As a first-time juror for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards personal essay and memoir category, I’ve been reading high school students’ words, young adults in 10th and 11th grades who want to get some things off their chest. And, while I knew I would get a glimpse of how teenagers live, I didn’t realize how seeing the world through their eyes would change me.
These students have reached outside of themselves, past their virtual classrooms and countless homebound days, to share where they’ve been and what they’ve witnessed, where they want to go and what they worry about. I’ve read linear essays, the language straightforward and unadorned, and I’ve read essays that have left me breathless with their power and nuance and heartbreak.
These kids are thinking about their lives — about the wildfire smoke that hung over their cities for weeks last summer and about getting their driver’s license; about what makes them Chinese or Black, their place in the world, and how long they will feel like an immigrant. They’ve put down their fears of being less-than; about struggling with eating disorders, their parents’ perfectionism and how they will be punished if they do poorly in school; of surviving sexual assault and the toll of keeping secrets; about impostor syndrome (doubting their skills) and how COVID-19 has changed their lives. I read their words, and I understand their experience is a microcosm of what’s happening in the “real” world, though it’s hard these days to discern real from virtual.
It weighs on me that they have so much on their plates, that they are all too aware of the hard ways in which their lives have changed and the difficulties still ahead. Yet, that they feel called to give their fears voice has encouraged me. As long as they are reaching out to explain their lives and share what they believe, they must have some hope. Hope that there is more for them than how they are living now, that they can make it out of their situation and put the pieces back together. And if they have hope, I do too.
We might be up at night and restless, feeling the sharpness of all we lost in 2020, uncertain about what happens next, but knowing others are also awake and driven to reach outside of themselves and send up a flare is a kind of comfort.
I don’t know who these young writers are — their gender or eye color, religion or socioeconomic status, how they do in school, or what has happened to them in the intervening weeks since they hit “send” on their writing contest submission. And they will never know who I am. At moments I’ve felt guilty that I’ve gotten to learn about them without having to sacrifice anything of myself in reading their stories. But that is part of creating, of putting one’s true self into the world: You do so regardless of how vulnerable it might leave you because you have no choice but to share who you are and what matters to you.
In the forward to the book “American Geography,” the late Barry Lopez wrote, “Crudely put … we can no longer afford to carry on in a prolonged era of polite reflection and ineffective resistance.” Rejecting the status quo, looking beyond what we’ve gotten used to is an act of resistance, and that’s what these students are doing. Writing, creating and thinking of another path forward is its own kind of light in the darkness. If we can still share what’s troubling us — and more than that — if we still feel it’s worth it to, we are that much closer to learning who we are and what we’re willing to fight for. Closer to changing our lives and the lives of others. When we speak about what troubles us, we are able to ask for what we need and encourage others to do so, too. Yes, this year our lives have cracked open, but that’s not the end of the story.
These students’ essays remind me we have fight left in us yet, and I am here for it, for them. I have faith people care, kids are thinking, and that they see a better way. Their words make me want to do better; they make me believe we can. I will never meet these young adults, but I want to thank them. I want to tell them: I see you. And: Keep going.