Writing Contest Winners Spring 2024

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Four times a year, we ask our readers to write about the impact recent stories have had on teens around the country. In Spring 2024, we had a variety of responses from teen writers connecting to stories about smashing gender stereotypes, reconnecting with family and language and finding joy in a craft. Congratulations to our winners and be sure to apply for our next contest in Summer 2024.

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1st Place

Phoebe Lee

10th grade, La Cañada High School, CA

Wrestling with Stereotypes

Dear Ushoshi, 

The speaker may rise. Heavy footsteps stump to the podium and the suited boy stands: ruler-straight posture, hand placed right below their chest, with laser eye contact. Just like your wrestling competitors who intimidate with rigid demeanors, firm handshakes, and stern stares. The solidity of my arguments are the greatest factor for winning, or rather they should be. Unfortunately, the reality is the key to winning for selective judges is to fit their biases. All was at stake in the grand semi-final. I walked into the room with light taps and faced my opponent: a boy the same grade as me. During the crossfire, or questioning session between opponents, I noticed how tension got the better of my opponent as he proceeded to act in a condescending manner. However, I stood my ground and stood firm, confident.

I lost. 

Reason for decision: I was too aggressive. Not a comment I hear often for the boys. These stereotypes of gender presentation affect every competitive ground, whether it be wrestling, or speech and debate. As we women continue participating in these tournaments, we are representatives who come to inspire newer, younger members. Though it is difficult, we are the early steps to shifting the standard toward equality. I hope that you and I can continue our respective sports with passion and together win against our greatest opponent: stereotypes.

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2nd Place

Joy Song

10th grade, Archbishop Mitty High School (CA)

Making Joy

Dear Dani,

Your story about rekindling your love for art took me back to a time that has become a fuzzy memory. Reading ’Making Joy’ was like looking into a mirror that showed me a more hopeful future for me and my writing. It gave me hope that someday I can love writing again too. Fifth grade me was a storyteller. I was starry-eyed and whimsical; my head was always in the clouds. Being morbidly shy, I wrote everything I didn’t say out loud. I churned out stories about ninja pandas, plays about ballerinas, and diary entries about my daily life with childlike candor. My parents, discovering this prolific hobby of mine, promptly enrolled me into a multitude of writing classes, hoping to cultivate it into an academic weapon. “Imagine her college essays,” my dad would say. And so, as I grew older, my writing matured alongside me. Tales and stories turned into essays. 

I saw less praise from my teachers, and instead saw more of my tutors’ frowns as they read my writing. Slowly, my pride, my faith in my writing wilted like autumn leaves. I feared saying the wrong things in the wrong way, and I stopped writing for myself altogether. Now, it takes me hours to type out a 200-word paragraph, my fingers hesitating over the keyboard. I write words, then I delete them. I shuffle phrases around in my head, trying to think of the perfect execution for a single sentence, before giving up entirely. Writing no longer feels cultivating, it feels stifling, without room for error. But reading about your experiences with reclaiming your passion for art inspired me to find the courage to try again. The next time I pick up a pen to write, I won’t pressure myself to be perfect. I’ll simply let the words flow. 

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3rd Place

Laiha Nadeem

12th grade, Brooklyn Technical High School (NY)

Alone with my English

Dear Ava,

You were able to put into words the silent war I have been dealing with for the past 17 years of my life. I was brought up with two languages. English and Urdu. Unlike English, I was not taught to read or write in my language, rather the efforts that were put into teaching me my mother tongue was simply being spoken to in it. From simple phrases like, “Aap kya kar rahi ho” (What are you doing?) to discipline me in Urdu, it became a part of my daily routine. I never noticed when my parents and I transitioned from speaking primarily Urdu to primarily English. It cost me the very little comprehension and vocabulary I had gained over the first few years of my life. It’s not the best feeling to be told both your younger sister and older brother speak your language better than you do. 

