This I Believe: Voices of Youth

Since we began the This I Believe project in 2005, more than 150,000 people have submitted their stories to us via our website, and more than 70% of them—almost 112,000 essays—have come from young people, aged 13 to 24. In addition, 61% of our web visitors are under 34, with 28% under 18. Click here to read testimonials from youth who have written and submitted essays.

Many of these youth essays have been written as the result of a classroom assignment. Over 250,000 educators have downloaded This I Believe curricula for use in educational institutions, from elementary school to graduate school. In addition to many thousands of individual classrooms that have engaged in this essay-writing exercise, more than 100 schools around the country (mostly colleges and universities) have chosen one of our existing books as common readers, either for their entire school or as part of their First Year Experience programs for incoming freshmen.

The quantity and quality of these essays, coupled with the excitement from educators using our books and curricula, lead us to think it is an opportune time to publish a This I Believe book written by youth.

Sample Essays from Youth


Brighton Early
High School Student
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered (2008)

Every Friday night the cashier at the Chevron gas station food mart on Eagle Rock Boulevard and Avenue 40 offers us a discount on all the leftover apples and bananas. To ensure the best selection possible, my mother and I pile into our 20-year-old car and pull up to the food mart at 5 p.m. on the dot, ready to get our share of slightly overripe fruits.

Before the times of the Chevron food mart, there were the times of the calculator. My mother would carefully prop it up in the cart’s child seat and frown as she entered each price. Since the first days of the calculator’s appearance, the worry lines in my mother’s face have only grown deeper. Today, they are a permanent fixture.

Chevron shopping started like this: One day my mother suddenly realized that she had maxed out almost every credit card, and we needed groceries for the week. The only credit card she hadn’t maxed out was the Chevron card and the station on Eagle Rock Boulevard has a pretty big mart attached to it.

Since our first visit there, I’ve learned to believe in flexibility. In my life, it has become necessary to bend the idea of grocery shopping. My mother and I can no longer shop at real grocery stores, but we still get the necessities.

Grocery shopping at Chevron has its drawbacks. The worst is when we have so many items that it takes the checker what seems like hours to ring up everything. A line of anxious customers forms behind us. It’s that line that hurts the most — the way they look at us. My mother never notices — or maybe she pretends not to.

I never need to be asked to help the checker bag all the items. No one wants to get out of there faster than I do. I’m embarrassed to shop there, and I’m deathly afraid of running into someone I know. I once expressed my fear of being seen shopping at Chevron to my mother and her eyes shone with disappointment. I know that I hurt her feelings when I try to evade our weekly shopping trips.

And that is why I hold on to the idea of flexibility so tightly. I believe that being flexible keeps me going — keeps me from being ashamed of the way my family is different from other families. Whenever I feel the heat rise to my face, I remind myself that grocery shopping at a gas station is just a twist on the normal kind of grocery shopping. I remind myself that we won’t always have to shop at Chevron — that just because at this point in my life I am struggling does not mean that I will always struggle. My belief in flexibility helps me get through the difficult times because I know that no matter what happens, my mother and I will always figure out a way to survive.

 

Nora Lupi
High School Student
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2012)

When I was growing up, I was a teenager no one listened to—and I grew sick of it. So, I’m here to let America know that the future of our country, those kids you’ve raised and sent through high school, the ones you thought were so easily distracted, are strong and we want to be heard.

Many people throughout my life told me to shut up or mind my own business when I attempted to express my opinions on politics, gay marriage, abortion or the death penalty. What I have come to realize is that I have just as much right as anyone to say how I feel about whatever topic I choose. I no longer believe that I should just blend in with the crowd. I am ready to make a stand and shout out to the whole world what my opinions are.

I believe that teenagers have just as much capacity to speak about the government as anyone else does. I do not think that I am any less informed than the next person, regardless of their age. I know that if I don’t speak my mind, I will not be true to my nature.

