Cochran Chapel swelled with raucous applause as Chaya Holch ’17, Jack Hjerpe ’17, and Evelyn Wu ’18 were met with standing ovations from the students and faculty at this week’s All-School Meeting (ASM). As this year’s Means Essay Prize competition finalists, the three presented declamations of their personal essays that touched on a range of topics of their personal identities.
Founded in 1868 by William G. Means, the Means Essay Prize stands as Andover’s oldest English award. Each year, the English Department selects three essays, which are then read to the school by the finalists themselves. This year, Holch, Hjerpe, and Wu were selected from dozens of applicants.
“These essays are excellent examples in the ways in which politics can infest itself in the everyday… They were chosen because we… believe that the content and presentation of the works provide an exciting and provocative opportunity to engage in, what at times, can be sober material,” said Juan Gallardo, Teaching Fellow in English and one of the essay judges, during the ASM.
Holch’s essay focused on her memories in Israel, where she spent five weeks as part of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship program. Holch was one of 26 selected students from North America and spent the summer of 2016 visiting parts of Jerusalem and studying Jewish texts with 25 other rising Seniors at the time.
“I think a lot of [my essay] is about language, repetition of Hebrew prayers and thinking about what words mean and how language can serve as both a boundary and a form of occupation and a form of oppression and thinking about what that means… A lot of it is my own personal spirituality and my own personal beliefs about humans rights and things like that,” said Holch.
Reflecting on his experience being stood up on his first Tinder date with another man, Hjerpe provided insight to his struggles of finding companionship in the queer community. Hjerpe hoped that his essay would help break idealized representations of the queer community in mainstream media today.
“I think that being a part of the queer community, Tinder has been a large part of our lives… I just know of so many people having misconceptions on it and, you know, this idealized version of how [it works]. Like when you watch TV and things, you don’t ever see a teenager logging into a dating app and trying to find someone to hook up with,” said Hjerpe.
“I really wanted to try and tell a more realistic narrative, so if there are kids in the audience that are young and using Tinder because they just can’t find people of other sexual orientations to hook up with, like that’s not an awful thing, it doesn’t make you an immoral person, which is something that a lot of queer people in the community have had to deal with,” Hjerpe continued.
As an international student from Beijing, China, Wu reflected on the changes in her family dynamic ever since she began to attend Andover. Wu’s essay touched upon the distance between her and her grandfather and the struggle of losing touch with her Chinese heritage due to her time in America. Inspired by the dialogue and people she encountered in the Asian-American Footsteps Conference, Wu decided to write an essay to convey her emotions on this personal issue.
“One of the things that I’ve realized is this concept that a lot of us feel about losing parts of our culture due to being American…For my first few years, I was super insecure about my Asian heritage, and no one would really talk to me about that. And then I went to the Asian American Footsteps Conference… and I was surrounded by all these kids… They weren’t super comfortable with the heritage that they were born with, and that was when I realized that this stuff… is really personal to a lot of people, and there’s not a lot of attention on it,” said Wu.
Brian Ko ’19, an audience member, said, “I really liked Evelyn’s because I felt like it was the one that most related to me… Because I also am truly a very American Asian, even though I have never lived in South Korea at all… [the essay] just spoke to me.”
All three finalists encountered different, personal challenges while writing their essays. Following similar writing processes, each finalist pieced together thoughts, ideas, and sections of writing into longer, cohesive essays.
“When you write, you’re put with this responsibility of putting whatever you’re trying to write about into words and making it accurate. What was most difficult for me was not to make it fluffy cheese, and not to make it just pretty words on a page, and make it actually resonate with me,” said Wu.
Alex Ren ’17, an audience member, said, “I actually cried at the second one because man, do I feel. I feel like the ability to weave a piece of art that is unique to you, the story only you could tell, and make it resound in your audiences is a true talent of storytelling.”
According to all three contestants, the overall experience of speaking in front of the entire Andover community was rewarding in its own manner.
“I was able to stand up on that stage and talk to this prestigious school in this really esteemed position of being a finalist for the Means Essay and talk about my sex life, and about going on Tinder, and getting stood up on a date, and about all these different things that I felt are traditionally not given the time of day, because they’re deemed to be not suitable for public conversation, and that was where I definitely felt most empowered throughout the entire experience and what I liked the best about it,” said Hjerpe.
Holch, who mentioned on stage that presenting her Means Essay was a part of her Senior bucket list, said, “Getting to see the view from the stage in the Chapel and getting to have that experience of speaking in front of all of my peers was not always one of my goals, but I realized that we only have six weeks left, and that was something that I wanted to be able to say someday that I had done.”
Editor’s Note: Evelyn Wu is an Illustration Editor for The Phillipian.