The 2009-2010 Essay Contest Winners:
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Place

High School Division

First Place

Kelly Weber
Grade 12
Battle Creek High School
Battle Creek, Nebraska

Crash in the Night: Crash as a Teaching Aid on Discrimination

Imagine a simple car crash out on the highway late at night. The crunch of metal, a squeal of tires, and two people caught in a fender-bender start screaming at each other as they step out of their cars. Even in the blinking lights of their cars, it is clear that they are both of different races- and more than likely, they are making racial slurs against each other without a second thought. This idea is the premise behind the film Crash, a cinematic exploration of how people of all different backgrounds and races crash into each other in their everyday lives- literally and figuratively- and treat one another based on prejudice. Crash is a crucial film for high school students to see because it not only challenges them to question the stereotypes they assign other people, but also helps them understand the past, present, and future of discrimination and can be firmly ensconced in any curriculum to aid in students' education.

Crash's core theme deals with the assumptions everyone jumps to about the people they meet based on race, gender, or social status. In the film, several characters make assumptions about each other that later prove to be false. For example, the character of Daniel, a Hispanic locksmith, fixes a lock for Jean, the rich wife of the District Attorney; she tells her husband within earshot of him that she does not want a 'gang-banger' working on them. However, this 'gang-banger' actually turns out to be a dedicated father and hard-working man. Similarly, the same wife repeatedly talks down to her maid, Maria, but later ends up being helped by her when she falls and sprains her ankle and none of her other friends will come to her aid. The person she stereotyped as just another Mexican turned out to be a truer friend than her wealthy and shallow white friends. Such dynamic changes in mindset happen throughout the film in a domino effect of relationships that ripple outwards like rings in a pond, touching all the other lives around them. Through it, students are allowed to see outside of their own lives and fixed points of view to get a look at all sides of the various characters, and how they defy the pigeon-holing others do to them as the students themselves may have done to others. It makes them re-think how they have reacted or acted toward the people they walk by in the street or interact with, or the conclusions they have jumped to, and forces them to think about these discriminatory assumptions as a current problem, not an issue of the past.

Another one of Crash's important aspects is its ability to reach out to youth across time. Unlike other films, which present equally important views of only the discrimination faced by just one minority, specifically in the past, Crash centers around several types of prejudice that are relevant in the present. It does not ignore the hatreds of yesterday, but rather tracks how they have moved into today and evolved with the changing times. It presents sympathetic and realistic characters that students can relate to in modern and familiar situations. In addition, it does not preach to them about the didactic evils of the past and present, which tunes most students out. Instead, it uses humor, popular slang and language, and excitement to get their interest and empathy so that they become emotionally invested in the movie and its messages. It presents them with discriminations they may make unknowingly in their everyday life despite their claims they do not commit the sins of past generations, and subconsciously compels them to rethink. It is also an echoing warning of the possible hatreds of the future, and cautions students against one day becoming like some of the bigoted characters presented in the film, once they have moved beyond the classroom setting.

Finally, one of the most attractive features of Crash is its chameleon-like ability to change and adapt to fit any curriculum. Few classes, like math, would not be able to utilize this film in its lesson plans. In English class, Crash can be used to underscore novels dealing with race relations, such as The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, or both ethnic and gender discriminations in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. In addition, it can be tagged onto the end of multi-cultural units involving such varied novels as Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. For history class, it can be an even more powerful tool, demonstrating how the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and women's rights have developed over time and now appear in the twenty-first century. It gives history a fresh face and transports students beyond the textbook by giving them something they can relate to and, hopefully, understand such prejudices and suffrage movements of the past better. Even social science and psychology courses could use Crash as an explanation of how people interact and judge each other in modern society. This malleability and defiance to fit in any one mold makes it the perfect addition to any class.

Crash offers a wide range of benefits to the modern school. It dares students to look at people from different angles and consider the judgments they make, shows them the past, present, and future of discrimination, and can fit into almost any curriculum. Certainly its use as an education tool moves beyond the classroom, teaching students not simple facts, but about important parts of themselves, parts they may not want to look at or admit to. For the crash in the night in the beginning of the film represents not only the lives spinning out of control and into each other, but their own selves, meeting other people in the darkness of their own ignorance, and a stark choice: to be the person shouting the racial slurs, or the person mature enough to be beyond such base prejudice.

