"I was afraid, but I raised my hand."
Wow. Let Grow's "Think For Yourself" college scholarship essay contest -- our first -- yielded over 3000 fascinating stories from high school students across the country. We gave them essay prompts designed to make them think about the value of free speech, including:
Write about a time you or someone you knew didn't speak up, or almost didn't, for fear your idea might be unpopular. What did you learn from this and would you do the same thing again?
That's the question Ruby Green, age 18, chose to answer. Her answer was so startling and powerful, it made it to the USA Today opinion page. Here's how it begins:
I came out as a lesbian in high school, was told to kill myself. I would do it all over again.
Graduating from high school last month was exciting, of course. But my real moment of transformation happened junior year, in my politics class.
It was a moment that transformed some other people, too.
I live in a tiny, conservative town in the middle of nowhere, Arkansas — Hatfield, population 402. We have a grocery store, two gas stations and six churches in our quiet little town. For someone who identifies as a lesbian, this can be a difficult situation to deal with.
Rumors about my sexuality began swirling in eighth grade. When my peers found out, they reacted in the only way they were taught to: with confusion and disgust. There were many who tried to "save me" and many more who told me to kill myself because I would end up in hell anyway. Thirteen-year-old me was rightfully terrified, so I denied the rumors to the best of my ability.
Many believe that for gays and lesbians it has become easy, or even cool, to come out to those around them, but that is not the case for everyone. It wasn’t the case for me. I was terrified to stand up for myself.
Then, during the 2016 presidential election, I was put into a politics class. All of the students were encouraged to state their opinion in a kind, respectful manner on 10 "hot topic" issues that were discussed during the debates. I sat and listened to people state their opinions on everything from abortion to immigration. While I do have strong opinions about those subjects, I knew these would probably not be accepted by the students in the classroom. So there I sat, listening to these arguments while silently forming my own rebuttals.
But same-sex marriage was also on the list — at the very end. As the class went through the topics, I felt a sense of impending doom.
Whatever was said would, in some way, have an effect on my personal life. Any slander or disgust towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer community would also be slander and disgust toward me. I was afraid of someone hating me or condemning me to a lifetime of unhappiness just based on one small fact about myself.
While it does not seem like a dramatic thought process when looking back, it felt like everything at the time to me. After thinking it over, I realized that all my anxiety about the topic meant that it was important to me and I had to step up to defend my community, or I would come to regret it.
I braced myself, did some calming breathing exercises. And when my teacher — who is very dear to me, but also a conservative Christian man — finally called out the topic, my clammy hand went up in the air.
Read the rest here! And next year, have the high school kids in your life enter the contest! We gave out a first prize of $2500, two $1000 runner-ups and a $500 honorable mention. Congrats to all our winners!