Accepting Oneself Essay Contest

We are no longer accepting applications. The winners will be announced March 26, 2018.

Should schools be able to keep tabs on students’ social media to prevent internet bullying? Should there be regulations that prohibit a president from tweeting? With our “We the Students” essay contest, you could win prizes just for sharing your thoughts on these issues!

Each year, We the Students gives 8-12th-grade students from across the U.S. a chance to share their perspective on a trending topic.

This year’s prompt: To what extent in the U.S. does the government–federal, state, and local–have the duty to monitor internet content?

We are awarding $20,000+ in scholarship and prizes to the students who submit the best essays on the topic.

  • 1st Place – $5,000 and a scholarship to our 2018 Constitutional Academy in Washington, D.C.
  • Runners Up – Six prizes at $1,250 each
  • Honorable Mentions – Eight prizes at $500 each

Sign-up For The Contest!

Our Creative Minds Imagine contests have allowed us to recognize the remarkable work of many young essayists over the years. We hope you enjoy reading their work.

2017

First Place | Second Place (tie)

About our judge

First Place

point blank

by Joungbihn Park

before I confessed that he had a gun, my mother held my wrist tightly and yelled at me and I felt heartbroken and inconsolable because we had lost my dad’s salary that was in her bag, because I had no idea how much that bag cost and how much we had lost, and I simply repeated sorry, sorry, and when I saw her suffer, her lips puckered in worry, I started sobbing, wheezing, as if my larynx were clogged, my breathing punctuated as I stood there unable to fully swallow what the span of a minute had caused to me, to my mother, to my sister, to our family, as we stood perplexed in the middle of a seedy parking lot in Santo Domingo surrounded by cars whose hoods shone under the sun and dimly visible onlookers who watched us from their apartment windows behind their curtains, breathless silence fogging their glass panes, not completely guiltless, but whose silence I could not blame

before I confessed that he had a gun, Señor Hernandez, whose back bent, hair white, marched out of his apartment and staggered towards us with his cane while I hid behind my mother’s back, clawing onto the pleats of her skirt, refusing to look straight into the old man’s eyes while he explained to my mother what happened, how he himself was too frightened to come out and confront the robber, saying how the ‘poor little girls’ got scared stiff, saying he had watched everything behind the yellow curtains, and told my mother how she shouldn’t blame me for having lost that bag, having let the robber run away, because I was just too young to defend myself, and that reduced me to tears until I was wailing at the top of my voice, not only because I was shocked by what had just happened but because it was upsetting and unfair that my mother was scolding me, calling me stupid, not the robber, but me, so I just wept brooding over the words she let out, the blame that she had put on me and between punctuated sobs, I uttered, he had a gun, umma, and my mother collapsed on the ground, her face turning the pallor of the flesh of a Dominican chayote

before a man pointed the gun at my sister, my mother left our Santa Fé unlocked, gently grabbing my sister’s friend’s hand and walking toward one of those grey, low-rise buildings, as the little girl joyfully shook her pigtails, as my sister and I were peacefully seated, then I threw a short glance at my four-year- old sister just to check, to be relieved at the sight of her calmly settled in her cushioned car seat before I looked to the front, lost in thought, mind wandering off, gazing at some colorful laundry that hung in one veranda, at a black graffiti written in Spanish on one wall, at a man smoking as the thin coil of smoke disappeared hazily in the air, at some plants that added a little green to these dull structures, at everything that added some life and youth to the long-standing blocks of dark cement

before he held the trigger at my sister, I was startled by the click with which the car door flew open, I sharply turned my head, and he, dressed in black and his expression hidden behind a crash helmet, ominously dark, snatched my mother’s bag with a violent jerk, causing me to freeze for a second, motionless, pale, frightened, then by instinct reach out for the purse, the very second he pulled out his gun, placed his finger on the trigger and pointed at my sister, calmly seated, too calmly seated, who, too young, remained oblivious to the extent of the force this hand-sized object posed to her, and I felt my heart snap like a twig under some weight at the incredible image before my eyes of two figures, the robber and my sister, gun aimed at my sister’s head, my sister stiff as a rock, the robber’s finger quivering by the trigger, a scene that would linger for the rest of my life, though it lasted a matter of seconds, but felt like my own head had split and the very bullet of his gun had pierced my brain

Joungbihn Park is a 16-year-old junior from Korea who currently studies in Manila, Philippines. She has also lived in Korea, the United States, Switzerland, and the Dominican Republic. She is working on a collection of nonfiction stories about her experiences and hopes through her writing to raise awareness of issues such as the war on drugs and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Joungbihn loves sleeping, traveling, photography, sunsets, and hot chocolate on rainy days.

Judge’s comments: “Point Blank” is something of a tour de force—structured in reverse chronology, written in unpunctuated, incantatory prose, each refrain adding more disturbing information, each moment leading back earlier and earlier to an image of raw horror. It’s dense with detail, each frozen and vivid, preserved as if in amber by trauma.

Second Place (tie)

Dandelion Patch
by Lizzie Markovich

Run! she screams. Run away from the monster, run away from Melina! We scream and run and hide under the slide, where the seeker cannot find us. We look at each other and start to giggle, and it gives us away. Her brown face peeks around the plastic climbing wall at us and a curtain of long brown hair follows. We squeal and run but not before she can tag me. I got you Lizzie I got you! Melina yells in a voice like the air when a car passes you. I trudged back as slow as I could and I was sad for a moment, but then I was happy because who is sad when they play games? I count and count until the numbers are jumbled in my head and then I open my eyes. I look everywhere for Ava and Melina but I can’t find them. Where are you Ava and Melina? I yell. Then I see a bright pink sneaker, flashing up into the slide like a lightning bolt in August. I see you, I scream. I run to the slide. Up up up I go, up into the slide but when I come to the top no one is there. Where are you Ava? Where are you Melina? I see her again, by the seesaw, but this time it is the curly curly hair like a poodle that I see. Help me Melina, the monster is trying to get me, she’s chasing me! Ava screams and then giggles as she runs away from me. I got you this time I say. I follow her, running, sprinting, and finally catching her in the field because I run faster than she can. I tag her and she falls into the dandelion patch where we used to play hand games, and she falls and falls with a scared look on her face, twisted like a Halloween mask, and hits the ground with a thud and a crunch. I knew that the game was over then and so did she. Her body lays in the dandelion patch, crushing the dandelions and their thin stems, and her arm is bent and twisted like the skinny trees in the winter. And then her eyes are like waterfalls, gushing with tears and tears and her mouth is full of red screams and sobs and the teacher hears her and tells me to run for the nurse but I can’t move. I can’t move I can’t move I can’t move and I stand there watching Ava cry and sob and scream for her mommy. I can’t move when she looks at me and screams. Me, the monster.

Lizzie Markovich is a freshman at the Kinkaid School in Houston, TX. This is the first time her writing has ever been published, and she plans to continue writing in hopes of publishing more works. Lizzie is an avid reader, and also enjoys baking, swimming for her club team and her school, and playing with her younger siblings.

Judge’s comments: “Dandelion Patch”’s run-on polysyndeton reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s prose (or maybe it was the title that put me in mind of him). That breathless style, and the dazzle of sense impressions, is mimetic of the frenetic energy and fractured attention of a child, and puts the reader vividly inside the memory as if it were his own. The last line literally made me say “wow!” out loud.


Epigenetics
by Shruthi Shivkumar

“Epi-”: upon/over

“Genetics”: referring to DNA, inherited biological coding

I.
Epigenetics are like the pencil markings that float on top of the strands of our genetic material. These modifications are acquired through environment, behavior, or a cluster of other factors. They can be erased just as they are crudely as they are scratched on, but we can also pass on these faint tracings of symbolic graphite to the next generation to discover and translate.

II.
I am growing up in a city of historical smog. This long-gone rust belt glory leaves a trail of air pollution and dusty particles from decades ago lingering in the mixture of nitrogen and oxygen I breathe in.
What if future generations can’t release themselves from the tight grasp this town is holding on my genes and dreams?

III.
The generation I am growing up in is drowning in anxiety and depression and amplifying it through cruel memes, self-deprecation, and fake “I’m there for you” offerings. Environment has been shown to impact your epigenetics, as well as the people you surround yourself with, and maybe even the frequency of your texts.
I’m lonely and I brag about it in 140-character rants and wait for likes.
My children will not appreciate me for that.

IV.
Test scores. GPA. Extra-curricular activities. Grades. Classes. Rigor.
Words that strike panic and fear into our hearts. These trained conditional responses probably have at least some tangible effect on our histone deacetylation, I presume. Most likely a negative effect.
Maybe I feel the round-robin effects as my practiced, environmental psychology influences my expressed genes which in turn influence the jeans I wear and the way I speak, but maybe one day my grandchildren will be more affected by the days I spent crying and writhing in mental pain than the absolute values of numbers that promised to determine my future back in high school…
Excessive tears probably rust your DNA, too.

V.
I’d like to say the politics of today are corrupting my mental methylation, because there must be a physical consequence for the maddening frustration these representatives are causing. Blue and red, they are infinitesimally tiny colors in comparison to the incomprehensible rainbow that is being shattered like glass inside our carefully wrapped nucleotides every time these Democratic or Republican or scandalous challengers and incumbents speak.