Going back home is an embarrassment. I haven’t been back to Pakistan since 2019, but I dread the thought of it. It feels like the shame of forgetting my language has transferred into harboring a distaste for my country and the family who live there. Not a single time have I visited Pakistan and not been teased and snorted at for being a “Burger bacchi,” slang for a Pakistani child trying to be westernized and so, disconnecting from their roots. However, I never wanted this. I can’t attempt to interact with my cousins and learn Urdu through them since they are all fluent in English because of the effect of colonialism on their schools. My own mother, who speaks fluent English with some broken sentences here and there, simply laughs when I say something incorrectly and ask for the correct way of saying something. My father mocks the way I speak, saying I sound like a baby trying to put words together. Despite all this, my family and I have connected through our culture. Our culture, consisting of our clothes, holidays, and food, has kept us tightly wrapped around each other. I will never forget how I got to wear beautiful clothes to attend my cousin’s wedding and experience the dances, the dholki, the doodh pilai, everything. 

All of this exceeds the barriers that language has. Though I still speak in Urdu like I’m only now learning to speak, I’ve managed to speak in ways that don’t require my lips to move. So when I get asked by my cousins why I’m such a “burger bacchi,” I can reply with my actions: help apply their makeup for a nikkah (wedding) or make gulab jamun to feed the family. So thank you, Ada, for reminding me that I’m not the only Asian-America child struggling with her identity and connecting to the people she loves most. Love truly is a polyglot. 

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Honorable Mentions

Ashlyn Choi

11th grade, Flintridge Preparatory School (CA)

Making Joy

Dear Dani J,

The image of the barbed wire butterfly lingered in my mind days after reading your story. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was about your story that stuck out to me, but I soon came to realize that your experience with art was parallel to mine with golf. What started as an exciting hobby took a turn when my coach and I began experiencing continuous miscommunication. I too felt the loss of passion, and had an internal conflict about my identity. The miscommunication occurred due to a perceived language barrier, where my coach would vaguely instruct me in Korean. I’d then fail to correct my form properly, which would lead to the same, confusing instruction being repeated. What I needed was clarification but what I received instead was repetition accompanied by an exasperated sigh, and toward the end, every lesson would end in tears. Eventually I quit golf, uncertain of my ability to hold a club properly anymore. Years later I missed the sport–being in tune with my body, the calming nature of the game, and the meditative mindset I’d enter when lining up for a swing. So I returned with no particular expectations, this time in a more relaxed environment by taking lessons in a group setting. My new coach, like your new teacher, not only provided a space to learn and improve, but the grace to rediscover my passion for the sport. I was able to focus on improving my technique rather than winning competitions and grew to love the process. Similar to printmaking for you, golf has allowed me to evolve into the barbed wire butterfly. I overcame the hurdle of discouragement and took the time to reevaluate my relationship with the sport, which has now become my safe space.

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Yu Xin Hu

11th grade, The High School of Fashion Industries (NY)

Alone with my English

Dear Ava Wong,

Mandarin is my first language, my native language, but oddly enough, it feels foreign to me; for this reason, I found myself relating to your story, “Alone with my English.” Every time I returned to China, I hated the family gatherings, and I’d try to slink back behind my mother to no avail. The words my relatives spoke slipped off their tongues slippery, their dialects different from the last. To their many questions, I’d answer with short phrases and awkward laughs, a smile and a faint nod. I’d pause, trying to recall the word. A moment later, the words would stumble through my lips and I’d say, “It’s nice here, thank you for the food, auntie.” They’d laugh and pat my shoulder, bombarding me with dozens of more questions. Throughout the years, the embarrassment of not knowing my own mother tongue has not faded. I don’t think it ever will. Some days I wish my parents had put me in Sunday school so I could learn Mandarin. Nowadays, when I speak with my parents, there’s a barrier between us, a language barrier. Although Google Translate does the trick every time, translating all the words that I can’t seem to grasp, for me, it feels bizarre. Holding up a lit up box in front of my parents, pointing at the translated blue words, and then resuming dinner. When I’m older, I think I’ll someday return to this “square” of my life, and hopefully with a better understanding of Mandarin.