The magic of the yellow bandana

A nametag and a yellow bandanna tied around a female's wrist

Eileen Chen wears her bandana every day at cherubs. Photo by Grace Deng

When I browsed the 2017 Medill cherub program website last November, a quote from instructor John Kupetz caught my eye:

“Journalism requires the ‘Wizard of Oz’ virtues — courage, heart and brains — and you find them inside yourself.”

I remember asking my mother in frustration that day whether I should still apply to the program if I couldn’t, or might never, find courage inside myself.

Half a year later, during my first week as a cherub, this scene haunted me every night — when I could barely understand what the witnesses were saying during the All Day Story, when my Chinglish kept failing to produce a satisfying lede during the rotating rewrites, when I got lost in Evanston during the Fourth of July parade.

“How could I possibly gain courage?” I asked myself.

Raised in a typical Chinese family and educated in a traditional classroom in China, I grew up under the mantra of “think twice before you speak” and “never raise your hand above your head.” When fellow cherubs immediately raised their hands firm and high to ask questions after a lecture, I was freaked out, struggling to structure a sound sentence with my limited vocabulary and grammar. Once or twice, I did manage to force my hand up after rounds of planning, examining and re-examining, but my poor, low, little hand never gained attention among waves of arms.

So I confirmed to myself: Yes, I am that cherub without courage. If fortune favored me, I might still be a mediocre journalist — at least I have heart and brains. “I am that cherub without courage” became my mantra — until the Junior Junior Olympics, when the magic of my instructor team’s yellow bandana gently metamorphosed me.

Good love, good memory and good luck — this bandana reminded me of the proud victory of the 12 “Springen Rolls” and the moment I darted during Dizzy Bat, fell over but immediately stood up. That was my first time as a cherub to go for something without fear or worries: dizzied but determined.

I tied the bandana tight on my wrist as a somewhat superstitious but sweet hint that courage always goes with me. The next evening, during the Snap Off presentation, I explained my photo out loud in English and introduced the flower I captured. Though I still thought and practiced thousands of times before I spoke, though I still heard my voice trembling, though I still wasn’t brave enough to look into the eyes of my fellow cherubs — when rounds of screams and applauds burst out for my speech, my face burned, for the first time not with embarrassment but pride and courage.

From then on, whenever I flinched from speaking English, from interviewing sources randomly on the street or from sharing an idea during a lecture, I caressed my bandana and sang myself the new mantra, an old song I learned from other cherubs during Mandatory Fun:

“Come on, Eileen!”

The Cowardly Lion gained courage not from the fake potion concocted by the wizard, but from the resolution to rescue his Dorothy from the wicked witch. I knew my true courage came not from the magic yellow bandana, but from my own determination to be a brave cherub.