Sora Journal

Turning the Page, A Collection of Stories from my Youth

By Jack P.

For the Expedition “Narratives Beyond Borders,” students had the opportunity to write their own memoirs. I created a piece of literature that I am extremely proud of and was able to take an in-depth look at my family's history. For my memoir, I connected my love of words to my childhood, through various memories. I also touched on aspects of my family history, which gave me the opportunity to connect with family members and listen to their incredible stories firsthand. Lauren guided me through this project, giving invaluable feedback that helped me on my journey. I hope you enjoy my memoir, “Turning the Page, A Collection of Stories from My Youth.”

Turning the Page, A Collection of Stories From My Youth


I have always been fascinated with words. Whether it’s the cadence or a melody a string of words can make, or the ability to convey a many things of great importance in only a few syllables, word theory is a topic I always find myself returning to. When you’re five though, you don't pick up on these things. You listen to stories to entertain you. You get sucked into a world of dragons and knights, as well as the occasional castle. You are en-raptured by the highs and lows the protagonist goes through, and sit up in bed to hear the climax, as the hero slays the dragon and frees the land. Do you want to hear the best part about that? It was told in less than thirty pages. This grand adventure was told in the span of ten minutes. How do they do it? I could have read five children’s books in the time it’s taken me to write this intro alone. But I digress. As you read this story my passion for words will be evident. At some points, it may be irritating listening to me ramble on about stories and literature and so forth. But I am not worried (for you clicked on this story). I think it would be best if I started over again.

I have always been fascinated with words, and I hope you are too.

Chapter One: Imaginary Friends (and Real Ones Too)

Some of the key memories from my childhood stem from my backyard. How wonderful a backyard can be to a seven-year-old. My yard was a jungle, a prison, a mountain, or an intense battlefield. But most things in life are better shared with friends, and so I spent countless hours of my youth playing in the backyard with my best friend. Our favorite game was “Wands” (my parents coined the name). This game consisted of me grabbing all the wizard wands from my shelf, and assigning a story to each one. Then me and my best friend (we’ll call her Bill) would think of the most amazing stories. Looking back, each one ended with some sort of dramatic battle scene, where the majority of the characters would end up dead or fatefully injured (just lovely). Then the main character came back to life and killed the villains and saved the world. These games were played on repeat for five years, with new objects and people mixing their way in and out of the story. 

I always came up with the stories for our games. Bill was very easygoing, which could have stemmed from her being a child in a family of 10. In retrospect, I should have been more appreciative of her easy going nature. I always paused our games to add a new twist or plot device.

“Wait! What if this stick can summon the dead!”

At the time I didn't realize this, but I could have made a fortune if I had written all these stories down and sold them to a publisher. You could be reading “New York Times’s Best Selling Author Jack Palacios’s New Novel!” right now. But sadly time machines do not exist. 

I think these days in my backyard sparked my love of storytelling. I loved creating dramatic backstories, and crazy plot twists. And I still do, just in other facets. I will always remember those summer days when it seemed the sun didn't quite want to set. I will always remember playing “Wands” in my backyard with my best friend, not having a care in the world.

Another one of my favorite stories from my childhood is my invisible friend. Their name was “Baka.” “Baka,” to my three-year-old self, was a giant purple dragon, who roared and roared all day and night and made it quite difficult for my parents to sleep. In reality, it was the non-stop New York City construction next to our apartment. 

When I heard the construction I would say, “It's just Baka.” 

I wish I wasn't three when I lived in New York. We were there for a year for my dad’s work, and I don't remember any of it. If I had that handy dandy time machine, I would go yell at myself to see some good Broadway musicals and a Yankees game.

Actually, I was mistaken. I have one memory from my time in “The Big Apple.”

