Finding Your Center

Haldane students shape essays on a core belief

By Alison Rooney

Seventh grade is the perfect time, says Kathy Curto, to figure out your foundation. And that’s why, eight years ago, she launched “This I Believe” at Haldane Middle School.

The program is modeled after the popular National Public Radio program that began in the 1950s with Edward R. Murrow of CBS. At Haldane, the students, under the direction of Curto and English teacher Danielle Pece, spend three weeks shaping and then sharing an essay about a core belief.

Danielle Pece and Kathy Curto display a copy of the 2017 This I Believe book. Student Cassie Kubik designed the cover. (Photo by A. Rooney)

Curto, who teaches creative writing at Montclair State University, said she had given the assignment to her freshmen and realized how appropriate it would be for students in middle school, who, at ages 12 and 13, are “thinking about things they value and why they value these things.”

Pece joined the Haldane staff four years ago and immediately took to the program. After explaining the assignment, Pece asks her students to answer a series of questions designed to help them select a belief to focus on. Then Curto visits each class, playing audio files of essays read by their authors on NPR and discussing writing strategies. (Full disclosure: I assist Curto with this part of the program.)

Each of the four seventh-grade classes gathered to share in the reading of their work. (Photo by A. Rooney)

The students write and rewrite over the next few weeks. “Their first reaction to [being assigned] personal writing is sometimes ‘no,’ ” says Pece, “but when Kathy comes in she does such a stellar job explaining it, and their reactions change to ‘yes.’ Going into eighth grade, they now have the maturity to be introspective.”

The resulting short essays (and occasional poems) are compiled into a printed book, with a copy for each student. Publication parties (one of each class) are held each June with the students sitting in a circle, fortified by snacks, and those who are willing read their essays aloud.

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The students eagerly looked through the pages of the This I Believe book to find their contribution. (Photo by A. Rooney)

The atmosphere is supportive, and some students change their minds about sharing their work.

“It’s a great opportunity for those kids who are ready to get it out there,” Pece says. Every year students tell her they have nothing to write about. “Most students have had no ‘big’ thing happen to them, but they learn it’s the details which can crack the ordinary open,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about the momentous moments. It’s also about finding out how they connect and relate to other students.”

At each reading circle, there are tears and hugs over stories of loss and moments when it’s evident that someone’s honesty has opened their peers’ and teachers’ eyes, inviting a new way of perceiving a person.

“When you ask someone to sit and hear a story read out loud, it’s different” than what we often encounter in the digital age, Curto says. “When you hand someone an actual book containing their words, it means something.”

Video by Gregory Gunder

This I Believe

My Nonno Is With Me
By Sophia Scanga

I have a very tight family. The heart and soul of my family has always been my Nonno and Nonna. We all live on the same road and see each other just about every day. MyNonnopassedawayonMarch5,2015.

Before Nonno passed, every moment he spent with his grandchildren was a time when he would share with us his love for birds and German Shepherds. He had a chicken coop and a very big bird house where he raised many different breeds of birds, and we still take care of them even though Nonno is no longer with us. He had such a close connection with animals, that’s why he had so many. Nonno would call me a chicken because I was so afraid to go into the coop. I know it sounds crazy but I’m still building up the courage to go close to the birds and chickens.

It was really hard for my family when my Nonno passed away. My dad had a hard time with the reality that his dad was no longer here with him, so we decided to go on a family vacation to Florida. My dad loves it there.

One day we were walking out of the hotel getting ready to go to the beach and sitting on a ledge high up on the roof of the building there were two beautiful bald eagles. Bald eagles are not birds you would see every day. We couldn’t help but believe this was a sign. I believe this is true because as we turned the corner and made our way to the valet station at the front of the hotel sitting there was a German Shepherd. Just then we heard the owner speak to his dog, he said, “Look Hugo!” The dog’s name was Hugo and my Nonno’s name was Hugo. My mom and dad immediately started crying. I hugged my dad and he said, “Always remember Nonno is with you.” This moment has always stuck with me. Every time I walk into my Nonna’s, I know he is there. Every time I eat a bagel, I think back to when he used to get us bagels every Sunday.

Every time I see a bird or a German Shepherd, I know he is with me and it’s him saying, “Hello, Bella.”

