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Essay Contest Winners

Read our winning pieces below!

Back Out Again
by Greta Magary

I was in Ms. Solomon’s second-grade classroom. It was the first day of school, and we had a fire drill after lunch. When the alarm went off, I stood up and felt lightheaded. Suddenly, I started vomiting violently: onto my desk, all over the turquoise floor tiles, and onto the back of a girl named Liv sitting in front of me. I could feel all of my classmates’ eyes on me. 


When the drill was over, Ms. Solomon asked who had made the mess. A disgusted Liv pointed at me and jeered, "It was HER!"


Oh god, it was. I sprinted out of the classroom, tears streaming down my face. Every day afterward, I made my mom walk me into class. I clung to her all the way to the door. During recess, I would go to the nurse's office and lay on one of the stiff beds, terrified to vomit again, expecting it to happen at any moment. 


My worries became all-consuming in the ensuing years. My stomach lived in knots. I started picking my skin and biting my nails. I had panic attacks where I could barely catch my breath. My fear was more powerful than me, and I worried it would stay that way forever. I avoided anything that triggered me, like a wheel-shaped pasta I threw up after eating once. Whenever my brothers ate that pasta for dinner, I had to exit the room. And I hated eating away from home, afraid that unfamiliar food would give me food poisoning. 


By the time I turned 14, I was exhausted. I was infuriated that I couldn't even eat without terror striking. So I asked for help. My therapist, Zoe, told me I suffered from an anxiety disorder called emetophobia and taught me to fight it off using meditation. I focused on my breath: the one thing I knew I could control. In, and back out again. In, and back out again. 


Soon after that, I was back out again. I tried foods away from home. I went places without checking where the nearest bathroom was. My hands didn’t shake when I heard that a friend had thrown up. I was getting stronger. 


But I’d yet to discover the best coping mechanism of all. 


One day, my two best friends, Eliza and Maddie, fell asleep in my bed. Just the sight of them peacefully lying there together made me want to capture them in paint. So I got to work, focusing only on the composition, the light and shadow, and the shapes of their bodies as I spread the paint like butter on bread. Suddenly, I wasn’t stuck in that second-grade classroom anymore. I was somewhere new. Somewhere better. When I finished, I realized that the act of painting could take me anywhere I wanted. Crocheting, too. The first thing I ever crocheted was a small purple mushroom that remains on my nightstand today. I crocheted in the dark, on the bus, and while I watched TV. I didn’t stop until my wrist hurt. 


I finally knew how to express myself and was determined to make good use of it. I became vice president of my school's National Art Honors Society and helped lead a massive group mural project. I created granny squares with my school’s crochet club to donate to those in need. I opened a virtual shop on Depop and a monthly stand at the Georgetown Flea Market, where I sold handmade mesh sweaters, star-shaped bags, and oil paintings. I made over $900 after my first one. I plan to make more: more art, more money, and a more anxiety-free outlook.


I’m still not quite as strong as I would like to be, but I am also not as lost. I know how to get to a better place now. And I can show others the way there, too. I can picture it. I’m anxious to get started. 

The Law of Conservation of Energy
by Asa Illahi

               “Papa, why is the sky blue?”

               We strolled through the forested clearing, and he took my hand tenderly. The breeze blew my bluntly cut thick hair and ruffled his soft thin short cut. My soft small and supple smooth hands clasped in his old rough fingers. I looked at his weathered face and saw the baby blue of the sky brilliantly reflected in the pools of his dark eyes.

               “See, the diffraction of the atmosphere when the sun is at a high point propagates the blue light waves. The blue light waves travel the furthest and have the longest wavelength. When the sun is on the horizon, the red waves are the ones that are refracted to your vision.”

               I turned my head up to the sky in complete wonder and awe. I was only 8 but the simple beauty of the world captivated me. Logic bloomed in my mind like the green foliage encircling around us in the clearing; information trickled through the crevices of my brain like the creek running through. You can explain the world we live in because of physics. Any time you ask, “why does something happen?” There's a physics phenomena explaining it. 

               Moments like this weaved and coursed through my entire childhood. I grew up learning English, Indonesian, and the language of physics. As the chapters of my life turned, I began to face many health issues. Depression, anxiety, heart and blood pressure issues, chronic pain. My past weighed upon me like a thousand bricks; and you know it only takes one tied to your ankle to drown. The pressure was put on me until the PSI broke the gauge and I exploded. It came to the point where almost every day, I could not muster the strength to come to school. 

               The times I did, I attended the day for the prospect of physics class. 

               I came into the classroom crying one day, trying to salvage the shattered pieces of my livelihood. I curled up in my seat, and my hand trembled harder than an earthquake as I wrote down my work. The tears were forcefully dragged down my face by gravity and came crashing into the paper in tiny blots.

               My teacher came over and rested a hand on my shoulder. I turned and looked up at her, my face wet, nose clogged with snot, eyes red. I swallowed my tears. 

               “What’s wrong? Do you want to work outside?” she said gently. She was a lean, stoic woman. Perceptive and judgemental, at first cold to me. But in this moment everything about her softened. 

               I nodded, stuttering a meek “thank you.” That was a thank you that I wished I could echo a thousand times, the words bouncing off every surface and multiplying infinitely. Because for all of time itself, I would be grateful to her for that single moment. 

               I composed myself and after class I lingered next to her desk, hands nervously clasped behind my back. I looked around her room while she wrapped up class. 

