The huge notebook landed on my desk late last year, exploding with entries for the Martin Luther King Jr. essay and speech contest. In my ninth year as a judge, I knew the drill: Read each one looking for innovation, organization, context and effective writing by our middle-school and high school students.
As I began turning the pages, I suddenly realized these essays had a new feel. In just one year, the young writers have overwhelmingly embraced social media in every facet.
How was Dr. King getting his message out?
Text messages. Facebook and MySpace. Tweeting. YouTube. Webcast concerts. Oprah DVDs. Dr. King would have real-time worldwide impact today. And newspapers and magazines would capture the results for lasting impact.
As I continued reading, however, I began hearing a much deeper change in many of the essays. These kids were delivering the same harsh message:
They have seen the carnage. They are living the violence that Dr. King strove to vanquish. And they’re demanding we do something to change their futures.
What happened in 2009 to bring such a sharper edge to their words? Nina Berithova, an 11th-grader at Bayshore High, was one of many to shed light on this:
“Just this past year, I have learned how violence can change a whole community. My high school was affected by the death of two students. Dejuan Williams and Jasmine Thompson were both shot and killed — two months apart. I knew Dejuan. He was a great person who could make anyone smile.. . This event blew an enormous hole in the hearts of the community. Then Jasmine’s death happened, and everyone knew these horrid events had to be stopped.”
The students wrote frankly about how guns have become commonplace in their world.
“There are more kids with guns these days than adults, and they are mainly used to commit crimes,” wrote Ayriell Sanders, an eighth-grader at Lincoln Memorial Middle School.
And they marveled at how adults play blind, deaf and dumb when the solution is obvious.
Tristan Jones, a Braden River sixth-grader, wrote eloquently about how Dr. King would protect the Second Amendment, but still fight to get weapons out of the hands of gangs and murderers. “He would persuade Americans to get rid of their guns and let America’s military and national guard keep us safe,” Tristan declared.
The young essayists didn’t focus as much this year on race — the violence in our community has no ethnic barriers, they pointed out. Instead, they searched for solutions to end all discrimination — which should, noted first-place winners Jordan Sanders, Alisha Erozer and many others, equate to the end of violence.
“Violence has turned into horrid events. Gun shootings, murders, kidnapping, beatings, home invasions... The saddest part about that is most of these things happen with kids in middle and high school.”
Kelsey Ritchie penned these words, and she’s only a sixth-grader at Braden River Middle School. What will she be witnessing when she reaches high school?
That’s where the joyous hope of youth comes to the rescue. Briana Lutzi, another sixth-grader at Haile Middle, wrote one of the spunkier essays, with Dr. King in the throes of today’s technology.
Briana’s essay opens with a friend getting MLK’s text message against racial profiling. Friends on opposite sides of the world then join MLK’s cause as Facebook fans. A boy beats his depression over discrimination by Tweeting and finding support. A YouTube video makes anti-discrimination an “internet sensation.” And a rap star’s lyrics bring them all together, “so many people of so many races.”
From our homeboy MLK
He gave us these words to say
Talkin’ ’bout equality
Our difference isn’t poverty…
MLK made us think
There is not a weakest link
In our united world’s chain
We should all be treated the same...
The result, Briana writes, is their dream come true:
“Dr. MLK Jr. watched and sang along with pride in his eyes.”
What are you doing to take a stance against violence, and making a change in our community? These young people want to know. They deserve a unified answer. And they want to lead the way.
Joan Krauter, executive editor, can be reached at (941) 748-0411, ext. 2000.