* Names have been changed to protect the student’s identity and she has granted me full permission to use her essays.
The students who most benefit from writing their application essays are those who are willing to risk it all on paper. The ones who can stare into their past histories and convert them into chains of connected words, whether beautiful experiences or heart-wrenching challenges, are the ones who gain the most during the flood of sentences over several months. Of course, some students check boxes and look for a quick exit out of the application process itself, but for the many who try and use the process as more than a “to-do list” and seek understanding of themselves and their experiences, there are untold gains of character and inner strength.
Sadie was such a student. I had met her a couple of times before she started high school, and back then she was reserved, demure almost, but looked comfortable in her own skin. The Sadie who showed up at the beginning of her senior year was very different – she was womanly but with a guarded presence, and almost distrust in her face. When she entered my office to start, she immediately announced, “I want to write about my sexual assault.”
Since I was completely unfamiliar with the case, I first asked if she was safe, if she had reported it, if her parents were aware, and what the status was with the perpetrator. I wanted to make sure that her own ability to pursue whatever need to be done wouldn’t be jeopardized by hesitation or someone talking her out of it. She listed the cold hard facts of the case, a friend who had assaulted her, the multiple occasions, her own attempts to address it, and finally the end of the road for her ability to pursue legal action: she was talked out of it by the police as they stated her case was so low profile, the perpetrator could hire lawyers and rip Sadie’s life into little pieces in front of the court. The police told her that pursuing legal action would make what was a private incident into a much larger public one. Sadie chose to drop the case and walk away.
In her retelling, her voice was full of bitterness and anger, and the verbal expression of what she wanted to discuss signaled to me that her essay was going to go through many iterations, if only for Sadie to begin processing. She showed me an early draft of her writing, and it was scattered, emotional, angry, raw–all understandable, but all too unprocessed for the actual writing required. I told her to go at it another time, another brand new draft, focusing on the aftermath of the incident instead of the lead up to the incident.
Several drafts were full of emotions, and while the actual incident was the same one, by shifting lenses on the narrative, I was able to help Sadie bring out the different notes of what the final essay might be. In a particularly challenging version of her essay, she pointed out the different ways the cultural expectations had perhaps fueled and encouraged the behavior which eventually led to the assault. Upon reading this version, I asked her, “Do you think you are to blame for what happened to you?” And her response was that family had made her feel that she was responsible. We took time to write a response to that emotion, to address it on paper, to grapple with culture that often blamed women for everything. I also shared with her my own challenges with my culture, some of the challenges that I had experienced as an Asian female. And in doing so, I explained, “The roles do not have to be defined by your culture or your past experiences. You can redefine them.”
After she wrote through the onslaught of bitterness, Sadie’s writing began to change. She allowed herself to examine her own experiences, not through the lens of her attacker, but rather through her own. She began shifting the essay’s tone from recrimination and finger pointing at her assaulter, and moved it towards understanding of her own value and self worth. And I will say it has far less to do with anything specific I said, but far more about the effort she put into exploring the experiences. In some meetings, her words brought me to a fraught edge of tears, only because the agony in many ways was palpable and inherently relatable as a woman. But during those moments, I was keenly aware that the tone was shifting in her essays, and it was towards her strength to examine the full spectrum of emotions, not just the obvious ones.
“The next day, I walked into the wellness counselor’s room and I poured out seven months of anger, shame, pain, and humiliation. At the end, she asked me if I was prepared to report him. It had taken 213 days, but I was ready. A week later, I was at the Family Violence Intervention Center, painstakingly recalling every time, place, and way I had been violated. After months of staying silent, I found it within myself to be brave and speak my truth. I discovered my capacity to act on my own behalf and make difficult choices. But while this empowered me, it also showed me how truly alone victims are. When I stood up, my best friends told me they could not pick me over my assaulter because I was a girl. When I stood up, my mother claimed I played a role in my being assaulted. When I stood up, my school did nothing to protect me from seeing my assaulter everyday. When I stood up, the police told me I could not discuss what had happened to me. When I stood up, people at my school labeled me as a fragile, pathetic victim. When I stood up, I felt more alone than I ever had before. But then people began to stand with me when I least expected it. Two girls, also sexual assault victims, reached out when I needed it most. They stood with me and I was no longer alone. They validated my experiences, showing me I was someone worth protecting, that I should never regret my decision to stand up for myself. And then more people began to stand with us. I know first hand the tremendous isolation sexual assault victims face. But I’ve also been fortunate to experience both being uplifted by those around me and made proud to be a survivor, a privilege not given to everyone, especially for those who choose to stay silent.”
In an unexpected turn of events, a few months later, Sadie had additional opportunities to write about this same experience, allowing her to further hone her own understanding and process own development, and she was surprised to discover her own strength, something I encouraged her to write about, time and time again. In one exercise I asked her to remove all the emotion of the experience, and simply focus on the the events, as if in a timeline, and push through to the aftermath–doing so developed an entirely different essay in tone, one that acknowledged the horror of the events but without the filter of emotions; instead, this essay pushed Sadie to realize how far she had come, and how resilient she was. In her final thank you card to me, she wrote “But you helped me find myself and my voice, something I will never forget or take for granted.”
I do not intend to minimize the impact of sexual violence against women, nor do I propose that merely writing about it is the way to recover and heal all wounds. But for Sadie, her movement out of the trauma came from being fearless in confronting it in the written form, experienced through really digging within and writing her college application essays. By focusing on the process behind the final essay, real growth can emerge. It’s not a complicated proposal really, but rather a simple request to return to making writing honest and worthy of its writer, and not just on the “dream” name brand college.
And so this cake, is also simple, and honest. Its flavors are few – lemon, butter, sugar, but the straightforward combination is delicious.
Lemon Tea Cake
Makes 1 loaf, serving 6-8 people
2 cups cake flour (250 grams) (note – if you’re not weighing, the most accurate method of getting close to the correct weight is to fluff the flour up with a spoon, and then delicately spoon it into a measuring cup and then carefully taking a knife across the top to even it out. DO NOT PACK)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (3 grams)
1 teaspoon baking powder (5 grams)
1 3/4 sticks of butter, softened (14 tablespoons or 200 grams)
1 cup sugar (220 grams)
Zest of two lemons
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup powdered sugar (100 grams)
1 tablespoon of lemon juice (20 grams)
Preheat the oven to 330 or 325 if you have an old fashioned oven. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper or grease loaf pan well.
In a medium bowl, stir together cake flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl, mix together sugar and softened butter. Mix until sugar is mixed well throughout the better. Add lemon zest. Add eggs one at a time. Mix until the egg is also well incorporated. Add half the flour mixture and mix on low. Add all the lemon juice and mix on low. Finish with the remaining flour mixture and mix on low until mixture is uniform. It will be a little stiff.
Move mixture into loaf pan. Smooth out the top as best you can, and then put in the oven. Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
For the prettier more refined look, you can do what I did in the photos which is to slice off the puffy top of the cake, and then flip it over so that you ice the bottom of the rectangle so that it looks modern and refined. You do lose quite a bit of cake this way, and while the scraps are delicious, sometimes this is extra finicky and you do not need to do this. Alternatively, simply pour the icing all along the top of the loaf, and allow to run down the sides and set. Slice and serve. Best day of, but if you like to save it, wrap it tightly in saran wrap.