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Last year I was getting ready to take my SAT II’s in composition when I asked a friend what type of essay I would have to write. She told me that the prompts were really easy; last year she had gotten the topic: “How has the world become a better place in the last 20 years?” At first I thought that would be simple, but then the more I thought about it, I had no idea how I would write an honest essay on this topic. It wasn’t that I felt that things had gotten a lot worse; however, I could not think of how the world had concretely improved. I was completely dissatisfied with this conclusion. I started opening my eyes to anything that would defy this cynical notion I had developed. I ran smack into the answer this summer when I attended Fresh Start.

Fresh Start is an orientation for incoming freshmen at Ashland High School. Upper-classmen are the counselors and they lead the freshmen in games that teach listening skills, group bonding, and mental preparation for the changes that come with entering high school. The retreat goes beyond all of this though; it is a place where a different and ideal environment is created. The air at the retreat is filled with optimism and acceptance. The faces that you have seen a million times in the halls at school look at you differently and you know they are seeing something different too. This change is not because of a special potion; it simply takes the conscious decision of a group of people to open up to a positive experience. I heard people say things in front of a roomful of people that I knew they had never spoken aloud, and everyone listened. I saw people perform on a stage, who had never once had so many eyes gaze upon them. I felt the embraces of people around me whom I had never spoken to before. I was in a world where I felt completely safe. I had found a perfect example to destroy my previous notion that the world has not improved. Fresh Start did not exist 20 years ago. I now knew that positive improvements do happen; my cynicism was not justified. Answering this dilemma led me straight to my next question; how does the world improve?

I didn’t have to look far to find an answer, because it was right there at Fresh Start. I saw that the world changes on a small scale. It changes with each individual who wills it to change. If my own life has improved can I count this as being part of the entire globe improving? Sure, why not? A special part of Fresh Start for me was being with a good friend of my family’s Mark Schoenleber. Mark, the art teacher at our high school, is the creator of Fresh Start. He has also been my ultimate test of character since I was three. I was painfully shy when I was young. I was really intimidated by strangers, specifically strangers like Mark who were 6 foot 5 and would actually talk to me and ask me questions, putting me on the spot. The worst of my shyness was ultimately shed when, as a freshman, I finally looked Mark in the face and had a conversation with him. As a senior at Fresh Start overcoming my introversion went far beyond this.

I am still pretty shy, especially concerning playing the piano in front of other people. I have played the piano my whole life but it is a talent that I hesitantly share. At Fresh Start a great opportunity comes when everyone is invited to express a talent at “open mic”. If I played the piano in front of all these people I would be opening a very tightly shut part of myself, leaving me quite vulnerable. I bottled all of my shyness, fear, and pride and tossed it aside. I sat down on a piano bench right next to my friend Mark and played the piano. Mark sang while I played “Stairway to Heaven.” For the first time I was on the other side of the stage, comfortably sharing this moment with Mark. It may not have seemed like anything special, but to me it most certainly was. This wonderful performance would never have happened had it not been for the atmosphere at Fresh Start. This is what the world is supposed to be like. The world should be a place where everybody feels comfortable unleashing old, confining fears, and doing so in front of a large crowd of people. This is how the world should be.

The well-being of the world is not dictated by outside influences. The choices and resolves humans make generate the kind of environment they live in. The answer to my question was not found in an external example that illustrated an improvement in the world; it took finding a solution inside of me to solve the mystery. At Fresh Start, the water is not different. We all arrive wearing the same clothes and possessing the same personal histories we always have, but we create a world far different from the one we live in each day. How do we do it? It happens when we all get on the bus wanting to make it happen. The will of a human being is powerful, and if we can believe in its power great things can happen. I would like to see a world where people feel safe and comfortable, where people’s jaws hurt from smiling too much. I want to live among people who can express their talents free of any fear of ridicule and where there is always music playing and people dancing. I intend to play my part in this outcome by exuding a positive attitude and accepting people. I used to think that we only had control over ourselves; at Fresh Start I was proven wrong. A positive atmosphere is highly contagious; I seek to spread the disease.

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