I was raised in a family where politics were always discussed and debated. Many times my parents and I argued for half the night over the same issues the Supreme Court deals with. It was in this climate that I started to form my own opinions about the government. I learned that my opinions matter.

So why does it constantly seem as if teenagers are insignificant?

Unfortunately I know the answer. I know that the answer is that the government is not looking far enough into the future. I am not recognized as a future president, a future CEO or a future revolutionary. All I am to them is a loud, obnoxious teenager. I think it is time that we are heard for more than what we are perceived as. It is time for me to be recognized for my knowledge, my interest and my ability to lead.

So, America, were you all not in my place once, with no power to speak and be heard? Isn’t it time for the future of America to begin voicing our opinions about important issues?

I believe it is. I believe in so much more than freedom of speech. I believe in the power and strength of the future America, and I believe that it is time we all took a stand. I believe in us.

 

Alaa El-Saad
High School Student
As heard on NPR’s Tell Me More (2009)

America is built on the idea of freedom, and there is no exception for Muslim women.  I believe in the freedom of religion and speech.  But mostly, I believe it’s OK to be different, and to stand up for who and what you are. So I believe in wearing the hijab.

The hijab is a religious head covering, like a scarf. I am Muslim and keeping my head covered is a sign of maturity and respect toward my religion and to Allah’s will.  To be honest, I also like to wear it to be different. I don’t usually like to do what everyone else is doing.  I want to be an individual, not just part of the crowd.  But when I first wore it, I was also afraid of the reaction that I’d get at school.

I decided on my own that sixth grade was the time I should start wearing the hijab.  I was scared about what the kids would say or even do to me. I thought they might make fun of me, or even be scared of me and pull off my headscarf. Kids at that age usually like to be all the same, and there’s little or no acceptance for being different.

On the first day of school, I put all those negative thoughts behind my back and walked in with my head held high. I was holding my breath a little, but inside I was also proud to be a Muslim, proud to be wearing the hijab, proud to be different.

I was wrong about everything I thought the kids would say or even do to me. I actually met a lot of people because of wearing my head covering. Most of the kids would come and ask me questions—respectfully—about the hijab, and why I wore it.

I did hear some kid was making fun of me, but there was one girl—she wasn’t even in my class, we never really talked much—and she stood up for me, and I wasn’t even there!  I made a lot of new friends that year, friends that I still have until this very day, five years later.

Yes, I’m different, but everyone is different here, in one way or another.  This is the beauty of America.

I believe in what America is built on:  all different religions, races and beliefs.  Different everything.

 

Jocelyn Fong
College Student
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2011)

Until four years ago, when cancer took my grandma, the Chinese side of my family, my dad’s side, spent every Thanksgiving at her house. It was always warm, heated by the oven and stove, which grandma usually had running since morning. Our family is large, but the feast she prepared was always much larger. She cooked pies, meats, vegetables, and stuffing, which however delicious, were not my main course. My sister, my cousins and I, we came for grandma’s rice and gravy.

And that’s what comes to mind when I think about Thanksgiving—not pilgrims or gratitude, or pumpkin pie. My image of Thanksgiving consists of grandma’s eleven grandchildren pouring turkey gravy over mountains of steamed white rice. I believe in rice and gravy because I am rice and gravy. I’m half Asian, half Anglo and completely American.

My generation learned in school that culture was something to celebrate and something necessarily foreign. Nobody ever explained to me that culture is not a set of exotic garments and foods, but something everyone has.

Back then many government applications and forms had yet to acknowledge the shades of grey in between the major ethnic groups. I usually checked the “Asian” box even though I am equally white. It seemed like everyone expected me to fit inside that box and I sometimes worried that I wasn’t Asian enough, like I was pretending.

So I used to mourn what I saw as the loss of my Chinese heritage. Grandma never taught my dad to speak Cantonese; our holidays were the American ones; and we ate our family dinners with forks.