VI.
Maybe the Halloween candy I carelessly feasted on consisted of lipids that will choke the proteins that my DNA coils around. With luck, I’ll have warning signs emblazoned on my genetic material that read *Alert: this specimen went through countless cycles of starving, feasting, worrying and over-analyzing as a teenager.*
If the bad days reveal themselves through my histones, I hope the good ones do, too.

VII.
Perhaps this random graphite chicken-scratch will not deter my progeny from experiencing a fulfilling quality of life, but maybe, just maybe, the way I hold my pencil will ignite a chain reaction that reaches out and gently touches those who have my blood running through their veins in one hundred and twenty years. There’s no way for me to know if putting my pants on with my right leg first will ever affect my future extended family’s heart health, but if we knew all the nitty-gritty details then we’d probably become biological, environmental dictators...and where’s the molecular spontaneity in that?

Shruthi Shivkumar, 16, lives in McMurray, PA, and loves literature as much as she loves science. She has been a peer writing lab tutor in both middle school and high school, and when she isn't writing, Shruthi loves participating in speech and debate or organizing events for the school science club. Her work has been previously recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards at the regional level.

Judge’s comments: “Epigenetics” is an essay after my own heart, the kind I like to write myself. It uses science as a jumping-off point for a philosophical speculations about cause and effect, the consequences of the seemingly inconsequential, as well as a broadside critique of our culture of achievement, the toxicity of politics, the oxidation of the economy and the fouling of the environment. I admire its ambition, its intellectual rigor, its somber, reflective tone, and the glimpse it afforded me into the angst and grievances of a new generation.

About our judge

Tim Kreider’s first collection of essays was We Learn Nothing; his forthcoming one is called I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. His cartoon, “The Pain—When Will It End?” ran in the Baltimore City Paper for 12 years and is collected in three books by Fantagraphics. He took Writing Skills I–III at CTY’s Johns Hopkins campus from 1980–83, and was later a TA and instructor at several summer programs sites.

2016

About our judge


First Place

Hair
by Luisa Healey

Everyone is obsessed with the hair, it’s like the baldness is what might kill you. It’s the second question they ask: has she started losing her hair yet? My mother’s hair was black, curly, impossibly thick, and when I was little I would stand at the doorframe of the bathroom and watch her brush it, watch her looking at her reflection in the mirror as she tamed the wilderness with dry shampoo and leave-in conditioner.

When I heard the word cancer, I imagined my mother, no hair, tubes in her arms and up her nose, and I saw my mother before me, thick black hair cascading down the front of her red sweater. I saw images of womanly strength, Penelope, weaving and weaving, before I started to cry.

My mother had no hair, but I never saw her bald. When her hair started falling out, it was all at once, like a waterfall, thick, curled strands scattered across the bathroom floor. She bought colorful scarves, deep blue, purple, and never left her bedroom without putting one on. She bought a wig, too, and she jokingly told me it was the kind of hair she always wanted when she was younger: black, straight, like a real Asian woman. I thought she looked unnatural with the wig on, even frightening, but I never told her this. I told her the scarves were beautiful, the colors reminded me of summers in Japan, of the light smell of kinmokusei flowers.

I learned the rhythm of her disease. Every three weeks, she took the train to the hospital to have poison infused in her veins. For an afternoon, the steroids propped her up, she was almost herself, and then the medicines worked their way through her body, weighed down her limbs, tied her to the bed, stole away her sleep. There were gradual tests of strength, walking to the park, going out for dinner, the grocery store, advancing in difficulty until the next treatment knocked her back into fragility. At least I’m not dead, was something she said often, with a short, bitter laugh. At least it’s not terminal. Unsarcastically, I thanked God for this, too.

I bought books about cancer, dog-eared them, scribbled in the margins of the ones I couldn’t understand. I scoured the internet for potential causes, alternative treatments, statistics. My mother thought this was pointless: she thinks that if she can understand it, she can control it. I became very familiar with the green, carpeted floor of Barnes and Noble.

I learned that cancer is a problem of cell communication: a mutation blocks a cell’s ability to know when to stop growing, that cell replicates itself, the tumor grows. I learned that it is a problem of finance: the bills for surgery and medication pile up, a single mother’s salary stretches thin. It is a problem of beauty, of femininity, of pride: the hair falls to the bathroom floor in a waterfall, the skin grows thin, the nails turn blue. I learned that there is hardly anything pink about it.

The summer grew hotter, darker. I sat on the edge of her white bed as my mother grew weak, then stronger, then weaker again. I prayed for the summer to end.

On the day of her last treatment, I accompanied my mother to the hospital. It was the last chemotherapy that the doctors had deemed necessary, adequate to eradicate the remaining cells with a potential for destruction, but it didn’t seem like an occasion to celebrate. She put on her wig and we rode the subway in silence.

I sat on a chair next to her bed and watched the doctors mill about around her and adjust the clear liquid that dripped through a needle into her arm, just as I had imagined. The nurses smiled at me with sad eyes. For lunch, I bought sushi from the grocery store, but when I lifted one to my mouth with those cheap wooden chopsticks, I couldn’t swallow it. The hospital smell gave the avocadoes a medical flavor, like hand sanitizer, like cancer. While my mother’s eyes were closed, I threw the remaining pieces in the trash.

Every morning, I straighten my hair in the bathroom mirror. The strands are lighter than my mother’s and wavier than my grandmother’s, diluted with my mostly absent father’s Irish blood. Now, stretching down past the small of my back, my hair is the longest it’s ever been. Every morning, I look at my new body in the mirror: the twin bombs developing, that might someday, if my cells stop living in harmony, if the genes twist themselves in the wrong way, explode to destroy me. Every morning, steam rises from my flat iron as I tackle the wilderness, destroying my hair into my personal concept of beauty.

It was October when the leaves started falling out all at once, the long summer breathing its last sighs. It had been seven months since the heavy news, seven months of poison in her veins, of steroids in her blood, of that ugly hospital smell, and one month since the last treatment. I stood on a rickety ladder, helping my mother lift cardboard boxes full of sweaters from the cabinets above our heads.

My mother was stronger now, but still ten pounds thinner, one breast lighter, several years older. Her laugh was hollow, calcified: I never thought I’d be so happy to put away my summer clothes. We neatly folded the tank tops, cutoff jeans, and put them in the boxes, and then we unfolded the sweaters and scarves, shook off the dust, hung them up on their wooden hangers.

When we were done, my mother told me to touch the top of her head. She took off her scarf, light blue with turquoise stitching, and let it fall to the floor. I ran my hand over her scalp. The short, dark hairs felt soft, like a sheep sheared for summer, like a newborn.

Luisa Healey is a 16-year-old junior at Hunter College High School in Manhattan. Her work has previously been recognized by Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In her free time, she enjoys reading, playing the piano, and walking her dog.

Judge’s comments: The narrator in this wonderfully descriptive and heartfelt piece exudes a gentle wisdom as she recalls her mother’s months of chemotherapy and the loss of her mother’s hair, hair that represents, according to the narrator, “womanly strength.” In this piece we get an honest, reflective voice behind these carefully chosen words. I admire how the author tells the story with a quiet objectivity. As I read this piece, I empathize with both the mother and daughter as they strive to remain connected in their journey through cancer treatments.


Second Place

Zip
by Jin Young Cho

The subjects of the images are almost indistinguishable from each other in what seems like an album of one woman’s life, but this is the before and after of our most recently completed lip surgery, exclaims the synthetic receptionist, while her own lips look like a three dimensional model of the lips she shows my mother and me, admitting I was never really was happy with my own lips as they point upward like a flattened chevron and make me look quite sad, so my mother thought I would want them to become artificially adapted to the standards of the Korean alpha females after which my mom exclaims wow, those lips look like April cherries, her eyes fluttering, twinkling glitter onto the album sheets, asking if this really is actually possible, how long will it take for the swelling to go down and reveal such tart, Jolie lips, but the single word “swelling” lingers on my tongue and clogs my larynx as I look up at the ceiling fan reflecting my face and swallow hard as my mother continues her conversation with the woman, while through the image being played by a single repeated film on one angle of the fan, I try to imagine myself with those cherry lips, and realize I look better, but hate it, hate it, because I have only just turned sixteen, having a consultation about how my lips should be injected and inflated is not my ideal image of a sweet sixteen, and I tell the two women I have to go to the restroom, I’ll be right back, while the two rejoice at whatever the other says like old friends at a reunion, I doubt that they even heard me, as I enter the bathroom and glare at myself a meter and a half away from the speckless mirror, then look around, noticing that everything about everyone and every corner of this “hospital” is flawless, but I could feel through the cold and dense air that nothing in this establishment was guiltless, and once again I gaze at myself, pondering pensively about a matter that I considered lighter than a feather before entering this floor, while the eye shaped pendulum on the deceivingly golden wall-clock awaits my answer, I assume it swung about twenty three more times before I turn away from the mirror, guiltless, as I have decided, but when I walk back into the consultation room, the two women are already talking about payments, and an old memory dangles over my mind where I gave my cousin a bag of hershey kisses in exchange for a miniskirt for my barbie doll, oblivious to the fact that the Barbie would in any way be a horoscopic voodoo doll for my future, and I tell my mom I want to leave, right now, right this instant, pulling her by the arm towards the elevator that reads thank you for visiting, come again, although I swear to myself that I will never do so, because I don’t want to be peddled in the album of barbie dolls, of beauty, of fame, of those who hide their childhood albums from anyone and everyone as if a merchandise but aren’t ashamed to be exposed to anyone and everyone in the album of guilt, and I feel beautiful for exiting the gallery of once valued bones and skin, and untouched, I exhale through my imperfect lips a pristine sigh telling my mother that maybe I’ll be fine with it someday, but of course she knows that it’s just lip service.

