Saturday, April 26, 2008

Katie Hartman -- Featured Writer of the Week IX

Katie has spent her 7th grade year focusing diligently on developing beautifully written, plot-driven short stories. She entered her first piece into the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards event this past January and won a regional gold key for her work. Please help her celebrate her accomplishments by reading:

The Cookie Jar
By Katie Hartman, 7th Grade

Marissa’s bright green eyes could watch you gently with warmth and love, or they could stare at you like a rattlesnake shaking its tail, warning you to back off. Her champagne colored hair fought against the blow dryer every morning until it gave up and became stick straight; her true face was something people rarely saw, for it was always sheltered with a layer of products she had read about in her teen magazines. As for her style, Marissa Patterson wore the kind of clothes her friends wished they had. She wore designer jeans and outfits she copied from movie stars. When your mom’s name comes up on google because she is the editor in chief of the most popular fashion magazine in America, people always expect you to look incredible.

Marissa’s mother always took her shopping and to the office on weekends during big photo shoots. The fun days with her mother made up for the fact that they only had each other. Her mom played many roles she was the parent, older sister, and best friend. No one is here to help me with this science homework. Marissa thought on countless school nights. No one is here to tell me and my friends to stop talking on sleepovers. Since her mom usually didn’t care. (And then, not surprisingly they always woke up too tired to walk.) Marissa longed for someone to take her to sports games, and explain to her why the teams had more than one outfit. She would never forget the memory of the first day in P.E. when all of her friends were hitting home runs because their fathers had taken them to play catch in the park. She could still remember that day and the embarrassment she tried to hide when she realized that she was wearing the glove on the wrong hand.

Everyone stopped and stared whenever Marissa walked into a classroom. They were always admiring her new outfits. Everybody smiled at Marissa; they always did. Her friends told her she was the most popular girl in the whole school. Everyone liked Marissa; they all wanted to be just like her. Her friends tried to strut down the hallway like they were on a fashion show runway, but no one could strut like Marissa. She had everything a teenage girl “should” want: a pretty face, nice clothes, good grades, and self-confidence. But Marissa ignored her popularity. It was just something that had always been there. What Marissa did notice was that all of her friends had two parents; therefore, they got double the love. They had both the x and the o, and they didn’t have the tears she had cried from wanting it all.

Her father was not part of her life. She could remember asking her mom about him. Strangely all she said was: “Marissa, Never leave me. You promise you will always be my little girl?”
“Can Daddy come too?” Marissa asked, puzzled by her mom’s response.

“Why don’t we talk about something else?” her mother replied in that tone Marissa knew meant: “this conversation is over because I said so”. Later, when Marissa was nine, she asked her mother again. This time her mom replied with, “Marissa there is homework for you to do and much better things for me to do then talk about your father.”

“What do you mean?” Marissa questioned her mother.

“I mean that we should not waste time on this subject. Do you want help with your project or not?”

Now Marissa was thirteen. She was smart enough to know not to ask.
When Marissa got home from school she helped herself to some candy from the little glass box on the table in the foyer. Marissa’s tan hands glided over the tiny cursive words engraved on the front of the box. She had never actually bothered to read those words. Frankly, she didn’t really care. Today, because she was bored, she decided to read the box. It read:

Mr. and Mrs. David Patterson Request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter Layla Rose Patterson to Mr. Mark Phillip Shwarmalyn
Saturday, the first of July at Seven
The Four Seasons Hotel
Miami, Florida

Wow, was Marissa’s first thought. That had to be her father. Marissa wondered why she had never asked for a name. She decided to google him. (This was Marissa’s second favorite game. Her first was calling the celebrities on her mom’s contact list.) She typed in the name on google, and clicked on the first option. It was about the owner of Shwarmalyn Real Estate. The strange part was there were pictures of a man named Mark Phillip Shwarmalyn. Marissa thought to herself, how many people have the last name Shwarmalyn? Probably only one. She scrolled down and saw a picture of this man, his wife, and his two little girls. She read the caption below the picture. It read: Mr. Shwarmalyn with his wife, Kate, and his twin daughters, Rachel and Regina.

Marissa’s jaw dropped, and she stared at the girls for a long time. She couldn’t get over the fact that they both had her champagne colored hair and the same bright green eyes. Whoever this guy was, he looked just like her too. She stared at the pictures for what seemed like forever. She just sat there, unable to swallow.

Could all this really be happening? Could this man really be her dad? Hey, if she found this guy and his family she could have triple the love! She would have a mom, a dad, and a step-mom. She would also have two half sisters that would make five times the love. She would have an x, an o, another x, another o, and a final x. Could her mom really have been lying to her all this time? Could she have lived her whole life not knowing more than her mom chose to tell her? Marissa wondered if up until that moment her knowledge of the world had been as limited as her mother pleased. Marissa questioned her mom in her mind. Was this the only lie she had ever told Marissa?

Marissa thought of her current situation as she walked into the kitchen. It was like she had lived her entire life thinking that the cookie jar on the top shelf was empty, so why bother trying to get up to it. She would just have to be satisfied with what was already on her plate. Now that she knew those cookies were up there; she wanted them. The only problem was they were a little out of her reach. She would just have to wait until she grew taller. Marissa was unsatisfied with this solution. No, not this time she decided. Marissa had to reach. This time she was hungry.

Marissa thought about what it would be like to live with two cute little girls. She thought of the life that was just a phone call away. She knew their number or at least the office number. She could call them and they would become part of her life. She would finally be part of a full family. It all seemed so simple.

Marissa now thought of what Brittney, her ex-friend, who once told her “Don’t always be so sure of yourself. You’re nothing special,” in response to her self-confident attitude. For the first time in her life Marissa began to wonder if Brittney was right. She shouldn’t always be so sure of herself. She felt guilty for doing so. Questions came into her mind. What if this family didn’t want her? What if they were happy the way they were? What if this guy she thought was her dad wasn’t after all? What would she say? Sorry, I must have the wrong number. Marissa thought of the worst possibility yet. What if her dad didn’t love her anymore? What if he never had?

Marissa’s hot pink cell phone started playing her ring tone “Pick up the phone, pick up the phone, pick up the phone”, it rang. Marissa answered it.

It was her mother. “Marissa, I am just reminding you I’m not going to be home until later. I am going to a party in celebration of my anniversary. Ten years I have been working for this magazine! I am still sorry you couldn’t come! But I am proud that you are willing to study so hard. I love you!”

“I love you too! Have Fun! Bye!”

Marissa thought about how awful it would feel to have to celebrate your work anniversary while never having a wedding anniversary to celebrate. Marissa thought about what it might be like for her mother to go to parties by herself. This was certainty not the first time. At the Goldsmith’s holiday party, the charity benefits, the vacations, and on every other occasion Layla was alone. She curled up into a ball in her chair and suddenly felt as if she was going to throw up. She was mad at herself for wanting anything more than the beautiful life her mom provided.

The next day Marissa wasn’t herself at school. After class she was talking to her best friend, Stacey.“I really liked the essay you wrote for English class,” Stacey said.

“Thanks,” Marissa said but really she wasn’t sure if Stacey was telling the truth. Does everyone lie to me just because it’s easier than the truth?

“Well, I really like your outfit Stacey,” Marissa said.

“Oh, thanks. My dad bought it for me.” Marissa’s heart sank.

During math class Marissa couldn’t focus. Her thoughts drifted off. Marissa thought there must be a reason why her mom had never talked about her dad and avoided the subject. A dad was an important part of a young girl’s life. So why had her mother avoided talking about hers? Marissa pondered this thought for a while and as each minute passed she knew more and more of what would happen if she contacted this man. She would end up feeling even guiltier. Guilt was the only problem Marissa couldn’t solve. It ate away at her. She was Marissa Patterson; she was supposed to do the eating. Marissa imagined herself in a courtroom, and the judge had just declared her innocent. “But I don’t deserve it,” the imaginary Marissa screamed. The judge had said she did nothing wrong, but she still felt guilty. No one else knew how she felt.

When she arrived back home Marissa looked up at the unreachable cookie jar and down at her empty, foodless plate. She was still hungry. Marissa walked into her room and exited out of the Shwarmalyn Internet page. She knew it would be there tomorrow, and she didn’t need it now. Oh, how Marissa wished she could talk about this with her mom. Her long body could be used as a ladder to reach the top shelf. Then climbing up that ladder rung by rung, she could help Marissa reach.

Marissa decided to call her dad. She didn’t have to meet him or make him part of her life she reasoned. She just wanted to talk to him. She picked up the phone and dialed 1-3-0-5. Marissa sat up as straight as possible in her chair, and breathed heavily. 5-5-3. Marissa tried to gather all the confident energy in her body. 4-6-1-1.

“Hello, Shwarmalyn Real Estate. This is Mr. Shwarmalyn’s secretary Mandy speaking. How can I help you?”

“I would like to talk to Mr. Shwarmalyn, please.”

“May I ask who is calling?”

