Humans of Harker: Conversing with clarity

Evan Cheng (12) appreciates the power of stories and discussion


Arya Maheshwari

“Most of my interactions were tied to the circumstances of the moment. In order to step beyond that, and get to a more meaningful relationship, [I realized] there has to be something more to it. And I think being more vulnerable is a good way to get there,” Evan Cheng (12) said.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

“Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” – Ira Glass. 

While most people might gloss over such sentences, focusing instead on just finishing a reading assignment or getting a quick summary of some writing, Evan Cheng (12) is not most people. 

“He has a great feel for good writing, and he’ll latch on to certain sentences that are really good, or have a good rhythm, or something like that,” Jeffrey Kwan (12), one of Evan’s close friends, said. “He talks about how sometimes, you don’t know what the sentence means, but you just know the sentence is good.”

Evident in everything from simple lunchtime conversations to speeches delivered in front of the student body, Evan’s affinity for words – specifically, good words – presents itself quickly. Some of the best words and greatest sentences, Evan thinks, often come out of podcasts. 

“If you think about it, podcasts are really a more restraining medium, because for regular videos you can have the auditory aspects but you can have the visual too. You would think by stripping away the visual aspect of videos, you’re detracting from the experience in a way,” Evan said. “But what I found through listening to podcasts was that, both from an experiential and practical sense, there’s something really fascinating about podcasts that you can’t get with another medium.”

Podcasts have been a constant source of ideas and inspiration for Evan, from giving him the idea to organize a Life Raft debate at the upper school last year, in which four teachers of different disciplines argued why they would hypothetically deserve the final seat on a life raft, to inspiring him to join the Harker Podcast Network, which now has three series of podcasts that discuss everything from course selections to life in the Silicon Valley. 

First becoming an avid listener of podcasts when he was in eighth grade, Evan started with RadioLab. Now, “This American Life” with Ira Glass ranks as his all-time favorite, and he thinks S-Town is “one of the greatest things ever.” 

“Seeing how people who make podcasts utilize sound to tell stories through music, inflection of their voice and things like that is really exciting, and something you don’t see with other media,” Evan said. “In a practical sense too, I can listen to podcasts when I’m running or doing things around the house, so it’s much more accessible and convenient.”

Evan’s passion for podcasts is rooted in his appreciation for meaningful conversation, an activity he believes has important benefits but is rarely emphasized. 

“One thing I’ve learned to value recently, that I don’t get to do as much of as I want to, is having meaningful conversations,” Evan said. “[In terms of] having conversations and building relationships, I don’t think you realize what you’re missing until you experience it for the first time.”

As the treasurer of the all-student body (ASB) council, Evan appreciates having a channel to interact with everyone in the upper school community — students, faculty and administrators alike.

“I enjoy the challenge of student council a lot because when you’re on student council, you really get to interact with a lot of members of … the school in general for ASB that you wouldn’t otherwise get to interact with,” Evan said. “You really get an appreciation of both how the school works and also the different perspectives of everyone here.”

One of Evan’s most formative experiences, which inspired much of his emphasis on conversation and building strong relationships, came last summer while participating in the Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP) at the University of Maryland, which brings 16 students from across the country together for a unique six-week experience.

“We lived together, and we attended seminar together, we pretty much did everything together, and the idea was to build a sort of democratic self-governing society,” Evan said. “Most of the day was pretty free, so we got to plan most of what we wanted to do, and the most valuable part of that experience for sure was talking to the other students at the program because they were really really incredible, and they helped me learn a lot about myself.”

Fawwaz Shoukfeh, a senior at Lubbock High School in Lubbock, Texas who was Evan’s roommate throughout the program, noted how Evan’s warm personality made the summer as special as it was for him. 

“Right off at the beginning, I was a bit skeptical about the program, but when I met Evan, a lot of my anxiety about the program simply washed away,” Fawwaz said. “Within two weeks I realized that Evan was perhaps one of the greatest friends that I had ever made.”

One of the first things Fawwaz noticed and respected about Evan was his dedication to journaling about his time at TASP every day of the program.  

“Every single night [at TASP], Evan would sit down at his desk, and he would sit there for about 15, 20, 30 minutes and just reflect on the day’s events,” Fawwaz said. “It seemed like he was really taking it in, he was enjoying it and making the most out of it — and I think that’s an incredible quality because when he did that, he really inspired the people around him to do the same and make the most out of their experience.”

One of the tasks at the program that prompted Evan to begin a new process of introspection was Pubspeaks, a tradition at TASP where each student gives a personal presentation about their own lives to the other 15. 

“I decided to make my presentation about vulnerability and my difficulty with that, and I think that came from trying to come up with the topic and realizing that I hadn’t talked about this kind of stuff before,” Evan said. “Most of my interactions were tied to the circumstances of the moment. In order to step beyond that, and get to a more meaningful relationship, [I realized] there has to be something more to it. And I think being more vulnerable is a good way to get there.”

Fawwaz noted the unparalleled level of reflection Evan achieved in his presentation, despite effectively giving a personal presentation founded on the fact that he didn’t know what to present on. 

“He really reflected on what it means to have a friend, the different types of friends and how something that he sought to have was to get closer with the friends around him: to not just laugh and joke with them, but to also know more about their weaknesses and their strengths, their insecurities and their triumphs,” Fawwaz said. “No [other] presentation matched that.” 

Such depth of insight and reflection has been at the heart of Evan’s writing as well, one skill upper school American Literature teacher Brigid Miller, who taught Evan in his junior year, pointed out as one of his greatest strengths. 

“The prompts that he would take on, the direction he would go in his work sometimes would just be jaw-dropping,”  Miller said. “[It was] like, ‘I’ve taught this novel for 20 years and never thought of that point.’”

And Evan’s emphasis on understanding and insight diffuse past the academic sphere, as Jeffrey notes, into his interactions as a peer and friend. 

“Evan’s just always somebody that like I’ve been able to talk to you and who responds in a really intellectual way. He’s really thoughtful and I really appreciate that about him,” Jeffrey said. “You can always count on him for a good conversation.”