“Hey, Emily, do you want to do me a favor?”
I’m a “yes” girl. My knee-jerk answer is usually affirmative. Within seconds, I had agreed to judge a writing contest for elementary kids.
“I don’t have any submissions in the writing category yet, but hopefully we’ll get some.”
When I received the manila envelope, it was surprisingly thick. It held one or two entries from each grade level, with the exception of 4th grade. From the 4th grade, I had an entire class worth of entries. Not only that, each ranged from four to six pages long. That was OK. It would take a while, but I was excited to read them.
I organized them on my bed, brewed a pot of coffee, and dug in.
I don’t know what I expected. Rainbows, unicorns, candy and fairies, I suppose. But there was very little fluff. Instead, they were filled with complex themes surrounding dark topics full of fear, loneliness and violence.
The theme was broad; they could have written about literally anything. But many of the kids gravitated to a few common subjects. It’s hard to say if they were ideas planted by their teacher, or if they’re simply story lines that represent the thought processes of fourth-graders. The majority of the compositions fell into either the “death” or the “bullying” category.
At first, they kind of shocked me. I was taken aback as I read tales of death of family members, orphans running amok, and thrillers with stories of murder and world domination.
Many were about bullying. It came as no surprise that bullying, the buzzword du jour, would be a popular topic. What surprised me was their intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of bullying. Some kids had astute insight on what it’s like to be bullied, while others seemed quite familiar with the psychology behind being a bully. I read with interest, wondering if the well-respected school was overrun with thugs, or if the kids had simply been so immersed in anti-bullying education efforts that they were able to create believable fiction from what they’d learned.
I couldn’t help but develop a quack psychoanalysis of each young author. Why the fixation with death and violence? Why the concerns with being pushed around? Why fantasize about being orphaned?
But the quality, what magnificent quality. The metaphors were creative. Descriptions were vivid. The vocabulary showed competence with thesauruses. Thoughts came full circle. Even the shortest compositions were fully developed. I could tell that significant time and effort had gone into planning, developing, writing and polishing the essays.
Why would I be surprised about the topics? Did I not fantasize as a child that I was an orphan and it would be realized that I was a long lost princess from a faraway land? It wasn’t lack of love or appreciation for my parents. It was simply the only situation in which I could imagine myself “on my own.” Eighteen years old was a long way off.
And mean kids? Are we not aware that kids often lack the emotional maturity to finesse their way through life, so they often result to plain old meanness? I’m pretty sure every kid has been on either the giving or receiving end of that stick.
I finally gave up my amateur psychoanalysis, to do what I’d been asked to do. Choose a winner based on artistic implementation of the theme.
I picked an essay, but I felt like the real winners weren’t even in the running. The teachers who gave those kids the skills to express themselves, who didn’t censor their topics, but simply guided them to write impassioned, polished stories and essays — those teachers deserved the blue ribbon. And the grand prize was collected by the students who developed writing skills at a young age and learned the ability to express themselves through their words. What greater prize could there be?
Overland Park mom and 913 freelancer Emily Parnell blogs at mom2momkc.com.