I Believe in the Power of Grace

20141121_135554Every Halloween, my mother, with her fiery tongue and commandeering eyes, would summon me to the first floor dining room adjacent to our door at six sharp. You are candy dispenser tonight. Don’t let little children be unhappy. That job title is by no means a misnomer. Running nonstop between imminently-due-homework heaped on the couch and the doorbell singing obnoxiously every ninety seconds, I had transformed into a candy machine—bearing a worldly assortment of sweets at your demand. My compensation, the smiling Spidermen, sunlit gazes of Disney princesses, and ‘thank you(s)’ from fluffy Angry Birds often fell short of buffering the daunting thought of unfinished, exhaustive schoolwork. “We are thanking our neighbors with these small candies,” my mother would interject between my mild protests, “small sweets we give is the happiness of another.”

I didn’t grasp the power of ‘small sweets’ until one afternoon in junior year of high school.

For a long time, I indulged in the illusion of teenage invincibility. Despite all the hurdles along the way, I was accepted by a magnet high school, kept solid grades while juggled a dozen extracurricular activities, and even conquered the notorious SATs. But that afternoon, a month after a Kafkaesque nightmare turned into reality in my own family, I was on the brink of giving up. A disastrous, half-hour campaign against Taylor and McLauren series, coupled with countless nights of little sleep and little replenishments had burned me inside out. Sifting through a sea of reveling masses in the hallway, I felt the tides of tears swarming my eye socket as my throat constricted in pain. For that second I convinced myself into it—I was going to drop my magnet program, maybe even take a leave from school, and apply as a full-time worker somewhere.

Out of nowhere Mr. Brown, our securities manager, tapped my shoulder. “The vice principal wanted me to hand this to you.”

It was a small, hand-decorated paper bag with three envelopes inside. My trembling found the folds and pulled out every gift with care. There was a flower-embroidered journal, a collection of butterfly stickers, and a handwritten letter. My eyes skidded through my principal’s words explaining the well-wishes behind each present. “You’ve delighted us with your enthusiasm. And now it’s our turn to help you out. We are your big family.”

Like that, the small paper bag, carrying with it an immeasurable load of goodwill, brought me unstoppable tears of warmth and a revival of faith.

Revisiting these memories as I sit in my heated, cozy college dorm room and gaze at the elaborate architectures outside my window, it never escapes me that the reason I’m here is the goodwill of many generosity people. It is never too early or too late to return one’s gratitude—which may just become another’s much needed source of empowerment.

The advent holidays are not simply an occasion to send pleasantries to those who’ve helped us. As my vice principal summed it, ‘the greatest form of gratitude is paying it forward’. With Thanksgiving approaching, let’s pass on the ‘small sweets’—a present, a greeting card, a pan of pumpkin pie, and an hour of service—the priceless keys unlocking another’s resilience.    

To all my keepers, I send you my regards and best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving. To all the distressed Questies out there, I send you my love, an offer to critique your application essays, and prayers for a bridge to your dreams. 

Jessica Li, Quest Scholar, Princeton ’18