 most want to see large wild animals when we are watching about Alaska. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet was filming the day we came to the center, and so we were the only general visitors admitted. No wonder the animals seemed extra lethargic–there were no innocent tourists to flaunt to!

We saw many different animals, some of whose names I can’t recall. My favorite by far was Hugo, the female grizzly bear. Even in this grim weather, she decided that she needed a mental health day and gave herself a nice bath in the stream.

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Later on in the week, at the Egan Convention Center, where all the testing and subjective events occurred, our team met Keith Cox, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), alum of our high school and co-owner of Seafood Analytics, which tests seafood products for quality of fatty acids, how long the product will last on shelves, etc. It is the first company to offer such technology! He was actually an Interview judge for the competition, for which we are eternally grateful.

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After the competition was over, the Saturday and Sunday we had left was for natural excursions nearby, the most vivid of all being Flattop Mtn. At 3,510 feet, this mountain soars into the sky. Climbing this beast was quite the challenge, the most physical exercise I have exerted in years; through this experience, I’ve learned a few lessons…

  1. Life can become difficult unexpectedly: The first few minutes of the hike were relatively easy-going, with gentle slopes, cleared paths, and a cute husky trotting back and forth. However, after this portion came a steep hill that I chose to climb (who knows why). All of a sudden, tiny pellets of snow came hurling down forcefully, and the slippery snow on the ground was no help either. The howling wind ripped at my face, clawing and scratching… like a “hangry” toddler after his Cheerios spill. Nevertheless, I persevered, only to meet another, even-larger challenge ahead of me.
  2.  One can make life more difficult than necessary: As in the little knoll, on the actual mountain, I most certainly chose paths that others did not take–the snugly-placed footsteps were wooing me to walk away from my current path, but to no avail, as I was too far away from the beaten path. Thus, I continued, but it was truly painful, especially if you’re afraid of heights and barely hanging onto a near-90-degree-gradient cliff like me! Going down, I chose easier paths and had a better time climbing down… But, that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my way up. Sometimes the hardest paths are the most rewarding. I’d say, if I hadn’t taken such an arduous path up, I wouldn’t be writing this blogpost at all!
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  3. As true to the byline of my blog, take life one step at a time: on my way up Flattop, I couldn’t help but plan only my next few steps. It was painful to see so much ground ahead of me, but as I carefully managed to take the journey step-by-step, sooner than later, I reached the top of the peak, which took my breath away literally. 3,510 feet dwindled down to a few inches by using this technique.

As you can see, the trek was definitely worth it! These views will stick with me for a lifetime. I undoubtedly enjoyed my few days in our 49th state and hope to come back again.

Cheers,

MX

 

 

opinion, time capsule

*Edited version of “Be a Stargirl”

Hello,

As I’ve looked back on my blogposts, I’ve realized how much I have grown (will expound upon once school ends). One piece really stuck out to me: “Be a Stargirl.” I know can see the pure (almost obnoxious) naïveté of my freshman years. Now I’ve learned to craft, to mold, to pinch a distinct form for my writing, and not just a swish of a paintbrush. So here goes, a revised version of one of my very first posts here:

Eccentricity, believe it or not, is not just used in conic sections. Neither is it just anti-war student protesters of the 70s, vegan automobile-boycotters in hipster-land, or vagabond artists whom we tend to associate with this term. We may think of these more extreme examples, but non-conformists live all around us and end up fundamentally changing the world.

The twisted brother of eccentricity, conformity hits close to home. For example, in our town, young girls run in hordes in matching, oversized Cotton Island T-shirts. In middle school, baggy athletic shorts are the must-haves for boys. Both male and female high-schoolers wear the same few brands as well—so different in their dress and yet so similar in their willingness to mindlessly jump on the rickety bandwagon.

Another community has a similar issue: the setting of The Giver by Lois Lowry. Jonas, the protagonist, lives in a world without hunger, war, or uncertainty but also devoid of color, love, and music. His life in this dystopian community is merely a shell of himself. Jonas takes special pills to hide romantic feelings, and his thoughts and actions are the same as everyone else’s—nothing distinguishes him from the rest of the citizens. However, this all changes when Jonas is selected (without his input) to be the next “Receiver,” the sole human repository of all past memories, ranging from pleasant to heartbreaking. With these powerful emotions instilled in him, Jonas peels off the veneer of his home, uncovering the ugly truth of his hometown and its complete suppression of the human soul. After realizing the disaster of homogeneity and the eery orthodoxy in his former home, Jonas flees; he jeopardizes survival for a taste of living as a unique individual, and not like a grain of sand in a dust storm.

