Last week I received the entries and read them all over two days. All the entries were anonymous, so in most instances I did not know the age of the writer and sometimes not the gender. Those things did not matter to me anyway — I was there to bear witness to their stories, to whatever they wanted to share on the page. The made me think about a lot of different things.
First, I was reminded of reality television show I watch, “The Voice,” that pits contestants against each other in a singing competition. Sometimes, the judges will talk about things like a contestant’s tone or a contestant’s ability to hit notes in both low and high registers, and or the judge will talk about other things that (at least in my mind) have to do with vocal training. But sometimes the judges talk about this thing that can’t be taught: the ability for a singer to convey an emotion, a story. The judges talk about how it’s a skill that you either innately have or you don’t. I think of it as an ability to make the people in a room stop and listen and really hear what you are trying to say, emotions and all.
I thought a lot about that as I read the entries. Initially I was judging the students by their writing: good sentence structure and variation, correct grammar and punctuation, frequency of using strong verbs, etc. But after reading the entries, I thought about which piece stayed with me the longest after I put down all the sheets of paper. Which one did I think about the most later that night and the next morning and in the days that followed?
The pieces were varied in terms of themes and topics and level of writing, and some had pain and heartache, and some had hope, but all them held some vulnerability. When you share something about yourself with someone else, if that something matters to you, you are vulnerable. But in vulnerability lies strength.
I was impressed by these students and their strength, and I was reminded that everyone has a story — really, everyone has a million stories. Each of us live through so many events and happenings before we become adults, and these stories and events shape who we become and are the reason why we are who we are.
And this is is the second — and perhaps most important thing — that reading the contest entries made me think about: I’ve never felt that I lived in a country so divided as I do now. I’ve also never felt that there is as much loneliness and isolation for so many Americans. These students’ stories reminded me about why it’s so important to take time to understand our neighbors and our community members. Their stories reminded me of how we can judge each other based on who we see in front of us now, with very little understanding of how we have become the people we’ve become, why we believe what we do now, why we each have such strong feelings about so many things. Sharing and listening can be such powerful things.
As for the contest, I’ve sent in my decisions, which will be announced sometime in 2019. But really, I was the winner: I got to read something about each student’s life, about something that really mattered to each of them, and I got the chance to understand a little of why they have become the people who they are today.
Shuly Cawood lives in Johnson City and is the author of “The Going and Goodbye” and “52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17.”