“Tell him it is,” Marissa stopped not knowing what to say. “Tell him it’s his daughter.”

“Sure, please hold.”

“Hello.” said a deep voice.

“This is Marissa Patterson.” The line went dead. The person on the other end had hung up. Marissa instantly hit the redial button.“I would like to talk to Mr. Shwarmalyn, please.”
“What do you want? I am trying to work here. If you’ve called to yell at me for all the awful things I have done to you and your mother, I don’t want to hear it. I am not that person anymore and I intend to treat Kate, Rachel, and Regina as nicely as I should have treated you. Are you happy knowing that? Knowing I’ve become a better person. I learned my lesson, the one I thank you for teaching me. If you called for an apology consider this the closest you’re gonna get. If you called to ask me why I acted the way I did… my answer is I don’t know. I was young, stupid, and wrong. If you called so we could become one happy family again, here is a lesson for you life isn’t all smiley faces, rainbows and happy endings. I have thought an awful lot about this, and this is all I have to say to you. Now, could you let a man get back to his work?”

Marissa was shocked. “ I just wanted to talk to you. I just wanted to know you existed. I actually don’t have any clue what kinds of awful things you could have done to my mom. Thanks for your time.” Click. The other end hung up, but Marissa would not put down the phone; she wanted to keep this moment forever. The closest I will ever get, Marissa thought pessimistically. All of a sudden a voice came from the phone.

“Looks like somebody should have a little talk with her mom,” added his receptionist who had been listening all along. And that is exactly what Marissa intended to do.

“Who is this?” Marissa asked holding back her tears.

“Hey kid. If I were you, I wouldn’t want Mr. Shwarmalyn to be my dad. I think you should try the guy at Buy A Home Real Estate Agency. He is much nicer. But that’s only if you’re sure you want a father in the real estate business. Usually, bankers are nice, too.”

“But he is my real dad. I promise.”

“Even if he is your real dad. I still wouldn’t want him if I were you.”

“Why not?”

“Yeah, well he could support you. I mean he is a decent boss. But he isn’t that great a father at least not to Rachel and Regina. He always tells me to tell them he is in a meeting when they call, even if he’s not. And on take your child to work day, they spent the day with me playing on the computer. There is nothing wrong with his girls either. They are perfectly sweet children deprived of attention from their father.”

“Oh, so they’re deprived? What about me, the child who didn’t know her father was alive until she googled him?” Why am I having this conversation with a stranger? Marissa thought. She hung up the phone.Was the cookie jar reached? Marissa wasn’t sure.

When Layla Patterson arrived home that evening Marissa told her they needed to talk. The conversation began with Marissa explaining to her mother what she had been doing and how she had been feeling about her dad in the last couple of days. But instead of the expected lecture all that Marissa got in return was her mom nodding her head, listening. It was as if she had expected Marissa to do this.

“So, I am now assuming you would like to know what happened. Well it is your right to know.”

“Mom, it really is okay.”

“No, I insist you don’t keep secrets from me and anyway I should tell you,” with tears in her eyes, Layla reached for Marissa’s hand, “You deserve to know. Marissa, he didn’t want you. Well, he never met you, but he didn’t want a baby. He suggested you go to the orphanage and crazy things like that. Since the day you were born I have loved you with all my heart. I could never love anyone who wasn’t willing to love you too. We come as a package, you and me, but your father wanted to split us apart. I realized that someone who would even suggest that you be sent away was not worth loving. I never told you because I wanted to protect you. And I didn’t want you to think there was something wrong with you or that there was one unlovable bone in your body.”

Marissa was more surprised than ever. What is wrong with this man? Marissa thought to herself. What is wrong with me? I really messed it all up this time. I went looking for someone who didn’t want to be found. Why do I even want to know my dad?
“I love you too mom… I know he probably isn’t Mr. Perfect, and I’m sorry. But I just wanted to know him. I wanted to have a father. I wanted us to have a whole family. I felt like I was missing something that everyone else has. I know he is probably not gonna spend time with me on weekends or help me with my science homework, but I guess I just wanted to know that there was a man out there I could call dad. A man I could call my dad… And I sort of can now. ”

As she hugged he mother she realized that the x was perfect without the o. Suddenly Marissa thought to herself these cookies are better than I could have ever imagined.
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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jamie Maffeo: Featured Writer of The Week VIII

Since she joined Writopia Lab last summer, Jamie Maffeo, 14, has become one of Writopia Lab's most prolific writers. She is a writer of poetry, memoir, and fiction, and has garnered multiple regional and national awards from Scholastic's Art & Writing Awards in all three genres over the last three years. Please celebrate Jamie's 2008 regional gold key award by reading her transporting prose:

Two Brothers
By Jamie Maffeo

I stare into the eyes of the man in the dark photograph. Crumpling the photo slowly a tear runs down my face. I clench the photo in my fist, trying to forget him. Running my hand across the chipped white paint on the metal bars the rust sticks to my skin and I turn around to face the rest of the tiny cell. The small bowl that is a toilet stares at me from across the cell, and next to it is a tiny cracked porcelain sink. They both attach to the lime green, brick walls that cut my arms as
I toss and turn in my bed at night. The entire cell is covered in rust and peeling paint. Looking down at the course cement floor, which is cold and has large stains of rust mixed with dirt on it I sit down on the narrow bed and the itchy blanket stings my arms. Lying down on the bed, it squeaks loudly, cutting the air. I can feel the metal bars pressing against my skull. The faint repetitious sounds of footsteps made by the night guards fill my head like a recurring nightmare. Closing my eyes, still holding the photograph I try to think; think of anything but that horrible night three days ago.

We were the two Thompson brothers who had grown up in Brooklyn. It had always been Bobby and me. I could still remember the first time we snuck into a movie theater. It was winter and as we hid behind the theater huddling together his icy breath tickled my ear. Running to the back door I hesitated but before I could say anything I felt a rough push on my back as we slipped in, unnoticed. More often, when the weather warmed we could always be found on the basketball court off Flatbush Avenue, for it was a short walk from our house. And when we reached the court we would play around with an old Spalding basketball for hours at a time. Taller and heavier then Bobby I dominated the court, dancing circles around him as our laughter erupted through the air.

But, this summer changed everything.

As school let out, a year’s worth of memories lay forgotten underneath the bleachers on the track field and scattered into the earth that the high school’s one thousand students stepped on carelessly as we ran out of the metal gates. It was all over, the pressure, cramming for tests, and mom’s loud voice yelling at us as we crept into the house at three in the morning on school nights. On that last day of school, Bobby and I met outside the drug store that was a little ways down from the school, patting each other on the back, proud of ourselves that we had passed. It didn’t concern us that while we were joyful of our grades, our teachers shook their heads in disapproval that we received all D’s. I was going to be a senior and little Bobby was going to be a junior. Everything finally seemed to be on track again. Mom had almost gotten past dad leaving us three years ago for that young woman one neighborhood over.

But summer moved fast. Before Bobby and I knew it, the late parties, sleeping until noon and not thinking about school was over. Bobby was more upset about the start of school that loomed before us, for each night had been a party for him, while more often then not, I stayed at home, waiting for him to tumble home, drunk. Mom eventually reverted into a worried, over protective parent, constantly demanding that we come home earlier, and focus on getting ready for next year.

That day before school was to begin was a Sunday and those old memories that lay forgotten under the bleachers and scattered into the earth slowly drifted through those gates, chasing us down to remind us of everything we left behind.

I tried to push away the rest of my memories of Bobby and I lifted up my head from the rough pillow. But, he was all I could think about and I squeezed my eyes shut trying to block out the memory of that horrible night. But it tore its way through my eyelids, invading me. The memory was forced open like an old door that had not moved in years, squeaking and struggling but to no avail.
It was 10:00 p.m. when Bobby told me he was going out and that Mom couldn’t tell him what to do.

“Come on Bobby, it’s just one night. Stay home,” I told his angry face but even before I said the words I knew nothing was going to stop him.
“No, I’m going out. And you can either stay home or come with me,” he replied. I sighed and turned away. He padded his way downstairs and out the front door. With a click of the lock he was gone. At midnight I hopped into bed, and closed my limp eyes. But two hours later Bobby’s loud voice woke me up. I knew he was drunk. And soon I heard mom’s voice.

“I can’t believe you would come into this house at two in the morning drunk Robert,” my mom’s weak voice managed to say and I cringed to hear the fear in her voice, and her submissiveness.

“Who do you think you are?” Bobby’s loud voice challenged back at her. I clenched my teeth and stayed in bed for two more minutes but soon there was a loud crash and I could hear the sound of glass shattering. Bobby’s voice sounded loud, overbearing, and self-righteous. As his voice got louder and louder, I thought of my father. I clenched my teeth in anger as I remembered my father telling my mom she was fat and ugly, and that she wasn’t good for anything. As Bobby spat curse words at her, I jumped out of bed, and ran down the stairs, burning with hate, “Bobby!” I bellowed at him. “Who the hell do you think you are yelling at mom like that?” I screamed as I tackled him to the floor. He hit me back and soon we were both on the carpet, rolling around, punching and kicking each other wherever we could. I could hear mom’s voice yelling at us to stop, knowing that the neighbors could hear us. But I didn’t care; all I could think about was hurting him. Soon I was sitting on top of him with my two legs straddling him and my chest on top of him as I grabbed his two arms and pinned them down. A faint image of my father came into my head as I screamed at him. I lay on top of him for a long while yelling and hissing in his ear but suddenly there was a loud knock on the door.