Second Place

Camille Stewart
Grade 12
Holy Names Academy
Seattle, Washington

Children's March

Today, in a world caught in wars and disagreements over different human rights, high school students are demonstrating a feeling of apathy and powerlessness when faced with the option to stand up for what they believe in and against the discrimination occurring in society. They need something to tell them that they do have the capability to make a difference and fight for what they believe in. This "something" is the film from the program Teaching Tolerance, Mighty Times: Children's March. The documentary captures the struggle and power the teenagers in Birmingham, Alabama had as they united and accomplished what no adults had the courage to do. Children's March, if shown in a high school class, would provide teens with not only a new awareness of the discrimination and struggle going on during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but also an awareness that the youth of the world may actually be the most powerful group when wanting to accomplish something.

The Children's March was a movement started by Martin Luther King Jr. and several other important ministers. It was created as a way to bring attention to the city of Birmingham, one of the most segregated places in the United States, and to the struggle for equality that the African Americans were making. At a community meeting, King asked for volunteers to protest with him and potentially be put in prison, in hopes that there would be so many African American protesters that the Birmingham jails would become overwhelmed. When no adults stood to volunteer to help, it was the youth that slowly began to rise to their feet, one by one, to help. The designated day was proclaimed "D-Day". When the radio announcer, D.J. Shelley, broadcasted the special sentence, all the teens left school and met in a Church. When the police began arriving, the students marched out of the Church in groups into police trucks to take them away to jail. However, there were so many teens that the police eventually brought in school buses to put them on to take them away. The arrests of the children sparked much national media interest as well as the courage of the adults of Birmingham. D-Day led to other demonstrations by youths, as well as adults. These demonstrations eventually brought federal attention to the issue of segregation, and the process of desegregation began to take place in Birmingham.

The film, Children's March, not only addresses the issue of discrimination against African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, but addresses the theme of young people having the power to go out and make a difference. It brings to attention the struggles the youth of Birmingham decided to face when no adults volunteered, giving encouragement to the youth of today to stand up against prejudice. Although the Jim Crow Laws of the 1960s were removed, there are still many acts of discrimination demonstrated in today's society, whether they are blatantly obvious or subtle. As portrayed in the film, it is the young people who truly hold the power to motivate a society to stop these acts of injustice. Many of the children in the march went against their parents who had warned them not to participate in the demonstration. The youth today need to keep this in mind when they might feel pressure by those around them, whether it be from their peers or family. It is important for them remain strong behind their beliefs and work towards eliminating discrimination and injustice where they see it.

Children's March would be a perfect addition to a United States history class in a high school. It gives a history of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement with specific details and interviews from those living during the time. The movie provides background and reasoning for certain events in history such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also has a direct focus on the lives of teens, of the same age as those who would be viewing the movie in class. It gives students a chance to see what their lives could have been like if they would have lived during that era, and make a decision for themselves as to whether they think they would have participated or not. The film gives a major insight into the reasons behind the significant events in history and gives value to the individuals who struggled for the rights that are available to everyone today in the United States.

Children's March gives encouragement to the youth of today to join movements or create their own demonstration against what they view as acts of injustice and discrimination in the local community and the world. After viewing this movie, teens are left with the realization that being young is not an excuse, but rather a power. Upon becoming aware of this strength, the youth of the world today will only have to the think of the students who protested in the 1960s, and become motivated and encouraged to make their own difference in the history of the world.

Third Place

Samantha Herzing
Grade 12
Pennfield High School
Battle Creek, Michigan

Crash Through Prejudice

The Ku Klux Klan isn't on the television news every night, and race riots aren't developing daily all over America, so it's safe to say discrimination is a thing of the past, right? Actually, when probing deeper into the issue of prejudice, it's easy to see that we still struggle with racial equality today. While most Americans deny that people today are susceptible to racism, bigotry still runs deep in today's society. As mass media becomes even more influential on minds young and old alike, it is important that it be used as a tool to overcome discrimination, not encourage it.

Based on the curriculum of a typical school, it seems as though the issue of modern discrimination is a topic that is itself discriminated against. In schools today, the span of knowledge imparted on the topic of discrimination primarily features African American struggles to gain equality and acceptance in the United States. We learn about integration of schools, suffrage, and the history and current standing of socioeconomic status for these long oppressed people. While this is important, relevant, and historically significant, it is far from the only issue of discrimination that our country has faced and is facing. What is often glossed over in the typical history class is the current struggles for minorities and the fact that now, in 2009, we still have not achieved the equality that our founding fathers stressed the importance of hundreds of years ago. This inequality is not only between African Americans and Caucasians: it is increasingly prevalent among all races. A movie that shows this in a powerful and disturbingly relevant way is Crash.

