Sometimes, the Second Choice Is the Best Choice by Matt Spence

Amy came through the doorway to my classroom, and I immediately knew something was wrong. She was quiet and seemed small, which was unlike her – she was always upbeat and energetic, and she typically entered class laughing, chatting with a friend, or debating a peer on some political topic. As she slumped into the chair next to me, there were tears in her eyes, and she told me that her dream school had rejected her application. I was shocked, and I wasn't sure what to do, and I didn't know what to say. The young woman quietly weeping next to me was so different from the girl I had first met on a hot August morning at the start of her freshman year.

Three years earlier, Amy DeCillis (class of 2016) was in my advisory group. It was Freshman Orientation, and the late summer air was heavy with humidity – the green leaves of the trees drooped with the weight. A smell of rich, damp soil was everywhere, and nearby, a wooden platform creaked.

"That's it!"

A group of ninth grade girls swayed suddenly and feet shuffled across the weathered boards. The platform shifted slightly. The instructor crouched to look at the angle of the platform. “Nope. Not level.” The teacher on the platform told the girls to move an inch in one direction, and everyone suddenly lurched. Arms shot upwards and outwards as people searched for balance.

“That’s it!” the teacher exclaimed again.

I saw Amy’s young face through the group of thin arms and elbows. She was trying to hold back a howl of laughter. The other girls on the obstacle were trying to do what the teacher was urging them to do, and their faces were fixed in concentration. Amy was doing her part, but she had already figured out that the new teacher in their group was extremely competitive, even when participating in an activity to promote teamwork among the new ninth-grade students. Each time the teacher shouted, Amy’s smile grew wider. Her eyes were full of intelligence and joy.

After several minutes had elapsed, the instructor told everyone to stop. Sneakers slid carefully to the edge, and walked single-file up a narrow path to the next challenge. Amy hung back and waited for me.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Spence.”

“What for?”

“Well, I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. She was so excited and so intense. I don’t want you to think I was being disrespectful.”

“No worries, Amy. It was funny.”

She smiled and said cheerfully, “Ok then!” She ran ahead to catch up with her classmates, her black ponytail bouncing behind her.

From that moment, I knew I was going to like Amy.

Over the next two years, Amy followed a typical path at our school. She worked hard, took advanced courses, earned good grades, and played soccer for the school and a club team. Whenever I saw her around campus, she was always smiling with her friends but never failed to stop and chat with me for a few minutes.

Around October of her junior year, I realized that I had not seen her or heard her laugh around campus, so I asked a colleague if he knew anything about where she was. He told me that she had decided to spend the year studying abroad in China, which made perfect sense to me.

Amy had had never been shy about talking about being born in China and adopted by an American family, and she had expressed curiosity about learning more where she had come from. So when she heard about the opportunity to travel, study, and explore China all at the same time, she jumped at it.

The rest of the year passed quickly, and the following August, I was delighted when I saw Amy's name on the roster for one of my classes. When we had a chance to catch up and chat, she eagerly told me about her experiences in China and how they had shaped her desire to study languages at Middlebury College. She said it was her dream school, and she asked me for help with her application essays.

For weeks, we met after school to sharpen her essay, and I advised her to take a risk in writing about being adopted and how her personal history led to her transformative year in China. The more we talked about her life and her goals, the more impressed I became with her. And, because I had taught and coached other students who had gone to Middlebury, I was certain that she would be accepted.

So I was stunned and heartbroken for her as she sat at a table with me and cried. She said she didn’t know what she was going to do or where she was going to go. She said she felt lost.

Amy had always been a person who set goals for herself and then worked as hard as it took to achieve them. Getting into Middlebury would be no different. After all, she had checked off all of the boxes required to put together a strong application. Good grades? Check. Test scores within the published range? Check. Participation in extracurricular clubs and service organizations? Check. Varsity athlete? Check. Add to these criteria the fact that she had spent a year studying abroad and had written an interesting personal essay, and it seemed to her that she had done what she needed to in order to reach her goal.

But, this time, she didn't reach her goal.

As the semester wound towards winter and her classmates joyfully announced their college acceptances, I tried not to look at Amy. I knew she would put on a brave face and be happy for her friends, but I was also aware that the Middlebury decision still stung, and I personally felt that I had been a part of the pain that she was feeling.

I avoided bringing up college with Amy, but I heard from other people that she had been accepted by other strong colleges and universities that many of our graduates had attended and then gone on to successful careers. It was probably April before I asked Amy where she was planning to go the next year, and she told me that she had decided on NYU Shanghai. She explained that it was fairly new satellite campus with a specific curriculum and focus, and she seemed happy about going there. I was relieved that she had found a landing place for college, but I could never have guessed at how Amy would flourish over the next four years.

A little over a year later, Amy followed me on Instagram, so I followed her back. Through her colorful photos and intense black and whites, I learned of her travels to Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Japan, Singapore, Cyprus. She discovered and embraced her talent for photography, and with each picture she took, her portfolio and world view became more diverse and deep.

Images from Amy's Instagram Feed

I also saw pictures of her in the royal purple uniform of her school's soccer team: official team photos, goofy selfies, action shots of her leaning into opponents and fighting for the ball, and one of her lifting the champion's trophy that came after she scored the winning goal in the Shanghai league final. It was the team she captained, and it was the team that earned a shoutout on the FIFA World Cup's Twitter Feed.

At some point, Amy shared with me the link to the website that she created that showcased the works she did as she earned a major in Global China Studies with a minor in Interactive Media Arts. Although she had learned a great deal about the legal and political aspects of China's relationship with the rest of the world, she had developed a desire to tell the stories of the diverse people she had met. Amy's storytelling projects shifted when COVID-19 gripped China and then the world. She started to write about what it was like to live in Shanghai during the lockdown, and her work with NYU attracted the attention of international news and publication companies like NPR and Vogue, both of which published their interviews of her. Vogue also published one of her pictures and videos.

Amy recently graduated from NYU-Shanghai, and she has chosen to stay in her adopted city where she has just created her own company, Okra. Her goal with this company is to use her talents as an artist to create new relationships between Chinese companies and the rest of the world. Is it wise to start a new business during a global pandemic? Conventional wisdom would say probably not, but Amy's four years in Shanghai have taught her to take risks and to trust herself. They have taught her to be open to new experiences and to boldly jump at opportunities.

Amy recently told me that being rejected by Middlebury was probably the best thing that could have happened to her, and while it was painful, it was the catalyst that changed her life. I have a slightly different take on this event, however. I don’t think the rejection changed Amy; rather, I think it was the thing that pushed her to become a greater, more dynamic version of the incredible person she had always been.

Sometimes, the second choice is the best choice.

Created By
Matt Spence