“Police! OPEN UP!” I turned to the door and looked at my mom and even in the dark I could see that her face was stricken with panic.

“Get off of him!” She hissed at me. I slowly stood up and glared down at him. But when I looked at him I knew something was wrong. His face was pale and he wasn’t moving. My throat seemed to close up,

“Oh no, mom!” I shouted. “Mom, he’s not moving! Mom!” I yelled, I bent down and looked into his face, I turned him over and I knew there was something wrong. But I hit his face anyway again and again,

“Bobby! Get up! Jesus Christ BOBBY!” I yelled at him. Soon the police barged in and I stared at the two cops. “I killed him! Jesus Christ I killed my own brother!” Tears tumbled down my face and I couldn’t think as one of the police officers pulled me up from the floor. He grabbed my arms and put handcuffs on me but I just kept yelling at Bobby to get up. I could just faintly hear a voice telling me:

“You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…”

“No! Bobby! Bobby! I killed him! I killed him!” I screamed at the top of my lungs as I was thrown into the back of the police car. I could hear the wail of a siren as an ambulance pulled up to our house and we drove away. All I remember during the ride to the police precinct was my head limply bent into my lap as I cursed myself and shouted Bobby’s name.

It took 24 hours before I stood in front of a judge with a court appointed lawyer at my side. The prosecutor forcefully asked the judge to remand me, pending grand jury action: “Your honor, I think you should know the police officers found the defendant on top of the victim screaming I killed him, I killed him. There were bruises on the victim’s face and the medics pronounced the victim dead at the scene. We have a very strong case of murder against this defendant.” My court appointed lawyer told me that the grand jury would make a decision in six days on whether or not I would be indicted for murder. Until then, I would be held in jail at Riker’s Island.

I open my eyes and stare across the cell and I realize my hands are sweaty and I am squeezing tightly to the photograph. Tears are spilling down my face and I stick the small ball of a photograph into my back pocket. The more I replay that night the more certain I became that Bobby’s breathing grew fainter as I continued to lay on him. I remembered how I wanted to hurt Bobby, to kill him.

That night I dreamt that Bobby and I are back on the basketball court. It is nighttime but the moon has an eerie grey mist that lights up the court. I can see his face so clearly. He is dribbling the ball and he shoots with a wide grin. The ball hits the rim of the hoop making a tinny noise but it goes through the net. Suddenly I bump into Bobby and I am on top of him. Bobby is crying and I am yelling in his ear, “I love you Bobby,” over and over again.

The next three days drone on with the memory of the night Bobby died playing over and over again in my head as I wait for the news of what action the grand jury will take. When the day finally arrives to appear in front of the judge, the words of the lawyers and the prosecutors are but a mere hum in the back of my head as I walk into the large ceremonial courtroom.

“Your honor, we have the autopsy report that was presented to the grand jury that reflects that the victim, Robert Thompson died from asphyxiation due to compression of the chest. The grand jury found that there was no intent to kill the victim and they refused to indict the defendant.” As the prosecutor’s words fly out of his mouth the only words I hear are asphyxiation and compression. Tears brim my eyes and I turn to look at my mother, who is sitting on a bench. I see tears streaming down her face, but I know they aren’t for me. My lawyer turns to me and says,

“It was an accident, do you understand? It was an accident.”

The court officers grab my arms lightly and bring me back to the jail cell to retrieve my belongings. When I step into the cell I reach for the photograph in my back pocket. I look once more into my father’s brown eyes and find that familiar hatred I had for him I could swear that I was looking into my brother’s eyes and my own that awful night six days ago as we wrestled on the floor. I throw the picture into the corner of the dirty jail cell and as I walk out I thought I could hear the sound of Bobby’s breath that night growing fainter and fainter.
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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sam French Featured on Girl w/Pen

Today's Profile: Samantha French, 14

Samantha and I had lunch two weeks ago with Deborah Siegel, the author behind the popular feminist blog, Girl w/Pen. Deborah, who will be teaching a workshop this summer at Writopia, was so impressed by Samantha's surprising personal/political story that she invited her to "guest post" on her blog. Samantha was thrilled by the offer and came to Writopia every day after school for the following two weeks to work on her first opinion piece written for an adult audience. In the end, Deborah's readers--which include mostly academics and journalists--were also impressed by Sam's articulation of her personal journey and re-posted her piece on their blogs throughout the blogosphere. While Sam's political views do not represent the official views of our community, we are proud that she developed such a well-written, passionate piece with us. Please help Sam celebrate her wonderful accomplishment by reading her first widely read opinion piece:

Feminist Awakening at Age 14
By Samantha French

As we all know, the buzz around America’s college campuses is Barack Obama and how he represents change for America. According to the media, he has overwhelming appeal to the country’s so-called “youth.” And it’s true. The phrase “yes we can” is being inhaled faster than pot brownies and Jell-O shots at a frat party. However, what the media seems to be consistently ignoring is the opinions of the country’s real, good old-fashioned, disenfranchised youth: high school students. Who are almost unanimously pro-Hillary.

OK, so I’m dreaming.

As a female freshman in Bard High School Early College, one of New York’s more liberal high schools where nearly two-thirds of the student body are females, there is not huge support for Hillary, which makes me sad. Many people at Bard, both male and female, support Obama because they are “tired of the Clintons”(a notion which they have obviously been fed by their parents. Think about it: the last time a Clinton was in office they were eight at the very most).

At first, I agreed with them. My dad’s a die-hard Obama supporter and so are a lot of my friends. But the turning point came for me when I saw how upset and truly devoted Hillary was to the race after her defeat at the Iowa caucus. The moment that the cameras revealed her sad eyes, I realized that I was seeing in her something rarely seen in any presidential candidate: a human being. While my father continued to be very pro-Obama (re-recording Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” titled, "I Want Barak")—and put pressure on me to agree with him—I felt a connection with Hillary after that night.

A “conversation” with a boy in my English class the next day clinched it for me.
At 9:00AM, the morning after Hillary’s Iowa defeat, I came into my English classroom and sat at the table, looking around at my fellow students, their tired eyes skimming the pages of the New York Times or finishing up homework at the last minute, some finishing their Dunkin Donuts coffee.

Suddenly, I found myself in a debate with other kids about the caucus the previous night and who was for whom. Our teacher was quick to join in, turning it into a discussion which lasted for a good part of the class. The conversation turned to the obvious gender/race issue and one boy was quick to raise his hand when the question of what we thought about a female president came up.

“Well,” he said. “Because she’s a woman, it’s likely that she won’t really be able to perform her duties at ‘that time of the month.’”

Hold on. Rewind… OK, what did he just say?

The girls in my class instantly reacted with high-pitched comebacks and shouting. My friend stood on her chair and said rather loudly, “OH MY GOD COULD YOU GET MORE UN-P.C. PLEASE?” Another girl shouted: “I get my period too, but I come to school every day! I walk up and down stairs!” There was so much noise that I could barely get what I was saying out, so I stood up on my chair and screamed: “SERIOUSLY JUST SHUT UP. I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY AND IT’D BE NICE IF YOU ALL COULD HEAR ME!” The class instantly became silent.

“OK, so,” I took a deep breath and sat back down. “Hillary is probably post-menopausal so that is a completely invalid argument.” A chorus of agreement sounded from the girls.

The boy, who was recovering from all the screaming, replied defensively. “Well, it was my grandma who said that about Hillary.”

“And your grandmother’s how old?”


“Your grandmother grew up in a society where women were seen as housewives and probably the last time she went through a menstrual cycle was in the 70’s when women were still fighting for their rights!”

It was the moment that those words came out of my mouth that I realized I was totally pro-Hillary. Everything my father had instilled in me about Barack Obama melted away. Though I still care about the policies presented by each candidate, it ended up coming down to something bigger. It became about realizing the importance of taking a feminist stance in modern America and how important Hillary’s campaign is to feminist history. Not only do I agree with her healthcare policy and her method to get out of Iraq, but I also feel that she is hugely inspiring.

Since my “feminist awakening” as I guess you could call it, I have signed up for Hillary’s website and watch coverage of her rallies. Just today, I watched a video of a rally of hers in North Carolina where Hillary spoke to a huge audience of predominantly women. When she was taking questions, a young boy told her that both of his grandparents had died of heart disease. He asked her what she planned to do to prevent that from happening. She smiled warmly and promised the boy and the rest of the audience that if she were to be elected she would fight for equal health coverage and protection from such diseases. It is moments like that that make me feel that Hillary would be an amazing president; I believe her historical commitment to health care together with her maternal, relatable qualities would benefit America greatly.

