If you’re worried about the next generation, I have good news. They’re going to make us proud. Back in April, I had the privilege of being a judge for a Colorado high school’s essay contest. I only got to read 6 of the 57 entries, but even so, I am encouraged.
The kids are alright. Or, at least, they’re going to get there. And they’re going to help each other along the way.
The essay contest rules specified a different theme for each grade, 9th-12th, but they all revolved around personal growth, goals, values, and community. The essays I read gave me chills. The authors wrote of personal challenges, of struggles, of having to overcome a sense of pointlessness, of drifting.
Then they spoke of friendships made, fresh intentions, and renewed purpose. They revealed role models who impacted their life with actions. They spoke of classmates who took a moment out of a busy day to ask, “What’s wrong?” They explored the way those moments affected them, and how a simple gesture could nudge someone onto a better path.
They wrote of how they wanted to be the person doing that nudging.
I was supposed to judge the essays based on a rubric, of course—adherence to theme, command of the technical aspects of language, effective use of examples, etc. So I did my best.
But what I really wanted to do was talk to each of these kids and tell them what a wonderful thing they’ve done—this introspection, and the committing of ideas onto the page. I wanted to give them hugs and tell them to keep going. They wrote with a passion that probably surprised themselves. I know it surprised me.
Each of those young writers was searching for—and finding—the value in their own lives. Then they took that value and held it out to the world like a lantern, to illuminate paths for others.
Personal essays are a difficult artform. There are rules and formats and tips and rubrics… but that’s not the hard part. The challenge is finding a way to mine your personal experience for personal truths, then share those truths in a way that feels universal.
Reading these essays from these talented young writers reminded me that everything we experience, feel, or dream has been experienced, felt, or dreamed by countless other people before us. Now these young authors can light the way for the countless numbers of people who will follow them.
I may have all but given up on my own generation, but I have such hope for the next.[Photo credit: Kelley J. P. Lindberg]