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I was born with an extra hand—kind of. Anatomically, I’m normal. I don’t have a third arm protruding from the center of my chest or anything of the sort. I do, however, have the unusual ability to use both hands equally well. When I was little, I thought of my ambidexterity as a fun trick. I always liked to play with people when learning a new skill:
“Okay, now are you right or left handed?”
“I don’t know,” I would answer with a comical smile. Or even better, “Pick one for me.”
It’s a bit silly, but I enjoyed the simple satisfaction of being different. For me, ambidexterity has always meant versatility. From using my left hand in a restrictive corner while doing yardwork to switch-hitting in baseball depending on the context of the game, my hands give me the flexibility to adapt to my surroundings. As I’ve grown, however, I’ve realized that ambidexterity means more than just its quirky face value. It’s synonymous with many of the other components of my character.
Ambidexterity is part of who I am, yet it’s something few people know I have. It makes sense that only my closest friends know about my dual-handed capabilities. Although I use my talent throughout my day, it usually blends in with the normal functions of anyone else’s hands. In this sense, ambidexterity isn’t some glaring anomaly: It’s only when you realize it’s there does it become special.
Similarly, much of who I am remains unnoticed at first glance, not because of insignificance but because of initial perception. Most of the people who know me have no clue I’m valedictorian; I’m the kid making paper airplanes at the end of class. The rest don’t realize I “do more than just school” but are pleasantly surprised to see me dancing around as Risky Business Tom Cruise for Halloween or just hanging out all over town on weekends. I like to think that ambidexterity helps me juggle these different parts of myself without letting anything go.
In my job as a Little League umpire, I have three distinct identities. To the league manager, I’m the responsible, quick-replying emailer and the primary person for the job. To the coaches, I’m a wave a relief—they know I’m going to make the right call. To the young players, I’m the umpire who gives helpful tips as well as the one they feel comfortable joking around with. Though each of these roles helps me in their own way, collectively, they are the reason I was made the lead umpire of the league.
In terms of academics, ambidexterity means finishing a half-hour phone call trying to understand the complexities of William Faulkner and immediately turning around to text watered-down calculus explanations to help another student. My ability to transition quickly has helped me establish myself as a go-to helper in nearly every subject, but these behind-the-scenes interactions happen away from my teachers’ eyes. Even teachers, however, see the respect other students have for me during class discussions. Outside of class, other students come to me because they recognize that I genuinely want to help guide them toward their own success.
When it comes down to it, ambidexterity means balance. From athlete to academic, from reliable employee to kind-hearted helper, I take on an array of roles in my life. Just as my two hands merge to create a more efficient system, my personal flexibility allows me to handle the many aspects of my life from different angles. Although each part of me is individually effective, my most complete self comes from applying them together. It allows me to become more than just efficient or well-rounded but a better friend, a more fitting leader, and a respected role model. So now, when I run into the inevitable questions in college applications about who I really am, I can answer clearly: I am ambidextrous.
Instinctively, I hold my breath. The pungent fragrance of roasted coffee beans and the shrill sound of steam whistles from the espresso machines force my senses into overload. Before me are mounds of freshly-baked goodies and colossal stacks of books piled on bookshelves as high as the ceiling. Pressing my nose against the glass cover, I don’t budge until the ginormous chocolate-chip cookie is within my possession. With one hand holding my cookie, I collect as many books as my chubby arms can hold and plop into my favorite blue armchair. I would look forward to this routine: every Saturday, when the big hand hit six, my parents would take me to Timothy’s, their coffee shop, and I would begin the day’s quest.
To my childhood self, Timothy’s was my bridge to Terabithia. In this world, I’ve been a resident of Dr. Seuss’s topsy-turvy Thneedville; an acrobat, weaving words into webs with Charlotte; and a palace spy in Wonderland, fighting for my life in a game of flamingo croquet. Braving these adventures instilled in me a sense of invincibility that pushed me to tackle new experiences, even engaging in mischievous absurdities, both in this world and reality.
Draping myself in jewelry constructed out of straws and cup sleeves, I would unabashedly strut all around the café. Expressions of this unwavering self-confidence and sense of invincibility were not solely limited to my sense of fashion, but rather, it was ingrained in every thought and action that I had. I believed that Timothy’s should’ve been called Anna-Banana’s, that the blue armchair was my throne, and that the deliveryman’s dolly was my royal carriage. Ignorant to the laws of gravity, I once jumped off the dolly after reaching peak acceleration, wholeheartedly believing that I could fly. With a bruised ego and scraped knees, I learned a valuable lesson: invincibility is a mere delusion.
I realized that Timothy’s was never a world constructed solely for me, at least in the way I had imagined. There were no adoring crowds, and the blue armchair wasn’t mine. While I had imagined glorious adventures, in reality, my family’s livelihood depended on the success of this café. Moving to Canada without any support, my educated parents relinquished their professional aspirations to build a stable business to provide for me. Awareness of my parents’ sacrifices for my success imbued my understanding of the interdependency of people, their successes, and their failures, providing me with a new lens to construct my understanding of the world.