Crash is a movie that takes place over two days in Los Angeles and follows the stories of a socioeconomically varied assortment of characters. Through the characters' interactions and conversations, prejudice and discrimination is displayed by members of all races against others. The movie includes common stereotypes held against Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and those of Middle Eastern descent. Throughout the course of the movie, glimpses into the characters' lives show that they are not defined by the stereotypes they are known for in today's society, but when they encounter members of other races they are still seen that way. Each is offended by the discrimination against himself or herself, and yet they all still hold prejudices and discriminate against others, often without even realizing it.

Watching this movie in school would bring to the forefront several themes that are often not realized by young people. Since the movie takes place in the present day, it is especially powerful because it helps students to realize that discrimination is not something from the past, it continues today. The movie also teaches students that prejudice is not just Caucasians against other races, it is held equally by all races against each other. Examples of commonly held prejudices exposed in the film include the stereotype of Asian Americans as bad drivers, or Hispanic Americans as being more likely to steal. Some of these stereotypes that are portrayed as offensive and wrong in the movie are joked about in today's society. Students who find racial prejudice humorous would be well served to watch this movie, as it forces viewers to empathize with the struggles of members of all races. This movie is eye-opening in a world where the majority of people do not believe that they hold any racial prejudice.

Crash, because of its subject matter and language. would best serve its educational purpose in a senior level class. Its depiction of modern day racism would be applicable to any social studies class, particularly a sociology or psychology class. If I were to choose a class to incorporate this movie into, it would be sociology. The film brings an element of real life society that is hard to embody with a lecture or other form of presentation. While the movie is fictional, the events are of the nature that is likely to happen on a day to day basis in present day society. Viewing this movie would lead into a discussion amongst students of their own experiences with racism and prejudice in society that would oftentimes not come to light in a traditional class. While today's youth may hold less prejudice than previous generations, the walls of discrimination have not yet been completely broken down. The movie calls to attention the subconscious stereotypes that are still held by Americans without them even consciously realizing it. Watching and discussing Crash would be an important step in acknowledging and abolishing the discriminatory views in today's society.

Crash should be a required supplement to a high school education so that students can recognize and act to eliminate modern day racial discrimination. This movie calls attention to prejudices that influence people's actions daily in our society and are either widely ignored or widely accepted by the general public. It is important for young people to acknowledge the issues that our country is faced with so that they may be improved for future generations. With each generation we come closer to the equality that we preach in America and it is important that the youth of this nation rise up and defeat the stereotypes that hold us back from realizing it.

Middle School Division

First Place

Christiene Auguste
Grade 8
Valley Stream South High School
Valley Stream, New York

Today, media has a huge impact on the social views of society's youth. In reality, as well as on television, young people strive to find an affinity group to which they belong. An affinity group is a group of people who share a common interest, goal, or background. Unfortunately, race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status tend to be the determining factors in the formation of these social cliques. Most commonly, we fall into the cliched groups which separate the jocks, geeks, cheerleaders, misfits, etc. A hit new show, named "Glee", showcases a faction of students who make a deliberate attempt to break away from these affinity circles, in order to form an eclectic society. In doing so, they discover the strength that unity provides. They also realize the frailty of a divided people.

In this musical comedy, the cast of the Glee Club has to overcome the barriers that segregate them from each other. The Glee Club teaches Mercedes, a shy, overweight teenager, to be outgoing and express herself, despite her appearance. Artie, an outcast paralyzed from the waist down, joins Glee club and is not thought of as a handicap, but accepted. He loves to sing and dance and learns to do what he enjoys; even in a wheel chair. In another episode, Finn, a jock, finds himself defending Kurt, an effeminate male, since they were "glee buddies" and really good friends. The Glee club even caused Quinn, a socialite cheerleader, to interact with Rachel, portrayed as an awkward, overachieving geek; though they have never gotten along. After watching this show over the summer, it has taught me that it is okay to break the prejudiced barriers, and mix with different social circles. "Glee" actually caused me to join my school's Drama Club. I was convinced that I would have just as much fun as the cast of the Glee Club. Preceding my membership, I tended to only hang out with the people who were in Volleyball, and other sports with me last year. This year, I decided to step out of my normal circle, and do something different. The club was a blend of different affinity groups that all got along, and always tried to help each other become better people. We were one cast, and one crew, coming together for the sole purpose of a Drama Club; to bring laughter and entertainment to the world.