My friends try to convince me to switch to being pro-Obama, and though I may sway a little at times, I’ll get an e-mail from the Hillary campaign or read an article about her and it reminds me of why I love Hillary so much: she has a genuine connection with the people. She is kind of like a mother-figure in that she is very compassionate and approachable, but also very powerful

My generation has witnessed turmoil and corruption during Bush’s terms as president. What we need now is a tough mom (with a tough track record) to whip this country back into shape.
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Friday, April 11, 2008

Michael Gellman: Featured Writer of the Week VII!!

Today's Profile: Michael Gellman

Michael has an unusual gift: He can identify and poetically express complex emotions through his music and writing. His first memoir explored the therapeutic role piano has played in his life, and appeared on this blog last year after he won a national gold key for it. In Michael's newest award-winning memoir, he takes the lead in a humorous and poignant dance through the elitest, rigid, girl-dominated world of children's ballet. Please celebrate Michael's wonderful accomplishment by reading:

Tutus, Hormones, and Reality
By Michael Gellman, 14

My father laughed when I asked him recently why I, the only boy in our family, was enrolled in ballet at the age of six. He explained that when I was about five, my sisters took a pre-Ballet class a couple blocks from where we lived on the Upper East Side. My dad and I were out playing catch in the park one day when it was time to pick the girls up with my mom. When we got there, I began imitating the instructor’s steps with precision. My dad was in shock; my mother quickly enrolled me at a serious ballet school downtown.

I will never forget my first lesson.

The winter wind whipped my six-year-old, bright face as my mom and I ran on slippery sidewalks with the futile hope that we wouldn’t be late for my first lesson. Outside, cabs skidded on snowy streets, and passersby walked briskly to various appointments. We were on Thirty-Fourth Street, and, I tried to establish a sense of direction in this unknown realm of Manhattan. As I was already running late, I decided it would be best if I followed my right arm – which was being pulled rather forcefully by my mother – and keep moving.

We walked up to a small brick church, and my mother pressed a button on the intercom outside.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” my mother said uncomfortably.

“Come on up,” the voice quipped with an air of impatience. This was my first signal that this place – wherever it was – was serious. I took a deep breath, and followed my mother, who had already begun ascending the mountain of stairs to what I would realize later was the third floor.

I took a fleeting look around me, and cold stone steps coupled with plain green walls met my gaze. As I ran up the steps for the first time, I felt apprehensive, but why wouldn’t I? After all, I was only six years old. Stomach tightening, face flushing, I slipped my hand into my mother’s, and sharply took in a final breath before she knocked.

A woman probably twenty years my mother’s senior donning a skirt and blouse opened the heavy wooden door. She had closely cropped dark red hair, and green glasses connected to a chain which she wore around her neck. Her red lips were pursed, and she had sharp, angular features. She represented what I thought to be a female-version of the very devil himself. She must be a dancer.

“Hello Michael. I’ve been expecting you.” She talked to me as she would an adult, directing the statement to myself and not my mother. That was the first time in my life that I felt like an individual smart enough to make my own decisions and carry out a conversation on my own. While it was nice to be treated with the respect of an actual grown up, it also shoved me into a limelight I had never before stood in – and in my shock I was rendered speechless. “Why don’t you come in and join the lesson?” She inquired in that soft but icy tone that demands immediate attention as well as a well-delivered, important-sounding reply.

“C-Ca-Can I bring my mom in too?” I sputtered, scolding myself for uttering such juvenile words and sounding so frightened. So what if I was scared to death of this woman. I wasn’t supposed to let it show!

“I’m sorry,” she said curtly, “but if you would like to join this class you must attend it alone.” The finality of her voice reverberated in my ears.

I hesitated.

“Go on,” my mom urged with a quick, little push. And so I did.

I followed this mysterious woman pretty closely, for I was worried I would get lost among the sea of white tights and bright pink leotards. I saw girls… So Many Girls! There were girls of every different shape, height, race, age…

And they were all looking at me.

I blushed, I simply couldn’t help myself. Here I was, confronted by this endless ocean of girls, all doing nothing but staring at me. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that Devil Lady had stopped clacking her shoes in that uptight, frightening gait of hers, had joined her kind, and was also staring at me. Although unlike the rest, she favored a facial expression of completely silent rage, eyes like black coals, staring me down. I found myself in the middle of the well-waxed light wooden floorboards, and hastily retreated into the far corner. “Just try to follow along,” she muttered, as though she didn’t expect me to have the prowess necessary but, with mild surprise, would accept it if it turned out that I did.

From that sentence forward, as long as I was in her class, I realized that I would prove to her that I was more than able to imitate and learn every step she had for me. Competitive gears shifting in my head, I undertook the challenge to outdo myself and to outdo the rest: to become a dancer.

After fours years of ballet, my insight into its world, its culture, only grew. Most boys my age thought that ballet was all about the tutus and the pliés. The truth is ballet’s hard-core. We, meaning the girls and me, had to master complex jumping movements, like Tour Jetés and Pas de Bourreés. If you don’t know what those are, just imagine a backwards leap while turning in the air. By the time the class learned this, I had become an exponentially better dancer, and was sometimes even called upon by Ms. Beyer – whom I had previously referred to as the Devil Lady – to demonstrate. This was years after I started, years after my first Ballet at Florence Gould Hall, the company’s performance space, years after I got my first black leggings and black ballet slippers. Slowly, gradually, I had assimilated into the dancers’ culture, and, also slowly, I had grown used to Ms. Beyer.

Ballet wasn’t all work and no fun. In fact when I was nine I met my first love: Helen. And as we twirled toward a working relationship, I learned a pretty important life lesson. Helen and I shared laughs together – real Kodak moments – and she was my first and only dance partner.

One day after class, Helen, my love, came up to me with a bright smile on her face. I was not the same person I had been a year ago, when I had first come to the school, and I didn’t shy away from her. I knew she liked me back. I faced her squarely – I was only a little shorter than she – and took a good long look at her. Her rosy cheeks topping her bright face were adorned with locks of gold down to her collar bone, and her bright blue eyes glistened like sapphires. “I have something I wanna ask you.” Her army of friends surrounded us, eagerly listening to what she was about to say.


“Would you like to join our cheese club?” She inquired breathlessly. I felt my heart beating in my chest, radiating in my throat.

“Did you just say a cheese club?”

“Well…ya, me and my friends really like cheese so…we decided to form a club. It’ll be real’ cool. We’ll get to talk about cheese!” she giggled, her laugh suffocating and paralyzing me at the same time.

I couldn’t breathe.

“Sure.” I whispered, for it was all I could manage. I raced out the heavy wooden door, and was silent all the way home.

A cheese club? They had to be kidding! Who did these people think they were kidding? They didn’t seem like prissy, Park Avenue types. I considered regurgitating my last meal, which had been, like all others prior, sans cheese. I could simply not believe that the girl of my dreams had a passion for cheese to the extent that she deemed it necessary to found a club that’s sole purpose was to celebrate its existence. Don’t get me wrong, I am not picky. In fact, I am sometimes complimented on my adventurous palette. Which does not include cheese.

Even though I did not know what gave these mini, Upper East Side snobs, the audacity to create such a club, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would have to deal with… it. It was inevitable if Helen and I were to save our relationship.

We managed. Both in our dance studies and after class, we not only were on good terms, but flashed one another smiles quite frequently. Finally, when Ms. Beyer had the class in pairs, Helen and I somehow ended up together. She whispered to me, “You take the lead… You’re better.” And when Ms. Beyer complimented us on our performance, Helen gave me a shy smile. This was the first time, I think, that Ms. Beyer recognized the natural chemistry between the two of us, and in performances to come we would be partnered, once even for a duet.

Our relationship advanced to the next level: we began to say stuff to each other! Before then, our messages were relayed through Helen’s protective militia of nine-year-old girls. This was annoying, and I was glad when Helen and I could finally speak face to face.

“Hi Michael,” she said softly.

“Hi Helen,” I said back, blushing.

“Hope it’s not too cold outside, I hear there’s a 60% chance of sleet.”

“I heard the same thing!” I blurted.

“Well… Bye!” And she left me there.

Now for the climax of the relationship, our duet: a Pas de Deux. Translation: a girl rests her arms on a guy’s shoulder with her leg bent behind her, while the guy leads her around in a circle, supporting her. Then, the guy takes both of her hands in his as she lifts her leg really high, both facing out towards the audience with the guy behind. Then comes the most romantic part: the guy puts his hands on the girl’s hips/tush, lifts her in the air, places her back down again, and then stands right behind her as she does an arabesque, hands still on her hips. Basically, it was an excuse for me to touch Helen, and I gladly accepted.

It was by far the closest physically I had gotten to any girl before, and was, therefore, a momentous occasion. And it culminated in an incredible performance.

But the event was the last time I ever set foot in that studio. I wanted to take dance to the next level at New York City Ballet by Lincoln Center. But I quickly regretted that decision.