See, my grandma’s generation wasn’t taught that diversity was valuable. Her parents came to this country at a time when the central focus of American immigration policy was keeping the Chinese out. Discriminatory laws turned them into illegal immigrants. They used fake papers and adopted a fake family name in order to come here.

Until 1943, the United States would not allow Asians to become naturalized citizens. Many parts of Phoenix, where my grandma grew up and where I was raised, were designated off-limits to Chinese people before World War II. And interracial marriage remained illegal in Arizona until my dad was a teenager. Needless to say, my grandma was encouraged to downplay, not preserve her Chinese culture.

Which is why I’ve come to be proud of my mixed identity. My very existence is a mark of progress and a symbol of my country — a collage of people with roots all over the planet, who, though not without strife, form something new and strong together.

The now-common phrase “long time no see” came from the literal translation of a Chinese expression into English. To me, rice and gravy is a similar type of translation. It’s a delightful piece of culture that arises only at that point where immigrants braid their past into the American story. And that’s what my family celebrates with rice and gravy for Thanksgiving.

 

Alexxandra Schuman
High School Student
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2013)

As a child, I was generally happy; singing and dancing to my favorite songs; smiling and laughing with my friends and family. But as far back as second grade, I noticed a “darkness,” about me. I didn’t enjoy engaging in many things. I didn’t relate to my peers in elementary school because they appeared so happy, and I didn’t have that ability to achieve happiness so easily.

In middle school things in my life began to get even worse. I began withdrawing from everything I once enjoyed; swimming, tennis, family. I hated going to sleep knowing I had to wake up to another day. I was always tired. Everything was horrible. Finally, midway through eighth grade, I was told I had a chemical imbalance; diagnosed with clinical depression and put on medication. It took months for me to feel the effects of the medication.

When I began to feel happy again, is when I realized that I had to take the responsibility for getting better myself, rather than relying on medication and therapy alone. Aristotle said, “To live happily is an inward power of the soul,” and I believe that this quote describes what I had to do to achieve happiness. Happiness is a journey. Everyone seems to need different things to be happy. But I believe people are blinded from what truly makes one happy.

Growing up, we’re encouraged to be successful in life; but how is success defined? Success and happiness are imagined now as having a lot of money. It is so untrue. Recently I went to Costa Rica and visited the small town of El Roble. I spent the day with a nine-year old girl named Marilyn. She took me to her house to meet her parents. It was obvious that they were not rich; living in a small house with seven children. The house was cluttered but full of life. Those who have decided that success and happiness comes from having money and a big house would be appalled at how utterly happy this family from El Roble is. People say that seeing things like that make you appreciate what you have, but for me, it made me envy them for being so happy without all the things I have.

“The essentials to happiness are something to love, something to do, and something to hope for,” a quote from William Blake sums up what I believe people need to realize to be truly happy in life. People need love; I feel they need their family and their friends more than anything in the world. People need work to do, something to make them feel they are making a difference in the world. People need to know that more good is to come in the future, so they continue to live for “now” instead of constantly worrying about the bad that could come. And most importantly people need to know that happiness is not something that happens overnight. Love and hope is happiness.

 

Delia Motavalli
High School Student
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2013)

I believe in finding a good frog. It seems that all throughout childhood, we are taught to look for a happily ever after. “And they all lived happily ever after”; isn’t that the conclusion to many children’s films? When I was a kid I always thought of that as magical; but now really it just seems unrealistic. And it teaches us that what we want is a fairytale like they have in the storybooks. We all want to be Cinderella who gets swept off her feet by the hot prince; we want to live in the royal castle, right? But I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing for us to seek. Now I’m not saying I believe in being pessimistic, but I do believe in being realistic; it’s something I got from my mom.