Now, how can I use my knowledge to eliminate discrimination, you ask? Simple; change starts with one. I am changed, therefore, I can't help but change those whom I interact with. I will now try harder to engage with all people; no matter the ethnicity, socio-economic status, or any other differences. I will also re-implement my process of social interaction. Since I am an African- American, some may expect me to act in a certain "urban" manner, and only hang out with people of my color. I purposely make it my business to befriend people of many different backgrounds, in order to illustrate a very important racial point. I believe that people of any color should be allowed to befriend who they like, without being judged or confined to affinities of a similar race. My dream is that one day, the youth of my generation will realize that prejudice and discrimination, of any kind, can only cause hurt and complications. The world would be a much better place if there were understanding and respect for all.

Second Place

Madison Ganter
Grade 6
East Shore Middle School
Milford, Connecticut

Segregation in the Media

In our society, the media has many influences on our culture. It can show many life struggles of everyday people. The film that I chose that shows an example of segregation is Akeelah and the Bee. Her journey begins by winning her school spelling bee. Akeelah lives and goes to school in a poor neighborhood. She has always tried to hide how smart she is because the other kids would tease and bully her. At first, Akeelah has no confidence that she can win the National Spelling Bee. She doesn't have the support of her mother, who works day and night. Akeelah has to deal with low self-esteem, an unsupportive family, and school bullies. She must overcome these barriers to win.

This movie has taught me that when you discriminate against people because of how much money they have or because of their race, it can really hurt them emotionally. It can harm their self-esteem and make them feel like they are not important. Akeelah overheard a rival's father scolding the son for almost losing a game to her at a party. He said, "If you can barely beat a black girl in a Scrabble game, how do you expect to win the National Spelling Bee?" Another time, Akeelah's brother, Terrence, said that the white kids will chew her up. She felt even worse after hearing this insult from her brother. You can also be your own worst enemy. Akeelah was afraid of competing in the school Spelling Bee because she was ashamed to show everyone how smart she really was.

I can incorporate what I learned from this film into my life by trying to surround myself with family and friends that will support me and make me feel important. Every time Akeelah tried to discuss competing in the Spelling Bee with her mom, her mother dismissed her. She gave up trying to talk to her mother and continued with the Spelling Bee behind her mother's back. No matter what issue I come across, I will make every effort to communicate with my parents. I will not set limits for myself and I will try my hardest at everything I do. I will face many challenges but with a positive outlook, I know I can overcome them. We can help reduce or eliminate prejudice and discrimination by improving the way we treat ourselves and those around us. If you see someone being teased or bullied, you should speak up. People who tease or bully usually have low self-esteem or maybe they are being treated that way by someone else. Sometimes, the bully needs a friend to show them kindness. Young children should be taught that excluding others from activities because of their race or their money status is really hurtful and unkind. One way schools are trying to help is by having the students wear uniforms. This way, everyone can feel equal to one another. Another way is to encourage good behavior and give students extra credit toward their grade.

Akeelah had many obstacles in trying to win the Spelling Bee. She experienced heartache and was let down, but kept on trying. She eventually won the support of her family and her peers. Akeelah won the National Spelling Bee because she began to believe in herself. Many young people go through similar problems like Akeelah. Dealing with bullies is extremely terrifying. Having a family that doesn't support you can be hard. All these things can make you feel really small inside. There is always a way to conquer these challenges. You just need to have a strong mind and keep trying. This movie has shown me that one young person can make a difference in his or her community.

Third Place

Kamish Kabani
Grade 6
Blalack Middle School
Carrollton, Texas

Taare Zameen Par [Like Stars on Earth] is a Hindi Bollywood movie that talks about the story of a little kid named Ishan. His family was very frustrated with him because he could not keep up or do well in school, unlike his older brother who was amazing at all subjects, and sports. Ishan always got into trouble because for bad grades and, so-called, bad behavior. The only thing Ishan was good at was painting, but his father was not proud of that. What the movie did not point out until later was that Ishan had dyslexia and he could not read or write or even think correctly. Each time Ishan tried to read, he would see words flying around.

Ishan's parents finally got frustrated and sent him off to boarding school. All the other students laughed at him, except one, who was also disabled and became his only friend. During his time in boarding school, Ishan was alone and was unable to meet or stay with his family. Later in the movie, the school principal hired a new art teacher. The art teacher would let the kids paint using their imagination. Even though Ishan liked painting, he did not move a single muscle because he was so scared of everything and was worried that he would get into trouble as usual.