On my first day, I approached a few girls, but I received only hostile glances and sharp words in response. “Oh. You’re in studio A-47, you probably just started here last week!” And it only got worse.

I might have had the patience to take the new challenge on, if I had not become injured. NYCB’s style favored extreme turn out in first position. My turn-out created a “V” shape instead because I am pigeon-toed. I physically couldn’t make the straight line: the more I tried, the worse my knee became.

My instructor Mr. Handenbury laid down the law: “You will not move up in level until you fix your turnout.” I was devastated. For months, I tried to. I tried as hard as anyone has ever tried for anything. But I physically couldn’t accomplish what he – and all of the other mad, cookie-cutter teachers there – wanted.

I had hit my first wall at age 10.

I was under way too much pressure. Even though I got the steps very quickly, I could never perform them with the satisfactory footwork. Soon Mr. Handenbury would stop at my section of the bar, and wait explicitly as I forced by feet into a straight line. He, probably more than anyone else, caused me to leave that class permanently injured.

Just when I was about to quit, I read the Student Message Board's list of students who were chosen to perform in Swan Lake—and my heart almost faltered. I was chosen!

“Just do whatever the scary lady tells you!” my friend Steven whispered as we stepped into a square, brightly lit room. Her Russian stare bored into our chests, and made us quake with fear. She beckoned rudely to the young woman who had escorted us.

“Why are there three?”

“One’ll be the understudy.” The woman nodded curtly and lined us up.

“I want you boys to go into first position, you know what that is?” We nodded. After looking at us for a while, she selected Henry and Steven, quickly telling me I was to be the understudy. My heart panged with disappointment, but I wanted to act professionally and try to learn the part all the same. It was only after I got home that I cried, because then I realized that she had judged us by our turnout. I only told my immediate family about it, but they could only sympathize. No one really understood my pain.

I was at NYCB for only another month afterwards. One day in class it dawned on me that I shouldn’t continue; I couldn’t do the steps the way NYCB wanted; and I was jealous of those who could.

As I left for good, I stopped to watch the older dancers move like clockwork, floating gracefully just above the ground. These were the ones on the level just below professional, this was the final product.

I would never be good enough.

At ballet, that is.
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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Visala Alagappan: Featured Writer of the Week VI

Today's Profile: Visala Alagappan

Whether it's a short story or a writing exercise, what Visala writes is poetry. Please celebrate her 2008 National Silver Key award from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards by reading her winning prose:

By Visala Alagappan
7th Grade

It was a frigid day. Nonetheless, the winter sun beat down on the earth, and shone into the girl’s room. The girl stood by the window, staring directly at the icicle hanging from the canopy outside her window. Her grandfather lay in the adjacent room, dying. She kept staring.

Her grandfather cried sharply, as a drop of water from the icicle hit the window ledge, like a hammer striking a nail. Her eyes relocated to a wooden chest in the corner of the room. A royal, navy blue cloth draped over it, covered with a magical print. Her eyes caught sight of a unicorn. It was white, with a lukewarm blue horn. The reins were golden, and the saddle was embroidered with a mosaic pattern of flowers.

Her grandfather rode it, leaping and galloping in the air. His hands sweat as he held the reigns securely in his right hand. In his left hand he gripped a book. It was the fantasy book he always used to read to her. A blue bird flew out of the book. It had an orange beak and sang a sweet song about freedom, hope, and happiness. So elated from escaping, the bird flew at such a speed, that in a matter of seconds it disappeared into the azure skies looming above.

At the same time, the unicorn gradually faded away. The horn vanished first, and then the body. The girl refocused her eyes on the icicle.

Her grandfather moaned, as a drop from the icicle hit the ledge, like glass hits a marble floor. Her eyes shifted to the chest in the corner of the room. She caught sight of a deep, red, and majestic dragon.

The dragon, wounded, lay beneath a substantial tree. Her grandfather stood beside the dragon. He generously gave the dragon medicine and herbs, hoping to heal its wings and sorrow. The dragon, determined, tried to fly over the succulent green grass. Unsuccessful, it hurried away, with the weight of her grandfather upon its back.

Her grandfather’s shrill voice echoed throughout the house again, while drops of water from the icicle dripped faster, like a waterfall cascading into the pool below. Her eyes moved to the chest in the corner of the room. She spotted a shooting star, as it streaked the rich, blue cloth.

Her grandfather dashed through the night sky, sitting on the luminous shooting star. He poured buckets of paint behind him, smudging the sky with pure colors. The radiant hues formed a rainbow behind him, lightening up the dark, night sky. Glittering sparks flew from his brush, showering the coal, black heavens.

Once again, the girl stared at the icicle.

Her grandfather screamed, as a drop of water from the icicle hit the ledge, like a tree falling down in a storm. The girl looked at the timber chest again. This time, her eyes caught sight of fishing net.

A variety of fish were caught in the net: Tunas, Catfish, Cods, Sea trout, and many more. However, the girl herself was also ensnared in the net. She cried for help, but no one could hear her. The net was hurled onto a ship, and the girl’s voice was lost in the commotion. The ship sailed across the turquoise ocean, towards the horizon, and disappeared.

The grandfather took his last breath. The girl’s eyes shifted to the corner of the room, where the chest still remained. However, the magical print seemed to vanish with the grandfather. She looked towards the canopy. All that remained of the icicle was a small puddle of water beneath where it used to be.
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Monday, April 7, 2008

Gabe Fisher: Featured Writer of the Week V!!

Today's Profile: Gabe Fisher

At first Gabe was not pleased about missing athletic activities at school in order to fit a writing workshop into his schedule. A) It wasn't his idea to join and B) Since he had never taken a creative writing class before he had no idea what to expect. But things changed once the workshop began. Gabe found that he was a natural memoirist with poignant stories to tell. In the end, he won the satisfaction of completing a beautifully written memoir, and a regional gold key from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He even signed up at will for the spring writing workshop and is at work on a second very powerful memoir. Please celebrate Gabe's accomplishments by reading his memoir:

Saying a Real Goodbye

By Gabe Fisher, 13

If someone walks into my room with my clothes spread all over my floor, and my desk covered with hundreds of papers and textbooks, the one object that would probably catch their attention is the miniature basketball hoop that stands in the middle of my room. No one would even find the little stuffed dog that lies humbly, squeezed in the crease between the bed and the wall.

This little brown dog, with its sagging ears and somber eyes, was given to me by my mom when I was in pre-k. At the time I had a great uncle that we visited frequently, and he used to call me “Butch.” (Only until very recently did I learn that he called almost every one be that name.) When I was given this stuffed animal I decided I wanted to have my very own Butch--so that's how my little brown stuffed dog received its name.

About a month later, we learned during dinner that my great uncle had passed away. We all started thinking to ourselves, but being the little five-year-old that I was, I ran straight to Butch. I remember grabbing him and bringing him back to the dining room and keeping him in my grasp for the rest of the meal.

I mostly forgot about Butch after that until I was 10, when my grandfather died after many years of suffering from Alzheimer’s. For a few days before his death I was informed of his deteriorating health. When I was told he died I was sitting next to my two brothers on the couch, stunned. After a few minutes I went back to my room and grabbed Butch and only then did the tears stream down my face.

A few years later during the last week of summer camp, my brother, a camp counselor, approached me and told me more dreadful news. Since he was a counselor, he was allowed to use his phone and was in constant contact with my parents. He took me aside and told me that my grandmother, who I had known had cancer for a while, was very ill and that she could possibly die before camp ends. I was startled; I had no idea how awful her condition was. For the last few weeks my brother had approached me continuously to ask me to write a letter to Granny, but I kept pushing it aside, giving him different excuses every day: Wait my friends want me to join them in a game of ultimate Frisbee. Maybe tomorrow, today I already have to write a letter. Ariel, I have to shower and then get dressed.

I did find one moment to write her a letter describing—briefly—my activities and my summer, thinking that I could tell her all about it when I got home.

Well a few days after my brother told me about my grandmother there was a special day planned for my bunk. We were going to have a day filled with exciting adventures at every turn: wake up early and pray at the beach; go to the water trampoline; take a trip to go mini-golfing, where we would eat lunch.

Upon our arrival back to camp we were taken to watch a movie in a new building that was open for the first time that year. After being in camp for almost two months, there is nothing better than a nice room with air conditioning and a big T.V. at this point my life was at its acme, sitting around with all my friends watching a hilarious movie. Towards the end of the movie I saw my brother waiting outside through the window. When I saw him I began to fret about what he was here for, and my gut feeling told me that it was probably not for the best reason. The movie ended and I went outside and he pulled me aside and sat me down, this time with worse news. He said that Granny had died and that I had a choice to go with him that night, or to go the next afternoon with our neighbor, who was also a counselor at camp. I decided to cherish my last moments of camp and I told him that I would stay.