My mother and I always have our best conversations in the rain. We sit in the car, neither of us wanting to brave the rain to get to the house. So we sit. We watch droplets race down the windshield, listen to the rain strike the roof of her little blue Honda, and feel the heater on full-blast rushing at our feet (just the way we like it). I don’t know why, but sitting in the car, we always talk more than normal. There was one rainy day when my mom told me something that is going to stick with me forever. Earlier that day she and my dad had been arguing about something; I can’t remember what. So she said, “Don’t spend your life looking for Prince Charming. Instead, find yourself a really good frog.” At the time, I found this thought really disheartening. Who wants to think that you’ll never find Prince Charming? You’ll never get to be Cinderella? Another thought that struck my mind: if my mom says there’s no Prince Charming, then what’s my dad? A frog? I asked her, and she replied with, “Of course! If he were Prince Charming, he wouldn’t snore, would be able to cook, and we would never argue. But you know what? He’s a damn good frog.” Of course, being young, I didn’t think of the meaning behind what she was saying. I was too busy thinking of it literally, visualizing my mom as a princess and my dad in frog form.

But a few years later, I understand the value of my mom’s words. You can’t expect everything to be perfect. Let’s be completely honest; if you wait your whole life for your prince with flowing hair, statuesque features, and a white horse, you’re going to be lonely. I think that the point of finding a good frog is you accept something that’s great, flaws and all. It’s so easy to be picky. You can find the one tiny thing that’s wrong, and that one tiny thing is what you can’t get your mind off of. But in life, we can’t afford to wait years in vain for perfection. So I think that a good frog, an amazing frog, the best frog you can find is what we’re really looking for in this world. Don’t laze through life waiting for a happily ever after, because I don’t think you’ll be very happy with the outcome. 

 

Emily Vutech
College Student
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2013)

“Wait, so you’re straight?” I got used to answering this question pretty quickly after I started to work as a hostess at a gay bar. What seemed to be such an obvious part of how I thought of myself (a girl, and straight) suddenly became what defined me. When I started work, reactions from my friends and family were mixed. Some respected and were even jealous that I was working in such a vibrant part of town and with so many unique people. Others wondered if I ever felt uncomfortable, and were curious about what the environment itself was really like. I found myself defending where I worked, and more importantly, the people I worked with. Others constant questioning led me to realize that people in my society, even people I know and love, struggle to accept those that they are not familiar with.

One Saturday night, I sat a middle aged lesbian couple at a table outside. After I gave them their menus, I told them their server would be with them shortly. One of the women stopped me and said, “Excuse me, but I have to ask, what made you decide to work here?” This was another question I received all the time, but for some reason the way she asked was different. I could tell she was genuinely interested, and even confused. I answered the first thing that came to my mind, that I enjoyed getting to meet new, fun people and that I liked the exciting and unpredictable atmosphere. Her response changed the way I thought about my job. She thanked me and said, “We need young people from outside the gay community to help bridge the gap.”

This response got me thinking. To me, I was just going to work at a place where I loved both the work and the people I worked with. From all the questions I received about my job, it was clear that the core of the confusion was far bigger than just me. After hearing that all it takes is “bridging the gap,” it seems pretty simple. I believe by exposing ourselves to new people and environments, we can increase our understanding and therefore our acceptance of people, places, and situations that are beyond our familiar experiences. I by no means think that by working at a gay restaurant I am doing humanity some enormous favor. I do believe, however, that if each of us can individually explore worlds different than our own and than we are expected to, we can start to break down identities of “straight girl” and terms like “gay bar.” These surface labels only define us in ways that make us seem different. When really, we are all just people, gay and straight, going to work, learning and growing from one another.

 

Naomi L Caballero
High School Student
Submitted 2005

When we think of a revolutionary, we envision Gandhi, Che, and even Mother Theresa. We think of documented battles of sacrifice, death, blood, and tears. However, we never stop to think of this term as something associated to our own community; our own personal liberators. We do nothing more but take and regurgitate what is handed to us, including the very meaning of words. Although words have long been established, their conventional definitions leave us with meanings decomposed and never restored. We then go on in life never truly being aware of our surrounding revolutionaries; such as those who exist in our own personal lives.

To me a revolutionary is one who stirs my emotions. They give people joy in witnessing the human spirit, through their innovation, transformation, or action. They make differences and are often withered but surviving, enriching but misunderstood.