Most days I would find myself crossing the street from our apartment and walking the giant steps that lead into the Natural History Museum. I remember walking in and seeing the giant whale hanging from the ceiling. It blew my tiny three-year-old mind to see all of these exhibits lined with human history. There’s a specific room in the museum that was my favorite. It was this huge spherical room, with glass windows adorning the walls. In each window, you could see a different stage of human life. Cavemen, explorers, historians, it was all here, tangible. I remember my dad lifting me up onto his shoulder so I could see the faces of the wax figures.

Trips to the Museum sparked my interest in history. I didn't fully realize it at the time, but I loved history. The person who eventually fully lit my passion was my third-grade teacher. She would parade around the classroom, wearing different historical outfits and acting out parts of history. These are some of my favorite moments from my schooling. 

These days; whether they were filled with games in the backyard, or yelling at Baka for making too much noise, shaped the person I am today, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Me hailing a taxi with my Dad in New York
Me hailing a taxi with my Dad in New York

 Chapter Two: My First Time on Stage

Something to know before I get too far into this memoir:

I am a huge theater nerd. 

Nowadays, I have transitioned my music interests into '70s rock singer-songwriters, but theater is still one of the biggest activities that shaped my childhood.

You know how people always say “You should work in retail at some point in your life,” well my version of that is “You should try theater at some point in your childhood.” It doesn't have to be big stage productions, it can be as simple as you and a few of your friends putting on a play for your family in the backyard. Kids' theater is an amazing way to put yourself out there. If you’re rubbish at it, then, it's okay. No one will make fun of a five-year-old for forgetting their lines. And if you’re amazing at it, then great! You’ve found a new passion. 

I fell in love with theater at the age of four. We were visiting England, and my parents took me to see a performance of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I was enthralled the entire time. The way one of my favorite stories had come to life right in front of my own eyes was incredible. It felt tangible in a sense. Like I could reach out and touch the vibrant sets, and be up on the stage singing “I Have a Golden Ticket” with Charlie Bucket. 

After the show, I was fortunate enough to meet the actor who played Charlie Bucket (whose name was also Jack). It was one of the happiest moments of my young life. During the car ride home, I proudly exclaimed, “I want to do that someday!” And so my theater obsession was born. The music of Matilda, Dear Evan Hansen, Rent, and Hamilton was the constant soundtrack of my childhood, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see a few of these musicals during my youth.

Me and Charlie Bucket
Me and Charlie Bucket

I realize that theater is just another form of storytelling. It has the same ups and downs as a book, except it is told using flamboyant props, beautiful songs, and intricate set design. Theater is used to bring stories to life. Books can only stay on pages, musicals live on the stage.

My first show was a summer camp version of  “Annie” in 2014. I had just turned 4 years old and was cast in the role of “Molly” (though the directors changed the name to Marky). I don't remember much from this show, except missing my lines a few times in rehearsals. The one memory that stuck with me was my first time on stage. I remember being incredibly nervous, worried that I might mess up. But then I remembered something: I knew this musical by heart. Every line I had to say was filed neatly into categories in my mind. So why should I be worried? This is something I think about even now. “Why am I nervous to present my project even though I know it better than anyone?” As the curtains rose, I took a deep breath and began.

Five-year-old Jack playing a chimney sweep in Mary Poppins
Five-year-old Jack playing a chimney sweep in Mary Poppins

Chapter Three: My Theatre Camp Escapade

I know I could have included this story in the last chapter, but this story deserves its own section.

I was part of a summer camp production of “Grease” with my cousin Nia in 2019. There are three main things to note about this particular camp:

1. They allowed phones, meaning that everyone was glued to a screen during lunch breaks.

2. I did not have a phone (my parents grew up in the 80s & 90s technology-free and felt strongly that I should follow in their footsteps).

3. The camp had a vending machine.

These are the three main components of this story. I was the youngest kid at the camp, and with my cousin being four years older than me, she went to find kids her age to hang out with, leaving me on my own in uncharted territories. I spent the first lunch getting the lay of the land and making my home at a lunch table by the vending machine. Lunch was coming to an end, and right before the break ended, a group of people came up to the vending machine, bought a few snacks, and left. What they didn’t notice was a peculiar sound coming from the bottom of the machine. 