Jin Young is a high school junior currently studying in Manila, Philippines. She enjoys writing for her school publications because they allow her to share her personal ideas and experiences while also exploring others’. She is most passionate about reading stories of dissimilar cultures, as they further expand her perspective of the world. She hopes to produce writings from which others can gain new insight as well.

Judge’s comments: I admire this short, non-conventional essay written as a stream-of-consciousness reflection in which a young woman grapples with her appearance and the decision to have, or not to have, cosmetic surgery. In the piece, the narrator struggles with her intuition as placed up against a “Barbie-doll” society. In the end, she declares, “I don’t want to be peddled in the album of barbie dolls, of beauty, of fame, of those who hide their childhood albums from anyone and everyone…”.


Third Place

Circular (e)Motion
by Evelyn Choi

Most baton twirlers have real, metal batons and not tree branches, but I’ve always been flightier than most. (The stick is flighty, too–literally, considering how much I throw and drop it.) And while I’ll joke about how silly it is that I wield a stick from an actual tree that I’ll probably poke both my eyes out with eventually, in reality I’m proud. Anybody who’s ever seen me spin it can tell. I’ll go from loosely swinging it like a pendulum to suddenly creating a vortex in front of me, mouth set and eyes sharp as everything condenses to the movement of my body and this one stick. It’s both foreign and familiar at the same time: foreign in the sense that it is hard wood and I am soft flesh, yet familiar in that I know every thread from the worn fabric tape holding it together, and every pattern that it can weave around me. For once, as I mark out the space around me with my odd baton, my body isn’t a burden, but part of something beautiful.

Then I pass by a reflection of myself in a window, or somebody’s glasses. I see my right hip jutting out of my dress at an odd angle, and my shoulder hiked up too high, and I falter.

Scoliosis. An abnormal curvature in the spine. My mother poring over my x-ray images with a sigh, my privacy invaded as I pull up my shirt to let her check my back. I don’t understand the numbers, and maybe I never will, but the wide, carefully drawn circles etched onto the x-rays say enough.

By the time a new doctor suggested I get a back brace, I was fifteen and too old for it to be effective. Despite knowing the unlikelihood of me actually getting a brace, I still had nightmares about the hard plaster suffocating me, wrapping around my small body and squeezing until my spine snapped. I’ve been to so many doctors over the course of my sixteen years, and yet, every new medical experience is another opportunity to completely lose the ability to breathe as my chest tightens and my brain drowns. My anxiety is erratic, certainly, but not having control over my body is one of my few, definite triggers. It doesn’t matter if I’m getting a vaccine in a clinic. It doesn’t matter if it’s a traditional Chinese physiotherapist-chiropractor-doctor-hybrid who carefully twists my torso while a crowd of other patients looks on, conspicuously commenting on my size and shape. I hold my breath and try not to cry, wishing I could jump out of my skin, my warped skeleton, and float away.

“It’s just moving your body in circles,” a fellow patient says, after noting my tense muscles. My hands shake in response.

Summer camp is one of the few places I feel comfortable enough in my body to wear sundresses, and it’s in this daring gleam in between school semesters that I find the stick. When I first spot it my brain immediately ventures into a hundred different avenues: I could use it as a room decoration, as a wand for a costume, as a javelin– well, if it were straight...

About halfway down its length, the stick arcs slightly, making it look slightly like a bent fishing rod. I inspect it. The bark is missing in some spots, but it’s a comfortable diameter for my hand, and as far as I can tell it’s not rotting. After rotating it some more, I hold the stick by the end and give it one, experimental swing.

It makes one full circle before falling out of my hand. I pick it up from the grass and try again, this time holding it with just my fingers. It slips through a few times, but with practice, the swings become steady loops. It’s a little odd for me to feel at one with something physical, but for once I grasp the meaning of the word natural.

At dusk, I practice. My friends lounge about in the grass, some lazily throwing Chinese yo-yos, others playing card games. The idleness of summer sets in with the humid haze. My brain quiets as the sun does, too, and I do a dozen figure-eights before finally dropping the primitive baton.

“What did we do to deserve a place like this?” asks someone, only half-jokingly, leaning on somebody else’s shoulder.

My brain jumps back to the hospital, to sitting in front of a nurse with a needle. In order to go to camp, I had to take a blood test for tuberculosis. The memory is sharp: looking away as it pierces my arm, shying away from the thought of the blood sliding up that thin tube, doing my best not to clench my fists in response, telling myself that it’s just a blood test. An endless litany plays in my head as I block out the pain: I can’t move a muscle. I can’t move a muscle. I mustn’t think about why I can’t move a muscle–

(eventually that blood will find its way to a centrifuge and spin and spin and spin–)

I drop the stick on the grass. Hurriedly, I pick it up and twirl it in quick, small circles before giving up and tucking it into a ring on my lanyard, where it hovers in front of my torso. When everybody disperses toward the dining hall, I excuse myself to the bathroom and do all the things I normally do to calm down: demolish a few paper towels and splash my face with water.

Clenching the rim of the sink, I look up at the mirror and dare myself to hate what I see. But what I see is not what I expect, and as I stare into my reflection my hands move away from the sink to hold the dangling stick tightly to my chest.

Its curve perfectly matches the curve in my spine.

Evelyn Choi is a 16-year-old junior from Hong Kong with a not-so-covert love affair with words. She has written poetry, essays, stories, and articles, both for herself and for her school’s news and literary arts magazines.

Judge’s comments: This writer creates a vivid, well- focused description of a homemade baton—one fashioned from a slightly bent tree branch. The curve in the branch reminds her of her own spine, curved from scoliosis. This is an artful vignette in which the writer allows reader to glimpse a young woman’s view the strength she gains through baton-twirling. She writes, “For once, as I mark out the space around me with my odd baton, my body isn’t a burden, but part of something beautiful.”


About our judge

Angela Morales is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as Best American Essays, Harvard Review, The Southern Review, and Southwest Review. Her essay collection, The Girls in My Town, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize, is due out this spring. Currently she teaches English at Glendale Community College in Southern California.


2015

About our judge


First Place

Odor of Sanctity
by Kim Kain

When my dentist, whom I had been shadowing for the entirety of the past summer, asked what I thought after he finished cementing a crown onto a patient’s weak tooth, I had only one thing to say:

“Spiritual.”

I’m no pious fanatic in any sense, far from it. But there was something transcendent, sacerdotally divine, about the purifying halo of clean white light that arched over us all and illuminated the patient’s gaping mouth. The incomprehensible uttering of half-answers to questions like “are you in pain?” were spoken around gleaming sterile intrusions, in tongues like at a Pentecostal church. I don’t think many people realize this, but there’s something awfully intimate about having someone put their hands, shrink-wrapped in latex, into your mouth. I think it requires an inordinate amount of trust.

You’ll never get anywhere like that, my dentist had told me.

He had then leaned back in his swiveling vinyl chair that was a sterile, sickly pale green like everything else around us in the clinic, and in that infuriatingly phlegmatic way adults quite so often act had said,

Tell me, why do you want to be a dentist?

I’d been shadowing this man for nearly three months as an unofficial technical assistant, and there was nothing at all technical about it. I’d pull up with my mom in our clanking artifact of a station wagon, fight out our constitutional parking rights with the local patrolling police officer, and then go inside so I could hand Dr. So-and-So his retractors and probes and halogen lightbulbs and whirring handpieces in the sanctimonious cubicle of trust. I called it that because everyone inside it needs to have complete faith in each other. The patient trusts the dentist to put multifarious demonic-looking devices in his mouth. I trust the patient to not sue us for misalignment or breaching of regulatory policies. Dr. So-and-So trusts me to not to hand him the wrong instruments. An ongoing cycle.

It was my last day at the clinic.

My friends compulsively ewwed at the idea of looking into mouths all day. So what? It was no better than going into people’s bowels or looking at their feet. Every part of the human body is as equally disgusting—or not disgusting, depending on how you want to look at it—as the next. I liked the look of the sterile chrome instruments, small and pointy with an indiscernibly nefarious aura, had always been fascinated by the way each one had its own function and place in the operating room—one to pick at your cavities, the other to suck up all your spit so you wouldn’t choke on it while being operated on—had never been frightened of them as a child as many others tended to be. Fixing a tooth was like building a house. You mixed such-and-such powder with such-and-such liquid to formulate an adhesive; you applied it to the tooth, held over it a halogen light that would bathe the patient in indigo glow and almost instantly harden the light-activated glue. When the leather-backed chair tilted the patient back up with its slow, contented hum of a job well done, one felt purged, ready for a new life.

