Under the spires of the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., last Friday, Rand McNally awarded two grand prize winners from among 12,000 essays submitted in the “America The Beautiful” short essay contest. Caitlin Shelby of North Forsyth Middle School, Cumming, Ga., was selected from the 7th – 9th grade division, and Sarah Dean, of Hudsonville High School, Hudsonville, Mich., won for the 10th – 12th grade group.
Of note, Shelby, grade 8, wrote about a special family link to Sharps Chapel, Tenn., in an essay entitled “Our Secret Stillness.”
“Here, is where my blood was born, where the ghosts of my soul still wander through the rustic buildings which they grew from pitch. Here the timeless churning of their creek still reaches its crescendo comes every downpour, and each dawn awakens with dew-clothed hills and the lingering taste of heavily sweet smoke. They call this place Sharps Chapel, the former word a surname of my ancestors, but I call it the keeper of my soul,” wrote Shelby.
Dean, a 10th grader and the high school grand prize winner, wrote about New York City in her piece called “Beyond the Scars.”
“While iridescent rays of sunshine fused with the sapphire blue of the ocean, miles of skyscrapers stretched along the horizon. Captivated, I started to picture what it must have been like for the millions of people before me to reach New York City. For them, however, it had been more than just a city. It signified freedom, hope, life. This realization gave birth to a deep pride within me, to know that my country was a place of refuge and a beacon of hope for so many,” wrote Dean.
Both students relied on heritage and as they made a connection to the places they are writing about. It was this connection that seemed to catch the judges’ interest in their work.
The two grand prize winners will each receive a $10,000 college 529 savings plan, NOOK Tablet™ from Barnes & Noble, and a three-day WorldStrides DiscoverNow! trip to Washington, D.C. Barnes & Noble and WorldStrides are primary sponsors of the program. The winners’ schools will also receive $5,000 worth of classroom products from Rand McNally.
“What struck me about this story is that these young adults turned to their heritage and history to create their own legacies. Long after they graduate from middle school or high school, the schools will remember their contributions,” said Randy Sutton, president of Celebrating Legacy. “This is a great lesson to other young adults who sometimes question why history or heritage is important. In some ways, it provides a benchmark of where we came from so that we can leap from that point to something higher.”
Sutton said that Jamie Gerber, CFO of WorldStrides, gave the winners some remarkable advice. At the end of their three-day tour of Washington D.C., Gerber put everything they had experienced into perspective.
“During your time in Washington, you were able to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. We hope that your experience in Washington, and with this contest, emboldens your own dreams,” he said.
By encouraging children and young adults to write about a place, especially one with historical relevance or even a connection to their own heritage, they were able to make a personal connection to social studies as it applies to its core curriculum. The program included lesson plans for educators, activity guides to assist student writers, and correlations to the Common Core State Standards.
The ten essay finalists from each category will also see their work published in the America the Beautiful ebook and, in essence, find their first place in history. All 100 semi-finalists, along with their schools, were listed at Best Of The Road.