“Clink, Click.”

Of course, I noticed this, so I decided to go investigate. I reached down and opened the flap to see the most magnificent object awaiting me. Two whole dimes. Now to a nine-year-old, two dimes could buy you a house, and a nice car, and still have some to spare. I put the dimes in my pocket and grinned.

Now, don't go around thinking I was a heartless thief. I did try to return the dimes to the owner, but they ignored me and were quite rude. At that moment I had my villain arch. I realized the power in my hands. I spent the rest of the day observing the vending machine. I was like a hungry vulture waiting for its prey to show weakness. And sure enough, every time, these kids were so glued to their phones that they didn't even notice that their change was waiting for them.

On the third day of my operation, I decided to share my secret with a few people whom I decided I could trust. I felt like a member of the royal family bestowing my riches upon the commoners. This “wealth” equated to about $1.50 and with it, I lavish my peers with brightly colored boxes of animal crackers and room-temperature Gatorade.

I ended up leaving that camp with a huge smile on my face, and a valuable life lesson. Pay attention to the world around you. If not, then you may miss valuable details.  In my case, the clinking of two dimes in a vending machine. 

Chapter Four: Books Galore

Books have been a big part of my life since I could remember. The stories of Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Enid Blyton, and David Walliams were the key novels that shaped my childhood. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but their books were shaping the writer I am. You know how people say “You are what you eat?” Well, my saying is, “You write what you read.” Not the exact stories (for that would be plagiarism), but the general style of the author. Picture your brain as a giant pot. Every book you read gets thrown in and mashed together. Your writing style is the pot of literature. Sure, it doesn’t sound that appetizing, but it’s true. You write what you read.

I read for the first time when I was five years old. My family and I were at an author signing, and I was being quite a brat (due to the large amounts of cookies covered in food-dyed frosting I had consumed during the day’s festivities), leading to my day being cut short and being sent home early with my dad. I plopped on my bed and scanned the room for something to entertain my sugar-enhanced mind. My eyes ended up landing on a “Pete the Cat” book, and with nothing else to do, I picked it up. Little did I know then, but this would be the first of hundreds of books I would read over the next seven years. 

When I turned six years old, I was introduced to Harry Potter for the first time. I had known of the series for quite a while, but I had never read or seen any of it. After much begging, my mom and I began listening to the series. I have such fond memories of hopping in the car, buckling my seatbelt, and watching with eager eyes as my mom carefully placed the disk into our car’s CD player. Every few weeks we would stop by our library and pick up the next book on CD, and by the time spring rolled around we had finished the entire series. We laughed at all the funny and witty bits and cried together when Dumbledore died. Looking back, I would not have wanted to be introduced to the series in any other way. 

By the time I was 7, the bigger illustrated versions of the books had come out and over the summer I eagerly read each one, up to book 3, page by page, feeling like a new world had been unlocked that I alone held the keys to and could visit whenever I wanted, without having to ask. As a kid, that is a big deal. 

As summer ended (as it rudely tends to do) I began first grade at a new school. We had moved a few times over the years and even though I was lucky to always make friends and get along with everyone, I always felt there was more to learning than rote memorization. I missed my preschool days of unbridled and unstifled imagination. I would eventually go on to find my dream school in a very unexpected way, but we will get to that later. 

Right now I want to take you back to my first day at my new school in first grade.  I remember on the first day touring all the classrooms with my teacher and eventually landing at the library. As I stepped foot into the room, I was greeted by a magnificent sight. Hundreds upon thousands of books lined the shelves, each one neatly categorized into different sections.

A few weeks after school started, I found myself in the library (as I tended to do) and the Harry Potter books in the back caught my eye. At home, we had the first three books, but the other four were all buried deep in a sea of storage boxes, as my mom assumed I would read them in my teenage years. I went up to the school librarian, Ms. Donna, and asked if I could read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the series. It was a thick brick of around 750 pages. The only thing that I remember about Donna was her eyes. They had been hardened over the years by dealing with unruly students. She gave me a look that probably meant “How old are you?” or “I don’t get paid enough for this.” 