I sat there in my dentist’s office, his hard eyes reflecting the cold steel of his instruments. With the overhead lamp still suffusing us in its clinical light, I felt as if I were attending a confessional, ready for catharsis.

The sanctimonious cubicle of trust, indeed.

Why did I want to become a dentist?

The air hissed with expectation—of all I would amount to, and what I would do with it.

It briefly impressed upon me that my mentor, as it was, had already given up on me; I was a lost case, just another run-of-the-mill teenager with no special aspirations or any tangible goals. His glassy eyes subtly shone with the satisfaction of another person sorted, de facto classified in the blink of an eye, a patient successfully diagnosed. There he sat, his face lined with disapproval, the sleek instruments that stood at his side stiffly at attention daring me to say another word. Raised on a pedestal, the whole lot, worthy of worship.

I left the clinic that day and stared out the window as our surroundings blurred past us in a conglomeration of fall-hued colors. I almost expected the leaves, the tree bough, the paint on the suburban houses lined up in rows, to be tinted with the same antiseptic, austere grays and cold greens that had been a backdrop to my days at the clinic. But no, there were the reds and the browns and the yellows, the eaves of newly-planted saplings not yet touched by the caress of autumn just as vibrant as when I’d left home.

Everything was saturated with color.

Kain Kim is a 17-year-old senior at the Bergen County Academies in New York. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and is currently published or forthcoming in anthologies by Fiction Attic Press and Scholastic, among others. She writes for The Record, a newspaper in northern New Jersey, and serves as the features editor of Academy Scientific, a student-run science magazine at her school.

Judge's comments: I so admire the use of language in this essay. So many surprising—and authoritative—turns of phrase. I also admire the writer’s perspective. It’s one thing to imagine that there’s something sacred about a dentist’s work, and that his examination room is, as the narrator says, “sacerdotally divine,” but it’s quite another to convince a reader that this perspective might indeed be true. That’s what the writer of this essay does. The dentist, whose eyes “shone with the satisfaction of another person sorted, de facto classified in the blink of an eye,” refuses to see what the writer sees: that the space of the examination room is a space to be revered. This is a speaker whose eyes are open to life, to the underlying magic of existence, and whose love of language allows for rich and transformative depictions.

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Second Place

The Lucky Ones
by Tiffany Wang

I.
Americans don’t eat moon cakes. They don’t wear their hair in two buns or bring chopsticks to lunch—and they stare, wide-eyed, if you start to speak Taiwanese, before turning abruptly and mimicking you shrilly behind upturned palms.

Such are the brutal life lessons learned in the second grade.

The next day, I bought a hot pink shirt stamped with pale butterflies—one of the many fads circulating around my school. I wore it twice and began braiding my hair back instead.

So it goes.

II.
I still have that shirt in the back of my closet.

Funny how nine years hasn’t taught me a single thing.

III.
Before school—

I search for the coffee in my pantry, half-awake and suppressing yawns. As my hands land on the familiar red canister, I’m mildly disappointed to find that it’s full of green tea instead. I peer in blearily, hoping the contents can magically transform into something more. Instead, the dulled scent floats up to me, prodding at my senses.

So I shake the tea leaves into my cup and watch as they scramble to tell me of my future.

IV.
There are maybe four other Asians in my grade. They are all Korean and elegant, sweeping aside the rest of us as we watch. They sit up straight in the front of every class, armed with their violins and perfect transcripts. They smile as the world shimmers in pretty hues before them.

I sulk in the back of the room, trying to stay awake. I see the world in black and white, and am starting to think that I may be colorblind.

V.
Top 5 Things I am Told in School:

I really love Chinese food.

God, you’re so lucky you were born smart.

It must be so cool to have wide-screen vision.

Taiwan is the same thing as Thailand, right?

Do you ever plan on getting your eyes cut?

VI.
I like my eyes, actually. So, no, I don’t.

VII.
After school—

I nap and study and eat rice out of a glass bowl using a silver fork.

VIII.
On Saturday, I slip into the pristine mold of a debater—hair back and clothes pressed and a thin streak of eyeliner on my non-existent crease.

We lose and win and attempt to learn from our mistakes when all we really want to do is cry. I lose one event, and feel the heat creep down my cheeks, painting my ears red. Behind me, one spectator hisses to another: Just because she’s Asian, doesn’t mean she’s that good, you know.

I win my second event and hear no whispers. Instead, the pulse of steady applause washes through the small room.

IX.
On Sundays, I go to Chinese School. It’s forty minutes away from my home, and I go there to teach a culture class to elementary school kids. When my friends ask me where I am, I tell them errands or helping out my parents.

I don’t tell them where I am because for a few hours on that one day, I can be with people who are like me—pieces of us scattered between separate cultures, threaded together by experience. It’s a comforting feeling, and as selfish as it is, it’s mine—a private section of who I am that I have stowed away.

And besides, I really like these kids.

X.
Top 5 Things Kids Have Told Me:

You have shiny things on your teeth.

Teach me this. No, wait. Teach me that.

I got it—I GOT IT!

Wait, sorry—I got it a minute ago.

I think I want to be like you someday. Like, help people learn how to do cool stuff.

XI.
I wonder how long it’ll take before the boy with the crooked smile begins to stop wanting to learn new pieces of himself. Maybe it’ll happen gradually, as he realizes nobody else at school brings moon cakes in a box. He’ll ask his mom to buy him ham and cheese so he can make a sandwich to eat at lunch instead, and hide the moon cakes in his cubby to eat when nobody’s around.

Or maybe it’ll never happen, and he’ll be one of the lucky ones.

Tiffany Wang is a 16-year-old junior from Denton, TX, who tries to draw inspiration for her writing from everyday life. She reads, debates, and plays the viola and the piano. In her spare time, she enjoys arguing about current events.

Judge's comments: This essay hooked me immediately with its sharp details, its rhythms, and confident voice: “Americans don’t eat moon cakes. They don’t wear their hair in two buns or bring chopsticks to lunch—and they stare, wide-eyed, if you start to speak Tiawanese, before turning abruptly and mimicking you shrilly behind upturned palms.” The prose at the outset of this essay—lean and powerful—announces its style and subject matter, and continues to build, in short, matter-of-fact observations, a portrait of a girl whose classmates seek to define her on their own terms, an act that proves isolating and hurtful. Each of the essay’s sections is brief and austere; one is composed entirely of this single sentence: “I nap and study and eat rice out of a glass bowl using a silver fork.” Once we reach the end, where the speaker observes another boy—the one with the “crooked smile”—she wonders whether he’ll someday be hiding moon cakes in his cubby to eat when nobody’s around. “Maybe,” she says, “it’ll never happen, and he’ll be one of the lucky ones.” The last line feels like a blessing or prayer, and grants the essay a kind of sorrowful warmth.

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Third Place

Home, Truly
by Kristal Ng Shi-En

“This is the last time we move.”

That was my mother’s promise to me as we were sweeping out the torn raffia string and scraps of masking tape from the floor of the living room of our previous house, a tiny three-room apartment on the twelfth floor of The Rafflesia, readying it for our new tenants.

Five years on—the longest time we have ever stayed put—and I still cannot believe it. I guess I am simply waiting for the day my mother will tell me to condense this life back into the 17x17x14 boxes we still keep in our storeroom, stack it all into the backseat of our light blue Nissan, move on.

When you have moved eleven times in your sixteen years, there are things you learn that other people might not.

You learn how to categorize—a lot of things lose their significance when you only have four allotted boxes to put them in; it gets to the point where you take only what you cannot live without.

You learn that there will always be casualties—glass breaks easily, so always buy plastic; friendships don’t last if you’re halfway across the world or in a different school or have a different address, so always be the first to say goodbye.

Mostly, you learn that home is only a habit. The order in which you enter the house—shoes off first, then unlock the door—which way you turn your keys, the extra shove you have to give the door because its hinges expand in the heat. I learned that while normal people take 66 days to pick up a habit, I took a week, because sometimes, I didn’t even have that long.

I believe that identity is shaped by our surroundings. But it is difficult to carve out your person when your environment is in constant flux. As the new girl, in schools or in neighborhoods, I became very good at adapting—at memorizing new addresses, new friends’ names, new routes home. We never stayed long enough for me to have a best friend, or for my neighbor to know my name; and even if we did, I’d learned long ago to always keep my distance. So I became adept at being a chameleon—playing along instead of playing together, molding myself to fit in.

It was easier to just wipe the slate clean and start over because then, I could reinvent myself completely—exchange limited ground floor views for 22 storey skylines, trade in old rivalries for new friends, leave behind past mistakes and regrets, start afresh. Every move was like hitting a reset button, switching out the person I was in the old house to become someone who could fit seamlessly into this new house, this new community.

But it was not without struggles. In the first few months of moving into a new house, I always had a sense of displacement from finding myself in a place where nothing made sense. It never mattered if the move was just a few houses down the road, or another block in the same condominium, I would still feel homesick—homesick for that time and space when normal was taking the elevator to house instead of walking up stairs, when normal was sharing a room with my brother and not separated by a wall and two doors, when normal was something I could come home to, not something I had to get used to.