I Believe in the Strength of Eminem
by Annabelle Gesson

Life was never easy for kids like me. There always seemed to be part of me holding back; not letting myself go completely. Most times it felt as though I was a sailboat, anchored to the ground. I’ll let you all in on a little secret. This piece is probably the most honest I’ll ever get. Since being vulnerable isn’t something I l like feeling, it is difficult because my life has forced me to become accustomed to it. Since I was always holding back, I was never expressing myself and letting me by me. Well, that was until I listened to my first Eminem song. And this is the story of why I believe in the strength of Eminem.

The trouble erupted when I was in seventh grade. Although my mom warned me how hard middle school was, I suppose I still didn’t prepare myself enough. I ended up switching out of my old school due to complications with everything. This transition would turn out to be nothing short of a miracle however. But I’m only 13, so I wouldn’t know that then. When I put my guard down and listened to Eminem, I felt something I hadn’t in a while. I felt joy. I felt like I could forget about that test I didn’t do well on, or that boy that wouldn’t stop being mean to me. I felt okay again. There is something about Eminem. Something that lets you be you. Eminem doesn’t hold back, and I quickly learned that.

I believe in Eminem. I believe in the perseverance he has and the hope he spurs in me.

It all started on the first day of my new school. I hopped into my mom’s Toyota, which was always a little too clean for comfort and plugged my phone in. I tapped my foot to the beat of “Beautiful Pain”, a song which describes a person who is pushed to a certain extent, but recovers and makes something so positive and touching out of it. As I slowly placed one foot in front of the other, I stepped into the school, with my heart beating as fast as lightning. I slowly recited the words in my head: it’s a beautiful kind of pain.

I let Eminem be the foundation of my new start. Let’s be honest. Sometimes things really get low, but it is in your darkest days in which you thrive the most.

I believe in Eminem because he lets me be me. If it weren’t for Eminem, I may not have come to terms with myself. Eminem inspires me and tells me that everything will get better. I believe in the strength of Eminem.

I Believe That Everything Happens for A Reason
By Aaron Hathaway

I believe everything happens for a reason. It all started with a small tumor on my dog’s neck. At first I really didn’t think much of it. A couple days after we found the tumor, my mom drove my dog to the vet in Fishkill to drain the blood from the tumor. I came home after school to find my dogs neck wrapped in medical wrap like he was a mummy from where they drained the tumor. I told my dog that everything will be alright, that was the first and last lie I told him. My dog’s tumor only got bigger and soon he lost his ability to walk with his back legs. After he lost the ability in his back legs, we took him to top rated vet in the Hudson Valley. We tried everything. We tried massages for his back legs, but nothing changed.

My parents had scheduled another checkup with the vet. My parents didn’t really tell me and now I understand why. I was already back at the house by then and they had told me the news. I ran into my dad’s arms sobbing. I came to school the next day and broke down in study hall crying, luckily my friends were there. I could not stop thinking of Griz for the next couple of weeks but then came the day when I got my new dog.

It was an adoption day at a local tractor company. We stopped by to look at some puppies but I never thought we would find a dog as perfect as Grizzly up for adoption. The manager of the program invited me into a pen of triplets. They were all so cute they jumped on me, licked me and played. My mom asked, “Do you want any?” I responded, “Yes.” My dad went into the back to do the screening. After that was finished, we scoped out our new puppy.

The women told us a little about her. As we walked out people congratulated us and told us how cute she is. We plopped her in the car. She seemed a little nervous but eventually she rolled up next to me. On the car ride back home we thought of names. Since she was from Alabama we named her Ally, and this is why I believe everything happens for a reason.

I Believe in Friendship
By Robert Viggiano

When I was 7 years old, my mom brought me to a cat shelter. Adoption was offered and encouraged. We walked through the door, and the smell of the place was rancid like a horse stable. It smacked me across the face. The lady at the front desk greeted us with a, “Hello, how may I help you?” We asked, “Do you have any kittens?”

She lead us to the nursery hurriedly and excitedly. And that’s when I saw Cherry. Her black beige and speckled white face looked at me, and I knew she was the one for me. From the moment I brought her home, I knew our friendship was going to be unbreakable. I believe if you have a powerful relationship with something or someone, it can always help you when life gets rough.

Cherry let me hold her and play with her whenever I wanted. I always used to chase her around the house, trying to catch her as if she was my baby cousin. She would always, actually antagonize me. When It was night time, and I was sleeping, she would sneak through the door like she was a stealthy FBI agent (tail vertically pointed) and come up to me and sleep by my side. I had the greatest time with my cat and I loved her more than my sister at times. One day I got in a fight with my mom. I stormed to my room, and slammed the door behind me.