Shifting from being front and center to an observant spectator, I began to see beyond myself, picking up the art of people-watching. As if placing an invisibility cloak on, I would quietly sink into the blue armchair, discreetly watching peoples’ behavior and interactions with one another. I found myself creating whimsical backstories of circumstance for each passerby, intertwining chance encounters and meaningful exchanges. People-watching not only helped me to become more aware of those around me, was also as an opportunity to explore undiscovered parts of myself.
I learned that despite the many sports that I have experimented with, I am the MVP at bench-warming. I make a mean latte, often topping my creations with adorable foam cats. I adore Broadway musicals and am always ready to showcase my dancing at a flash mob. I passionately believe in advocating for human rights, actively engaging in Amnesty International’s initiatives. And, I discovered that I am not only an advocate for but also identify with the LGBTQ+ community.
To say that I have figured out all of who I am would be a lie. Unlike the world of fantasy, there is no single defining moment – no Excalibur, no Sorting Hat – that marks my complete evolution. My niche in the world constantly changes, but what remains steadfast is my commitment to a life of service and adventure, albeit it isn’t as cozy as the blue armchair.
“No, no, no, you’re all doing it wrong! The secret to developing realistic drawings lies in your ability to study every nuance of the object in front of you,” my art teacher advised. “Try sketching with one eye closed; it’s all about perspective, people!”
My classmates accepted his advice and I watched as they attempted to make sense of the lifeless apples and pears that lay on the desk in front of them. I, too, clamped my left eye shut, pretending that this technique altered my view in the same manner it affected my peers. It didn’t. With one eye closed, my fruit appeared precisely the same as it had with both eyes open.
As a result of a Retinoblastoma diagnosis at two years old, my world, which my parents dotingly refer to as “Jillian’s world,” has always appeared slightly different from that of others. I have no recollection of having binocular vision, so depth perception has always been a non-existent ability. For the majority of my childhood, I felt ashamed by my prosthetic eye, purposely pushing my hair toward the left side of my face and avoiding all eye contact that surpassed ten seconds. I hated that my eyes did not appear the same, and constantly worried how others would perceive my abnormality. It was not until last summer, when I received a government scholarship to study Hindi in India, that my perspective regarding “Jillian’s world” was altered by one unlikely symbol: the swastika.
I encountered it upon entering my host-family’s home for the first time. It was plastered directly on top of their front doorstep in between two mosaic footprints. I had seen the swastika millions of times in history books and documentaries, but blatantly confronting it in person was an entirely different story. My heart started to sting as images of skeletal bodies and families torn apart raced through my head. The swastika was the face of the bigotry and discrimination that I strongly denounced. I could not wrap my head around the fact that I was about to spend my summer with people who displayed a hate symbol in front of their home.
Within a matter of days I discovered that my host-family was the complete antithesis of the negative characteristics I had originally associated with the swastika. They took me to lavish weddings and temples and taught me how to cook Indian cuisine. My host-mom showed me traditional techniques to create art and we shared many laughs at my many failed attempts at bargaining with market shopkeepers in Hindi. By the mid-way point in my program I had fallen in love with my host-family and their vibrant culture. It was then that I realized that I needed to take another look at the swastika through my host-family’s lens.
One afternoon, I asked my host-mom what the symbol meant in her culture, informing her that it was an infamous hate symbol in the United States. Her response is forever ingrained in my memory.
With wide eyes and a furrowed brow, she answered, “A hate symbol? No no, we believe the swastik is a symbol for peace and good fortune. Why is it hateful?”
When I mentioned the Holocaust, she appeared even more confused. After further researching the symbol, I found that the swastika, known as the swastik in Hindi, had been a Hindu symbol of peace thousands of years before it was ever a symbol of evil. We sat across from each other, both amazed at how our views of one symbol could oppose one another, yet be equally valid in their own respect; this was the beauty of perspective. Since returning from India, I now push my hair away from my face with headbands and my fear of sustained eye contact has vanished. My disability does not limit “Jillian’s world,” but rather, gives me the ability to see far and wide, apples and pears included.
In the US, legal adulthood comes at 18, but it is my understanding that adulthood comes through responsibility, tears, laughter, and most of all: parenthood. It is effortless to watch other people’s children grow and flourish, but having my own was a terrifying new world for which I was ill-prepared. I was not ready for my first, Stanley, but now I cannot envision a world without him. Today, I am the proud parent of not one, but seven beautiful, boisterous, carnivorous plants. Within my small family I have four sundews, two Venus flytraps, and one tropical pitcher plant. Of course they have scientific names, but I only use them when I am angry and my inner-parent reveals itself. Many might ask, “How does a person become the parent of seven carnivorous plants?” and I can only answer that with a story, my story.
