Congratulations to the winners of our first Think for Yourself Essay Contest! We received over 3,000 essays and there were so many excellent entries, it was truly hard to choose. Thank you and good luck to all who entered!
FIRST PRIZE, $2500: Kasey Roberts, age 17
RUNNER UPS, $1000 Each: Ruby Green, age 18 and Shaina Chen, age 17
HONORABLE MENTION, $500:Name: Eva Kozlowski, age 15
FIRST PLACE WINNER:
PROMPT: What makes you think free speech is important, even in high school?
By Kasey Roberts
I sat in the third row in Heaton Hall auditorium surrounded by some of the brightest young political minds that our nation produces. It was the Fourth of July, and the sun was shining brightly on the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly that day, perhaps out of joy for the collective actions and discourse of the inhabitants of Heaton Hall.
I was a first-year freshman delegate at the YMCA Youth and Government’s Conference on National Affairs, a meeting of the minds of roughly 700 high-schoolers from around the country. In front of me, at the podium, stood a young Latina woman from California, proposing further aid to political refugees. Earlier that day, we had discussed the importance of disbanding pharmaceutical monopolies. The day before, protections against arctic drilling.
I did not know what I would see next, or which debate I would have the honor of participating in. As the delegate from California finished her speech and we took a vote. The next delegate walked up to the podium. He was from my home state of Pennsylvania; at times a personal friend and at others a political enemy. I knew what his proposal stated, and I wasn’t sure I was in agreement.
The delegate’s name was Kolten, a senior from a rural town North of Pittsburgh. Kolten was an accomplished debater as well as a hard-line, right-wing conservative. He had also survived a supposedly unbeatable cancer -- twice.
I watched as Kolten began to speak and those around me began to listen. I saw the heads of delegates from states like California and New York begin to shake. Kolten had begun to propose an official ban on physician-assisted suicide nationwide.
After he finished his opening speech, I sat by as round after round of impassioned debate in the negation of his proposal ensued, and I could, at times, see the vitriol (in addition to angry saliva) fly out of the mouths of those who disagreed. It seemed as if Kolten struck an all-too personal chord in the hearts of the supposedly empathetic.
Kolten smiled and took notes, but I never once saw him crumble or even react to the blows being fired unrelentingly. I listened as his morals were deemed disgustingly out of place and his ideologies rooted in delusion and contempt for those suffering. I watched them call my friend devoid of empathy and I watched them call him a sadistic, torturous, monster.
In the end, his proposal was voted down, despite Kolten’s protests that he did, in fact, understand all too well the realities of those facing life-threatening, terminal illnesses. Afterwards, I asked Kolten why he was so calm in the face of those bludgeoning him with words. He told me simply, “That is their right.” But how did he feel about the tabling of his proposal? “They made the will of the people known. If that is the will of the people, who am I to tell them to quiet down while I shout my own opinion?” he replied.
I began to consider the day’s events and these almost cryptic phrases my friend had earlier told me. I came to the same conclusions he had. You see, he understood that, no matter how distasteful or no matter how vile, their free speech was vital to the functioning of democracy. It is the unobstructed voice of the people that will deliver our nation from the depths of our ignorance and hatred toward one another. For it is only through conversation and thoughtful discourse that we may grasp the complexity of our scorn for those we deem as the “others.”
Free speech is not about enabling hate speech; it is about dismantling it. Free speech is about understanding and empathizing with those you feel you oppose. Free speech is important, even in our high-school simulation government, because it is now that we begin to define ourselves.
If we allow those to be defined by their hatred for one another, it is on every person who refused to have an open conversation about your beliefs for how their hatred affects others later in life. It is now in high school that we begin educating and dismantling divisions between each other so that our society may function as a collective of educated adults with open, honest, and spirited discourse on our disagreements.
PROMPT: 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?
By Ruby Green
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. I remember saying, with a shaking voice and stuttering words, “I think it’s OK.” That’s all I said.
The class was silent for a beat, and then someone from the back piped up by saying: “Me, too!”
Eventually, the whole class got into the discussion, and others who hadn’t spoken the entire period started defending the right to same-sex marriage. By the end of the period half of the class, to my surprise, was pro same-sex marriage.
From then on, things changed. Most of my old friends stayed my friends, though it took a little while, and I made some new friends, too. I even have a girlfriend.
Fast-forward a year. Our school has a little over 400 students, so I have the same teacher again, third year in a row. This time he stood in front of the class and told us, "Our class discussion last year had an impact on me." He had changed his mind about the LGBTQ community.
That "hot topics" day in junior year, I learned that if something seems impossible for you, then it’s important for you to do it. Sometimes you have to be the first to say something in order to gain support, and judging others based on a presumptions is close-minded. You’ll be surprised by the things you’ll learn if you just speak up.
Despite how scared I was that day, I would do it over in a heartbeat. In fact, I would encourage others to do something similar.
PROMPT: What makes you think free speech is important, even in high school?
By Shaina Chen
“We should build the wall,” suggests a classmate.
The rest of the class falls silent. We’re having a class debate on race in politics, and I freeze, thinking: How should I respond? I’m at a loss for words, choosing instead to exchange a nervous glance with a friend. From the corner of my eye, I see others do the same.
My high school is a liberal place. Colorful “We Love Dreamers” signs are proudly taped on classroom windows. The Gay-Straight Alliance club members offer cupcakes and unicorn onesies on Club Advertising Day.
