Essay of the Week: Puzzles In Action

06/23/2017 03:31 pm ET

When I hear my name, I automatically know Justin is stirring up trouble in the classroom. This time, I barely see the pencil as it whizzes past my face, just grazing my hair before clattering to a stop on a nearby table. The noise captures the attention of seventeen first graders, who turn their heads as another pencil takes flight. Amidst the peals of laughter, I find Justin now lifting a chair above his head in an Atlas-esque fashion. I rush over to him and gently pull the chair away.

He glances at his feet, then gestures to his math worksheet, scowling slightly, “I can’t do this.”

It was my second year as a volunteer at the GO Project, a non-profit organization that provides academic support to children in under-resourced NYC public schools. Justin arrived on his first day overflowing with energy. I became the only one who could calm him.

Why me? Perhaps the answer begins outside the elevator of my apartment building when I was Justin’s age. The lobby floors were slick with melting snow from outside. I could hear my teeth chattering and ran ahead of my family. I impatiently pressed the elevator button as a neighbor trotted in.

“Are you excited to see Santa?” she asked, brushing snow off her hat. I shook my head.

“I am celebrating Hanukkah because I am Chinese,” I told her. There was a brief look of confusion before she regained her smile, “That’s sweet.”

I was an enigma to my neighbor. She saw a Chinese girl but had no idea I was adopted by a white Jewish woman. I realized at a young age that there was something about me people could not know by just looking at me. The concept made my head spin. However, the reality of my own identity inspired my fascination in seeing the depth in those around me. I wondered if Justin could sense that inclination, if he knew I saw him as more than a troublemaker. Regardless, I was glad he decided to trust and confide in me, inadvertently becoming another puzzle for me.

I adore puzzles. As a child, I always loved sprawling across the carpet and sifting through the piles of puzzle pieces. There was nothing more rewarding than the excitement of watching the image slowly appear and the feeling of satisfaction when I finished. I was eight when my grandfather introduced me to the sudoku puzzle in the New York Times. We sat side by side at the kitchen table, mulling over the apparently endless possibilities of numbers and sequences. We worked for hours, armed with blue pens and sparkly butterfly pencils. Eventually, he would tire of the activity so I would carefully fold the page of newspaper and tuck it into my back pocket where it would stay until it was solved.

The keys to solving a puzzle, I learned, were patience, perseverance and a willingness to experiment with new things. I spent weeks employing a similar approach trying understand to Justin. Our long walks in the hallway became an outlet for him to release his energy and our seemingly trivial conversations became my window into his frame of mind. Slowly, I pieced together the puzzle of Justin. Finally, it clicked: I never saw him without his Lego figurines! They were inseparable. And so, I rewrote all of his math problems. Now instead of adding up library books or apples, Justin counted Lego figurines. Yet no one could have predicted that he would grow into such a strong math student. Similarly, no one could have predicted that a policy instituted by a Chinese communist autocrat could have created the perplexing life I know today as a Chinese girl who celebrates Hanukkah.

Sadie Stern graduated from Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School today and will be a freshman at Brown University in the fall.

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