Although the world we live in will never be as monochromatic as the “sameness” sphere in the novel, the story still inspires me and thousands of others across the world to pick Dr. Pepper in Coke vs. Pepsi, to think outside of the shackled box we live in. The Giver reminds us to enjoy the adventure of free expression that we take for granted.

Non-conformity make real-life global impacts too, not just in some fictional dystopian town. If our history on Earth were a book, the dog-eared pages would be ones written by non-conformists—those who dared to say that our planet wasn’t flat or wasn’t the center of the universe, those who argued that humans could go into outer space, those who refused to let go of their seats to another man just because of his race. Non-conformists have brought exciting innovation and radical transformations of our understanding of our natural surroundings, our society, and, most importantly, ourselves. They remind us to take off any masks we put on and provide a key to unlock our real personalities and passions embedded deep inside of us.

Then again, you don’t have to be anyone extraordinary or seemingly-superhuman to reject the status quo. Right here, everyone can participate in making our high school and community-at-large a welcoming haven for acceptance of everyone. Our community doesn’t have to be just a simple drawing of uniform blue and gold; it can, and should, be a vibrant mosaic of many different colors and shapes and patterns. Our community shouldn’t be a single tuning note; it can develop into a symphony of different sounds and rhythms and textures. It should be a celebration of who each one of us is.

In a famous scene of the movie Dead Poets Society, the English teacher John Keating leads his students to walk outside in the courtyard. Soon, they are walking together, and everyone is clapping to a singular beat. Keating then tells his students that conformity is easy, but going against what your friends are doing is hard. He challenges them to walk at their own pace and to stride in their own beat.

My challenge to you? Dare to be different.

personal

Dallas Arboretum Spring Break 2016

Hello, Internet!

I haven’t blogged in a while (i.e. two months), so here’s a happy link as a form of my dearest apologies: https://youtu.be/vSlWDlXCelk

Yesterday, I visited the Dallas Arboretum for the first time in ages. The last time I’ve been was when I was in kindergarten; time flies so quickly! Starting from parking, we could notice a difference–a brand new, five-story parking garage was built across the street, and a tunnel connecting it to the arboretum was built as well. Inside, the arboretum showed off even-more grandiose features, such as elaborate water features and terracing. The neat and prim order of all the different flowers and hedges and trees gave me an otherworldly sense, a fantasy of perfectionism. It felt good to indulge in such beauty for a morning, but if I were a garden, I would be unpruned, wild, natural–just like how I am free-flowing, outgoing (only with the right people), and spontaneous as a person. However, I still hope to visit the Dallas Arboretum throughout this year as quick respites from my upcoming year from H-E-double hockey sticks!

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Happy New Year!

On the first day of 2016, I’d like to take the time to say Happy New Year! I have a few wishes for the upcoming 366 days…

  1. Peace–Terrorist attacks and mass shootings (at least in the US) have been marred the beginning, middle, and end of the year 2015. I hope to see global cooperation in combating terrorist groups and legal action in the US concerning the alarming frequency of mass shootings and the sky-high number of gun-related homicides–something, even if you don’t believe in gun control, needs to be done about 353 mass shootings in 1 year.
  2. Growth–First, personally, I hope to mature even more as I progress through high school (and pass the halfway mark!). Moreover, I wish that with the newly-created treaty from COP 21 (the Paris climate change talks), we may move towards a more sustainable, eco-friendly world. When I will be 50 years old, I don’t want to hear about catastrophic sea-level rises displacing millions around the world or that the last polar bear died. Instead, I look forward to a generation of innovation and recovery.
  3. Fun–Lastly, and most importantly, I ask that everyone have some fun. Life is sweet yet short; Forrest Gump’s mother compared life to a box of chocolates, not a bottle of medicine. This year, I hope to enjoy the littlest things in life more, such as the morning calls of the birds outside my window, talking to good friends during passing periods, or having some down time to blog.

Have a great year everyone!