All day long I had kept my grandmother in the back of my head, with every stroke of my club during mini-golfing I saw my grandmother. I was worried. I was thinking what I was doing there if granny might have died while I am enjoying myself. I was wondering what will it be like without Granny, how will it affect my life and my family. My father was very close with my Grandmother and would regularly drive or bike out to New Jersey from our home in Manhattan to visit her. I was scared that maybe he would be very upset and would need a lot of comforting.

One time earlier that year, with much convincing from my Mother and Father, I decided to bike out with my Father to my Grandmother’s house. It was a Sunday afternoon and we decided to take our time. Since I am an amateur biker, we decided to bike there and leave the bikes there and drive back. My Grandmother and Aunt were already planning on coming into the city that night to eat dinner with us, they were going to drive us back. The way there was tough. We rode over the George Washington Bridge and then through traffic all the way into the uncivilized suburbs of New Jersey. Although it was a long and strenuous ride, I felt that it was all worth it to spend quality time with my Grandmother and aunt. When we arrived my Grandmother and Aunt where relaxing in the kitchen of the house watching the national spelling bee on the small TV. I sat down and began to watch with them.

“aesculapian, aesculapian”, the moderator would say, in his crystal clear, mechanical sounding voice.

Then we would hear an unconfident whispered question from the contestant, “definition, please?”

Immediately we would start spelling the word in a thousand different ways,
mostly wrong, and then laugh when we saw how many different vowels we left out of the word.

A few months later, my grandmother approached me and asked if I wanted to go see this movie about a spelling bee with her. She told me that the movie was called “Akeelah and the Bee” and that it got great reviews. I replied, “I will try sometime soon, but right now I have a lot of homework, so when there is a weekend that I’m free I would love to see it with you.

Well the homework just kept coming and so did my weekly reply to my grandmother’s question.

These were the thoughts swirling in my head torturing me with every hole in one I shot. Memories that I felt would haunt me forever. Nothing could be changed now, as hopeless as the golf ball being hit by the aluminum club.

Right after I found out that my Grandmother had passed away, I had a long Frisbee catch with my brother and this boy in my bunk. When I finally entered my bun, all my friends had been informed by my counselors and they quietly tried to comfort me while I packed my bags. When I gave my bags to my brother, who was taking them home that night, I went out to the big field a where a bunch of girls were jokingly playing with a Frisbee. I ran on to the field and grabbed it in mid-air and started playing keep-away with them. They ran around, to no avail, trying to steal the Frisbee from me. I had told them when I entered what had happened and they tried to act normal but
I sensed that they were struggling to find a proper way to treat me. They said their condolences but after that they tried to find a balance between treating me with sorrows, or acting as if nothing had happened except the latest gossip. When we were called for dinner we stopped what we were doing and we slowly went to the other side of camp for the weekly Wednesday night barbecue. While waiting in line to receive hamburgers, I found myself waiting on line with my good friend. I told her what happened and I was greeted with a laugh. She didn’t believe me. When I went to get ketchup, her mother, a guidance counselor, approached me to find out how I was doing. Still on my side, my friend stood with her mouth dropped and apologized and gave me a hug.

Later that night my friends decided to throw a party for my last night in camp and a lot of kids were sitting on the beds surrounding my area. One of my best friends was joking around with people and refused to give anyone a Twizzler unless they read every word written on the cover of the bag. “Elan, may I please have a Twizzler, artificially flavored, net worth…” suddenly out of anger I reached out and grabbed one. He covered it up by saying “he can have one because it’s his last night.”

The next day I was sitting around with my friends when I was told I was leaving. I had been keeping track of time because I knew I would have to go soon. I stood up and everyone told me they would follow me to the front office to say their final good-byes. They all gave me a group hug and then I was herded into a massive van. When I reached the station with our friend who was taking me home we quickly boarded the train and soon after she was fast asleep. I sat on the train for two hours struggling to finish a book.

I finally got home late that night and felt very uncomfortable in the unfamiliar environment. My mother was the only one home because my siblings and my father were at my grandmother’s house. I sat on their bed as my mother explained to me, “your father is very upset and when he comes home you should give him a hug and ask him how he is doing.” I promised her I would and walked back to my room. My eye caught Butch hidden in the corner and I grabbed him and I looked out the window. I started to remember stories about my grandmother when suddenly I remembered the last time I saw her.

“Gabriel, Granny and Aunty Em are gonna be visiting soon. When they come, say 'hello,'” my dad yelled to me.

While simultaneously talking to my friends online, I assured him that I would.
Gabef33:yeah I am so excited for camp!
Ekfootball49: but I haven’t started packing yet and my mom is always screaming at me to start.

Within 30 seconds, and I heard Granny and Aunty Em at the door. I decided to make my appearance two minutes later.

I came in coughing from my developing cold. As soon as I walked in my Aunt told me not to touch my grandmother. “You really shouldn’t be spreading those germs on her.” I said my hellos and went back to my room. I was surprised by their strong reaction, but didn't take it personally. I didn't want to get anyone sick.

It was a short visit and my father told me to come back to say, 'goodbye.' I stuck my head out the door and yelled my goodbyes. Before I turned my back, my father asked me to go down to the lobby to say a real goodbye: “You’re probably not going to see granny until after camp.”

“No, it’s OK,” I responded. I figured that since I was sick I wasn’t allowed to touch her so what's the point of going downstairs to say, 'goodbye.' My wave will mean the same upstairs on the 8th floor as it does in the lobby.

I walked back into my room as I heard the door slam shut.

I stood in my room trying to remember my grandmother. Trying to stop my grandmother from leaving. Trying to put my foot out in front of the door and grab my grandmother and hug her for one last time. But all I could do was tighten my grip on little Butch.
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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Rafi Ellenson: Featured Writer of the Week IV!!

Today's Profile: Rafi Ellenson

I don't know what Rafi loves more: making people laugh or inspiring people to think. Please celebrate Rafi's regional gold key by reading his memoir:

Mini-Coopers and Philosophy Shampoo
By Rafi Ellenson, 13

Let me just say this to get it out of the way. I am not a masculine guy. Not feminine per se, but certainly not masculine. My friend Zoe, who I’ve known since I was three months old, sites as proof my love of feminine things, particularly Mini-Coopers and Philosophy Shampoo. She believes that Mini-Cooper cars exude femininity and, in fact, Rolling Stone magazine would agree with her. In their review for the Mini they said the car was for “Anglophiles, club kids, hipster girls,” and of course “dudes in touch with their feminine sides.” That was clearly meant as a cruel low blow for all men who love Minis. While I don't take offense at it, it’s hardly what a thirteen-year-old boy wants to hear.

And concerning Philosophy shampoos, their femininity in no way stops me from loving them. Who couldn’t resist shampoo that smells like brownies and cinnamon buns? I mean seriously. True, it is found in women's stores like Sephora, but what’s a guy to do if his sister and friend drag him in there in his first visit to his home city in two years?

You see, I lived in Los Angeles for the first eight years of my life so me and my family sometimes go back for vacation. You know, to see old friends and just be there. Zoe was a part of these old friends. So, my sister took me and her to a mall just to hang out and be with each other; to do fun stuff like that.

But it was when we got to the parking lot of the mall that the gender division first started to occur: I surprisingly showed myself to be manly. namely by not caring about clothes, if that is in fact manly. Zoe was gushing with excitement over her dress for her Bat Mitzvah, let me just say it was about five months away at the time, and my sister was very much excited too. I was entirely indifferent as you might guess but then Zoe told me,

“Rafi, you have to care it’s Mark Jacobs!”

“Who?” I responded

“Rafi, think of it as the Anti-Target.” My sister Ruthie explained.

I didn’t understand what that meant but I nodded as if I did because I really didn’t want to delve into the subject further. So we continued walking to the escalator to leave the parking lot I saw a car I had never seen before but was struck by its beauty and exclaimed,

“I love that car! What kind is it, Ruthie?” I asked my older sister. I was going out of my mind.

“It's a Mini-Cooper, Rafi,” she said.

“I've decided... That's my favorite car.”

Zoe, fully aware that I am not a big car guy, interjected: “Rafi you can’t like that car... It’s a girl car.”

I had absolutely no clue what that meant. First off, that’s a relatively sexist comment that I wouldn’t have expected from Zoe. Secondly, I don’t believe there can be something that’s a girl car. And thirdly, why should it matter if it is a girl car? I was totally befuddled by this. And even more importantly, why did I even care so much? I was offended and I didn’t even know why.
What made this whole conflict worse was that my sister agreed with Zoe that it is slightly girly. However, she did say one of her good male friends, Adam Rubin, owned a Mini-Cooper.

On the way up the escalator we continued to argue. I used every tool in my arsenal to get them on my side: I said that it’s for men so in touch with their manliness that they can drive a car like that (which, come to think of it might have reinforced their original point). But this defense did not yield a truly satisfactory response.
I basically, then, let them talk among themselves until they said the dreaded words: “Let’s go to Sephora.” I immediately argued virulently against them but they convinced me with a bribe: Philosophy Shampoos, my one true weakness.