The art teacher saw and understood what the problem with Ishan was, and related his problem to himself as a child. As a lesson to Ishan as well as the rest of the class, the teacher showed pictures of famous people in history, which included Albert Einstein and Abesheik Bachan, who is a very famous Bollywood actor. He also showed a picture of himself. The lesson he taught here, was that even though all of these three people made a big change in the world, all, including him, were dyslexic. Ishan could not believe his eyes!

Filled with happy tears, Ishan hugged his art teacher because he finally found a teacher that could understand him. Everyday the art teacher helped Ishan read, write, and learn and day by day, Ishan grew smarter. On a follow-up meeting with the school, Ishan's father noticed Ishan reading a book aloud, but instead of approaching him, his father quietly cried and walked away.

The movie ended in a school-wide painting contest where all students, faculty, and staff participated, including the teacher himself. After hours of painting, the competition ended. The judges decided that Ishan's painting was the best! As his prize, Ishan's painting was portrayed on the school year book's front cover. It was the teacher's belief in a child like him that helped Ishan grow as a student and person.

When I relate this movie to my life, I have learned the importance of believing in another person and not making fun of people with a disability. Tare Zameen Par also taught me that although a person may have a disability, they have been blessed with an ability that another person may not have. For example, in this movie, Ishan had the ability to paint. His painting skills were better than the art teacher's. Another thing that I learned was that every child in the world has something in him or her that no one else has; something special to give to this world.

At the religious center which I attend, there is a boy named Moizz. Moizz is a mentally challenged child who likes to hang around with other children. Everyday that I attend the religious center, I try to be nice to Moizz. When I see younger children make fun of Moizz because he is mentally challenged, I try to make them stop. I ask them, "If you know that he is mentally challenged, then why are you making fun of him?" Instead of responding and understanding, the children just shrug and run off. Even though I cannot stop all the kids from making fun of Moizz, I can try to stop them each time I see it happen. Nowadays whenever I run into Moizz, he waves to me, which makes me feel good inside. We even made up a handshake when we met and he always laughs when we do our funny handshake. Moizz is my friend and I am his friend no matter what.

Honorable Mention

Ashley Tierney
Grade 7
Vernon Center Middle School
Vernon, Connecticut

In the movie Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, there is a lot of prejudice taking place. The movie has taught me a lot. I can use what I learned to help other kids. Rudolph has a strong lesson within the script.

Every person is different from one another, and that makes them unique. Rudolph taught me just because people look a little different, doesn't mean they need to be picked on, made fun of, or discriminated against. To do any of the three is wrong. I've also learned to never judge a book by its cover. In other words: though people look different on the outsides, it doesn't mean they're different on the inside. If I looked a little different, I wouldn't want people to treat me in any mean or rude way. I'd want to have friends, go to parties, and live a good life. No one should ever be judged by appearance. I'm five foot ten and only in seventh grade. Just because I'm tall doesn't mean I am big, mean, scary, or terrifying. Many people think of me as nice, trustworthy, well-liked, loyal, and a good friend. My mom is really small. If she went for a job interview, it wouldn't be fair if she didn't get the job according to her size. There is a great example of discrimination. I would not do that to a person. I've learned discrimination is wrong in every way, and taking part in discrimination is basically a crime.

How can I incorporate this lesson into my life? Firstly, I can eradicate discrimination and prejudice in schools and public places. When kids walk in the halls people are always making fun of one another and making rude comments. I could set up a program called 'Passing by and Saying Hi' program. When you walk in the halls, instead of just walking past students and teachers, stop and greet them. Compliment them on their hair, clothes, et cetera. This program would teach students that being nice isn't really that hard. One way I can incorporate this lesson into my schools is pulling together a coed soccer team. Having both boys and girls working and competing together could stop the conflict between the opposite genders, build strong bonds and relationships, and allow students to see many girls are as skillful as boys. Many girls are as skillful as boys are and it could help stop discrimination. On the news a while ago, I saw that a bunch of guys went to a large city, stayed at one corner of a street, held up a sign saying Free Compliments, and complimented every person that walked by. Everything the men had said was nice and not insulting in anyway. They set a good example and we should all follow it. Everyone should find ways to stop prejudice and discrimination in schools and public; it's not that hard. If one person does, the chain reaction will happen and many people will follow. Our world could finally be at peace.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sets many good examples of discrimination and prejudice. We should bring these lessons into our everyday lifestyles. Let's all stop prejudice and discrimination today!!!