The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This is how my nightmare begins.

I’m standing in the heart of a pristine university campus, surrounded by hundreds of teenage girls fidgeting with their luggage. Damp hair sticks to the backs of our necks; we can taste the heat and the salt and the excitement on our tongues. After a rigorous selection process, interviews, and hours of anxious waiting, just standing at Girls State feels like the end of a long journey.

One of the counselors stops me on my way through the check-in and says, “We’re going to have to ask you to take the hat off.” I take off my baseball cap, a pro-LGBT slogan standing proud on the front. “Girls State citizens aren’t allowed to make political statements,” she explains, and ushers me off to my dorm.

When I reach my room, shoving the hat under my duffle bag, it feels like I’m folding myself back into the closet, piece by piece. The hat isn’t just a slogan. It’s about laughing in the face of my oppressors, standing hand in hand with my community, and clutching at pieces of a love I have never felt free to embrace. That hat is how I take my power back.

Sitting in my dorm: alone, hatless, powerless—I give myself a voice in the only way I know how. I decide to write an article for the Girls State Gazette. As I type it up on my phone between board meetings, a trance settles over me. The accumulated clutter of thoughts— self-doubt, a nagging sense of perfectionism, lapses of focus—all of it vanishes, crowded from my mind by an overpowering clarity, a greater purpose.

I finish my writing at 2 a.m. For a few minutes, I sit in my dorm, head nodding forward, cradling the phone, feeling the heat of it in my palms. Hope starts like this, in the dark. A quiet pocket of space on the verge of sunrise, where nothing is expected of me. I don’t exist beyond the rise and fall of my breath, the article in my hands. I hang on to the stubborn hope that if I only try my best to do right, the dawn will come. I work, I wait, I watch. I don’t give up. But I don’t always win.

The Girls State president calls me to her office the next morning. “Why don’t you tone it down?” she suggests. “Take a less aggressive stance. Talk about how Girls State has empowered you to fight for gay rights.” “That’s not what this is about,” I tell her. “I just don’t think it’s fair to politicize someone’s identity.”

“Okay,” she says, smiling. “How about a compromise?” She wants me to soften my prose, melt the words down, take the message and splinter it until it doesn’t hold the same intention, the same power. I want to ask her if she knows how it feels to be censored, to have her words twisted, her passions rewritten into something easier to swallow.

“I can compromise,” I say instead, but I know I can’t edit it the way she wants me to. There’s something fiercely powerful about reaching so high when I know I’m going to fall. Like I’m taking the universe by the throat and saying I know I can never be as big as you, but you can’t stop me trying. Taking the hurt, wringing it out in my fists and saying I know you won’t leave me alone, but you can’t stop me from speaking out.

This is how my nightmare ends. My article removed, a blank page in the newspaper. I step off the campus feeling empty and angry. And yet something burns inside of me, an empowerment born out of my own disempowerment. This might be how my nightmare ends, but I choose to wake up and live. I choose to keep writing.

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