Either way, the result was the same. She kindly pointed out that the bigger Harry Potter books were for 6th and 7th graders, and that I would have to wait a while. I walked away sad, but understanding of the rules put in place. Or that's what I WOULD have done if I went down without a fight. Seven-year-old Jack did not take no for an answer. Every day I would go up to her and ask her if I could read the fourth Harry Potter book, and every day she would say no. This game went on for about two weeks before she finally caved, and I gleefully took home my prize. 

I completely understand why the librarian didn’t give me the books right away. She was just doing her job and was very nice about the whole ordeal. But I have to say, when I finished the fourth Harry Potter book in roughly a month and brought it back to her, the look on her face was incredulous. After that, there was an understanding between us. I ended up finishing the rest of the series in that library, all thanks to the librarian who gave me a chance. 

Side note: When we moved out of our old house, I found the jacket cover for the fourth Harry Potter book under my bed, aka the one I borrowed from that library.

Sorry, Ms. Donna. 

Me reading a DC superhero book
Me reading a DC superhero book

Chapter Five: The Crazy Cusenzas

I’ve talked a lot about my life throughout this memoir, but I think this would be a good time to dive into my family’s background. It all started with my Sicilian great-grandmother and grandfather, Nonna Maria and Nonno Sebastiano, who had three boys: my great uncle, Giovanni (John), my Nonno (Italian for Grandfather) Epifanio, and my great uncle Antonino (Tony). All my Nonna Maria wanted was a daughter, but luck was not on her side, and she had three sons instead. Do not think this stopped my Nonna Maria. She was determined to have a daughter, no matter what it took. So for the first five years of my Uncle Tony’s life, Maria dressed him up as a girl, carefully curling and plaiting his blonde locks. In her mind, if she couldn’t have a daughter, her youngest son would do just fine. 

From left to right, my Uncle John, my Nonno, and my Uncle Tony
From left to right, my Uncle John, my Nonno, and my Uncle Tony

When my Nonno was twelve years old, his family made the decision to immigrate from Tunisia to the United States. So along with his two brothers, parents, and three aunts, they made the long, tumultuous journey by boat to America. On their first day of school, their teachers made them change their names, due to Americans' inability to pronounce their traditional Italian titles. So in that moment, Giovanni, Epifanio, and Antonino became John, James, and Tony.

And so their lives began. Not without struggles though. Some translate into story form better than others. I love hearing my Nonno tell the story of their American neighbor, whose name was Jim Sheets. Each morning, my great-grandfather, Nonno Sebastiano would call out jauntily in his thick Italian accent:

“Good Morning, Mr. Shitz!”

Now, to my Nonno, he was just being friendly, but to the rest of the neighborhood, it sounded like something else entirely. After a few weeks of this unintentional public humiliation, Mr. Sheets went up to him quietly, offered his hand, and said “Please, call me Jim.”

The Cusenzas eventually got accustomed to American life and had many adventures throughout the following few decades. This was until the late 70s, when my Uncle John and his wife (my Aunt Geri), founded a revolutionary hair product company. My Nonno Sebastiano was no longer living, sadly, after suffering a heart attack in his mid-fifties. They named the company “Sebastian” after their dad. It was honestly a dream team. My Nonno Jimmy was head of international sales and would travel across the world, meeting people and selling them products using the seven languages he’s fluent in. My Uncle Tony was a fantastic salesman and MC-ed all of the hair shows, using his storytelling and charisma to keep audiences enchanted. My aunt Geri was the mastermind of it all. Lastly, my Uncle John kept track of all the finances and business side of the deals, he was known as Mr. Sebastian. They were the Italian Mafia of hair care. 

