Finalist: "Haleakala Observatory" by Billy Schwartz

    My family and I moved to Hawaii when I was very young. I don’t remember very much about the move itself, but there is one moment that sticks out very clearly in my mind, and remains, to this day, one of the best memories of my childhood.

    As I recall, it was a hazy sort of afternoon. I was slouched on the back porch, exhausted from all of the activity and the general pressure of all the changes that had taken place over the past few days. I would have fallen asleep, but my sister’s chirpy conversation with our neighbor’s son, who she had decided was hotter than Jack from Titanic (whoever he was) invaded my ears and irritated me enough to keep me awake. Eventually, however, the lapping waves and the calls of unfamiliar birds worked their magic, and I succumbed to the temptations of Morpheus.

    My grandpa found me curled up under a lawn chair several hours later, after the sun had set and my skin had burnt to a rather unflattering shade of red. Normally, he would have lectured me about wearing sunscreen and protecting myself, especially since we had moved to such a warm climate, but for once, he said nothing, for which I was thankful (he later told me that he had known my mother would catch me, so he decided it wasn’t worth the effort on his part).

    Instead, Grampa held my hand and led me to a clearing on the beach near our house. As he spread a blanket across the sand, he pointed at the sky and told me to count the number of stars I saw. At first, still only half-awake and sore from my sunburn, I thought it was a trick question. Where we had lived before, only a few miles outside of Chicago, I would have been lucky to see more than twenty stars in the sky. When my cousin Maureen, whose father worked at the Grand Canyon and took her camping once every month, had told me many stories about the thousands of stars she saw every night, I was always convinced she was lying to me.

    So at first, I grumbled at Grampa and buried my face in his chest, unwilling to participate in something I believed was a silly game. Laughing, he grasped my shoulders and turned me around, tilting my chin to the sky.

    I was shocked. This dazzling display I saw was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. I had no words to describe the thrill that went through me as I gazed at the starry spectacle. I felt like I was wrapped in endless folds of inky fabric studded with diamonds, like it would never end. For the first time, I almost understood what Maureen meant when she told me that “The sky is so pretty that it makes me want to cry”. And although I couldn’t express the way I felt at that moment, I somehow understood that the flame of excitement that began to burn inside of me as I stared at the sky would continue to sustain me as I went through school, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life—I knew, somehow, from then on, that I would always chase the stars, to find some way of expressing that inner passion.

    And so here I am, double majoring at Northwestern in Astronomy and Art. Multiple As, like my name, Alaina Adamson, like my grades in school. Most people don’t understand why I’ve chosen such a strange combination of subjects any more than they understand why I decided to leave Hawaii for the chilly land of Evanston, IL. I understand why they ask me these questions—it is baffling when you don’t know the whole story. It’s true; I could have easily stayed in Hawaii for school and stayed warm in the process. Technically, I have no reason, other than the fact that my grandfather went to school here, to go to Northwestern.

    But that’s the thing. It’s only technically that I have no reason. Although I tell people that I came here because my grandfather did, my real reason has a deeper significance, and it’s all for me. You see, even though I’ve lived in Hawaii for the past twelve years, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to live here, what it’s like to only see twenty stars at night. But I was young when I left Chicago; I know I didn’t give this place a proper chance. And that is the real reason why I am here—to find the same magic in the Midwestern sky that I found on the Big Island. Will I find it? I don’t know. But I’ve got four years to try.


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