Nathan Column: Area high school students win honors in contest

Carter Thorson, Emily Barta and Bradley Peterson of Spectrum High School in Elk River are eloquent young people. They recently earned awards in a statewide Minnesota charter public school writing contest that attracted more than 2,200 entries.
Their essays answered the question, “What was your best day in school?” Whether you’re an educator or parent, I think you’ll learn a lot by asking youngsters this question at the end of the year.
Thorson, a 10th-grader, from Big Lake, tied for second in the high school division. Thorson described how he decided to “pick up a pen and tablet of paper so that I could create (an) entire world with only my mind as any ally. … That day I found the thing I love most, my stories.”
Seniors Peterson and Barta tied for third place.
Peterson explained that Stanford University had invited him to spend part of the 2011-12 school year taking courses there. His best day in school “consisted of sitting at one of the greatest universities in the world, taking an exam in a field I have passion for. I pose this question to you: What gives a better feeling than making a gigantic leap toward your passion?”
Barta explained that her best day had been when she was in the eighth grade.  She wrote about a class trip to the Audubon Center. “Some of the things we did were very physically demanding for me. … Most of the kids bullied or alienated me. So when one of my fellow classmates voluntarily stayed behind with and encouraged me whenever I began to falter, it meant a lot to me. That has stayed with me through the years, reminding me that there is always someone who cares about me and my success.”
Another powerful essay by a St. Paul second-grader contained a surprise. Vincent Smith Jr. believes his best day in school was when “I got suspended for punching a classmate. I had not been behaving well in school. I have been rude. I have been talking and fighting instead of working.”
He continued, “Getting suspended got me thinking. My dad is in prison, but he often calls me. He is good, but he did something bad. I figured I was the same. I am good, but I do bad things. Being bad is not cool. The day I got suspended was my best day because it helped me change. Now I stay away from trouble. I have become a role model. It feels great to be a leader and not a follower.”
Finally, Denisse Sanchez, a Minneapolis 10th-grader was awarded first place among high school students. She wrote that formerly, “I hated school and had all F’s.” Then she and her English class read an essay by James Baldwin. It reminded her that “Mom and Dad never finished high school and now are living the life of poverty. … I want something bigger and better in life. … The only way to do that is to get an education.”
TCF Foundation cosponsored the writing contest and provided cash awards for the best essays. To see humor, honesty, insight and courage, read the winning essays at

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]