See, I usually stay with my sister and her husband when I’m in Los Angeles and in their shower they always have these shampoos. So I went inside but became bored in about five seconds; I couldn’t find the shampoo. But when my sister guided me in the right direction, I was thrilled: I discovered there were even more wonderful “flavors!” Kiwi, Fudge, Gingerbread--it was the holiday season--what more could someone want? But of course, once I found the shampoos and the girls found me, Zoe again went into her mad tirade that in a nutshell sounded like: “It’s a girly thing! You can’t and shouldn’t enjoy it!”

Feh, what does she know?

As we joined the check-out line, our simple argument turned into an all out feud with me finally having to resort to asking people their views. My first victim had the right idea: “I don't think Philosophy Shampoos are girly! In fact my boyfriend uses them.” I immediately started rubbing her answer in Zoe’s face. Since I thought I had found a friend, I of course asked for her thoughts on the Mini-Cooper.

“Well yeah, I guess they're kind of girly.” Damn, filthy traitor. I felt stabbed in the back, and what made it worse was Zoe rubbing it right back in my face.

But suddenly a big black guy who seemed to be in his 40s or 50s appeared with Philosophy shampoos in hand. I though to myself: This is a man who will definitely further my point. I asked him if he was buying those shampoos for himself and he responded with a: “Yes, I do really love them.”

I was quite content at this and took it upon myself to follow up with a question about his opinion on Mini-Coopers.

“They are quite nice looking... I do like them... My friend even owns one.”
Feeling ecstatic, I went the extra mile and asked him if his friend was a guy.
“Well, no,” DAMN IT, “But I still quite like them.”

This guy was more help than the woman but he pretty much just shut me down. Needless to say, Zoe felt more comfortable than ever annoying me for liking “girl things.” But I just ignored it and I felt as though it is something I should show with pride-- even if it might be slightly embarrassing. (Well, maybe.) The rest of the afternoon was pretty standard: we saw a bad movie and we both went home with the argument still not resolved.

Finally, my ultimate reward came later that week when Ruthie convinced her friend Adam Rubin to take us for a drive in his Mini-Cooper. It was like a sleek jet on the inside. Seriously, the front seat was like a cockpit: it had a huge speedometer, countless switches, and an array of colorful buttons. Also, it ain’t too shabby from the outside with its bright navy veneer and and single black stripe across the hood. Even if I don’t know much about cars, I know when I enjoy one.

But one thing remained unresolved for me: Why did I care about the girls' declaration about what is inherently “girly” and my shampoo and car preferences?

First of all, let's look at how I was raised: I have a mom who is a famous rabbi who has, among other things, contributed to a book of feminist commentary on the Torah; I have three much older sisters; and I learned how to read from “Free to be You and Me.” (William’s Doll, anyone?) I guess you could say I had a “femininity-friendly” upbringing.

I don’t see myself as a particularly feminine person but I guess others do. Which in a way is fine by me because I don't want to be the stereotype of the “typical man.” Is there even such a thing as a “typical man?” I don’t know anyone in my life who is even remotely like this stereotype. It seems like an impossible and stupid type of thing. If being “manly” means you have to be gruff and aggressive all the time then count me out. (My mom always does say I am a “sensitive flower.”)

Maybe I should look at my male role models. I think every man I know is an intellectual--and that's great. I love it that they are all smart: rabbis, professors, lawyers, the list goes on and on. I have never once in my life even wanted to trade these people for a supposed “manly” role model.

I guess that's why the fact that I might not be “manly” doesn’t depress me. It doesn’t mean I feel like an outcast, unusual, or weird; In general, it doesn’t even make me upset.
Except when people use it as an insult.

It’s as though they are trying to make a perfectly fine and normal—maybe even good—thing, into something wrong. And that, dear reader, seems like a waste.

I've often heard friends--who are girls--complain that guys aren't sensitive enough, that they don't care enough about their feelings, that they're too aggressive. Now my question is: If that's wrong, how can being sensitive, caring about feelings, and not being aggressive, be wrong?

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Emma Goldberg: Featured Writer of the Week III!!

Today's Profile: Emma Goldberg

Emma Goldberg is one of Writopia Lab's most prolific writers. Emma submitted five exceptional pieces to the Scholastic writing event this year including a memoir, three short stories, and a "short, short" story. In turn, she won multiple regional keys from Scholastic and earned a national gold key for the poetic and profound piece below. In a few days I will post one of my other favorites of hers as well. Please celebrate Emma's precocious talent by reading her award-winning prose:

My Rose Garden
By Emma Goldberg

Every summer since I can remember I would board the plane all by myself, feeling very mature despite my conspicuous “Unaccompanied Minor” tag. I would order a plane meal, more out of habit than need, and then pig out on M&Ms, Oreos, Doritos, and any other junk food I could sneak into my bags.

Grandma’s house was the kind of cottage I think Snow White might have lived in. It was at the edge of a small town, population less than 5,000. The petite wood frame was given a fresh coat of white paint every year, whether or not one was needed. The steps were sagging and had just the right amount of space beneath them to form the perfect hide-and-go-seek spot.

But Grandma’s garden, her pride and joy, beat all. It was perpetual and beautiful, a little world of lilacs, tulips, lilies, and every other flower imaginable. My favorites were the roses. They were red, romantic red, the kind boys give to girls before prom. I would pick them and make them into bracelets and dance around the garden, fancying myself in a beautiful Cinderella gown waltzing into a ballroom. I loved the smell of earth and roses. Sometimes I would water the garden and pull weeds but I wouldn’t wash my hands, I would just lie on a blanket of soft grass, inhaling the scent of romance and daydreams.

Summers at Grandma’s were the highlight of my year. Grandma forbid worries over homework, healthy foods, or anything of the sort. My days were filled with blueprints for tree houses in Grandma’s tall oak tree and rounds of hide-and-go-seek, which would finally end when Grandma admitted defeat and I would crawl out of the cellar, the trees, or a closet.

Every morning Grandma would wake me at 8:00 on the dot. We would milk Old Betsy, her cow, whose residence was the ramshackle shed behind the house. Her milk was sour and she threw a fit when anyone but Grandma tried to milk her but Grandma kept her, just the same. After my chores we would enter the swinging doors to the cozy kitchen. On the table there would be plates full of steaming hot cakes and home fries.

Grandma’s world was a magical world, filled with magical people. I still remember the summer I met Katelyn. I was kneeling in the garden, smelling the lilacs when a voice piped up behind me.

“My name’s Katelyn. What’s your name?” It was a slight dark skinned girl, not much older than I. Her face was smudged with grime and her eyes were bright and glimmering.

“Eleanor Francis Cooper. You c’n call me Ellie, though. ‘s what most people do. ‘Cept Grandma.”

“Watcha doin?”

“Smelling the flowers. Here.” I stuck a lilac under her nose. Somehow, even the strangers at Grandma’s were not to be feared. It was the aura of her world.

“Mmm. Smells good. Like birthday cake. I always liked flowers. I mean, they’re real pretty. I always wondered why only some humans were pretty but all flowers are pretty.”

“Roses are the prettiest though. If God had a scent I think he would smell like roses.”

“You believe in God?” I was appalled by her question. My Sunday school teacher said you would go to Hell if you didn’t believe in God and if you didn’t say your prayers.

“Of course. It’s a sin not to believe in God.”
“Yeah but seems to me that if God were still around things would be a lot different. Like all them wars and stuff wouldn’t happen.” Her eyes were studying the ground as her fingers weaved through the silky soil.

“Eleanor! Eleanor Francis!” Grandma’s bare feet padded down the pathway to the oasis of flowers. “Oh, hello Katelyn. It is so nice to see you over here.”

“Hullo, Miss Cooper.” Katelyn’s eyes studied the ground intently and her nervous fingers fidgeted with a rose thorn.

“Girls come in and have some lemonade. Must be 100 degrees out here.” Grandma fanned her flushed face with a pale flapping arm. We followed her down the path and into the small kitchen. Katelyn pulled from the pocket of her denim shorts a crumbling cookie. She handed half to me and I nibbled at it slowly.

“You know…” Katelyn’s thoughtful eyes were hard at work. “I think we’re gonna be friends. Dontchu?”

Well, Katelyn’s prophecy was right. Katelyn and I would have races down the dirt road and jump into the creek with all our clothes on. We would collect earthworms and keep them in old Jam jars until one jar broke and the earthworms escaped. Grandma was not too pleased. Worm collecting stopped shortly after that.

But Grandma never said a word when we came back covered in dust, insects, soil, and the fragrance of smiles. She would simply pull out the big hose and water us down like we were flowers in her garden.

Grandma was a Fairy Godmother. She could make even the most tedious chore interesting. While washing the dishes I was Cinderella and I had to finish all of my chores before midnight so the pumpkin could come and whisk me away to the ball. While cooking dinner I was preparing a banquet to celebrate the coming of the Queen; of course everything was made to perfection so we would not be executed by Her Majesty.

