Meet Bobby Flay

The day was here. I waited in line hours to see my culinary hero: Bobby Flay. While other preschoolers watched cartoons, I watched the Food Network. My favorite show was “Beat Bobby Flay,” and I rooted for Bobby every episode. By third grade, I instructed my parents to salt water when cooking pasta and reminded them to let meat rest. For me, food was an art form, a balance of flavors. Clutching my cookbook I approached for Bobby’s signature, but my mind went blank. I said nothing to him. As I walked away, I could imagine Bobby thinking “bland.”

— Kayla Lee, 14, River Dell Regional High School, River Edge, N.J.

Kayla, center, at age 9 with her brother, Jackson, left, and Bobby Flay.Credit...Jeff Lee

Cast Doubt

Left arm wrapped in a bright yellow cast, I marched into my first-grade classroom, brandishing my shattered wrist for all to see.

“Can I sign it?”

For the next three weeks, I was a celebrity. Elected line leader, I paraded my troops across campus, signatures and doodles adorning my casted arm. But it turns out, I wasn’t the celebrity: the cast was.

Castless, I asked Molly, the prettiest girl in class, what she thought about my now-splinted arm.

“Your breath smells like barf.”

To the back of the line I went, with the rest of the W’s, X’s and Y’s.

— Adam Xu, 16, Saratoga High School, Saratoga, Calif.

A River Runs Through Me

I am six years old, sleeping with nothing but a banana leaf over my shoulders to keep me warm. Tears fall as I see the fear and uncertainty in my aunt’s eyes. She is 13. She is my mom now, and we are lost. The indigenous Batwa lost our home, the rainforest, to the mountain gorillas. We are forgotten while the gorillas are celebrated. Lost to save the species. As the sun rises the next day, I run to Munyaga River and watch it become stronger and stronger. I will be the river for my people. I am the future.

— Joyce Orishaba, 17, Poway to Palomar Middle College, San Diego

Joyce, right, with her aunt in 2016 in her home village in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.Credit...Wendee Nicole

The Sidewalk

The three of us walk on a sidewalk. Side by side as we head home. We take turns talking to one another. Three isn’t an even number so one of us is always left out. The sidewalk narrows and soon it is only two of you standing side by side. I stand behind and walk alone. I cross the street and continue walking on the opposite side. By the time you guys notice I’ll already be home. Later you’ll send me the same text. “Sorry, we didn’t notice.” And I’ll respond with mine. “It’s fine.”

— Nicole, 15, Alisal High School, Salinas, Calif.

Impromptu Party

Beyoncé blasting through the phone, the midday pajama party is in full force. My sister and I jump, jig, gyrate. Our feet stir an earthquake — this time the downstairs-neighbors have surely had enough. “Aye!!!” Notes spill from my mouth, reverberating off the bedroom walls. My sis hits a mean nae-nae; I mirror it. “GURL! Turn this up!”

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A knock on the door. Suddenly, I’ve become a statue mid-two-step. Wide eyes locking, we scramble to hit pause. We’re deers in headlights — frozen and bracing for impact. Mom’s stern face peers through the crack. “Y’all playing Queen B and I wasn’t invited!?”

— Alexander Wu, 17, High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering, New York, N.Y.

Packing all that I hold dear in 20 minutes or less

Black smoke from afar within an hour was at our backyard’s doorstep. Fires were always on other hills, in other people’s neighborhoods. My coveted shoes, a laptop, my Konietzko drawings. Our cars were filled with instruments, art, albums, knickknacks from 37 countries, and thoughts of what was left behind. Twenty acres blew up to 30,000 acres in three days fueled by drought and 108-degree temperatures. Days, Dad stood guard. A week passed before we came home to a backyard filled with swaths of bright fuchsia retardant dropped by dozens of planes and firefighters. Pink is now my favorite color.

— Zubin Carvalho, 17, Western Center Academy, Hemet, Calif.

A photo of the surrounding area taken from Zubin’s backyard on the second day of the fire.Credit...Zubin Carvalho

My Crush

“So, who’s your crush?” my friend asked eagerly.