It is only recently that I have come to feel the sense of security that one gets by sinking into a couch which already has the impression of your body from years of sitting in the same positions, or returning to a house that has actual paint on the walls instead of photographs which can be taken down and packed easily.

And yet, I still hesitate to call it home.

I of all people should know about the transient nature of things. Having always grappled with having no roots, I thought I could never distinguish myself if I was always out of place. Who am I then, but an enigma—a fleeting shadow at the corner of your eye, slipping away too fast for you to remember.

In the end, we are more than our being; we are the places we have gone, the things we leave behind. I am not the four-year-old playing Barbies on the cold marble tiles of my Bishan bungalow or the twelve-year-old lying on her makeshift bed, practising PSLE mock papers in apartment #17-08, Riverdale Crescent, nor am I the sixteen-year-old girl typing this out in the living room of her current place of residence. I am all of them.

Kristal Ng Shi-En is a 16-year-old from Singapore who became interested in writing after depending on novels for companionship during long plane rides. She has received recognition from Future Problem Solving as a scenario writer and participates actively in her school’s Creative Arts Program.

Judge's comments: “You learn that there will always be casualties,” the writer of this essay says, as she reflects on the fact that she’s moved eleven times in sixteen years. “Glass breaks easily, so always buy plastic; friendships don’t last if you’re halfway across the world or in a different school or have a different address, so always be the first to say goodbye.” The resultant essay reverberates with melancholy without ever swerving into sentimentality, crescendoing into a final paragraph that allows the writer to acknowledge that we humans are “the places we have gone, the things we leave behind.” After having lived so many different selves in so many different places, the writer comes to an understanding that they all play a part in making her who she is. It is a moment of genuine insight: an epiphany earned.

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About our judge

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections, Future Missionaries of America and the forthcoming Gateway to Paradise, as well as a collection of essays, Inscriptions for Headstones. He is co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts and is an editor for the University of Michigan Press's 21st Century Prose series. He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech.


2014

First Place | Second Place | Third Place | Honorable Mention

About our judge


First Place

From Russia with Love
by Serafima Fedorova

I.

We walk into our homeland as if we are strangers. Moscow is a hand-me-down sweater I don’t yet know how to wear. My sister and I sit on the pavement, forgotten. My mother has been jolted into the past. We are not her children yet. We have to give her time to remember.

I breathe in. My first cigarette is a lungful of my birth city.

I see my grandmother for the first time in eight years. I do not know this woman. We are a broken chain link of a family I can never love. I don’t hold my mother’s hand; she bristles with electricity and I have had enough of her shock therapy to know that lightning searches for the shortest route out of the body.

I want to become land-locked. I want to be the right key that encrypts culture into my bones.

II.

If I had known anything about Miami before I learned English, I wouldn’t have bothered with my careful syllables. Mama wouldn’t have pounded my face into my alphabet book, and I would have known Spanish by now.

When I went to school, the children teased my wording. I wrought phrases from dictionaries and was surprised when my artificial language wasn’t enough of a bridge to let me cross over to them. They twirled Spanglish before me like gypsy scarves and ran away laughing.

I am too much of a coward to dig out the splinters of language.

III.

The only American soda they had in Russia back then was Coca-Cola. I remember the kids in my street sharing the bottle before running home to fill it with water. The taste of syrup clung to the edges of the plastic and we savored it for days.

My first culture shock came when I told my Russian friends it didn’t snow in Miami. We sat in silence when they couldn’t imagine a land that didn’t encrust in ice every year, and because I only returned to Russia during the summers, I couldn’t picture snow.

Those summers we played football because the playgrounds were stripped. Nobody replaced the swings that were stolen, or fixed the unbolted slide. We were left with a dirt-filled area and a ladder that didn’t yet reach heaven. And I never questioned it, or the syringes, abandoned in the empty park.

IV.

Things that Americans ask a Russian:

Is it true that you guys drink vodka, like, all the time?

Do wild bears walk the streets?

You guys are still Communist, right?

Who do you think won World War II?

V.

I have no preconceptions of this land. My Russia is the birch trees wilting by the highways. She is drawn into the cement of buildings, still bearing the tattoo of Communism. Nobody has bothered to wash disgrace off the pavements of Moscow.

I walk by a two-story furniture store about to be torn down. The advertising has been stripped, and in its nakedness the original mural is exposed. The woman depicted is strong and modest. She carries a scythe and her austere clothes drape her ample body. She is very blonde and blue-eyed – obviously, all Communists are. The man next to her carries a hammer. He smiles into the distance and they are walking hand in hand, looking as if at any moment they might step out of the 1960’s and walk into the McDonalds across the street.

I want to take a picture: Whip out an iPhone, hash-tag it #USSR4LYF and send it to my friends in Miami. But I don’t. It would be too complicated to explain the joke.

VI.

I was walking home from school when I saw my first gay couple. They were two men, one black and one Latino. I watched them intertwine their multi-hued fingers and walk bravely through rush hour traffic.

Maybe it was the heat; Miami sandwiched me between the scalding pavement and the glaring sun. But the reason for why they were clasping hands didn’t occur to me until I was unlocking the door to my American house.

VII.

For my mother’s sixteenth birthday, my great-grandmother waited sixteen hours in line for a birthday cake.

I imagine the darkness of mid-September. The stars are still laughing over human folly and my great-grandmother is huddling inside a thin coat. My mother will wake up that day to a two-tier cake in her kitchen.

She won’t have a cake like this until after the Perestroika. Not even for her wedding.

VIII.

I string together my history like glass beads. I need to wear them on my neck, showing off my heritage even if it throttles me.

My mother’s grandmother made bombs for WWII. She searched for oil in Cuba and married a man whose father was told he was a traitor of the nation. They placed him before a firing squad on a bright, sunny Sunday.

My grandfather made submarines, using the same technology that was utilized in the war his parents fought.

My other great-grandmother wrote poetry. Loosely translated:

“The earth shakes and I yell
‘Mama!’ as bombs rain.
I lost my God
when I saw the boys
with burnt-off limbs
and tried to heal them.”

IX.

Things that Russians ask an American:

Is it true that you guys eat hamburgers, like, all the time?

Do you even have snow there?

You guys are all obese, right?

Who do you think won World War II?

X.

One summer, I sat in a Moscow park with a friend. The anti-gay, propaganda politickers were beating their homophobic war-drum.

We were people-watching. Guessing how many of us were walking a safe distance away from their partners. Worrying that they’d be beaten bloody if anyone found out. Or pretending that everything was normal. Accepting that they’d rather never know love if they’d have to sacrifice their nation’s approval.

My friend sighs. “Russians know only one way to protest without being shot: They laugh about it.”

How many of us are laughing now?

Serafima Fedorova is a 17-year-old senior at Miami Arts Charter School in Florida majoring in Creative Writing. She experiments with all forms of poetry, creative non-fiction, and fiction with an emphasis on magical realism. Born and raised in Moscow, she returns there every summer. She has won several awards in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, honorable mention for poetry and fiction in YoungArts, and has been published in multiple literary journals.

Judge’s comments: This is a riveting depiction of what it means to walk between worlds. Its braided structure mimics the inherently fracturing experience of emigration, and its prose style glitters. Reading it is a transporting experience.

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Second Place

How We Talk About Ophelia
by Alexa Derman

This is how we talk about Ophelia:

Botanically: as a hybrid tea rose, which was named for her. We consider her faux-etymologically: O as a symbol of longing, “phelia” as a clear phonetic link to the Latin “filia,” or daughter—the intersection of romance and childhood, desire and innocence. We discuss her while utilizing Yahoo Answers: “you know, Hamlet’s girlf or whatever.” Talk about her as a mascot for teenage girls who’ve lost their sense of self (see: Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and the ensuing film adaptation, plus Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom in Navigating the Tumultuous Teenage Years). Scholars of Shakespeare make a continuum for their undergrads and place her somewhere between Juliet and an inanimate object. 77% of full-time professors are male.

And then we talk about her medicinally: the herb she designates for herself in the mad scene is an abortant. (Earlier in the play, Hamlet quips, “Conception is a blessing, but, as your daughter may conceive—Friend, look to ’t.”) We consider her as a member of the Viola genus: a shrinking violet. Canonically, as a symbol of female hysteria and/or weakness. Her favorite author is probably Nicholas Sparks. When she writes a novel, we slap a high heel on the cover. Chick lit.

We go at it as Freudians: her superego was in conflict with her id over its overwhelming sexual attraction to Hamlet—hence the inevitably of her suicide. Or as optimists: if only she’d had proper swimming lessons! In reference to Daisy Buchanan – “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world. A beautiful little fool.” Like gossips, when we see her in the hallway—one ear bud in, Taylor Swift humming around those diamond studs, flaxen flyaways caught in gloss. Eying her glitter toenail polish and the Facebook pictures of her hand gripping the red solo cup. We sing along to top hits—I know you want it is on repeat.

My Lit class makes a graphic organizer and assigns her the word vapid as a personality trait. We leave it at that, move on; for the boyfriend we will fill the whiteboard with SAT words. We talk about her anthroponomastically: why does she get a first name and not Lady Macbeth? Naively, calling her immaculate. The way you talk about a fawn. She is the name of my best friend’s ukulele. She lives in the seashell curve of my ear during AP Physics, where the four girls in the class sit in a clump and struggle to raise our hands, and at Youth and Government retreats where only a third of my fellow officers are women. In the plays Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) she does a lot of running across the stage weeping, and little else.

