“I want to tell you. I want to tell you that summer rain tastes like fresh fruit, and Autumn looks like F Major: red yellow green. I love the orange feel of women’s sweaters,” read Anna Stacy ’13, declaiming her winning essay titled “Idiosyncrasies (Sonata in Yellow)” for the Means Essay Prize.
This past Wednesday, Stacy, Annika Neklason ’13 and Leah Shrestinian ’14, read essays during All School Meeting (ASM) to compete as finalists for Andover’s annual Means Essay Prize. Endowed in 1867 by William G. Means, the prize is awarded annually to a student who writes an outstanding personal essay at any time during the school year, according to the prize description.
Margaret Cooper, Austin Davis and Noah Warren, Teaching Fellows in English, selected this year’s Means Essay winner. This group of teaching fellows also selected Wednesday’s three essays from a pool of 19 submissions.
Stacy described her synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the brain misinterprets senses, and how it affects her perception of the environment around her.
“I want to tell you these things because I want you to color in my outline. I want to tell you these things because I want you to know how beautiful I find them,” read Stacy. “I story-tell by flashlight because the torch illuminates the underbellies of my words and makes them glow. Sometimes, I tell stories around a green, driftwood fire on a limestone beach, and my skin feels like chalk, and the air tastes crystalline.”
Stacy said that she wanted to write about her own color-auditory synesthesia. She notes that the essay was also about poetic synesthesia and the sharing of the experience.
“Since I heard [the Means Essay declarations] for the first time my Lower year, I knew I wanted to read an essay for the contest. I’ve never really thought of myself as much of a writer, but I love performing and public speaking,” said Stacy.
“When it came time to sit down and write, I essentially free-associated to get going and figured I’d just go with it. I wasn’t even going to submit it, but then a friend convinced me to, and I figured, why not?” she added.
Neklason and Shrestinian, the other two finalists, recited their essays along with Stacy during ASM.
Neklason retold the story of her battle with a life-threatening brain infection during her freshman year of high school in an essay entitled “Fine, Not Fine.”
Neklason recalled repeatedly denying her illness due to a habit she had learned when she was a child, when she hid a dog bite on her neck from her parents.
“Somehow, I will keep [bite] hidden from my parents. They will not, they will never, notice the way this spot bruises and scabs…The scar on my neck becomes a badge of honor: a symbol of my expertise at faking fine. I learn to…spray away the smell of vomit with air freshener, and hold myself up straight and tall when the world feels like it’s spinning off of its axis.”
Neklason said that she didn’t write “Fine, Not Fine” specifically for the Means Essay Prize, but for her own personal reasons.
“I write as a way to process things that happen in my life. Getting sick my freshman year changed the way I saw myself and my life and, really, the world in a lot of ways, so I’ve written a lot about that in the four years since I got better,” said Neklason.
Shrestinian’s submission was prompted by a recent visit to her grandfather at the Veteran’s Hospital after not seeing him for a few months.
“It really struck me how rapidly his [Alzheimer’s disease] condition had progressed. It was the first time I really thought about losing him because I had been distancing myself for so long,” said Shrestinian.
During her declamation, Shrestinian recounted a memory of her grandfather when the two ventured through the lower floors of her grandfather’s nursing home.
“The farther we walked, the more animated my grandfather became. He could not speak though his mouth moved determinedly, as if he had something of the utmost importance to say: a warning to give, one last story to tell,” read Shrestinian.
“Alzheimer’s wipes the mind clean, but it doesn’t do it cleanly,” she read.
Shrestinian said that the contest presented itself as an opportunity for her to write the piece, though she had wanted to write about her grandfather for a while.
In choosing the finalists, Cooper said that they were not only looking for excellent writing, “but also original thought, well-crafted and memorable imagery, and a really distinctive voice—qualities [the] three finalists exemplified.”