Living on the border, I have met a great deal of humble people with silenced efforts. From my grandma, the immigrant who fought for a change in eleven children’s lives to see a world of education, to my neighbor, the displaced maquila worker, who transformed the border economy with her very hands, to even my flamenco teacher who invokes youth to make art with both body and soul; I have been blessed with an endless amount of friends that influenced a revolution within both my community and myself.

These everyday people are truly products of a struggle or idea worth fighting for. After battles won and lost, they continue to free those with no voice through their talent, ability, and love.

I believe, from the deepest pulses of my heart and the fastest flowing blood in my veins, that these people are the true revolutionaries. Without us ever truly realizing, they wake up each day and strive for a change in ways of thinking and behaving. They revolutionize situations through innovation, transformation, underground activity, correction, and action. They are the students the teachers, the farmers, the immigrants, the soldiers, the fathers, mothers and children. They are the women, displaced workers, activists, politicians, and artists. They are the first and the last. The beginning and the end. They are the you and the me

The taste of a worker’s salty sweat, the composition of desert sand beneath our feet, and the sweet sound of a mixed language from the border voice, are all here for something. They will be music to our ears, and change our human emotions. They are here to learn from and we can all connect to their personal struggles and hope.

When we think of a revolutionary, sure…we envision Gandhi, Che, and even Mother Theresa. But when I hear the word…I see a raised consciousness of the meaning. Why not transform the word to fit the friend, and the grandma, and the teacher? Why not use the power of the word to connect our personal saviors to existent battles.

The raw life, the beauty of our community, is after all… a revolution in itself.

 

Laura Hall
College Student
As heard on NPR’s Tell Me More (2008)

I believe in hip-hop. And being a white girl born and raised in the whitest conditions, it surprises me that I’ve come to this belief — especially since I used to hate this music. My husband, Adam, would try to play it in his car while we were dating and I hated it so much that I would give him the silent treatment.

But nine months after we married, Adam was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. To take care of him, I dropped out of college to work a factory job that provides mental health insurance coverage. My American dreams of an education, job, house, and kids dissolved. My working-class life began.

One Saturday I sat alone on the floor in our tiny apartment, piecing a quilt when the CD changer switched to a Mos Def album that Adam had been listening to a few days before. What had once sounded like a muddle of words to me took form and my belief in the message of hip-hop began, and this is what I heard:

All over the world hearts pound with the rhythm
Fear not of men because men must die
Mind over matter and soul before flesh,
Angels hold the pen, keep a record in time

I listened carefully to the entire album and actually heard what Mos Def was saying. I heard his call for self-reliance and his cry for equality. But more than that, the music let me feel the struggle of another person’s life experience.

Because I haven’t achieved my own rise from struggle to success, I rely on other people’s stories to revitalize my hope. And I find some of the most compelling come through hip-hop. I believe in the rhymes of socially conscious M.C.s who rose from difficulty and used their success to address societal ills and their desire for change, artists like Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, and Bahamadia.

I believe in the story of the genre itself. Hip-hop was created in the housing projects of the Bronx by people whose struggle was more severe than anything I could have imagined before. But they were brilliant and innovative enough to rise above it.

Hip-hop is my gateway to their lives and learning about African-American history. References to people and events in songs have sent me searching at the library through books and documentaries where I’ve discovered inspiring people that were never mentioned in my all-white schools.

Now I like hip-hop more than Adam does. It’s what gets me through my day. Working with the beats helps me move faster, increasing my piece-rate pay by a dollar an hour. My dream is to help those who suffer with mental illness. I want to fight the problems of inaccessible treatment, incarceration, stigma, and homelessness all resulting from mental illness. The only problem is that I work in a factory all day, everyday, just to pay for the medications Adam needs to get by.

But no matter how tired or hopeless I am feeling, hip-hop helps me look beyond my own circumstances to find the determination I need to move forward.