We consider her in paintings, captured pre-mortem in a flimsy dress with baby curls and looking surprisingly content for someone about to experience hypoxia, because her suffering has to be lovely. We contemplate the validity of her virginity—if it’s intact she’s a symbol; if it’s not she’s a slut. We hand her a button for “Young Feminists of Medieval Denmark” and then criticize her short skirts, the tuft of wisteria tucked behind her ear, that hot pink binder. We discuss her while insisting Lean in! without ever showing her the way her back can arch forward, the power of her vocal cords, the worthiness of her own words, words, words. I freeze up and feel Ophelia huddling in my chest when my eleventh grade English teacher tells me I will not relate to Into the Wild because “girls don’t have that same instinct for adventure” or the boy in my History class says a woman can’t be president because “what if PMS made her start a war,” or when my health class comes to the consensus that the girl who was date-raped in a Lifetime movie was basically a tease. Online I see a poll about her and other “Shakespearean hotties”—which would you “marry, bury, or do?” Beside it, someone is trying to sell me a fantasy game using big-breasted women; for a small fee, I can “make them my queen.” Friend, look to ’t—the entirety of her being is being made quieter, toned down, blurred with sfumato, from the Italian “to evaporate like smoke.”

She said, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.” I say, emancipate this princess of the tragedians from the burden of “should.”

Alexa Derman is a senior from New Jersey where she lives with her blue typewriter, Quinn. She has received recognition from the YoungArts Foundation as a finalist, the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and others. In her other incarnations, she paints faces and attempts to survive Honors Physics..

Judge's comments: In this essay, we see the stirring of consciousness. Each sentence quivers with escalating outrage that is rendered both intelligently and elegantly. Every woman should read this, to be informed or reminded.

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Third Place

Home
by Catherine Valdez

The trees in Northern Florida are post storm, and the Spanish have left their ruin in the moss. I know how the tendrils can rain down on a cheek like a borrowed muffler. I am too quick to steal this salty autumn and take it along with the moss back home. It will not bring use here, discarded under Miami’s shuffling mane of heat and fumes. Things I love cannot find context in the places I wish to settle.

My home is not clean enough for the moss to drape. They say Spanish moss is an omen that the air will be good for you in mouthfuls. So it’s no wonder that the trees and men are tall and barrel-chested in the countryside. The moss decides to fall down there like the corpse of a rain shower.

Miami, on the other hands, layers sludge on the back-walls of our systems, an indicator that my great aunt will have lungs canned in her chest like caramelized peaches. I like to imagine that she picked up the habit of smoking in hopes of recreating this culture of smog inside of her. The city has made a wood stove out of her body, and on worst days, it has made a bent exhaust pipe of her esophagus.

I’m afraid that if she were a tree she would be naked, bare of Spanish moss. Nothing would cover her except for pleas to quit. They would hang on her arms like deciduous leaves and fall off in this ragtime season.

***

In the Dominican Republic my great aunt listened to the thuds of drums; they were notes stuck in the mosquito netting. I think she misses her open aired porch the most, gulping in the air with fruit wedges stuck to her bottom lip. She could afford as many inhales as she could manage as it filtered pass the red cherry of her tongue.

In her second-hand home she stays inside. She told me last week:

“Close the windows. You’re letting it in.”

“Letting what in?”

Her answer staggered, and she waved off any additions to her statement as her nose dug back.

Her eyes told me that I was letting the city into the living room.

Her eyes told me that the mix of coffee and warm milk in the kitchen was taking her back, and the strong scent of Miami was making her lose her day dream.

Her hands dragged against the wicker chair as thoughts of home slid past her. She pulled a cigarette to her and tried to assimilate before stepping outside.

***

I’ve only visited North Florida a few times in my armful of years, but it is too alike to the Dominican Republic to be foreign to me. Only the Spanish moss sneaks up on me every time I witness it. I’ve never had something outright tell me that it’s safe like it has.

My great aunt recalls that it also grew in the greener parts in her home town, the view not far from her porch. I tell her she would enjoy the North of Florida. She’s sick of Miami’s brassy touch that keeps her trembling at night and wishes to return to her cool winds soon.

Catherine Valdez is a junior studying creative writing at Miami Arts Charter School. She enjoys writing about nature, and has won numerous awards for her writing, including YoungArts Merit in Poetry, second place in the 2013 Sarah Mook Poetry Prize, and honorable mention in the 2012 Jack London Foundation Writing Contest. Catherine was also named a 2013 Foyle Young Poet of the Year.

Judge's comments: What is home but ache? Through metaphor and imagery, this narrator weaves a story that is deeply observed, emotionally resonant, and—above all—true. A finely-cut gem.

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Honorable Mention

Journaling
by Mahima Kumara

Every day at the start of English class, we write journal entries. The bell rings, a prompt is squeaked out in teal dry-erase marker, we rush to finish at least seven sentences before five minutes are up, to achieve those small blue plus signs scribbled in the corner of our pages. Trickle in late at your own expense.

***

Teachers always tell you to write about an object of sentimental value. It happens every year. Three minutes pass, four. I have no objects of sentimental value. I can’t think of anything. I have nothing that has been handed down for generations, nothing given to me by a dead relative, nothing holding a haunting spirit or a remembered child’s cry inside it. I hold on to some things, but they’re baby clothes, children’s books, unimportant things that I don’t even look at, just hoard. I write about my piano, every time.

***
If I could bring one person back to life…

My best friend’s mother died from ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. She slowly lost fine motor skills, the ability to walk, speech. Life. She had four children and the youngest was six. A six-year-old girl, big-eyed, big-hearted, smiled at the viewing, laughed. If I could bring one person back to life… there are others I know about, grandparents and eight-year-olds and parents with young children, all sort-of-connected to me through friends, through closer relatives.

I don’t own the right to choose these people to resurrect. I don’t even really know them personally, and I definitely don’t understand. But still I write.

Another day, it’s which person, living or dead, you would have a one-hour conversation with if you could.

I almost want this to happen. I almost want to get to know my grandfather better, to ask some questions I never would have been curious about four years ago; I want to meet relatives I never could and find out what it is about them that everyone remembers and misses.

But after that one hour with the dead, what happens? Do they just vanish back into oblivion? After you talk to a dead person for an hour, are you just left behind in shock, a gaping hole of loss widening inside you where you were whole before?

***
One day, it’s what we would never give up. My hearing, I scratch down, I would never give up my hearing. I would never give up music, being able to play flowing Chopin Ballades and furious Brahms rhapsodies on the piano and hearing their swells and thunders and caresses. I would never give up being able to play in an orchestra, hearing the notes of my violin blend into the magical chords all around me, never give up the ability to sing in a choir, the voices around me creating simply amazing harmonies, a deep, full, free emotion welling up inside me. Joy.

And though I know that listening to Vampire Weekend and the London Symphony Orchestra in turns through old Apple earphones might be damaging my hearing every day, I don’t stop. I can’t. Joy.

***
Today, the teal letters spell, How has your week been?

Decent, I write. Normal. Nothing special. I’m really not too sure. I’m not too sure about a lot of things.

Am I an unreliable narrator? I think I might be, sometimes.

***

What do I want to be when I grow up? The teal letters brand themselves into my mind, sealing themselves into an already-deepening scar. And I don’t know.

I would never give up my hearing. Music. My piano is my object of sentimental value.

But I could do so much else to help the world, so much research in any scientific field to really make an impact. I love music, but to have that opportunity in my life, to have the potential to make some breakthrough that helps humanity, would be incredible.

What do I want to be? I have two years until college. “Grow up” is a relative term.

My best friend’s mother died from ALS. I don’t know.

Mahima Kumara is a sophomore from State College, PA. She is an avid reader and loves to write. She was named a 2012 NCTE Promising Young Writer, and has also won prizes in school writing contests. She edits for the national publication Polyphony H.S.

About our judge:

Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana and Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines. She teaches creative nonfiction at UNC-Chapel Hill. Visit her website at stephanieelizondogriest.com.

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2013

First Place|Honorable Mention


First Place

Mother, I Have a Confession to Make
by Yvonne Ye

Dear Mother,

Although we’ve grown closer these past few months, going on long walks together and developing a whole language in a glance, I haven’t been completely honest with you. And it’s not that I did anything bad; I just didn’t want you to worry.

You see, I know you’ve been concerned; everyone’s been concerned. “How do you feel about moving to Shanghai? Do you like it here?” They mean well, of course, but that’s like asking students “Do you think cheating is morally wrong?” You just can’t give a wrong answer, even if it’s the truth, I can’t say I hate living in China with all my guts and some of my heart, because how would they react, the people who’ve lived here for years and call it home?

But it’s okay: I can learn to get used to the constant wail of car horns, even at midnight; I can learn to tolerate the close proximity of just so many people, or at least, ignore it. I can learn to counter rudeness with rudeness, politeness with a genuine smile, to be ever vigilant for tricksters and con men, bargains and subway stops. I can learn to put the town I was just beginning to love—not simply like, but the intimate love that comes only when you learn the labyrinth of streets like the halls in your home—to the back of my mind. I can learn to forget those wide, cool halls filled with the incessant ticking of clocks that never ran in sync, a rhythm of life even through the empty darkness of 2 A.M. (yes, mother, I've been up that late).

