"You can handle it, Matt," said Mr. Wolf, my fourth-grade band teacher, as he lifted the heavy tuba and put it into my arms. I was surprised because I had asked for the trumpet or the saxophone as my band instrument, not the tuba. I knew Mr. Wolf meant that I was the only one who could handle the tuba. And he was right. In fourth grade, I was a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than any of my classmates. While other students eventually played the trumpet and sax solos I would like to have tried, I dutifully set the band's tempo with my tuba and hoped that someday we'd play a song with a tuba solo. Never happened.
Now I'm 6'3" and weigh 240 pounds. Since freshman year, my football coach has had only one place for me: the line. I was never offered the flashy positions of running back or quarterback. I had to be where size mattered.
Somehow my size has precluded any solo performances in music or sports. In fact, the only time a tuba player or a lineman gets noticed is when he screws up. But I'm philosophical about this lack of recognition because size has its compensations.
For instance, I had always worried as a child when my parents left me home alone. I thought that burglars might break into the house. Then, when I was in sixth grade, I realized that I was bigger than most of the burglars I might have to confront, so I stopped worrying about it. The burglars must have felt the same way, because none of them ever broke in.
In school, particularly middle school, I encountered my classmates' stereotypes of what it meant to be the big kid: that I was either an uncoordinated simpleton or a nasty "tough guy." I didn't feel that I belonged in either category, so I worked hard to correct their expectations.
To counter the image of the big, clumsy, goofy kid that everyone laughs at, but not to his face, I resolved to become athletic and even graceful. I made sure that I played well in all the sports I went out for, even those where size was not a factor, like baseball. I also became a part of a ballroom dance class and followed it throughout high school, long after my friends had dropped out. At the annual dance performance, the members of my football team would look on in amazement from the audience as I danced waltzes, fox trots and tangos -- even Russian folk dances with knee kicks. Perhaps I overcompensated a bit.
Playing off the "tough guy" stereotype, I became a bodyguard for classmates who would beg me to stand with them so they wouldn't be picked on by a bully or gang of boys. I happily agreed to accept this role.
The most peculiar thing I've encountered about being big is when someone wants me to be even bigger -- like one of my football coaches who wants me to put on another 40 pounds. "Get in touch with the fatness that's inside of you wanting to get out," he said. I feel that I'm the perfect size, and even if my build could support more weight, I'm not going to do it.
One morning in seventh grade, I realized that I was taller than my brother who was two years older. My brother was so disturbed by this great milestone in our relationship that he refused to admit I was taller for another two years. In my freshman year of high school, my father discovered that I was taller than he was. Unlike my older brother's reaction, my father was delighted. He was my greatest fan, and privately coached me in all the sports I played, especially baseball.
My father, Joseph Coppo, lost his life on September 11, 2001, in the attack on the World Trade Center. It has been a rough 16 months, but his death has given me a new perspective on my size. Two days before he died, my father came into my room as I was getting into bed. We had a long, somewhat emotional, talk, and he told me God had given me a great gift and that I should use it to my full potential. That advice he gave me, which I had taken for granted at the time, now comes back so vividly in my memory.
My father told me that I should be disciplined, take pride in myself, stand up straight and hold my head up high. Attending his funeral and the many memorial services for the 9/11 victims, I was aware that my height made me stand out at these gatherings. As I walked down the aisle at the end of his service, I realized that everyone was looking straight at me. It was one of the hardest things I will ever have to do. I tried to appear dignified and brave in the hope that my calm, tall presence would comfort my family and friends and give them the courage to make it through.
Looking forward, I know that my size will enable me to accomplish many positive things, whether in college, in a career or in just helping others. Everyday I think of the words my father spoke to me, and I pray that I'll "grow" to be half the man he was.
Here are a few examples of admission essays written by Hamilton's newest students.
New Canaan, Conn.
Alice Dou Wang
West Chester, Pa.