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I remember this view, looking up and back at the ghosts of congregants from the early 1900s, and my own ghosts from the last years of that century. Convergence and a little synchronicity.

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The Things That Transcend Language

Submitted by Sylvia on Thursday, 19 February 20094 Comments

Note from Lizzie:  May I introduce you to my daughter Sylvia?  Below is the college admission essay that Sylvia, a senior in high school, wrote for the Common Application.  Yesterday, upon acceptance to one of the schools she’d applied to, the Director of Admissions wrote her a personal note telling her that this was the finest admission essay she’d ever read about an international mission trip.  I am proud of my daughter and wanted to share her essay…. 

The children’s shrill cries of "Mzungu!  Mzungu!" followed me through the dusty streets of Lusaka.  As I toured the city on my first day in Zambia, I drowned in the sights, smells, and sounds.  It was a country of children.  I looked to my left and saw a child of six or seven sitting cross-legged, silently chipping away bits of rock from a boulder twice his size, adding to the slowly growing pile of gravel at his feet.  To my left I saw several young girls running through the clouds of dust kicked up by passing cars, adult authority nowhere in sight.  I was in Zambia to serve the children of an AIDS-devastated region, but I suddenly felt alien and helpless.  In a place so foreign, I knew that to make even a small difference, I would have to find those things that transcend language.

It began with dignity.  On that same day the minister of the local church, in an effort to welcome the American mission team, invited us into his home.  It was about 14′ by 18′–and built of cinder blocks and asbestos.  It lacked running water and electricity, but there was no denying the immense pride he felt in what he had invested two years of his life to build.

It continued with humiliation.  Ten-year-old James entered the mission campground with bright eyes that sparkled with intelligence.  The only child among my charges who spoke English, James was bright, fun-loving, and outspoken. I was surprised one day to find him sitting dejectedly by himself, digging his bare heels into the dust.  After sitting next to him in silence for several minutes, I asked him what was wrong.  He said nothing–merely kicked a dilapidated boot in disgust.  I later found out that one of the other children had been mocking him for the shameful state of his shoes. It would be the lack of decent shoes that would also keep James from joining his luckier peers at the local school.

And, finally, there was affection.  Every morning, upon our arrival at the camp, a tidal wave of children would flood our bus.  The cries of "Teachah!  Teachah!" echoed through the grounds, and excited, joyful arms were flung around my neck.  I would look down and see Evaline and Eliza, two girls in my class, reaching up at me with pleading eyes, each fighting with the other for her turn to be held by the teacher.  I thought of the lessons I had painstakingly prepared for this week, and I laughed to think that these little girls needed nothing more than to be close to me–and to pour out their affection.

Dignity transcends language.  Humiliation carries with it a cry far deeper than language.  Affection needs no language. These are the things I traveled five thousand miles from home last summer to learn.


  • Jane said:

    Sylvia, I am so impressed with your essay. It is easy to see why a Director of Admissions would flag this as special. Your experience, and reflections of that experience, are poignant and so well expressed. But what really makes this stand out is the maturity you must possess to have taken away so much from your mission trip.

    Lizzie, you must be “kvelling” over your daughter! I’m so glad you both shared this essay with the rest of us. Thank you!

    see this link to define “kvell”:

  • Ellie Gant said:

    Sylvia: Elegant and wise. Hope you find a college that feels like home.

  • Margaret said:

    This was such an moving essay. Not only does it convey you exceptional writing skills, as you were so vividly descriptive, but it also shows how touched and moved you were by what you saw. While reading this I could see through your eyes the travesty that the people of those small towns in Africa go through day after day.

    You should be extremely proud, not only for the Essay, but for taking such a wonderful step during your summer vacation in High School to help those in need. I wish you only happiness to come, especially in college. Good Luck!!

  • Lizzie said:

    Thank you, Jane, Ellie, and Margaret, for giving Sylvia such encouragement. She’s been surprised and delighted by the kind words about her essay. We’ll post an update in a few weeks to let everyone know where she ends up deciding to go to college. Thank you!!!

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