Is that why we only have one clock here, in our new home? There's only a single tsking voice reminding us of the passage of time, not the multitude drumming the seconds into our subconscious, a waterfall of clicks sending the glacier of time lurching ever closer. Ever since Evan graduated and left, left the old house for college, you’ve bent all your effort on one thing: keeping this family together. Actually, you’ve done it for much longer; but with long, empty days and increasing years, it’s weighed on you, hasn’t it? Almost twenty years of a driving need to provide the best for your children, but now that it’s running to an end, you’re floundering. Because in two and a half years, when I vanish like a wraith, it’ll all be gone, won’t it? A vacuum of twenty years, and you’ll be left wondering: where did all the time go?

So, although I don’t think you realize it, you’re beginning to cling. And I don’t mean that in a maudlin, desperate, cliché-hang-off-someone’s-arm kind of way, I mean the gentle but insistent way cobwebs cling to a curtain, or a strand of hair to your sweater: you shake it and shake it but it won’t let go, not until you reach two fingers and carefully pull it off. You’re a clever, well-read woman. I’m not going to say that you’re clinging to the past. But no matter how hard you try to hold this family together, wait up on dinners or move across oceans, eventually, it will drift apart. I know why you have every weekend planned for another excursion into China’s cultural countryside, I can understand why you’ve filled in all my school breaks through next year, but mom, you have to stop trying to hold time like this. You’re taking it by the throat and wringing every last second you can out of it, but not all the minutes you’ve fought for will come out the way you want them to. That’s the unfortunate truth.

I’m not writing this letter to tell you to let go; I’m not writing this letter to guilt you into letting me go on that school trip to Spain in May instead of Zhangjiajie with you and Dad. I’m writing this letter to tell you, in the gentlest way possible, that your efforts are superhuman, Herculean, motherly, but in the end, they’ll dissolve, like cobwebs in the sun. Everything disappears, says Emerson. The noble act is in us trying. No, I’m writing this letter in hopes that you might, some sorrowful day, read it, and not tell me what your eyes have seen, but take the first step away. We have grown close; and in all the bridges I have left after they burned in the friction of crossing the Pacific, yours has always been there, sturdy and reliable. But I’m asking you to take the first step back, cut away the first ropes, because in three years time, when it’s my turn to move on…

I’m not sure I can leave.

Your loving daughter,

Y.

Yvonne Ye is a 15-year-old writer, sophomore, dancer, distance runner, and bookworm who currently resides in Shanghai, China. In her free time, she enjoys reading, browsing the Internet, running down treadmills, or floundering in swimming pools. Yvonne considers writing not as part of the category of "free time," but rather subsumed into the larger category of "more important than homework." This conclusion often results in midnight epiphanies and writing-hungover days, but she wouldn't trade it for anything.

Judge's comments: This is a remarkably creative and accomplished piece of work, period. Graceful, moving, thoughtful, left me starting to weep before I got a grip and pretended to have something in my eye. Wise beyond its years. How rare and lovely to see a young writer understanding something of the pain and seethe of love, of the labor of her parents, that her parents are actual human beings and not authoritarian fools. Best of the pieces I read.


Second Place

Chinatown
by Noa Gur-Arie

Everything in the restaurant was draped in red and gold. Two stories of red and gold, a remarkable size for a neighborhood so crammed that most things were tiny by necessity and everything oozed out at the edges. Pungent, spiky fruits and bulbous vegetables leaked from the grocers onto the street, piled high in every stand; buddhas plated with fake gold crept from store shelves onto stoops; and paper lanterns in every color floated above doorframes and below awnings. I’m not sure how Manhattan continues to have room for Chinatown, nor how Chinatown has any remaining patience for the island’s constraints. You would think it would have burst by now. One crate too many of ginseng chewing gum delivered to a Mott Street doorstep, and the whole place will seem to quiver softly in the summer heat and then blam! Done for. Into the sky will shoot five hundred thousand maybe-illegal rockets—“Authentic Dragon Brand, Manufactured in Hong Kong!”; into the air will burst a million roasted chestnuts, crackling as loudly as the fireworks in their printed paper sacks; and gone will be the neighborhood entire, but for a few paper fortunes that, along with some crumbs of the vanilla wafers in which they were once hidden, will float through SoHo and NoLIta, briefly distracting the shiny residents of Spring Street from whatever infinitely glamorous escapade they were in the midst of.

But I have gotten lost in Chinatown. This is not difficult. The restaurant—the red-and-gold-bedecked restaurant, with its illusions of old-world splendor that were utterly convincing to an eight-year-old girl with a mind built for fairy tales—was bustling. It was bustling with local Chinese families, as well as plenty of tourists: the tourists were whispering to each other, as they tend to, that the presence of so many Chinese people must mean that the food was of great quality and authenticity. And though I didn’t understand Mandarin, I am fairly sure that the Chinese families were saying to each other that the ubiquity of the tourists indicated the opposite.

I don’t remember the food, though, because I had been tasked with watching my five-year-old brother while my parents were downstairs ordering dumplings. He was, at the time—and remains—a boy with eyes bigger than himself. He seemed almost disembodied from his own curiosity, which meant that if something caught his interest, neither his size, nor his age, nor his total unfamiliarity with his surroundings could be an object between him and it. But when you are an eight-year-old girl with a mind built for fairy tales, sitting in the midst of what looks, to you, like the grand hall of some great oriental palace—there were giant, jade-eyed golden dragons on the walls, really—it is easy to forget something as mundane as a five-year-old boy with a propensity for running off after anything intriguing as soon as the opportunity presented itself, like a boy detective in a children’s book, scrawny legs flailing as he ambled away in pursuit. His curious-face, which is the face that he wore most of the time, was so open and searching that, in his moments of extreme inquisitiveness, he needed no magnifying glass before his eyes to make them seem goggling and huge. No oversized trench coat was necessary to render him tiny-looking in comparison to the rest of the world. I mostly found this annoying. In that moment, I was an empress in an Eastern kingdom on the verge of explosion; Elijah was a boy. My parents were somewhere else, and I was regarding the golden dragon, in daydreams. By the time I was once again an eight-year-old girl in a tackily decorated Chinese restaurant on a Manhattan side street, Elijah was gone.

Gone-gone-gone-gone, the way Chinatown will be one day when that one-crate-too-many of chewing gum is delivered. I began to sob, because I was responsible for him, I thought, and should he die or become lost or eaten by a large, golden dragon with jade eyes, it would be my fault and the guilt would drown me and cause me to shrivel into a shrunken, blackened morsel of grief. I had a mind built for fairy tales, but some of the tales I had read ended grimly. A mind built for fairy tales, after all, is a mind built for melodrama. The streets of the neighborhood seemed sinister now: the spiky fruits were poisonous, the smiling shopkeepers threatening, every fake samurai sword an opportunity for a little boy to impale himself. I cried and cried and ran in search of my parents. We rushed outside the restaurant, screaming his name, and spotted him within seconds. My brother is conspicuously gawky, and, that day, he wore a bright green shirt along with his goggling curious-face. This time, it was a bucket of snapping turtles a block down the street that had stricken his fancy, and he stood peering over the rim. For him, nothing was wrong. He just wanted to see the turtles. Our panicked faces must have seemed comical. He was a boy detective, and the turtles were the clue upon which the case hinged; I was just a girl with a reddened, teary face.

That day, both of us had built a Chinatown. His was full of men in fedoras and smoke from Zhongnanhai cigarettes flicked casually onto the ground by Triad bosses; mine was the domain of dragons and princesses. Together, these Chinatowns are truer and more lasting than the vast, smoggy expanse between Little Italy and the Financial District. The shops won’t close, the people won’t leave, the nightingales and canaries will never stop chattering in their cages. It will always be quivering on the verge of explosion, never actually bursting. The ginseng gum will never arrive, because I found Elijah, and I found the Chinatown that he created, and it has fortified the Chinatown that I built. It will be shimmering forever in the summer heat, nearly ready to burst, but not quite.

Noa Gur-Arieis a high school sophomore studying in Rabat, Morocco, with the U.S. State Department's Kennedy-Lugar YES Program. She studies French, Moroccan Arabic, Classical Arabic, Spanish, and Russian, and is a committed proponent of youth diplomacy. When in the U.S., at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, she participates in Model United Nations, theater, and forensic speech, and plays the flute and piano. She loves to run, bike, write, read, photograph, travel, and explore, always armed with curiosity and too many semicolons.

Judge's comments: This is a beautifully oddly written piece, the odd twists and turns of which make it sing in its own interesting music. The story is well-told (and how lovely to see a writer who understands that there are no small stories, only small perceptions of huge moments), but the artlessly creative twists and turns and leaps of language give this a wonderful sheen and shimmer.