The company grew and grew into a successful business. In the late 90s, the three decided to sell the company and retire to their families. This story of my family’s business is one of my favorites, and if you ever ask one of the three brothers to tell it, they will gladly recount it. Uncle Tony’s version will be guaranteed to have some larger-than-life moments thrown in. One of the most magical moments I have witnessed in my life are the times when the trio are all together. A night of stories, laughter, and one glass of wine too many will ensue. It’s like they are transformed back into kids again, joking around and acting without a care in the world. 

The Cusenzas
The Cusenzas

Chapter Six: Time with my Nonno

My Nonno is the kind of person that can walk into a grocery store for five minutes, and walk out with five new friends. I’m not being hyperbolic. This has happened many times. 

He loves telling the story of the first time he met me. I was a few hours old and was taking everything in when my Nonno walked into the room. Upon hearing his footsteps, I immediately swiveled my head away from my mother to look at the new figure who had entered the room. He found this very impressive for a newborn, who’s just trying to figure out where he is, and why everyone’s looking at him. Whenever he tells this story, he always remarks on how strong my neck was. 

My Nonno’s wife has an olive oil farm in Sicily, so on most visits, he brings us “Italian Gold.” To Italians, giving someone a bottle of olive oil from your farm is one of the biggest signs of love and respect, so we make sure to follow that tradition and give some to close friends and family. One time though, my Nonno forgot his wallet on an Uber ride but did not realize its absence until he arrived at his destination. You might think this would be a very stressful situation. But not to my Nonno. He just gave the driver a gallon of goat milk and went on his merry way. 

For all of my childhood, my Nonno split time between Sicily and Santa Monica, but I can’t remember an important moment in my life he wasn’t there for, smiling at me from the front row. Since he did live with his wife part-time in Sicily, full family gatherings were a rarity, but when they happened they were magical. I remember one Thanksgiving in particular. The whole family was gathered at my Nonno’s house in Santa Monica, a total of around fifteen people in all. I was the youngest in the house, so I mainly observed the night’s festivities. What I remember was an incredible night, filled with food, stories, laughter, and Italian music. It was amazing hearing familiar stories I had heard before, but this time from different perspectives, and with different twists along the way. All the dramatic hand gestures and voices my Uncle Tony made taught me something that I could have never learned in traditional schooling: How to tell a story. Not just any story. The kind of story that immediately draws you into its world and puts you into the minds of the characters. The kind of story that makes you feel like everything is at stake. The kind of story that makes you feel like you are being chased by a gorilla in the jungle (a real story my Uncle Tony told that night) is storytelling. 

But there are two sides to every vending machine coin. The other side of storytelling is: listening. At the height of the Pandemic in 2020, my Nonno came to stay with us. It was intended to be a short visit at first, but he ended up living with us for several months. During this time I realized how amazing he is. He would play catch with me in the backyard and always listened to updates about my life, or facts about baseball. Listening. A skill that seems to have lost its importance in our modern society. My Nonno always sits and listens. You can tell him every detail about your life, and he will listen thoroughly. People nowadays hear. Anyone can hear. But when you truly listen, you can really understand a person. I think that’s why my Nonno is able to make so many friends. He doesn’t just hear about the successes and hardships of people’s lives. He listens.

Me with my Nonno
Me with my Nonno

Chapter Seven: Tales from a Quarantine Boy

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit (as the majority of you know), leading to the world shutting down. As my school was trying to shift online, I tried to adapt and quickly caught up on the years of technology I had missed due to my 1980s-ish upbringing. I became the resident tech support of my 3rd-grade class. I distinctly remember teaching my peers how to unmute and share screens, as well as educating my teacher about the magic that is the mute button. Over the next few months, I acquainted myself with the “World Wide Web,” figuring out how to use Zoom, Google Docs, and all the other various online essentials.

