Prose, Grades 7-9: Third Place

C350 — Hannah Bernstein

Instead of going to sixth hour, we were sent upstairs—to C350. I call it the “mystery room” because I walk by it every day, and it always has its blinds drawn. I’ve never been inside. When we got there, I was the first one in, and got the first look around. The room was oval-ish, and was completely bare except for a circle of about twenty five chairs in the middle, a rug with the school’s logo, and a middle-aged African-American man holding a yellow baton-like stick. He motioned for us to sit down, and I sat exactly across the circle from him. He smiled.

“I’m Oscar Reed,” he said. “But you can call me Oscar.”

I nodded. The rest of my class filled in around me and my teacher closed the door behind him. The room was completely silent until Oscar started to talk. He told us who he was and what we were doing here. We were at The Circle.

He explained that The Circle was a way to resolve conflict and strengthen community. The baton-like thing he was holding he called the “talking piece.” If you had it, no one could talk over you, interrupt you, or ignore you. He proceeded to hand it to Kate, sitting on his right.

“Introduce yourself,” he said. “Then, pass it on.”

She told us about softball and her favorite type of perfume, and then passed it to Rachel. And so we went, around the circle, until everyone was introduced. Oscar took the “talking piece” from Sam at the other end and held it for a second.

“Let’s talk about expectations,” he said. “What do your parents and teachers expect of you?” He paused before continuing. “What do you expect of you?”

The “talking piece” was already making its way around the room, and I didn’t know what to say. When the baton came to me, I didn’t speak for a second. Suddenly, my mouth seemed to be working alone, saying things I had thought about before but never said aloud.

“My parents expect me to be a good student, to be responsible and kind, and to do my best work. My teachers expect me to do my homework and study. But me? I expect myself to know who I am.”

I stopped talking abruptly and Oscar looked at me closely.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

I swallowed around a lump in my throat and said, “I expect to know what I want to do with my life, where I’m going, everything.”

Oscar nodded. I passed the stick to Jessica, sat back in my chair, and thought. I thought about how in high school I see a lot of people being treated wrongly. I thought about how stressful the homework is, and how long the tests are. I thought about the books I read, the TV shows I watch, and the books and TV shows everyone else reads and watches. I thought about human nature, and how everyone, deep down, has the ability to be kind. Finally, I thought about me. Eventually, after all the thinking, a hall pass to the bathroom, and the bus ride home, I came to this conclusion: Sometimes all someone needs is a little kindness, a listening ear, and an opportunity to be the person that she truly wants to be.

And to think—The Circle did all that for me.

Thanks, Oscar.