This guest post is written by Tom Porcelli, whose student Rahul Malayappan was a finalist in the 2016 Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize. This is the first of two parts.
I didn’t really, in my heart, think for a second that any of them would win. When I saw that a kid from a private school in New Zealand won last year, I kinda figured that little urban Danbury High School wasn’t exactly tournament material. It didn’t matter. The kids believed that they had a chance, and some of them seemed actually excited to be writing something that had a very clear purpose, even if that was to win money. So, I did what I had done last year: I ran them through three weeks of process writing to a prompt I got online from some contest being put on by The Atlantic and the College Board.
I actually really liked this year’s prompt, as it had students explaining the rhetoric of a piece of art and delving beneath the canvas to explore why the student’s choice of art was so interesting or meaningful. While there was a list of “suggested” art pieces, I implored my young charges to “go out and find a piece of art that speaks to you.” Weeks later, I saw some had actually done as I asked.
We spent days peer conferencing their prewrites, their sloppy copies, their rough drafts, and their final copies. We gave feedback about content, focus, elaboration, rhetoric, language, and grammar. For some of them, it was probably the most work they had ever done on a paper in their young lives. Still, even after all that, only a handful of papers were of the ilk that I was willing to stamp my “AP teacher” signature on them and shuttle them off to the powers that be. Even as I emailed the final paper, I knew it was a fruitless endeavor, but I had promised them that if they worked hard enough, I’d back them up. I hit “send” and didn’t think about it again.
Over spring break I received an email from someone whom I did not know. The email was telling me that my writing was so wonderful, that I was a semifinalist. Of course, in today’s world of email blasts, I was honestly very close to clicking delete and getting back to my daydreams of fishing over the summer. Then, at the bottom of the email something made the little pieces in my mind work together, and I double-checked the greeting. There it was: the name Rahul. So it made sense that this wasn’t an email intended for me, and as I checked further, I realized I was right. This was cc’ed to me, but the real target was one of my students, Rahul Malayappan, who had written about M.C. Escher’s work Waterfall.
Imagine that! One of my students was a semifinalist in an international writing competition. The news got better from there. As a semifinalist, Rahul ranked in the final three. As such, the least he would win would be a $2,500 cash prize. An email that followed a few days later made the news better still: The Atlantic and the College Board wanted to fly Rahul, one of his parents, and me to Washington, DC, for the awards ceremony.
The next few days were a bit of a whirlwind for both Rahul and me. In the days prior to the trip, we compared notes just about daily. OK, so we didn’t compare notes, but we did compare the content of the emails we were receiving from various agents of both companies. Rahul had the opportunity to connect with a real, live editor from The Atlantic. Of course, he had to slip this in somewhere between trying out for Jeopardy! and his international VEX competition.
Soon enough, we were away for the ceremony. Amid a flourish of meals and tours, Rahul was treated like a king for the day. He was asked to have his picture taken too many times to count, and I was lucky enough to sit in on a phone interview with our local paper. We comforted each other backstage before our “big moment,” which consisted of walking across the stage, grabbing two very nicely framed awards, shaking hands, and then smiling for a photo op. Backstage, we giggled at ourselves and planned what we would order on our last night of dining out on The Atlantic’s dime.
This was a special moment for us. Shortly after he confessed that he had never before looked at art, we found ourselves standing side-by-side in front of works by Degas, Rembrandt, and, of course, Escher. We conspired to determine who the first-place winner would be, while simultaneously assuring each other that $2,500 for writing a paper for English class was just fine. The fact that he came in second gave us little remorse; we were happy to be treated like kings for a day. I was proud to have one of my students decorated in such a way. It was a moment which I am sure will stay etched in both our memories.
Tom Porcelli has been teaching English at Danbury High School for the past twenty years. He brought the AP English Language course to the school six years ago and cherishes all the students who rise to that particular challenge. He lives in Woodbury, CT, with his wife, Erika and their son, J.