Personal Essay

By Justyna Solowinska
Mattituck High School

“Oh, how the tables have turned” is a statement that I’m sure everyone has heard at least once in their life. A sibling may have said this as they were about to squirt you with a water gun or even a vengeful cousin at your fifth-grade birthday party looking for payback after you locked them in the shed for an hour. Either way, you could have also heard these words while watching the movie Home Alone or even Micheal Scott’s attempt at saying it during season five, episode twenty-three. Ultimately, I’m sure you’ve heard this statement being used in a conversation you’ve witnessed. However, the first time I’ve ever had to say this statement was to myself this year after my dad’s funeral.

Let me start at the beginning. Ever since I was a child, I knew I was fortunate enough to be the daughter of two immigrants from Poland who could afford everything from a LEGO Friends Set to a new pair of tennis shoes. They worked hard, and I lived a very happy childhood and even grew up with a passion for catering to the community’s needs. This passion was seen through my work with the Rotary Club/Interact Club when I volunteered at CAST, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and food drives. In these community events, I would give back as much as possible and meet with people from all walks of life. Here, I would meet individuals from different ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. These events made me feel like I was finally a part of a community, not just a school of predominantly privileged white students with strict ideas and rules about who belonged in their friend group. Whether it was 5 a.m. at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Breakfast Service for the less fortunate or 6 p.m. at the CAST Thanksgiving Food Drive, I was making a difference with my actions and understanding to anyone who needed my help. Here, I understood how economically lucky I was, and even fortunate that my parents granted me their support whenever I wanted to do something meaningful for a change.

In addition to this work at the Rotary Club, I wanted to focus on preventing discrimination and creating a comfortable experience for all my peers, regardless of their background, sexual orientation, or even race. So, during my junior year in high school, I joined SADD Club to prevent bullying and educate others about respect and mental well-being. During these meetings, we would discuss conflicts or issues that would arise among students and would help address these concerns. I liked the idea of creating a welcoming environment for all students. I enjoyed this so much that I attended a HUGS Long Island Teen Conference Weekend Retreat on Shelter Island. This event was meant to bring together teenagers who wanted to be advocates for their peers and empower them to strive toward mutual respect for everyone around school and the community. During that weekend, I was able to connect with students from all over Long Island and be around people who saw differences as signs of strengths, not weaknesses meant to be pried open and ridiculed. This experience was refreshing, and I took every ounce of that weekend back to the small town of Mattituck.

You see, the problem with change is that it takes a village. In this case, Mattituck was not that village. The changes that SADD Club, Interact Club, and experiences such as Long Island Teen Institute are small and significant. However, more is needed to cause revolutionary change, at least not here, not in Matittuck. Everything seemed at peace at the end of my junior year as bullying seemed less of a problem, and students were distracted by the idea of a summer away from homework, assignments, and tests. However, after the brutal summer that would coincide with my dad’s funeral ended, the school year was on its way to the beginning. Instead of a warm and inviting atmosphere, I was met with a cold and disrespectful bullying arena. This was not the High School Musical senior year I had hoped for. On the contrary, my entire grade and school concentrated more on people’s differences than ever. Even more so, I was constantly cornered by the financial strain I was now experiencing after my dad’s death. There was no sympathy, but the empty divide of my family’s loss of income that led to several moments where I truly felt more like an orphan than a half-orphan. In these moments, I finally saw how the “tables have turned.” I went from advocating for inclusion and respect to avoiding crowds for fear of being bullied for being poor.

Every story may not have a happy ending, this was a lesson that I learned from one of my favorite childhood authors, Lemony Snicket. I now know that this story is one of those, but as I venture into Barnard College, my passion for mutual respect will continue to guide me as I meet new people in one of the most diverse cities in the world.