I know we’re just a week or so away from the beginning of spring, but it’s hard right now to feel especially hopeful. It’s been a long and grinding winter, and we all know we haven’t seen the last of the snow and ice yet. And while unemployment is down, most of us know people who have been out of work, or still are.
But I can’t help but think of something inspiring that happened at the start of this winter. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan ran a high school essay contest.
Students were asked to read Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty, the one that includes the famous line, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free.”
Then, they were to write about how their experiences as a part of this melting pot had defined their American identity.
The contest was sponsored by a friend of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, a humanist and community leader in the Detroit area who was tragically killed in a car accident in Morocco three years ago.
I was a friend of the rabbi, and since I supposedly know something about writing, I was asked to be the final judge. Frankly, I wasn’t too optimistic. This is a busy time of year, and for many students, reading and writing aren’t top priorities.
But I have to say, I was blown away. The ACLU asked me to pick the best two. But four were so good I insisted they honor all their authors. When I judged them, I didn’t know who the writers were. But when I met the students, I had a pleasant surprise.
The winners included a girl of Irish ancestry named Oona, and an African-American star basketball player. Plus a Muslim girl from Pakistan who intends to become a brain surgeon, and a Hindu girl who wants to be an attorney fighting for civil rights.
That young woman wrote “My differences have not made me feel like I don’t belong to this nation -- they have made me feel like an important addition to this melting pot. I think my differences make me feel even more American than I would feel if I were not an immigrant.”
Her Pakistani counterpart wrote about third grade classmates who told her September 11 “was caused by your kind.” Gradually, she realized that she could still be a proud and open Muslim because this was America: “Islam has made me who I am today, and the Bill of Rights helps protect that identity.”
The African-American young man wrote candidly that he still lives in a nation where all is still far from equal -- but added “my American identity is diverse, frustrated, proud -- and still evolving.
The most lyrical essay was that of the girl named Oona, who attends a high school with students whose native languages include Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and German.
She wrote: “We are America’s melting pot, the true national treasure. Who would have supposed this “wretched refuse would become the ones who would shape our past and dictate our future?
“But they have.” This nation will belong to her generation before long. And I think that they just may do a better job with it than those of us who came before.