It’s the most racially diverse school in the district, and as an Asian-American, never have I felt out of place because of my race.
The same holds true for my hometown, which is located right next to San Francisco, a city famous for its Pride Week and sanctuary-city status. So while this classmate’s statement might be considered mundane in large swaths of America, it clashes with the views of the majority at my school.
The brrriiingggg!! of the bell pierces the awkward silence. Hands snatch backpacks, feet scramble out the door. Instantly, whispers bounce off the hallway. I catch a few phrases: “Trump supporter,” “Nasty,” “I’ll never speak to him again.”
It was then that I realized something. For a school that boasts an open-minded and free-thinking attitude, we’re actually the opposite. While students embrace diversity, we’ve become so focused on supporting certain beliefs that we’ve forgotten the value of another kind of diversity: a diversity of opinion.
Such diversity comes from free speech. And free speech is important, even — or, perhaps, especially — in high school, because it makes people uncomfortable. Discomfort sparks discussion and promotes an acceptance of the existence of different opinions.
Even in this single incident, a change occurred. There was discomfort in the hallway, but I noticed it was also the first time people continued a debate after class was over. In fact, this single statement led to weeks of discussion on race and the right degree of government involvement in race-related issues.
Free speech also promotes acceptance. In an environment where certain beliefs dominated, I was in shock when confronted by a different opinion during the class debate. It made me realize there are always multiple sides to a topic, and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. It is in debating issues that we learn the most, not just about the topic at hand but about ourselves.
Avoiding topics in school oversensitizes people. I’m thankful my teacher didn’t ignore a subject that’s considered sensitive by many people today. I’d been so used to avoiding this topic in previous government and history classes that this debate felt like a delicate topic, which is why I froze upon hearing a different opinion.
The same applies to other subjects like literature. My literature teacher proposed Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” to the school district, only to have it rejected because it displayed certain cultures in a negative light. Protecting students in the classroom makes them less prepared for the prejudice they might experience in the real world. These difficult topics should be discussed, not avoided, so students know how to act and how to change.
I have promoted free speech in high school. I help bring a diversity of opinions to clubs I lead, like robotics. I’ve opened up a feedback forum for people to voice their opinions on how the leadership team can improve. I’ve also convinced the rest of the leadership team to open up parts of leadership meetings to all students so that they can voice their opinions.
Some see education as merely academic. It’s more than that. The only way to raise well-educated and well-mannered students is by appreciating the beauty in those uncomfortable debate sessions, those brave and brilliant displays of free speech.
PROMPT: In earlier eras, kids on the playground would respond to taunts with, ^Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.^ This chant has fallen out of favor. Do you think kids should start using it again when confronted by name-calling?
By Eva Kozlowski
Nowadays, every anti-bullying campaign seems to revolve around the idea that the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is completely misleading.
It is drilled into the minds of children and adolescents that words can hurt, even bruise, for that matter, and that they should be cautious not to offend others with this weapon of choice. But instead of teaching them to try to control the actions of others, shouldn’t we teach them how to control their own actions? Shouldn’t we teach them not to put these words on such a high pedestal? Wouldn’t that be a more effective way to minimize this problem?
Of course, I’m not saying that words can’t hurt, but there are unquestionably better ways to deal with this verbal abuse that seems to be increasing more and more. This old sticks-and-stones phrase was one I always hated, because it always seemed false. “Words can never hurt me”? Give me a break. So many times I’ve seen the repercussions of a simple insult. Self doubt, low self-esteem, stress, drug abuse, self-harm, and even suicide, all caused by a few detrimental words. I’ve even been a victim of this act of hatred, so how could I deny that words are indeed deleterious?
I can’t. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I allowed myself to be be hurt by these words.
After all these years of it being drilled into my mind that words can hurt, I began to not only believe this is true, I began to give power to these words. Power that became hard to diminish. A simple remark would ruin my whole day. A puerile insult would hang over my head for weeks. All because of my attitude towards a couple of words.
With a society as social media-driven as ours, children and adolescents should be taught to step back and look at it from an outsider’s perspective. Words are completely neutral, without any power whatsoever. We, as humans, give authority to these words, and only we can take it back. Today’s young people need to be taught that free speech comes with a price, one that means we have no control over what other’s say.
But we do, in fact, have control over what impact these words have on us, whether that be positive or negative. And that’s what kids need to hear. That they have a say in what affects them and how it affects them. That they have a choice.
So maybe the old sticks-and-stones mantra needs to be brought back. As children, it used to give a force-field of sorts to our self-esteem, so why not revive it? If they believe “words can never hurt me,” the power of those words is bestowed upon them – the “targets” -- instead of anybody else. In their hands, this power can be either diminished or enlarged, but it’s up to them. Like Play Dough, they can shape these words into whatever form they want.
Instead of teaching young people the effects of verbal weaponry, we should teach them the effects of a mindset that protects like a shield. One that begins with believing in the age-old phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
About the contest:
Teaching young people to avoid all conversations and ideas they don't agree with is not doing anyone any favors. The Think For Yourself essay contest is a way to get students to consider the value of free speech in their everyday lives. For instance, one essay prompt is: Write a thank you note to a jerk you learned something from...even though you didn't think so at the time.
Let Grow believes that the more that students get used to talking, debating, and opening their minds, the more they grow intellectually and personally.
It's also more fun!