by Ryan Shepard
I remember when Saturday mornings were like poetry: the rainbow colored fruity pebbles sitting in my spoon, a fluffy teddy bear brilliantly named Teddy, the sounds of Ahmad Rashad previewing the day's NBA games, and the sounds of my brother trying to play basketball, indoors. Then there was the day's biggest gift--my own personal gentle giant whom I called Dad, author of the poem. His everlasting line was that incredibly wide grin he wore across his face. He seamlessly presented Saturday's poetry as smooth as the feel of his casket ten years ago. Today I am evolving with the memory of the poems along with the wide grin that travelled with him everywhere. Now they guide my definitions of comfort and confidence.
Seven years after I put his casket behind me, I picked up the pen, paper and microphone that were in front of me. My talents grew as wide as my father's grin, but on my own terms. The younger me wanted to be just like him--part of me still does. Yet I'm more artistic than he could have ever imagined. Last spring, I filled sheet after sheet of paper, exposing innermost secrets by way of poetry and music. In doing so, I came to expand my own grin. On the stage of a packed ballroom at Disney World, I performed my poem, "17 Dreams", which takes the reader into my visions of my future. With each line, I gauged the audience's reaction, opening myself to new vulnerabilities but also becoming more confident and comfortable with myself. My grin became a bit wider, almost like my dad's smile way back when.
Poetic memories of my father's Saturday grins carried me from North Plainfield Middle School lunch lines into ninth grade at Choate Rosemary Hall. I suddenly found myself amongst those born with golden spoons or even famous last names. I questioned my place among them. Nonetheless, I grew to see the value of my Saturday morning spoon even more, thanks partially to Colin Lord, a mentor and admissions director at Choate who once detected a little self-doubt in me. He said, "We wouldn't have brought you here if we didn't think that you could handle it."
My talents grew, but on my own terms. I became president of the Choate Afro-Latino Student Alliance and Slam Poetry clubs. I was also named Prefect, becoming a student mentor to freshmen. As a Choate elder, I now share stories of my experiences with others, such as my first track meet as a freshman. My legs pounded against the red pavement of the track during the first race. I was nearly fifty yards ahead of my only competitor, when it hit me: I had broken into a sprint too quickly. I was that young, naive freshman who thought he could sprint 400 meters. Meter by meter, I could feel the senior runner coming up behind me, ultimately beating me by a full 50 meters. As I neared the finish line, I heard the voices of both my parents: "It's not the end all, be all."
My dad's grin, smile, voice, presence and spirit are still powerful forces in my life. My reality opposes all the studies that suggest I am lucky to be a part of the 4% of boarding school students who are African-American and not the nearly one million blacks who are incarcerated. These figures are mere background chatter to me. My father taught me well; his influence has weakened and trumped those studies. My goal now, above anything else, is to continue to grow into my own person and solidify my own incredible grin.
Ryan Shepard, a recent Choate Rosemary Hall graduate, will be attending American University this fall.