What I learned about the arts from a pre-med teenager

Last summer, The Arts Partnership was privileged to receive an intern through the Philanthropy and Youth program. Anjali Lall was just days from graduating from Davies High School when I first met her. She was one of North Dakota’s Presidential Scholars and was going to be an honors biology student at the University of Minnesota in the fall with the intention of going on to become a pediatrician. But first, she was going to spend the summer with us at TAP.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that both Anjali and I were a little hesitant to be spending nine weeks together. Anjali was everything you think she would be: driven, intelligent, linear, analytical, and serious.

Those are not words I would use to describe myself. I am, after all, an artist. In many ways, I typify the artistic mindset. I am non-linear, spontaneous, unconventional and not terribly serious.

Anjali and I sized each other up when we first met. We had an immediate, but cautious, attraction to each other. I wondered how I would keep this brilliant young woman engaged for nine full-time weeks. I worried that she would find me silly and the work we do in the arts somehow insignificant. But, she had been assigned to us, and we had no choice but to jump in and see how it went.

The first day, I bought Anjali a few things for her desk: a coffee mug, a book about using the arts in the regular world and a little wooden robot called Cubebot. It came as a cube and transformed into a square “person.” I thought it was whimsical and it might be a bridge between the logical world of science and the humorous world of art.

I did not anticipate her affection for Cubebot. She spent much time arranging him, manipulating his little wooden arms and legs, photographing him for the blog we asked her to keep. I believe Cubebot even went with her to college in the fall.

We were delighted that she was unable to put him back into his original cube form, feeling like we had somehow provided an artistic challenge she couldn’t immediately master. It was probably three weeks into her time with us that she came back from a weekend and he was in his perfect cube form. Only later did she admit that she had gone online to solve the mystery. She couldn’t accept the perceived failure of not solving the puzzle. We all laughed together at her tenacity.

But Anjali’s relationship with Cubebot beautifully represents what I learned from her. She spent much time analyzing how to put him back together. She worked it from different angles, thought through several possibilities and kept trying. When it appeared that she couldn’t “fix” it, she went to another source for assistance. Leaving it unsolved was never an option for her.

At one point, I tried to put him back together. I worked for a number of minutes, configuring the various little cubes into the larger shape. When I couldn’t make it work, I lost interest and let it go. It never dawned on me to keep working until it was perfect. I just don’t think that way.

Anjali taught me to keep working, to continue to solve the problem until it’s no longer a problem. If I need assistance find it. Not really a new idea, but watching her do it made the lesson clear. Anjali also taught me to think things through. I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants person. I kind of pride myself on my ability to spontaneously pull things off, but Anjali’s incredible insistence on planning and preparation taught me that there’svalue to working things through beforehand.

We just had our annual meeting and party last week, and for the first time, I put together a formal presentation. I planned the event in a way I never had before, and you know what? It was better because of it. It ran more smoothly, I was more confident and everyone got acknowledged because I mentally prepared for it on the front end. Again, not a profound point, but observing Anjali do this helped me see the value of it.

Anjali did fabulous work for TAP while she was with us, but her legacy is Chalk Fest. I asked her to find a way to engage her peers with an event at the end of the summer. She had participated in a chalk festival at Davies High and thought it might be fun. I loved the idea and set her off to make it happen.

Nowhere did Anjali’s brilliance shine brighter than in this project. She gathered a cohort of committed friends who were willing to meet and work to make this event a success. She laid out a timeline, she kept meticulous notes, she held her committee to a standard, she asked for assistance when she needed it, and she owned the project.

We hoped for 50 people and had over 400. It was a singularly glorious event, and Anjali was the driving force behind it. Every day she came in with a well-formulated plan, and when it came to the day, she knew every detail had been addressed.

I have often referenced my awe of Anjali. I am a changed and better leader because of my time with this remarkable young woman. Anjali was home this summer, taking multiple credits of chemistry at NDSU to prepare for her sophomore year at the U of M. We had coffee recently, and I was reminded again of how exceptional she was.

We laughed at her super type A personality; we talked about shopping downtown and my hopes for Chalk Fest and how she would be able to be involved. I left that coffee delighted that I would see her multiple times over the summer.

And then two days later, Anjali was no longer with us. I received a call that she had collapsed and died so unexpectedly that I still can’t make my brain really believe it is true.

There are stars in our lives and then there are supernovas, a brilliant explosion that briefly lights up an entire galaxy before fading from view. Anjali did more in 18 brief years and shone more brightly that most of us will over the span of a long life. Her light may have faded, but my life has been forever changed and brightened by her.

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