The noise echoed throughout the whole house. Five minutes later, Cherry hopped on my bed and laid on my lap. This brought me great joy and turned my frown upside down.

One day Cherry was acting funny and wasn’t really playful. She started to urinate blood, and later that week we found out she had kidney stones. Without hesitation, we brought her to the vet and got the stones removed immediately. As Cherry was there for me, I was there for her. I gave her her medicine, and cared for her while she was healing. She got tuna and chicken every night for dinner.

True friendship is a bond that cannot be broken. Through good times and bad, you are there for each other. Whether I am melancholy or angry, bright and cheerful, Cherry is there right by my side. They say all you need is one true friend, mine happens to have four legs. (Even though my only friend is not my cat).

I Believe in Commitment
By Sander Miller

I believe in commitment. Because if you commit yourself, then you can get anything done. Even if you struggle, you should keep pushing yourself. One time I needed to push myself was with football.

The end of the 2016 school year was approaching. There was an after school meeting in Mr. McConville’s room. The meeting was about joining the modified football team the next fall. At the end of the meeting, Mr. McConville handed out a summer workout schedule. On the sheet was a list of different dates and times for workouts called OTAs. OTA stands for organized team activity. They were meant to keep people in shape for football season.

The OTAs took place on Sunday mornings at 7. This time was a shock for me, because even though I wanted to work out, this started really early in the morning—even earlier than school. In addition to that, the workouts were three hours of intense training, such as sprinting and weightlifting. But the worst part is, I had to do the whole thing with high schoolers. This would be as awkward as a mouse trying to work out with elephants.

I wasn’t sure if should I go to the OTAs at all or not. On one hand, they were the only way to get stronger for football, but on the other I had to do it with high schoolers. In the end I made up my mind to try the first OTA. Later, when I arrived, there was only one other middle schooler, my brohim Will. Our workout started with stretching, and then running the length of the football field twelve times. That’s 1,320 yards!

After this, on three different occasions, I vomited. After we did that, we went up to the weight room to lift weights. I did about ten of these training sessions throughout the summer, and I was finally able to lift up my couch. Through all this hard work, I earned the starting spot as wide receiver on the modified football team. And this was a team with ninth graders.

This story about football is why I believe that commitment and hard work pay off.

Tribute to Marie
By Shea DeCaro

I guess you could say she had a spark.
A spark so bright, it could light up the darkest parts of your brain, And the loneliest parts of the planet.
She could smile,
And it was a smile that made you feel ecstatic.
You could see the corners of her pale pink lips turn upwards, And the apples of her cheeks rise.
She is a person that you could not “come by” in a million years, But, now she is physically gone.
You’d ask her, “How are you?”
And her response would always be, “Couldn’t be better.” Her name was Marie,
A very distinct, Very subtle name.
But the irony of it all was that she was neither of those things.
She was the type of person whose voice could be mistaken for the exhilarating sound of a piano in a pub.
A woman whose laugh could bring a smile to your face and make every worry fade away in your head.
But,
I have not heard that sound in many years.
I see pictures of her, the same martini glass in her hand and that same smile etched across her blank canvas.
The same crinkle around her eyes and the same bewildered look on her face. But you have to understand,
That sometimes when people grow older, they slowly lose themselves. It really is like being reborn.
Marie slowly lost herself, Forgetting more and more,
And losing sight of her family along with everything else. We all have some sort of degree of a disease.
Whether we forget things, as people with Alzheimer’s do,
Or whether we don’t know where we are, as people with dementia do when they wander off,
Or even just feeling sad, as people with depression feel. No, they aren’t as serious.
But, it’s still a sign.
It’s still a sign that we all start with the simplest form of things. But what I don’t understand is
Why do people with sparks have to leave so early?
Instead of smiling she then gazed.
She stared out the window with no expression at all. Her eyes were the same wild green,
But somehow different.
She barely spoke from those pink lips.
The SAME pink lips I just previously described. She was no longer Marie.
She was just a woman in a suit, Disguised as her.
She no longer looked at me with love, She didn’t look at me at all.
She couldn’t.
She had forgotten my face, My voice,
She even forgot my hair.
The distinctive ringlet curls that rest on my head, creating a thick bob of distortion. She forgot the ducks in the pond by her house.
She even forgot my stupid little purse FILLED with Lip Smackers lip gloss. I knew someone that is now far away,
In a very different place.
The REAL Marie wants to come out and say hello, I’m sure of it.
I KNOW she’s in there somewhere.
But, now I realize why they call it a spark. You want to see it forever,
But it only lasts a mere 2 seconds.
Nowadays, I’ll look at the pictures of her again, and again; over and over. But everything still seems different.
She’s the exact same.’ My head always says.
Because it’s evident that she has the same hunch she always did, Same shirts,
Same hair.
Yet, now I am the one show does not know her.
Sometimes, I question if the memories I claim to remember even happened at all. Marie always had a way to make things better.
Her existence alone kept the car moving,
No matter how many bumps were in the road.
She was the reason a smile was etched on my dad’s face, She was a wheel. She kept everything going.
Someday, I will be a wheel. Spinning,
And spinning, And spinning,
Until I finally come to a halt.