It was an ordinary Wednesday afternoon when I came home from school only to find a charming plant that resembled a leafless, dew-splattered fern perched on the counter. With the eloquence that only a teenager could muster, I asked my mother, “What’s that?” She carefully explained that he was our new carnivorous plant and he was going to be on fruit fly kitchen duty. Over the next couple of weeks my fascination with him grew, and eventually I adopted him as one of my own. In all sincerity, I did not begin as the ideal parent. I would give Stanley water to drink if he looked drier than usual and that was the extent of my nurturing efforts. However, my complacency did not last. Come winter, around his half birthday, Stanley became afflicted with a mysterious ailment. His stems curled and his one delicate green frond dried up. After carefully examining him, I concluded that not only was the lake water I had been using contaminated with some sort of root-eating larva, but my mother’s African violets had given him aphids. It was then that I was faced with the harsh reality of the situation: I had a plant that I was absolutely obsessed with, but knew nothing about.
In my desperation to keep my sundew alive, I began to contact other plant enthusiasts in an increasingly desperate attempt to help my poor Stanley. To my great surprise, a close friend was also a carnivorous plant caregiver and was well versed in childhood care. His advice, coupled with some new dirt and the stocked shelves of the nearby library’s horticulture section, allowed me to nurse Stanley back to health. Stanley regained his strength and shortly after the winter incident, I adopted Simone, another sundew. Then came Diana, my first Venus flytrap. Consequently, the carnivorous plant aficionado was so impressed with Stanley’s care that he entrusted me with the care of his carnivorous plants when he left for college. This brought my family’s size to the current seven.
My true reward of having Stanley is that he opened the door to the world of botany. I would never have invested so much time learning about the molecular structure or chemical balance of plants if not for taking care of him. I have loved learning for his benefit, whether it be discovering the best fluoride-free water, finding the ideal amount of sunlight, or reading that he uses a form of electrical signaling to improve digestion. I also love the rarity of being Stanley’s parent. People have their judgments, but I have also found that most people are genuinely curious and I am always open to questions. Ultimately, I love how Stanley has forced me to be adaptive. That first winter I did not have a “Gardener’s Guide to Carnivorous Plants,” I simply had my own observations. This was the most significant lesson that Stanley and friends taught me: the universe lacks a guide to the galaxy, and life is all about discovering your own way.
The most exciting time to live in Vermont is mid-February. This is the time when one is given the privilege of a 30-minute walk to school in sub-zero temperatures, with a 30-minute trudge home in the dark after a long day. It’s been four months since winter began, and it’ll be two more until it’s over. The firewood is being rationed to keep the house at a barely livable temperature, a steamy 50 degrees, and colds are so rampant that people lose half their body weight in phlegm each day. Yet, however dull Vermont may seem to students and teachers as they wrap themselves in layer after layer of flannel, make no mistake, today is the beginning of an era. Today is the day when Isaac (that’s me) starts his job of putting smiles on grim faces as the reader of the morning announcements.
“But Isaac, that job is super boring! You just read what’s written on a piece of paper,” is what an uninformed person might say, someone who obviously doesn’t know about my passion for annoying the tired and melancholic with smiling positivity. While expression and humor has not historically been a part of this process, and while ad-libbing has been strictly advised against, I go for it anyway. And why not? The worst possible outcome involves only a stern lecture and an expulsion from the job.
Fortunately, there is not much going on this week, which means I have some wiggle room with what I can say. The loud buzz of the intercom whines throughout the school, and the silent apprehension of the day is met, somewhat unexpectedly, with a greeting of 20 “yo’s” and a long, breathy pause. I artfully maneuver someone else’s writing into my own words, keeping the original intent but supplementing the significant lack of humor with a few one-liners. I conclude by reminding everyone that just because the weather is miserable today does not mean that we have to be as well.
Luckily, the principal loves it. And despite the fact that I urge everyone to interrupt my history teacher’s classes to wish him a happy birthday, I get to keep my job for another day. I have people coming up to me left and right, telling me that I made them smile. When I hear that, I smile back.
For the rest of the month, I work to make sure that people hear my message: even though we are at the time when school and winter are beginning to seem endless, there are still reasons to grin. I urge people to attend basketball games or sign up for spring sports. I announce birthdays and other special events. Before every day, I make sure I have a message that will make people think, “you know, today might not be so bad after all.” After my month ends, the announcements have been changed. The next readers tell jokes or riddles, or sing songs and invite others to sing with them. I watch the announcements evolve from an unfortunate but necessary part of the day to a positive and inspiring event. It is now more than just a monotonous script; it becomes a time to make sure that everyone has at least one thing to smile about.
Life shouldn’t have to be a dreary winter day; it should be the satisfaction of a good saxophone solo or the joy of seeing one’s friends every day at school. It is the enthusiasm of a biology teacher, the joy of a sports victory, and even the warm messages of a disembodied voice on the intercom. I use that message to help freshman feel less nervous at their first race or to encourage my friend to continue taking solos in jazz band. And in the most dismal time of year, I use that message in the daily announcements.