We sat on the floor of her basement, surrounded by crumbs and an unnecessary amount of pillows. I avoided her question, “I don’t have time for that stuff.” “Oh, tell me! There has to be one boy.” She was going to interrogate me until I gave a satisfactory answer. I sorted through the people in my science class and smiled, “Finn, from your science table.” She grinned, looking very pleased with this answer. “Of course! I knew I saw you sneaking glances at him!” She was wrong, I was glancing at her.

— Olivia Sharma, 15, Blue Valley West High School, Overland Park, Kan.

Grandpa’s Drawing

“Do you see it?” my mom asked, confusion twisting her face. I looked at it, the paper bag sitting on the kitchen counter. The sharpied lines absent-mindedly sketched, branches evolving from a broad trunk, intertwining into intricate limbs. Not a handout or stencil from Grandpa’s aphasia group. Just his tree. I squinted in the kitchen limelight and saw it. The gaps. Empty spaces between branches, subtle but severed. The right hemisphere remained intact. The left, paralyzed after the stroke, detached. We stared at his sketch, wondering if he drew his brain or if his brain drew a tree.

— Zoe Rodriguez, 16, Waltham Senior High School, Waltham, Mass.

Zoe’s grandfather’s drawingCredit...Zoe Rodriguez

Baby Tim

6 p.m.: The words “I dare you” were muttered at an empty park. 6:05 p.m.: I slid my legs into a baby swing. 6:15 p.m.: My friends and I laughed hysterically as my legs dangled. 6:30 p.m.: I was stuck. 7 p.m.: No one called for a parent in fear of stark punishment. 7:30 p.m.: My legs became red and numb, but we finally called a parent. 8 p.m.: The fire truck arrived with baby oil and bolt cutters. 8:15 p.m.: Freedom. Four years later: My friends still call me “Baby Tim.”

— Timothy, 15, Derry Area High School, Derry, Pa.

Imperial System

When my family and I hurriedly left Shanghai for Boston, I only had a day to say goodbye to my boyfriend. The torment of a three-month long lockdown lingered. After he let me cry into his shoulder for hours, he said, “Y’know that America still uses the imperial system, right?” I laughed and said yes. We were supposed to graduate together, go to prom together, have dates by the Bund together. But I never imagined my first love ending like this: watching his figure shrink from my car window, the distance between us growing from meters to miles.

— Jessica Zhang, 17, Northfield Mount Hermon, Mount Hermon, Mass.

Jessica with her boyfriendCredit...Anita Zhou

Seven Words

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Words spoken by Kate Moss in an interview recorded when I’d just learned to walk. Words I learned and lived by at 14. Before I’d ever held the hand of a boy. Before I’d driven a car. Before I could listen to a Taylor Swift breakup song and truly understand what she meant by heartbreak. Eleven years before I took them to heart, seven words were spoken, denouncing something as harmless as the taste of food. I took those seven words and lived by them before I even had a taste of life.

— Seren Conway, 16, Booker T. Washington High School, Pensacola, Fla.

True Colors

In middle school, I was a closeted kid who stuck to the uniform, who made sure that everything about me conformed to what was expected, and whose relationship with their mother was punctuated by exhausting fights with brief periods of respite. Now, I am 16, openly queer, and my mother dyes my hair for me, regularly glides a tint brush covered with semi-permanent hair color over my cropped Afro. With every moment, the ammonia works a little more, and my curl pattern shifts with it. It is the most intimate thing my mother has ever done for me.

— Tobi Carr, 16, Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Houston

Tobi with their mother.
Tolu Falade

Food for the Soul

Ever since my father got Covid he’s been obsessed with instant ramen. Ma forbade it after reading an article about MSG, she calls all carbs “empty calories” (except rice). He started to sneak into our house with paper bags — instant noodles beneath produce — slipped their shiny wrappers into empty shoe boxes. We’ve never been exceptionally close, my father and I. But we’re always the latest up, most vulnerable when hungry. We nurse green ceramic bowls. When I ask him why ramen — he says the warmth. I understand. I clutch onto it too, steam cloaking our pulse, pink ears under moonlight.

— Emily Pedroza, 15, Lynbrook High School, San Jose, Calif.