Luke Sparreo '24 
Prospect High School, Chicago, Illinois

These days, birds are losing the battle of favored domestic animal to dogs and cats. At best, they're an easily forgotten blot in the otherwise clear sky, and at worst, they're nasty pests associated with filth and disease. But for many years, birds were something much greater, the catalyst of folklore and tales for nearly every culture around the world.

We've all heard some iteration of a bird story before: Common characters you might recall include the wise owl, mischievous raven, vain peacock, and motherly hen. I was introduced to these stories early on, first captivated by the avian parables I listened to on CDs, and they became an integral part of my early years. I can still remember proudly reciting "The Ant and the Magpie" word for word to my parents, an important tale reminding listeners to save resources for a time in need, represented by the winter in the animal world.

As I got older, my love for birds persisted, but the influence those childlike stories had on me waned. After all, none of my classmates proclaimed their love of dogs stemmed from a Danish fairytale or Chinese folklore. I figured the reason I loved birds was shallower: I enjoyed the startling, colorful plumage and the joyous calls I heard outside my window. No longer were birds a central part of my identity; instead, they became an answer when I had to state my favorite animal during a summer camp icebreaker.

It wasn't until I was well into high school, nearly a decade after I last closed the cover, that I found one of my favorite childhood books, "Why Snails Have Shells," in the depths of my closet. Rediscovering this book reminded me of the importance I placed on the lessons I learned from the cherished bird characters. Leafing through the pages and rereading the familiar stories, I realized the straightforward teachings of the birds were more relevant to my current life than they ever were in my childhood. Birds once again were not simply my favorite animal, they guided the way I reacted in challenging situations, which - like for most of my peers - came in a barrage as I got older.

The lesson that permeates my life today is from an old Chinese proverb, famously summed up by poet Maya Angelou as "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." High school life, especially for my generation, is hyper-focused on the approval of others. Instagram is littered with polls asking if outfits are "ok," popularity is measured by the average number of comments you get in response to your posts, and every joke uttered is followed by a scan of the room to make sure at least someone is laughing. Contrastingly, the bird doesn't focus on the answer it receives from its song; in fact, it doesn't even expect an answer. The bird sings because it wishes to, because of the joy it experiences when doing so.

It can be easy to get swept away in the desire to please, but the personal mantra I've adopted reminds me of the importance of doing things for the sake of making yourself happy, not others. I build relationships I genuinely value, I invest my time in activities I love to do, and I express myself in ways that bring me joy. Although the stories and proverbs I learned when I was younger originated from distant times and places, they have woven themselves into my values and shaped me into the person I am today.