by Michele Marotta
It’s a time of expectation at the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. The annual high school writing contest has entered the judging phase when hundreds of entries from around the state are read attentively by scores of skilled judges. Students wait to see if their poem, short story, or essay has spoken its personal truth with the genuineness, clarity, and originality that will earn the top prize. Close to 250 entries were submitted this year from around the state in response to our question, “What effect has illusion had on your life?” You can almost hear the bated breath.
Thursday, April 11, marks the date of the NJCTE HS Writing Award Reception to be held at Union Catholic High School, in Scotch Plains, NJ, when the winners of our contest are recognized. Not only are they recognized, they are celebrated by the Union Catholic Forensics Team, which performs dramatic excerpts of the winning poems, stories, and essays. A professional New Jersey author also attends as a guest speaker and provides insights into the writing life. This event is open to all NJCTE members and has proven to be one of the highlights of the NJCTE calendar, so please mark the date.
The only more exciting time for me is when our contest writing prompt is first posted on our website, njcte.org, and I imagine that the next Stephen Douglas, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, or Stephen King will submit an entry and begin their writing career. For an English Language Arts teacher, like me, nothing beats helping students find their writing voice and follow in the footsteps of authors whose literary works reflect or have had an impact on so many lives.
The writer who spoke to my situation grew up in Victorian England in the 1820s. Before I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, I didn’t realize that I, like Pip, his young protagonist, lived with a foot in two different worlds. Like Pip, my parents were working-class people: my father, a blue-collar brake shoe man, and my stepmother, a maid who had grown up on a farm in Canada with a dozen siblings, and my natural mother deceased before I had the chance to know her. My home life revolved around household chores, school tests, and burgers out at Roy Rogers. Mirroring Pip again, I also spent time in a completely different realm when I visited my natural mother’s upper middle-class family in France. There, I experienced horseback riding lessons and museum visits. Dickens through Pip helped me navigate my inner perplexity and the confusing pull and counter-pull of the widely varying expectations of my relatives and friends.
The amazing reality that we hope young authors will encounter as they draft poems, short stories and essays for our writing contest each year is this: Their lives have value and meaning, not only for themselves, but potentially for many others who might read and be moved by their words. And these potential “fans” may live a continent or a life time away from them. That’s why our expectations are so great! Please join us!