I Felt Like My Seniors: Writing A Personal Narrative That Says “Like Me, Choose Me”

English 12 started the school year with the College Essay. The all important personal narrative that matters more now that more college admission boards read applications holistically. When I applied to state university nearly twenty years ago (!) I remember handwriting a couple of paragraphs in pen. I do remember thinking about what I wanted to say first but I don’t remember worrying if those sentences would sell me as a student because I was weirdly unworried about where I went to college, thinking I’d move on to an art and design school later. This passive approach to major life decisions was a pattern I kept through dating, career choice, marriage, jobs and children up until maybe two years ago. It’s mostly worked out. But this year Justin and I are looking for a new country and while I’m not anxious about where we’ll land, I also want to be wise about the search, upping our chances at choosing a place rather than taking what seems the easiest or most practical option.

So as my seniors were thinking how to frame themselves in a single, short narrative, I was also worrying what I look like on paper. I spent a couple of months picking at my resume, counting the many times I opened the document, sighed, and closed it. Then I had to write a bio for the international teaching placement service we’re using. I was in the thick of reading college essay drafts and revisions. During conferences with students, we’d look at whether they were telling a specific story to illustrate their character or ambition. We’d point where to expand, where to cut. We’d commiserate over the difficulty of conclusions. All the while, I penned bio starts in my notebook and thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t find a way to say to potential employers: This is who I am!

One Friday afternoon the kids were out and I made myself write the bio. A lot of my essays get a first draft like this, the just-write-it-now draft. After I’ve written an idea again and again in my notebook, I surrender it to a typed page, see how I might shape it.

My first draft was long. I had to cut nearly a third of the words. Concision appeals. Having to pare a piece forces precision into your work. I don’t totally like the short version best. However, some of the revised diction and syntax works better. While I posted the short version as my bio, I decided to create a last draft combining my long and short version in a piece I think works well. What is gained or lost in the expansion or cuts?

First, the combination draft at 971 words:

This summer I learned to bake French macarons. I can buy them at a bakery for a half dinar or about two dollars apiece but I wanted to see if I could bake a tray myself. I do this sometimes, pick a pastry and learn how to make it. When we first arrived in Kuwait, I spent a few months perfecting the croissant. For a while I baked our bread. I spent a year playing with chocolate chip cookie recipes until I found one I like enough to use exclusively. And now, the French macaron.

I bought a kitchen scale and weighed one hundred twenty grams of almond flour and two hundred grams unrefined powdered sugar which I then sifted between two bowls half a dozen times. Making macarons is meticulous. Recipes use words like “just” as in, whip the egg whites until they just form a stiff peak, and warn against over folding the almond flour and sugar with the egg. But you don’t know you’ve done it right until the macarons are in the oven forming crinkly feet at their edges. Even then, the shells might be hollow in the center. Macarons are maddening. I’d finish a batch and guess what to change on the next round. I ate a lot of macarons in one month. I sent plates to neighbors. I found my favorite flavors – pistachio, salted caramel, and raspberry. Most of my macarons were imperfect, the rounds a little lopsided, the filling too thick or thin. I had fun though.

This summer we decided to leave Kuwait. We arrived when our daughter wasn’t yet one year old and she just turned eight. Our son arrived during our second year here. Then I returned to work part-time and began teaching the very art I love, creative writing. My years teaching part-time were a wonderful balance of enjoying my young kids, writing and baking, developing close friendships with other moms, and encouraging students to write what they want to say. Last year I returned to teaching fulltime and this year the same.

Leaving Kuwait feels like learning to bake the French macaron. My husband and I put together resumes and lined up references. I thought about this bio for weeks, wondering what I might say to help you see me better. Have I sifted the right details to show my personality? Can you see how I might fit in your school community? When you bake macarons, there are points in the recipe when you do nothing because the batter must rest. I know there will be stretches of resting after this bio is posted, after you’ve glanced through my experience.

Baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies is safer. Staying in Kuwait is safer. We know this country. We have a place here. We know what to expect when we land in the heat each August. We don’t have a wild or exciting reason to leave a place we’ve loved enough to return to year after year. Only this sense that there is a new place for us, a new school for our family, a new region for us to explore. And the hope we’ll find you or you’ll find us.

I’ve learned a lot in my time abroad. I know better what I want. And I know how what I want shifts quickly to accommodate where we are. We are a flexible family but we’re hoping this move meets a few wants. We’d like to be more pedestrian. Walk and bike on errands or to work. Go to a park in the afternoon. Maybe hike on the weekend. I run and I’m ready to trade my treadmill for early mornings in any weather. My kids want snow.

