This past Wednesday, Joey Salvo ’14 and Alyssa Augustin ’15 stood in front of the Andover student body to present their personal stories, specifically focusing on experiences of gender, for the Means Essay Prize competition at All-School Meeting (ASM). Leah Shrestinian ’14, the third finalist, did not present on Wednesday because of an Advanced Placement exam.
Founded in 1867 by William G. Means, the Means Essay Prize is awarded to an outstanding student-written essay from the school year, according to the prize description. To support the events that mark the 40th year of coeducation at Andover, all essays submitted to the competition had to discuss gender.
Elias Rodriques, Christopher Wade and Elizabeth Davis, Teaching Fellows in English, judged the competition and will select this year’s winner.
* * *
In her essay, Augustin recounted an incident at a public women’s restroom in the food court of a mall, where other women in the bathroom mistook her for a man and were unsure of how to react to her presence.
“‘This is the ladies’ room.’ A beat passes… my response, ‘I am a lady, thank you,’ is overridden by an amendment to a previous statement. ‘Oh,’ she says and, just barely, ‘Sorry,’” said Augustin in her essay.
“At this point, everybody is staring at you and furtively pretending they are not. Every grown woman who is not in the stall is examining my face, raking my body up and down with their eyes, trying to rationalize my presence among them,” she continued in her story at ASM.
Augustin’s essay came to her when she saw that the prompt for the Means Essay changed to require the topic of gender in each submitted essay, even though starting was the hardest part for her.
“Listening to people talking about it really inspired me to write it. The way I see it, it wasn’t a restriction, but an idea,” she said in an interview with The Phillipian.
“I hope [students] stop thinking about gender in the binary or conversations here in the binary or because they think that there are no [transgender] people here, that it doesn’t matter if they include [transgender] perspectives or anything about [transgender] people in conversations about gender,” continued Augustin.
* * *
In his essay titled “Old Answer,” Salvo described the societal pressures he faced during his nine-year career in ballet, beginning in Kindergarten as the only boy in a class of 12.
Salvo recounted the day he was waiting in line with his parents and an elderly man in a wheelchair rolled behind them in the line. The man carefully eyed Salvo and accusingly said, “And what are you going to be, eh? A football player?” Salvo responded by saying, “No, a dancer.”
“It was like opening a door only to find an ocean on the other side. The man recoiled as quickly as his ancient spine would allow and looked to my parents. ‘What?!’ he barked. Perhaps his hearing aid had just inconveniently short-circuited. Without flinching, my mother looked him in the eye and shouted back, ‘A dancer.’ The man closed his mouth, and a darkness as absolute as a theatre just after the curtain rises flickered past his eyes. A dancer. A male dancer,” said Salvo at ASM.
As a child, Salvo felt male dancers were never held in the same esteem as their female counterparts. When the New York City Ballet came to visit his ballet school, Salvo remembered his fascination with one particular ballerina.
“It was the ballerina, always the ballerina. She leaned and twisted and leaped, and all the while her partner fulfilled his role as her private scaffolding. No matter. No one ever dreams about becoming a ballerina or a ballo or whatever you call a male ballet dancer, right? Somehow I never encountered an accurate term for it in nine years of ballet training,” said Salvo.
“Most [of the girls] wanted to be fairy princesses. All I wanted was to answer music the way it had answered me,” he continued.
Having been mesmerized by the annual readings of the Means Essay Prize, Salvo always wanted to write for it.
“I sat [in ASM] and I saw these Seniors read these beautiful essays, and I hadn’t really been in the writing community that much yet, so it was nice to know that there were people here who could write like that and those who could then say it in this strong, courageous manner. This year, I thought, ‘I have to do it,’” said Salvo.
* * *
In her essay, “Not Finished Yet,” Shrestinian detailed her bad experience with her first kiss.
“I was supposed to have my first kiss in the sixth grade, like all of my friends. Or in the seventh grade. Seventh grade would have been respectable. Only, no one seemed to want to kiss me. The only guys who did were the ones in my seventh grade French class… but I wanted a football player. A skier. A slacker…. someone cool so I could proudly tell my friends: ‘He wanted me.’,” wrote Shrestinian.
Throughout her the essay, Shrestinian described her encounter with Chris, a pseudonym for the so-called “cool” person she did kiss, and how uncomfortable and confused she felt at the time.
“ I spent… ten minutes trying to decide if my tongue was in the right place and wondering if I could somehow make it retreat down my throat to make room for his because I wasn’t sure my mouth was quite big enough for whatever was going on. Was it supposed to be this repetitive? And, well, wet? I kept thinking about Harry Potter, somewhat proudly, because the term ‘snogging’ finally made sense to me,” wrote Shrestinian.
Shrestinian wrote this essay to add to a collection of essays for her English class with Seth Bardo, Instructor in English. She created the essays based on lines taken from her old journal.
“It was kind of a sexist moment, which is why I wrote about it. I was sitting on a rock, and I was kind of uncomfortable, so I moved and he was like, ‘I’m not finished yet.’ So I think it was difficult because when you have those moments you feel like it is your fault.”