When you ask middle-school students to write about the impact of violence on their lives, the results are laced with cognitive dissonance.
Their subject matter is sobering, their personal experiences are heartbreaking, yet their writing voices are sweet and hopeful. And reading their essays often feels like the body blows that 13-year-old Della Gaynor of Greenacres recounted in her award-winning essay.
“I have been punched and kicked, but I have also been assaulted by words,” wrote Della, a seventh grader at Okeeheelee Middle School. “A story was spread around my elementary school about me and it was disgusting and hurtful. I heard this story from one of my classmates, but she did not use my name. She used a ‘code name,’ as they called it.
“I later found out that the story was really about me and I was hurt so horribly that I cried for three days. I felt like no one cared about me and I was not cared about or loved.”
Della’s first-person account of her own bullying won first place for girls in the National Campaign to Stop Violence’s countywide “Do the Write Thing Challenge” contest. Her Okeeheelee classmate, Brandon Schloss, was the top boys’ winner.
More than 24,000 sixth, seventh and eighth graders from 30 schools in Palm Beach County entered the contest, and 282 were selected as finalists by panels of local educators, law enforcement and judicial leaders. With their parents, teachers and principals, the finalists will attend an invitation-only Monday luncheon at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. Players from the Harlem Globetrotters will perform, and a Youth Empowerment Center-produced video will profile the top six award recipients.
The celebration will continue in July, when Della and Brandon join other winners from across the country on an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C.
“The goal here is to recognize that violence has affected everybody, and it’s particularly bad on young people,” says West Palm Beach trial attorney Bill Bone, chairman of the challenge’s county steering committee.
“I have witnessed through my own children, and in society as a whole, that everybody seems to be numb nowadays to violence,” he says. “As a parent, as a father – I’ve got four teenagers right now in four different high schools – it’s impossible to regulate it all. It’s impossible to preven the exposure to violence. It’s out there.”
And it’s an epidemic that must be discussed, he says.
In his essay, 13-year-old Brandon, of Wellington, who plays travel baseball and belongs to the National Junior Honor Society, explained how he will try to act as a role model to other young people: “I will tell them how hitting a baseball on one of my baseball teams is more rewarding than hitting another person as a member of a gang. I will tell them that hitting the books for good grades is more rewarding than hitting others.”
(Weird coincidence: Della and Brandon sit at the same table in language arts. “I think it’s really cool,” Brandon says. “Actually, I don’t know that that’s ever been done before. It’s impressive.”)
Brandon has never been directly affected by violence, but he found inspiration after seeing a newspaper article about a young Lantana man charged with murdering a teenager in an argument over a bike.
“The three of us are close in age and lived within miles of each other; yet, our paths will never cross,” writes Brandon. “While I will have the opportunity to graduate high school and college, have a career, get married and have children, two youths not very much older than myself will never have the same opportunity. … I wish this was an isolated incident but unfortunately in my county, my state and in my country, there are many similar acts of senseless violence involving youth.”
The solution to this epidemic of violence? Working together, says Brandon. “Even if it’s just including someone in your group or helping somebody or standing up for people, anything helps.”
Della, who wants to be a lawyer when she grows up (“I love arguing with people, and I’m good at it,” she says), knows that firsthand.
She says she dealt with another bullying incident last year with the help of her mother and two good friends at school. “They noticed there was something wrong with me and that I wasn’t being myself. They would sit and listen to me and be there for me.”