Third Place

Companion
by Kaho Arakawa

She was first introduced to me through my father in August of 2001. The three of us had gathered at a dimly lit apartment in suburban Taipei, where my family had recently relocated from Japan. Seated at a table that came up to my chin, I listened attentively as my father proudly presented her. Even in those initial moments of the encounter, my six-year-old self was able to recognize her undeniable charms. She was brilliant and adequately aged; in her earlier days she had been acquainted with great minds such as Euler and Mandelbrot. She had strikingly defined features and spoke with an eloquence that transcended linguistic barriers. To top it off, she went by the beautiful Greek name "Mathematics."

Mathematics quickly became a reliable friend during my hectic elementary school life. Through four schools and five cultures, we always managed to communicate in a common language. Whether a teacher was lecturing in Japanese or Mandarin, 32 squared was always 1024. Yet Mathematics spoke to much more than my intellect; she acted as the chief mediator between my father and me. On the rare days he had off work, my father brought her around to our dining table. I grew to treasure each meeting with her, for every morsel of information I absorbed seemed to make my father that much prouder. Inspired by a sense of progress, I gradually began to hold meetings with Mathematics on my own.

Before long, my knowledge of Mathematics deepened to a point where my father no longer recognized her. I was immersed in my own world of complex integrals and derivatives, each encounter with Mathematics akin to a heated conversation between close friends. She would reveal her secrets, and I would share my eagerness to acquire even more. Soon, I began to see her almost everywhere I went. From image transformations on my computer to the balance of instrumentation in Fiddler on the Roof, Mathematics revealed the complexity and beauty of ordinary matters. Despite her intellectual demands, however, Mathematics never ceased to be a generous friend. As I solved each puzzle she presented, she rewarded my faith in her reason with a quiet feeling of confidence.

Today, Mathematics is not simply a guiding hand through numerical problems on paper. Rather, she has engrained in me the fundamental values that guide me through life's adversities. She has embedded in me patience and curiosity: the essentials to unwinding complex ideas that elude instant comprehension. She has taught me to raise my aspirations, to lift my gaze and peer further into what I cannot yet see. I have learned that mathematical questions are not merely abstract or esoteric riddles. They are instead the foundations of a knowledge that can empower me to engage in issues that matter most to me in science, economics, and even social justice. To this day, Mathematics reminds me of the day when I was barely four feet tall, when she opened my imagination to a world that is broader than what I could have grasped without her constant companionship and mentoring.

Kaho Arakawa is a senior at Taipei American School, where she is on the cross country and math teams and plays the trumpet in the school band. Kaho is a huge fan of hockey and especially of the Vancouver Canucks.

Judge's comments: A cool idea that so easily could have been done poorly, badly, self-absorbedly, self-indulgently, cutely, overly—but it isn’t. It’s walked gently and cleanly to the end with nary a wrong note. Not only entertaining to read but stimulating and real and personal. A well-made piece of work.


Honorable Mention

Photograph
by Alice Ju

In a dust-lined cabinet next to my father’s side of the bed there was a small black book of photographs. I had not seen it since I was very young, or perhaps I had never seen it at all. I somehow knew of its existence but I do not know how. It was one of the things my parents had quietly tucked away, as I grew older, and further from them.

One day when I was sixteen and no one else was home I opened the drawer where they kept their pasts, breaking the unspoken boundaries of my parents’ most private things.

Because I was sixteen I had not really spoken to my parents, really spoken, in weeks or maybe even years. And so one day a quiet tingling curiosity overwhelmed me. I dug through stacks of magazines and tax returns and business-like things, my knees cold against the hardwood floor, until I felt the smooth cover of the black book against my fingertips.

The first photograph—he was unsmiling, the grim wrinkles in his face muted by the yellowing of time. The upturned collar of his jacket cut sharply against the line of his jaw.

Careful hands had smoothed out the creases in the picture. The creases in his face were still there, unsmoothed.

His eyes, dull and black, stared blankly out at me. It was a severe blackness, one that compels me to remember something that happened years my parents escaped to America, years before I was born.

With the bleakness in his eyes came an echo of my father’s voice, telling me my great-uncle’s story as I watched him from my chair at the dinner table, wide-eyed. Or perhaps as he tucked me in, back when we lived in the run-down apartment and my bedroom was a corner and my bed just a mattress on the ground.

I remembered the stories of the long winters without rice and the bamboo shoots triangular and green in the ground; the rivers before the factories came and turned them brown. I didn’t know what words my father told me and what was my own invention, but I saw the long gray lines of bowed heads snaking back on dirt roads and fading into the dim lightless horizon. Mounds of rice rose and fell behind them, rice that had come from the now-empty fields and frozen paddies and worn calloused hands of the people whose heads were now bowed.

I felt the texture of the wooden table, worn until deep scars were etched permanently into the surface, just as much as I felt the wooden floors pressing against my aching knees.

Two grim-faced men in uniform stood by the door, faces cast in half-shadow by the doorframe. The line of bowed heads crawled slowly ahead, each person holding ration tickets worn soft by constant rubbing in their pockets.

Crouched beside my parent’s cabinet, my dark hair falling over the picture in my hand, I saw vividly the face of the small black-haired girl, thin lips pale with frost, ration card clenched in her small smooth hands. She offers it up to my great-uncle, the man trapped behind the desk by the peculiar mechanisms of the Cultural Revolution. She says, “Please, Xian Sheng. Please, Sir.” Wordlessly, he gives her one scoop of rice extra, white grains spilling like rain into her rough cloth bag.

My father’s voice would always become quiet, subdued, when he spoke of the cold mute men who came to the house, who took my great-uncle to the dark bitter room under the police station and kicked him with their hard boots until his insides cracked and bled.

There was no variation in the blackness of his eyes in the photograph—it was a straight, flat black, a dead black, commanding me to carry on my shoulders some invisible weight that my parents carried on theirs and their parents before that.

I was sixteen, old enough to realize that this was the heaviness that my mother and father had tried to shield me from and tried to keep hidden in the most remote corners of themselves. This was the heaviness that descended upon me nonetheless, in that instant, despite their best efforts to teach me to use a fork and knife and fold my napkin neatly over my lap.

When I was young my parents told me these stories, and they stopped when I became old enough to have a sense of memory. Yet I remembered these wisps of story somewhere in my mind, like some half-forgotten bedtime fable. The older I grew, the less I knew, as “Mama” and “Baba” became Mother and Father, and the tale of the Goddess of the Moon became Cinderella.

But I could not avoid overhearing the whispered conversations between my mother and father, the quiet tears and the murmured Chinese words with the telephone pressed to their ears.

As I knelt next to my parents’ bedroom, alone, I found that I could open a door in my attic-brain. In the absolute most distant corner of my mind these translucent memories drifted as intangibly as smoke rings in air. I could not grab hold of them, and I could not know if my father had truly lost his bike at Tiananmen Square or if he even rode bikes at all.

I knew then that when I have children they will look at me with clear, round eyes and I will not know what to say, whether or not I will teach them of the rabbit on the moon and their great-great-uncle whose legs were broken by the Communist regime. The sky had grown dark and in minutes my parents would be home, but I stayed by their bed and thought about the children who had yet to be born. I understood then that in the end, it doesn’t even matter, because though I may not have black books they will have heaviness on their shoulders and slowly, the stories will be gone, but the impalpable inexplicable weight of a handful of rice will rest there forever.

Alice Juis a junior at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where she acts, debates, and writes for the school newspaper's humor page. She enjoys reading most things, even the backs of cereal boxes, and drawing on most things, such as napkins or important forms. She loves tea, Dylan Thomas, philosophy, and the Velvet Underground. Some of her dislikes include ferns, Fun Dip, and waiting for the subway in cold weather.


About our judge

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of many books, among them the “sprawling epic labyrinthine riverine serpentine sinuous” Oregon novel Mink River.

2012

First Place|Second Place|Third Place|Honorable Mention

About our judge

First Place

Exhilaration
by Catherine Wong

Look look, the first words after the gauze came off. I read about this man in a book, blind for forty years; in the dehumanizing clinical style of a case study, the book reduces him to two letters, V.I, and in the interest of privacy strips him of even a name. Four decades of blindness, and then the brain scan, the miracle, one surgery to flip on a switch in the mind and lo, there was light. He reported new sight like a baby’s, unfocused and unclear. A beige blur hovers by his hospital bedside, a gash opens in it and there is speech—he realizes that this is a face, his wife. I imagine opening eyes numbed by forty years of darkness into this world awash in colors, everything painted, sounds matched with newfound pictures. There are no laws of perspective, not yet. Every turn of the head brings another universe, all the colors shifting and swirling. The world was one of brightly-colored patterns to be filed away in the mind, by a lifetime of tastes and smells and once imageless sounds. If this were me, I would ask for children’s books, candy-colored prints on the cardboard. I would beg for flashcards, photos, movies and paintings and picture windows, even while the world was a mess of blurs, paint spilled all over my vision in great sweeping swaths of color. Never mind why the sky is blue, just let it be blue.

In this story, there is a window. From his hospital bed this man, the real one, counts cars, colored confetti in his vision, taxis and school buses loud against the backdrop of black city streets. Little things make his breath catch in his throat—a flame dancing in its holder, the infinite illusion of a room in a mirror, the glint of a light on a glass of water, to be looked at once and twice and again. I imagine a room papered with eclectic patterns, stripes next to polka dots, a kaleidoscopic beauty to compensate for forty color-starved years, look look.

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