               “I’m going to need extended time for this assignment. I’m really falling behind on stuff, and I just feel hopeless. Maybe taking this class was a mistake.” I said despairingly. 

               She gave me that unbreaking stare, the one where I can never tear my eyes away from her intense gaze. The one where I cannot help but listen and digest every single word that came out of her mouth. “Asa, you have to learn how to advocate for yourself. Let me know ahead of time when you need extended time, which assignments you need excused. You are a talented and smart girl, and you clearly work hard on physics. You may be suffering right now, but taking AP physics was never a mistake. I am glad to have you in my class. I believe you can be successful.”


               Later that night I crawled out of bed, and stood before my mirror. At that moment all I saw in the reflection was my ragged, matted hair. My eyebags deeper than the mariana trench. My body, emaciated and thin. My lips were dry, cracked and bloody, splotched with dark patches of scars. When I licked them, I tasted blood. Light is reflected by mirrors, but when I looked, this mirror only reflected darkness. And like my physical state, my state of mind had decayed. If I was an experiment, I was one gone wrong. 

               So I wondered: If physics could explain every phenomena, could it explain what was happening to me? Is there even an answer to this problem that could be explained with mathematics? Could I derive an expression given the circumstances?

               Many would point to biology, chemistry, psychology. But physics can describe what was happening in a new light. The trauma in the past was a force: it affects me as an equal and opposite reaction in the present and the future. I gravitated to things that were bad for me. My sister saw herself in me and similar charges repulse each other. My family and I collided and pushed each other away. My mind and moods were like a pendulum, always bound to rise and fall. My body failed because once disease is in motion it will always be in motion until something stops it. Just like everything in this world, I am never content, complete, because I am never at equilibrium. I am never at peace. 

               But perhaps-- I could grab that mood pendulum and bring it to stability and stillness. Maybe I could apply an outside force and stop the motion of disease. Then maybe, I can achieve equilibrium. Things could get better with help from those who believed in me, like my physics teacher; those who are experts on my ailments and incredibly bright, like my doctors; and those whose love for me was more boundless than the expansion of the universe, like my parents.

               Most of all I realized: just like energy conserved, I cannot be created or destroyed. There is simply no use in trying to destroy myself. I can only change. The Law of Conservation of Energy states that I can change. 


by Lauren Levine

               I love pasta—specifically rigatoni in a spongy but not too soft texture, more specifically “al dente.” Compared to an average pasta maker where you boil, throw the pasta in, stir occasionally, and return when the timer goes off, I'm an ace. Being the professional I am, I watch the water bubble to its boil, watch the pasta cook for 12 minutes, and stir continuously throughout those careful minutes. I care so much about my pasta that I always watch over it. At first, my mom thought this had to do with my anxiety, maybe I could be scared that the pasta would somehow explode and burn the house down if I stepped away for a second. Or maybe a single noodle would inflate so much that it turns into a human and suddenly we have an evil noodle running around our house. No. That's not it. I supervise my pasta like it's my child. I tend to it and make sure that it is never stuck to the bottom, and that the heat is the perfect temperature. When I believe it's ready, I take out an individual noodle to test the consistency. Once it fits my ideal texture, I gingerly dump the noodles into the silver colander that I’ve had for all 16 years of my life and shake until satisfied. Then, I put the pot back on the stove and dump the newly refreshed and non-drowning noodles into the pot where I put the perfect amount of marinara sauce. Usually a whole jar per family pack.

               Making pasta reminds me of my relationship with my dad. He comes in and out of my life depending on when I long for his attention. Similar to how I see my pasta when I crave it. I care about him, worry about him, and watch over him. I think my relationship with him has made me a more empathetic person overall. We’ve never been very close, he would bother me and I’d make sure he knew it. We don’t go good together. We’re like rigatoni and candy corn. We want to overlap. Were just in two completely different food groups. After all, I am 50% him. I like to think that he passed over a lot of my good traits and that my empathy comes from how much I care for him. 

               I’ve had a stuffed bunny named Bunny Bun Bun Hot Dog since I was two days old. She has turned from a pink fluffy bunny into a gray, raggedy, old thing. I still love her. When I would wake up to see her on my floor, I would cry in agony knowing she fell two feet off my bed. I would bandage her up with toilet paper and water. Even as a 16-year-old, I feel bad when I find her off the bed. The hardest task my 10-year-old self faced was getting rid of my stuffed animals. I would sleep with almost 30 on the end of my bed. When it was time to get rid of them, my mom gave me black trash bags to put them in and directed me to throw them in the big trash can outside. I had three trash bags full of stuffed animals and I brought them to the basement storage closet instead. When my mom asked me if I threw them away, I lied. Six years later there are still three trash bags of stuffed animals tucked away in the storage closet.

               I care so much about the aspects that have shaped my upbringing. As silly as it sounds, pasta and a stuffed animal have shown me that this current era of my life still incorporates the empathy I received from my father. When I hid those stuffed animals at age 10 and decided to “grow up” my dad wasn't able to accept that my childhood reached a screeching halt. He still sees me with 30 stuffed animals on the edge of my bed. He still sees the little girl who would cry and bandage her bunny up. My empathy for my stuffed animals didn't disappear, it just got stored away in that storage closet and is brought back out in different eras, in different forms, like my pasta. I care for my pasta, as I once did for my stuffed animals, as I do for my dad. My dad still thinks I am the girl who couldn’t bear to get rid of her stuffed animals when in reality I'm just the girl who watches over her pasta. 

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