I also know better how I teach and fit in a school. When I introduce class expectations, I ask students to be present. So I do this too. Years ago my dad wrote the advice “Be there” to me and for a long time I didn’t understand what he meant. Now I take his advice. I try to be where I am. I listen. I ask students to say again what I miss if I go far away for a moment. During the school day, there are so many transitions. It’s easy to feel lost. I want the people I work with – students, colleagues and parents – to sense that I am with them in the very moment, not hurried by what comes next.

My ambition is to be a great teacher and a great writer. I need time to write outside of school so I choose to enjoy my classroom most rather than spread thin my talent with volunteer committees and extracurricular activities. Still, I support my students. At the end of last year a few writing students asked to meet once a week to practice spoken word poetry. Another teacher and I watched our students lead and encourage each other to be vulnerable and powerful with their words. I’m open to opportunities like that, guiding students’ autonomous pursuits. My students know I write. I hope I model a writing life as I encourage them to find an art to practice too.

When I baked dozens of macarons this summer, only a few looked the bakery part. I should’ve taken a picture. But a picture of perfect macarons isn’t the point. I should’ve taken a picture of the counter stacked with mixing bowls, a piping bag oozing green pistachio batter, cookies stuck to parchment paper, my temperamental oven. And one of me, hands on hips, happy I managed to make a cookie that looked and tasted like a French macaron. That’s the fun of it.

So this year, I want the fun of it. We don’t know where we go next but I want to enjoy learning how to get there.

Now the short version at 663 words:

This summer I learned to bake French macarons. I do this sometimes, pick a pastry and learn how to make it. When we first arrived in Kuwait, I spent a few months perfecting a croissant. Then I baked our bread. I spent a year playing with chocolate chip cookie recipes. And now, the French macaron.

I bought a kitchen scale to weigh almond flour and powdered sugar which I then sifted half a dozen times. Macarons are meticulous. Recipes use words like “just” as in, whip the egg whites until they just form a stiff peak, and warn against over folding the almond flour and sugar with the egg. But you don’t know you’ve done it right until the macarons are in the oven forming crinkly feet. Even then, the shells might be hollow. I’d finish a batch and note what to change. I ate a lot of macarons. I sent plates to neighbors. Most of my macarons were imperfect. The rounds a little lopsided. The filling too thick or thin. I had fun though.

This summer we decided to leave Kuwait. Our daughter celebrated her first birthday here. Now she’s eight. Our son is six. We know this country. We have a place here. We know what to expect when we land in the heat each August.

Leaving Kuwait feels like learning to bake a macaron. My husband and I put together resumes and lined up references. I thought about this bio for weeks, wondering what I might say to help you see me better. Have I sifted the right details to show my personality? When you bake macarons, there are points in the recipe when you do nothing because the batter must rest. I know there will be stretches of resting after this is posted, after you’ve glanced through my experience. We don’t have a wild or exciting reason to leave this home. Only a sense there is a new place waiting. And the hope we’ll find you or you’ll find us.

I’ve learned a lot in my time abroad. I know better what I want. And I know how what I want shifts quickly to accommodate where we are. We are a flexible family but we hope this move meets a few wants. We’d like to walk and bike on errands or to work. Go to a park in the afternoon. Maybe hike on the weekend. I run and I’m ready to trade my treadmill for early mornings in any weather. My kids want snow.

I also know better how I teach and fit in a school. I ask students to be present. So I do this too. I try to be where I am. I listen. I ask students to say again what I miss if I go far away for a moment. During the school day, there are so many transitions it’s easy to feel lost. I want the people I work with – students, colleagues and parents – to sense I am with them in the very moment, unhurried by what comes next.

My ambition is to be a great teacher and a great writer. My students know I write. I want them to find an art too. Last year, a small group practiced spoken word poetry in my room, encouraging each other to be vulnerable and powerful with their words.

When I baked dozens of macarons this summer, only a few looked the bakery part. I should’ve taken a picture. But a picture of perfect macarons isn’t the point. I should’ve taken a picture of the counter stacked with mixing bowls, a piping bag oozing green pistachio batter, cookies stuck to parchment paper, my temperamental oven. And one of me, hands on hips, happy I managed to make a cookie that looked and tasted like a French macaron. That’s the fun of it.

This year, I want the fun of it. We don’t know where we go yet, but I want to enjoy learning how to get there.

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