— we could encourage more young people to express themselves in the arts.
My mother and father were, unquestionably, a positive influence on my writing. My teachers, too — were it not for their mentoring, cheer-leading, and instigation, I might not be who I am today. But perhaps equally important to my development as a writer was the opportunity to showcase and compete.
I had my first poems published when I was ten: one in Creative Kids (which, whoah, is still around?!?) and another in Piano, two magazines with content by and for children.
I won my first writing award in middle school: honorable mention in a student essay contest sponsored by the Postal Service, for which I earned a shiny stamped certificate signed by Some Important Government Official (fun bit of trivia, I missed the award ceremony because the invitation arrived in the mail a week late. Hahaha – no, really.)
And, no, I didn’t always win, and, no, I didn’t necessarily take losing gracefully. But the opportunity to compete was just as valuable. It felt good when teachers encouraged me to try; the fact that they believed I could win helped me believe it. The feedback I received was usually very rewarding – I remember to this day when one of my classmates told me that her mother, who was a judge for a local competition, thought my story was the most imaginative of the batch. And even if/when I didn’t win, competitions and journals and creative arts programs showed me that writing was something that mattered outside of the classroom. That my words could go places I’d never imagined. So even if/when I didn’t win, I kept writing.
It was a community that valued the arts that fostered the artist in me.
So when I heard that the Delaware PTA needed writing judges for the 2015 PTA Reflections contest, I jumped at the chance to pay it forward.
In my kitchen right now there are 69 essays, poems, and short stories by Delaware student writers, grades K-12, along with a table for scoring and a short blurb to guide me in my judging. Having poured my heart into this responsibility, I’ve found it fabulous, fascinating, and, frankly, overwhelming – in the best possible way.
Over the last few days, I’ve decided that being a teacher must be REALLY HARD. Imagine putting a grade on some budding author’s precious work of art. How do you carefully and thoughtfully soak in someone’s heartfelt written work and then squeeze it into some arbitrary shape by which it can be compared to a ream of other uniquely conceived masterpieces? Oy. I honestly don’t know how people do this without breaking off little pieces of their hearts every day.
I have new appreciation, also, for the editors and judges who handle slush piles on a regular basis. Even piles of the most stellar submissions start to swim before your eyes after just a few hours.
I learned that entering national writing contests is not a top priority for high school students — I handled a total of FOUR high school entries, compared to dozens from middle-schoolers and younger grades. Hey, kids — What’s with that? Why U No Compete? Something to look at more closely, methinks.
I also enjoyed a glimpse into how young people are thinking these days. This year’s theme, “THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE IF…” opened up a wide range of ideas, from personal wish-fulfillment to frustration with society to highly sophisticated analysis and solutions for global problems. I took special joy in the poems and stories, of course (including a lot of science fiction, of all things), but the essays and narratives were also surprisingly creative.
In short, I believe kudos are in order — for the students, obviously, but also for the village of families, teachers, and arts enthusiasts who have encouraged these kids to put a pencil in their hands, their ideas on paper, and their writing out in the world.
I read each entry several times over, in between Babycakes care and laundry and what passes as my own”writing work” these days (which is to say, some lazy shifting of words around my keyboard like cold peas on a dinner plate). A small sacrifice of time and brain power, but to me, totally worth it. Contributing to this process for the sake of young Delaware writers has been truly an honor.