My favorite game was hide-and-go-seek. Grandma’s house provided endless nooks and crannies, perfect for a seven-year-old to crawl into. One time Grandma, Katelyn, and I, the Three Musketeers, were playing and I crawled into the bushes next to the gate. I sat, curled up in a ball, waiting for someone to find me. The clouds were a brilliant array of grays and indigos, spreading themselves across the sky, like the painting in Grandma’s kitchen. My position was rather uncomfortable and I squirmed around, trying to avoid the thorns and bristles. Suddenly and without warning raindrops began to pummel down, pelting me and choking me like the cackle of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Far off in the distance I heard Grandma’s deep, straight-from-the-belly laugh that never failed to bring a smile to my face and produce a certain tingle behind my belly-button. Had they forgotten me? I stood up but was immediately pulled back down; my shirt had fallen into the clutches of a branch. I was trapped. I thrashed around wildly, my screams of terror filling the churning air.

“Grandma! Katelyn! Help!” Tears poured down my cheeks, mixing with the raindrops to form tiny rivers.

I felt strong hands pulling at me from two directions and then I was being carried towards the house.

“Eleanor, sweetie, it’s us. Oh poor darling. My goodness that was a good hiding spot.” Grandma’s hand pushed away strands of hair from my face and I melted into her arms.

“Ellie, are you gonna die?” Katelyn’s solemn voice was a whisper, filled with unspoken terror. I mulled over this and was about to speak and conclude that no, I was feeling much better thank you, but Grandma spoke first.

“No, sweetheart, Ellie’s going to be fine.” The laughter in her voice bewildered both Katelyn and I. “You know what I think you two need?”


“Some hot chocolate and sugar cookies.”

We agreed wholeheartedly. We clambered to the kitchen and sat around the table, letting the warmth engulf our bodies. Grandma kindled a fire and from the depths of the linen closet produced three downy quilts to wrap us up in, like Christmas presents, sitting three in a row on the deep brightly colored sofa. I nestled into Grandma sniffing her special aroma: cinnamon, soil, and laughter.

My summers were Grandma, Katelyn, and the roses until the summer of 5th grade when my friend Alison called.

“A bunch of us are going to this camp in the Berkshires. Amanda’s sister went there and said it was really cool. You should come.” Her tone was blasé, but somehow demanded immediate response

I was silent. Camp? In the Berkshires? With all my friends? The house with a white wood frame floated into my memory. I could see my friends all year. But an awful image popped into my head. All the inside jokes, all the memories… what if they wouldn’t want to hang out with me next year? I could always go to Grandma’s next summer. No one went to their Grandma’s house over the summer. Yesterday I had told my friend Dara of my summer plans and she had laughed.

“You stay at your Grandma’s house during the summer? That’s cute. I did that when I was, like, five, but my older brother said that its babyish. Besides no one else goes to their grandma’s. I mean, I guess except you. Its okay though.” I didn’t want to be part of the “except”. Grandma said the worst thing you can do to yourself is lose your soul in the everyone else. But what does Grandma know? She lives in a cottage, owns a cow, and still plays hide-and-go-seek even though she’s old. Old. The ugliest word I know.

“Sounds like fun.” My voice was a squeak, small and hollow.
“’Kay, cool. I’ll call you later with the registration stuff and everything. See ya.”
What would Grandma say? I remember the shrill ring of the telephone and Mother’s sugary voice, not real sweet, more like sweet’n’low.

“Oh, Rosaline, Ellie wont be able to come this summer.” Pause. “Yes she’s got so much homework… I’m sorry. Yes I’m sure… Yes I know you were looking forward to it… Okay, I’ll give her your regards.” When Mother hung up the phone that time it sounded heavier than usual. I forced back a stray tear. Dara’s older brother told her no one above the age of ten is allowed to cry. When I told mom she laughed but what does she know? She was born in, like, the Stone Age.

Grandma didn’t call the summer of 8th grade. I remember ‘cause I had come home from graduation, I was lying sprawled on my floor, so covered with clothing you couldn’t see the wood, and I was thinking about how Grandma’s house was better for daydreaming. And then I realized Grandma always called in May. And July was nearing, the phone hadn’t rang, and maybe Grandma wouldn’t call this summer. My fingers clenched, my heart worming around in my chest, my soul writhing around. Like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece. You say the one piece doesn’t matter but it does. It makes all the difference. There was an emotion in me that I couldn’t identify, bubbling in the pit of my stomach so I labeled it “anger”. And I ripped up the letter Grandma had sent me, elegant cursive on smooth pink paper, the scent of Grandma’s house lingering on its corners, tacked to a bulletin board for safe-keeping. But the tiny shreds of pink gave me no satisfaction. Cause even when the letter was thrown in the recycling bin, the phone didn’t ring, Grandma didn’t care.

But, the summer of 9th grade she called.

“Eleanor?” Her voice sounded raspier than I remembered, like each syllable dragged a heavy weight with it, sucking strength and energy and replacing it with age.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“I haven’t seen you in a while dear. Your mother sent me pictures of your school dance. My, you look so grown up.” Grandma never forced happiness into her voice… it came naturally. But now her voice seemed empty, hollow, filled up with dead air.

“Oh, thanks Grandma. Sorry I haven’t been down to visit. I’ve been busy.”

“Could you come down this summer?”

“I don’t know if I’ll get a chance Grandma… you know, camp and everything.”

“Just for a week. The garden doesn’t look as nice when you’re not here to water it with that extra spritz of love. And Katelyn misses you. You should see her. She’s taller than me now and beautiful too.” I felt a tinge of jealousy, like a worm, crawling into my stomach, leftover from the summer-must have been four years ago- when Katelyn and I collected them in a jar.

“Okay Grandma. I’ll come.” I got my plane tickets for the last week of the summer. However, in the middle of August my plans were altered with the ring of the telephone. It was thunder storming and the winds whispered amongst themselves, shaking out raindrops onto people’s heads. The telephone’s shrill ring startled us. It had an ominous tone to it. Mother picked it up. I heard the low buzz of chatter and then an empty cry.

Grandma had died in her sleep.

I took a plane to the small town in Montana, population less than 5,000. The paint on Grandma’s house was chipped and the garden was wilting and sagging under the weight of tears.

I went down the road to Katelyn’s small ramshackle house.
“Hey.” My voice was heavy, but only a whisper.

“You never came back.” She traced letters into the worn soil with her toe. E for Eleanor. G for Grandma. S for summer. G for gone.

“I’m sorry.”

“I waited and waited and hoped and every summer I would come sit by the road waiting for your car but you never came. Why?”

“I wrote…” Sometimes.

“You said in your letters you would come visit.”

“Oh Katie…”

“I kept thinking you were gonna come back.”

“I had other stuff…”

“More important stuff?” No.

“And now my childhood’s all gone,” I whispered. Katelyn was tall and beautiful. Her dark wispy hair fell in cascades around her face. “Sorry, Katelyn.” I hugged her and our tears mixed on our cheeks, hers dark, mine light and creamy.
After that Katelyn never called, never wrote. I don’t think I did either. I never saw her again.

I walked back to Grandma’s and into the house. It still bore the perfume of cinnamon, soil, and laughter, Grandma’s special scent. On her mantle, she had neat rows of photographs. A frame made out of Popsicle sticks with the words “I love Grandma” printed in my messy pink scrawl. A frame made of cardboard with “To my adopted Grandma” printed across the bottom in Katelyn’s neat print, a blue felt-tip pen. A picture of a little pale girl in a coral jumper and a toothy grin. A picture of a dark tall teenager with a subtle smile, and wispy hair. A picture of me, five years old, my head buried in Grandma’s neck. A picture of Katelyn, thirteen years old, laughing, her head resting on Grandma’s shoulder. That was my shoulder, I whispered, but then I realized that I had probably given up my ownership of it with simple twisted words. “I’ve been busy” “other stuff”. Ugly words, slimy words, crawling over my tongue.

I walked outside and touched the oak tree. I knelt in the soil, dark like hot cocoa, warm like breath on a cheek, nested in a couch in between a grandma and a friend. I whispered though no one could hear me, except maybe God. Or maybe Katelyn was right. Maybe there was no God, cause if there was maybe people would plant flowers instead of hate, and whisper instead of yell, and maybe Grandma wouldn’t have died…
I listened to the secret sounds of Grandma’s. I heard summer coming and shrieks of laughter as two young girls sat under an oak tree and whispered unforgivable thoughts. I listened to summer coming again and an old woman kissing her granddaughter as she arrived, dragging suitcases stuffed to the brim. I listened to the sound of rain on the roof and a crackling fire. I listened to smiles and wrinkles, hotcakes and earthworms. I listened to a childhood. I listened to a childhood slipping out of the worm jar, out of the hot cocoa mug, out of Grandma’s house. Listening to sweet sounds, like memories, like chewing gum, resting on your tongue till it loses its taste.

I listened to my own cries. I listened to a tired old woman and I listened to a lively young girl. I listened to a magical world. And I listened to the perfume of romance and daydreams. I listened to the scent of Grandma’s roses.
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