Andover Students Explore Identity through Means Essay Competition

Will Leggat ’20, Kiran Ramratnam ’22, Aissata Bah ’20, and Clio Polanco Cercado ’20 read their essays to compete as finalists for Andover’s Means Essay Prize this past Thursday. As this year’s Means Essay Prize competition finalists, the four presented declamations of their personal essays that touched on unique facets of their identities.

Ramratnam read during the event, declaiming her winning essay titled “Letter to My Paati (Grandmother),” “You have more wisdom than anyone with any degree will ever have. Listen to me through Kali’s yells and the splashing river: I will learn Tamil and write your book as the marigolds, manjal podi, trash and tamarind, and the long red river lead me forward to where we come from.”

Founded in 1867 by William G. Means, the Means Essay Prize, along with a cash prize of 150 dollars, is awarded annually to a student who writes an outstanding personal essay. Leggat, Ramratnam, Bah, and Cercado were chosen as finalists from a pool of ten submissions, and Ramratnam was selected to be this year’s winner of the prize.

Reflecting on the contrast between her and her grandmother’s experiences in two separate countries, Ramratnam’s essay unraveled memories during her time in India: frying rice balls, watching Vamsam, and inhaling the sweet aroma of marigolds. She hoped to portray her grandmother’s resilience regardless of the limited amount of opportunities that were available to her as a woman.

“My poem-essay consisted of vignettes revolving around my grandmother—her experiences as an Indian woman in India and my experiences as an Indian-American woman in America—comparing and contradicting those experiences,” said Ramratnam.

Leggat’s essay, “No More Sinners, No More Saints,” focused on society’s perceptions on the binary of good and evil, and in particular, about the process of learning to accept his stepfather and his father as complicated, flawed, human figures in his life.

Leggat also emphasized that his essay aimed to manifest complex emotions, such as rationalizing and making sense of grief. While these subjects were both universal and personal since loss is a universal experience, it affects everyone differently, according to Leggat.

“I try to explore what it means to realize that loss can also be more complex than just losing someone, that a whole host of emotions accompany any death, as you try to understand who that person really was outside the rose-colored glasses of memory,” said Leggat.

In her essay, “Closed and Never Opened,” Cercado described the toxicity of stereotypes forced upon females in modern day society, and in particular, the pain and frustration of sacrificing her happiness to fulfill her father’s expectations of femininity. She also wished to discuss a subject which society often leaves unaddressed: that parents can also become perpetrators in situations usually associated with friends or strangers.

“I think this especially applies to sexism because we are trained from a young age to listen to our parents, without doubts. I was most bothered by the fact that I didn’t even realize how oppressed I was within my own family. It was easy for me to distinguish this in any other environment, but I would constantly chastise myself for being too submissive towards parental authority, even when it was clearly leading me in the wrong direction,” said Cercado.

Bah’s essay, which she decided to leave untitled, touched upon her struggles to accept her hometown in Atlanta as an authentic home, and her intuitive association of whiteness with security while at Andover. While for others, home represented an alcove of safety and warmth, for Bah, it was different—home in Atlanta sometimes felt more fearful than Andover.

“I wanted to convey the difference between my home back in Atlanta and my home at Andover, specifically examining how Andover changed how safe I felt. I talk about how being at Andover galvanized my conflation of whiteness and safety, and kind of where I am at now,” said Bah.

All four finalists had encountered a range of difficulties while writing their essays. Following similar writing processes, each of them pieced together thoughts and ideas into longer, cohesive essays.

Cercado said, “Personal essays are not my usual style of writing. I wasn’t sure how to approach this at first, especially because I was overwhelmed with feelings. I decided to simply stick to a voice from my head, no fancy language. I wanted it to seem like I was talking to the reader, which was myself during the time I wrote it.”

Every year, essay finalists are selected by the Means Prize Committee, which is comprised of teaching fellows. This year, Dariana Guerrero and Jennifer Quijas, Teaching Fellows in English, served on the judging panel.

In choosing the finalists, Quijas expressed that they were not only looking for exemplary writing, but also original thought, authenticity, and most importantly, a distinctive voice.

Quijas said, “We were really looking for the quality of writing. Did we feel like it was a personal essay following the genre? Was it telling a story? Did it feel like a story that was really important to the writer, that really mattered to them, that felt like they wanted to share? Did the writing have a voice—did we feel like we were getting to know them by reading it?”

Editor’s Note: Aissata Bah is the Chief Financial Officer for The Phillipian.