 I would spend hours on end building magnates and LEGO while rewatching Disney Channel shows with my mom. My mom has a chronic illness, leading to us having to stay home well past the “Lockdown” phase of the pandemic and still being COVID-safe to this day. It was hard as an only child, but don’t put it in your head that my childhood suffered. Sure, there were hard moments, but my mom made sure that every holiday, every birthday, and every event was incredible and memorable. For my eleventh birthday, my mom turned our entire house into a board game, with different challenges along the way, leading to a foosball table in the garage. One summer, we watched every single Disney movie (yes, even the atrocious Disney sequels), and rated them all. Moments like these make me forever grateful for my mom. 

I think the only time I can remember truly struggling was the summer of 2022. I was coming off a terrible school year, where I was one of only three online students left. Everyone else had gone back to in-person learning. We were all treated like outcasts, and our teacher just did not care as much about us as she did the other students. My mom was also going through a lot of health struggles at the time. In addition to all of that, I had also made a close friend online whose family was also still having to isolate. We had been inseparable for a year and the summer that everything started falling apart, that friend decided to jump ship and leave me stranded.

It felt like a hopeless situation and my mom was so close to sending me back to in-person school and having to live separately from us until she figured out her health problems. Then, one summer night, our saving grace came in the form of a random Google search at midnight. My mom was desperate for me to find a good online school and had spent weeks calling and contacting different options. On this particular night, she came across an online school called Sora. It sounded way too good to be true, it had everything I had ever been searching for in a school since 1st grade. She was just hoping to find a decent temporary online education for me and ended up finding the school of my dreams, with a close-knit community that was leaps and bounds above anything I had ever experienced in my in-person school years. She didn’t think it could possibly be real, but after examining the website, she decided to give admissions a call. A month later, I was accepted and enrolled. To say that Sora changed my life is an understatement. But that is a story for another time.


As I’ve been writing this memoir, we have been in the process of moving out of my childhood home. The pattern of organizing, condensing, and packing has filled the last few weeks full to the brim. The process is time-consuming, but it’s completely worth it.

Moving is a symbolic event. Packing up a house symbolizes closing the door on a chapter in your life, and when you open the first box at the new house you start anew. But achieving your goal takes a lot of work. Box by box, hour by hour, we slowly begin to write the final chapter of our time here. Each moment, every laugh and each nuance life brings adds another page to our story. Boxes filled with carved wooden wands from my days in the backyard, old theater props I haven't seen in years, and hundreds of books all neatly packed up line the walls. Each item holds a unique story of its own, and as we pack we get to relive those moments. The little details that may have slipped through the cracks at first are now brought to life as we recount them. 

Moving isn’t goodbye. Sure, you’re leaving your house, but a house is just four walls and a roof. The home comes with you. In boxes, trucks, and memories. In a few months, our next house will feel like a home. We’ll still reminisce on our adventures at our old residence, but the feeling of home will always stay with us. As long as you are with people you love, anywhere can feel like a home.

I will revisit this memoir again and again over the years, adding new adventures and stories to make it complete. I’ll go through and re-read it, editing stories I may have gotten wrong, and hearing stories that I completely forgot about. I hope to one day publish this, but that is just a dream as most wishes are. I know that there will come a time when I come back to this story and some of the people who are part of it will no longer be here. I will be forever grateful that I was able to document their stories here. The hardships my Nonno and his family faced will not be forgotten. Their story teaches us a life lesson that we tend to forget: Work hard for your dreams, and they might just come true. I can rest easy knowing that they will live forever in the pages of this book. 

Words. Something that raptures my ever-turning mind. This fascination isn’t something that just sprang upon me one day. It has been growing ever since I picked up my first book. Ever since I’ve been listening to my Nonno tell me stories. Ever since I could play in the backyard. My childhood shaped my passion for words, and I can bet that my teen and adult years will shape it even more. I don’t know where it will take me, one can only hope it leads somewhere good. 

And with that, this journey has come to an end. Thank you for coming along with me, I hope you laughed at the funny bits and cringed at my mistakes (for that is your job as the audience). I will leave you with one last thought:

Every story comes full circle so I finish for now the same way I began:

I have always been fascinated with words, and my story is just beginning.