By Sue Botos
Being bombarded with accounts of violence and cruelty each day by the media or from each other, it sometimes can be tough for young people to be optimistic, or to find a role model. But two Rocky River Middle School students put their feelings of hope into words and have been named finalists in the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage “Stop the Hate: Youth Speak Out!” essay contest.
Laura DeVito and Kim Taylor are two of three eighth-grade finalists, and will find out where they placed during a recognition ceremony at Severance Hall in Cleveland on May 2. More than 1,600 sixth- through 12th-graders from seven counties competed for $100,000 in scholarships and prizes, with three students each from grades six through 10 being named finalists. They can win $100, $200 or $300, depending on their final placement. Ten high school junior and senior finalists will vie for three scholarships by giving oral presentations at the ceremony.
Middle school English teacher Susan Weber explained in a recent interview that the essays were part of a graded class assignment, and that all were submitted to the Maltz Museum contest. “I’m looking for them to have an audience other than me, and to give them an opportunity to express themselves,” Weber said. She added that this is the fourth consecutive year that the middle school has produced finalists, and the second time two students have been recognized.
Both girls were surprised at their recognition, stating that there are so many good writers in their class. DiVito, sporting crutches due to a soccer injury, said that she could tell by the postage that she might be receiving good news. “I looked at the envelope and there was 66 cents in postage, and my mom said, ‘They don’t send that to everyone,’” she recalled.
It took a little longer for Taylor to receive her news. Not certain of what it contained, her packet ended up in that “pile” that accumulates on counters in every family’s home. “I found out before she did,” recalled Weber. “I got Laura and she told her. That was a nice surprise.”
According to information provided by the museum, the purpose of the contest was to focus teens’ attention on the effects of hatred, discrimination and intolerance, while developing critical thinking, problem solving and communications skills. While the two students’ essays dealt with different situations, they shared the common thread of family members helping each other.
DeVito explained her essay. “It was about how my sister was bullied in grade school and how my other sister stuck up for her. She’s my role model,” DeVito said of her sister Mary, now a sophomore at Rocky River High School.
Taylor said that her work was about “a boy with a disability who was bullied and how one boy in his family helped him through it.”
“It’s all about not being a bystander and knowing that you can have a part in change,” Weber added. She noted that the class essays were to “reflect on a moment of hatred and absorb personal responsibility.” Both essays, according to Weber, focused on the entire family unit, and how a child was guided toward being a friend to another child who is troubled.
Weber said the essay assignment tied in with a class unit about the Holocaust. She said that the Holocaust Museum will be a destination during the annual eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. “Once you have gone there, you don’t want to go back, but everyone should see it. It changes your life,” Weber remarked.
Taylor pointed out that there are two sides to the bullying problem. “More people are aware of it, but there are so many more ways to bully now, like cyberbullying. They keep adding more ways to bully,” she stated.
Weber noted that much hatred comes from fear. While both students felt that the world can be a scary place, people shouldn’t live in fear. “It’s better to experience than to be fearful,” DeVito said.