I Believe in Sunday Morning Bagels and Donuts
by Marisa Scanga

When I was 10 years old, my grandfather passed away. He wasn’t only my grandpa, he was my best friend. We called him “Nonno.”

Every Sunday morning he would bring home bagels and donuts.  He brought them home to us so often that we didn’t even have to tell him which bagel or donut to get us. My breakfast was an everything bagel toasted with butter from our favorite bagel shop, Susie’s Bagels. I also had a pink donut with rainbow sprinkles from Dunkin Donuts.

I told him not to let the bagel shop customize it; I liked it better when he made it for me. Nonno, Nonna Maria, Nonna Chesca (Nonna Chesca is my great grandma), my cousins and I would all gather around the table and eat. Every Sunday there were nine hungry grandchildren waiting for breakfast.

It was easy for us to get to his house because we all live on “Scanga Lane” (which Nonno created) except for two of my cousins; they live just around the corner, but still a walking distance. Susie’s Bagels knew every time Nonno walked in the shop what he was going to get. He went in at the same time every Sunday morning so before he came in they were already putting the bagels in the bag for him. This was when he got there he could get them right away and feed hi hungry grandchildren as soon as possible.

One day I heard my dad canceling the order for Susie’s and I couldn’t stomach anything else. I didn’t know why he was doing this. I saw an ambulance in the driveway of Nonno’s house and immediately started crying. My parents were trying to comfort me and I was told that he was going to be fine, but to this day we still do not know what caused his traumatic brain cancer.

He was the most active and healthy grandfather I know. He had chickens, birds, and two German shepherds at one point. We played wiffle ball outside with him almost every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We loved to sleep over his house on weekends and we would take endless trips to Walmart and get toys in his Mercedes that always had that new smell even if it was five years old. He had this collection of building toy logs and we would have building competitions on whose log cabin was the best.

Nonno would judge. He was my only grandfather from the day I was born and our lovely bond will never be broken even now that he has a special place in my heart. We shared secrets and stories that no one ever knew about even to this day. Everyone had a bond with Nonno and I’m sure we all say this, but our bond was extra special.  My grandfather will never be forgotten. People say it gets easier as time goes on, but to be truthful it doesn’t. I try to think about the happy memories, but some just make me think, why did cancer choose him?

I Believe in Manhattan
by Molly Siegel

I believe in Manhattan. My aunt has lived in Manhattan since before I was born. When I was young, the city confused me. The streets and the avenues, the subways and the buses. Even the people confused me. There I was taking everything in. Absorbing it like a sponge and trying to figure it all out, while men, women, and even other children just quickly walked by, heads up, one foot in front of the other. Everything was so much different than what I was used to in Cold Spring. It’s so small that you can walk down a street and see someone you know. I remember running to corners of sidewalks whenever I was walking with my parents in Cold Spring, but I found when I was in the city I was clinging to my aunt’s hand. I wasn’t scared, just cautious.

When I was in the city, I was Cold Spring. I was small and mundane, and compared to the people around me, boring. As I grew up, Manhattan made more sense. Obviously, Cold Spring isn’t the most diverse place, but as a child I didn’t understand what diversity was. I didn’t realize how much it would affect how much I saw things.

Only about three weeks ago I was in Union Square subway station with my aunt and my brother. It was busy and smelt like a lake but somehow if it was any other way it wouldn’t feel right. Usually I don’t give money to performers I see but there was a man with no arms, just hands, playing the drums. It was inspiring. And it reiterated the fact that in Manhattan you can see anything. As the day went on we walked by young people, old people, ethnic people. So many different groups all in one place, everyone enjoying themselves. Laughing, smiling, singing and dancing. I realized on that day this this world would be a very different place without diversity and I would be a very different person without Manhattan.