Personal Statement # 4
Showing the Whole Person
This personal statement is charming. It explains no weaknesses, shows no great obstacles overcome. But it shows a lot of one person's life in a very small space. It is entertaining and well-written. In fact, when I called the Director of Admissions at Case Western to discuss my client's file, the first thing she said was, "That's a great personal statement!" My client, Jim Kirk, was so proud of this comment that he insisted on breaking my policy of client confidentiality here.
I grew up in a town that was too small for me, and spent my time trying to make it bigger. Moore, Oklahoma had been my home since age two. Moore was a suburb of Oklahoma City. Air Force personnel composed a large segment of the population, providing an eclectic demographic; new faces were common. Then when I was 11, my family moved so my father could to go into the family business (selling truck parts) with his father. Our new home was in the country, near Mannford and Cleveland. I noticed a different culture in these small towns. Whereas "Moore" was merely the name of the town in which I lived, "Cleveland" and "Mannford" represented something more important to their residents. Strangers were viewed with suspicion rather than curiosity. Athletic achievement was absurdly overvalued, as were inter-school competitions; Cleveland's athletic competition placed the town's and residents' honor at stake.
Cleveland was actually a transition from childhood to adolescence for me. I developed a prejudice of small, isolated towns. I sought refuge in my Cherokee heritage -- 1/64, actually, but I registered with the BIA to assert my difference from the people around me. I became intensely more curious about places and perspectives with which I was unfamiliar. I began traveling the country on vacations and school breaks. But no matter where I went, my world was too small, because I still returned to Cleveland and the family business.
In an effort to expand my world, I learned to pilot a plane. As a toddler, I had often flown with my grandfather in a company plane that he piloted. I grew up fancying myself an authority on the subject. After all, I knew this control did this, and that control did that. So I began to take lessons. One of the requirements for a private pilot's license is to fly unaccompanied to an airport at least 50 miles away and back again. Despite demonstrating my mastery of various concepts to the satisfaction of the FAA and my instructor, I never felt ready to fly without my instructor next to me. My solo flight proved to myself that I could conquer my own doubts. But the freedom to fly did not make my world much larger. Flying is expensive, and where did I really have to fly to?
Still chafing at my provincial life, I went to Alaska. I had Alaska in the back of my mind two years before I went. One reason for my considering it was the possibility of mentioning something striking to a law school, to convince an admissions committee someplace that, "Here is a unique fellow: a pilot. He went to Alaska! What a courageous young man!" The reason I finally went was that I was burned out on academia. I hoped laborious exertion (as I had heard working the fishing industry was) would refresh my ambitions to study. The challenge of actually going through with it was a big part of my going. Taking the trouble, risk, and expense to get myself there proved again that I was bigger than Cleveland, Oklahoma.
While rural, Alaska is very tolerant. Most of the population is there "to get away from all the !@#$#!@ in the lower 48." So, imagine this: a small town of 5k in the winter, 20k in the summer -- people who don't care if you're a Patriot militiaman or gay activist, rural hippies from CA or MN or MA instead of local-yokels, no one's paranoid about who's from the biggest town like back East -- do your own thing and leave everyone else alone.
One night, I was all alone on a small mountain, a three-hour walk from Seward. Suddenly, around a turn in the trail, I saw a mother bear and her cubs standing 15 yards away. I had never been so terrified or felt so helpless in all my life. I stood my ground as I'd heard locals say: "Never run. An animal's instinct is to chase." Plus, there was no place to run to. I was above the tree line. I had known since age 4 that humans rank low in the animal kingdom's running speed hierarchy. I stood fast. (I learned one's knees really do get wobbly and shake when afraid.) Locals had also said it's good to make noise when hiking about, that bears will tend to avoid people if they can. Although the purpose of making noise was to keep bears away in the first place, I stood there clapping and shouting at the top of my lungs. I talked to God, to the bear -- mostly to God. I appreciated the saying "There are no atheists in foxholes." I slowly turned around and slowly walked away.
I spent the entire night on the mountain, huddled under a scrub bush (the sort of woody bushes that manage to grow above the tree line). My jeans were soaking wet from having gone through snow and dew-covered plants. Every noise I heard was a bear coming to prove the nature show narrator wrong about bears not eating people, or attacking them for no reason. Fortunately, the narrator was right, and I lived to walk down the mountain in the morning.
I learned two important things in Alaska. I learned that a small town in Alaska was less parochial than many larger places. Parochialism wasn't in the size of the town; it is in how people accept differences. I also learned how parochial my own experience was in the grand scheme of things. The world is as big -- or as small -- as I let it be. I hope that as I continue through life, I will also continue to challenge myself so that my world will become ever larger.