Last Thursday, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn spoke at Princeton about their book Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the psychology of reporting human rights, and why it’s important to travel. Before they started their presentation, Nick mentioned that the last time they visited campus was for their high school senior son’s college visit. Editors from the Nassau Weekly have managed to acquire a copy of the essay:

One-Legged Joe was stunned when I proposed writing my college essay about him. “It’s unbelievable,” OLJ said, smiling with an incandescence that seemed to light the street. “There’s no problem with taking pictures and telling my story. I want to tell it. But I’m a little afraid that if my mother sees it, she’ll be heartbroken.”

After I decided to write my college essay about Joe, as recounted here, I swore him to secrecy for fear that someone else might spirit him away, rather than let him tell his story. But first draft of the essay went smoothly.

I sat down at my desk. I opened my computer. It took a few minutes for Microsoft Word to load, which worried me, but eventually there it was. A blank screen. A tabula rasa. Open. Free. Relax and let the words flow, I told myself.

My fingers started to soar like an eagle over the keyboard, swooping down on the keys like they were zooming in on their prey – and – CRUNCH. Space. Period. Flying through the air, sweeping through the expanse, basking in the light…until suddenly, I crashed.

What to write now? What to say? I was blocked.

So I thought about Joe. Joe stands on the corner in front of the bagel shop every day. I live in New York and there are a lot of bagel shops, and a lot of homeless men, but Joe sticks in my mind when I walk to school and walk back from school and pass the bagel shop. It is not easy to be a homeless man, especially in New York, which is pretty cold in December! It is also hard to not have a family, a bed, or money.

I went outside. I bought a bagel for Joe and put it in the hand that was not holding the coffee cup full of change. Then I went and bought him a coffee. When he was done, he had two cups to collect change in. Then I gave him a dollar.

“How’s it going, Joe?” I asked him. “It’s not bad, son,” he told me. “You might have made my day.” I smiled at him. “Thanks Joe. I think about you a lot.” He smiled back at me. We smiled at each other, and then I went back home.

My father is a journalist for the New York Times, and over summer vacations we go to Botswana to cure underprivileged girls of fistulas, Cambodia to dissuade brothel owners from trafficking young girls, and Bangladesh to start schools for uneducated girls. But sometimes the best lessons are the ones you learn at home. Joe winks at me every time I pass by now. I wink back. It is important to make one person happy every day, and to be aware of the problems in your own backyard. In college, I will strive to incorporate these life lessons in my classes and extracurricular activities. I will never forget the look on Joe’s face that day I gave him the bagel.

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